Quality speakers on a budget

Week of April 16, 2006

Q:   My daughter Sarah needs speakers to complete a stereo/surround system for her apartment living room.   I gave her my surround sound receiver as well as a Bose center speaker. She will consider floor-standing or bookshelf models in the $400-1,000 for a pair price range. The room these speakers are going into is approximately 20×15 feet.

I know speaker choice usually comes down to what sounds the best to the listener, but we are looking for some ideas from which to start.

-John Ridley, Minneapolis, MN

A:   Good speakers are the key to a great sounding system as well as one of my favorite subjects to write about.     Any of the choices below will provide great sound for music and movies.

At the high end of your budget I strongly recommend the floor-standing Ohm MicroWalsh Tall,   at $900.   The Ohm Walsh driver puts out a pure, spacious, 3-D sound that has to be heard to be appreciated.     I am a customer myself, and still have the pair of small Ohms I bought 15 years ago.   You can see them at www.ohmspeaker.com.

Ohm speakers are sold factory-direct only and are handmade to order right here in the USA.   You don’t see that much anymore!

The best sound from $600 and below is found in stand-mounted bookshelf models.   Spending less generally means less bass,   though sound quality will remain high. With your $1,000 budget these speakers offer you some options you may not have considered, which I will detail below.

At $600 check out the Paradigm Monitor 5.   These have a   punchy sound and a warmish tonal balance that is very pleasing and non-fatiguing, as well as very good bass.     Check them out at www.paradigm.com and at your local Paradigm dealer.

Going down to $450 per pair leads to one of my latest finds, the B&W 601 S3.     Made in England by storied speaker manufacturer B&W, these exhibit beautiful design and top-notch fit and finish.   They sound clean, clear and dynamic, with a wonderfully rich tonal balance, detailed highs, a fully fleshed-out midrange, and very stable stereo imaging.   They are just a tad over your $400 starting point, which could lead to a complete matched system at your full budget, as you will see below.   You can see them at dealers as well as at www.bwspeakers.com.

At the entry level is a perennial favorite of mine, the Axiom Audio M2i   at $290 per pair.
These are the best sounding speakers I have ever heard under $300- they have just plain “good sound” that is very full for a speaker of its size.   Learn more at www.axiomaudio.com.

A few things you may not have thought of-   Sarah would be better off ditching the Bose center channel and using “phantom” mode with her new speakers, which makes a virtual center speaker using the two fronts.   A mismatched center channel can be very distracting.   Better to go without a center   until you can add one that matches her new speakers.
Next item- at $1,000 you can build an incredible surround sound outfit with matched speakers.

Parts Express (www.partsexpress.com) sells a great powered subwoofer (Dayton brand)   for only $125.   Why not sell the Bose on eBay and use the proceeds to buy the subwoofer?   The sub could be paired with the Axioms M2is, and adding Axiom’s QS4 surround speakers for $420 would give her full surround sound… great sounding surround sound… for $835.

You could also team the Parts Express subwoofer with the B&Ws.   Two pairs of 601 S3s would list for $900, and if buying two pairs a dealer may give you a discount- shop around.   Add the $125 sub and you have some extremely high-quality surround sound at only $1,025 for all the speakers.   It’s hard for me to imagine more bang for you buck than this setup!

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