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June 2006
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
The Nearfield
Speed Dating Five Monitor Speakers
Article By Steven Stone
Click here to e-mail reviewer

Audio Desk

  I promised at the end of my last installment to review some more desktop-appropriate speakers this time around. I'm nothing if not a man of my word. But after writing audio reviews for nearly 30 years I've found the only way to stay fresh is to change it up occasionally.

So... I've decided instead of doing my usually extra-thorough job on two pairs of speakers I'd review five, count 'em, five, different pairs of speakers. How can I do that in only 1500 words? Easy, I'm inaugurating the audiophile equivalent of speed dating. Instead of detailed technical sections filled with tweaky details I'm going to cut right to the chase what these speakers do well and not so well. No fluff. The goal is to supply you with enough information so you can decide if a particular speaker is worth a serious listen. So here goes...

 

Arcam Alto
Arcam AltoThe coolest cosmetic feature on these fairly conventional looking two-way speakers is the magnetic speaker grill attachments. No broken little plastic thingees littering your desktop no matter how many times you take the grills on or off. Considering the Alto lists for only $599/pair it delivers a lot of speaker for the money. Even with two smallish front-firing ports the Alto has a surprisingly neutral harmonic balance when used nearfield. The very minor amount of extra warmth in the lower midrange and upper bass makes it almost not worth the effort to plug the ports. The imaging ranks below the Roles Skiffs and Gallo Adiva Ti's, but is slightly better than what the larger Naim N-Sats and BG Z1s produce. Upper frequencies are sweet and extended with above average articulation and speed for a silk dome tweeter. The Alto speaker combines excellent low-level detail retention with impressive power handling capabilities. Although they deal with power well, due to their fairly crisp harmonic presentation, especially in the upper midrange, they can be slightly fatiguing after several hours of listening to aggressive sources.

The Danish-made Alto exhibits a very high level of fit and finish, with a sharp looking silver colored front baffle and a carefully finished teak veneer cabinet. A double set of five-way binding posts permits bi-amplifying or bi-wiring. In their price range the Altos deliver a fine combination of looks and performance. For tech details see the Arcam website at www.arcam.co.uk.

 

Naim N-Sat
Naim N-SatThe N-Stats are the only sealed box speaker in the survey and also the most expensive at $1400/pr cherry or maple and $1750/pr for piano black lacquer. Their higher price is due in large part to their labor-intensive cabinet design. Not only is the front baffle curved, but the cabinet sides are too. Making wood cabinets bend like that is not simple or cheap, but it is visually appealing. But looks aside the N-Sats produce a supremely neutral harmonic balance regardless of SPL levels. Unlike many ported speakers that can get a bit lumpy in the upper bass when pushed the N-Sat's sealed box design ensures that they remain harmonically linear. Play them loud or soft and they will deliver the same articulate yet relaxed voice. Even after a full day of listening at fairly high SPLs to aggressive sources I experienced absolutely no listening fatigue. Due to their physical size they don't completely disappear as well as smaller speakers, but the N-Sats imaging, especially lateral placement, is still surprisingly good. Because they are a sealed-box design the N-Sats blend seamlessly with a subwoofer, but if you can't or won't use a sub, their inner cabinet volume allows for decent bass response down to 70Hz.

While not as high-tech looking as the BG Z-1s or Arcam Altos, the N-Sats sport an extremely high level of fit and finish. The review pair had a light cherry veneer with perfectly book-matched front baffles. Instead of five-way binding post the N-Sats use flush mounted connectors designed for banana plugs. Bi-amping or bi-wiring is not an option. Like the BG Z-1s the N-Sats require a larger desktop due to their physical size, but if you have the space and money the N-Sats will give you a great time. For additional technical information see Naim's website at www.naim-audio.com.

