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    JoshM

    Bookshelf Speaker Comparison

     

     

    Buying speakers is simultaneously the most exciting and most frustrating audiophile shopping experience. While measurements can tell us much about every category of equipment, they bump against their limits most often with transducers. When it comes to speakers and headphones, ultimately hearing is believing.

     

    This reality isn’t too bad when it comes to headphones. With their size and many companies’ accommodative return policies, it’s not too hard to audition headphones that we think might strike our fancy. Moreover, swapping between headphones — while not the easiest thing in the world, given differences in sensitivity and impedance — isn’t a difficult lift, metaphorically speaking.

     

    Speakers, on the other hand, are a heavier lift, both literally and metaphorically. It also may just be my bad luck, but it seems that the odds of a pair of speakers being shipped and delivered without damage is little better than a coin flip, adding another layer of risk to the audition process.

     

    Since beginning my audiophile journey in earnest, I’ve bought and sold nearly two dozen pairs of bookshelf speakers, mostly in the $500 to $5,000 (new or used) range, from companies large and small — Quad, SVS, Wharfedale, Pioneer, KEF, JBL, Revel, Fritz, Dali, and Sonus Faber, among others. (Based on size, some could properly be called standmount speakers. But since the difference often depends on one’s specific use case, I’ll tend to use “bookshelf,” “standmount,” and “monitor” interchangeably.)

     

    My “keeper” pair is my KEF Reference 1, but my listening room setup has a perfect spot for another set, and I’m always on the lookout for speakers to fill that role. (As William Cowper famously put it, “Variety is the spice of life.”)

     

    I generally decide whether to try to a pair of speakers based on a combination of good measurements, trusted subjective reviews, price, and customer support. But even with the expectation that I’ll like a pair of speakers based on the above factors, few stick around. Sometimes, that’s not because the speakers are bad, but just because I find something better. (Polk’s LSIM 703 fit into this category, especially when they’re on sale for less than $1,000 per pair. But they’re outclassed by more expensive competitors.) Other times, it’s because — despite good measurements or reviews — I just don’t think a pair of speakers sound that good. (Out of fairness, I’ll refrain from singling out any examples.)

     

    The three speakers under review — the Philharmonic BMR Monitor, the Usher Dancer Mini-X Diamond, and the Dynaudio Contour 20i —  all made the initial cut as worthy entrants into my bookshelf shuffle. So if you’re expecting simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdict from this review, you’re going to be disappointed.

     

    While I use a measurement microphone to help with positioning speakers and studying the effects of room treatment, I’m not comfortable (yet) publishing my speaker measurements as a fair indication of a speaker’s sound. However, all three speakers (or past versions of them) have been measured by credible outlets. Indeed, those measurements factored into my decision to try them.

     

    My goal with this review is to provide a subjective evaluation of these speakers, both in terms of their sound (in the same room, with the same setup) and their value (price versus performance).

     

    Curved-Rosewood-BMR-v2.jpgStarting with the most affordable entrant, the Philharmonic BMR Monitor is a three-way bookshelf speaker designed by Dennis Murphy. A pair can be purchased in a limited set of finishes directly from Murphy (who lives in the U.S.), retailing for $1,700 USD (plus shipping) for rectangular cabinets and $1,900 (plus shipping) for curved cabinets. They can also be had (for less) as a self-build kit from Meniscus Audio or (for more) in a variety of different cabinet finishes from Salk Sound. I bought my rectangular-cabinet pair directly from Murphy. One of the advantages of dealing with a small company like Philharmonic is that Murphy personally answers emails and is eager to make sure his customers are happy. When I asked Murphy about his warranty, he responded:

     

    "I offer a full two-year warranty that covers any problems at no expense to the buyer. The only exception would be evidence of gross owner abuse. At my discretion the warranty would extend beyond two years. I’ve never rejected a warrant claim irrespective of the speaker’s age, although there have been very few issues with my speakers, and those almost always show very quickly as shipping damage or a defective part that fails early." 

     

    The BMR Monitors measure 20 inches high, eight inches wide, and 12 and 1/2 inches deep, and they weigh 32 pounds each. They feature a RAAL 64-10X ribbon tweeter, a 2.5-inch Tectonic Balanced Mode Radiator for the midrange, and six-inch SB acoustics ceramic woofer. The BMRs also have a rear bass port. But the real action in the BMR Monitor comes from the way that Murphy has crossed-over these drivers to work well together. According Murphy:

     

    The RAAL true ribbon tweeter provides unparalleled horizontal dispersion and ruler flat response up to frequencies far above human hearing.  The unique Balanced Mode Radiator midrange matches the broad dispersion of the RAAL tweeter, thanks to a shift from pistonic to a bending motion well below the crossover point.  Finally, the ceramic SB Acoustics 6-inch woofer delivers a rare combination of deep bass extension and linear frequency response at higher frequencies.

