POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 15
as reviewed by Vade Forrester
Usher Loudspeakers are made in Taiwan, one of the top consumer technology centers of the free world. Usher hired Dr. Joseph D'Appolito, renowned speaker designer, to oversee the design of their speakers, and it was money well spent. Aside from killer sonics, Usher never forgets that their speakers will be used in peoples' homes, and they are very attentive to appearance. To me, Usher speakers range from very attractive to drop dead gorgeous, but how do they sound?
My first exposure to Usher speakers was at a demonstration by their U.S. distributors, Stan and Carter Tracht of Thee High End, at a prospective dealer's showroom. Of the three models demonstrated, I was most impressed with the X-719s, stand-mounted speakers that had very strong bass and good dynamics. At only $1000 per pair, these are among the best values I've seen, so I asked for a pair to review. Unfortunately, the buzz had already gotten around, and lots of other reviewers had asked to review them, so Stan asked if I would consider reviewing the Usher X-708s, which are slightly smaller and even cheaper. How could I refuse?
The X-708s are average-sized two-way stand-mounted speakers. Each has a one-inch silk dome tweeter and a seven-inch mid/bass driver. The mid/bass driver has a paper cone and a round metal phase plug. A high-order crossover divides the frequency range at 2.23kHz. Power handling is 80 watts, and efficiency is 88dB (one watt at one meter). Impedance is 8 ohms. Each speaker weighs 26.5 pounds, and measures 9.6 x 14.1 x 15.1 inches (width/depth/height). The cabinets have decorative (and resonance-controlling) wood side panels, and the remaining portions of the cabinets are painted matte black, matte pearl, matte silver, or matte white. Gloss black is available at extra cost. The box is not rectangular, but sports a slanted, non-parallel front and back (to minimize internal resonance) and time-aligned drivers. The samples I reviewed had the matte white finish, which I found to be a refreshing change from the ubiquitous black speakers, but my household decorator opined that they looked like plastic. So much for WAF! The speakers have one-inch thick MDF walls, and with the addition of the wood side panels, they're very sturdy. Two sets of terminals on the rear panel make it possible to bi-wire the speaker. Copper-plated brass jumpers connect the mid/bass unit to the tweeter. The terminals are recessed deeply into the back of the speaker, making it slightly challenging to connect speaker cables with large spade lugs, like the WBTs on mine. The cabinet is ported to the rear, just above the terminals.
Usher stands were not available, so I installed the X-708s on 24-inch Studio Tech stands. These stands have four large rectangular steel support columns, which I filled with sand to make them more massive and inert. The Soliloquy speakers that normally reside on the stands are Blue-Tacked in place, but since the Ushers were only temporarily in residence, I put them on one-inch Sorbothane squares. An eight-foot length of speaker cable connected the speakers to all of the amplifiers I used. I have found this cable to be very transparent and neutral. It is also rather flexible, which makes it easy to use.
After a little experimentation, I placed the stands about 34 inches from the back wall, with 65 inches between the tweeters, a position that I found worked well for my similarly sized Soliloquy SM-2A3s. I initially pointed the X-708s directly at my listening position, which seemed to work well, but later discovered that toeing them out about 15 degrees produced a better image. I started the audition with the stock jumpers between the tweeters and mid/bass terminals. I later tried bi-wiring, but ended up using a Blue Marble Audio jumper. I removed the grilles and did not use them during the review period.
While it was here for review, I connected the superb Sophia Electric KT-88 integrated amp to the X-708s. Although the Sophia is rated at only 50 watts per channel, it drove them without breaking a sweat. The speakers easily revealed the amp's gorgeous tonal qualities and robust, punchy bass. It's a bit goofy to use a $3750 amp with $900 speakers, but one has to seize every opportunity. Unfortunately, the Sophia amp had to be shipped to the next reviewer, so I wasn't able to use it throughout the review.
Next I tried a Parasound HCA 2200II stereo amp, a 250-watt monster that provides two sets of speaker terminals to facilitate bi-wiring. I'm pleased to report that by exercising lots of caution with the volume control, I did no damage to the speakers. The Parasound amp, which was designed by John Curl, is very smooth and non-fatiguing, and has an extended frequency response. It enjoyed a good reputation in its day, but has been out of production for several years.
