Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

I try not to take being an audio reviewer for granted. I examine, live with, and, most important, hear many audio products -- things most people don’t get to do. And I am never more aware of my privileged position than when I get my hands on a special edition -- models that manufacturers produce, often in limited numbers, to commemorate an anniversary or other occasion, and that typically are made to look and sound quite distinct. In this case, my privilege was to be one of the first reviewers to get their hands on the new Menuet SE (for Special Edition) minimonitor ($1799/pair, all prices USD), which its maker, DALI, expects to keep in production for a limited time.

Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries (DALI) has been around for 35 years, and now counts more than a million proud owners of their products in 70 nations. It’s a big outfit. The Menuet SE speaker builds on the legacy of the Mentor Menuet (discontinued) and Menuet ($1399/pair). Its unique walnut veneer aside, the Menuet SE looks like the Menuet, but appearances can be deceiving -- DALI has wrought many other changes in this tiny speaker.

DALI

Description

The Menuet SE immediately grabs the attention, if only for its size: it measures just 9.85”H x 5.9”W x 9.1”D and weighs only 8.8 pounds. To get a better idea of just how small that is, check out SoundStage!’s Instagram account to see my small hand concealing more than half the speaker’s baffle.

Next there’s the Menuet SE’s beautiful finish, available in just one flavor: Wild Walnut. Under a coat of clear, high gloss -- it appears to be quite durable -- is eye-catching wood grain in a pattern formed by pieces of natural walnut veneer expertly blended. According to DALI, “Every pair is carefully matched and will be unique in appearance. No two pairs will look the same.” I often found myself transfixed by the hypnotically swirling patterns of grain in many shades of brown. The cabinet edges and corners are subtly rounded, the front and rear panels are slightly convex, and no visible joins spoil the illusion of a speaker carved from a solid block of walnut. When my wife first set eyes on the Menuet SEs, she thought they’d fit perfectly into a wood-paneled study in which you might find someone in a cardigan smoking a cigar, contemplating an old book selected from a large, carefully curated personal library.

The Menuet SE’s midrange-woofer, only 4.5” in diameter, has a cone made of DALI’s proprietary wood-pulp material, colored a dark mahogany to nicely accent the cabinet. This driver benefits from one of the technical upgrades used only in the SE: a fiberglass voice-coil former that DALI claims reduces mechanical loss and minimizes distortion. The tweeter’s 1.1” silk dome is mounted in and surrounded by a disc of gray metal, inlaid in the baffle. These drivers hand off to each other at 3kHz via a less visible SE upgrade: the crossover, which includes Mundorf capacitors, is mounted on a circuit board made of a material with “extra high electrical insulation” that, DALI says, “minimizes electrical interference.”

DALI

Another difference from the standard Menuet is around back: speaker terminals borrowed from DALI’s Epicon line, sticking out at an angle of 45° just below a port firing at a complementary angle of 45°. This entire assembly, posts and port, is recessed into the cabinet, to allow the speaker to vent properly when mounted on a wall. Above the posts are two holes for DALI’s wall bracket ($99/pair). The Menuet SE lacks mounting holes on its bottom panel, nor has DALI developed a stand specifically for this speaker; however, they recommend their 24”-high Connect M-600 stand ($499/pair). (As you’ll read below, I found 24” to be bit low.) Between the holes and the port is a brass plate bearing the initials of the DALI employee who assembled the speaker by hand.

The Menuet SE’s walls felt dense, and passed the knuckle-rap test with flying colors -- it sounded like a thick, solid chunk of wood. DALI’s published specifications include a relatively low (understandable for such a small design) sensitivity of 86dB/2.83V/m, a nominal impedance of 4 ohms, and a frequency response of 59Hz-25kHz, ±3dB.

Setup

The two review samples came packed in a single small box, along with an instruction manual, grilles, and a microfiber cleaning cloth. The grilles don’t attach magnetically, but their mounting holes on the front baffle are cleverly concealed; at a glance, they look like flush screw heads.

