Review: Sound Dynamics RTS-3 Monitor
When I got the little Sound Dynamics RTS-3s one year ago, I thought they were a sharp looking product for the money, and certainly better than what I expected from the pictures. After all, they list for $280, but were on sale for $199 and I got them delivered for $212. I felt lucky to get a pair in rosewood rather than the black -- the rosewood doesn't look as cheap as the generic black finishes seem to and contrasts nicely with the black drivers. I set up my Osiris Reference Stands, pulled out the Blue Tack and slapped them on my Aranov power amp, outfitted with CEC replica KT-88s and VAC EC88s.
They immediately made a favorable impression. I was simply amazed with the volume at which they would play, their dynamics, bass, authority and ability to involve me in the music. This was all fresh out of the box! WOW! I quickly realized that they were quite harsh -- their high frequencies were hard and glaring with an edge that would saw my ear off over an extended listen. However, the speaker was not broken in at all, so I happily listened from the adjacent room -- working on the computer much of the time while they broke in. Still, I appreciated what all the hoopla was about. Dynamics, authority, bass and volume out of a $200 speaker. How did they do it? It has what -- $40 worth of parts? I've paid more for power cords, interconnects and speaker wire. Sure, it's a cheap speaker and it has fatal flaws. So I thought at the time. As the speaker continued to break in the highs smoothed out a bit as expected and the bass became even more punchy. In fact, within it's range, the bass on these speakers is outstanding. It is well defined, tight, dynamic, involving and authoritative. Acoustic bass sounds is very well differntiated tonally, detailed, full sounding and satisfying. The speaker is actually nicely balanced in presentation and does not strictly require the use of a subwoofer. This is a nice plus compared to most monitors which are clearly lacking without some supplemental bass.
After I got about 100 hours on them, I listened more critically. There was still a hardness and glare to the sound which was unpleasant for critical listening. I implemented a better isolation scheme for my tube preamp and it's power supply and to my pleasant surprise, a good bit of the glare disappeared. I then tweaked up a storm -- going for the best isolation I could get for my amp, preamp, transport, DAC, DAC PS, turntable, phono stage and phono stage PS. I then optimized the use of my other resources -- Versa Labs Wood Blocks, power cord placement, interconnects, Shun Mook Cable Jackets and Red Roller use. After all everything fell into place, 90% of the glare, which I had assumed was the speakers, had vanished. This really was surprising, because the hard edge of my system was not noticeable on other more forgiving speakers. The little RTS-3's clearly showed the improvements to the system at every step along the way. The sound not only didn't make my ears bleed, but was now downright good. The presentation from these speakers is just so involving, dynamic and fun. The sound actually excels in the exact ways I would expect it to be lacking. Looking at the little speakers on top of the Osiris stands, you would never imagine that they could fill my large room with loud, dynamic, huge sounding music, but that's exactly what they do.
My room is 18x21' but adjoins a front hall directly behind the listening chair, so it is effectively 21x32' with the speakers positioned in front of the 21' wall at the Cardas ratios for placement. It tried moving the speakers around a bit and tried the rules of thirds but got the best results with the Cardas ratios. The Cardas ratios allowed a significant improvement in transparency and focus. There seems to be tremendous synergy between my Aranov power amp, my Alpha Core MI-3 cable and the RTS-3. The Aranov injects some very nice slam into these babies, no doubt helped by the KT -88s. Before I put Ensemble Tube Sox on the input tubes of the Aranov, there was perhaps a bit too much mid bass. The tube sox tightened everything up and made the sound cleaner and more neutral. I tried my excellent Highwire speaker cables on the RTS-3's also, but preferred the Alpha Core MI-3's. The Alpha Cores add a creamy smoothness which is helpful to the RTS-3s. Yet, they still show off the Sound Dynamics capacity for great tonal differentiation and wide open sound.
