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- Written by Roger Kanno Roger Kanno
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 01 December 2018 01 December 2018
Around five years ago, established Canadian electronics manufacturer Bryston began making loudspeakers. This began as a pet project of James Tanner, VP of Sales and Marketing, who wanted a reference speaker for his own use. To achieve the level of performance he desired, the speaker developed was a fully active design. The performance of that speaker was so good that Bryston decided to bring it to market. However, because of the complexity and added cost of active speakers, they decided to first offer it as a passive model. Now that Bryston has been producing their full range of loudspeakers for a while, they’ve introduced fully active versions of their top models, the T series.
The T Active loudspeakers -- the bookshelf Mini T and the floorstanding Middle T and larger Model T -- are three-way modular systems in which an outboard crossover, the BAX-1, is used to split the left- and right-channel line-level signals each into three separate signals, to be individually amplified before being sent to each speaker’s drivers. Although any of Bryston’s amplifiers can be used to power these speakers, two new amplifiers have been specifically developed for their active systems: the three-channel 21B3 and the six-channel 24B3. For this review, I was sent a pair of Middle T Active speakers ($8685/pair), a BAX-1 Active DSP crossover ($3495), and a 24B3 six-channel power amplifier ($10,795). The total cost of this system is $20,230 USD when purchased together.
The key to being active
As Doug Schneider noted in his feature report from the 2017 Montreal Audio Fest, “Is It Finally Time for Active Speakers?,” with the proliferation of powered subwoofers and loudspeakers with built-in powered bass sections, fully active loudspeakers may begin to appeal to more audiophiles. There are definite performance advantages to splitting the audio signal before it’s amplified and sent to the different drivers in an active speaker. But this comes at the cost of having to pay for additional channels of amplification. And because most active speakers have internal amplification, the user isn’t free to choose their own amplifiers, something that audiophiles tend to like to do. But because Bryston has designed their T series of active speakers to be modular, any combination of Bryston or other appropriate amplifiers can be used to power them. Audiophiles can also choose whatever interconnects they wish to use between the BAX-1 external crossover and the amplifiers, and the speaker cables from the amps to the speakers.
The Middle T Active is the same loudspeaker as the passive version of the Middle T, minus the latter’s internal passive crossover. In fact, Bryston says that the latest versions of their passive T series can be modified in the field for use as active speakers. Bryston speakers are developed in cooperation with Axiom Audio, a well-respected Canadian speaker manufacturer. You need only look at the Middle T to see the familial resemblance to Axiom’s M series of speakers, with their trapezoidal cross sections narrower at the rear than at the front, and their use of large, fluted Vortex ports. Axiom speakers are very well built (I’ve reviewed several models in the past, and currently have a pair of their M5 v4s), but the cabinets of the Bryston Middle T Actives felt considerably more substantial, and the bass drivers look even more robust, with larger, heavier surrounds.
At 39.5”H x 10.5”W x 16.5”D, the Middle T is a relatively small floorstander, but at 81 pounds it’s surprisingly dense. Its incredibly solid MDF cabinet has a 1.5”-thick front baffle and 0.75”-thick side panels, and internally is heavily braced. From top to bottom, the drivers are: a 1” titanium-dome tweeter, a 5.25” midrange, and two 8” high-excursion woofers; toward the top of the rear panel are two ports. The bespoke drivers are claimed to have die-cast aluminum baskets, substantial magnet assemblies, and custom motor systems. Near the bottom of the rear panel are three sets of binding posts, for each speaker’s required three sources of amplification.
Included are adjustable outrigger feet with spikes that can be fastened to the bottom of the speaker; alternatively, rubber feet can be used. Segmented grilles attach to the front baffle with magnets; with the grilles off, the many bolts securing the black drivers protrude prominently. The Middle T Active is available in standard real-wood veneers of Black Ash, Natural Cherry, or Boston Cherry; custom finishes are available at additional cost. While the Middle T is finished to a high standard and built about as solidly as you could expect for a speaker with an MDF enclosure, it looks rather plain, with no design flourishes or accents to speak of.
The BAX-1 external crossover, required for all T Active models, uses digital signal processing (DSP) to divide the frequencies into three signals, each then individually amplified, and sent to the bass, midrange, and high-frequency drivers in each speaker. To achieve this, the BAX-1 uses two AKM AK5572 A/D chips to convert the incoming left- and right-channel analog signals into digital at 24-bit/96kHz resolution. The BAX-1 also has a total of six AKM AK4490 D/A chips, one for each outgoing signal, and a large toroidal transformer for its substantial power supply, to ensure that there’s plenty of juice to power the complex DSP and the six analog output stages.