DALI recommends placing the SEs on or very near a wall, or on a bookshelf. My dedicated listening room is relatively small (15’L x 12’W), and treated with broadband absorption at the first reflection points and on the long wall behind the speakers, with homemade bass traps in each front corner. I placed the Menuet SEs within an inch of the wall behind them, on my 24”-high Focal Sopra No1 stands, and gave a listen. The bass was so substantial that I could feel the output in my body -- surprising from speakers so small. But there were negatives -- the soundstage depth suffered, not only in terms of voices and instruments relative to one another, but each instrument also sounded more two-dimensional. The bass was boomy and the midrange a bit muddy, though both effects were mitigated at lower volumes (<80dB peak, C-weighted).

DALI

I left the Menuet SEs on the Focal stands and moved them to the spots speakers usually occupy in my room: describing a 9’ equilateral triangle with my listening chair, which put the backs of their cabinets 26” from the front wall. (DALI says that the Menuet SEs can sit up to 39” from the wall.) Their bass output was diminished a bit -- the boom was gone, and the midrange improved immensely, so that’s where I left them. But thinking the speakers’ small size meant that they should sit higher, I searched for something to place between them and the stands. I settled on books about 3” thick, which worked great and led me to believe that 28” stands (a commonly available height) would probably work better than 24” stands. DALI recommends no toe-in; but while the Menuet SEs sounded good in that orientation, I found that toeing them in about 10° tightened up the image focus just a bit.

I connected the Menuet SEs to my NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier with homemade speaker cables with 12-gauge conductors of oxygen-free copper and locking banana plugs. Although the C 316BEE is specified to output only up to 40Wpc into 8 ohms, that was enough for the Menuet SEs and all the speakers I compared them with. My source was a Bluesound Node streamer and its internal DAC, connected to the NAD’s line-level inputs (RCA) with AmazonBasics interconnects. I used the Node as a Roon endpoint, via the Roon app installed on my Microsoft Surface Pro 6 laptop computer. I played music streamed from Tidal, and from my library of CDs ripped as FLAC files and stored on a NAS.

Sound

When I see a speaker as small as the DALI Menuet SE, I find it almost impossible to avoid making some assumptions about it. I expected a lean sound -- a relative lack of bass punch, weight, and scale. But the Menuet SEs sounded anything but small. The opening thump of the kick drum in “Symbolistic White Walls,” from the Matthew Good Band’s Last of the Ghetto Astronauts (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, PolyGram/Tidal), was fast, taut, and authoritative. Juxtaposed with the electric guitar to the left and a subtly plucked second guitar at center right, the bass not only sounded right, but way fuller and deeper than I thought so small a speaker could produce. Sure, I’m used to bass that goes lower -- these are only 4.5” drivers -- but even in this track’s frenetic chorus at 0:53, I felt that the DALIs’ sound was well balanced overall, neither too lean nor too bright.

I played it again. This time I noticed superb transparency and realism in the guitar plucks, stinging through the air with no hint of cabinet coloration. Good’s voice, equally palpable, hung convincingly at center stage just behind the plane described by the speakers’ frontmost corner edges, surrounded by a cushion of air that let me hear all the studio reverb that had been added to his voice.

DALI

Then I got a little enthusiastic, and turned up the volume. However, the bass in this track is not polite, and it revealed the Menuets’ breaking point -- their little midrange-bass drivers bottomed out. Oops. Obviously, this is no speaker with which to try to simulate rock-concert SPLs, even if DALI does claim that the Menuet SE can output 105dB (at 1m, I presume): Playback volume is one of its limitations, particularly with bass-heavy music. Still, when I’d become more familiar with the DALIs, I found that they could comfortably produce peaks of 90dB (C-weighted) at my listening position -- loud enough for most listeners -- and relatively deep, good-quality bass without their midrange-woofers bottoming out.

To be sure I’d exhausted the possibilities of the Menuet SE’s bass capabilities, I cued up some hip-hop: “Reunited,” from Legend of the Wu-Tang Clan: Wu-Tang Clan’s Greatest Hits (16/44.1 FLAC, BMG Heritage). This resulted in my other reservation about this speaker: If you listen to a lot of synth bass with ultra-low extension and don’t want to use a sub, this is not the speaker for you. When I focused on the bass in this track, I heard competent punch and surprisingly good extension in the low end -- the -3dB point was 37Hz, as measured with my miniDSP UMIK-1 micrphone -- though I could neither hear nor feel the sustained bass notes at my seat, as I do with bigger speakers.

