Tag Archives: loudspeakers

Boom time for audio?

The hi-fi industry is on its knees, or so I had thought. That may be true for traditional home stereos; but at a gadget briefing for UK press yesterday I saw more audio stands and stands highlighting audio products than I can recall. The themes: headgear (both headphones and earbuds) and wireless speakers.

As an example, Cygnett was highlighting its noise cancelling headphones and various earbuds, and told me that this is a fast-growing market.

I enjoyed the exotic things more of course, like the Edifier Spinnaker Bluetooth speakers – that little round thing is a wireless remote.

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Even more striking are the Opalum wall speakers, like this FLOW.4810 model, with an array of 48 1″ drivers in each active speaker.

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You can hang them on your wall like this:

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At the other end of the scale, BoomBotix showed its Boombot2 Bluetooth mini attached to the handlebars of a bike; a good way to make yourself unpopular, perhaps, but fun to see.

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Canadian speaker company PSB was showing its high-end M4U noise cancelling headphones

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I had a quick listen and they sounded good, though it is always hard to tell for sure in a crowded room. Neat feature: a press-button remote on the cable enables an external microphone so you can hear someone talking to you without removing the headphones.

Audyssey was there with its excellent powered speakers and docks; search this site for some reviews.

Another company with striking designs was Libratone, showing its Zipp AirPlay portable wireless speakers.

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One thing I did not see much of: old-style iPhone / iPod speaker docks that charge while you play. One exhibitor told me that users will think twice about buying docks with physical connectors now that Apple has changed the design and made everything incompatible without an adapter. In any case, wireless is more stylish. Bluetooth seems most favoured, since it is widely compatible; Android is making its mark and Apple-specific devices are becoming less attractive.

Also worth a mention is Urbanista, which showed its stylish headphones and earbuds, though the focus seems more on fashion than sound; like the London earbuds designed, I was told, to look like cuff links.

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The home stereo may be dead; but there is still innovation in audio. One factor is that almost any portable device – whether dedicated music player, smartphone or tablet – is capable of producing a high quality signal. Connect to the right headphones or active speakers and the magic begins.

A taste of the high end at a bargain price: Behringer 3031A active loudspeakers

I have been taking an interest in active loudspeakers after sampling AVI’s ADM 9.1 model which deliver clear, uncoloured sound in a convenient package with built-in DAC and remote volume control. though they lack bass extension and really need a sub-woofer to perform at their best.

The ADM 9.1s are good value considering that you get a complete just-add-source package; but still not exactly a casual purchase at £1250 (May 2012). What about some of those active monitors at the low end of the music studio market, can that deliver some of the active magic at a lower price?

A quick hunt led to these Behringer 3031A active monitors which offer a remarkable specification for the price – around £300 at the time of writing. Ribbon tweeter, 150w amplifier in each speaker, 50Hz to 24 KHz frequency response, what can go wrong? I could not resist getting a pair for review, especially as there are surprisingly few reports on these speakers out on the internet, considering that they have been available since 2009.

Note that I am reviewing these as hi-fi speakers even though they are designed for studio use.

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Why so few reviews? It may be because Behringer has a mixed reputation in the pro audio community. The products are popular and good value, but the company is accused of lack of originality in design and poor quality in manufacture. Since the prices undercut most competition there could be some industry in-fighting going on. Behringer undoubtedly aims at the low end of the studio and hobbyist market, and manufactures in large Chinese factories, but I doubt their quality is all that bad given that their largest reseller Thomann offers a 3-year warranty. Still, a cautionary note there.

“They’re heavy”, said the delivery man, and I unpacked the monitors to find a pair of very solid, weighty loudspeakers (15Kg each according to the spec). The cabinet is MDF though the front baffle is some kind of plastic with a metal plate into which the drivers are set. There are two slim vertical ports. No grilles and these will not win prizes for appearance, though they are not too bad. This is about the sound though; look elsewhere if you are after hi-fi as furniture.

