I'd put Harbeth on your list.
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$2,000 or less used/new speakers free of grain, glare and steel, but with detail, extension, imaging, and tonal accuracy and balance? Acoustic Zen Adagio, Merlin TSM MME. Gallo 3.1, Frafrotski SE? Most speakers are competent, some are outstanding, a few deliver magic. Which speakers are the most musical and easy to listen to, rising to the top of a crowded field given their price point, and the most "forgiving" of their associated components? Which have magic?
Wow lofty standards and all for 2K.... we wish ... :)
Speakers produce the end result of all that has come before. If your components are hard, grainy, steely, etc., you would choose a speaker that compensates for that so the end result is listenable. This philosophy is enough to drive us audiophiles nuts. I subscribe to the philosophy of getting all the components as flat, free from distortion, etc. as there is (including all cables,). If price is a problem, wait until its not. Compensating for errors farther up is a no way street, and you will never be happy...you will just depleat your bank account looking for perfection.
Shelby + Kroll...I ended my search with a pair of the Nano Monitors and (2) Woffer Monitors. The cleanest most natural speaker I have ever owned. A pair of B-stock Nano's and one Woffer might be had at your $2000.00 price point. I'm driving them with an ATC SIA2-150 integrated ss amp, and will be upgrading my digital front end soon. Even still they sound great with a $300.00 stock cd player.
Stretch out and try something different. I have been up and down speaker row and having discovered the Holistic Audio H1s, they been a life style change for me. No longer confined to the sweet spot for stereo, totally natural sound, room no longer figures into the equation, and listening to music so much more. It is great to see the expressions on other hi-fi guys faces when they hear these. They hear things they have not heard before without it being thrown with a shovel. Even low level listening is enjoyable, which I always had a problem with before.
Contact Jack Caldwell and talk with him about these. Don't walk down the new speaker path without a consideration given to these. If you would like to talk to me about them contact me with an e-mail.
It is amazing what makes a speaker sound bad outside of a poor design. If it is a good design and the cabinent is solid and has decent drivers it is poor internal wiring and cheap crossover parts. I have moded may speakers with better internal wiring and better crossover parts and have had huge results in the right direction.
As for Spendor:
While these are older and may not be cosmetically perfect, the price is great and they come with the Sound Anchor stands. Otherwise look to pay anywhere from $1200 - $2000 for a used pair of 1/2 or 1/2e models. Even you are more patient a pair of 9/1 floor standers show up occasionally on here in your price range.
Generally speaking, yuo cannot go wrong with Spendor. They really do nothing wrong. I have had them almost contiuously in either main or BR system for over 30 years. Any time I sold a pair I missed them and ended up buying another. Currently have the minimonitor SA1's in BR system, and they rarely cease to astonish me with what comes out. Of course, YMMV.
I second what Mapman said. In your price range, look at the Ohm Walsh 1000. Make sure your room is not too big for them. IME with the 2000s (all the Ohm Walsh speakers are voiced identically), there is no etch, no listening fatigue. Simply fantastic detail with consistent smoothness. IMHO, I think the absence of a crossover below 8kHz is largely responsible. They come with a 120-day in-home trial, so you can hear for yourself, in your room, with your gear, before you commit.
Given your stated priorities, I would also recommend Spendor; the SP100 with Sound Anchor stands in particular. Another poster here mentions the 9/1. I owned both for years each, but not at the same time, and although the 9/1 wins the beauty contest, in the end, I found the SP100 more endearing. It will never hurt your ears, and the coherence is very good. A classic speaker that gives a lot of enjoyment, and doesn't distract you from the music's message .
The right OHM Walsh model depends mostly on room size. Larger models use larger models of the OHM CLS Walsh driver, all of which are tuned to sound similar in different size rooms.
I think OHM is running a sale until the end of this month on the latest CLS drivers in refurbished older cabinets that provides extra exceptional value per dollar.
I have Harbeths (SHL5s), (old) Ohm Walsh 4s, had Aerial 10Ts, and had Von Schweikerts.
My Harbeths can actually ring a bit at the wrong height/angle. I need to place them lower than is advised.
You need to be a little careful with SHL5s to get them right. I kind of think the SHL5s need some tubes up front (I have a tube pre & a solid state amp).
My Aerials also were smooth but with can shriek with some recordings. (Diana Ross, especially).
My Ohms are certainly smooth, but have mid-fi resolution (they are from 1985, though). Not really competitive here.
Von Schweikerts I think are the winner here, with never a sour note in the midrange up to the highest highs, and I always thought (in mine & others in shows) the finest percussion out there. No fatigue. They can have boomy bass if not positioned well or in too small a room, so I think that's the area to concentrate on with VSR. But I think vocals, strings, woodwinds, brass and piano are truly superb on the VSRs I have heard over the years, consistently. So I think they would meet your needs if you can find one (maybe on audiogon) that you can afford.
I kind of feel Von Schweikert is the opposite of Wilson sound, where Wilson has great controlled transparent detailed bass but can have scratchy highs on some recordings, and VSR have great mids-highs, natural and silky but resolved, but sometimes boom a bit and need some care & feeding in this area (which can be done--I've heard it several times).
If you want some good information on Harbeth and Spendor try here:http://www.regonaudio.com/. Also, here is a Spendor 1/2 review I found to be quite a good read: http://www.electrafidelity.com/spendor-12-by-herb-reichert/.
I can't speak to Hareth as much, or the post classic series Spendors, but what I can tell you is the three pair of classic series I have owned all had outstanding mid-range and smooth top end. Are they the last word in bass, no, but you'd be surprised how good the bass is if you could focus your attention away from the mid-range long enough to listen to it more closely.
Some say Spendor speakers, especially the older ones, are polite. I say they look polite but are quite naughty actually;) Looks are deceiving and so is the Spendor sound. In my experience they are more neutral than Harbeth or most of the British boxes out there. Used prices make them are bargain.
You need not consider older OHMs from the 80s. Series 2, 3 or current X000 series are the ones to consider. They also will cost more. These are much more refined balanced and detailed in line with other better modern designs but no OHM Walshes including the originals possess the negative characteristics you seek to avoid.
They need tubes to really shine. I have found the TSM to be wonder. Very easy to place ,as it is a sealed design. Easy to power. I've had mine with a lot of amps and even the mighty NAD 320bee sounded wonderful. Many terrific choices listed above. You could go jolida 202a or cayin a-50t and TSM. With a nice source you'll be there. I use a w4s dac-2 and i added a jla f110. One of the biggest keys to a sealed design, that is often overlooked, is that they are easy to place and play well in poor rooms. Since most of our rooms are poor they really shine. Of couse you could always add room treatment, but often wives a GFs don't allow it and it is somewhat tough to get good guidance on doing it correctly.
As always listening yourself in your room is the only real way to tell. If your near NYC you can listen to my setup.
Don't let your solid state amps dissuade you from Merlin or any other brand. Case in point, I am in the minority when I say I preferred solid state amps with my Spendor speakers rather than tubes. However, the combination worked fine and I'd gladly do it again. If Merlin interests you call Bobby and ask him what works best with his speakers and whether your amps would be suitable. He's a straight shooter.
Overly "polite" is not desirable either.
Do any of these options qualify as overly polite?
My tubed preamp does give me some leeway for "tuning." And I have a large menagerie of NOS flavors.
I wonder how the various recommendations stack up in terms of speed, density, layering, note decay, imaging and air?
Balance is the key. No gaping holes...