Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

In spring 2013 I was looking to buy a pair of loudspeakers in KEF’s R series, and was dead set on the top model: the R900 ($4999.98 USD per pair). “You should get the R700s,” SoundStage! Network founder Doug Schneider told me. I demurred. The R700 ($3599.98/pair) is smaller, but my studio apartment was roughly 30’L x 20’W x 12’H, and I was sure the R900s wouldn’t overpower the living-room area. I bought a pair of R900s finished in a mild shade of walnut.

Hans Wetzel

Well, it turned out that I couldn’t play my big new speakers very loudly. I had neighbors on both sides, separated from each by only a common wall, so I couldn’t make much use of the R900’s bass authority. But I also didn’t have significant room gain; on the rare occasions I could blast the R900s, they didn’t overload my room.

Doug was right: The right speaker for your listening space and life circumstances may not necessarily be the speaker you really want. But I couldn’t -- I still can’t -- conceive of buying anything less than the biggest model in a loudspeaker range. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. If I can afford it, why shouldn’t I purchase the one with the deepest bass response? I love bass. Most of the music I listen to these days has significant bass energy, and I don’t enjoy it nearly as much through my KEF LS50s when I hear only a hint of powerful midbass slam, and note a total absence of bass below 50Hz or so.

KEF R900sKEF R900s

I adored the R900s, but I made the mistake of selling them simply because I wanted to try something new: Definitive Technology’s Mythos ST-L ($4999.99/pair), a partly powered floorstander with full-range bass output. It was a calculated risk on my part -- I hadn’t heard them in person -- but fellow reviewer Roger Kanno, whose ears I trust, raved about them. While the ST-Ls were quite good, I never warmed to them as I had to the KEFs. Furthermore, I’d moved to a narrow city home, with a long, rectangular living room, and the ST-Ls easily overpowered my room. With bass-heavy music, fixtures rattled and the floor vibrated -- I could practically feel the walls flex. Above a certain volume, the ST-Ls, through no fault of their own, became pretty useless. It was too much speaker for my room, and I’d encountered the phenomenon for the first time. I wish I could say it was the last.

Late in summer 2015, a pair of Monitor Audio’s Bronze 6 floorstanders ($1099/pair) arrived on my doorstep. This 2.5-way design has three 6.5” woofers, the topmost of which also handles the midrange. I worried that having a total of six 6.5” drivers bouncing energy off my living room’s long wall, one foot behind them, would be overkill, as it had been with ST-Ls. I wound up plugging the Bronze 6es’ rear-facing bass-reflex ports to tame their bottom-end response, and was surprised at how good these speakers were. While they had tremendous slam and impact in the mid- to upper bass, their paucity of output below 40Hz actually proved beneficial. In these modestly priced speakers I’d found the ideal partners for my quirky room. They produced tight bass that dove low enough to satisfy my horrific taste in untz-untz-laden electronic music, but not low enough to excite my room’s multiple bass modes.

I should have bought the Bronze 6es then and there -- after all, I also loved their exciting tonal balance and strong imaging for the price. It would have been the sensible thing to do. Instead, I looked higher in the Monitor hierarchy, to their bigger and more expensive Silver line. The Silver 8 ($2000/pair) seemed the logical choice -- its dimensions are similar to those of the Bronze 6, and its three-way design comprises two 6” woofers, a 4” midrange driver, and a tweeter. So I said to Doug, “I think I’m going to spring for a pair of Silver 10s” ($2500/pair). I explained that I remembered his earlier advice, and that he may well have been right, but that I thought the Silver 10, with its two 8” woofers, could work. He laughed. I was quietly hopeful.

Monitor Audio Silver 10sMonitor Audio Silver 10s

What an idiot. It took all of an hour with the Monitor Silver 10s -- excellent speakers that in many ways remind me of the twice-the-price KEF R900s -- to discover that their substantial low- and midbass energy made my living room resonate like a tuning fork when I pushed them hard. Up to medium volumes -- say, 80dB -- they acquitted themselves nicely once I’d plugged their rear ports, so all was not lost. But I do rue not having purchased the Monitor Silver 8s.

In my audiophilic journey I have made multiple missteps. Had I actually listened to the advice of those who know better, I’d likely still be enjoying a pair of KEF R700s. They arguably would have better suited my old apartment, and would definitely fit the bill in my new space. I’ve bought three different pairs of speakers without first having heard any of them in person. Thanks to the Internet and a shrinking dealer base, I understand that this is now common practice, but still, it’s a foolish thing to do for such a substantial monetary investment. Finally, my ego has gotten in the way of what might otherwise have been straightforward buying decisions.

The unavoidable fact is that, in my current living arrangements, I can’t own -- or even review -- full on, American-sized speakers. It hurts my pride to admit that, but it’s my reality. I won’t make these mistakes again.

We audiophiles would do well to adopt the same approach to assembling our stereo systems that we’re counseled to take with our physicians and attorneys: The more honest we are, the better off we’ll be. Trust me on this -- I have proven myself incapable of taking my own advice, and it’s cost me.

Fourth time’s the charm?

. . . Hans Wetzel