     

    The BMR Monitor’s nominal impedance is four ohms, and its reported sensitivity is 86.5 dB (2.83v/1m).

     

    Cosmetically, the BMR punches far above its price point. Its finish is excellent, the binding posts are solid, and the magnetic grills are comparable to those found on more expensive speakers from larger companies. To be sure, the BMR is a utilitarian speaker, not eye candy. But nothing about the Philharmonic looks cheap.

     

    Dancer-Mini-X-_0-1024x796.jpgThe next contender is the Usher Dancer Mini-X Diamond DMD. Usher is a Taiwanese company that’s been around since 1972, but only relatively recently garnered attention for its unique speakers. The Mini-X is a two-way bookshelf speaker with a front-firing bass port that retails for $3,990 USD per pair. The Mini-X monitors come with a five-year warranty, which is provided by its U.S. distributor. (Note that, due to varying exchange rates, the Mini-X can be had for significantly less if one’s willing to buy from foreign retailers. However, Usher makes very clear that one forgoes the warranty if one doesn’t buy from authorized U.S. retailers. Caveat emptor.)

     

    Each Mini-X measures 17.1 inches high, 10.2 inches wide, and 14.6 inches deep and weighs almost 35 pounds. The Usher’s woofer is its own 8948A 7-inch paper driver, while its 1.25-inch tweeter is its “Diamond DMD” dome tweeter. According to Usher:

     

    "The DMD dome is effectively a diamond dome with a reduced mass and a well-controlled, appealing sound signature, resembling very closely the perfect piston in its behavior. This is made possible by its laminated diamond-metal-diamond structure, which consists of a proprietary metal alloy base layer coated with an amorphous diamond-like carbon layer (pure diamond is carbon atoms arranged solely in sp3 bonds; amorphous diamond-like carbon has mixed sp3 and sp2 bonds to achieve its desirable properties) on both sides. The base metal layer of the Diamond DMD dome tames all the diamond layer’s unfavorable sonic traits and brings out the best of both materials."

     

    The Mini-X’s nominal impedance is eight ohms, and its reported sensitivity is 87 dB (1 watt/1m). Because Usher reports power sensitivity, its numbers aren’t directly comparable to Philharmonic (and, as well shall see, Dynaudio), which report voltage sensitivity. Yet, because the Mini-X’s have an impedance of eight Ohms, the Usher’s power sensitivity should be the same as its voltage sensitivity. In practice , I found that the Mini-X was the hardest to drive of the three speakers in this review, and lab reports from other reviews seem to indicate that the Mini-X’s real-world sensitivity is several dBs lower than its spec’d sensitivity.

     

    The front of the Mini-X is glossy black. The tweeter section is slightly angled upwards, while the woofer and small rectangular bass port below it are set at a more traditional 90-degree to the ground. Usher provides a round cloth grille for the woofer, which attaches with pegs, but the tweeter is designed to remain uncovered.

     

    The sides of the Mini-X curve sharply to the back, making its cabinet closer to a triangle than a rectangle. The rear of the speaker comes to a (rounded) point. Because of this, the binding posts are arranged vertically on a metal plate that’s recessed into the cabinet. Unlike the other speakers under review, the Mini-X has four terminals on each speaker, to allow for bi-wiring or bi-amping, and come with a gold-plated jumper to bridge the terminals for those who only want to use one set of speaker cables. (That’s what I did.)

     

    My pair has a beautiful maple finish on the sides and back. Style is subjective, but the Mini-X is one of the best-looking speakers I’ve ever owned.

     

    contour_i_20_walnut_half_profile.png.jpegThe final entrant is the Contour 20i from the venerable Danish loudspeaker company Dynaudio. The Contour 20i is a two-way monitor with a rear bass port. Its MSRP is $5,750 USD per pair*. The 20i comes with a five-year warranty (extendable to eight years with registration), and the Dynaudio’s customer support is widely regarded as superb.

     

    Each 20i measures 17.3 inches high, 8.5 inches wide, and 15.6 inches deep, and weighs approximately 31 pounds. It features updated versions of the custom 1.1-inch tweeter and 7-inch woofer used in its Contour 20 predecessors. The Dynaudio site explains:

     

    "The new Esotar2i tweeter is a turbocharged version of the much-loved Esotar2. It now features a larger rear chamber for more effective damping, and the inventive Hexis inner dome seen on Confidence, Core and more. Together they flatten the frequency response and reduce unwanted resonances for even clearer, smoother treble.

     

    The woofer has been tweaked, too. It’s still made of our own Magnesium Silicate Polymer (MSP) material, of course, it’s still powered by a lightweight aluminium voice-coil, and it still uses a vented dual-ferrite magnet system — but behind the distinctive black cone lurks a brand-new spider suspension. This one is made from aramid fibres, and retains the ingenious structural properties from before (the ribs are of varying width to give even finer control over the cone’s excursion). You’d be surprised at the sonic difference such a small change can make…

     

    And because those driver changes provide an inherently flat frequency response, we’ve been able to simplify the crossover too…. There’s no longer any need for extra impedance-correction circuitry — which means an even more direct signal path. And cleaner sound."

