End-of-the-Road Speaker Upgrade

To Doug Schneider,

I have been reading and following SoundStage! since the '90s.

I have assembled some gear that you've reviewed and my system is starting to sound quite good for mid-priced gear. I am using a Transcendent Sound Grounded Grid preamp with some Monarchy Audio SE-100 Delux amps, and a Benchmark DAC being fed from a Cambridge Audio DVD player. The speakers are Clements 206dis.

However, when I plugged in the Benchmark I realized my speakers were kind of polite and not all that revealing. There's decent bass but I am missing quite a lot of low-level detail. I switched to some other speakers and realized that my speakers were barely allowing me to hear the difference from the DVD player to the Benchmark.

I'm looking for some speakers and have considered Harbeth and Audio Note. I am looking for a system that is focused on musicality. That kind of end-of-the-road search and that I can just listen to for pure pleasure. Are there any speakers that come to mind that you might also recommend for being particularly synergistic with what I have?

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Best regards,

I'm not sure if you're asking for my opinion on Harbeth and Audio Note, but I'll put it out there anyway since it's important to the rest of my response. Insofar as Audio Note speakers go, I've heard various models a number of times and have never figured out what any of the fuss is about. They've merely sounded good to my ears, but never great and certainly not accurate. I also find their fit'n'finish to be quite poor and their styling to be awful for the prices being asked. All told, in my opinion, they're vastly overpriced for the kind of build and performance they offer.

I have a higher opinion of Harbeth's designs, even though all their models look like they're from the '70s. Their sound, though, is very good -- all the Harbeths that I've listened to have sounded exceedingly smooth and quite accurate. I was also impressed by the amount of detail that the Model 30 revealed when I reviewed it in 2009. I consider the Harbeth speakers to be a much better buy than the Audio Note models.

Still, if I were in your shoes, I wouldn't stop at just those brands, and I wouldn't shortchange accuracy and detail for so-called "musicality." Some people think that you can't have all these things in a single speaker design, but you can. The newest designs from companies such as KEF, PSB, PMC and others combine high musicality, accuracy, and detail without significant compromises. For example, PSB's Imagine T2, which I reviewed recently, is a very "linear" design (i.e., flat on- and off-axis frequency response), yet is exceedingly smooth and easy on the ears -- in fact, as easy on the ears as any Harbeth is and just as revealing. PMC's twenty.24 isn't quite as linear as the T2, but it reveals more detail than any like-priced speaker I've listened to and is also easy to listen to for long periods of time. What's more, the twenty.24 comes with a 20-year warranty, which is four times longer than the industry standard -- not something to overlook when you're making a long-term purchase. Then there's the KEF R500 that I'm reviewing right now -- I can't say much before the review is published, but if someone is looking for musicality and accuracy and detail at an astonishingly low price, then this speaker should be extremely high on their shopping list.

These are just a few speaker examples I bring up to help make my most important point: broaden your shopping list if you're really looking for a speaker that will truly satisfy you for a very long time. . . . Doug Schneider