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The MINI Loudspeakers, plus some audio musings on a home theater setup
as reviewed by Karl Lozier
Accent Speakers Technology Limited is not a newcomer to the audio world. Its designs are by industry veteran Carl Marchisotto. In the past few years, starting with the state-of-the-art Exotica Grand Reference at well over a hundred thousand dollars per pair (done for Alon, his previous company), Marchisotto has been modifying and tweaking many of his earlier designs.
Marchisotto's new MINI model has evolved, at least in part, from previous designs. Changes do not include tampering with its well-known (and excellent) 6 1/2-inch bass/midrange driver, but include a new and noticeably improved 1-inch silk dome tweeter with excellent transients and response beyond 20kHz. Response is claimed to be extremely linear through the all-important midrange. Overall response is plus or minus 2dB over the 60Hz-20kHz range, and down another 5dB at 55Hz.
Previous designs incorporated crossover improvements, but the new Mini elevates Marchisotto's design so much further that it actually constitutes a new design. The entire topology is changed, not just the quality or type of parts. The new crossover topology results in improved bass reproduction. "Improved" does not mean more bass, but better, clearer, and more dynamic bass. Music lovers new to the audiophile hobby quickly discover the distinction between more bass and better bass, though some lose track of the difference.
Topping off the improvements in the MINI is a new cabinet construction that improves the speaker's overall sound quality. Marchisotto is particularly pleased with its impact. The new cabinet has rounded edges and corners, and its black finish seems to be very tough and durable. It is not a wood finish, nor is it a gloss finish that might show finger smudges—consider it to be between semi- gloss and matte, with an easily removable black grille. Marchisotto refers to it as a satin lacquer.
I listened to the MINIs in two systems, in two different rooms. In my main listening room is a stereo setup with high-end quality components. In the other room is a home theater setup with the newest Denon AV3805 receiver at its heart. In both rooms, the loudspeakers see more than 400 square feet of listening space.
There was very little to find fault with in the main system, and much to enjoy. The system was designed with music lovers in mind, and Marchisotto is certainly one. The MINIs' very linear midrange extended as far into the treble as my jaded ears could discern. Dynamic response was realistic, no easy feat for such small, moderately priced loudspeakers, with fine detail and no accentuation of sibilance or artifacts of any kind. Some listeners thought that the previous design added a bit at the extreme top end. The MINIs' beautifully linear midrange extended through the upper bass and into most, if not all of the midbass. There are definite limits to the ability of small bookshelf speakers to reproduce music with great volume and power in a fairly large room. Also remember that those two areas encompass the bloom, richness, and fullness of music reproduction. This is especially important in the reproduction of orchestral music, and also of solo instruments such as cello, French horn, and piano. The MINIs never overemphasized that range, and thus did not add boom or bloat. This definitely aided their clarity in the upper bass and middle ranges. Most reviewers consider the bottom of the midbass range to be as low as 40Hz, though a few believe it to be as high as 60Hz. As a corollary, that means the deep bass range extends to 40, 50, or 60Hz.
That difference is often split by using 50Hz as the bottom of the midbass range, which results in nice, easily remembered octaves of 50 to 100Hz in the midbass and 100 to 200Hz in the upper bass range. I believe that Marchisotto, like many loudspeaker designers, thinks of the bass range in terms of three octaves, with the bottom range 20-40Hz, midbass 40-80Hz, and the upper bass octave 80-160Hz. In many loudspeaker designs, the transition from the upper bass range into the midrange is difficult to accomplish smoothly, cleanly, and clearly. The newly designed MINIs handled it with ease.
I started by substituting the MINIs for my usual reference loudspeakers, which cost twenty times as much, and using the same top-quality ancillary equipment and connections as usual. I did no listening during a fifty-hour break in period. My first listening sessions were disappointing, but it was my fault! The only stands that I had on hand were too short for the 15-inch MINIs. They picked up too much upper bass from their proximity to the floor, resulting in an bloated, diffuse tonal balance and soundscape. With the help of some thick books and other devices, the height problem was solved.
The results gladdened my music lover's heart. Two-way mini monitors selling for less than a few thousand dollars per pair have inherent compromises, often many, but Marchisotto's new tweeter for the MINI is a gem! I do not recall hearing a better conventional cone tweeter, certainly not at anywhere near its price. The MINIs' output sensitivity seems to be close to 88 dB at one meter—a tad above average. Dynamics, both macro and micro, are outstanding, and the MINIs will play surprisingly loud with no obvious strain. Well-recorded voices, male and female, were reproduced with no added harshness or brightness for the women, and no added bloat or chestiness for the men. Soundscape and depth perspective were good, though not outstanding.