     

    The 20i’s nominal impedance is four Ohms, and its reported sensitivity is 86dB (2.83V/1m).

     

    Beyond the above, the most structurally noteworthy feature of the Dynaydio speakers is the front aluminum baffle, which is set into the cabinet and designed to minimize unwanted vibrations. Included magnetic grills fit perfectly over this baffle. While this robs the listener of the ability to stare at the Dynaudio’s drivers, the grilles provide helpful and unobtrusive dust protection.

     

    The 20i’s cabinet is beautiful. They four vertical corners are rounded, with the left and right sides tapering slightly to the rear of the speaker. On the back, the 20i has a bass port near the top, which can be blocked with an included foam plug.  (Because I placed the 20i relatively close to a wall, I used the plugs.) At the bottom are binding posts set on a plate that’s flush-mounted with the cabinet. The binding posts deserve special mention, as they are by far the nicest on the three speakers reviewed here. Both the Philharmonic and Usher speakers feature identical posts covered in clear hard plastic. While there’s nothing particulary wrong with those posts, the Dynaudio’s unique posts are covered in what seems to be a slightly soft black plastic. This doesn’t make much difference when inserting banana plugs, but I found that the posts on the 20i hold spades more securely with less fuss than was necessary on the other speakers.

     

    Finally, it’s worth noting how solid the 20i’s cabinet feels. Dynaudio has always paid close attention to the dampening of their cabinets, and it shows. Whether using the old-fashioned knock test, touching the speaker while playing dynamic tracks, or using an accelerometer iPhone app, the Dynaudio is undoubtedly the most inert of the three speakers under review.

     

    With vital statistics and physical descriptions out of the way, let’s turn to the meat of this review, which is my subjective evaluation of the three speakers.

     

    Each pair of speakers was evaluated in a monitor setup. They were placed on IsoAcoustics Aperta200 stands, which in turn sat on the corners of the upper level of my (beloved) Platform desk. This allowed me to adjust each speaker’s tweeter to ear height. However, with both height and toe-in, I adjusted each speaker until it sounded its best (both subjectively and measured), then marked those spots with masking tape for ease of switching during subsequent head-to-head comparisons.

     

    Because I purchased these three pairs of speakers over a period of a year or so, I listened to each for a minimum of a few months uninterrupted. Once I was familiar with each, I switched back and forth between them for days or weeks at a time.

     

    At various points, I listened to each speaker with both a Schiit Ragnarok1 integrated amplifier and a (previously reviewed) Bryston 4B3 power amplifier controlled by a Benchmark HPA4 headphone/preamplifier. Over time, I also used a variety of DACs with each pair of speakers. Finally, I also listened to each pair of speakers with and without my SVS SB13 Ultra subwoofer (which required different settings, due to each pair’s differing sensitivity and low-end response).

     

    However, for this review’s critical listening, I kept things consistent. The subwoofer was switched off, and the evaluation setup included my Berkeley Alpha Reference 1 DAC and the Bechmark HPA4/Bryston 4B3 pre/amp combination. Each pair of speakers was level-matched with pink noise using a Dayton measurement microphone at the listening position. Volumes for each speaker were marked on the HPA4, which allows for precise level-adjustment.

     

    This nearfield setup — in which each speaker was approximately three feet from my listening position —

    minimizes room issues. However, it also means that what I hear from each speaker won’t be the same as what someone who’s listening position is across a large room. Indeed, Murphy took care to note that, while some people use the BMR in a monitor setup like mine, its three-way design is better suited to having more distance between the listener and the speakers. So, while my impressions are necessarily shaped by this nearfield setup, I’ll try to mention how my impressions did (or didn’t) change when listening from farther away.

     

    Before getting to the comparison, it’s worth emphasizing how this “rapid” (for speakers, at least) swapping of speakers threw their differences into sharp relief. Certain divergences that I detected on longer listening session were more apparent in this quick-switch format, and others that I hadn’t even noticed before (since our ears tend to acclimate to a particular setup over time) became obvious. It also sometimes took several rounds of switching using the same track — and, often, just short segments of the same track — for these differences to come into focus. Given that, readers should keep in mind that these are comparative differences — ones that might not have such significance were one to pick any of these three speakers as their only speaker.

     

    As is customary, I began with one of my favorite test tracks: The early, extended version of Van Morrison’s “The Street Only Knew Your Name,” which was recorded live in the studio at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, in 1975; released on Morrison’s 1998 outtakes compilation, The Philosopher’s Stone; and, more recently, remastered in hi-res by the great Tim Young.

