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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Okay, I'm starting this thread as I haven't seen one solely for the purpose of posting our experiences in auditioning speakers. Sure, they have been other threads about speaker quests, building a home theater, buying speakers for a family member or friends, or concerning specific brands, etc., but all those threads usually centered around a narrow topic or guideline. This thread, however, will be more about reports of any speaker audition, and doesn't have to be limited by any specific topic or goal. The auditions could be for any reason, whether for building a 2 channel system, a multi-channel home theater set-up, finding some budget speakers, looking for a second room set-up, or just for fun, which is the basis for most of my own auditions. I just like listening to different speakers.



Hopefully this thread will turn into a good resource for anyone considering buying speakers, if we're able to get speaker impressions for many of the models that are out there today. Please feel free also to dispute, contradict or second any of the reports on this thread as from my experience, there is rarely any consensus to what a speaker "sounds" like. We all have our opinions and tastes, so it would be insightful to hear opinions on the opinions posted.


For myself, I've demoed about 7 different speakers in the past two weeks, so I'll start with the one that's freshest in my memory, which I demoed today.


Having always heard so much about Focal and in particular the Utopia series, I decided I would finally audition a pair so I know what all the fuss is about. I've heard some of the lesser Focal lines before which didn't really grab me, so honestly, going in, I wasn't really expecting much. Walking into my local Focal dealer, I was hoping to hear the Grande Utopia EM, which is the current granddaddy of all Focal speakers. At the listed price of $180K, I was interested in comparing it to the similarly priced Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2, which also uses Focal drivers, and to which the Grande Utopia is often compared to. The Alexandria X-2, which I have heard, still is one of the most impressive speakers I have ever heard, along with the MBL 101Es.


Unfortunately, the dealer did not have the Grande Utopia EM in the store, but did have the Maestro Utopia all set up, which is the third in their line after the Grande and Stella Utopias. The Maestro was paired with an all McIntosh system, from the MCD301 SACD/CD player to the C2200 tube preamp to MC2301 300 watt tube monoblocks. Overall, it was a very impressive looking system.


Upon listening to my first reference track, which is the Ron Tutt solo off the Sheffield Drum Disc, I was immediately transfixed. The soundstage was deep and wide, and the speakers were able to accurately capture the presence of the drum set in a very realistic way. The high-hat was tight and fast, as was the snare, and the bass drum SOUNDED like a bass drum. What was impressive, however, were the cymbals. Each time one was hit, I could visualize it being in front of the other drums. In that way, the imaging was very holographic. The decay of the cymbals was also very realistic. In a way, it reminded me of listening to the same track on the YG Acoustics Anat Reference II, in which the soundstage presented was very "large" and commanding, and which the Anat's imaging was also very holographic. However, I preferred the Maestro's for this track in terms of overall balance. It "sounded" more like a drum set to me, whereas the Anats sound a bit clinical and "dry".


Perhaps the only "weakness", if you can call it that, was that since the soundstage was so large, it didn't really feel like there was a drummer right in front of me. The effect was more like one of those giant blue aliens from "Avatar" playing a giant drum set. Very cool to listen to, but you would almost have to imagine you were a child sitting on the ground two feet in front of the drum set for the imaging to be "realistic".


Listening to the Jim Keltner solo on the next track was just as impressive. Perhaps for the first time, and I've listened to this track on many different speakers, I heard the drum roll on the rims of the snare without it sounding slightly muffled. The Maestro was able to really bring out the details in this percussive sound, and also be able to image the sticks working around the circumference of the snare in a very holographic way. Maybe this is one of the advantages of this huge soundstage, where minute movement across the stage can be registered.