Wiring up

The B3031As have two balanced inputs, with XLR or 1/4” jacks. Most hi-fi cables use unbalanced RCA phonos; however you can easily get RCA to jack plug cables from a music equipment store or online. Using a balanced connection is better, if your pre-amplifier offers that option, but I used an unbalanced mono 1/4” jack for each input without any issues. One interesting and cost-effective choice is the new Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus, around £350 from Richer Sounds in the UK or $600 in the USA, which has balanced outputs and includes a pre-amplifier, though I have not tried this combination.

I tried the B3031As in two configurations. The first was with a Beresford Caiman DAC, which also has a built-in pre-amplifer. The second was with a Naim 32.5 pre-amplifier. Neither of these has balanced outputs. My source is a Logitech Squeezebox Touch. Note that this also has a volume control and built-in DAC, so for the most cost-effective system you could go straight from the Touch to the speakers, though I have not tried that as yet.

The main point is that you must have some sort of pre-amplifier output with a way of adjusting the volume, since the B3031As do not really have a volume control. There is an input level trim control which in effect is the same thing, but this is only designed for setting a convenient level during setup, not for constant use.

In order to use the Caiman I have to set the input trim near its maximum, in order to get a full range of volume from the speakers. The Naim 3.5 has a more powerful output and I can set the input trim to 0dB with very satisfactory results.

Although the sound was good direct from the Caiman, I got better results from the Naim, though obviously this adds greatly to the cost. A full pre-amplifier is also more convenient since you have additional inputs available.

Controls

The back panel of the B3031A has several controls. The on-off switch is conveniently sited on the top. The inputs are slightly less conveniently on the underside, though this does mean that the cables hang vertically which is tidy.

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Then there are several additional controls:

Input Trim: Control input gain from –6dB to +6bB, as mentioned above.

Low Frequency: Cut the response from 60Hz and below between 0 and –6dB. The purpose is to integrate smoothly with a subwoofer or, if monitoring, to simulate a small speaker system.

Room Compensation: Cut the response from 300Hz and below between 0 and –6dB. The purpose is to reduce excessive bass if the speakers are sites against a wall or in a corner.

High Frequency: Adjust the response around 8kHz from +2dB to –4dB. The purpose is to tailor the high frequencies to allow for room effects.

Power mode: You can set the power to On, Auto, or Off. This one mystifies me. You do not need Off since you can more easily press the Power switch on the top. The Auto mode is meant to put the speakers into standby when not in use, but in my tests it was a disaster. The speakers would turn off during quiet passages. Admittedly that was with the rather low output from the Caiman DAC; but I suggest NOT using this option.

Mute Low and Mute High: mutes the high or low drivers, apparently “for service use”.

Frequency response

Each speaker comes with an individual calibration certificate, which is a nice touch especially at this price point.

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I presume this is done in an anechoic chamber; the frequency response in a normal room will be less even. One point interests me though. The certificate shows that the bass response does not begin to drop noticeably until 40Hz; yet the published specification is 50Hz-24Khz. That accords with my listening tests, in that the bass is well extended and unlike AVI’s ADM 9.1, these speakers work fine without a subwoofer.

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Electronics

The amplifier packs are easy to unscrew from the back panel so I took a look, though I do not recommend this as it may invalidate your warranty. Also note that amplifiers can give you an electric shock even after they have been unplugged, thanks to the charge held by capacitors.

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Note the beefy toroidal transformer.

Listening tests

So how do they sound? In a word, excellent. They display the characteristics you would expect from an active system: exceptional clarity, a somewhat lean sound due to absence of boom, neutral tone, and an honest reproduction of the source which occasionally counts against your enjoyment if it is slightly distorted (play Peaceful Easy Feeling by the Eagles. Hear the distortion? Good, you have an accurate system).

I positioned the speakers on stands well into the room and only a few feet apart. These are more suitable for hi-fi than some monitors because the ribbon tweeters have a wide dispersal, which means the sweet spot of good listening positions is larger.

When I first switched on, I thought the bass was a little light. Then I played Stravinksky’s Firebird in the great performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. The drum sounded with dramatic effect; it is obvious that these speakers have no problem with bass.

I played Roads by Portishead, a demanding track that begins with a pulsing low-frequency tone that can easily cause speakers to buzz or the sound to break up. The B3031A coped with this as well as I have heard; then Beth Gibbons’ vocals come in with startling clarity, a stunning contrast.

