I've fallen way behind in my output of Nearfield columns. I wish I could come up with a more convincing reason than lethargy, but alas I have none other than innate laziness. Fortunately a letter I received from reader Keith Sikora nudged me out of catatonia. He wrote:
"After buying a system for my desktop, I am learning the hard way that nearfield hi-fi has its own set of rules. Thanks so much for your nearfield articles; they are helping me diagnose what went wrong. I have two concerns that I hope you will consider addressing in future
1) How does one keep rear-firing ports from causing excessive bass when speakers are placed in close proximity to the rear wall?
2) I enjoyed (and agreed with) your March article titled Exploration, Including the section on What Is High End. As a young entertainment industry worker struggling to make it in Hollywood, my reality is that I just can't afford the speakers you are reviewing. I am aware your intention is to focus on the high-end, and lots of reviews are available elsewhere, which cover small mid-fi speakers. But I can't find useful information specific to the nearfield for upper mid-fi home equipment. Can you throw a bone to those of us in the $300 to $400 per pair range?"
OK, let me warm up my writing arm by addressing the rear-firing port question. For nearfield applications, ports are not only unnecessary, but they get in the way of optimum sound. Almost any well-designed sealed-box design can get down to 80 Hz with little if any serious bass roll-off. From there the subwoofer takes over. My solution for rear-firing ports is to plug ‘em up with foam. In extreme cases you can use something denser, such as an old sock cut down to size. Another way to lessen wall-reinforced bass is to use foam sound absorber wedges or squares behind the speakers, between the speakers and the wall. The goal is to absorb as much sound as possible before it interacts with the wall.
Since the inverse square law applies to sound, if you can move the speakers even a couple of inches farther away from the wall, you can vastly reduce the sound pressure levels at the wall intersection. Six inches is twice as far away as three inches, so that will reduce the sound level at the wall in half! Because nearfield speakers are so close to your ears, moving them as little as an inch forward or out to the side can have a noticeable impact on imaging and sound staging. So don't be afraid to move speakers around on the desktop. Also try angling them upwards with tiptoes or absorbent "pucks" to further refine the imaging. A nice thing about desktop speakers is their weight – no one has ever gotten a hernia from repositioning a desktop monitor!
The Aperion 422-LR Speakers
With Aperion's 30-day in-home trial anyone can try out the 422-LR speakers (or any other Aperion product). If you decide the Aperion speaker are not for you, you can return them with Aperion paying the freight – both ways. Aperion's level of personal service extends to emails with links to make set-up easier, a snail-mail note from a sales associate offering personal assistance, and a very entertaining message board full of folks ready to discuss all sorts of audiophilia. In many ways the experience of buying an Aperion product involves more hands-on customer support than you will get from a local bricks and mortar store, especially for an entry-level-priced product.
The model 422-LR is available in gloss black or cherry veneer, I chose a black for desktop use. From the get go the Aperion packages impressed me. Even the shipping boxes are well designed. The speakers themselves display a level of fit and finish that I wouldn't have dreamed possible from a $100 speaker. With gold plated five-way binding posts, gently curved cabinet edges, a flawless piano black finish, and an elegantly designed front baffle, the 422-LR speakers give no indication that they are budget-priced product. The 1-inch silk-dome tweeter and 4-inch polypropylene midrange/woofer are both set into the front baffle so that you don't see any screw heads or driver edges.
According to Aperion's spec sheet the magnetically shielded 422-LR uses an anti-resonant cabinet made of 0.75 inch thick HDF (high density fiberboard). Using the knuckle-rapping test the cabinets emit little besides a dull thud. The Aperion technical papers don't say much about the crossover besides giving it a fancy name, the HD-X3, and claiming its patent-pending design" ...levels the impedance load across the entire frequency range resulting in the elimination of detrimental effects of resistance introduced by long runs of speaker wire." In the world of nearfield monitors we don't use long speaker cable runs, but we can assume the crossover is probably not a terribly parts-intensive design. That's good, because simple is not only makes it less likely to fail, as well as cheaper to make.