The next track I heard was "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I've used this song as one of my reference tracks ever since first hearing it on the Wilson Audio MAXX 3. On that audition, I remember being impressed by how well the MAXX 3 portrayed the energy of the drum set during the solo. Each snare shot or bass kick was so powerful and dynamic. Closing my eyes, I could easily envision the drummer right there in front of me. It was that real and holographic. Since then, I've played this track on every speaker audition, and while it has sounded good with many speakers, there hasn't been one where the drums sounded as real and dynamic as when I heard it on the MAXX 3. Hearing this track on the Maestro, I have to say it came very close to my experience listening to the MAXX 3. Both the snare and the bass drum had a lot of that energy and that detail that makes it sound "live" and real. It was a very solid presentation of the drums on this track, however, it still didn't come to the "realism" that I heard on the MAXX 3.


Another observation on this track was that the lead saxophone by Paul Desmond was clearly coming from stage left, or mostly the left speaker. I thought that was odd as on most speakers that I've heard, the sax usually is positioned around half-way between the center and the left speaker, and sometimes even near the center. It did make me wonder whether the Maestro was imaging the sax incorrectly, or was it all the other speakers that were wrong.


The next CD I heard was the second track off the Modern Jazz Quartet's "A 40th Anniversary Celebration". I've always loved this track and CD for not only the great music, but the great recording. Particularly I love the vibraphone and how it floats on the soundstage. I think this has generally been a good test for a speaker in how it reproduces this instrument, especially on this track. I have to say the Maestro did it well, being able to separate it completely from the other instruments, particularly from the piano, in which I was able to visualize it on its own and the positioning of each key across the horizontal soundstage. On lesser speakers, sometimes it gets drowned out a bit by the rest of the instruments.


The next track I heard was "Don't Know Why" of the first Norah Jones CD. There are probably better recorded vocals discs out there, but I find this one good enough, and I like the songs and instrumentation off this CD. On different speakers that I've heard, Norah's voice on this track can sound from dry, harsh and thin, to velvety and rich. On the Maestros, it was probably in the middle. It didn't sound as warm and smooth as I've heard it on some speakers, but not thin or harsh either. Perhaps this is how her voice really sounds on the CD without any coloration, or perhaps not. Overall, I liked how the soundstage was projected and the instruments sounded clear and realistic, but I have heard Norah's voice sound "better" or at least how I prefer it.


After Norah Jones, I decided to move onto classical. One of my favorite discs is "Paganini for Two" with Gil Shaham and Goran Sollscher on the Deutsche Grammophon label. The imaging for this disc is very simple with the violin on the left and the classical guitar on the right. However, because of this, you can really make out the detail of the two close-miked instruments. For the Maestro, this was probably the most disappointing track. While the soundstage and imaging was great and like what I've heard on other speakers, I felt the violin sounded a bit thin. I've heard it sound much richer and warmer on other speakers, which I prefer. Again, it's hard to say whether what I've heard before was perhaps coloring on the other speaker, and the Maestro portrayed the violin as it was recorded. Still, it was not to my taste. I've heard from several dealers that for classical and in particular stringed instruments that Sonus Faber speakers are among the "best". I've yet to hear them for myself, but I'm interested in listening to this CD on the Stradivari and seeing if what I'm hearing on the Maestros is actually what's on the CD, or if the Maestro just isn't good with the violin.


The next CDs I heard were all rock tracks, which I like to demo speakers with just to hear how they handle songs that are perhaps not recorded as well as "audiophile" material. We put in "Electric Ladyland" by Jimi Hendrix. He's one of my favorite artists, though I've never heard his songs sound really good quality-wise on any high-end speakers. Conversely, I've heard him sound great on lower and mid-end speakers. On the Maestro, it was just like my previous experiences. Sonically, it was quite lo-fi, and not the most pleasing to listen to. Jimi's voice was probably the best sounding element in the song, but the drums, bass and even guitar sounded like it was recorded in 1968. On Beck's "Sea Change", the Maestros sounded a lot better. The guitars sounded shimmering, and though Beck's voice is a little compressed on this disc, it sounded decent on these speakers. The Maestros were also able to throw a very wide soundstage, at some point almost as if there was surround sound with the many effects on this CD. On "The Great Gig in the Sky" on "Dark Side of the Moon", Clare Torry's voice was eerie and commanding, but also distinct from the instrumentation. On lesser speakers, I've heard her voice get somewhat muffled with the music, so I always find this song as a good test track. The Maestro sounded great with Floyd, really opening up the soundstage. The final tracks that I heard was the first two songs off the "xx" album. I have probably never heard the vibraphone-sounding instruments in the intro of "VCR" sound so good. Usually, on many speakers, it sounds almost like a synthesizer, a computer sound. With the Maestros, I could hear that they were from an acoustic instrument, which was a tiny revelation to me. I think it demonstrated well how detailed the Maestros could be.