What were the inevitable compromises of this two-way design? The bass range, mainly the deep bass range, was simply not present. Depending upon where you draw the line between deep bass and midbass, some of the midbass range was audibly weak. Lovers of bass drum thwacks, deep pipe organ pedal notes, and instruments with response in that part of the audible range will be disappointed, although the addition of a suitably placed subwoofer or two would easily correct the situation. Fortunately, the Thunderbolt, a previous subwoofer design by Marchisotto for Alon, is particularly fine, possibly the best under $2000 that I've heard. It is noteworthy for its clean, clear, and detailed bass response and its lack of muddiness or boom. However, let me say that many listeners will be completely satisfied with the new MINI speakers just as they are. I will mention four cases, to make this point.
I had a group of Telarc CDs to review, two of which were solo albums by the female vocalists of The Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel (CD-83597) and Cheryl Bentyne (CD-83583), as well as one by the entire group (SACD-63603/CD-83603), plus a new recording of the Berlioz Requiem (SACD-60627). The point is that nothing seemed to be missing when I listened for the first time to the CDs by the female vocalists. On the other hand, with the Manhattan Transfer CD, which uses multiple microphones, overdubs, and a number of additional musicians, the richness, bloom, and power that the group can project seemed to be lacking, though not fatally. The Berlioz Requiem was a pale imitation of that overwhelming, massive composition. A surround-sound SACD and a subwoofer or two would be the minimum requirement for auditory satisfaction, and a single pair of mini-monitors, no matter how good, is simply not up to the task. Pop music, recordings of solo voices or instruments, cool jazz, or chamber music recordings will be enjoyable for most listeners in most rooms. Music lovers on a budget should be overjoyed.
Let's move on to home theater. I have slowly assembled a modest AV system that makes me reasonably content with both music listening and the home theater experience, as it does decent justice to the sound effects used in movies. Price has often, but not always, been a factor in my choice of components, as has their size, because everything except the rear, surround, and subwoofer speakers are housed in a single piece of furniture. I am now on my third round of components, and have no plans to expand in the near future, other than purchasing a wide-screen monitor. For readers who would like to avoid miscues in getting started with home theater, I will relate my recent experiences. Amplification and control of the system has to be the heart of a home theater system. I remain pleasantly surprised at the performance of the reasonably priced Denon AV-3805 receiver. I have no doubt that other components, some of them more expensive, could beat it, but I am very satisfied. More bells and whistles, many of them actually useful, would be hard to find, even at a much higher price. Size also enters the picture, as my "media center" will not permit the installation of larger receivers, much less separate components for control, processing, and amplification.
Some time ago, I decided to upgrade all cords, cables, and connectors, starting with the top-quality power cords from Kimber, Purist Audio, Harmonic Technology and DiMarzio. The bargain-priced DiMarzio power cord is surprisingly competitive with more expensive models, though it may be a bit difficult to find. While nudging that latest, very heavy component into place in the cabinet, I must have damaged the Harmony Rainbow, Harmonic Technology's compact group of six interconnects designed specifically for multi-channel system. Since I had received a large group of cables from DiMarzio, I replaced the Rainbow group with six DiMarzio interconnects. Though bulkier and less convenient to use on the crowded back panels of AV receivers, DiMargio's top AV interconnects were at least the equal of the Harmonic Tech cables, but because these have still not returned from repair, I was unable to do A-B comparisons between the two brands.
A recent addition to the AV system is the outstanding Esoteric DV-50s universal player, an upgraded version of the well-known DV-50. The original, reviewed in Stereophile and other magazines, earned a reputation for offering what may be the best CD reproduction by a universal player. For some reason, CD sound quality has been the Achilles' heel of nearly all universal players, but the DV-50s' reproduction of ALL current formats is only very slightly bettered by a handful of single-format players. In any event, it has allowed me to replace my Sony SACD player, with its rather disappointing CD sound quality, my fine DVD-Audio player by Toshiba, and my Philips, with its surprisingly good upsampling CD playback. All of these players also offered DVD video. The Esoteric DV-50s beats all of them in every way, and in every format. It also makes me appreciate my good DVD-A discs more than ever.
As for speakers, after going from NHT to Paradigm, I wound up with the extremely small Napoleons designed by Carl Marchisotto for Alon, plus the Thunderbolt subwoofer. Despite their ultra-mini size (10 inches tall), the Napoleons offer very clear, detailed response in much of the midrange. Though they do not really cover the midbass range, from the upper bass into the midrange their response is very clean, so they demand a subwoofer with really tight, clean response up to at least 100Hz. Most moderately priced subwoofers are not good performers in the 50-100Hz range. In fact, many, if not most moderately priced subwoofers are designed more for quantity than quality. The self-powered Thunderbolt is definitely an exception. It is difficult to believe, but the tiny Napoleons can be designated as "Large" on an AV receiver's speaker size selection menu. In other words, they can be used full range, as they are designed with the correct roll-off for a 100Hz crossover. Marchisotto claims that they are designed to handle the power in that range and even lower, and my experience over the past six months backs that claim. The Napoleons' tiny size allows them to disappear visually, and they can be used vertically, even in a bookcase, which gives the best sound dispersion and overall quality. They fit unobtrusively on bookshelves, blending right in with the books. I must admit that I had some difficulty getting them to mesh with the subwoofer, especially in getting the desired richness and fullness without raising the level of the Thunderbolt too high.