     

    Beginning with the Dynaudio Contour 20i, the opening electric guitar lick in the left channel is accurate, clean, and well-balanced. Morrison’s vocal is likewise expressive, without being too throaty or sibilant. Next comes a key test — and one of the reasons I use this track to test equipment. Is the shaker that enters in the center-left just before Morrison’s vocal properly situated behind the other elements? Moreover, are the individual pebbles in the shaker intelligible, or is it a more amorphous “shh-shh-shh” (something that occurs with transducers that aren’t very resolving, have a wonky frequency response, or both)? Taking the latter issue first, the Contour 20i conveys the details of the shaker with almost textbook precision. Focusing on depth, I’m similarly impressed. Once properly positioned, the Contours produce a soundstage that’s nearly as deep as any speaker I’ve heard. In terms of width, the dispersion of the 20i isn’t quite as wide as some competition. (There’s little sense that the sound is extending beyond the bounds of the speakers.) However, the image is incredibly focused and stable, and — in contrast to the width — the Contour 20i produces an image that, while best heard with the tweeters near ear level, seems to extend a little above the speakers themselves. Focusing on the low end, the bass is clean and controlled. It also digs much deeper than I’d expect for a speaker the 20i’s size (though, as with all bookshelf speakers, the Dynaudio benefits from a subwoofer). One of the more striking features of the Contour 20i, besides its overall frequency balance and resolution, is how darn dynamic they sound.

     

    Taking the same track with the Usher Mini-X, differences in its tonality and presentation vis a vis the Contour 20i are immediately apparent. Through the Mini-X, the opening guitar lick is slightly honkier and boxier, suggesting that the Mini-X might be slightly elevated in the lower-mids. This subtle coloration is present throughout the whole track and is especially apparent in Van’s sax solo at the 3:30 mark, which is a bit thinner and more midrange-y through the Usher. However, the Usher also conveys a greater sense of reverb than the Contour 20i, hinting that the Mini-X may have a bit more upper-treble extension. The Mini-X’s tweeter coveys a crystalline, if unforgiving, rendering of everything in the recording. Van’s voice, for example, is incredibly clear and expressive. For something like the aforementioned shaker, the Mini-X is just as detailed as the Contour 20i. However, its rendering is also a bit flat compared to the Dynaudio’s. Turning to the low end, the Mini-X seems to extend down about as far as the Contour 20i, but the Mini-X seems to lack the 20i’s overall dynamic slam.

     

    The final entrant is the Philharmonic BMR Monitor. From the opening guitar lick through the horn solo, it’s obvious that the BMR provides a more tonally balanced presentation than the Mini-X and one that’s about even with the Dynaudio’s. As for the shaker, it’s a bit less detailed through the BMR, though far from low-resolution. The BMR’s well-balanced midrange renders Van’s voice with clarity and realism. But the most the outstanding element of the BMR is how deep it digs. It’s the least in need of a subwoofer, by a wide margin, even if it would still benefit from that low-end augmentation. In terms of macro-dynamics, it surpasses the Mini-X and seems about even with the Dynaudio (though adjusting for the Mini-X’s lower reach, the Contour 20i might have the edge in compression).

     

    My next test track is “I.G.Y.” from the original, digitally-sourced CD of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, the subject of a recent “The Best Version Of…” column. The acid test from this track is how a speaker (or headphone) handles the opening synth wash, which very obviously sounds “off” on transducers that have a skewed frequency response. This track also has an almost punishingly dynamic snare throughout, which should retain that character — without being unnatural softened or flinchingly exaggerated — on good equipment. In terms of detail, one should be able to differentiate the specific keyboards used in the introduction, distinguish the interlocking kick and hi-hat in the right channel, and discern the individual voices in the multitracked backing vocals, among other details.

     

    Beginning this time with the Philharmonic speakers, I’m struck by the BMR’s wall-of-sound quality. With its wide dispersion, the BMR throws a soundstage that seems to extend far beyond the speakers, especially horizontally. The main downside of this is somewhat ill-defined imaging. Dennis warned that, as a three-way speaker, the BMR may not cohere well in a nearfield setup. In terms of frequency response, I think Dennis’s concern was misplaced. Even at close range, I was impressed by the BMR’s seamless crossover. But I do think that moving farther away from the speakers improved the BMR’s imaging, even if it still falls behind both the Usher and (especially) the Dynaudio on this count. This is, in part, about tradeoffs. The price to pay for a soundstage that’s larger than the other two speakers under consideration is a more amorphous sense of space. The BMR doesn’t excel at front-to-back layering, either. That isn’t to say it’s bad on that count, just that it’s not quite as good as the Mini-X and significantly behind the Contour 20i when it comes to that characteristic. It also may be that the BMR’s overall resolution exacerbates its moderately diffuse imaging. Through the BMR, it’s relatively difficult to separate the swirling keyboards in the left channel from background synth wash during the intro, as well as to pick apart the aforementioned layers of backing vocals. But given that the BMR are less than half the price of the Dynaudio Contour 20i, it’s hard to call this much of a criticism. Moreover, the minor deficit displayed by the BMR on fine resolution is made up for by the BMR’s frequency balance, which is simply superb. Tonally, everything has a certain rightness to it. Fagen’s voice, for example, sounds smooth and natural. Same with the horn part on “I.G.Y.,” which is glaring when it’s off. The BMR also has excellent high-end extension. The reverb trails radiating out from Fagen’s voice are crisp and enveloping. Searching for any flaw in the BMR’s balance, the upper-mids might be a smidge bright for some folks’ tastes, but that’s nitpicking.

