Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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To GoodSound!,

I am starting to upgrade my 15-year-old stereo. I have some Polks, a Yamaha receiver, and a CD player from Denon. I want to upgrade my speakers first. Is Polk Audio still a good name? What other brands should I be shopping for? I'm not sure about my budget yet. I might be willing to spend $1000.

Thank you,

You can get quite good speakers for $1000. Polk is still reputable, and you might have seen that we recently reviewed the smaller of their two flagship-model speakers, the LSiM705. There are other manufacturers who are pushing the boundaries of what to expect at that price point, however. GoldenEar Technologies' Aon 3 very much impressed Doug Schneider not only for its overall sound quality, but also for its bass output, which was excellent for a bookshelf. Having spent a good deal of time with GoldenEar's larger Triton Three, I suspect the $1000 Aon 3 is the proverbial chip off the old block. Slightly above your $1000 price range is Definitive Technologies' $1198 BP-8020ST, a bipolar tower speaker with a powered bass driver. I am due to receive a pair for review any day now, and on paper, at least, they look promising. Fittingly, each of the three companies mentioned here was founded by the same individual, Sandy Gross, and it's no surprise that each brand has a loyal following. Whether you stick with Polks, perhaps something like the RTiA7, or follow up on either of my other suggestions, I think you'll be happy you upgraded. Speaker design, and resultant sound quality, has come a long way in the past 15 years. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I'm in the market for a new digital-to-analog converter (DAC). The Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 seems like a safe bet. Is it? Any others you'd recommend for $1000?

Jim S.

As an owner of Benchmark's DAC1 USB, I am probably biased in agreeing with you. The original DAC1 (sans USB input) is getting a bit old, but despite its age, it's still a terrific product that will reveal more detail in your music collection than you'd expect for the price. That said, it's interesting that you framed it as a "safe bet." As it's aged, a raft of competing, less-expensive DACs have flooded the market, and many of them are very competent designs. If the competition hasn't caught up to the high standards of the Benchmark, they have substantially closed the gap, and the DAC1's "personality" is now more of a consideration to buyers. This personality, a kind of shockingly clean and wide-open sound, marked by a slight tonal coolness and a slight hardness in the high-frequency range, stands in contrast to most other DACs I've heard. Without further information about your system, I'd have a few suggestions that should run the gamut. Musical Fidelity's M1DAC, which I reviewed earlier this year, offers a far more relaxed and easygoing sound, standing in stark contrast to the DAC1, and at $749, is cheaper, though ultimately less resolving than the Benchmark. I'd also suggest looking at AudioEngine's D2 wireless DACCambridge Audio's Azur DacMagic Plus, and Peachtree Audio's iDac, each of which offers features that you might find appealing. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Thanks for the great reviews. I read somewhere that you own the Mirage OMD-28s, but that you have the GoldenEar Triton Threes in for review. When is that review being published? I can buy some OMD-28s used, but I want to know what you have to say about the Threes. Anything you can tell me?


I have only had the Triton Threes for a month, so I don't want to say too much without further listening. Generally, I think they offer very high performance for their $2000 asking price. Their High Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter is both smooth and revealing, and the powered bass section opens the door to potentially using low-powered amplifiers. I think they would work best in small to medium-sized rooms. Look for a review in October.

The Mirages are lovely, both in appearance and performance, but very high maintenance. In order to sing, they require at least 2-4' from the front wall, and ideally need to be placed equally far from the sidewalls, due to their omnidirectional dispersion pattern. As a result, they are best suited to a larger listening room. They also demand a fair bit of power and current. I found that the bass section, which is very near full range, will sound noticeably tighter when there is a lot of power behind it. Having recently spent a half hour or so with GoldenEar's larger Triton Two loudspeakers, I think they compare more favorably to the Mirages than the Triton Threes, which in comparison don't produce quite as much sonic size or deep bass. In a smaller room, I would suggest either of the GoldenEar models over the Mirages, as their bass output can be adjusted via a knob on their rear panels, and the Three's smaller enclosure and less powerful amplifier won't be pushed beyond its limits. In a larger room with proper positioning, however, the Mirages should shine, and I suspect only the Triton Twos would be able to offer a comparable experience in terms of outright volume, soundstage scale, and bass extension. . . . Hans Wetzel

