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July 2008
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Swans D2.1SE Monitor Loudspeakers
Glorious midrange and shockingly good full orchestra!
Review By Clarke Robinson
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Swans D2.1SE Monitor Loudspeakers  For those of us in the "components under $1000" budget category, speakers come predominantly in one flavor: small. While that may be frustrating for those who crave variety in their fiscally prudent audio systems, the fact is that making good floorstanding speakers in our price range is almost impossible. Building a large cabinet that is braced as well as a properly constructed mini-monitor isn't cheap, not to mention the cost of additional drivers and their more complex filter networks. The results are usually seriously compromised, built for no other reason but to hit a three-figure price point.

The small monitor designer has numerous challenges: getting decent bass, dynamics, and overall volume output out of a small box/small driver combo in particular. If solving these specific problems was Swans' design goal with the D2.1SE, their new flagship monitors, they have succeeded in ways I never though possible. Want robust, floorstander sound on a two-way monitor budget? Read on.

 

A Bird by Any Other Name
Swans is the primary brand name for HiVi Research, one of China 's largest loudspeaker firms. They manufacture all of their own drivers, which are also available to the DIY crowd and on an OEM basis to other commercial speaker makers. Swans' United States dealer is Jon Lane of theaudioinsider.com, who provided the samples for this review.

 

No Ugly Duckling
Taking the D2.1SEs out of the box, they look every bit the part of a $1000 pair of monitors. Heck, they look every bit the part of $2000 monitors: heavy, solid cabinet construction; a gorgeous lacquer finish over real wood veneer; and around back, two of the beefiest binding posts I've ever seen. Drivers are some of HiVi's best: the Q1R fabric-dome tweeter and the D6.8 polypropylene cone woofer (a modified version of it is found in the Forest floorstander by Totem Acoustic). I'm not a huge fan of glossy lacquer finishes (a bit too much "bling" for my décor) but the Swans' finish is of undeniable quality nonetheless. Thick and ripple-free, it added a three dimensional depth to the maple burl veneer in my review samples (the D2.1SEs in maple veneer are $1049, the piano black version is $899). The speakers ship with a pair of white gloves, and although the finish seems like it might scratch easily, I moved the D2.1SEs around my room quite a bit over the duration of the review period without incurring a single blemish.

 

What's Good For The Goose
Isn't Necessarily Good For The Gander
And move them around you will! The D2.1SEs were some of the most demanding speakers to position that I've ever had in my system. In my communications with Jon Lane before the Swans arrived, he repeatedly mentioned that the D2.1SEs are not bookshelf monitors, they are stand-mounted monitors, and needed space from the front wall to sound their best. "Well, duh," I thought to myself, "who would put a pair of $1000 monitors on a bookshelf?" and hastily placed them on sand-filled stands in the same position that has worked well for every other pair of monitors I've ever tested: around 3 feet from the front wall, four feet from the left side wall and two feet from the right, about 8 feet apart. After the 50 hours of break-in Lane recommended, I sat down for some critical listening... and found the bass uncomfortably boomy.

Doing the tiresome "move, then listen. Move again, then listen some more," dance every audiophile knows so well, I chased the Swans' sweet spot all the way to nearly six feet from the front wall before the bass came under control. This required a very spouse-unfriendly furniture rearrangement to accomplish, and although the D2.1SEs "disappeared" nicely and produced a vast soundstage from this position, I always had the nagging sensation that my 13 x 25 foot living room just wasn't big enough for them. This is something to keep in mind as you read the rest of this review. I would have loved to hear what they could do when they were 10 or 12 feet apart, but doing so in my room only resulted in overpowering bass.

For my regular, "five days a week" listening I settled on placing the D2.1SEs 3.5-feet from the front wall and sent everything below 80Hz to my PSB SubSonic 5 subwoofer. This was a new one on me... using a subwoofer because the stand-mounted monitors have too much bass! I didn't actually like the bass on my subwoofer as well as the Swans' bass from their ideal position, but I liked it better than my wife's ire. Critical listening for this review, however, was done with the D2.1SEs run full-range from the sweet spot.

