Of all the component parts of a hifi system, speakers are far and away the most subjective. Two pairs of speakers can both behave in a way that is entirely 'correct' in terms of their measurement but one will leave you delighted and the other with your fingers in your ears. To this end, making recommendations for a large group of people is far from simple, but as there are some consistent aspects of performance that apply to systems that major on vinyl replay, we should be able to make some recommendations based on this.
Vinyl has faster top end roll off than digital. While most decks can get to the top end of your hearing without too much bother, the amount of output they are generating at this stage is down on digital sources. To this end, a good vinyl speaker will have good treble output (not to be confused with being bright) to make full use of what there is. Given that vinyl traditionally has lower gain than digital sources, it also helps if the speaker is reasonably sensitive so you have the maximum available headroom. Neither of these two demands are especially taxing but getting them right pays dividends.
Finally, all the recommendations here are for bookshelf/standmount speakers. The reason for this is that they seem to be the type most commonly used by forum members and they are less demanding in terms of space and often (but not always) a little less fussy about placement. Without further ado, here is a quintet of music makers to make your system shine.
Dali Zensor 1: $395 a pair
Denmark is perhaps best known as a provider of bacon and Lego but the audio pedigree of the nation isn't to be sniffed at. For a country with a population considerably smaller than the Five Boroughs, the Danes have been busy making some great pieces of hifi. One of the leading brands is Dali. Founded in 1983, the company makes a huge range of speakers including some serious high end designs. All speakers use drivers and crossovers designed and built in house and one of their most common and distinctive features is a wood fibre cone which takes the principle of a paper driver and stiffens it with longer wood fibres. The Zensor 1 is the smallest member of the entry level Zensor range.
Given that small speakers can be had from a few dollars each, what does the little Dali do to justify costing nearly $400? For starters, all the key aspects of Dali's design philosophy are present and correct- you get a wood fibre mid bass driver and a silk dome tweeter. Around the back, a single pair of hefty speaker terminals will work with pretty much any cable you have to hand. The cabinets are solid, and usefully inert while also being entirely easy on the eye thanks to a smart gloss finish. This is an affordable speaker rather than a cheap one and it should sit well in most rooms. A white version is also available if you enjoy dusting.
Above all of these things, the Dali sounds absolutely excellent. The Zensor 1 is a speaker that finds the fun in a piece of music and always manages to bring it out. It sounds fast and exciting in a way that many rivals can struggle to do. It also does the very clever trick of making you forget that it is a small speaker. There is plenty of bass output that even if not seismic, is enough to underpin music with the authority it needs to sound real. That all important top end is clear, detailed and spacious but even when you drive the bolts out of it, the Dali stays civilised and in control. This is one of the most affordable speakers you can buy that needs to make no apologies for what it is. Fronting a small vinyl system, there is little to touch the diminutive Dane.
SVS Prime Bookshelf: From $500 a Pair
As a manufacturer, SVS is perhaps best known as the builder and seller of subwoofers that are large enough to make a considerable impression on your internal organs. In recent years, they have also made a move into conventional speakers and done so with a few surprising design decisions. While the flagship 'Ultra' line of speakers is a fairly hefty collection of electronics, the more affordable 'Prime' models are relatively compact, subtle and very talented when used in two channel.
There is a Prime Satellite as the most affordable member of the team but this is a little on the small side to be used without a sub. The Prime Bookshelf on the other hand is a heftier model built around a 6.5in Polypropylene mid bass driver and a 1inch aluminium tweeter. Very little of the Prime is truly radical but the engineering is all well thought out, carefully implemented and done at a very competitive price. SVS's direct sale model cuts the dealer margin out of the price so you can get more bang for your buck- in theory at least.
The good news is that the SVS is a truly excellent speaker for use in stereo and with vinyl in particular. The response is very even but there is enough high frequency energy to ensure that your top end has a bit of sparkle to it. The integration between the two drivers is almost completely seamless and with a benign 8 ohm load the Prime Bookshelf is easy for most amps to drive competently and it is capable of going impressively loud at the same time. While you can get a pair in slightly brutalist black ash for $500, if you have the budget, an extra $100 on the gloss versions gets you a much smarter looking speaker.
