Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.

GoldenEar Technology, founded in 2010 by Sandy Gross and Don Givogue, is known for offering superb-sounding, high-value loudspeakers based on, er, sound engineering principles. Recently, GoldenEar was sold to the Quest Group, run by Bill Low, which also owns AudioQuest, a company that sells mostly speaker cables, interconnects, and power-related products.

GoldenEar’s philosophy has always been to design and build speakers that, per the company’s website, “sound like nothing except what is being played through them.” Of course, we’re still a long way from perfectly transparent speakers that sound precisely like real instruments, but I appreciate GoldenEar’s design goal -- it tells me that I should expect from their speakers low distortion, as well as flat frequency response on and off axis.

Enter a new GoldenEar model: the two-way, stand-mounted Bookshelf Reference X, or BRX ($1598/pair, all prices USD). The BRX and its siblings, the Aon 2 ($898/pair) and Aon 3 ($1098/pair), are billed by GoldenEar as “exceptionally compact, ultra-high performance bookshelf speakers.”

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I’ve heard other GoldenEar speakers -- including, in SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider’s listening room, the mighty Triton One.R floorstander. I walked away impressed. But the BRX offered me my first opportunity to hear a pair of GoldenEars in my own room, and I was excited.

Description

At 12.1”H x 8.1”W x 12.3”D and 12 pounds, the Bookshelf Reference X is small and light -- but that doesn’t prevent it from having two drivers and two side-mounted passive radiators. The lower half of the front baffle, and then some, is occupied by a 6” midrange-woofer with a cast basket. The proprietary shape of its cone was optimized through computer modeling, and it’s driven by a high-gauss magnet and a 1”-diameter, high-temperature, Kapton-former voice-coil, for extended, resonance-free, linear frequency response, says GoldenEar. This hands off to a High-Velocity Folded Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter -- a type of Air Motion Transformer (AMT). GE describes the HVFR’s action as pressurizing air into soundwaves by squeezing it instead of pushing it forward, with the results of greater control, smoother and more extended response, and vanishingly low distortion. The BRX has no port(s); instead, most of each side panel is taken up by a 6.5” planar passive radiator, which GoldenEar says is pressure-couple-loaded to extend the bass and perform like a well-tuned transmission line, but with better control and thus better reproduction of transients.

The top of the BRX is convex, and all edges and corners are slightly rounded, with no mitered joins. The side panels aren’t parallel -- the BRX’s sides taper inward slightly toward the front, making the baffle narrower than the rear panel. That rear panel sports a pair of quality five-way binding posts; the speaker sits on four little rubber feet.

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There are no color options -- the BRX comes in gloss-black paint, period. The metal grilles covering the passive radiators don’t seem easily removable. The metal front grille, designed to be left on for listening, is magnetically attached for easy removal. It rests flush with and on a ledge that protrudes from the bottom of the baffle. Because of this ledge, the BRXes, to my eyes, looked better with their grilles on, so that’s how I left them for all my listening. That said, I don’t much like the look of metal grilles, which remind me of a 1980s boom box -- I’d rather have cloth. But that’s my only complaint about the BRX’s fit’n’finish, which was first-rate for the price.

The BRX has a specified frequency range of 40Hz-35kHz, a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, and a sensitivity of 90dB/2.83V/m. The recommended amplification is 20-250Wpc.

Setup

Each Bookshelf Reference X came packed in its own carton, with its instruction manual and grille. Because the BRX is so short, GoldenEar recommends placing it atop a 30”-high stand, to put the tweeter at the height of the listener’s ears when seated. My Focal Sopra No1 stands are only 24” high, so I made up the difference with thick books. The speaker positions and my listening chair described a 9’ equilateral triangle; the GoldenEars’ rear panels were 19” from the front wall, and each outer side panel was 2.5’ from the nearer sidewall.

I settled on my usual 15° of toe-in, which was in line with the suggestion in the BRX manual. This yielded precise, tightly focused imaging.

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My dedicated listening room is relatively small (15’L x 12’W x 8’H), and treated with broadband absorption at the first-reflection points on the sidewalls and on the long wall behind the speakers. A homemade bass trap sits in each front corner. I connected the GoldenEars to my NAD C 316BEE integrated amp (40Wpc into 8 ohms) using homemade speaker cables with conductors of 12-gauge, oxygen-free copper terminated with banana plugs. The source was a Bluesound Node 2i streamer and its internal DAC, connected to the NAD’s line-level, unbalanced inputs (RCA) with AmazonBasics interconnects. The Node also served as an endpoint for the Roon software installed on my Microsoft Surface Pro 6 laptop computer. I played music streamed from Tidal, and from my library of FLAC files ripped from CDs and stored on a NAS.