     

    Moving to the Contour 20i, it’s much, much easier to distinguish the various keyboards and synths in opening. Ditto for hearing other small details, like the muted guitar in left channel, as well as the aforementioned hi-hat/kick combo and backing vocal overdubs. The 20i also incrementally improves on the sense of realism in Fagen’s voice — in part due to the Dynaudio’s overall superiod resolution and in part due to its deeper soundstage. Focusing on the reverb suffused throughout the mix on “I.G.Y.,” it’s still easily discerned — in terms of location, tone, etc. — through the Dynaydio, but it’s ever-so-slightly more muted, suggesting again that the Contour 20i has a bit less energy in the upper-treble than the Philharmonic does. That said, I never felt like the Contour 20i was artificially sanitizing things. That relentless snare still has its bite. But I do imagine that people who are sensitive to metallic tweeters will find the Contour 20i’s undoubtedly smoother high-end more agreeable than the one offered by either the BMR or the Mini-X. Finally, the Dynaudio continues to convey the music’s dynamic swings better than either competitor.

     

    Finishing this round with the Usher Mini-X DMD, it’s clear that the Usher is closer to the BMR than the 20i on most counts. The Mini-X, which has a relatively wide later dispersion, conveys some of the wall-of-sound features of the BMR, though it doesn’t throw a soundstage that quite as wide or as tall as the BMR’s. It’s resolution, on the other hand, is bit above Philharmonic’s. It’s easier to distinguish the kick/hi-hat intricacies through the Mini-X than through the BMR, but the difference is small. The Mini-X also conveys depth better than the Philharmonic, but not as good as the Contour 20i. That said, the slight honkiness I detected on the first track is apparent on “I.G.Y.,” too, and is especially noticeable when the horns come in. Focusing on the low end, the Usher’s bass is clean, but (again) it’s not as deep as either the Contour 20i’s or, especially, the BMR’s.

     

    The final comparison track is Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” from the original CD release of her 1988 self-titled debut album. Like “I.G.Y.,” “Fast Car” is another early digital recording that can be ruthlessly revealing of flaws. Shuffling the speakers again for this last round, the Philharmonic will be first, the Usher second, and the Dynaudio third.

     

    Even on the relatively sparse “Fast Car,” the BMR’s wall-of-sound quality is apparent, in both the positive and negative senses. Taking the downsides first, a clear example of the Philharmonic’s somewhat diffuse soundstage comes with the squeaks of the strings on Chapman’s acoustic guitar, which sound a bit disembodied and detached from the guitar itself through the BMR. In terms of details, it’s not very easy to separate the double-tracked acoustics in the introduction, and when the low-mixed electric guitar enters as the track ramps up at the three-minute mark, it’s not very easy to pick out. Turning to the positives, the frequency response of the BMR imparts a realism to each of the track’s elements. Chapman’s voice is full-bodied and balanced. The drums are tonally accurate, from top to bottom, and sound much more substantial than can be reasonably expected from any speaker this size. This allows the Philharmonic to convey the song’s dramatic dynamic shifts incredibly well even without a subwoofer. Finally, even though the BMR doesn’t provide the last word when it comes to detail, the shaker that’s buried deep in the mix isn’t reduced to an indistinct “shh.”

     

    Moving to the Usher, one immediately notices the greater separation between Chapman’s acoustic overdubs than on the BMR. Another point in the Mini-X’s favor is that it’s easier to hear the aforementioned electric guitar. The Usher’s slight edge on imaging comes is apparent with the string noise, which is more well-connected, though a bit softer, than through the BMR. That softness hints at the somewhat less-linear frequency response of the Mini-X. Another indication on “Fast Car” can be heard in the snare, which lacks the snap and power heard on the Philharmonic, sounding a bit thinner and boxier.

     

    Finishing with the Dynaudio, it’s by far easiest to separate Chapman’s overdubbed acoustics. The string noise is finally fully connected to her guitar and, separately from the squeaks, one can even begin to detect the separate resonances of the strings versus the body of the guitar. This same detail retrieval applies to the nuances of Chapman’s vocal, the shaker mixed deep in the track, the inflections of the snare hits, and so on. All of this detail is aided by the fact that, again, the Contour 20i provides pinpoint imaging and superb depth. Again, the Dynaudio’s tonal balance seem to be very close to that of the BMR, but with slightly less bass. That translates to slightly less of dynamic swing when the full drum kit enters on “Fast Car,” but taking the reduced bass extension into account, the Dynaudio’s dynamics remain exceptional. Plus, while the Contour 20i may not dig as deep as the Philharmonic, it offers a subjectively deeper low-end response than the Mini-X.

