Originally Posted by NorthernSound
Did you do the shootout? I'm very interested in the results. 🙂
So, I have finally finished everything up. It took a few unexpected turns that I will explain, and I am not in any way a reviewer and have no experience understanding the speaker building process, so bear with me. I’ve been in this hobby for only about 10 years with just four different systems, so my general experience is also limited. Finally, there is one last thing to note, I have unique requirements for selecting components that are not all strictly related to critical listening.
My listening space: A large open living room and kitchen, open on all sides to the entry, dining room, hall etc. with a stone fireplace in the middle of it all. The ceiling goes from 8 feet on the right side of the living room to 16 feet where it meets the fireplace on the left. There are hardwood floors but plenty of rugs and soft furniture. It’s not an ideal listening space, but it isn’t terrible. About 8000 cubic feet in the main area. Because I have small children and a wife, floor standing or stand mount speakers were no longer an option, I had to sell my Klipsch/Crites Choruses which I really loved. This meant I had to find bookshelf speakers that could be placed near (about 16”) a wall and could fill 8000 cubic feet with sound comfortably.
What I initially started with:
APT Holman Preamp+SI45
MA Bronze 2
Wharfedale 225, 4.1, 4.2
What I ended with:
MA Bronze 2
Wharfedale 225, 4.1, 4.2
B&W 685 S2
Sources: TT-15 and Chromecast Audio->(new-to-me) Eastern Electric DAC
On the amp side, I’ll be short. My listening history has given me a predilection for warmer amps. I still look for detail, but the CXA60 was a little too dry for my taste, so it was out fairly early. I still used it early on to do some burn in and for contrast, but it wasn’t as enjoyable for me and didn’t add much that I wasn’t getting from the other amps. The 2245 has been my main amp for the last few years but I am looking to move on, it sounds a little dull compared to my other options. To be fair, it has never been recapped and may be due. The Kenwood was fine, actually similar to the Marantz, but I purchased it as serviced, when it was actually just cleaned a little, and so I will be sending it back. It’s a great amp if you can grab one for $200 or so and is supposed to be very easy to work on.
But given all that, I did most of my critical listening on the serviced McIntosh and the Eico 80wpc tube amp.
A quick work on the Eico: this is one of the best, inexpensive tube amps around, if you can find one. Channel separation, imaging and detail are off the charts. If you find one, you might get lucky and they will still have original Eico tubes manufactured by Mullard. I ordered a complete new set of tubes when I bought the amp, and some of the older tubes really are superior; I especially noticed it with the 12ax7. I bought a $50 new Mullard to replace it and even with about 50 hours of burn-in on the new tube, the old Eico branded Mullard 12ax7 was head and shoulders better. I have had a few pieces of tube gear and this is easily my favorite, not to mention cheapest, even if it is the ugliest.
So finally, on to the speakers.
M83 – Various Songs (timing, detail, separation)
Sarah McLachlan – Angel (vocals, sibilance)
The XX – Crystalised (vocals, imaging, detail, separation)
Radiohead – 15 Step (timing, detail)
Mazy Star – Look on Down From the Bridge (space, detail, background noise)
The Weeknd – The Hills (bass response, vocals)
The Constellations – Right Where I Belong (slightly lower quality recording that exposes weak speakers with some recorded distortion in instruments, vocals, great for testing the composure of a speaker and instrument separation, it is easy for a speaker to muddle this song and very cool when a speaker pulls it off)
Won’t spend long on these. They have been a mainstay for me because they were cheap, have great imaging and clarity, filled the room almost like a floor-stander and were efficient. Ultimately, I would classify them as better 5.1 speakers for movies and tv than music speakers. They don’t separate instruments well (not muddy, but definitely a little confused), and there is too noticeable of a jump from woofer to tweeter. They are awesome for what they are, and I recommend them to anyone I talk to that needs a versatile speaker for under $300.
These are the cheapest speakers I had, but they held their own just fine. In fact, I recommended them to someone that was looking to spend about $250 on a pair of speakers. The main weakness I found was the detail was a little lacking, what was clearly symbols on other speakers, was an undistinguished “ting” on these. Guitars were all guitars, drums were all drums, but from song to song, there was little differentiation from recording to recording. They made everything sound good, but similar. It sort of reminded me of a decent car stereo. Everything sounds fine, but there is a lack of depth to the music coming through the speakers. That being said, they did plenty of things well. Imaging was very good with a strong center image, bass response was impressive for their size, voices were spectacular, build quality was nice. If you need a cheap set-up for background music, these would fit the bill nicely.
Monitor Audio Bronze 2
My go-to speakers for the last few years have been Klipsch Choruses (with Crites tweeters and crossovers), and HSU HB-1s for a second system. Both are horn loaded, but I wouldn’t consider either to be bright, shrill or fatiguing. The MA’s never stopped feeling a little shrill. There were always a few moments where I really got into the detail these speakers seemed to create, but over time I found myself turning them off, eager to try something else. I burned them in about 30 hours and I have seen some people say they may need as much as 100. While I’m a believer in burn in (I tested a brand new pair of HSU’s when I got a second pair, after owning the first pair for 5 years and there was a clear and unmistakable difference, that faded after about 10 hours), I had a hard time believing that there would be significant changes after another 70 hours and that they would develop into something I would want to keep long term. They did fill the room nicely, had medium bass extension in my room, and had good detail. If I was about 10 years younger and building a system for a frat house, these might have worked well. For my purposes, they were my least favorite.
