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- Written by Roger Kanno Roger Kanno
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 June 2019 15 June 2019
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
A year ago in Munich, when I visited the exhibit room of UK speaker maker Q Acoustics at High End 2018, I knew little about them. However, former SoundStage! Simplifi writer Al Griffin was familiar with their reputation for making high-value, budget-friendly speakers, and wanted to see what they had to offer. They were displaying their Concept 500 floorstander ($5999.99 USD per pair), but what really caught our attention was their new 3000i series, which begins at $249.99/pair for the smallest minimonitor, and ends with a $799.99/pair floorstander that looks a lot like the Concept 500. That speaker was the floorstanding 3050i, which sounded extremely promising, with a captivating, smooth, and coherent sound throughout the audioband. I was so impressed that, when offered a chance to review the 3020i minimonitor ($299.99/pair), I jumped.
I’ve always been a fan of high-quality, low-cost minimonitors. In fact, my audiophile journey began several decades ago with a pair of Mission 760i speakers and electronics from companies known for their high-value products: Arcam, Cyrus, and NAD. A few years ago, my interest in budget bookshelfs was renewed when Elac shook up this market segment with their Debut line, designed by Andrew Jones, and featuring two such models for under $300/pair. This year, Elac released updates of the Debuts, the Debut 2.0 series, with only small increases in price. Paradigm, too, has upped the ante with yet another update of their venerable Atom bookshelf, the Monitor SE Atom, at $298/pair -- $100 less than its predecessor. With so much competition, I was eager to hear how Q Acoustics’ new 3020i would sound in my system.
Q Acoustics’ 3000i series is an update of their 3000 series, and the 3020i is the larger of the two bookshelf models; the line also includes the aforementioned 3050i floorstander ($799.99/pair), reviewed by our own Hans Wetzel on sister site SoundStage! Access, as well as the smaller 3010i bookshelf ($249.99/pair) and the 3090Ci center-channel ($189.99 each).
One thing that sets the 3000i series apart from other budget speakers is their refined appearance. Compromises must be made in the design and manufacture of budget speakers, but I think Q Acoustics has done a spectacular job of giving the 3000i series a pleasing, modern appearance by rounding the edges and corners of the cabinets and covering the edges of the drivers with flush-mounted chrome bezels. Available in four vinyl finishes, including the chic white of my review samples, the 3020i’s looked great in both my modest family room and in my reference system. I imagine they’d also look neat and tidy on a desk, as part of a computer-audio system. While I appreciate the more purposeful look of the similarly priced Paradigm Monitor SE Atom and Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 ($299.98/pair), I think most people will prefer the more stylish look of the 3000i models, as I did.
While the 3020i is an attractive speaker for its low price, it also appears to be very well engineered and built. In designing their speakers, Q Acoustics worked with Karl-Heinz Fink. You may not have heard of Fink (I hadn’t), but he and his company, Fink Audio-Consulting, have designed well-regarded speakers for Mission, Mordaunt-Short, Tannoy, and Yamaha, to name a few.
Measuring 10.9”H x 6.7”W x 11.1”D, the 3020i is deeper than its predecessor, the 3020, and has 25% more internal volume, to go lower in the bass. Each 3020i weighs 12.1 pounds -- not exactly tank-like, but solid. The cabinet includes P2P (point to point) internal bracing, which Q introduced with the Concept 500: computer-aided design was used to establish the optimal positions and sizes and weights and materials, etc., of these internal braces to create an extremely rigid enclosure. High-quality, low-profile binding posts are integrated directly into the cabinet, so no panel cutouts are required, further improving the enclosure’s structural integrity. A foam plug is provided for each speaker’s rear-firing port. I didn’t use the plugs, but they could be useful for taming the bass, considering how physically deep the speaker is when placing it on a desk or bookshelf near a wall. The four small rubber feet at the corners of the bottom panel are handy for setting the speakers on a bookshelf or desk, but they’re so far apart that they’re unlikely to make contact with the platform of a typical speaker stand. The grilles, which I didn’t use, attach magnetically -- there’s no mounting hardware to distract from the clean lines of the smooth front baffle.