But when I moved on to “Already Gone,” from Blue Rodeo’s Lost Together (16/44.1 FLAC, WEA), I was at last convinced that, aside from those limitations in high playback volume and bass extension and power, I had nothing more to complain about. The opening acoustic-guitar strums at far left and right were reproduced with exquisite clarity, each string cleanly delineated from the others. Jim Cuddy’s voice, projected dead between and high above the speakers, was reproduced with invigorating and lively presence, coupled with a refined smoothness that I’m used to hearing from my reference Focal Sopra No1 stand-mounts -- which, at $9990/pair, cost 5.5 times the DALIs’ price. Transparency and detail retrieval through the midrange were so good that they were uncanny -- through the chorus, Cuddy’s voice was utterly free of the cabinet positions, and the subtle whispering of the backing singer behind him was fully represented.

DALI

Nor did the Menuet SE’s treble response disappoint -- it was neither too bright nor too dull. The tweeter offered a perfect balance of high-frequency output, conveyed with nimble delicacy and satisfying decay and extension. At 2:10 into “Already Gone” there’s a cymbal crash at hard right; the Menuet SEs re-created it with subtle shimmer and impressive decay -- I could track the sound as it spread beyond the speakers’ outer edges and slowly faded into aural oblivion.

Comparisons: Down the rabbit hole

I first pitted the Menuet SEs against my Focal Chora 806 minimonitors ($990/pair). I matched the speakers’ levels, keeping the SPLs at the listening position to peaks of about 90dB, where the DALIs could still play cleanly. Running these comparisons at higher volume levels might have tipped the balance in favor of the Focals, which can play a lot louder than the DALIs -- I felt that imposing this constraint would result in a fairer comparison. After all, no one buying a pair of Menuet SEs will be interested in pushing them past their limits.

Listening to Blue Rodeo’s “Already Gone,” I found that the little DALIs equaled or bettered the Focals in most aspects of sound. In terms of bass, the Focals produced more output and extension -- I could feel more bass fullness in my body (as opposed to hearing with my ears) -- but the difference was smaller than I’d anticipated. Bass speed and tightness, however, went to the DALIs -- they sounded quicker, more detailed. Throughout the midrange, where both speakers provided roughly equal degrees of presence with singing voices, the Menuet SEs sounded more refined and more transparent. The DALIs also reproduced Jim Cuddy’s voice with more air and three-dimensionality, and the plucked acoustic guitar had more bite and sparkle. The DALIs also never reminded me that it was their little cabinets that were producing all that sound -- music floated freely in the room. At times, the Focals gave the game away with telltale cues that were likely subtle cabinet resonances. When I focused on the treble -- specifically, that hard-right cymbal crash at 2:10 -- I gave the very slight edge to the Focals, which revealed more shimmer and delicacy. But both pairs of speakers provided exceptional decay and extension.

To assess these speakers’ reproduction of women’s voices, I moved on to “Lonestar,” from Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me (16/44.1 FLAC, Blue Note). I’m glad I did -- the differences were more obvious than with Cuddy’s voice in “Already Gone.” Jones’s voice sounded freer of the DALIs’ cabinets than of the Focals’ -- the feeling of her being in my listening room was more convincing. The Chora 806es dropped hints of cabinet coloration in their reproduction of her voice and, to a lesser degree, acoustic guitar. This track’s relative lack of low-frequency content made it easy to choose the DALIs over the Focals.

DALI

Because I found the Menuet SE’s midrange a cut above the Chora 806’s, but their reproductions of the high and low frequencies a mixed bag of results, I brought in some pricier speakers, beginning with Revel’s M126Be minimonitor ($4000/pair). To my surprise, the transparency and refinement of the DALI’s midrange was much closer to the Revel’s than to the Focal’s. The Revels did provide a bit more air around Jones in “Lonestar,” which made her sound even more as if she were in my room and singing to me, but the margin of victory was slim. On the other hand, the DALIs reproduced Jones’s voice with more presence than the Revels -- which I really liked.

