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Three Brits and a Yank: A Comparison of Four Small, Inexpensive Speakers

 

NHT SuperOne

B&W DM302

Kef Q15

Kef Cresta2

 

It’s amazing how far speakers have come in the last few years.  For $300 to $400 list, it is possible to purchase a small bookshelf speaker with performance that hints at the high end.  This is a review of four such speakers – three of them British, and one American.  At this price point, there will be compromises – if there weren’t, there would be no market for more expensive speakers, which tend to have fewer compromises.  With a speaker of this minimal cost, the designer must make choices as to which qualities to emphasize and other qualities to play down.  Thus, which of the speakers is better or preferable becomes a matter of personal taste, so it is impossible to objectively declare one of them “best.”  Nevertheless, this review can help guide you to the strengths and weaknesses of each speaker, so that you can decide which qualities you yourself value more highly.  I will offer my own personal judgments about these differences, but of course other listeners may have different judgments.

 

NHT SuperOne

            This has been one of my favorite small, inexpensive speakers since its release a few years back.  It uses a 6 ½” woofer and a 1” fluid cooler soft dome tweeter.  It is small at 11.6 x 7.25 x 8.5 “.  It weighs 10 pounds.

Its strongest point is its harmonic accuracy and integrity; it has an appealing frequency response.  It is smooth and non-fatiguing.  Its midrange honesty is perhaps its major strength; the human voice sounds natural, and the difference in the sound of an oboe and a clarinet is portrayed clearly.  This is a listenable, and refined, speaker. 

Its other major strength is the solidity of its low bass, which is the best of this bunch of speakers.  Because this is the only acoustic suspension design in this group, it trades off inefficiency (as discussed below) for better bass extension.  In fact, it is amazing how this little speaker can energize the room with deep bass and give the illusion that a much larger speaker, or even a subwoofer, is at work.  While it has excellent bass extension on the low side, the mid and upper bass is not quite as tuneful, fast and dynamic as some of the other speakers in this group, such as the B&W 302.

            Its major weakness is that it is inefficient and compresses dynamics.  As a sealed, acoustic suspension design, it is rated to put out only 86db for 1 watt.  In the real world, this rated figure may overstate the speaker’s sensitivity.  In actual use, I found that this speaker required 7 db of additional volume to come close to the sound level of the other speakers in this survey.  The NHT soaks up lots of power (I normally use 200 watts per channel of high current solid state amplification), and presents heavy demands on the amplifier.  This is not a good speaker for most underpowered receivers (and certainly not for 9 watt 300B tube amplifiers), and it benefits from high current, high quality amplification.  Even with high power, however, it does not open up dynamically and portray the full scale of volume contrasts.  It is perhaps a bit slow and understated at micro-dynamics. Thus, it lacks the rhythmic drive, and toe-tapping quality that some of the other speakers have (such as the B&W).

            Another weakness of the SuperOne is a lack of detail.  It does not dig down deep into the recording and provide lots of information.  On complex recordings it tends to blend the individual instruments and voices together, rather than preserving the distinct sound and location of each.  This problem gets worse with higher output levels as well.  It images reasonably well (though not as well as others here), but doesn’t open up with air around each performer so that the listener has a sense of being present at the performance and able to interact with the performers.  Its ability to portray the soundstage behind the speakers is not as strong as others here.

            The NHT is magnetically shielded, it so can be placed close to a TV without adverse effects.  Five SuperOnes make a good system for video, especially if coupled with a subwoofer and a high-pass crossover set for around 80 Hz.  The build quality is good, and the high gloss black laminate finish looks nice (if kept clean of dust).

            Overall, the SuperOne suffers from sins of omission rather than commission, and this is the right direction to err in with an inexpensive speaker.  You won’t get everything that’s on the recording with this speaker, but you will also not get artifacts generated by the speaker that detract from the recording.  That’s high praise indeed for such an inexpensive speaker. 

            In a word (or two), this speaker is refined (well beyond its price point), and understated.  Nice qualities to have.  Too bad the dynamics and detail are limited.

 

B&W DM302

            This little B&W, the baby of the B&W family, has gotten high praise from many exalted quarters, both in Europe and America.  It uses a clever set of stalactite-type protuberances inside the cabinet to reduce cabinet reflections and resonance.  It is 12.6x7.3x8.9”, and weights 9 pounds.  It uses a 5” doped paper cone for bass and midrange, and a 1” soft dome tweeter for highs.

Although there are many virtues to the 302, and many admirers of these virtues (including me), it suffers from a flaw that makes it difficult for me, at least, to live with, especially over time.  Reminds me of an old girlfriend who was fantastic from a distance, but who was impossible to live with because her faults eclipsed her strengths.

            The strengths are many.  It is a dynamic, fast, open, performer.  It’s quite efficient at 91 db, easy to drive, and sings loudly even with low power (such as the 9 watt single-ended 300B amp).  It offers tremendous major dynamic contrasts, and excellent micro-dynamics.  It offers excellent transient performance.  It’s tuneful.  For these reasons, it’s the winner of the “toe-tapping” award; it conveys the rhythmic side of music so well that it’s hard to sit still.  On this criterion, the B&W is the clear winner in this group.