The 3020i’s drivers comprise a 0.9” tweeter and a 5” midrange-bass driver, crossed over at 2.4kHz. The midrange-bass driver has an aramid-fiber cone precision-formed from impregnated and coated paper and claimed to provide the optimal balance between stiffness and self-damping. Special attention has also been paid to the tweeter, which has a soft-dome diaphragm and a silicone suspension system that decouples it from the baffle and thus the vibrations from the midrange-bass driver. Q specifies for the 3020i a sensitivity of 88dB and a frequency response of 64Hz-30kHz, +3/-6dB. The recommended amplification is 25-75Wpc for a stereo power amplifier, or 50-125Wpc for an A/V receiver (two channels driven). The average impedance is 6 ohms, the minimum impedance 4 ohms.
The 3020i isn’t at the cutting edge of speaker technology, but I was very impressed by its level of build quality, and the many design features that I consider class-leading at this price.
Setup and system
I used the Q Acoustics 3020i’s primarily in my second system, which consists of an Axiom Audio ADA1000 stereo power amplifier and an Oppo Digital BDP-105 universal BD player used as a preamplifier and DAC. My Hewlett-Packard Pavilion laptop computer, running Windows 10 and Roon or foobar2000, was used to play digital files through either an AudioQuest Carbon USB link or a Chromecast Audio connection. I also set the speakers up in my larger room using the HP laptop, this time with an Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player used as a preamp-DAC and a NuPrime MCH-K38 multichannel power amplifier. The cable and power products in these systems comprised my usual collection from Analysis Plus, AudioQuest, Blue Circle Audio, ESP, Nordost, and Zerosurge.
I placed the 3020i’s on a pair of generic, 24”-high speaker stands and toed them in slightly toward my listening position. In my smaller family room, the rear port of each speaker fired into a corner of the room, for some bass augmentation, but they were about 18” from the front wall, and moving them a few inches forward or back produced little change in the sound. There was even less enhancement of the bass in my main system, where the speakers were placed even farther from the front wall -- a little over 2’ -- in a much larger room.
Listening to the BD of a-ha’s fantastic concert video, MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice (24-bit/96kHz LPCM, Island), I was impressed by how natural and open the Q Acoustics 3020i’s sounded with these mostly acoustic arrangements, which include a small string section and the haunting vocals of Morten Harket. “Stay On These Roads” begins with the easygoing piano of Magne Furuholmen, violins, and a lone cello, later joined by a vibraphone that sounds steely but inviting in its mellow tonal quality. The 3020i’s were able to present this relatively complex arrangement, intertwined with Harket’s falsetto singing, believably in front of me. The piano had unexpectedly good weight, its sound punctuated by the smooth, intimate sounds of the stringed instruments. The 3020i’s did gloss over some microdetails, such as the vibrant quality of individual bowed strings, instead slightly blending them together with the resonant sounds of the instruments themselves instead of clearly differentiating them from one another. Still, the little Qs did an excellent job of presenting a very large soundstage and the small details on it.
The rich orchestration of “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” which provides a lush backdrop for the strong, melodic singing of Ingrid Helene Håvik, with harmonies from Harket and Furuholmen, was in stark contrast to “Take On Me,” sparsely arranged for piano, guitar, and Harket’s solitary voice. The big, enveloping sound of the former track was uplifting; the latter had a more soulful, wistful quality that was simply exquisite. For $299.99/pair bookshelf speakers, the little 3020i’s did equally impressive jobs of reproducing both tracks. The deep thump of the kick drum in “Sox of the Fox” lacked the room-filling rumble I’m used to hearing from this track with larger bookshelf or floorstanding speakers, but there was still enough bass to satisfy me.
The high-resolution version of Bohemian Rhapsody: The Original Soundtrack (24/96 FLAC, Hollywood/HDtracks), with music by Queen, sounded exceptional through the 3020i’s. The voices in the title track, a glam-rock classic, were nicely separated, Freddie Mercury’s distinctive voice dead center and slightly back on the soundstage. All voices sounded pleasing and natural, but I was again impressed by how solid and powerful the piano sounded, and how the little Qs were able to do justice even to Brian May’s wicked electric-guitar riffs. Perhaps most surprising were the ultratight bass and drums in “Another One Bites the Dust” -- I wasn’t prepared for how well the 3020i’s could pound out this tune. The electric bass was fat and round, as it should be, while the drums hit much harder and faster, differentiating them from the bass and from the voice of Mercury, who delivered the words with vicious ferocity. Other, more pop-oriented songs, such as “Under Pressure” (with David Bowie) and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” were simply a lot of fun to listen to through the overachieving 3020i’s.
