by Srajan Ebaen
I recently purchased my second computer over the Internet. It's been three years since the last one. I had no idea how far processing speeds had advanced. 1.5-GigaHertz fourth-generation Pentiums winked at me from the screen for a lousy $999. Two-Gig speed freak versions bared their well-proportioned runners' legs for $2,000, never mind Microsoft's new XP operating system claiming to obliterate Windows 98's instability with subsequent software uploads. Where the hell had I been - in LaLaLand? That's actually not too far off. Northern New Mexico's permanent sun will do just fine causing long-term dropout symptoms.
Still, what hadn't come far at all and proved distinctly déjà-vu was the quality of ancillary computer speakers - at least the ones available with my prepackaged Gateway options. The base level pushed the very same Boston 3-piece system I already owned, the one with the ubiquitous single-driver "full range" 2-inch cube and outboard "subwoofer" that sums all signal below 150Hz to mono. Sure, I could part with more dough, upgrade and hop aboard the next-bigger pony in this merry-go-round of miniaturization madness. But what the order form really needed was an option for no speakers. You see, I compare all such speaker systems to vacuum cleaners - they more or less suck.
Apparently management at the Swans factory had equally proselytized about vacuums. Not to lose face with Boss-San, the designers bowed low in agreement, retreated into their hi-tech lab and retaliated many moons later with the Diva by Swans M-200 media speakers. The boss must have smiled, mightily pleased. So will you. As for me, I already bought two pairs, one for my personal computer, one for my wife's (you want our Bostons?). With that out of the way, let's inspect details.
Despite their no-shock $299/pair price tag, the M-200s are veritable class acts. Open the sturdy shipping carton. The kind of satin bag you'd hope your hand-tailored calfskin loafers would arrive in is there to greet you. Once in plain view, visions of Sonus Faber, Chario, Opera and other La Dolce Vita speakers arise. The curvaceous styling and faux mahogany wood cheeks reek of high style à la Milanese or Florentine. So do the muted gold controls, the satin black finish, the recessed "pin stripes", the massive binding posts and the faceted grill with the elegant Swans logo. Rip off this well-fastened cover when your holier-than-thou audiophile impulses recover. Voilà, they're cottoned to as well. A 1-inch silk-dome tweeter and long-throw high-quality 5.25-inch mid/woofer with butyl rubber surround combine for a claimed frequency response of -- didn't know computer speakers had one? -- 55Hz to 18kHz. At 30 pounds combined and measuring 13.5" x 7.5" x 10.5" each (HxWxD), the M-200s are heavyweights even on the scale.
A 36 watt per channel amplifier built into one of them powers both speakers, with the left-channel slave unit driven from the included high-level cable. RCA line level inputs on the back of the active unit hook up to your computer sound card via the provided mini-plug-into-dual-RCA patch cord. The standard cable could instead connect to a portable/component CD player or TV. Since they're engineered as media speakers, the M-200s are shielded. Your CRT monitor won't issue parking tickets for close encounters. A rear-mounted AC receptacle with power LED and three front-mounted controls (for volume and treble/bass contour) round out the features of the powered unit. Rather than injection-molded plastic -- seemingly the norm in this sector -- the Swans cabinets benefit from regular MDF treatment. This undoubtedly contributes to their solid heft. In fact, fit n' finish wouldn't be remiss in a more high-falutin champagne-and-caviar crowd of $1,000 contenders. The M-200s are suave lookers on all counts.
Despite a brief flirtation with Riven, I'm not into gaming - I haven't got the time or inclination. However, I've always wanted to write my music reviews while revisiting the tunes not via the main system but directly in front of the computer. My previous set-up consisted of a pair of Grado RS-1s driven from an Antique Sound Labs MG-Head tubed headphone amp - wonderful sound but no soundstage to speak of.
Just to make sure they'd work as advertised, I briefly connected the M-200s to my sound card with the supplied patch cord, tone contours centered. I visited cdnow.com and downloaded some sample sound-bytes of new releases - boy, talk about data compression. Still, this was light years better than it had ever been over my Bostons. This prompted me to get serious. I jacked the M-200s directly into the outputs of my trusty Denon DCD-1560 for some regular full-data-density CD fare. I hit start.