Sound

After letting the BRXes break in for several hours, I began with hard-hitting rock: “Like a Stone,” from Audioslave (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Epic/Qobuz). This track begins with kick drum and a simple electric-guitar arrangement at left; nine seconds later, when the bass guitar enters, my first thought was how punchy these little speakers sounded, with taut, quick bass I could feel in my chest. I could easily distinguish from each other the sounds of the bass guitar and drums, even if each plucked bass note didn’t go quite as deep as I’m accustomed to hearing from my two subwoofers -- but even floorstanding speakers aren’t up to what my subs can do in this department.

At 0:17, when Chris Cornell begins to sing, I was struck by the GoldenEars’ combination of presence, imaging precision, and smoothness. The tightly focused image of Cornell’s voice floated above and slightly behind the speakers. The BRXes were also evenhanded -- in a word, neutral: no part of the audioband sounded over- or under-emphasized. When the chorus begins at 0:55, I was assaulted by a complex, layered, detailed wall of sound. And the BRXes maintained their composure when I played “Like a Stone” relatively loud (I measured 90-95dB SPL, C-weighted), cleanly retrieving all of the details that I know this very familiar track contains. I could hear the rhythm guitar as separate from the lead guitar, the drums from the bass guitar, and Cornell’s voice above all the well-recorded mayhem.

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I kept playing the Audioslave track, gradually increasing the volume, until the NAD integrated’s protection circuits kicked in. This surprised me -- no other pair of minimonitors had ever caused the NAD to give up. But the NAD C 316BEE is specified to output only 40Wpc into 8 ohms -- it’s not exactly a powerhouse. A warning: While the Bookshelf Reference X’s clean, neutral sound might tempt you to turn the volume up and up, as I did, for bass-heavy music you might want to use an amp that puts out at least 100Wpc. I let the little NAD cool off, then got back to listening.

Next came something more delicate and nuanced: “I’ve Got to See You Again,” from Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me (24/192 FLAC, Blue Note/Qobuz), which begins with acoustic piano spread across the right half of the soundstage. The BRXes nailed the leading-edge attacks, and the subtle ringing audible in the decays. The tonal balance seemed spot on -- the piano sounded like a piano, as I’m used to hearing from my reference system, if with less weight in the lower notes.

In this track there’s also a violin at center stage, and gentle cymbal strokes to the left, both distantly recorded. With their excellent portrayal of soundstage depth, the GoldenEars nailed these, too. Jones’s voice was locked in at center stage, high above the tops of the speakers, each sultry breath and inflection laid bare. On this album Jones can sound too sibilant through brighter-sounding speakers, but she didn’t through the BRXes -- her voice was smooth, with reach-out-and-touch-it transparency. She never sounded too dry, and her sibilants -- her s sounds -- never irritated by being overemphasized. And beginning at 0:43, the BRXes reproduced the very subtle brushed cymbal at hard right with nimble delicacy, nice extension in space, and long, airy decays.

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From the plucked guitar set back at center stage that begins the title track of Colin James’s National Steel (16/44.1 FLAC, Rhino), and the second guitar up front and to the right of center, I heard none of the sullying of the sound from the BRXes’ cabinets that is often the Achilles’ heel of lower-priced speakers. The leading edge of each plucked note had bite, then floated in the air, divorced from the cabinets, to decay slowly into the defined spaces carved out between and behind the speakers. James’s voice, which enters at 0:16, had authoritative presence, with rich and robust body -- and, just like the guitar images, seemed to float freely in space above the speakers, with superb transparency. I could also hear and feel James’s slow and chesty breathing, his hard and incisively raspy inflections and enunciation, his subtle intakes of breath -- it was all there for me to relish. The distant and subtle cymbal strokes at left of center were reproduced with nuance, sounding airy and light without ever accentuating this part of the audioband. Norm Fisher’s bass guitar had quick solidity through the BRXes, without sloppy overhang or bloat -- what I felt and heard was tidy and tight.

Comparisons: Focal Chora 806 and Revel M126B

I compared the GoldenEar Bookshelf Reference X with two other minimonitor models, Focal’s Chora 806 ($990/pair) and Revel’s M126Be ($4000/pair), after first matching the levels of all three pairs of speakers using pink noise and an SPL meter. The sensitivities of the GoldenEars and Revels were about the same, the Focals about 1dB higher; I made the appropriate volume adjustment whenever I swapped speakers, which I was able to do in 30-45 seconds.

Overall, the BRXes’ sound was closer to that of the far pricier Revels than the less-expensive Focals. But I’ll start with where the BRXes fell short of the two other speakers.

I compared the speakers’ bass extension using some hip-hop: “Collard Greens,” from ScHoolBoy Q’s Oxymoron (16/44.1 FLAC, Interscope/Qobuz). The cheapest speakers, the Focals, took this prize, the GoldenEars coming in last. While the Revels and GoldenEars both had quicker, punchier bass, the greater volume of the Focals’ larger cabinets yielded fuller bass that I could feel just a bit more in my seat during this track’s introduction, which features pulsing, punchy, extended synth bass. This perception persisted as I listened, despite the fact that I’d already measured all three speakers with my miniDSP UMIK-1 microphone, averaged the readings I took at nine different positions at and around my listening seat, and knew that all three were very close in terms of their measured in-room -3dB point: between 33 and 34Hz.

