My Big Box Odyssey - Def Tech, KEF, VA

Well, my boss, who has never owned a decent audio system, naturally came to me when he finished his basement, and wanted a kick-butt HT system installed in it. Since he wanted simplicity and a professional install, we shopped at some larger consumer stores in our suburban NJ area. He wanted a large plasma screen, Blue Ray player, AV receiver and wall-mounted speakers (+ two subs). Here are some comments on the speakers we heard:

At 6th Avenue Electronics, a fairly knowledgable salesman demo'd some KEF on-walls with a KEF sub for us. Powered by a Pioneer Elite SC-05 AVR and fed with a Pioneer Elite BD player, the sound was pretty natural. Using a CDR that I burned with a wide range of classical, jazz, vocal and rock selections, the soundstage was quite large for closely spaced on-walls. Bass was solid, and the satelite-subwoofer blend seemed good. There was some harshness in the lower treble/upper-mids (to which I am very sensitive), but overall, a decent speaker (KEF HTS9001, $1250 each). Unfortunately, he didn't like to modern appearance, so it was off to Best Buy.

My boss likes Best Buy since they installed his 50" Pioneer plasma in his living room. They did provide a lot of service after the sale free of charge. He is comfortable with BB. Here, we listened to speakers driven by the same Pioneer Elite front end as in 6th Avenue, driving speakers by Definitive Technology and Vienna Acoustics. Although BB sells Martin Logan, space, budget, AC power concerns and AVR wattage limitations led me to suggest sticking with conventional speaker designs.

The Def Techs we heard were the $500/pr Studio Monitor 350. With apologies to Def Tech owners (I still use my 15-year old PF15 for LFE duty), what the heck do people hear in these speakers? I know the front end was mediocre, but to me, these speakers sounded stupid-bright, etched, harsh and distorted. There was ample bass output for small monitors, but I thought my ears would bleed. The screeching highs obscured most of the midrange. My Insignia speakers (~$75/pr) are so much more listenable it's not even funny. Why every Def Tech review I've ever read simply glows with unqualified praise is something I will never understand.

Next up were Vienna Acoustics Haydens. While my ears let out a sigh of relief as the sound mellowed out, I think something was wrong with these speakers. Based on our audition of other VA speakers, the Haydens sounded as if the tweeters were disconnected. Too smooth, too mellow, no definition above the mid range.

Then we tried the Mozart Grands. Much better. A nicely balanced speaker that was musical, spacious and offered good detail. The soundstage was large and imaging was pretty good. Unfortunately, my boss' basement does not lend itself to floorstanders. We next heard the Waltz on-walls. This D'Appolito design uses dual 6.5" mid-woofs and a silk tweeter in a very shallow cabinet (3" deep), and suites the decor of the basement. While the sound was noticably more colored than the Mozart Grands, the sound was still full, rich and smooth. No glare or harshness, even on excessively bright source material. There were some boxy colorations in the lower mids and upper bass, but this was not an unpleasant coloration. They also put out a surprising amount of mid bass for their size. They even produced a decent soundstage for wall-mounted speakers. Throw in the nice wood finish, and my boss went with these (they are $700 each) for all 7 channels. A pair of Martin Logan subs (the Abyss, ~$900 each on sale) will produce the bass in this large basement.

If anyone cares, I'll report on the results after the install when it is finished.