Holy cow! Tin be gone,
On Oriental Bass [Renaud Garcia-Fons, Enja 9334-2/1997] the luscious timbre of the bowed five-string bass was spot-on, with more than a modicum of soundstage depth extending into the empty corner behind my screen (set up center on my diagonally oriented computer station). With both speakers slightly protruding from the screen and gently toed-in, this sense of depth perception was really weird at first. With my eyes fixed on the screen, I was reminded that the performers couldn't possibly inhabit the same space. A side effect of the extreme nearfield position was the spatial miniaturization of the stage, to about 1.5 feet of height. This dwarfing was mirrored also in width, simply as a normal function of the narrow 2.5 feet of speaker spread. However, this compacted soundstage was the only concession to regular big-rig music listening. Timbre, dynamics and overall resolution proceeded along as usual. To boot and quite unexpectedly, there was real and well-integrated bass. Remember that even a 1-inch tweeter, direct-loaded by a headphone into the puny air cavity of our inner ear, outputs sub-30Hz bass. When positioned in a standard computer setup, the M-200's 5.25-inch mid/woofer is merely three or less feet from the listener's head. With such placement, the 36-watt amplification is ridiculously overspec'd - if you have to turn the gain beyond 10:30 o'clock, you should see your doctor. By design, the mid/woofer not only benefits from reduced path length but also boundary gain of the computer desk or support platform. It thus captured even the lowest note of Garcia-Fons' giant upright without any attenuation or blurring.
For a disbelieving encore, I turned to trusted stand-by Aras [Curandero, SilverWave SD911/1996], which features a gripping solo workout by Kai Eckhardt, on both five-string Coura fretless and five-string modulus Graphite. The lowest notes on these occur at 31.5Hz as a bass-playing friend once told me. Eckhardt hits them more than once on "Brenda". At this distance, they were reproduced in all their fat glory as a quick headphone comparison clearly proved. Expectedly, the low bass lacked my main rig's usual bloom or room-lock that are functions of added reverberant reflections and higher air pressures in the farfield of a large room. I also found that cutting the bass contour to about 10 o'clock undermined the development of occasional boom and made for a better tonal transition. What a blast! Though I didn't have a DVD handy, it's clear that even blockbuster movies are fully compatible if enjoyed close-up. Incidentally, the primary justification for tone control boost is added placement flexibility. When stationed next to a TV, for example, in a comparably free-air environment, some of the bass gain lost without the tabletop reinforcement can be re-added.
To verify how they'd do in a larger space, I grabbed the Denon, a run of the new AnalysisPlus Oval 1 interconnect and plunked them and the M-200s atop my kitchen counter to fire into the adjoining dining room. We're talking an open space of altogether 25-foot length, 12-foot width and 9-foot ceilings, with no immediate wall reinforcement behind the speakers. Spaced about 4.5 feet apart, directly at the edge of the counter, I grabbed a mid-height bar stool to align with the tweeter, hunkered down about 7 feet away for a realistic small-room setup, and cued up "Segue" on the same disc.
Whoa. The only adjustment required was resetting both bass contour and gain control to 12:00 o'clock. Now I was rockin'. At 2:00 o'clock on the dial, things were really loud and allowed me to retreat by another five feet to get back to the earlier 10:00 o'clock level. Who'd ever need more? This presentation was a wonderful combination of warmth and detail that captured the quick transients of Bela Fleck's banjo and Ty Burhoe's tablas but didn't over-emphasize the steeliness of the strings, as some hotter tweeters would.
I also cued up Deliveren by Turkish Ethno-Pop diva Sezen Aksu [Post 2002-2]. Lo and behold, there she was in my kitchen seducing me with that highly emotive, peculiarly "broken" voice of hers that always raises my hackles. In this setup, there was great bloom, regular height, decent depth and a thoroughly believable tonal balance that even sounded great from the office - always a good secondary test. Even at higher than pleasant levels, the small rear-firing ports kept up venting large and low drum whacks without overloading.
