My recommendations for loudspeakers costing less than $15,000 (all prices listed below are per pair in USD) are of models that can be used in spaces that range from the small to the very large. Some of them distinguish themselves in subtle ways, performing very specific tasks at the highest levels, while others are great all-around speakers that almost anyone can be happy with. Most will easily beat, or at least compete with, speakers costing much more than $15,000.
A few criteria helped shape this list. Obviously, sound quality is first -- experienced mostly firsthand by me, but also by other SoundStage! Network reviewers. Sound quality is, after all, the ultimate arbiter of a speaker’s worth.
But I’m also aware that people and their ears are fallible -- I’ve heard some speakers that I know are absolutely worthless that are still recommended by owners and even other reviewers. When I see an example of this phenomenon, I usually chalk it up to people just getting it wrong. So as a checks-and-balances safeguard, here I recommend only speakers that I know have been thoroughly engineered and measure as such. You’d be surprised how many loudspeakers -- mostly the ones costing above $15,000 -- have sub-par engineering. The ones I list here will hold no surprises -- no bad ones, anyway. They’re all very good products, even though their intended applications and prices vary quite a bit.
Paradigm Atom Monitor v.7: It all starts here. For your $398 you get a speaker conceived and engineered by one of the most respected brands in the industry, the Canadian giant Paradigm. In 2011, when Doug Schneider reviewed the latest version of the Atom, he compared it to the Honda Civic because it represents as solid an investment as did that iconic automobile. Think of it as the entryway to something really good, produced by a solid manufacturer. The Atom is so much better than what you’ll hear from the brands that make the cheap speakers sold at big chain stores that you’ll be amazed. Their strengths are that they sound robust for their size, and natural in terms of tonal balance. The Atom is real high end at a real-world price.
Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 55: It seems that every speaker maker promises lots of bass from small cabinets. Some actually deliver that, though at the expense of other aspects of the speaker’s performance. DefTech’s StudioMonitor 55 ($598) will give you more bass output than you’d ever think you could get from a speaker with a 6.5” midrange-woofer, but that’s because the low frequencies are cleverly augmented by a 6” x 10” passive radiator that increases the radiating surface in the low bass, where you need it. Better still, the rest of the 55’s bandwidth is just as accomplished as its bass. With this speaker, you just might question whether you need anything larger or more expensive.
KEF LS50: I had the pleasure of hearing the KEF LS50 ($1499.98) again in Munich, Germany, at High End 2013, in a room full of people. It was being driven by Arcam’s latest surround-sound receiver, and the sound was terrific. Even among the hustle and bustle of the crowd, I could hear the midrange texture that this speaker offers come through clean and clear. Due to the very even dispersion of its Uni-Q driver, the LS50 sounded similarly accomplished anywhere in the room -- and my, could it that fill the room with lots of sound. This speaker exemplifies the old adage about a small speaker that sounds big. And did I mention that its midrange is to die for?
GoldenEar Technology Triton Three: For a couple of grand, you get a lot of speaker in the Triton Three ($1998.98) from GoldenEar Technology. The ribbon tweeter is very refined, while the powered 5” x 9” bass driver provides deep, controlled bass the likes of which you’ll find hard to match at the price. This is a complete package that will work for home theater as well as stereo -- the Triton Three will easily output large amounts of sound. If, like so many of us, you want -- no, need -- full-range sound, the Triton Three is a great step up from the bookshelf designs mentioned above.
Sonus Faber Venere 3.0: The 3.0 is the largest model in the Italian firm Sonus Faber’s entry-level Venere line. At $3498, it’s not altogether cheap, but its high style and excellent sound quality will find it a home in many systems in both audiophile listening rooms and real-world living rooms. These are very listenable speakers with any type of music -- even lower-resolution fare won’t make you suffer unnecessarily -- but they’re also more neutral and resolving than many Sonus Faber speakers of years past. The Venere 3.0 is easily in the “good all-around speakers” category, which means that it will suit many listeners. It may not break sonic ground in any one area, but it doesn’t do a thing wrong, and looks absolutely marvelous while not doing it. When all is considered, the Venere 3.0 is one of the best values of this bunch.
PSB Synchrony One: Costing $5500, the Synchrony One from PSB is a superspeaker masquerading as, well, a typical PSB. No, that’s not quite right . . . it’s better than most of the expensive speakers masquerading as superspeakers. If you want flat frequency response, almost no distortion at any frequency, and deep, powerful bass, this could be your last loudspeaker. Oh, and a pair will flat-out produce more output than you’ll likely ever need -- the kind that would make most speakers cry uncle. If the ultraneutral Synchrony One sounds like it would hit your hot button, then look no further. This five-year-old model hangs with the best ten-grand-plus speakers, even today.
Focal Electra 1028 Be: This three-way bass-reflex design will reportedly play down to 28Hz, and gives you a tweeter that’s probably more refined than that of any model at the lower prices. The beryllium dome tweeter is, arguably, the standard setter for today’s high-performance speakers, and you get a good one in the Electra 1028 Be ($8495). With a modern French appearance available in a multitude of finish options, the Focal also brings to your room a conversation piece and pride of ownership -- both unquestionably parts of the high-end experience.
Dynaudio Focus 380: When I reviewed the Dynaudio Focus 360 a couple of years ago, I came to believe that the Focus line was really the sweet spot in Dynaudio’s line. With the Focus 380 ($9500) you get the company’s best Esotar2 tweeter, Black Kapton voice-coil formers on the twin bass drivers, Dynaudio’s latest thinking on their first-order crossover designs, and the knowledge that the whole package has been thoroughly tested in their anechoic chamber. As for sound, it will be as neutral as the day is long, with just a hint of forgiveness by that soft-dome tweeter. Finally, the real-wood finish will provide the pride of ownership you should expect for ten large.
Magico S1: You can definitely get a speaker that plays louder and deeper in the bass for less money than you’d pay for the two-driver Magico S1 ($12,600) -- but can you get more transparency and resolution? I don’t think so. Although the S1 is Magico’s least-costly loudspeaker, you won’t find a single area in which quality has been scaled back. This is a serious 95-pound loudspeaker with top-grade everything: a braced and damped aluminum cabinet, a beryllium tweeter, a Magico Nano-Tec midrange-woofer, Mundorf crossover components -- basically, all the best stuff money can buy, just in smaller quantities than the company’s larger speakers. Overall, it’s probably the most refinement in sound and build quality that you can buy for under 15 grand. And that’s why my list stops here.
There’s no question in my mind that I’ve omitted some serious contenders from this list. Heck, you could fill a couple more columns with solid recommendations from just Paradigm, KEF, and PSB. There are also a number of brands that I haven’t had that much experience with, but that I know make really good products -- Canton and Axiom Audio come to mind.
Nevertheless, any choice on this list costs under $15,000 and sounds fantastic -- these speakers easily better anything close to these prices just a decade ago. Those with a nostalgic view of the past might disagree with that statement, but the recent improvements in manufacturing capability and materials advancements are quite apparent -- in the sound.
I can say one thing for sure: Every speaker on this list is a sure-fire winner that I’d have no reservation in recommending to even the most critical listener. If I weren’t reviewing speakers for a living, I’d buy any of them myself.
. . . Jeff Fritz