 

Graceful As A Swan
Bass is the 300 lbs. gorilla that ultimately defines the D2.1SEs, or at least defines whether or not they will work for you: not every room (and not every spouse) will be able to accommodate them. Positioned properly, the Swan's bass was usable (if not perfectly flat) into the low -30s in my room, and it was still audible into the mid -20s. This is remarkable for a speaker this size. It's not the cleanest bass I've ever heard, test tones in the low 50Hz range generated a bit of port turbulence, but they still gave satisfying performances of bass nut favorites like Mickey Hart's "Temple Caves", Bela Fleck's "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo", Bjork's "Hyper-Ballad" and Primus' "My Name is Mud". Far from being a one-note thumper, the D2.1SEs were also mesmerizing on more subtle performances like Dave Holland's solo acoustic bass workout, Ones All.

Later on in the review period, I took delivery of an MFW-15 subwoofer from AV123. This is a massive, slot-ported 15-incher that demonstrated what the D2.1SEs could not do by themselves. The MFW-15 didn't reveal any new musical information, I could hear most everything with the Swans alone, but a good subwoofer (and the MFW-15 is a good subwoofer) takes those low frequencies beyond mere hearing and makes them part of your life in a real, physical way. The Swans' midrange performance is glorious; particularly with vocals. Renée Fleming's voice on her 2003 SACD Bel Canto was breathtaking. Of course, Renée Fleming is breathtaking anywhere, but the D2.1SEs gave her vocals a lush, evocative quality that I found impossible to pull myself away from. Likewise with "Like Humans Do", the hit off of David Byrne's 2001 effort Look into the Eyeball, the Swans' made smooth listening out of Byrne's occasionally raspy voice.

The Swans' presentation of a full orchestra is shockingly good, playing loud, complex passages with less congestion than any two-way has a right to. Soundstaging was excellent on Also sprach Zarathustra (Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, RCA Living Stereo), spreading the orchestra out beyond the walls of my room. Instrument placement was precise, albeit with subtle spotlighting due to a few small peaks in the response. I often use the opening "Sunrise " section of this as a bass and soundstaging test. I was so compelled by the Chicago Symphony's performance on the Swans that I listened a full 20 minutes past the opening scene before "snapping out of it"...a trend that continued through much of my time with them.

The Swans top end is a bit peaky in spots, and tends to emphasize non-musical details more than I'd like. I found tape hiss on recordings that I didn't know had it, and the "rosin scraping off the bow" sound was more noticeable than usual on Pieter Wispelwey's take on Bach's 6 Suites per Violoncello Solo Senza Basso (Channel Classics, 1998).

 

Some Technical Stuff
The D2.1SEs present a difficult load to the amplifier. Impedance plots were not available from Swans at press time, but Lane warned me before I took delivery of the review samples that they require robust amplification. The Parasound New Classic setup I run had no real problems with them, as most recordings required a 12 o'clock noon position on the volume dial. When this setting produced comfortably loud volume levels, some albums seemed to demand more to sound their best (3 o'clock on the dial was not uncommon). This suggests that the Swans would benefit from even higher current levels, like what you find on top-shelf solid state amplifiers from (for example) Bryston or Parasound's Halo line. Tubes are quite possibly out of the question here, but with a sonic signature as velvety as the D2.1SEs, I doubt anyone will miss them.

 

Comparisons
I ran the D2.1SEs against my benchmark for the breed/price range, the Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1. In my review of the Sierra-1 last year, I characterized the Sierra as "the least compromised speaker currently available under $1000". There aren't many sub-$1k speakers that can deliver a wholly satisfying musical package all by themselves, but I'd say the Sierra now have some company. Beyond that, however, the two speakers are very different. The Swans had the Sierra beat on bass extension, but lag behind them in bass tightness and control. This continued, to a degree, up into the midrange: the Sierra's mids are crisp and detailed while the Swans' are plummy and romantic. The opposite is true for the highs, where the Sierra is natural & uncolored, but the Swans slightly spitty treble continued to pull subtle details out of my recordings that the musicians, I expect, would have rather kept hidden.