     

     

    Where does the above leave us?

     

    The Dynaudio Contour 20i is an audiophile-worthy bookshelf speaker that is perhaps the best that I’ve heard from any speaker with an MSRP below $5,000**. While it’s hard to point to any one element in a test track that demonstrates this, the overall presentation of the Contour 20i is smooth and clear. Technically, I’m sure this has a lot to do with its cabinet’s low resonance and the quality of its soft-dome tweeter. The Contour 20i provides a non-fatiguing listen that also doesn’t make one feel like they’re missing any detail. Indeed, the 20i is the most detailed speaker under review. Given that, the 20i is a must-hear for audiophiles who believe that “detail retrieval” equals “overly bright.”

     

    Meanwhile, the Philharmonic BMR Monitor is one of the best deals going in bookshelf speakers. At $1,700, the BMR outclasses everything I’ve heard in its price range***. The BMR has room-filling dispersion, superb tonal balance, and a low-end reach that belies its size. Budget-minded audiophiles simply need to hear the BMR, and with Murphy’s commitment to customer service, they’re a sound investment.

     

    The odd speaker out is the Usher Mini-X, though that is far from an indictment of what are a very good pair of bookshelf speakers. The Mini-X has the airiest, most extended treble of the three speakers under review, and in most other characteristics it falls in between the Dynaudio and the Philharmonic, though closer to the latter. To my ears, the Mini-X strays furthest from a linear frequency response, but that’s only compared to these two other excellent speakers. In the grand scheme of bookshelf speakers, the Mini-X’s balance is very good. The Usher is most in need of a subwoofer, which can help to hide its slight honkiness. Still, some listeners might find the Mini-X’s high end slightly fatiguing. On the other hand, those who want wider dispersion than the 20i but more detail than the BMR might think the Mini-X is just right. That’s especially true if one tends to have a dead-sounding room.

     

    Factoring in both sound and price, the Dynaudio Contour 20i is the winner among these three pairs of speakers, at least for this reviewer. Yes, the 20i costs more than twice as much as the Philharmonic BMR Monitor, but its sound justifies that premium. For the price, the BMR is a close runner-up. With the exception of dispersion and low-end extension, it can’t match the 20i. But the fact that a $1,700 speaker from a one-man company is even in the mix with two $4,000 speakers from larger manufacturers is high praise indeed.

     

     

     

     

    * This article initially erroneously reported the Dynaudio's price as $5,250 based on a 2020 review. It has been updated to reflect that. In my opinion, even with the $500 price shift, the Contour 20i still come out on top, with the Philharmonic BMR a close second.

     

    ** This includes other critically acclaimed, similarly priced bookshelf speakers that I’ve owned, such as the Revel Performa M126Be, which I found to be boxy and somewhat artificial in tonality.

     

    *** This includes critically acclaimed, similarly priced bookshelf speakers that I’ve owned, such as the KEF LS50, the Sonus Faber Venere 2.0, and the SVS Ultra Bookshelf. Those who prioritize imaging and detail retrieval above all might still prefer the LS50, but otherwise the BMR is the clear winner among this this group, at least in my humble opinion.

     

     

     

     

     

    About the Author

    jm.pngJosh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.




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    Thanks for the review @JoshM! This is a really good write-up and describes details that are important to me or that I'd at least be interested in knowing. Of course when I see RAAL true ribbon tweeter, I immediately perk up. My RAAL headphones are amazing. But, they are a single driver "speaker" that doesn't have to integrate with any other driver or drive a room.I wanted to read that the BMR was equally as stunning as the RAAL SR1a headphones, but that's a bit crazy :~)

     

    Looking at these three speakers, it's really evident that many roads lead to sonic happiness. Just considering the difference in tweeter technologies alone, these speakers should be metaphorically placed at the tips of an equilateral triangle, all three very far from each other. 

     

    Great info Josh. Well done.

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    Thanks for the review! Can you advise what amplifier you used as that can bias the results. Have heard the Philharmonic BMR's before, very nice,

     

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    2 minutes ago, davide256 said:

    Thanks for the review! Can you advise what amplifier you used as that can bias the results. Have heard the Philharmonic BMR's before, very nice,

     

     

     

    From the review:

     

    At various points, I listened to each speaker with both a Schiit Ragnarok1 integrated amplifier and a (previously reviewed) Bryston 4B3 power amplifier controlled by a Benchmark HPA4 headphone/preamplifier. Over time, I also used a variety of DACs with each pair of speakers. Finally, I also listened to each pair of speakers with and without my SVS SB13 Ultra subwoofer (which required different settings, due to each pair’s differing sensitivity and low-end response).

