Audition Martin Logan
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Try to audition the Spendor SP1/2s. Accurate but but very natural sounding. Non-fatiguing and great with all types of music, particulary vocals, although perhaps not a head-bangers favorite. Hold their dynamics at low listening levels. High quality cabinetry. I've used them with the Rogue monos and it's a great match.
My tastes run very similar to yours in terms of sonic presentation, and I also shy away from most metal dome tweeters. Three floorstanders that would likely match well with your tastes and electronics are Soliloquy 6.2, Audio Physic Tempo III, and possibly Triangle Celius.
If you can stretch your budget a little I'd strongly, strongly recommend the Silverline Sonatina II. Best of luck.
It sounds to me like you and I have similar taste. Let me make a few observations, and then a few specific suggestions.
To sound good at low volume, a speaker must be very articulate and have very good dynamic contrast - otherwise, you keep wanting to turn the volume up. So you want good quality drivers and a minimum of boxy resonances which can blur the notes and smear their decay, which reduces both the articulation and dynamic contrast of the system. Also, to sound good at low volumes, a speaker should be voiced a wee bit on the warm side, since at low volumes the ear has a harder time hearing the bass. This characteristic of human hearing also puts a premium on smooth midrange performance for low-level listening, since at higher volume levels the bass can subjectively mask midrange peaks and resonances.
If you're going to listen at medium-high volumes, you want a speaker that is relaxing, non-fatiguing and free from dyamic compression. Again, you need high quality drivers, a lack of boxy artifacts, and smooth, even voicing. Harshness in the upper midrange and lower treble region is especially annoying as the volume level goes up, because this is where the ear is most sensitive.
A significant but almost universally overlooked factor in creating a non-fatiguing experience is the speaker's radiation pattern. Briefly, you want the reverberant field to have the same tonal balance as the first-arrival sound. Where there is a significant discrepancy, the eventual result is listening fatigue (headache) as the ear/brain system works to integrate the two dissimilar events. Where the two sound the same, which is the case with live music, you can listen for hours and hours (assuming the speakers otherwise sound good). You may have noticed that some speakers sound great for the first twenty minutes or so, and then you're ready for a break. Often the culprit is the discrepancy between the first-arrival and reverberant sounds.
Uniform dispersion with respect to frequency is rare in a loudspeaker because of driver beaming. In $2k-$3k price range, most speakers are two-ways with a roughly 6.5" woofer and 1" dome tweeter. The radiation pattern is omnidirectional in the bass, then narrows gradually until the woofer is starting to beam at the crossover point. The radiation pattern blooms again as we go to the tweeter, then once again narrows as the tweeter starts to beam. There is no way to equalize this speaker for smooth reverberant field response.
There are two approaches that do a good job of getting the reverberant field to closely approximate the same tonal balance as the direct sound, and both start with the woofer. Most speakers have omnidirectional radiation in the bass, so the wider the speaker's radiation pattern throughout the rest of the frequency range, the less discrepancy between the first arrival and reverberant sound. A few speakers have dipole woofer systems, which produce a figure-8 radiation pattern, and a good designer can then tailor the midrange and high frequency radiation patterns to blend well with the bass. Unfortunately, most dipole speakers are out of your price range.
Speakers that I think do better than most at meeting these criteria include:
1. Shahinian Obelisk. Very spacious sound, warm voicing, deep bass. The presentation is more like what you hear in a large concert hall.
2. The Cliffhanger Bulldog. Very low cabinet coloration, lively voicing and very good articulation. The presentation is more like what you hear in a small jazz club.
3. The Heil Aulos. Warm voicing with good soundstaging and timbre over a wide listening area.
4. Maggie 1.6. Utterly boxless sound, but not as well suited to low volume listening. Suffers from some dynamic compression, but generally very easy to enjoy long-term.
5. Heil Kithara. A bit outside your price range, but deeper bass and richer presentation than the Aulos.
6. Gradient Revolution. A bit more outside your price range, but smooth and boxless all the way down into the bass and very relaxing long-term.
Disclaimer - I'm a dealer for Gradient and Cliffhanger.
As you audition, here are three quick tests you might find useful: First, listen at extremely low volume. Is it enjoyable? This will make any midrange peaks stand out. Second, listen at a more or less normal volume, but only a few feet from the speakers, and on the tweeter's axis. This will isolate the direct, first-arrival sound from the reverberant field's contribution. Finally, turn the volume up louder than normal and go into the next room, leaving the door open. From here, all you can possibly hear is the reverberant field, and you want it to sound convincingly like live music. If the speaker passes all three of these tests, put it on your shortlist.
Best of luck in your quest!
Faced a similar dilema last year and auditioned models from Proac, Dunlavy, Joseph, Soliloquy, Thiel, B&W in that price range. I decided on the Dunlavy SM1 monitors (quite large for monitors) which struck me as having a favorable balance of the good aspects of other speakers. They are very easy to listen to over extended periods and to my ear do not over emphasize any particular freq. range. My second choice was the Proac 1SC which I liked quite a bit in spite of a what seemed like a somewhat exagerated punch in the upper mids.
One thing I did and would recommend: try to compare speakers on your own gear, even if you have to drag your amp. around town, which I did, at similar sound levels, and to the extent possible in the same or a similar environment. Hard to make valid comparisons in speakers performance without consideration of these factors.
I'll third the Vandersteen 3A signatures. They are one of the most MUSICAL speakers you will find.
I currently own Apogees and used to own Vandy 4's. They're very different animals... The Apogee's resolve to the nth degree - fun if you enjoy picking apart components, cables, recordings, etc. When everything is right, there is simply nothing better out there IMHO, but if anything is off (recording, component, etc.) they really show it and it's hard to simply sit back and enjoy the music.
The Vandy's (I've spend quite a bit of time listening to both the 3A's and the 5's) are simply very musical. Both use the same top-end components. At first impression, they seem very laid back (almost too much so) but what you find after spending time with them is that they envelope you in very lush, warm sound. They suck you in and you find yourself listening for hours without realizing how much time has gone by... This is their magical ability.
From a soundstage perspective, they throw about the largest of the dynamic driver speakers that I've heard. If your electronics are good, the stage will extend significantly beyond the outer sides of the speakers and easily 10 feet back in depth. Again, it takes good electronics to make them really sing....
Richard Vandersteen has a theory about using only first order crossovers (6db slope). His theory is by using first order crossovers, that the phase is maintained throughout the audio spectrum. I believe there is something to this based on what I've heard....
These are just my subjective impressions. Find the 3A's and spend some time really listening to them. Everything music wise is there and in its proper place time and space wise with them being at all fatiguing.
Duke, nice post and glad to see that you've joined the "I just wrote a novel" club : )
As to the Shahinian's, i think that you need an amp with great speed and control on the bottom end to get the best out of them. Otherwise, they can come across as a little slow and heavy sounding. Other than that, they are a great speaker when properly matched with corresponding electronics and cabling. Sean
Check out the line of hybrid ribbon speakers by Newform Research. Not necessarily pretty but in reality better looking than the website photos indicate. I bought the R645's for $2250 delivered to my door. It's one of those companies where you can talk to the owner/designer on the phone. I love the speakers but then I'm one of those people who likes ribbon drivers over cones for mids and hi's. I'm also reading a lot of good things about VMPS.