I spoke with Carl Marchisotto about this, eliciting the following response: "Nola's new MINI model loudspeakers checked out just fine used horizontally, with surprisingly good dispersion, particularly if used with the tweeters positioned to the inside (closest to each other)." When they arrived, I used them in the main system. When I put them into the home theater system, I did the following: For the front channels, I replaced each Napoleon with a MINI placed horizontally, tweeters to the inside. I placed Bright Star Audio's IsoNodes under the front edge of each MINI cabinet, plus a pair of the thicker Isol-Pads by Sound Quest under the rear. This was done for two reasons. The first was to angle their sound projection slightly downward toward the seated listening position. The second was to prevent any transmission of vibration to the other components in the equipment cabinet.
I had previously been using six Napoleons—one pair for the front channels, another for the center channel, and a third for the rear surround channels. The center and rear pairs I left as they were. After replacing the front Napoleons with the MINIs, I hooked up that pair of Napoleons as side surround speakers. I therefore wound up with a 7.1-channel surround sound system. (Would a second subwoofer make it 7.2-channel?) At my usual volume levels, the effects may be a bit too subtle for some tastes. I often notice it more when the "extra" channels are turned off, eliciting comments like "Where did all the sound go?"
I am very satisfied with this system, and have made no significant changes to it, though I have no doubt that using MINIs at all positions would result in even better sound. I should note that that in the all-important midrange, the Napoleons are the equals of the MINIs. Though small, the MINIs are larger than the Napoleons, and large enough to become obtrusive in my room. The center channel probably presents the greatest positioning problem. My tastes have me running the front MINIs at a slightly louder level than the pair of adjacent Napoleons I am using for the center channel. Others might choose to reverse the sound levels between center and side channels. I often advise newcomers to home theater that if they have trouble understanding normal speech on television broadcasts or video recordings, they should raise the center channel level 2 to 4dB.
With the overachieving MINIs carrying most of the load, I cannot pick out any significant flaws in the sound. Do not read anything into that statement. More expensive high-end home theater systems can probably trounce my system, but I sincerely doubt that the owners of those systems get one more iota of enjoyment when watching the evening news, Law and Order, or weekend football games. (I am quite content to do without audio when watching many sporting events. When I was growing up, I listened to football games on the radio, with only one person announcing. I really do not need three "experts" telling me what I just saw.)
I watch two to four movies a week, and often find myself reading a fair amount while doing so. Unfortunately, at least one of the movies will not really be worth watching. I may watch one movie a week that is fairly good, or better—one with exciting sound effects. One of those ultra-expensive home theater systems would probably make the experience more exciting and enjoyable, particularly if played very loudly, but not counting the cost of a monitor, would that experience be worth three to six times the $10-$12,000 cost of a system like mine? It offers room-filling sound that is clear and smooth, punch and tactile power when called for, and natural, un-hyped vocalists, performers, and reporters.
The over-performing MINIs can give many music lovers, and most home theater lovers, all they need and want with the addition of one really good subwoofer (sometimes two). Try placing the subwoofer in or near a corner adjacent to the front left or right MINI. Take time to carefully adjust things, and do not let the adjustments change the tonal balance of a baritone singer such as Frank Sinatra.
Hooking up subwoofers to the LFE (Low Frequency Effect) channel, sometimes labeled "sub" or "woofer," can be problematic. The LFE signal is often derived by mixing the front right and left channels, and can give peculiar results because of phase shifts and other interactions. If you are using two subwoofers, the cure can be as simple as hooking them up to the front right- and left-channel outputs. If, like most users, you are using only one subwoofer, hook it up to the right channel output. Because most, though not all, recordings, have most of their bass output from the right channel, hooking up a single sub this way can make a noticeable difference in the woofer's range, clarity, and detail. Also causing concern is the fact some products (such as AV receivers) roll off the bass response of the center channel, but fail to mention this in the owner's manual.
Used alone, the MINIs are surprisingly effective. They are detailed and have good dynamics in smaller rooms. In larger rooms they are overachievers in multi-channel setups, particularly when mated to a really good subwoofer like Alon's Thunderbolt. I realize that I have not emphasized the MINIs' overall sound as much as I should, particularly the contribution of the outstanding new tweeter or Marchisotto's new crossover technology, which is so good that you cannot hear it! In other words, the MINIs now sound as if only one driver is in each cabinet. There is no sensation of there being a woofer and a tweeter, nor of a transition point. The overall quality was so disarming that, for the first time, I was able to confidently complete all of my listening evaluations at the writing table in my home theater room. Of course, the impressive (and expensive) Esoteric DV-50s player was an important factor, but the MINIs were up to the task of handling the detail and power it passed on to them. The MINIs have my highest recommendation in their under-$1000 price range. If you do not give them a serious audition before purchasing loudspeakers in that price category, you may be making a mistake that will cost money to rectify. Karl Lozier
Home theater components used:
Nola, Accent Speaker Technology