Although it was in the middle of a modification process, I couldn't resist trying a little amplifier that is creating a lot of buzz in the audiophile underground, the Applied Research and Technology Studio Linear Amplifier Model 1 (SLA-1). This is a professional 100wpc solid state amp that is downright cheap, but it uses pro-style connectors, and needs to be modified to work with spade lugs and RCA plugs. This amp was a better match for the speaker's 80-watt power rating. Its clipping indicators never came on, although the protection lights did when I shorted the amp by trying to force two sets of spade lugs onto the binding posts. Fortunately, the protection circuitry works extremely well.
From the very first, the X-708s impressed with the power and depth of their bass. You seldom hear this kind of bass from small speakers, especially ones that only cost $900. With the stock jumpers in place, the speaker cables were connected to the mid/bass terminals, so they got the full signal without passing through the jumpers. The midrange and treble were pleasant, but sounded a little congested and lacking in dynamics. This was the case with all three amplifiers, although the Sophia KT-88 seemed to minimize the problem. Highs were extended, but the sound had a bleached quality that failed to deliver accurate instrumental timbres and, in loud passages, exhibited some coloration. Had I stopped here, I would have written an unenthusiastic review that described the X-708s as nice but uninspiring speakers that sound okay for the price, but are no big deal. However, I didn't stop there.
The next step was to remove the jumpers and run separate speaker wires to the mid/bass terminals and the tweeter terminals. I lacked two runs of the Blue Marble Audio speaker cables, but a raid on my closet yielded an eight-foot run of Alpha-Core MI-2 speaker cables. I remembered that these had always produced extended, open highs, so I used them for the tweeter connections, leaving the Blue Marble Audio cables connected to the mid/bass drivers, and used the Parasound amp. The results were quite interesting.
Bi-wired, the X-708s' highs and mids became more prominent and dynamic. Gone was most, though not all of the dynamic constriction, and the highs were more open. The midrange also improved, indicating that the stock jumper bars had been affecting the lower drivers. The bass remained stellar, and the slight congestion I had noticed was reduced, but there was a sonic discontinuity due to the fact that I was using dissimilar cables on the tweeters and mid/bass drivers. The full dynamic range of the music was also not being realized. I wanted to see how the speakers would sound with the same type of cables feeding all of the drivers, so I borrowed a set of jumpers from Blue Marble Audio's proprietor (and good friend), Roger Tiller. For some time, Roger had been telling me that his jumpers, made from the same wire as his speaker cables, sounded better than bi-wiring, but I was skeptical. I didn't see how that could work, as I'd still be using jumpers instead of a direct connection to the amplifier, but why not give it a try? I was unprepared for the results. The dynamics improved even more (a lot more), and the slight midrange congestion was essentially gone. Music flowed easily from the speakers, with better definition and timbral accuracy. Using the Blue Marble Audio jumpers in place of the stock jumper bars had turned the X-708s into excellent speakers.
It was time to begin critical listening, but I was faced with a dilemma. One of my pet peeves with audio reviewers is the practice of modifying review equipment, which means that so the reader doesn't get an accurate picture of how the device will sound when they get it home. Many of those modifications are not accessible to a techno-klutz user like me, but in this case, replacing the jumpers was about as difficult as changing a light bulb. I'm not sure whether other jumpers would have had such a positive effect, but suspect that any jumpers made of the same wire as the speaker cables would work as well, and so would bi-wiring with the same cables. I conducted all of my serious listening with the Blue Marble Audio jumpers.
For serious listening, I used both the Parasound and the SLA-1 amps. Custer LaRue is the delightful soprano in my favorite musical group, the Baltimore Consort, which specializes in Elizabethan, as well as some early American songs. The five instrumentalists who make up the remainder of the group are virtuosi for whom the music holds little technical challenge. When you see the group perform, you realize how much fun they have with their music, and you realize that their enjoyment extends to recording sessions. The song "Soldier Boy for Me," on A True Lover's Farewell (Dorian DOR-90213), begins with a martial drum, followed by the soprano and the instrumentalists. Through the SLA-1, the drum had real impact and was well defined. Custer sounded like she does in person, and I could hear her modulate her voice to suit the words. The soundstage was deep, but images were somewhat diffuse. Still, the song was lots of fun to listen to, and I could sense the performers' enjoyment. The much more powerful Parasound drove the bass lower, had a spacious, three-dimensional soundfield, and smooth vocals, but the highs were less extended than with the SLA-1.
