In the December I wrote about a rather entertaining comparison between three highly regarded budget monitors: Era Design 5, Polk LSi9, and the Totem Rainmakers. After the issue was uploaded I began to get emails about the comparison. A few were disappointed that I didn’t do a double blind shootout, but the rest were very positive and appreciative that I delved “out of the box” a bit. During late January I decided that a second round was in order with three fresh monitors. However, I decided to throw a bit of a curve ball into the mix. Instead of 3 current models, I narrowed it down to two: the newly updated Aperion Audio 6B, and the Swan 2.1SE. The third challenger I pulled from the vintage world, the Polk Audio 5jr. I recognize that the Polk 5jr’s were at a disadvantage, but on the other hand, since vintage gear is a part of A$$A’s DNA, it was quite fitting that they be a part of the comparison. Besides, they were just hanging around in my garage awaiting a future project to veneer them.
Like the first comparison, I used an Adcom switch box to quickly jump between each of the monitors. Each speaker spent time on each of the three stands and positions. I also used all three amplification systems: tube, solid state, and chip amp during the two weeks of the comparison. Speaker wire was a standard 12 gauge that can be purchased from Home Depot, Lowes, etc.. My opinions are based on the overall experience as with this group their was no apparent synergy issues with any of the three amplification methods.
The listening sessions were done at various times during the two weekends with an average of 90 minutes per session. Weekday times were for just an hour in the evenings. The equipment was given an hour to warm up before I sat down with pen and paper to seriously audition the three pairs.
Aperion Audio 6B ($690 pair, free shipping)
As mentioned above the Aperion Audio 6B’s were completely redesigned using new drivers and crossovers this past summer. While it’s predecessor, the 632’s were a fine monitor, the 6B’s have definitely taken a solid step forward. The new tweeter reaches higher and presents a smoother sonic signature. The ringing of cymbals is more natural and less constrained. Of the three, the 6B’s tweeter had the most pleasant sparkle. This I was surprised about, but really shouldn’t have been after spending time with their delightful mini-tower, the 4T.
The new midrange offers a wider soundstage, and clearer dynamics, especially when listening to the xylophone in Steely Dan’s “Aja”. The natural decay of the instrument can easily become muddy, but the Aperion 6B’s do a very nice job of staying clear. In combination with the tweeter, male and female vocals come across as clean with a hint of airiness. The vocals of James Taylor have richened over the forty years of his career, yet he retains the sweetness that makes him an enduring favorite. “September Grass” from his October Road cd is a kalaidascope of his vocals and the 6B’s recreate both the richness of today and the tone of yesteryear.
The Aperion 6B’s still retain the Aperion sound, it’s more European in nature, less forward, but more balanced. A heavy bass slam it doesn’t have, but details in the lower octaves were the best of the three. As with all Aperion’s, the 6B’s consistency is quite even across the sound spectrum. This is quite rare in this price range. Finally the satin finish of the cherry veneer is nicely understated.
Polk Audio Monitor 5jr. ($40-90 Craigslist and eBay)
The original Monitor series was a revelation to the audio community. They were a very lively, big sounding series at a reasonable price. The sealed cabinet was able to offer high efficiency of 90db by using the sonic pressure to drive the 6.5 inch passive radiator. This produces surprising bass for a speaker that is only 9 inches deep. For a college dorm the 5jr would make most any student happy during the 1980’s (author excluded as I had to own the 10B’s and didn’t care how much room they took up!). Typical of the east coast sound of the 1970’s-80’s, booming bass was not a high priority, that was the territory of Cerwin Vega and the other west coast speaker manufacturers.
The 6.5 inch mid driver, is the heart and soul of the Monitor series. This driver was ahead of its time in that it is a quite fast cone, even by today’s standard. The midrange is quite lively and a touch sweet, but suffers from a thin undertone. I attribute this to the rather thin cabinet depth. Also, the overall sound is a loose, something I believe is attributed to the cabinet construction, a combination of a lack of cross bracing and what now would be considered a poor grade of medium density of fiberboard.
The biggest weakness of the Polk 5jr’s that I tested is the most recent upgrade to the series in 1988, the SL-2000 tweeter. This tweeter is heavily disparaged in the Polk forum for its notorious hump, overly bright sound, and poor meshing with the 6500 series driver. It’s just too hot to sit and enjoy an afternoon of serious listening. I found myself wanting to move about instead of sitting and enjoying as with the other two monitors. I may have to locate a pair of Peerless tweeters (the original Monitor tweeters) to hear the improvement.
Swan 2.1 SE ($599 + shipping)
The hottest budget monitor deal at Christmas 2008 was the Swan 2.1 SE’s selling for $599 thru The Audio Insider. Several forums were discussing how good this deal was and asking for comparisons. I had reviewed them during the fall of 2007 and to be honest there was something about their sound that I just couldn’t get out of my mind. When the idea of this comparison came around, I quickly emailed Jon Lane who was more than happy to send out a pair, this time in beautiful, high gloss birds-eye maple.
Of the three monitors, the Swan 2.1 SE’s offer the richest sound. Male vocals especially have a weight that the Aperion’s can’t match, and the Polk’s don’t even put up a fight. Dan Fogelberg’s final cd Full Circle, demonstrates the mellowing of his voice without the false nasal tone that exists on some of his other discs. “This Heart” is an excellent example on the Swan’s of the richness of his Illinois accent.
Bass is where the Swan 2.1 SE’s stand apart. They offer no apologies for the forward projection of the bottom end. On some recordings this can make for an impressive showing of slam. But it’s a double-edged sword; as poorly recorded electric bass guitars can create a sloppy presentation that loses focus. This also leads to fuzzier vocals.
The midrange has a slightly warm signature, something that works in part due to the larger rear port than the Aperion, but just as much from the fine driver choice. Those who like acoustic music and singer-songwriters, the Swans are a fine choice. The key is placement, the Swans like to be away from the back wall, so don’t be shy to bring them out into the room when finding their placement.
The high frequencies in the Swan’s are the calmest of the group. There were times when this was wonderful, and other times when I wished the tweeters could have reached a bit higher. But overall the Swan’s give a nice balance to the midrange.
When switching back and forth between the Aperion 6B’s and the Swan 2.1 SE’s at first it was fairly hard to find much difference. They measured quite close with the SPL meter. That was nice as it is much easier to compare the two. Plus, I only had to get up to adjust volume when switching over to the Polk’s. But as time went on, their individual characteristics began to shine thru. The Aperion’s have the best clarity, especially in vocal details. The Swan’s take the prize for richness. Do the Polk’s win anything? Yes, the twenty year surviving with dignity category.
Which is the best choice? That depends on your room configuration to be honest. After the three way was done, I moved the Swans and Aperions into the family room. This space carries a greater bass load than my living room, partly due to the shorter ceiling and greater crawl space height under it than my living room. I spent a few days listening to both sets and found that the Aperions performed better in this space, bass was fuller and vocals richer. The Swans became somewhat boomy, the bass was a bit exaggerated for my taste. Therefore, if you have a tighter sounding room with hard floors and a higher ceiling, the Swans may be a better fit. On the other hand, a room with a basement underneath and a lower ceiling in my experience will favor the Aperions. But you don’t have to guess, as both companies offer a 30 day return policy, making both monitor pairs a perfect setup for your own personal comparison.
from aﬀordableaudio, By Mark Marcantonio