These speakers are very revealing of tweaks, interconnects, power line cleanliness, power cords, AC outlets, mechanical isolation of components, lead damping on the speaker wire, Shatki Stones, VPI Bricks, Red Rollers, ferrite chokes, CD treatments and Bedini spinning, Static Guard on your wires and even of a system demagnetization sweep. They clearly demonstrate the tremendously beneficial effect of Shun mook Cable Jackets and Red Rollers on digital cables. In fact, if you haven't tried these on your dig cables, you don't know what you're missing. The speakers are capable of a stunning transparent and tonally accurate midrange. They are not forgiving, however, and will not be kind to flaws on CDs or on upstream components. I have been in the mood for mods in recent months and these little speakers clearly showed off the benefits of each painstaking effort. After doing a number of mods to my Pioneer DVD player, used as a transport, I found myself listening to old favorites in amazement and exclaiming "This sounds so f%&^king good!" As a jaded audiophile with over 2 decades in the hobby, I can certainly say that it is very rare system that can elicit that response.
The RTS-3s are also tremendously revealing of dynamics and will expose dynamic improvements or limitations anywhere in the system. They clearly exposed my Homegrown Audio Silver Lace interconnects to be quite dynamically limited in every application and to have a lean and weak bass response. Though the HGA Silver Lace interconnects are very transparent, excellent soundstagers, tonally accurate and smooth, they have a limited dynamic envelop akin to listening to music on a car radio where the volume doesn't really change at all. This dynamic limitation is not clearly exposed on other speakers. For those of you who like electrostatics (and would probably would not be reading this review), the HGA's might work well for you. In the context of my very dynamic RTS-3 system, they were unusable for me.
Another great strength of these speakers is their wide open, huge soundstaging. In fact, I get a soundstage 21 ft. wide with images popping out 5 ft. to the far sides of the speakers. I don't get enormous depth with this system -- maybe 8 or 10 feet, but tremendous width and placement of images. Time after time I have listened with my eyes closed to the enormous soundspace spread out 140 degrees in front of me. Upon opening my eyes, I sit shocked with the little speakers sitting before me. On "Shame" by Evelyn Champagne King, it is great fun when the background vocals pop out of mid air -- 5 feet to the far sides of each speaker. On "Blue Collar Man" by Styx, the electric guitars grind away separated by about 20 feet of space. The Styx Greatest Hits CD is particularly impressive because it shows off the RTS-3's ability to outright rock. This CD clearly shows these speakers to be more dynamic than any speaker I have ever owned with the exception of the Alon 4 (and only when coupled with the Classe 25 and RC Audio power cord). These speakers are SO much better at capturing the growl, tonal enunciations and dynamics of this CD than most everything I have heard. After doing a number of mods on the system, I popped in the Styx CD and and enjoyed a rush of pure adrenaline. I listened to "Blue Collar Man" and was really taken by Styx's virtuoso performance. At the end, I let out a gasp and said "Wow!" Then I cued it up again. On "Too Much Time on My Hands" they speakers blast out the drum slams -- far right, far left and center. The RTS-3's clearly capture the distinctive tone of the guitars beautifully.
Although the soundstaging is wide open and spectacular and allow images to float, these speakers will not flesh out much body to each image. They project a more 2 dimensional scratching of each image in space. Spectacular, definitely, but you audio gluttons are no doubt used to much more meat on your sonically imaged morsels.
First of all, I want to make it clear that these speakers are not just good for the money, they flat out kick ass. In fact, my system with the RTS-3's gives me far greater goose bumps than anything I heard at the 2002 CES. I heard my reference CDs on many of the better systems there as well. In fact, I actually preferred the overall presentation of the RTS-3's on both the silky smooth vocals of Johnny Hartman "The Voice That Is" and the fun, lively, dynamic and complex sounds of Johnny Clegg and Savuka on "Cruel, Crazy Beautiful, World." "Bettoo than CES??" You say, like Eddie Murphy's 'Bettoo than McDonood's?' Absolutely! In terms of goose bumps, no doubt about it. In terms of finesse or sophistication of the treble, I'm not going to kid myself. Some of the CES systems differentiate the individual instrument lines much better too. Even so, I like the $200 RTS-3s better than the sound from many speakers costing $5k, $20k or $80k. Certainly CES is not a fair demonstration -- with very poor rooms and power lines and inadequately tweaked out or optimized systems. Still, it amazes me that speakers costing $5k, $10k or $35k will have tonal colorations in the midrange, obvious driver discontinuities or are dynamically limp.
I heard one $1500 monitor that everyone was drooling over. I thought "You've got to be kidding!" Compared to the $200 RTS-3s, they are colored in the midrange, don't soundstage as well, are dynamically limited to the point of strangulation and have no bass whatsoever! How can people be so impressed with this crap?