     

    However, for this review’s critical listening, I kept things consistent. The subwoofer was switched off, and the evaluation setup included my Berkeley Alpha Reference 1 DAC and the Bechmark HPA4/Bryston 4B3 pre/amp combination. Each pair of speakers was level-matched with pink noise using a Dayton measurement microphone at the listening position. Volumes for each speaker were marked on the HPA4, which allows for precise level-adjustment.

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    Nice write up Josh, I really enjoyed the read.  I'm not surprised the Dynaudio speakers came out on top.  

     

     

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    Hello Josh, 

     

    Great review. I also have the Bryston poweramp and Benchmark preamp but my speakers are the Revel Performa M126BE😉

     

    And in my room they sound amazing to my ears. I have a large, open and quite lively room but we measured it and nothing causes real problems. 

     

    Bass is really tight and punchy. Mids are neutral and i can understand your comments on the mids. They are not really artificial to me but more analytical. They aren't going to add warmth or romance but i don't want that. I want a clean, precise sound. Fast and detailed. I use them to test gear for Alpha-Audio.net. Also i listen to a lot of electronic music and they are great for that kind of music. 

     

    I haven't heard the dynaudio however. Will ask for a pair to try out. Seems like they tick a lot of boxes as well. Very intrigued to hear them now. 

     

    Thanks again for the great write-up. 

     

    Geoff

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    Thanks for your review, Josh.

     

    As a Dynaudio Contour 20i owner I can confirm the non-fatiguing sound representation of the Danish speakers without missing details.

     

    They are really well made, providing a remarkable extension in the low end (considering the size) and giving an authoritative sense of control.

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    7 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Thanks for the review @JoshM! This is a really good write-up and describes details that are important to me or that I'd at least be interested in knowing. Of course when I see RAAL true ribbon tweeter, I immediately perk up. My RAAL headphones are amazing. But, they are a single driver "speaker" that doesn't have to integrate with any other driver or drive a room.I wanted to read that the BMR was equally as stunning as the RAAL SR1a headphones, but that's a bit crazy :~)

     

    Looking at these three speakers, it's really evident that many roads lead to sonic happiness. Just considering the difference in tweeter technologies alone, these speakers should be metaphorically placed at the tips of an equilateral triangle, all three very far from each other. 

     

    Great info Josh. Well done.

     

    The BMR is the third pair of speakers I've tried with RAAL tweeters, and I honestly hadn't been very impressed by them in the past, but Dennis did something really special with the BMR.

     

    3 hours ago, Geoff13 said:

    Hello Josh, 

     

    Great review. I also have the Bryston poweramp and Benchmark preamp but my speakers are the Revel Performa M126BE😉

     

    And in my room they sound amazing to my ears. I have a large, open and quite lively room but we measured it and nothing causes real problems. 

     

    Bass is really tight and punchy. Mids are neutral and i can understand your comments on the mids. They are not really artificial to me but more analytical. They aren't going to add warmth or romance but i don't want that. I want a clean, precise sound. Fast and detailed. I use them to test gear for Alpha-Audio.net. Also i listen to a lot of electronic music and they are great for that kind of music. 

     

    I haven't heard the dynaudio however. Will ask for a pair to try out. Seems like they tick a lot of boxes as well. Very intrigued to hear them now. 

     

    Thanks again for the great write-up. 

     

    Geoff

     

    Geoff, Wow! I had that *exact* setup! To be clear, I didn't hate the M126Be. They absolutely measure well and, as you said, are extremely fast and detailed, which are both traits I value. But there was just something about their tonality that I couldn't get past. I also found their soundstage to be relatively flat when listening at close range (though their horizontal and vertical dispersion was excellent). Like the Ushers, I think that the M125Be would sound much better listening from a distance in a large room than they sounded in my nearfield monitor setup.

     

    3 hours ago, Chorus said:

    Josh,

     

    This is a very timely article for us. Arizona Audio Video Club on August 27th will have 17 Standmounts here for a public demonstration. See AZAVCLUB.com for details.

     

    The Philharmonic is one of them. We capped MSRP at $3,000 so your other two are not.

    Did you consider the ATC SCM 11 by chance? 

    You mentioned  your 3 "Made the Cut". Love to see the complete list.

     

    Your article is particularly well written. As I read your professional background I see why.

     

    One thing most reviewers skip is "Low level listening" . For that matter almost never is the SPL level employed even mentioned. 438034497_SpeakerFestFlyer-p1-2.thumb.jpg.ce85c3e0364c3129fc412d06d6dd74b3.jpgThis is wrong for many reasons.

     

    You did well in the analysis of Detail vs Tonality. 

     

    Presence, Soundstage, Airiness, Separation and most of all "Magic" are my key loves. 

     

    I look forward to reading more of your articles.