The 3020i’s were also able to produce a convincing re-creation of the acoustic of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Toronto, where the Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Session (DSD64, RCA/Acoustic Sounds). They revealed the additional layers of sound and detail audible in the Acoustic Sounds reissue, remastered by original producer and engineer Peter J. Moore. The voice of John Timmins in “Misguided Angel” seemed to emerge from slightly behind sister Margo Timmins -- in other editions of this recording, their voices seem to occupy almost the same acoustic space. Through the 3020i’s, the entire sound seemed a bit bigger and clearer than in the previous editions of this album from RCA and Classic Records. These differences were obvious, and easy to hear.
The Q Acoustics 3020i fared very well against the much more expensive Axiom Audio M3 ($548/pair). Currently in its fourth iteration, the M3 has been my reference, real-world minimonitor for years. Although its price has steadily risen since I first heard it over 15 years ago, it still offers a lot of value. “Thunderstruck,” from AC/DC’s The Razor’s Edge (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony/Tidal), did have a bit more slam through the M3s, which could play a little louder before showing signs of strain -- but not by much. The M3s also placed voices slightly forward on the soundstage, but with fewer signs of distress at high volumes than the Q 3020i’s. Not only was Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” louder and went lower in the bass through the M3s -- the bass guitar was more taut, without losing its deliciously rich, rounded sound.
While the more expensive M3 could out-rock the 3020i with arena-rock classics, the 3020i’s slightly smoother, more laid-back sound was better at reproducing the voice of mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli on Dolce Duello, her duet album with cellist Sol Gabetta, with Andrés Gabetta conducting the Capella Gabetta (24/96 FLAC, Decca). Bartoli’s rapid runs in “Aure, andante e baciate,” from Albinoni’s Il Nascimento dell’ Aurora, were more supple and inviting through the 3020i’s, which made her sound slightly farther away -- and she had a more spacious sound when she occasionally moved away from the microphone in “Aure voi de’ miei sospiri,” from Gabrielli’s San Sigismondo, re di Borgogna. The M3s did lend additional weight to Gabetta’s cello and the orchestral instruments in Boccherini’s Cello Concerto No.10.This better revealed the chamber orchestra’s presence and pace, especially in the third movement, Allegro e con moto, which made me slightly prefer the Axioms for this work. But at little more than half the price of the Axiom M3, the Q 3020i is nearly its equal -- a killer value.
The Q Acoustics 3020i is a great-sounding and great-looking little speaker that played louder and went lower than I suspected it might for $299.99/pair. Q also gives you the choice of several high-quality vinyl finishes, to better match this speaker to your décor. The SoundStage! Network’s founder, Doug Schneider, has been receiving a good bit of attention for his recent series of columns featuring systems comprising budget-conscious components, demonstrating that there’s plenty of interest in entry-level high-end audio. If you’re putting together such a system, the Q 3020i deserves to be considered. I believe it will provide as much bang for your buck as any other minimonitor out there.
. . . Roger Kanno
- Speakers -- Axiom Audio M3, MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9
- Power amplifiers -- Axiom Audio ADA1000, NuPrime MCH-K38
- Preamplifier-DAC -- Oppo Digital BDP-105 and UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD players
- Sources -- Hewlett-Packard Pavilion computer running Windows 10, foobar2000, Roon; AudioQuest JitterBug
- USB link -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Clear Oval, Nordost Super Flatline Mk.II
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Chocolate Oval-In, Nordost Quattro Fil
- 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
Q Acoustics 3020i Loudspeakers
Price: $299.99 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Armour Home Electronics
2 Woodside, Dunmow Rd
Bishop's Stortford CM23 5RG, UK
Phone: (855) 279-5070 (toll-free in North America)