At the CES 2001, I heard some floor standing Cabasse speakers driven by $20,000 Jadis mono blocks and it sounded decent. The Northstar representative was extremely proud of the setup and announced that he was about to blow our minds. The floorstanders were only $1500! I was not impressed and pointed out the Jadis amps, to which of course he replied that the speakers were still capable of that kind of performance. True enough, except that the speakers had obvious midrange colorations and sounded quite crude to me. Also, as my friend pointed out, my $1500 Totem Sttaf played my same exact CD to much greater effect. I agreed, my system did sound better, and I didn't even have the $20,000 Jadis in there. The point of all this? My current system, with the $200 RTS-3 smokes my previous system with the Totems. With the standard that the RTS-3 sets in terms of value, it has become impossible to be impressed with other speakers.
Let me compare them to other speakers I've owned. Compared to the Totem Sttaf, Vandersteen 2C, Platinum Quattro, Paradigm Studio 100s and everything but the Alon 4s, the little RTS-3s are more dynamic. Only the Alon 4s are equally dynamic (and have a much more powerful and extended bass, obviously) and only with the right amp. Are the RTS-3s better than the Totems overall? NO. The Totems are a better balanced package with much more forgiving high frequencies and deeper bass. The Sttafs are equally wide open and good at soundstaging, but are warmer and more satisfying for long term listening. The Sttafs will not illuminate small system changes as well, however. Nevertheless, I consider the Totems a frontrunner in the $1500 price range.
In terms of resolution, I would say the RTS-3s are up there with the best I've had -- namely the Alon 4s. On the Sheffield/XLO's Test and Burn In CD, there is an intelligibility test (the end of track 3, which they call the "the supreme test of resolution and clarity") where Roger Skoff and Doug Sax simultaneously talk in a vibrant room. With the Alon 4's, Classe 25 (or BEL 1001mk3) and my Micromega Duo Pro with Stan Warren mods (which I preferred to my Theta Pro Basic IIIA) and Micromega acrylic top transport with aperture lens (which I preferred slightly to my Theta Data Basic 2), I could make out what each man was saying and got a sense for their physical location. This was the best I had heard this test -- clearly besting the Totems and Platinums for intelligibility. The Sound Dynamics RTS-3 in my current set up beats the Alon 4 system by a good margin. Instead of straining to hear each voice clearly and what they are saying, I can comfortably understand each word. I also get a superior sense of space through the RTS-3s, though this is no doubt a result of my tube power amp. I also wonder about the differences in the digital front end, though the other speakers in my current setup cannot match the RTS- for clarity. My current digital may be better than my previous much more expensive gear which was certainly excellent for its day. The point is that these little speakers not only hold their own with more expensive, accomplished and respected speakers, they can beat them in terms of resolution. A good example of this on CD is on Roger Waters "Amused To Death." You know -- the opening track with the dog barking? Well, though the RTS-3s I can hear that it is TWO dogs barking, that they are barking at each other, have different tonalities to their bark and that one dog is chasing the other down the street.
One really special aspect of the RTS-3s performance is a seamlessness going through most of the frequency range -- say from upper mid bass to middle treble. The sound is cut from the same sonic cloth. There is no discontinuity in the sound or any attention drawn to either driver. This is a rare strength and makes most every speaker on the market seem like a crude assemblage of drivers. It also makes it easy to forget about the hifi and just revel in the music. Perhaps in part due to this strength, these speakers are really wonderful with vocals. I have heard Dianna Krall and Johnny Hartman on many, many systems, but not better than this. The midrange is seamless, transparent and near spot-on tonally. There is a grainless clarity to it that makes it wonderful for jazz vocals. It strikes a very nice balance between warmth and neutrality -- it is perfectly clean, while being nicely differentiated, without being cold or clinical. If there's one thing I can't tolerate it's tonal monochromaticity -- or monochromaticity of any kind. Perhaps that's why I never cared for the TV show MASH. In any case, these speakers will show Cardas hook up wire to be tonally monochromatic compared to the vibrant Kimber Silver, for example. Tony Bennett's voice on the XRCD Tony Bennett and Bill Evans Album is so transparent and communicative it's utterly breathtaking. The dynamics of the last line of "Young and Foolish" are just stunning and pure goose bump material.