In addition, it images up a storm, completely disappearing into the wide and deep soundfield, offering a holographic picture of the recording venue.  It also provides lots of detail – an amazing amount for this price range. 

The bass is well integrated into the overall presentation, which adds to the musical qualities of the speaker.  The mid and upper bass are especially strong.  However, the bass lacks power and depth, and in terms of extension this is probably the weakest performer (it has the smallest woofer and cabinet of this group).

            On the above qualities alone, this baby B&W makes a strong case for itself as the leader of the pack. If only we could stop at this point, the B&W would walk away with the prize.  Unfortunately, there’s a big “but”         to this speaker.

Its weakness falls in an area that I consider most important in any speaker: harmonic structure.  The 302’s frequency response has anomalies and discontinuities that give it an up tilt to the midrange and lower treble, with the result that this speaker can sound bright and brash, especially by comparison with some of the other smooth and refined speakers here.  At first listen, the 302 grabs the listener with its strengths, especially its detail and dynamics, so that one can easily overlook the brightness.  Over time, however, its frequency response anomalies can be very troubling, and can even overwhelm its many strengths.  Vocalists end up missing the lower portion of their windpipes: there’s no diaphragm to support their voices.  Instruments lose their foundation and support from the lower registers and tones.  An acoustic piano, for example, can end up sounding like a cheap electronic piano.  Strings become artificial.  Overall, the sound can be thin and wearing, leading to listener fatigue.  This aspect is worse at higher output levels.  Instruments tend to sound less like the real thing and more like cheap synthesized approximations.  This problem is consistent with three very different amplifiers (300B tube, MOSFET solid state, and bipolar transistor).

            The speaker is not magnetically shielded, so caution is in order when using in close proximity to a TV.

            If you are not bothered by the brightness, the speaker’s other tremendous strengths make it a real winner.  But be cautious: this brightness is something that may not bother you in first exposures, but can become more difficult to tolerate over time.  It’s frustrating that in many respects this is the most musical speaker of the bunch, except for one key area: its frequency response.  One solution, perhaps, would be to move higher up the B&W good chain and pay more for a speaker with smoother frequency response (although, you should be aware that the magazine Sensible Sound recently reviewed a high-end B&W Nautilus and complained of the same type of midrange fault).

 

Kef Q15

            This is the baby of KEF’s Q series, using the latest design of KEF’s Uni-Q drivers.  This design mounts the tweeter at the center of the woofer cone, theoretically allowing the two drivers to blend more smoothly because they are creating sound from the same point.  The midrange/bass is 6 ½”, and the tweeter is 19mm.  This is a sensitive speaker at 91db.  It weighs 12 pounds.  It is magnetically shielded, and the build quality is excellent.  It also includes double terminals to allow bi-wiring or even bi-amping – only two such speakers (the Q15 and the Cresta2) among these four provide this capability.  That can be significant, as noted in the conclusion below.

            The Uni-Q driver technology is a success.  This speaker does achieve very good imaging.  The dispersion ability of this imaging is a strength – the speaker can be used as a nearfield monitor (say, as a computer speaker on a desk close to the listener) and still sound fine.  In a home theater, it offers good imaging to listeners sitting in various positions spread about horizontally.  However, the depth and width of the image is not as good as the B&W.

The speaker is also dynamic and alive, with good micro-dynamics, and offers lots of powerful bass with the illusion that a much larger speaker is producing the sound.  The bass can be a bit “one-notey,” however, and doesn’t offer lots of detail in the mid and upper bass, and thus the bass lacks the strong connection to the music that the 302 has.      

As to frequency response: the speaker is smooth and listenable.  Listener fatigue doesn’t set in, as it does with the B&W.  Piano has a fairly realistic weight and balance to it.  However, there are some midrange discontinuities that at times come across as a lack of naturalness (not nearly as severe or bothersome as the B&W, however).  Individual voices and instruments can sometimes blend together into one amorphous sound rather than retaining their distinctness; this was especially noticeable, for example, when piano and xylophone were playing in unison.  These harmonic structure anomalies are fairly complex, and may result from the mechanical interaction between the woofer and tweeter at the crossover point.  Unlike the B&W, which can be consistently characterized as bright and thin, it’s not possible to define the Q15’s midrange errors in simple terms.  There’s something not quite right, but it doesn’t reach out and grab you; it’s a subdued flaw.

The speaker does not offer lots of detail or complexity.  It does not present a microscopic, close-up view of the performance, but rather steps back to the middle of the auditorium where things tend to blend together more.  Transients are not extremely fast, and can sound somewhat slow and smeared. 

            Overall, this is a very listenable and enjoyable speaker.  It’s difficult to point out any one flaw the overrides and interferes with the enjoyment of the music.  Like the NHT, its primary sins are of omission, rather than commission.  There are things missing with this speaker that one can get from more expensive speakers (and even some of these four speakers reviewed): greater detail, broader imaging, more harmonic naturalness, better upper bass.  However, none of these omissions from the Q15 prevent me from enjoying the speaker a lot.  And it’s hard to point out any single, glaring fault that gets in the way. 

