You know who knows speakers? Audiogon, the high-end audio community knows speakers. So we asked them if it was possible to get kick-ass sound for under two G's. Their answer: a turned-up-to-eleven, room-shaking YES.
$500 and Under
The Audioengine product line starts at $199 with the A2, a competent powered speaker that's sold as a computer companion. The A5, at $349 is a big step up in sound quality. But the $449 version with bamboo cabinets is the one to go for. Not only are the laminated bamboo cabinets beautiful, they have sonic benefits over the standard fiberboard model, and are green to boot. The A5 has built-in power amps, so you plug them into the wall, then connect to your source—and voila! Music!
Just a notch up the scale at $495 a pair, the PSB Image B6 are solid-performing bookshelf (stand-mount) speakers from a well-respected Canadian brand. These are regular ol' hi-fi rigs, which means they will need a separate amp or receiver. PSB has a history of well-designed, well-built products; a Stereophile reviewer called this model "the Honda Accord of bookshelf speakers". How can that be bad?
Still South of a Grand
Focal—pronounced fo-CAHL—is a French company best-known for its state of the art speakers such as their $180,000 Grande Utopia, but all their kit is excellent. The $599 XS 2.1 system is intended as a desk-top system, but has enough cojones to fill a small room. It consists of two striking aluminum and black satellites and a small subwoofer. The system is powered, and the set-up includes an iPod dock and a USB input, complete with a built-in DAC so you can bypass your PC's maybe-less-than-terrific soundcard. There's even a remote control.
If you're looking for big speakers at the same $599 price-point, the Magneplanar MMG is the way to go. Magnepan pioneered boxless planar magnetic speakers—big thin, flat speakers— nearly 40 years ago, and remains the leader. The MMG is sold direct with a 60-day money-back guarantee, and can be traded in toward the bigger Maggies sold through dealers. They're even sold in an on-wall version, with a matching center speaker at $299. If you've got room for these guys to breathe, and a strong amp, you can't go wrong. Many fans swear by the "boxless," route and will never go back to more-conventional audio.
A jump to the $1200 price-point brings us two strong contenders. The Definitive Technology Mythos 5 is a slender, striking column of polished aluminum, intended to package well with a big flat-screen TV. PSB offers the more conservative-appearing Image T6, a superb-sounding floor-stander. Which one is better? Listen for yourself.
If you jump to just under the $2000 threshold, there are three wonderful choices, startlingly different from one another. Which one you choose will depend on your room, your taste, and how you approach your music.
Anthony Gallo Acoustics is known in the audiophile community as the maker of unconventional, well-built high=value speakers. The $1998 Reference Strada is a surprisingly small but heavy black and steel dumbbell, with a huge and detailed sound. Wall or table-mounts are provided; tall floor-stands are optional, as are powered subwoofers for more whoomph. Highly-regarded recording engineer Pierre Sprey has said of the Stradas, "I know of no speaker under $20,000 that is more truthful or revealing."
Magnepan's $1995 model 1.7 brings their quasi-ribbon technology to a lower price level. Like the smaller, lower-priced MMG, these are tall, thin speakers; the 1.7 takes the MMG's performance and multiplies it by 10 or so. More delicate, detailed sound, yet more robust and room-filling. Magneplanars radiate sound from both their front and back surfaces, so they do require space behind them to perform well, and they do like a lot of power.
Zu Audio is an iconoclastic builder of speakers and cables located in Utah. Their focus is highly efficient, extremely dynamic speakers that only need a few watts to rock the house. The new $1800 Soul combines a 10" paper cone full-range driver with a tweeter for the extreme highs; the Soul's 101 dB sensitivity means that even low-powered tube amps can drive it.
Speakers have more personality than other audio components, and it's wise to take time in making your choice: hours, not minutes. Think of it as a romance, not speed-dating. Enjoy the trip!
Magneplanar MMG image thanks to Sound Advice Blog.