The B3031A’s coped with Sade’s By Your Side, on which the strong bass can easily overwhelm and distort, with ease. You can hear the silky vocals, the pumping percussion, the fingers sliding on the guitar, the ticking cymbals, the swirling organ.

Ashkenazy playing Chopin sounds dynamic and natural. There is no boominess in the lower end nor breakup in the loud passages.

Is there anything these speakers do not do well? A few observations. If you like to rock out to heavy metal, I am not sure that this type of speaker is the best, though the B3031A is better than some in this regard. They are just a bit too polite, and further, maybe a floorstander with the chest-shaking bass that only a floorstander can deliver is a better choice.

Although the sound is generally excellent, these speakers do not quite have the refinement and limpidity I have heard from active ATCs costing many times more, for example.

Be reasonable though. You can get a pair of these delivered for around £300. What else would sound as good for the money?

Conclusion

My immediate conclusion is that these are a fantastic hi-fi bargain. If you can live with the looks and the Behringer name, you are getting a real taste of the high-end for what most audio enthusiasts would regard as as a low-budget price.

Admittedly the setup is a little more complex than some, since you need a pre-amplifier of some kind, though there are now DACs around at a reasonable price which have this included.

Specifications

Inputs: Balanced XLR or 1/4” jack.

Input trim: –6dB to +6dB

Tweeter: 2” ribbon

Woofer: 8 3/4” Kevlar

Woofer amplification: 100w RMS 150w peak at 4 ohms, 0.1% THD

Tweeter amplification: 30w RMS 75w peak at 6 ohms, 0.1% THD

Crossover frequency: 3.6Khz

Frequency response: Quoted 50Hz to 24Khz, no range given.

Max spl: 113dB at 1m per pair

Power consumption: max 200w

Dimensions: 400 x 250 x 290mm

Weight: 15Kg

Buying the B3031A

If you buy a pair of these pay special attention to whether you are buying a single speaker or a pair. In the pro music market, monitors are often sold individually, which means that great price must be doubled if you are after a stereo pair. That said, the B3031A is often, but not always, sold in pairs. This usually works out better value. Check the small print carefully!

  

AVI preparing a successor to the ADM 9.1 – the floorstanding ADM 40

AVI is a small British hi-fi manufacturer who advocate active loudspeakers; its AVI 9.1 (recently lightly revised as the AVI 9T) is widely liked for its clean uncoloured sound and lack of clutter – all you need is a digital source. However the 9T lacks grunt and until now the recommended solution has been the companion subwoofer, which adds a substantial £800 to the cost. The 9T is £1125 so that is not far short of £2000 for the pair, making the value for money less impressive.

Now the company is preparing an all-in-one successor to the 9.1 – the floorstanding, 3-way active ADM 40. From what we know so far:

750 watt per-channel RMS amplification
3-way active crossover
8 inputs
Remote control

It will be possible to fine-tune the bass via the remote control; there will also be a companion iPhone app.

How much? According to AVI man Ashley James “under £3000 definitely, hopefully £2500”.

Hitherto AVI has been opposed to full-range loudspeakers, claiming that smaller two-way loudspeakers supplemented by a subwoofer is a better solution. Why the change of heart?

We don’t like typical three way lower crossovers because they are in the middle of the most music. Even  phase perfect ones are still reversing it and back again!!

However we’ve found that you get 95% of the intermod reduction by crossing over at 100 Hhz, a noticeable increase in clarity and dynamic range and the bass can be adjusted to suit rooms and program material, in this instance by remote, which isn’t possible with an old fashioned three way. And there’s an LFE input, so it’s a win win situation in a comparatively small speaker because we can use a Sub driver and not one for a three way.

says James.

On the face of it the ADM 40 will be better value than the ADM 9T plus subwoofer, as well as more convenient; one fewer box has to be a good thing. Then again, can AVI really deliver something as good as the 9T but with full range? The proof will be in the hearing.

There is a review of the ADM 9.1, similar to the 9T, here.

Update – oh dear:

We can’t get the performance from a floor stander and they cost disproportionately more for limited demand, so we’ve dropped the idea.

seems to be the latest news.