This speaker may be more like the tortoise than the hare.  It’s not flashy, it’s consistent, relying on small, continuous incremental progress to achieve its goal.  Rather than scoring an “A” in any particular area, this speaker gets a “B+” grade across the board.  The end result is that this speaker doesn’t send shivers up the spine with any particular amazing quality, but it also doesn’t do anything that hurts.  The result is that when one stops comparing this speaker to others, and instead just listens to it, it’s easy to forget its faults and just enjoy.  In this price range, that may be the highest praise possible.   

 

Kef Cresta2

            Following the rule that size (and weight) does matter, this speaker has the largest cabinet of all these speakers, at 14 ½ x 8 x 9 inches.  Each unit weights 13 pounds (the heaviest speaker in this group).  It uses a 1” silk dome tweeter and 5 ¼” midrange/woofer.  It has double terminals for bi-wiring or bi-amping – a significant advantage, as noted below in the conclusion.  It is not magnetically shielded, but I saw no problems placing it within a foot or two of a Toshiba 35” CRT television.  The build quality appears good and the speaker is attractive.  It is ported and efficient at 90 db, and is an easy-to-drive 6 to 8 ohms – a good match for small amps.  The speaker is available in Britain, and may not be widely distributed in the U.S. yet.

            The Cresta2 has many strengths.  It is overall a very musical, engaging speaker.  It offers quite a bit of detail (more than the Q15 or NHT, though not as much as the 302).  It has lots of apparent bass and good bass weight, though it can sound a bit “one-notey” at times and does not integrate the mid and upper bass with the music as well as the champ, the B&W.  It is a dynamic speaker, with lots of rhythm quick micro-dynamics (but not as good as the 302).  The imaging is quite good, offering a nice sense of room boundaries (artificial or real) at the recording venue.  The soundstage extends behind the speakers more than the other speakers here.  The smooth harmonic structure and detail lends a sense of palpability to the performers.  Piano sounds the most authentic of all the speakers here.  Muted trumpet comes across very well, with the correct degree of bite and smoothness.  There is lots of detail in the highs; delicate brushwork comes across well.

            The speaker’s primary weakness is that at times it can sound a bit brash, harsh, and unrefined.  It’s not bright.  It perhaps has some slightly higher levels of harmonic distortion that add a bit of an edge to the sound. This is subtle, not severe, and in many cases this slight “edginess” actually adds to the sense that one is listening to a live performance at which a musician could make a mistake.  Multiple voices or instruments can sometimes blend towards one and lose their distinctness – but this is a fault that all these speakers share (though the B&W to a lesser degree).  Sometimes, when pressed hard, the extreme highs can get a bit tizzy or sizzly, but not enough to stand out as a major problem.

            It is difficult to point out any glaring fault of this speaker, or any fault significant enough to detract from its many strengths.  It betters the Q15 in detail, imaging, dynamics, separation of instruments, rhythm and pace, and transient speed.  The Q15 is better in low bass weight and smoothness (but with a more distant perspective on the performance).  Like the Q15, it does nothing seriously wrong and does many things right.  Again, at this price range, that’s the right target to hit, and the Cresta2 scores a bull’s-eye. 

 

Conclusion

 

All of these speakers offer a lot of performance for the money.  It’s amazing what $300 or $400 can buy. 

 

If it were my choice as to which to live with, here’s how I’d proceed:

 

I’d rule out the B&W 302 because of the bright and unnatural midrange that robs the performers of their lower register.  This is a fault that wears over time.  This a painful and frustrating conclusion, because by just about every other criterion, this little 302 comes out the winner.  If after careful listening you’re not bothered by the up tilted frequency response, this may be the speaker for you.

 

The opposite of the B&W, the NHT has a wonderful, refined, and listenable harmonic structure, and the most solid bass.  These qualities hint at much more expensive speakers.  However, it’s the most inefficient of the bunch, demands lots of high quality power to start to sound right, and even then still suffers from compressed dynamics and a loss of detail and speed.  A lot of the aliveness of music comes from the qualities that the NHT is missing.  It is listenable and enjoyable, but not the most communicative or evocative of the group.

 

The two KEF speakers – the Q15 and the Cresta2 – are the winners in this group.  They win through across-the-board consistency, rather than stellar performance in any one area.  Instead of getting a few things right, and other things wrong, they get more things more right than the others, with no glaring faults.  They are the tortoises that win the race.  What’s more, they are the only speakers that offer the capability to bi-wire.  Using this ability, they pull even further ahead of the others in clarity, detail, and imaging.  I’d give the edge to the Cresta2 for its greater detail, openness, and speed.  Interestingly, a similar conclusion was recently reached by the British magazine What HiFi?, which ranked the Cresta2 as the winner against similarly priced small bookshelf speakers.

 

Les Holt

February 20, 2000

 

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