 

BG Corporation Z-1
BG Corporation Z-1Ribbon tweeters make these different from every other bookshelf speakers I've tried at my desktop. Ribbon tweeters rock. Even at only moderate levels the Z-1's have a unique clarity and articulate character that makes them instantly attractive. I was especially surprised by how well they disappear, since they are not small at 7" by 13" by 9.5". Also the Z-1s create a nice large listening widow. Their image shifts less with head movements than many comparably sized speakers. The Z-1's have a large rear port that can and probably should be plugged for desktop use. But even plugged the Z-1's are a bit huffy in the upper bass. This extra bit of bass and lower midrange energy (I call it the LS35A effect) combined with the ribbon tweeter's airiness gives the speakers a slightly happy-faced harmonic balance. Still, especially if you are an electrostatic or ribbon tweeter fan, you're going to feel very much at home with the Z-1's. At higher volumes the Z1-s hold up well, especially in their upper frequencies with only a bit of extra bass energy.

Fit and finish is very impressive for a $499/pr speaker. My review samples had a rich-looking cherry veneer. For bi-amp bi-wire fetishists the Z-1 has dual gold plated five-way posts. For the rest of us they have straps between the posts.

If you have the room for a largish desktop speaker and like an airy open and very un-cone-like upper frequency presentation the Z-1's could be your ideal desktop monitor. For more info, (technical white papers and other techno jive stuff) go to www.bgcorp.com.

 

Dali Royal Menuet II
Dali Royal Menuet IILeave it to the Danes to spell minuet with an E. Despite the spelling, these two-way rear-ported speakers have a sunny disposition that counters the usual melancholy Danish stereotype. This mid-sized desktop speaker has a single rear port that can be easily plugged. Once plugged the Menuet II's overall harmonic balance is very similar to the Naim N-Sat except for a bit of extra upper bass energy. The Menuet II's listening window, or sweet spot, is a trifle smaller than the N-Sat's, but their lateral imaging is on par with the more expensive N-Sats. The Menuet IIs combine above average resolution with fine low-level detail retention so you don't have to play them loudly to get a satisfying musical experience. Conversely, if you do play them at higher SPLs they hold up well and are not fatiguing, but they do have a bit of extra thump. They blend easily with a subwoofer despite their slight upper bass bump.

The Menuet II's fit and finish supply little to quibble over. The cabinetry is perfect and the hardwood veneers look rich and sumptuous. Dual five-way binding post allow for bi-amplifying or bi-wiring. If you're looking for a moderately priced speaker that retains its musicality regardless of volume level the Menuet II will fill the bill nicely. For more technical information see Dali's website at www.dali-usa.com.

 

ERA Design 4 Sat
ERA Design 4 SatWith drivers designed by Michael Kelly of Aerial Acoustics this $600/pr ported two-ways sound a lot like a poor man's pair of Aerial model 5's. Naturally, I plugged the ports. This allowed the Design 4's to have far less upper bass huff and blend into a subwoofer quite smoothly. While they are not quite as successful at dredging up the last iota in low-level details a the Aerial model 5's, the Design 4's come surprisingly close. Due to their smaller size, soundstaging is slightly better than the Aerials or Naim N-Sats, but not quite as good as with the Roles Skiffs and Gallo Adiva Tis. Compared with the Dali Royal Menuet II's the Design 4's have a slightly drier harmonic balance with a bit more upper frequency air. Still, the Design 4's are warmer than the Role Kayaks with extra juice in the lower midrange and upper bass. When played at high levels the Design 4s hold up very well except the upper bass does have some extra thump. Compared to the similarly priced Arcam Altos the Design4's are more musical and slightly more harmonically full-bodied. If you listen for extended periods at high SPLs the Design 4 is less fatiguing without as much of a mechanical edge.

My review pair was finished in sycamore, which is a light colored wood with a flamey grain that reminds me of high-grade maple. The cabinet sides have curve to increase rigidity and reduce internal resonances. Overall fit and finish is on a par with the similarly priced Arcam Altos, which is to say the ERA requires no apologies and I had no complaints. Two pair of five-way binding posts allow for bi-amplifying and bi-wiring. Despite their moderate price, I could live happily with the Design 4 speakers on my desktop. For more technical information see ERA's distributor Signal Path International's website at www.signalpathint.com.

 

Give Me The Power
In the next installment of The Nearfield we'll look at a powered speaker created for the pro market by NHT, the M-00 and its matching powered sub the S-00. Other products on deck for future reviews include a $500 D/A from April music, the Stello DA100 as well as a matching Headphone amp the HP-100. Till then, enjoy...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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