An excellent piece for evaluating soundstaging is Allegri's Misere, on Gimmell 454 939-2. A choir and a solo group sing from different positions in a large, resonant space (a church). Through the SLA-1, there was a particularly good sense of spaciousness, as the sound reverberated across the soundstage. The tonal qualities of the singers were very accurately depicted, although it was not always clear that there were two groups singing in separate locations. The Parasound threw a more cavernous soundstage, but the voices were less distinct, and the highs were slightly rolled off. There was a clear spatial distinction between the main choir and the solo group.
My admiration of Jennifer Warnes, artistically and sonically, is well established. One of my favorite audition tracks is her song "I Can't Hide," from her CD The Hunter (Private Music 01005-82089-2). Through the SLA-1, the opening drum roll was unusually powerful. I almost checked to see if I had inadvertently turned on my subwoofer! The deep, well-defined bass was remarkable from such small speakers. At the other end of the audio spectrum, the chimes that are heard later in the piece were distinct and well defined, but Jennifer's voice sounded just a little dry and grainy. The Parasound amp smoothed out the voice considerably, but it slightly rolled off the highs. The bass was dramatically better, going deeper with more impact and lots of detail. Power rules!
My all-time favorite cut to evaluate how components handle detail is Jordi Savall's performance of "Rodrigo Martinez," from the CD La Folia (AliaVox AV9805). Through the SLA-1, the opening castanets rang out clearly, and it was evident that each note decayed over a period of several seconds. Dynamics were good, but slightly smoothed out. Savall's viola da gamba was tonally accurate, but slightly too polite. The Parasound gave a better depiction of the deep bass drum than I have ever heard, even through a subwoofer. It was not only very deep, but the detailed sound of the drumsticks hitting the heads was superior to that of my much more expensive ReTHM speakers.
By the time I had played these tracks, I was convinced that the SLA-1 amp was imparting a slight edge to the sound. I had tried driving it directly from the CD player, since the amp has individual volume controls for each channel, but for the heck of it, I tried feeding the amp from the output of my preamp. That took the edge off the sound, which became rounder and warmer, with improved spatial definition. Was this a case of tubes slowing down the transient response? Perhaps, but I suspect it was due to the low input impedance of the amp, coupled with the high output impedance of the preamp and the somewhat high capacitance of the interconnects. Whatever the reason, the X-708s sounded much more pleasant.
I replayed "Rodrigo Martinez" with the preamp in the circuit. The sound was warmer, with better pitch definition and timing, and it was easier to follow melodic lines. Using the X-708s as analytical tools, I had identified and isolated a problem, proposed and tested a solution, and verified that the solution worked. This is a testimony to their transparency.
The Usher X-708 loudspeakers provide refined, distinguished, even gutsy sound, and could easily form the basis of a respectable small audio system. Their bass is remarkable for speakers of this size and price, and they exhibit a noteworthy transparency that always lets you know what is going on in the rest of the system. I tried three amplifiers with the X-708s, and the speakers unambiguously showed me how each amp sounded. Unfortunately, the Sophia Electric KT-88 amp was not around for the duration of the evaluation, and neither of the solid state amplifiers I tried was ideal. The Parasound HCA 2200II had spectacular lows, but rolled off the highs and lacked a little detail and dynamics. The ART SLA-1 was more extended in the highs, had deep bass with good detail and depth, and more spatial resonance and dynamics, but in its present state, the highs are a bit edgy. Its modification process has only begun, and I hope the rough edges will be eliminated while its strengths grow.
The stock jumpers between the tweeter terminals and the mid/bass terminals detract from the speakers' sound by reducing dynamics and causing congestion in loud passages. Bi-wiring or replacing the jumper bars with jumpers made from better speaker wire will improve the performance greatly, and my high opinion of these speakers is based on this being done. Bi-wiring reduces a slight but annoying dynamic constriction. Bi-wired X-708s are open, airy, and produce a realistic but not over-etched soundstage. I find their appearance attractive, and the wide variety of available finishes should make it easy to match them to your decor.
The Usher X-708s were substantially better than I expected. They look good, sound good, and somehow only cost $900 per pair. I actually thought they were better than the X-719s, except in the bass, where the 719s are extraordinary. If the X-708s are in your budget range, I highly recommend that you give them a listen. Vade Forrester