Hi GoodSound!,

I am in the market for a pair of floorstanding speakers in the $2000-$2500 range and, after quite a bit of Internet research, I have narrowed my choices down to Aperion's Verus Grand Tower and KEF's R500. I have a large room (22' x 22', with a vaulted ceiling) and intend to drive them with an integrated amp in the 120-160W range. My top considerations are currently Cambridge Audio's new Azur 851A and NAD's C 390DD. Any plans to review either of these amps in the near future?

I was initially sold on the Aperions based on many top reviews, most namely GoodSound!'s, and their no-hassle return policy. However, the latest review of the KEFs in SoundStage! Hi-Fi has me strongly considering them. I prefer the looks of the KEFs and was raised on my father's 104/2s, a sound I loved. Unfortunately, there are no KEF dealers in my state and their direct-buy return policy would cost me shipping both ways, plus a 15% restocking fee if I decide not to keep them. So I'm hoping you can shed some light on the sound-quality differences I might find between the two speakers. Are the KEFs worth the extra $800? I primarily listen to rock and some classic jazz.

Thanks for your help!


You've narrowed your search down to two excellent speakers, which have been reviewed by two of our most experienced reviewers, with Jeff Fritz having written on the Aperions, and Doug Schneider on the KEFs. Jeff's Music Vault is usually occupied by state-of-the-art speakers, and Doug's reference Revel Salon2s were considered state-of-the-art performers when they were released a few years ago.

Your large room and fondness for rock possibly complicates your decision, as 120-160W will likely be necessary to fill your room with loud, distortion-free music. (Colin Smith currently has the C 390DD in for review, but we don't have Cambridge's 851A, at least not yet.) Both speakers look to play clean and loud, which certainly counts in your favor, but I suspect the Aperions, with their bigger bass drivers and lower-specified bass response, will give you a slightly deeper and more robust bottom-end. I don't think the difference will be profound, however.

What an additional $800 gets you in the R500 is a trickle-down pedigree from KEF's $30,000/pair Blade loudspeaker. I recently heard the Blade at an audio show, and it's a deeply impressive design, with superlative imaging capabilities thanks in large part to its Uni-Q coaxial driver. Doug does not often wax poetic about a piece of audio equipment, nor is he prone to being casually hyperbolic, so his comparing the $2600 KEF R500s to his almost ten-times more expensive Revel Salon2 reference speakers is noteworthy to say the least.

In light of your affinity for the R500's appearance and house sound, per your growing up with the 104/2s, I would suggest moving for the KEFs, which, as Doug says, are "great sounding speaker[s] by any measure." Odds are you will be highly satisfied with them. If the worry of not liking them is too great, however, why not exercise Aperion's no-risk guarantee, with shipping charges being covered both ways? If you keep them, you save $800, and if not, you won't spend a dime. Either way, you're assuredly getting a terrific pair of loudspeakers. . . . Hans Wetzel

Dear GoodSound!,

I have a bit of a predicament in trying to choose a pair of front speakers. My setup combines home theater and PC, so my center-channel speaker must be a size that won't inhibit my workspace and view. I have chosen the MartinLogan Motion 8 center speaker, so naturally I chose the MartinLogan Motion 40s for the front and MartinLogan Motion 4s for the rears.

Complicating things, I have the opportunity to purchase a pair of Dynaudio Excite X32s at a very attractive price, for much less than the MartinLogan Motion 40s. I know they are better quality and at this price it is silly not to go with the Dynaudios.

My question is: Will having the MartinLogan Motions inhibit the quality of the Dynaudios by not being voice matched?

Michael H.