Wharfedale 4.1 & 4.2
If this review gets any attention, I expect it primarily will be for my impressions of these speakers. So to be fair, I want to say that I might not have been feeding them enough power to really see what they can do. Additionally, and more-so than the MA’s, I’m not sure I ran these in enough at 30 hours. They never really seemed to open up for me. I don’t know if it was my room, the power, run-in time, or just that my ears are used to more forward speakers, but they just didn’t work for me. I wanted to love them, and there was a lot to love, unfortunately it just wasn’t a match.
First, the similarities. These speakers are beautifully built and look great with cloth grills on or naked. They were the only ones my wife commented positively on. The balance in the sound from top to bottom was great, and all types of music sounded good. If there was a type of music that sounded better, vocal/acoustic stuff really stood out as excellent, while more energetic music was only slightly less great. Instrument separation was fantastic, and imaging was exceptional.
Besides the lower bass extension for the larger speakers (the 4.1’s are no slouch), what separated them was actually pretty obvious and simple. The larger speakers had significantly better instrument separation, I guess maybe due to the 3-way design splitting up the load. It was especially impressive when multiple guitars were playing with a strong drum background while someone was singing – typical rock music. Every single instrument and person was easy to identify and track through the song with very little (if any, to my ears) cross-talk or disturbance. The weakness, compared to their smaller sibling, was something a little less definable, that I’m going to call cohesion. I have no idea what it was exactly or how to specifically explain it, but the smaller speakers seemed to completely disappear, while with the larger speaker I could never quite suspend belief that I was listening to music coming from two (very good) speakers. I thought maybe it had something to do with my room, or a power imbalance in the amp or something else related to my system, but I found another review from a few months ago that said basically the same thing. They preferred, and kept, the smaller speaker for similar reasons. While I wouldn’t necessarily say I preferred one over the other, but they are more different than I expected. If I had to choose, I would go with the bigger speakers for their increased separation and lower bass response, assuming I would either be able to fix, or acclimate to the “cohesion” issue I heard.
I spent several hours one night listening to album after album with the lights and volume turned low. It was almost magical. I really, really loved these speakers. But, ultimately, because they sounded too different to my ears, call it laid back, I went in a different direction. I needed a little more excitement for my typical everyday listening, but I do believe anyone remotely considering these should give them a try.
B&W 685 S2
I won’t say much about these, as enough has been written about them. When I plugged them in, my first thought was YES! This is it! After boxing up everything else and listening for two days, I began to feel underwhelmed and disappointed. The biggest problem I ended up having with them was one specific to my listening area: they could not fill the space. At all. By the time I plugged these in I had been listening to small speakers for several days and I was pretty aware of the limitations that the bookshelf form factor would have in my room. These redefined those limitations. Unless I was listening at or below 55db (measured 1 inch from the speaker) they sounded like they were trying to shout, struggling to push any air in the big room. They were my absolute least favorite for my purpose, but I could actually see someone getting use out of them in a small office or especially near-field. The have a unique and pleasant voicing, it just did not work for me.
Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner! They don’t separate instruments or image quite as well and aren’t as clear as the 4.x’s, I didn’t have the initial (and short lived) positive reaction that I did with the B&Ws, and they didn’t have the excitement of the MA’s. Reading reviews of the Q350, they all seem to cover the sound pretty accurately, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. So instead what I’ll say is that I think I found was great synergy with my final chosen amp, the Eico 2080. The metal tweeter is probably a little tamed by the tubes, and at 80wpc the amp has plenty of oomph to never break a sweat.
One thing I do want to say about the sound is in reference to some of the individual reviewers who complain about the metal tweeter, and especially about sibilance. I found this comes down to system matching or synergy. Through the Eastern Electric DAC and tubes, there is zero sibilance or anything resembling a shrill or metallic top end. I tried Norah Jones, which I have found especially prone to sibilance and some of the tracks people point to when reviewing these speakers, specifically Spanish Harlem by Rebecca Pidgeon. I have no doubt that it would be possible to make the metal tweeter sound shrill with the wrong front end, but it is not a strict characteristic of these speakers.
So, my set-up, for now is: Chromecast Audio->EE DAC->Eico 2080->Kef Q350. I’m very happy and all-in for well under $2k. The last thing I’ll say is the Eastern Electric DAC is the single best piece of equipment I have bought at any price. I was firmly in the, “How big of a difference can a DAC make” camp. I tried a few of the sub-$500 models and heard very little or no improvement over various built in DACs, including the DAC in the Chromecast Audios. The second I turned on the EE DAC, my mind was changed. Plus, in addition to being a great DAC, it has swappable OPAMPs so I can eventually pop in a cheap upgrade (several with great reviews), if I get the itch.
Hopefully this helps someone, and if not, I had fun anyway