Recommendations: Speakers Up to $3000 Per Pair

To Doug Schneider,

You've never heard from me before, but I've been a fan of the SoundStage! Network since its inception. I'm a big fan of your reviews in particular, and how you will actually state, in print, a definite opinion, including pointing out that some equipment isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Anyway, my current system is quite modest and is comprised of a Krell S300 integrated, Peachtree DAC, Focal 806 monitors, and all Analysis Plus cabling. Overall, I find it enjoyable, but I know I can get closer to the sound I wish to hear. For comparison this weekend a friend of mine let me try his Vandersteen 2Ce Signatures IIs in my room. It's been quite the experience. Compared to my Focal 806es, I heard details in familiar music I have never heard before. The attack and harmonics of guitars and real instruments were phenomenal. Vocals also sounded ultra-focused and spooky in their realism. However, despite positioning and re-positioning, I never felt like I really got them to sound musical on the whole. I felt as though I could dissect recordings and admire the clarity of individual instruments, but they sounded a bit "slow" or "thick" overall -- which never allowed me to really get into the pace of energetic music. In the end, I admired them for the clear view they afforded me, but I didn't love my music through them. While I (especially now) easily hear the coloration in my Focals, I still feel they convey the essence of the music better, at least in my small room. In a different room or with different associated equipment, all bets are off, I concede.

Assuming what I've explained makes any sense, can you recommend any speakers I should seek out up to about $3000/pair that would retain the speed and openness I perceive of the Focal 806, but give me the accuracy à la the Vandersteens?

Thank you, and much continued success with your website.

Ryan Hansen

Thanks for being a long-term reader, and I certainly do enjoy hearing that you appreciate my candor. But trust me when I say that some manufacturers certainly do not appreciate me saying some of the things I say, particularly if their products aren't up to scratch.

I've never heard the Vandersteens you mentioned, but I have heard from others good things about them. Still, despite my lack of knowledge about this particular model, I will elaborate on something that I know about them that might help to explain what you're hearing.

Vandersteen designs speakers that are time- and phase-correct. What this means is that they use first-order crossovers for minimal phase shift between drivers, and they also stagger the drivers so their acoustic centers are lined up. What this results in is a time- and phase-correct presentation (or close to it) in a small sweet spot at the listening position, providing you have the speakers set up right. When designed correctly, time- and phase-correct speakers can also have an on-axis frequency response that's quite flat, which is good thing. Some of the hallmarks of time and phase-correct speakers are the focus, attack, and harmonic realism that you experienced. Now for the bad things -- outside that sweet spot, time and phase are messed up as much as with any other speakers, and their off-axis frequency response is usually quite awful because of the broad overlap between drivers that first-order crossovers bring. Distortion is also usually higher because the drivers are required to have exceedingly wide bandwidth due to shallow crossover slopes. It's because of these problems that many designers feel that while pursuing time and phase accuracy is, on the surface, a good thing, it is overshadowed by the other problems that this approach creates. As a result, most designers use higher-order crossovers that cause more phase shift, but less driver overlap, which reduces distortion and allows for better on- and off-axis frequency response, among other things.

I understand the arguments on both sides, but I have to side more with those who don't think that first-order crossovers and staggered drivers are the best approach since my favorite speakers are not designed this way. If you want to learn a little more about the subject, as well as many other things about loudspeaker design, I recommend reading Peter Roth's interview with Vivid Audio's Laurence Dickie in one of our sister publications, Ultra Audio. Laurence is one of the best speaker designers in the world right now, and his speakers have focus, attack, and harmonic realism that better any others I've heard, yet they don't use first-order crossovers. There's obviously more than one way to skin a cat.

As for what I'd recommend for you today, that's easy -- KEF's R500, which I just finished writing about and you'll see published on August 1. They're priced at $2599.98 per pair. You'll have to wait until then to know everything I think about this British design, but I will say one thing now: it's an incredibly good loudspeaker for the price. . . . Doug Schneider