Unfortunately, I don't have personal experience with either the MartinLogan Motion 40s or the Dynaudio Excite X32s. However, I currently have in for review a pair of GoldenEar Technology Triton Threes which have a High-Velocity Folded Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter, a driver that is very similar to MartinLogan's Folded Motion Tweeter. I also used to own a pair of Dynaudio Contour floorstanders that had a very similar design to the Excite X32s that you mention. If MartinLogan's Folded Motion Tweeter is anything like the GoldenEars' HVFR tweeter, I think you could be very happy with the MartinLogan system that you've chosen. 

Regarding the Dynaudios, you're right to question if it's wise to have the soft-dome tweeters of the Excite X32s flanking the Folded Ribbon tweeter of the MartinLogan Motion 8 center speaker. It wouldn't be a terrible-sounding mix, but it also wouldn't be uniform. An all-Dynaudio or all-MartinLogan setup would probably be the wiser choice in the long run. There's no wrong answer here in terms of quality, so the question then becomes which set of speakers you like better. Good luck! . . . Hans Wetzel

Hi GoodSound!,

I just bought an Anthem Integrated 225. Could you please suggest some "ideal" floorstanding speakers that will complement this? My budget is around $2000 for a pair.

The Dali IKON 7 MK2 was recommended to me. Would Dali IKON 6 and their sub be a better option? Any other suggestions? It's for my residence. The room size is about 18' x 15'.


I unfortunately do not have any experience with Dali's products, but they may well be very good. Considering your room size and the listed specifications for the IKON 7 MK2, they seem like suitable partners to your Anthem integrated, which is powerful enough to drive just about anything to an uncomfortably loud degree. One aspect of the Dali that gives me pause would be the use of both a ribbon and a traditional dome tweeter in the same design. Each has a different set of geometric, material, and dispersion characteristics that, at least on paper, make me wonder how uniform its high-frequency reproduction is. They may be superb, but I thought it worth mentioning. As for the IKON 6 and subwoofer combination, I would probably forgo such a setup unless you have specific room or furniture issues to consider. While it's a way to get good sound with potentially deep bass, the extra few hertz at the bottom end often come at the expense of compromised linearity, directionality, and dispersion issues. 

Aside from the IKON 7 MK2, I would have a few suggestions. Aperion Audio's Verus Grand Tower is around $1,800/pair and comes with a 30-day money-back-guarantee, which is a convenient and risk-free option. Reviewer Jeff Fritz's listening room is often occupied by speakers that cost an order of magnitude higher than $2000, and he was very fond of the Aperions. You might also check out Paradigm's Studio 60, as Anthem and Paradigm are sister companies. The 60s should be within your budget. Lastly, I would suggest looking at GoldenEar Technology's Triton Three, which sells for $999.99/each. I recently got a pair in for review, and while they may not have the attractive, lacquered finish of the other speakers discussed here, they offer a lot of performance for the money. Look for a full review of this speaker in the future. . . . Hans Wetzel

To GoodSound!,

I have 2000 CDs and my CD player broke. I'm torn -- do I buy another CD player or do I use a computer and a DAC? Everyone is going with computers, but I prefer playing discs. Besides, none of my discs is ripped. Any suggestions? Any brands you'd recommend for CD players if I stick with one?


The opportunity before you is one that you may not fancy up front, but will probably be grateful for adopting. Computer-based audio is definitely becoming more and more popular. The reason for its popularity is not just its convenience, but also because it sounds better. Taking a spinning CD and laser out of the musical-playback equation reduces jitter, one of many obstacles in getting the best sound out of your system. Getting a DAC with an asynchronous USB connection will ensure that jitter is a non-issue. Predictably, then, my suggestion would be to look into the computer-DAC tandem, since you're at a crossroads anyway. A laptop and a DAC could be had for well south of $1000, allowing you to use the laptop as a CD player while you slowly but surely rip your collection into the digital domain. My brothers and I have all found ourselves in your position in the recent past, and not one of us regrets making the transition to computer-based audio.