In The Absolute Sound, HP gave these little speakers 2 stars -- the same rating he gave to the $20,000 Revel speakers. That seems about right to me. He also coupled them with a circa $20k Viva power amp, who's strengths were clearly illuminated via the RTS-3. No doubt about that one -- these speakers will show off the strengths and weaknesses of everything. Put a $20k amp on $200 speakers? In this case, why not? You'll find yourself with and excellent $20,200 system. It is my experience that the RTS-3 just keep getting better with a better input. Because of their high resolution, unforgiving and sometimes hard treble I would recommend either using very forgiving electronics or extremely good electronics. Don't get me wrong, great CDs sound really great. The harsh, garden variety of pop stuff could use some help. It is with these lesser CDs where the Totems and Vandersteens have a big advantage. It is ironic that most owners of these speakers will have no idea of the extreme audio heights to which these speakers can ascend to. I thought I had squeezed as much music as possible out of them and then did mods on my Aranov, only to be blown away once more.
As I have discussed, their treble has a tendency to be hard and edgy. Audiophiles used to listening to smooth, sophisticated high frequencies may not tolerate their unforgiving nature. This tendency is greatly less significant with really good electronics and front end. As I said, with well recorded CDs or LPs, it is not a factor. The speakers are unforgiving of poor recordings, electronics and cabling. Also, when the volume gets to extreme levels the treble gets really hard, splashy and ear bleeding. I'd also like to point out that I placed a ferrite choke on each leg of the speaker wire at the speaker end. I also put a .1uF MIT cap across the speaker terminals to further soften things up. The speaker grills will round out the hard edges a bit also, but at the expense of transparency. With the exception of a sample listen, I listened to them exclusively sans grills.
The deepest bass is not there. Roger Waters is the best example of that -- much of the really deep bass present throughout the disc is barely audible through these speakers. However, what is amazing, is that there are only a few LPs and CDs where I feel I am missing anything. These speakers present a balanced, seemingly full range sound. They certainly make most monitors sound really, really wimp-ball. Overall, the bass is ass kicking and excellent. The little 6 1/2 inch polyprop woofer really woofs its little heart out -- pumping air hard out of its rear port. These Lilliputian 'Luminators will throw out huge sound in a big room to near dance level volumes, though hard core disco fans, head bangers or gang bangers may want to pawn their leisure suits, nose rings or spare pistols for down payment on a subwoofer.
The binding posts will not fit conventional spades easily or bananas at all. They are the cheap HT variety, but didn't seem to hold back performance. Also, the owners manual is essentially useless, unless you want to read about safety issues in Spanish and Russian.
Would I really prefer these speakers in my system to all those at CES? Certainly not -- that's not what I said. I said that I'm getting better performance than many of the admittedly disadvantaged CES systems. There are a few speakers I would prefer -- the Audio Physics line for one. It's just a shame that more expensive speakers can't seam to find the great strengths of the RTS-3s. It would seem that authority and seemlessness are never difficult qualities to engineer.
These speakers are certainly not perfect. However, with a smoother top end, inclusion bottom octave of sound and perhaps more fleshed out images these speakers would have it all. They already posses the essential qualities for enjoying music, and that's what it's really about, isn't it?
THERE YOU HAVE IT
With proper break in (I'd say 200 hrs), setup and input these little speakers are capable of extremely good sound. So many times, when listening to old favorites, I really thought I had slipped into some kind of high end audio Twilight Zone. I really can't believe it at times. The sound is that good!
In addition to the tonal accuracy, balance, great dynamics and punchy bass, they have a seamlessness through most of the frequency range which is truly uncommon. These little speakers have authority and an enthusiasm for music which is tragically lacking in most of today's products. What is sadly ironic is that most owners of this speaker will have them sitting in a corner, slapped to a home theater receiver with zip cord and will have no idea what these things are capable of. I have not tried them in other systems, but I would imagine without the Osiris stands and a good input, they would not sound like much or at least nothing like the performance I've been getting.
In my 24 years as an audiophile, this little speaker represents the most outstanding design accomplishment I have ever come across -- and by a wide margin. I consider them the greatest buy in all of audio.
Aranov 960 Power Amp
MSB Link Dac w/Cannel Island Mods
Goertz Alpha Core MI-3 speaker cable