     

    Thanks,

     

    Jeff Kalina

    Arizona Audio Video

    SpeakerFest Flyer - p2-3.jpg

     

    Jeff, that sounds like a great event! I haven't heard *any* ATC speakers, though I'd love to. Are you doing head-to-head demos for attendees? If so, I hope you'll survey everyone and post the results. I'd be very curious to see how attendees think the BMR stack up and which speakers come out on top!

     

     

     

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    Hello Josh,

     

    It's a small miracle those three speakers even work in a near-field situation seeing as they weren't made for that. My Revels will indeed sound boxy and boomy close against the back wall. Why not explore the wonderful world of pro speakers?

     

    In my larger room the Revels perform excellent but i understand your comment of the tonality. They are quite dry and kinda matter of fact but i love that about them. 

     

    Thanks again for the great write-up. You guys always write elaborate reviews but i still love reading them for start to bottom.

     

    Best regards 

    Geoff

     

     

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    24 minutes ago, Philharmonic Dennis said:

    Thanks very much for your excellent review Josh.  I haven't heard the other two speakers in the evaluation, so I obviously can't comment on your comparative observations.  However, I used to greatly enjoy working with Dynaudio drivers back in the day when they were available to the DIY community, and  I have no doubt that the Contour 20i is a superb piece of audio engineering.  

     

    Quite frankly, I had never expected the BMR monitors to be used in a nearfield application, but I'm happy to hear that they hold up in that environment.  My primary design goal for the BMR's was realistic reproduction of larger scale works recorded in venues with natural ambiance. My experience (dating back farther than I would like to contemplate) has been that most speakers, and particularly 2-way speakers, tend to compress the sound stage and fail to provide the sense of space that we hear in a live performance.  That explains my choice of very broad-dispersion drivers and crossover points that equalize their radiation pattern.  It's possible that this approach has some negative impact on imaging for smaller scale studio recordings, but I can't think of any way to address that without sacrificing other qualities more important to me.  Fortunately, the loudspeaker market is among the  most competitive in the economy and  no one can complain of lack of choices.  Again, thank you for spending so much time with the BMR's and reporting your impressions in such articulate fashion.   


    Hi Dennis,

     

    What you’ve achieved with the BMR is remarkable. I bought it knowing that my use case wasn’t typical, and I agree that they’d be even better in a large space, since one of their strengths is their room-filling dispersion. But thanks to your driver and crossover decisions, the BMR has an excellent tonality that come across even in my near-field setup, and it’s fun to experience a sound that’s much larger than I’ve come to expect from a speaker of that size at that distance. I hope more and more audiophiles try the BMR, because it’s price to performance ratio is off the charts.

     

    Josh 

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    Josh - while my setup is a more conventional stand-mount speaker config - Sonus Faber Venere 2 with Sumiko matching sub. About 8.5’ apart me sitting about 9’ away. I have always been interested in possible swap out for the BMR Philharmonitors - on the very short list I am always considering. If I saw correctly - you played with the Venere 2 as well - even though the application is not identical - would you pick the BMRs in a heartbeat over the Venere’s? Thanks for sharing any feedback.

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    On 8/19/2022 at 10:42 PM, Sbleam said:

    Josh - while my setup is a more conventional stand-mount speaker config - Sonus Faber Venere 2 with Sumiko matching sub. About 8.5’ apart me sitting about 9’ away. I have always been interested in possible swap out for the BMR Philharmonitors - on the very short list I am always considering. If I saw correctly - you played with the Venere 2 as well - even though the application is not identical - would you pick the BMRs in a heartbeat over the Venere’s? Thanks for sharing any feedback.


    Yes. For me, at least, it’s not even close. I thought the Venere 2 had a zingy upper-treble and depressed mids, which was too bad, since I thought they looked great. The BMR is dramatically better, IMHO.

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    Very nice review. 

     

    I am also glad to see Denis Murphy's speakers in the mix. I know this phrase gest overused quite a bit, but they really are 'giant killers'.

     

    My only complaint is, can we audio enthusiasts, please, please, do away with the term 'bookshelf' speakers? Long gone are the days when people are actually putting speakers of this size on a bookshelf. 'Standmount' speakers is more accurate way these types of speakers are being used, and of course, they sound drastically better on stands. 

     

     

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    This was a great review.

    It brought my attention to philharmonic audio that might play a role in a secondary system.

     

    I am enjoying my new speakers (Audiovector R3) and they also have a dome tweeter that I found informative but sweet sounding. They have a monitor (R1) that probably would feel at home in that comparison.

     

    Monitor loudspeakers have a charm of their own because we can more easily play with their location and made them sonicaly disappear.

     

    It reminds me that I should have took the opportunity to buy a used Evolution Acoustics micro one, as that was the best that I found at doing that disappearing act while being extraordinary on voices and acoustics with a great integration of tweeter and ceramic drivers.

    https://www.evolutionacoustics.com/loudspeakers/micro-series/microone/?doing_wp_cron=1663845790.1658730506896972656250

     

    I will keep an eye on the market for used Micro Ones and Philarmonic Audio monitors...

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