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I then compared all three speakers using “National Steel,” which I often use to evaluate a component’s transparency. The BRXes finished in the middle, easily ahead of the Chora 806es, mostly because of the latter’s cabinet resonances, and just behind the M126Be’s, from which I heard none of that. The Revels also offered a bit more sting of leading-edge attacks of guitar strings than did the GoldenEars -- but unlike their prices, it was very close.

When I focused on James’s voice, through the Focals it sounded more robust and meaty, but again less transparent, than through the other two speaker pairs. The tonal balance and overall character of male voices through the BRX and M126Be were extremely close -- though when his singing turned loud and hard, it did sound slightly smoother through the pricier Revels. In terms of imaging precision, the BRXes’ and M126Be’s’ spacious soundstages and tightly focused images were on a par; here the Choras came in last, with bigger images that were thus less precise and less well defined.

Similar patterns emerged when I compared these speakers using Norah Jones’s “I’ve Got to See You Again.” Her piano was crystal clear through the GoldenEars and Revels, somewhat less so through the Focals, though the Chora 806es did reproduce the lower notes with more satisfying weight. Again, the differences in piano sound between the BRXes and M126Be’s were much smaller than the differences I heard between the Chora 806es and either other speaker pair, though the costlier Revels did squeeze out the more realistically bell-like ring.

The reproductions of Jones’s voice by the GoldenEars and Revels were eerily similar -- virtually equal transparency, a hair more presence from the GoldenEars, but a hair more liquidity and smoothness from the Revels when James’s singing hardens. The reproduction of the treble by all three speakers was very close, with pleasing, neutral highs -- as was confirmed by my measurement of a gentle, -0.5dB/octave frequency-response slope from 1 to 10kHz for each of them. However, when I focused on the brushed cymbal to right of center in “I’ve Got to See You Again,” the GoldenEar fell just behind the other two -- through the BRXes’ HVFR tweeters, the cymbal sounded a bit less airy and delicate than through the other speakers’ domes.

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Audioslave’s “Like a Stone” is hard-hitting rock, and I played it fairly loud through all three pairs of speakers (I measured peaks of 95dB, C-weighted). I first compared the GoldenEar BRXes with the Focal Chora 806es. The bass was punchier and faster through the GoldenEars, fuller and more extended through the Focals. I could feel the opening bass-guitar notes more through the Choras, but the kick drum had more impact and speed through the BRXes. The dense, complex chorus sounded cleaner through the BRXes -- I could listen through more layers of the multiple electric guitars. Even when played loud, the BRXes’ sound was composed and balanced -- no part of the audioband poked from the mix to call attention to itself.

I then compared the GoldenEars with the pricier Revels. Unsurprisingly, and in most ways, the Revels reproduced “Like a Stone” just a bit better. The two models were on a par in terms of bass speed and punch, but the M126Be’s went deeper. As for clean, composed retrieval of detail, the Revels let me hear a bit more structure and delineation in the complex arrangement for multiple guitars. However, as with the other tracks, the two speakers’ tonal balances sounded eerily close, and the overall sound of the BRXes not too far behind the M126Be’s -- amazing, as the BRX costs only 40% the Revel’s price.

Conclusion

While GoldenEar offers no choice of finish for the Bookshelf Reference X -- it’s gloss black or nothing -- and the speaker’s overall appearance borders on plain, the BRX’s fit’n’finish is first-rate, and a pair of them should easily blend into most listening rooms or home theaters. No doubt more important to most of our readers, this minimonitor sounds superb. For its size and price, the BRX does nothing truly wrong, and almost everything very right.

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These little workhorses provided precise aural images on large soundstages that belied their modest size. The bass was quick and taut, the midrange and top end neutral and revealing, always with enough vocal presence to keep me engaged. The BRX compared favorably with Revel’s M126Be, a minimonitor highly regarded for its accuracy and transparency, and which costs 2.5 times as much. If you’re looking for a pair of small stand-mounted speakers for $1500/pair or even up to $3000/pair, and you covet speed, neutrality, and transparency, give GoldenEar Technology’s Bookshelf Reference X a listen.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstage.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Focal Chora 806, Revel Performa M126Be
  • Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 316BEE
  • Digital sources -- Bluesound Node 2i streamer, Microsoft Surface Pro 6 laptop computer running Windows 10, Roon
  • Speaker cables -- homemade, with conductors of 12-gauge, oxygen-free copper (locking banana plugs)
  • Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics unbalanced (RCA), Monoprice Premier balanced (XLR)
  • Digital link -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)

GoldenEar Technology Bookshelf Reference X Loudspeakers
Price: $1598 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

The Quest Group dba GoldenEar Technology
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
Phone: (949) 790-6000

E-mail: support@goldenear.com
Website: www.goldenear.com