An Ethernet connection lets the user -- more likely the dealer -- configure the BAX-1 for any of the three models of T Active speakers through a web-based interface. There’s also a ten-band parametric equalizer for the low frequencies (30-120Hz) that can be adjusted through this interface, though no microphone is provided to take measurements. I used the second generation of Anthem Room Correction (ARC-2) software and microphone provided with my Anthem STR preamplifier to measure, but not correct, the Bryston system’s in-room response. I then used the BAX-1’s equalizer to reduce the usual dip in the response of speakers in my room between 30 and 40Hz. This was confirmed with further measurements using ARC-2, which also indicated usable bass output in my room from the Bryston system down into the 20Hz area. The BAX-1’s equalization made the sound a little tighter, but otherwise the Bryston speakers needed little adjustment. From what I could see in the measurements and hear with my ears, this was a well-behaved speaker system.
The BAX-1 measures 17”W or 19”W (depending on the faceplate chosen) x 2.75”H x 11.1”D and weighs 10.3 pounds. Its 12mm-thick faceplate is available in black or silver, to match the appearance of Bryston’s other components. Centrally positioned is a Power/standby button, and above it three LEDs labeled Left, Power, and Right. The LEDs glow green when receiving a signal, and blink orange if the signal is too loud to be processed without distortion. The Power LED glows red in standby mode, green for powered up, and blinks red if there is a power fault. On its rear panel the BAX-1 has one set of four XLR jacks -- one stereo input and three XLR outputs, for the low, middle, and high bands -- for each channel, left and right. There is also a 3.5mm Trigger Out jack for each channel, a 3.5mm RS232 input, an Ethernet jack, a USB control input to perform diagnostics, and an IEC power inlet for the removable power cord.
The 24B3 six-channel amplifier is specified to output, into 8 ohms, 300Wx2 for the woofers and 75Wx4 for the midrange drivers and tweeters. It features the same high-gain, low-distortion input stage and quad complementary output stage as Bryston’s other Cubed amps -- e.g., the 4B3, which I reviewed. The 24B3’s six channels share two power supplies: one each for the left- and right-channel sets of three amps each. At full bandwidth, it’s specified to produce ≤-115dB noise and ≤0.005% THD+noise -- specs not quite as impressive as those of Bryston’s stereo and mono models, but still very impressive. The 24B3 measures 17”W x 4.5”H x 18.4”D in black or silver (a 19”W faceplate with handles is available), and weighs 55 pounds. That 18.4” is very deep, but even with the BAX-1 stacked atop it, I appreciated the relative compactness of the Bryston components, especially when considering the six channels of high-quality amplification and advanced DSP they contain.
Although I’m not keen on the looks of the Middle T Active speaker, I was quite taken by the appearance of Bryston’s latest Cubed amps, with their gently rounded faceplates of machined aluminum, engraved Bryston logos, and optional handles. The look is beefy, and the gentle curves add a touch of elegance. The 24B3 I was sent came with the 17”-wide silver faceplate, which matched the faceplate of the BAX-1. The amp’s central inset plate with engraved Bryston logo and model number has a Power/standby pushbutton and an LED for each channel; these glow green during normal operation, red or orange to indicate a fault.
Like the other Cubed amps, the 24B3 has balanced (XLR or TRS), and unbalanced (RCA) inputs, and the gain can be set to 23 or 29dB. There are six sets of high-quality binding posts, a trigger input and output, and an IEC power inlet. One thing I didn’t like about the posts: spades must be inserted into guides, which leaves the cables pointing straight up, toward the connectors for the XLR and RCA inputs. This could be problematic with thick, stiff cables.
Although a modular active speaker system such as this lets you use your choice of speaker cables, it also means having to buy three pairs of speaker cables and interconnects, the cost of which could be significant. For the review system, Bryston provided me with their own professional-quality interconnects and speaker cables, which are available for purchase and can be made to order.
The BAX-1 crossover is warranted for five years. The 24B3, like all Bryston amplifiers, is warranted for 20 years, as is the Middle T Active speaker itself.
I used the Bryston Middle T Active system with an Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player used as DAC and preamp, as well as an Anthem STR preamp. The source was a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion laptop computer running Windows 10, foobar2000, and Roon, connected with an AudioQuest Carbon USB link; other wiring included Nordost Quattro Fil XLR interconnects and power cords. Power was conditioned by products from Blue Circle Audio, ESP, and ZeroSurge.