Overall, I really liked this speaker. One thing I look for in speakers is the overall tonal balance, whether all the frequencies are presented equally, or if one end of the spectrum dominates another. For my tastes, I generally stay away from "clinical" and "bright" sounding speakers, even if they are "detailed". The Maesto, on the other hand, was on most tracks, warm sounding and rich, suitable to my tastes. I also enjoyed the excellent bass response. Having said that, I thought it also brought a great amount of detail in the highs and mids. Not an inexpensive speaker at around $50K+, I also wonder how much the sound was affected by the McIntosh tube components driving it. No matter the reason, I liked the sound a lot, and in comparison to the other $50K speaker that I heard recently, the Rockport Aquila, there really is no comparison. For me, the Maestro bested it in every which way.


Like I said, I heard about 7 different speakers recently, so I will probably be posting more reports soon on those auditions. But there other speakers that I've already made plans to hear, including the Meridian DSP8000 and the Thiel CS3.7, so we shall see. All I know is it's a lot of fun hearing new and different speakers, and perhaps just as fun writing about it.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Another company that has also interested me is KEF. As the owner for B&Ws 802Ds, KEF and B&W have often been lumped together, with both having the British heritage, and both seem to offer lines that parallel each other. Particularly the KEF Reference Series and the B&W 800 series have a lot in common.


When I was first shopping for speakers a couple of years ago, I had encountered the KEF 203/2 randomly, in which I sat for a listen. Not having my reference CDs with me, I had to listen to what the dealer had. No doubt, all the material selected were suited to the 203/2's strengths, and I remember coming away with a positive impression. As I recall, during the classical pieces, the violins were clear and sweet. It wasn't a long audition, but I came away with the impression that KEF's were one of the brands I should consider. In the end, I chose the 802Ds, but the KEF's always made an impression.


Just last week, I stumbled into the same dealer, but a different branch, and decided to gie the 203/2s another listen. It was a different demo room and again, I didn't have my CDs with me, so I listened to what the dealer put in. My impressions were much different this time. Overall, the highs sounded a bit harsh to me, and there was a noticeable lack of bass with this speaker. Again, it wasn't a long audition, but my impression had changed. I wondered if it was a set-up problem, as the dealer himself mentioned the amps used with not great and quite low powered, and he said with better amps and more overhead, the 203/2s would sound much better, especially with the lower frequencies. The demo room itself was also very small, perhaps 150 sq. ft., and not very well treated.


Intrigued, I decided to go to yet another branch of this dealer where they had a much better demo room set up, and also with the top models of the Reference series. This time, I brought my own discs. In this demo room, they had both the 205/2 and the 207/2 set up, which is their top-of-the-line speaker in the series, and only second to the KEF Muon, which is their flagship, similar to how B&W has the Nautilus.


The look and design of the 205/2 seems to closely mirror the 802D, with its twin 8" woofers, slightly bigger 6 1/2" mid-range, and 1" tweeter. The way the mid-range props above the top of the speaker is also reminiscent of the 802D's Marlan head. The difference is that the KEFs utilize their Uni-Q MF driver, in which the tweeter is housed in the middle of the mid-range, whereas the Marlan head as the tweeter in a tube housing above the mid-range.