Given their size, you would expect the 422-LRs to image well, and image they do. Their ability to disappear rivals the equally diminutive Role Kayaks. The 422-LRs deliver such precise image specificity that when you close your eyes, trying to figure out exactly where the drivers are located becomes virtually impossible. I've become quite a fan of small sealed box designs for nearfield listening. Unlike a normal listening room environment where a larger box usually results in better overall performance, when all other things are equal, in a nearfield situation the smaller the speaker the better it will perform. Larger enclosures get in the way of optimal imaging and soundstaging. When you audition speakers the trick is to find the smallest speaker that can deliver adequate bass extension and dynamic contrast. Anything larger will often offer diminishing returns.
The 422-LR's upper frequency presentation combines good extension with smooth response. Unlike many "little squawkers" I've auditioned which either trade off upper frequency extension for euphony or sound downright dry and nasty, the 422-LR manages to include a smooth natural lower treble with adequate upper frequency air. The 422-LR's natural harmonic presentation extends into the critical upper midrange where both the tweeter and woofer join forces. Using my oh-so-scientific cover-the-tweeter-with-my-hand-while-listening test it's obvious that the midrange/woofer's frequency range requires the tweeter to handle rather substantial amounts of upper midrange energy. This could be a problem at high SPLs in a room-based system, but in a nearfield system even these 86dB/W/m-rated sensitivity speakers can produce high SPLs before they begin to stress their tweeters.
Moving down into the midrange the 422-LR's maintain a reasonable grip on reality; if you put your hand near the midrange/woofer while music is playing its immediately obvious that it can and does move a lot of air. The 4 inch polypropylene has a characteristic poly-prop sound that softens and warms transients ever so slightly, but its sins of omission help give the 422-LR its musically euphonic edge.
The 422-LR's bass response may not have as much punch as a comparably-sized speaker with a port, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for with quality. The lower midrange and upper bass integrate far more seamlessly than any ported speaker. Also the lack of ports keeps the bass in phase with the midrange, which improves its imaging. The 422-LR's bass merges seamlessly with my reference Earthquake Supernova Mk IV subwoofer. Yes, sealed enclosures rule in the nearfield.
Compared to the similarly dimensioned $795 a pair Role Kayaks (reviewed here), the $200 a pair 422-LR's overall performance stacks up surprisingly well, especially considering their relative price tags. The Roles deliver slightly more low-level detail and better dynamic contrast, but they also have a somewhat leaner and less euphonic harmonic presentation. The Aperions have a warmer, sunnier, and more forgiving harmonic balance, which makes MP3 sources such as I-tunes or I-pods sound a bit more appealing. On higher-definition sources the Role Kayaks reveal more musical information and subtle dynamic details. Although neither speaker becomes fatiguing after a day at the desktop, but if you routinely listen to lower quality or especially raucous material the Aperion speakers will be more soothing.
OK, what don't the Aperions do well? Frankly, they do nothing badly. I suppose if you listen at ear-damaging levels these speakers will not hold together as well as the Thiel PCS or Aerial model 5 speakers, but on my desktop the 422-LRs regularly deliver 92dB peaks with no signs of distress or changes in harmonic balance. The Aerial Acoustics Model 5 and Thiel PCS speakers create a larger soundstage with superior inner detail, but they are almost too big for many desktop environments. Finally the Role Kayaks have somewhat better low-level detail, but depending on your tastes, they may be a bit harmonically austere, especially if coupled to mid-level electronics.
I, like most longtime audiophiles, am something of an audio snob. The idea that $200/pair speakers could be musically satisfying borders on heresy. But for an audiophile who wants to assemble a serious no-apologies desktop system, I can think of no other speakers at a similar price that will do a better job than the Aperion 422-LRs.
Drivers: 1-inch silk soft-dome tweeter and 4-inch midrange/woofer.
Frequency Response: 100Hz to 20kHz
Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended Power: 25 to 150 watts
Dimensions: 7.5 x 5 x 6 ((HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 6 pounds each
Warranty: 10 Years on driver & enclosure
Voice: (888) 880-8992