Though their looks, construction and driver compliment had right away suggested that something was up, by now the M-200s had already delivered far more than even first impressions promised. To really underscore just how good they are, I decided to create context via a quick comparison with a familiar budget reference.
As GoodSound! readers already know, I was mightily stoked by the performance of the $275 Axiom M3Ti monitors. Since then, former SoundStage! colleagues had bought pairs for their second systems and confirmed my own findings. The firm was kind enough to let me hang on to the original review pair just long enough to allow for a friendly tête-à-tête with the M-200s. Since my least expensive in-house amp for this go-around turned out to be the $3795 Bel Canto eVo 200.4, I decided on the old speaker designer trick of listening to a single speaker in mono. This put the single Axiom and passive M-200 on equal footing, perched as they were on a Grecian plaster column smack in the middle of my living room. I cued up Deliveren again.
Outside of dynamic compression at higher levels, the M-200s kept up very well with the M3Tis indeed, with the Canadians offering greater treble illumination and lower bass, the Swans greater depth and a more laid-back demeanor (which, if so inclined, you could alter with some treble boost). Remember that the Axioms are sonically competitive with monitors up to $1,000. The Swans have a more polished look and include a 2-channel amplifier but sell for essentially the same money. Silly math, isn't it?
The above audiophiliac madness was fully justified. While unpretentious, the Diva by Swans M-200 speakers, squarely to the point, are very much audiophile products. I can tell you point-blank that they absolutely smoke the whole regular ilk of 3-piece computer mini systems, which don't deliver the all-important midrange to upper-bass transition in full stereo mode, and all the way down into the midbass. While an oversized woofer box might go low, it won't integrate as well. It'll either sit on a lower shelf or the floor for space reasons (quite the sonic compromise) or occupy an asymmetrical position outside of the monitors. In either case, it makes for a very obvious and lop-sided transition that occurs too high in frequency to remain omni-directional and thus sonically invisible.
Listening with computer speakers to real music - especially with a decent CD player/upgraded sound card and quality interconnects rather than zip cord - no longer is a waste of time or an oxymoron. It can and should happen. Forget about sorry compromises deemed fit only for sun-deprived computer nerds or adolescent kids engaged in virtual reality blood sports. In their intended applications, the M-200s are no-compromise music makers that any of the American or Canadian majors should have built a long time ago but didn't.
However, don't think about the M-200s as mere computer partners. They're self-powered, stand-alone desktop music monitors for small- to mid-size rooms. Are you on a tight budget, living in a small space, dreaming about a first, second or third system in a den, office, studio or bedroom? These amplified High-End speakers are tailor-made. Simply add a $179 portable CD player that can pull triple-duty on the lam from work and in the car. Heck, with an AC source, they'd be perfect in a mobile home, boat, or as part of a traveling setup for teachers and presenters when connected to a tape deck with prerecorded material. At home, connect the disc spinner to the cable feeding the active M-200, kick back and marvel at the accomplishment of superior engineering, reduced off-shore manufacturing costs and the vision of one remote Boss-San wanting to listen to MP3 files in high resolution. The very modest asking price of the M-200 - made possible by exclusive Internet-direct marketing -- merely gilds this lily. Recommended with a vengeance.
Now where is that Riven CD/ROM? Time to play...
A brief comment about the above numerical values. My all-out speaker reference (essentially an across-the-board 100) is the $17,00, full-range Avantgarde Duo 2.2 horn speaker. How to fairly adapt this number system to the $299 M-200? I decided to grade them in the near-field position where I assume most listeners would use them. Under those conditions, regular soundstage characteristics don't apply - hence the N/A designations in that category. Tonality with the M-200 can be drastically altered with the tone controls and thus also affects bass and treble quality. For this grading purpose, both tone controls were at their center 12 o'clock position.
Speaker Type: self-powered, rear ported bass reflex monitors
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