I'm not sure what kind of budget you have, but if you wind up sticking with a CD player, I'd suggest taking a look at Arcam, Cambridge Audio, NAD, Oppo Digital, and TEAC. Cambridge Audio's Azur 851C looks particularly interesting for someone in your position, as you could use it as a CD player, DAC, and digital preamplifier. Let us know what route you wind up taking. . . . Hans Wetzel

Hello GoodSound!,

I have a budget of about $2000 to spend on my amp and preamp. Should I get separates or an integrated amplifier?


Ten years ago, separates would have been the only way to go, as integrateds were somewhat frowned upon in the high-end-audio scene. Having two chassis has its benefits, as separating the amplifier section from the preamplifier section can cut down on electromagnetic noise. Integrateds are much more common these days, however, and often very good. The fact that some integrateds come with a built-in digital-to-analog converter makes them even more compelling.

I can't be sure of what exactly you're looking for with regards to your system, but I would probably suggest going with an integrated because of the simplicity and requiring less cabling to get quality sound. There are a variety of companies that make highly competent designs that fit a variety of needs. Without more information, I would suggest starting your search with Creek, Musical Fidelity, NAD, Peachtree Audio and Wyred 4 Sound. These are just a few, however. Let us know if we can be of more assistance. . . . Hans Wetzel

Hello GoodSound!,

I am looking to replace a pair of 20-plus-year-old Canadian-made, two-way, standmounted Energy Reference 22 loudspeakers for my two-channel stereo system used mostly for rock, pop, blues, folk, and an occasional movie. I purchased these speakers used in the early '90s and I believe they retailed for about $900 CDN per pair in their day.

Here is what I like about these old speakers:

1) To my ears these speakers have a very smooth and non-fatiguing quality, almost sweet. In their day (late '80s/early '90s), I recall that their tweeter was well regarded.

2) Considering their moderate size, they can play rather deep bass frequencies. An old spec sheet indicates a low-end -3dB point of 28Hz, which seems quite impressive compared to the data listed for most of today's speakers, floorstanders included. I very much like that they can play so deep and, therefore, do not need a subwoofer.

3) They are fairly forgiving of room placement (wall boundaries, etc). Supposedly something to do with being front ported?

4) Despite my listening (living) room being on the smaller side (about 16' wide x 11.5' deep x 8' high (approx. 1500 cubic feet) and my sitting position being only about 8' away, these speakers don't overpower me or the room at sane listening levels.

For me, their main negative point is not being particularly sensitive at 86dB (which is probably a rather optimistic rating), given that they are being driven with a somewhat smaller 50Wpc Simaudio Moon I-1 integrated amp (100Wpc-capable for 4-ohm loads). My sources are a Simaudio CD-1 CD player and Oppo Digital BDP-95 universal player.

After writing all this background info, here are my questions:

1) Might anyone at GoodSound! or SoundStage! have any prior experience with these older Energy Ref 22s and have any advice on current speaker brands and models that might be worth investigating as suitable replacements, given what I like about these old speakers as well as my present amplifier and listening-room sizes? My price range would be roughly around $1000 to $3000 CDN (before taxes).

2) Given my room size and listening distance from the speakers, would floorstanding speakers possibly be too much? Would they likely overpower the room, or not have space to properly radiate their sound? Would stand-mount speakers be the better direction to pursue?


While I don't have any personal experience with your Energy speakers, I am glad they gave you such enjoyment over the past 20 years. It's nice when you find a product that perfectly fits your needs. Finding a high-performance replacement for them shouldn't be too tough, however, as speaker design has come a long way since you purchased these. Given your room size and desire for a near-full-range speaker, I think a floorstanding speaker would be your best bet. Your budget of $1000-$3000 CDN is a perfect amount to spend, with the $2000 CDN price point being a consumer sweet spot.