I positioned the Middle T Actives in my room where I usually place speakers: a couple of feet from the side and front walls. Moving them slightly forward or back had a minor effect on the bass response; I toed them in toward my listening position until I achieved the most precise center image with solo voices. This resulted in the speakers being pointed almost directly at the listening position. I listened with the grilles off. As mentioned above, I used the parametric equalizer built into the BAX-1 to tweak the very lowest frequencies.
To give the Bryston Middle T Active system some time to burn in before doing any serious listening, I watched broadcast TV shows, and films on BD with their multichannel soundtracks downmixed to stereo. However, even while watching such shows as HBO’s suspenseful thriller Sharp Objects, it quickly became clear how good the Bryston system sounded. The moody soundtrack came through with crystalline clarity, while dialog was easily intelligible, and quiet Foley effects far back in the soundfield were clearly identifiable.
Watching the first episode, in which Alan listens to music on his audio system of gear from Simaudio, VPI, and Dynaudio, wasn’t like listening to an ultra-high-end system while sitting in its sweet spot -- instead, I got a convincing impression of the sound of another high-quality audio system, one that wasn’t the Bryston, playing in the background in my room. The Bryston system made it seem as if this other rig was also playing in my room at a lower volume, while the dialog was solidly anchored to the actors’ positions onscreen. In episode 7, the buzzing sound of fluorescent lights in the hospital records room is recorded at a fairly low level, but it sounded uncannily realistic from just the two speakers, with an enveloping quality so convincing that I at first thought it might be emanating from an actual electrical appliance in my room. At the end of that episode, when Alan puts on his Ultrasone headphones and listens to the Everly Brothers sing the foreshadowing “Down in the Willow Garden,” the Bryston Active system made even this compressed Dolby Digital 5.1-channel recording of the song sound full, rich, and satisfying. The Bryston Middle T Actives enhanced my experience of Sharp Objects by faultlessly reproducing its understated but intricate soundtrack.
When I sat down to do some serious listening with stereo sources, I was even more impressed. The bass of Nicki Minaj’s single “Barbie Tingz” (24-bit/48kHz AAC, Young Money/Cash Money/Tidal) is recorded at a low level but is incredibly deep and tight -- assuming your system can reproduce it. Through many systems, this track can sound thin and anemic if there’s not enough extension to fully reproduce the bass -- or, conversely, bloated and loose if the bass is reproduced sloppily. With the Middle T Actives, the pulsating bass of “Barbie Tingz” was threateningly deep, but still tuneful as it changed pitch. The low frequencies were locked in throughout my room -- I could even feel it solidly in the next room, something that I usually experience only with very good subwoofers. The heavily processed vocals remained so clear that I could actually make out the rapid-fire rapping, and the electronic clapping bounced crisply and precisely back and forth across the soundstage.
One of the benefits of active speakers is that the crossover is placed in the signal chain before the signal is sent to the power amplifier -- that way, the power amp’s signal is not subjected to the inherent losses and distortions that can be caused by passing a high-level signal through crossover components. The amplifier’s output is then coupled directly to the driver(s), and the resulting sound should be powerful and transparent.
That describes what I heard when I listened to one of my current reference cuts, the cover of Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” on Mark Vincent’s The Quartet Sessions (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony/Tidal), which features the pop cello duo the 2Cellos, aka Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hause. Every percussive pizzicato pluck had an explosive energy that leapt from the speakers, while I could still hear the gentle rubbing of the cellists’ fingers as they moved across the strings in preparation for each note. The precision of the rapid attacks and slow decays of the pizzicati was startling in its lucidity, as was the grand scale of the cellos when bowed. The sound of the Middle T Actives was definitely larger than the modest dimensions of their cabinets would suggest -- the rich, woody sound of the cellos filled the generously wide soundstage. The Brystons projected Vincent’s soaring tenor voice into my room with authority and complete control, even during his exhilarating crescendos, while still precisely delineating them from the cellos and other instruments.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the BD of Deadpool 2 has some incredibly well-recorded music that sounds as good as or better than most stereo recordings, and it sounded fantastic through the Brystons. Not only that, the Middle T Active system was able to transition seamlessly from playing this audiophile-quality music to reproducing the film’s many ferocious sound effects. In the pivotal scene in which Deadpool confronts Russell/Firefist, massive rising bass worthy of a good LFE subwoofer filled my room as Russell prepares to unleash his fiery fury. The music and mood then instantaneously switched to the tender rendition of “Tomorrow” by Alicia Morton, which she sang in Disney’s 1999 TV production of the musical Annie, her pure, innocent, then-12-year-old voice palpably hovering between the speakers, interrupted only by the jarring report of Cable’s Walther sidearm, thus delivering a wonderfully surreal aural experience. When most stereo speaker pairs attempt to reproduce a downmixed multichannel movie soundtrack, the result is an indistinct soundfield as they struggle to resolve the many competing soundtrack elements. With the Bryston Middle T Active system, everything sounded perfectly balanced, the dialog and effects precisely tracking their apparent visual sources onscreen. The experience was so involving that I felt as if I were sitting in the mixing studio, hearing every detail exactly as it was meant to be heard through extremely accurate monitor speakers.
