Pairing Small Speakers

How thinking small can create big sound in modest spaces

KEF R300


I love small speakers (ok, full confession, I love most genres of loudspeakers as long as they’re special). Well, at least some small speakers. The best of breed has this uncanny ability to disappear into thin air, to loft images up with fantastic palpability as though ones’ own personal band, hired for the occasion, showed up and are gigging just for you. Solids materializing amongst gas.

And too, I love that small speakers have a way of tying together the needs of people at opposite ends of the age spectrum, appealing equally to millennials and boomers rich and poor alike. For different reasons, young and old may be in reduced living quarters—the younger set because they haven’t quite arrived at a place that allows them something more spacious, the latter because they’ve finally gotten the kids out of the house for good—solids being ejected into gas, as it were. Whatever the reason, suddenly, both groups can agree that having great sound out of an attractively styled, beautiful speaker makes a hell of a lot of sense.

The trick is, and this has real impact when combining small speakers with subwoofers; good small speakers have to be able to deliver credible bass down into the ‘60’s at a minimum, the 50 Hz range is better yet. The notion that small speakers dying off at 100 Hz or even 120 Hz can then be fixed by a great stonking subwoofer making stumbling, rumbling bass is laughable–the high end audio version of the truism “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

What is it I love about the best compact monitors?  First, they can take on an elegance due to their reduced scale, that floorstanders rarely even attempt (see Google images of Sonus faber Auditor M’s of just a few short years ago – not the current version). And the stands that Franco Serblin designed for them? Art, pure art. They were so beautiful it must have caused Franco real pain to actually sell them. Part of him must have wanted to keep them, like children, home with him just a little while longer.

And we’re not even talking about the real Faberge eggs of the industry, the Sonus faber Guarneri Homage.

Jern 14

It’s Not About Footprint: Our industry tosses about the notion of footprint, the width and depth of a speaker, as though that’s all that matters to render an object—a pair of speakers—space efficient and looking just right. But in many rooms, a pair of high quality monitors on beautiful stands look so much lighter and righter. They take up so much less visual mass because good stands are generally 8 parts light to 2 parts solid. It is this 3-dimensional lightness of being, reducing heaviness, that is the key to the beauty and accessibility of quality stand mounted speakers.

Oh yes, the Sound: And then there is the sonic benefit. Especially in small and medium-sized rooms. Where a floorstander, whose designer has worked hard to extract bass down into the 40’s or even into the upper 30 Hz range, the stand mounted monitor rarely tries to do so. Why is this a benefit? Simply put, because that much bass, especially grafted to large speakers that, when ideally placed are physically well off the back wall and off the side walls too sets off all sorts of room resonance and bass problems. Whereas, the stand mounted monitor, ignores the issue, replacing it with clean bass down to just where the room wants to get the speaker into trouble and stopping just short of it. Which then makes the job of a truly high quality powered subwoofer much easier—better to allow us to supply the bottom octave, (I know the other guys like to claim they can supply two or even three octaves of bass and have it work, but that’s simply not true, you can always hear theirs)–since having clean bass that dies away organically makes it very easy to mesh with a great sub. God’s own crossover network.

Stand and Deliver: Finally, there’s the matter of getting speakers to the proper height to deliver a proper 3-dimensional image. If I’m being extremely critical, most stand manufacturers don’t make stands either rigid enough, nor to a height tall enough to allow perfect set-up. Most people seem happy with 24” stands for monitors, yet many monitors require a 28-32” stand height to give off their best. At which point the time domain of the speaker comes alive and you suddenly realize that the third dimension everyone loves to talk about isn’t depth—that’s there frequently even when the image is squashed down too low to be otherwise believable—but height.

Don’t believe me? Go listen to a well set-up pair of Wilsons in a grand salon and one of the first things that hits anyone between the eyes is the height and the resulting perspective. Great compact monitors in the right room can afford this realistic scale for a small fraction of the cost of a super speaker. After all, look carefully at ANY super speaker and once you understand the art of speaker design, you will come to recognize that 85% of the huge size is given over to reproducing sound that originates below 50 Hz. And that’s where REL comes in, because by putting your room to work for you in our designs and only having to concentrate on one thing—world class deep bass—we can deliver a sonic reality that even some super speakers can’t. In your room.

It’s as though someone gave you All Access back stage passes along with front row center seats; you’re sitting, looking up at the best performances and performers in the world playing privately for you. When Bruce Springsteen reaches down and lifts a 19-year-old Courtney Cox out of the audience and into instant stardom, it will have been you she was sitting next to. A great pair of compact monitors –especially when underpinned by a REL–can deliver that holographic reality in a modest space that almost no full range floorstander can presume too.

So, whether you’re 28 or 68 and living by choice or by circumstance with a smaller room than you either want or can afford, take up the search for a great, modestly-sized stand-mounted speaker (and matching system) with gusto and enjoy the journey. We’ll be there behind our phones and keyboards at waiting to supply you with guidance and help you onward and upward with your journey.

Enjoy the Music
John Hunter, Owner & Designer Director

April 10, 2018 - Posted in: Deep Dive Setup