Okay, so I wouldn't recommend the Swans as studio monitors. I probably wouldn't recommend the Sierra-1 for studio use either, but more importantly, I don't want a sonic microscope in my home system. I was something that delivers music in an emotional, involving way, and this the Swans have in spades. When it came to simple listening enjoyment, which speaker I preferred varied from recording to recording. On Saudades by Trio Beyond [ECM, 2006]; Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield's modern tribute to Lifetime (Tony Williams' fiery late '60s power trio); the Sierra brought a little more edgy grit out of Scofield's guitar tone, while the Swans made more seductive listening out of the proceedings. Winner: the Sierra-1. Lush & seductive can be nice, but it doesn't work for everything. In this case, the Sierra's presentation held me on the edge of my seat more effectively.

On the previously mentioned Renée Fleming recording, the brass sounded more lifelike on the Ascends, but loud choral passages came across a bit strained. On the Swans, the orchestra seemed larger (although more distant) with a greater sense of dynamics. Strings, and particularly Fleming's vocals, were warmer and more moving with the D2.1SE. I give the nod the Swans. The Sierra did a better job capturing the pure rock energy of the Rolling Stones' Shine a Light at reasonable (but still loud) volume levels. However, at less-than-reasonable, "pedal to the metal" levels (that you might use as a matter of course in a room much larger than mine) they ran out of gas, and the Swans picked up where the Sierra-1 left off in delivering a fist-pumping performance: a tie.

In the final analysis, I'd still recommend the Sierra-1 for most budget-minded audio thrillseekers, as they are better suited for use in normal-sized domestic living spaces, and are specifically designed with a flat impedance response that works well with just about any amplifier you might have around. That said, the Swans are really more different than they are inferior, and those who need to fill a large space with a lot of gorgeous sound (and are open to a possible amplifier upgrade), they certainly deserve a place near the top of a very short audition list.

 

Conclusions
The D2.1SEs are quite an achievement. They redefine what is possible for a small-box two-way, delivering beguiling sound at a scale I don't know that you can touch for anywhere near their asking price. I recommend them, though not without a few caveats, but it's not possible for me to know how many of those caveats are due to my 13-foot wide room where they may not have the space they need to really shine. If you listen primarily to symphonic music, or simply prefer a rich and sumptuous sound, they may be just the ticket for you no matter what your room size. This is another one of those speakers (and there aren't very many of them) that should be making manufacturers of speakers sold through traditional dealer networks very nervous, and for that I heartily applaud Swans' efforts.

 

Associated Equipment
Sony SCD-CE595 SACD Player
Perpetual Technologies P-3A DAC
Parasound Model 2100 Preamplifier
Parasound Model 2125 Amplifier
Listening room is approximately 13 feet wide and 25 feet long. Acoustic treatments include wall-wall carpet, curtains, and a large overstuffed sofa.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High frequencies (3,000Hz on up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape width front

Soundscape width rear  
Soundscape depth behind speakers

Soundscape extension into the room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise N/A

Value for the Money

 

Specifications
Type: 2-way, 4th order vented box monitor loudspeaker \
Frequency Response: 43Hz to 20kHz
Distortion: 65Hz to 20kHz = 1% (2.83V/1m)
Sensitivity: 85dB/W/m
Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
Power Range: 10 to 120 Watt
Dimension: 205 x 303 x 385 (WxDxH mm)
Net Weight: 24 lbs each

Price: Starting at $899 per pair

 

Company Information
HiVi, Inc.
253 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91101

E-mail: global@hivi.vom 
Website: www.swanspeaker.com

 

United States Importer
The Audio Insider, LLC
Reno, NV 89523

Voice: (775) 624-1672
E-mail: sales@theaudioinsider.com
Website: www.theaudioinsider.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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