Hearing the 205/2, it reminded me a lot of my second audition with the 203/2. The treble was a bit harsh, and there was a noticeable lack of bass. We had put in the Sheffield Drum Disc, and the results were not convincing at all. I felt the 205/2 lacked bass authority to really make this drums sound realistic. The treble of the cymbals also sounded a bit harsh, and the decay seemed a bit fast. Imaging-wise it was good though, as I could hear the positioning of the different drums quite clearly. As the demo room was quite large, around 400 sq. ft., I wondered if perhaps the room was just too big for this speaker.


I then put in a variety of jazz and vocal CDs, similar to what I heard in my audition of the Focal Maestro above. Overall, the results were more of the same. While the 205/2 was able to portray some good detail, particularly in the mid and high frequencies, overall, I was dissatisfied with tonal balance of the speaker, particularly with the lower frequencies. The mid-range also sounded a bit thin to me. The bass drum during "Take That" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet was not commanding and seemed a bit recessed. Norah Jones' vocals were somewhat harsh and the accompanying instrumentation was dry and somewhat bright. During "The Great Gig in the Sky", Clare Torry's vocal was a bit lost into the other instrumentation. Perhaps the best tracks on the 205/2 that I heard were the first two cuts off the "xx" album. On those tracks, the guitars, vocals, drums and the vibraphone played off each other quite nicely.


I think perhaps the main issue during this audition is I think the demo room was just too large for the 205/2. Also, because the dealer had both this speaker and the 207/2 set up, they had positioned the 205/2 on the outside of the 207/2, which I think put it at an disadvantage. It seemed perhaps the 205/2s were just spaced apart too far, and combined with the large room, this had a negative effect on the overall tonal balance of the speaker.


After hearing the 205/2, we heard the 207/2s using the exact same sources and amps. The 207/2 is the top KEF Reference speaker, and in some ways, corresponds to the 800D in the B&W 800 series. Both model have twin 10" woofers, along with the same tweeter and mid-range as their preceding models. The housing of the 207/2's Uni-Q MF driver is even more reminiscent of the B&W's Marlan head than the 205/2, with it sitting atop the rest of the speaker. The difference between the 207/2 and the 800D, however, is that the 207/2 also has an additional 10" lower mid-range driver, making it a four-way speaker as opposed to the 800D being a three-way.


Hearing the 207/2 was like a night-and-day difference to me than hearing the 205/2. I thought the 207/2 addressed all the issues I had with the 205/2, and came out as a very dynamic and commanding speaker.


On the Sheffield Drum Disc, I really did get the feeling that I was sitting in front of a drum set. The bass response was superb, and accurately portrayed the "thud" of the bass drum. The mid-range was also improved, and the toms sounded like toms, whereas with the 205/2, I thought they didn't sound as full as they should. Also, as the the 207/2 is a smaller and shorter speaker than say, the YG Acoustics Anat Reference II, which has the tweeters at around 6'. To me, the positioning of the tweeters of the Anats took away from the realism of what I was hearing, whereas on the 207/2 the high-hat seemed positioned at the correct height. What I like about this disc is that there is ample height and imaging information, and I could hear the high-hat to the right and higher than the snare, and the bass drum near the middle and from below. One of the issues I had with the Anats on this track is that the high-hat seemed it was six feet off the ground, certainly not realistic by any means. On the 207/2, the cymbals were also holographic, being in "front" of the rest of the drums. Overall, my satisfaction with this track on the 207/2 was very similar to the my audition with the Focal Maestros. I would give the Focals a slight edge due to the more detail and the movement in imaging that I heard during the drum roll on the rims on Jim Keltner's solo, but overall, it seemed very close.


I heard many of the same tracks that I heard in the other auditions. "Take Five" sound excellent, with the saxophone really standing in front of the rest of the band. The drum solo was also convincing, though perhaps with a tad bit less energy than on the Maestros. Norah Jones' voice was improved compared to the 205/2s, and somewhat rich and velvety. And on the "The Great Gig in the Sky", I remember the soundstage completely enveloping me where the effect was close to if there were surround speakers running.