Monitor Audio Silver 20: $1,049 a pair
UK based speaker brand Monitor Audio has been making speakers for over forty years and their particular speciality has been the use of metal drivers. Their proprietary 'C-CAM (Ceramic-Coated Aluminium/Magnesium) drivers have been used for many years for both mid bass and tweeters and performance has generally been very good. In the early 2000s, they took this a stage further and introduced a gold dome that had improved breakup characteristics and more refinement.
Over the years, this dome has been further refined and the latest version has a damped rear chamber and a proprietary venting system to the dome. The Silver 20 partners it with a substantial 8 inch mid bass driver that has a dimpled finish for increased rigidity. Like most things Monitor Audio makes, the finish is absolutely superb. Finished in a selection of real wood veneers with little detail touches throughout, the Monitor Audio might break the $1,000 barrier but it definitely feels like you are getting your money's worth.
Sonically, the Silver 20 delivers as well. The extra size gives it excellent low end impact and this is coupled with an incredibly refined and detailed top end. Like most Monitor Audio products, the Silver 20 is also usefully sensitive and doesn't require a huge amount of power to go impressively loud. If you are looking for a real detail specialist that provides an effortless sense of space and scale while also offering superb build and aesthetics, this is it.
Focal Aria 906: $1,499 a pair
France's largest speaker manufacturer, Focal has a long history of going about speaker design in a way that is different to many other brands. When titanium became a popular material to make tweeters, Focal conducted comprehensive resonance tests and chose to stick with aluminium while at the same time developing their own high end tweeters from Beryllium- the third lightest element in the periodic table (and the lightest you can make a physical dome from). Their highend midbass drivers are only slightly less extreme. Focal uses composites of varying thickness and densities depending on the frequency range that the driver is being called upon to produce.
The only problem with this rather hardcore approach to making speakers is that it isn't cheap- a pair of two way bookshelves from the 'Utopia' flagship line will cost around $15,000- which left Focal finding ways of making speakers their way in a more cost effective package. The Aria range is the result of this. The Aluminium/Magnesium tweeter borrows heavily from the Beryllium test program and the drivers are still a composite but one that uses flax to reduce costs. The 906 is the smallest member of the family and mounts a 6.5inch mid bass with the tweeter.
The speaker that results does everything that Focal speakers should- it is incredibly refined, accurate and detailed with tremendous speed and clarity to the performance. It is also usefully sensitive and can be powered very easily via lower powered amps and even tube designs. What it adds to the performance that some Focal designs have historically slightly lacked is that it does this while sounding fun. To finish off a very enticing package, the 906 is also very well built and handsome with it.
Bowers & Wilkins CM6S2: $2,000 a pair.
As one of the world's leading high end speaker brands, Bowers & Wilkins (or B&W as many people still know them has carved out an enviable reputation. Using core technologies of woven kevlar for drivers and dedicated housings for drivers along with dimpled bass ports and other technology has resulted in speakers that can deliver exceptional performance. Unlike a number of high end brands, they have also continued to produce speakers that don't necessarily require you to remortgage to buy them.
The CM Series fills the gap between the affordable 6 Series and the high end 800 Series. This means that you get features of both ranges blended for the best effect. The CM6S2 is the larger of two standmounts and the one of only two speakers in the range to make use of a Bowers & Wilkins speciality- mounting the tweeter in a separate enclosure- this helps the output of the dome by forming the enclosure around it while allowing the mid bass driver to be sighted without compromise in the cabinet.
The final result of this engineering is- for one reason or another- one of the genuine sweet spots in the company's range and a truly excellent speaker in its own right. The CM6S2 sounds big, controlled and authoritative with a wide variety of music and it has a top end that is superbly refined but capable of real force when required. Coupled to a detailed and informative midrange and a bass response that is rather more forceful than you would reasonably expect from a standmount. Although they respond well to an amp with reasonable power, their impedance and sensitivity is benign meaning they can be the first thing at this price you upgrade to and the last thing to go. When you do get shot of them, their excellent build and high residuals should mean you see some money back too.
Like any list of this nature, this is far from exhaustive. What these five speakers do is deliver excellent performance with vinyl without placing unreasonable demands on your partnering equipment and room space. If you are looking for a bit more from your system, these talented transducers are a great place to start looking.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.