So -- the DALI Menuet SE had barely lost to the Revel M126Be. My next thought: Why not let Focal’s Sopra No1 have its say? Just as with the Revels, I found the DALIs’ quality of reproduction of Norah Jones’s voice closer to what I heard through the Sopra No1s than to the Chora 806es. Again, there was no doubt that the Sopras produced more air around Jones, whose image was more three-dimensional -- but by only a bit. And the Sopras matched the DALIs’ lively midrange presence, which had me preferring the Focals’ sound overall -- but at 5.5 times the DALIs’ price. The tiny Menuet SE punches high.

I ended my speaker showdown with a completely different sort of music: “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” from AC/DC’s Back in Black (16/44.1 FLAC, Atco). This well-recorded rock track has plenty of layering in its complex arrangement of rhythm- and lead-guitar riffs. In round one, the DALIs defeated the Focal Chora 806es in bass tightness, as well as detail retrieval in the layers and structures of the guitars that emerge full force at 0:46. Through the DALIs, I could simply hear everything better. But the Focals again edged out the DALIs in bass fullness and extension, and by the slimmest of margins in terms of shimmer and extension of cymbal crashes. (But this may just have been my preference for the sound of a good metal-dome tweeter like the one in the Chora 806, vs. the Menuet SE’s silk dome. Your mileage may vary.)

DALI

I then listened to my Sopra No1s, then again to the Menuet SEs, focusing on the reproduction of the complex guitar arrangement near the beginning of the AC/DC track. No question -- the far more expensive Sopras carved out even more detail than the DALIs. Through the Focals I could hear the room reverb surrounding the guitar recorded at hard right, but less so through the DALIs. Bass not only went deeper with the Sopras, it had more punch and overall output.

I then brought in the Revel M126Be’s, which pretty much equaled the Sopra No1s in detail retrieval and transparency through the midrange, but lost to them in bass authority and output and vocal presence. Those two speakers were closest in quality, as you’d expect for their high prices. But just as I’d heard with the minimalist Norah Jones track, I felt that, in their finesse and retrieval of midrange detail, the little Menuet SEs were closer to the more expensive M126Be and Sopra No1 than to the cheaper Chora 806. And once again, when focusing on Brian Johnson’s gritty vocals, I found in the Menuet SEs that extra bit of palpable presence that I so enjoy from my Sopra No1s. When it came to absolute bass extension and high output, the Menuet SE was limited -- but in almost every other way, it hit way above the budget-speaker league.

Conclusion

At just 520 cubic inches, DALI’s tiny Menuet SE can’t do it all. While its bass is surprisingly ample for its small size, you should try a different menu if your appetite runs to deep bass and playback levels in excess of 90dB. But if you want a very compact, beautiful, stylish -- and, most important, incredible-sounding -- speaker to use in a smaller listening room or a well-appointed study, office, or formal living space, don’t overlook the Menuet SE. Among its strengths are refined-sounding highs and a transparent, highly detailed, reach-out-and-touch-it midrange -- on all of those grounds, I was amazed how favorably it compared with Revel’s more expensive M126Be and Focal’s far more expensive Sopra No1, something I hadn’t thought possible when I first unboxed the DALIs.

DALI

DALI’s Menuet SE is one Special Edition that really is special, in both looks and sound. If what I’ve described here appeals to you, seek out a pair. Its obvious limitations aside, you might be as surprised as I was at how so small a speaker can sound so good. But hurry -- DALI won’t be making them for that long.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Focal Chora 806 and Sopra No1, Revel M126Be
  • Subwoofer -- SVS SB-4000 (2)
  • Preamplifier-DAC -- McIntosh Laboratory C47
  • Power amplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory MC302
  • Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 316BEE
  • Crossover -- Marchand Electronics XM446XLR-A (between preamp and amp)
  • Room-correction EQ -- miniDSP DDRC-22D with Dirac Live 2.0 (between digital sources and DAC)
  • Digital sources -- Rotel RCD-991 CD player, Bluesound Node streamer, Microsoft Surface Pro 6 laptop computer running Windows 10, Roon
  • Analog sources -- Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Carbon Esprit turntable with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
  • Speaker cables -- homemade, with 12AWG oxygen-free copper conductors and locking banana plugs
  • Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics (unbalanced, RCA), Monoprice Premier (balanced, XLR)
  • Digital link -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)

DALI Menuet SE Loudspeakers
Price: $1799 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

DALI A/S
Dali Allé 1
9610 Nørager
Denmark
Phone: +45 9672-1155

Website: www.dali-speakers.com