You mentioned you are fond of your Energy's smooth and almost sweet character. PSB's $2000 Imagine T loudspeaker might work well for you, as two SoundStage! Network writers were very fond of the larger T2, and the entry-level Mini bookshelf. While the Imagine T might be a little bass-shy for your tastes, PSB speakers are well-built, measure remarkably well, and one of our writers described the Imagine midrange as "smooth" four times in a single paragraph! Another option in the same mold could be Aperion Audio's $1800 Verus Grand Tower, which our editor-in-chief so favorably reviewed last year, comparing them to far more expensive speakers. Aperion's 30-day money-back guarantee, with free shipping both ways, is a risk-free possibility for you.

Beyond these, there are a few other speakers with different designs and strengths that I would suggest looking into: Definitive Technology's 8040ST and 8060ST, Focal's Chorus 826V, GoldenEar Technology's Triton Three (which I'll be reviewing soon) and Triton Two, and Monitor Audio's RX8. This is by no means an exhaustive list, as there are many competent designs that could potentially fit your needs, but hopefully it will at least give you an idea of what's available. In light of your Simaudio integrated amplifier and Oppo universal player, however, I bet you'll be pretty satisfied irrespective of what speakers you wind up with. Let us know how your search goes! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I am going to be purchasing a pair of bookshelf speakers and have narrowed my search to two sets: Energy CB-20 or the GoldenEar Aon 3. Do you have a preference? I am interested solely in sound quality. Regardless of the pair selected, I am going to be supplementing them with a sub.

I appreciate any insight you could give!

Brad H.

Energy makes some very good speakers for the money, as demonstrated by our review of the RC-10 back in 2006, and the CB-20 that you mention in 2009. It's interesting, though, that you have narrowed your search down to the CB-20s, which are $350 per pair, and the Aon 3s, which are $1000 per pair.

In terms of outright performance, the Aon 3 that Doug Schneider recently reviewed is the easy answer. Its folded-ribbon tweeter, 7" bass driver, and pair of 8" passive radiators makes for a compelling, if unconventional package. The Aon 3 will likely produce a larger, more robust sound than the CB-20 due to its larger cabinet and more capable drivers. Its treble will likely sound a bit "airier" and the bass will be noticeably deeper and tighter than the Energy's. All in all, the Aon will cost you almost three times as much as the Energy, but will probably provide a commensurate increase in performance. The best part of the Aon 3 is that it goes low enough that you might not see a need for a subwoofer.

If you're dead set on getting an accompanying subwoofer, however, I would probably go with the Energy CB-20. They're a capable set of bookshelf speakers that, with the right sub, can probably get you deeper bass than the Aon 3, and for less money to boot. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Your statement that the substitution of the Nordost Blue Heaven speaker cable for the AudioEngine 5+-supplied cable achieved better sound for the entire system somewhat puzzled me. Since the left speaker is directly connected to its built-in amp and then to whatever feeds a signal to the amp, doesn't the Blue Heaven speaker cable only influence the sound of the right speaker and possibly improve it? Wouldn't that result in an imbalance of sound quality between the two speakers?

I own the AudioEngine 5+ and a Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus and would love to better the sound. I did purchase better interconnect cables and a USB cable, but I hesitate getting a better speaker cable based on what seems illogical. Yet you say you got better sound with a single better speaker cable. Any idea why you got better sound? What am I missing here?

Alan Margolies

You are not missing anything, Allen. I tried a run of my Nordost Blue Heaven speaker cable very late in the review process, on a whim more than anything else, so I was surprised to hear such an apparent improvement in sound. My thinking at the time mirrored yours, but I decided to include the results, since the cable change made a dramatic difference. In retrospect, I should have been more diligent in listening for differences in quality between the two speakers. The folks at Audioengine confirmed for me that the quality of the cable connecting the amp to the drivers in the powered left speaker is comparable in quality to the included speaker wire meant to connect the active left speaker to the passive right speaker. Accordingly, I suspect you're right in thinking that my Blue Heaven swap only improved the sound from the right speaker. With that said, however, the sound did not strike me as unbalanced with the Nordost cable in place.

Regardless, I hope you are enjoying your system. I've heard nothing but good things about the DacMagic Plus, and I obviously know firsthand about the qualities of the A5+. . . . Hans Wetzel