Overall, I liked the 207/2 very much. The pricing intrigued me as the dealer said for piano black (which is what I heard) and basically any gloss finish, the price was around $20K. However, if I went with a wood finish, the price dropped around $6K for $14K+. He tried to justify the price difference by saying the gloss finishes sounded "better" due to the "improved" resonance. In any case, I think for either price, the 207/2 is a great speaker, but obviously much more intriguing at $14K. For this price, if I had to make the choice again, it would be difficult choosing between the 207/2 and the B&W 802D purely on sound. I would really have to listen to both speakers in the same room to hear which one I liked better. In the end, it may be more an issue of taste, but I find the 207/2 to be excellent, and really a "best buy". Considering some speakers that I have listened to in the past which were many times the price, the 207/2 was better than many of them. All things considered, however, between the 207/2 and the 802D, I think I would still choose the 802D because I prefer its design, which is a personal perference. But based on sound, it would be a hard decision, and it wouldn't be surprising if in the end it went either way.


Well there are about 3 or 4 more speakers I heard recently that I haven't written about yet, including the Vivid Audio K1, YG Acoustics Anat Reference II, and Rockport Aquila, which I hope to get to soon. I also hope to listen to a lot more as there so many brands that intrigue me, and also different technologies. For example, I've yet to hear any electrostats which have always perked my interest. I do love the omnidirectional speakers made by MBL, so I'm really looking forward to hearing what electrostatics sound like. I'm also looking to hear some good horn speakers as well like JBL and Avantgarde.


I'm also interested in any speaker audition experiences that you may have had recently. It doesn't have to be as long-winded as my reports, just your impressions of any speaker you heard would be great. Also if you've also heard any of the speakers I've reported on, I would love to hear your impressions as well.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
So about a week ago I listened to the Vivid Audio K1. Having seen this speaker on the web and in magazines, it always interested me due to its unique design and styling. On of its unique traits is that its "stand" is built directly into the body. It's all one piece. It didn't surprise me that its designer used to work at B&W and designed the iconic Nautilus speaker. This speaker has a similar smooth curved body, though the higher-end model Giya resembles the Nautilus even more.


One thing about this speaker is that it is "small". It doesn't have a large footprint, and really is more of a "stylish" piece of furniture than a conventional speaker. However, its performance is impressive enough to not be just a "lifestyle" speaker.


In keeping with its small size, the designers tried to improve its bass performance by including four 6" woofers, a pair of which are in the front and a pair in the back, though set at different crossover points. Matched with a 1" tweeter and 2" mid-range, it adds up to a 3 1/2 way system.


So how does it sound? My impressions was that it threw a nice enveloping soundstage with very holographic imaging. The highs and mids were very sweet. Classical music sounded great on these speakers, particularly stringed instruments like violins. Vocals were rich and detailed. Norah Jones sounded sultry, something that I don't hear on many other speakers. Instrumentation on different CDs was generally distinct and open. In general, mids and highs are the K1's strong points.


The K1's weak points are its bass performance. The Sheffield Drum Disc was too challenging for it. Though the snare and cymbals sounded good and very holographic, with great imaging, the bass drum was lacking. Despite its four woofers, it could not keep up with this disc. Similarly on the jazz tracks that I played, including the Dave Brubek Quartet and the Modern Jazz Quartet, the lows were not sufficient for the recording.


One issue may be the speaker placement. The dealer had positioned the speakers in the middle of the 300 sq. ft room, so about 10 feet away from the back wall. With its rear-firing woofers, perhaps bass performance could be improved if they were placed closer to the wall.


Overall, I think for certain music such as classical and vocals, the K1 is a very good speaker. For bass heavy genres like jazz and perhaps rock, I think the K1 needs to be matched with a good sub to be able to offer a satisfactory listen.
 
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