No matter what I listened to, the Bryston system always sounded bigger and more dynamic than I thought it would. Its clarity and precision even rivaled that of my reference MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL-9 speakers ($6495/pair), hybrid electrostatics recognized for their fast, detailed sound. It’s difficult to compare the Bryston system to most other speakers due to their active nature, but I did some comparisons with the ML Classic ESL-9s driven by my Anthem M1 monaural amplifiers ($7500/pair).
The soundstage of “Thunderstruck,” from AC/DC’s The Razor’s Edge (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony/Tidal), shrank a bit in width and depth through the MLs, but the outlines of Brian Young’s abrasive, forceful voice were a bit more sharp. Both speakers were incredibly dynamic, but I give the slight edge to the MLs driven by the 1000Wpc Anthem monoblocks. It might have been a different outcome had the Bryston system included some of their more powerful amplifiers, but that would have substantially increased the system’s cost. The MLs’ bass was plenty deep and powerful, but the Brystons, with their woofers directly coupled to dedicated amplification of 300Wpc, simply hit harder and faster. When Angus Young’s frenetic guitar intro was joined by Chris Slade’s drums, the Brystons absolutely rocked it out with a punchier sound that better kept pace with the lightning-fast guitars -- totally air-guitar inspiring. The highs of the Bryston system were exceedingly clear and detailed, but didn’t quite sparkle like those of the very best speakers -- for example, the Paradigm Persona B ($7000/pair). Nor was the midrange as shockingly clear through the Brystons as through the Personas, though it was still arrestingly transparent. But the bookshelf Personas couldn’t touch the floorstanding Brystons in the bass, where the Middle Ts were nearly full range -- in that area they not only bettered the Personas’ bass, they were as fast and dynamic as anything I’ve heard at anywhere near their price.
Crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s
I commend Bryston for offering audiophiles the option of purchasing active versions of their reference T speaker models, so that they can benefit from the advantages of active loudspeaker design. The system’s modularity also allows users to upgrade their speakers or amplifiers at a later time and, conceivably, for Bryston to offer new models of active speakers that the BAX-1 digital crossover can be programmed to control.
For just a tad over $20,000, the Bryston Middle T Active speaker system offers fantastic performance at a price that’s reasonable, considering that it includes amplification and parametric equalization, but the question remains: Are audiophiles ready to embrace active speaker systems? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Middle T Active system provided me with nearly full-range, studio-monitor-quality sound, and the ability to output extremely high volume levels from a relatively compact system. If you’re willing to try active speakers, give the Brystons a listen. Even if you aren’t, you should hear them, to find out what kind of sound is possible from today’s powered speakers.
. . . Roger Kanno
- Speakers -- MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9
- Amplifiers -- Anthem M1 (monoblocks)
- Preamplifier -- Anthem STR Preamplifier
- Sources -- Hewlett-Packard Pavilion computer running Windows 10, foobar2000, Roon; AudioQuest JitterBug; Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player
- USB link -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Silver Apex
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Solo Silver Apex
- Power cords -- Essential Sound Products MusicCord-Pro ES
- Power conditioners -- Blue Circle Audio PLC Thingee FX-2 with X0e low-frequency filter module, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI
Bryston Middle T Active Speakers
Price: $8685 USD per pair.
Bryston BAX-1 Digital Crossover
Price: $3495 USD each.
Bryston 24B3 Six-Channel Power Amplifier
Price: $10,795 USD each.
System Price: $20,230 USD.
Warranty: 20 years parts and labor, speakers and amplifier; five years, crossover.
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 6X7
Phone: (800) 632-8217, (705) 742-5325
Fax: (705) 742-0882