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October 2005
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
The Nearfield
Speakers, Speakers, Speakers!
M&K B-1500 monitors plus Role's Kayak and Role Discovery speakers.
Article By Steven Stone


Nearfield Sound Desk  This installment of the The Nearfield will be devoted to speakers, lots of speakers. It's my own fault. I contacted some manufacturers and the next thing I knew I was inundated. They have taken over all the available space in my office. My cats are getting lost among the boxes in the garage.

Actually, I'll only review three speakers. I had more than twice that many on hand, but I've decided to skip the lackluster ones. For many years I wrote for publications that insisted I review everything that manufacturers sent me, regardless of the consequences. The editor felt it was in the reader's interest to read about bad products as well as good ones. I disagree. Just like my readers, my time is limited, and I won't waste it on mediocre stuff. Under-performing products should be quietly teleported into the vacuum of non-existence.


M&K B-1500 Speakers
From the front the B-1500 speakers look like almost any other speaker with a one-inch fabric-dome Neodymium tweeter and a 5.25-inch woofer in a small enclosure. But several unique technological twists make it special. M&K's proprietary Backfire Unplug & Play tuned Bass Port Technology system augments the bass properties of the speaker's diminutive enclosure. According to M&K, "This rear-mounted tapered port design enhances the speakers' low-frequency output without the "smeared" sound and poor bass articulation of speakers with front-mounted ports."  In nearfield desktop systems with a subwoofer, the port can be plugged with a supplied foam insert.

M&K calls their crossover a Phase-Focused™ system. In their words, "We combine three important elements of crossover design: Time Domain Analysis, Frequency Domain Analysis, and what we call Point-In-Space Analysis (a three dimensional analysis of the speaker's response in the room). While other crossover designs consider only frequency response on one axis by designing the crossover for a "sweet spot" listening position, the Phase-Focused TM crossover is designed by measuring and optimizing both its phase and amplitude response at dozens of points (angles) in both the vertical and horizontal planes."  In a nearfield environment this translates into a larger listening window that also allows for more set-up flexibility.

As you would expect from a professional speaker the B-1500 has serviceable heavy-duty five-way binding posts that are properly spaced to allow for stereo banana plugs (EURO safety specifications be damned). Inside the B-1500 you'll find large-trace circuit boards with air-core inductors, high-quality resistors and capacitors of the sort usually found in far pricier audiophile-approved speakers.

The B-1500 cabinet may not win any awards from the local woodworker's union for spectacular veneers or unique construction materials. It's merely a very well braced box with a Nexel-like nubbed exterior finish. The overall effect is solid, workmanlike, but less than sumptuous. The speaker grill covers are similarly pedestrian, with black fabric stretched over a thin wooden frame. For any critical listening they should be removed. The speaker looks just as plain without the grills as it does with them.


M&K speakers are found in professional recording and mastering studios throughout the world. Historically M&K has offered more performance at less cost than most of their competitors. Pros appreciate that. The B-1500 dramatically demonstrates why B&K speakers are so popular. For only $798 per pair the B-1500 speakers deliver remarkably natural and refreshingly unspectacular sound. Unlike many speakers that try to sound exciting or more vibrant than the source material, the B&K B-1500 remains true to the music.

Most small footprint two-way box speakers image well and the B-1500 is no exception. But while the B-1500 produces a precise lateral image it adds little in the way of additional depth. On carefully recorded material created in a natural sound environment the B-1500 does recreate depth, but on standard multi-tracked pop recordings the B-1500 keeps the mix pancake flat. For critical mixing and mastering use, this is a good thing. The B-1500's overall image size doesn't rival my reference Aerial model 5 speakers, but the B-1500 still creates a large enough soundstage.

Compared to price-is–no-object designs, such as the Aerial 5, the B-1500 ranks as a medium resolution speaker. Extreme inner details, especially at higher SPL's, are slightly homogenized. But when compared to anything near its price-range the B-1500's ability to retain information ranks as well above average. Given a choice, sins of omission are much preferable to spurious additive colorations.

Extreme upper treble frequencies on the B-1500 lack "air" when compared to the Aerial 5 speakers, but never sound hooded or rolled off. If you prefer spotlighted or augmented upper frequencies you will find the B-1500's unassuming treble response less than ideal. But if you are accustomed to natural upper frequency presentation, the B-1500 sounds spot-on. Due in large part to their relaxed upper frequency response, I could listen for extended time periods to less than ideal sources and never feel fatigued by the B-1500 speakers.

The B-1500's midrange sounds remarkably natural for such a budget-priced speaker. Unlike many small speakers that suffer from hooty, nasal, or pinched midranges, especially when driven hard, the B-1500 remains open and remarkably uncolored regardless of the volume level. Whether whispering or cranked up to 95dB the B-1500's midrange maintains an unassuming character that allows the music to be as sweet or rude as its creators intended.

With its port plug in place it was easy to successfully blend the B-1500's with my Earthquake Supernova Mk IV subwoofer.  According to M&K, a plugged B-1500 extends down to 80 Hz with a 2nd order roll-off. This exactly matches THX specifications.  Without the port plug you can use the B-1500 without a subwoofer, but on my desktop this made the upper bass and lower midrange a bit riper than I prefer. Given the B-1500's cost, most users should easily be able afford to add a subwoofer.


The M&K B-1500 is the least expensive desktop speaker I've heard that can deliver high-end sound. While more expensive speakers, such as the Aerial model 5, can deliver higher resolution, more upper frequency air, a greater sense of depth, and a more expansive soundstage, the B-1500 excels at creating a harmonically natural, dynamically articulate and refreshing sound.  Perhaps the ultimate Calvin Coolidge of speakers (the US president who did nothing, but he did it very well), the B-1500 does nothing badly while preserving music's essential character. For $399 a pair I seriously doubt you'll find anything better.


Frequency Response: 35 Hz - 20 kHz ±2dB
Impedance: 4 ohms 
Recommended Power: 25 and 200 watts RMS or more
Weight: 9 Lbs.
Shielded: Yes
Dimensions: 9.8 x 6.25 x 9.25 (HxWxD in inches)
Price: $798 per pair in silver or black
Warranty: three year transferable
Manufacturer: Miller and Kreisel Sound Corporation, 10291 Jefferson Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232
Website: www.mksound.com



Role Kayak Speakers
At first glance Role Audio's Kayak speakers look like toys, with a one-inch ferrofluid cooled silk dome tweeter coupled to a 4.5" long-throw woven carbon fiber midrange/woofer residing in a tiny 8" by 5.5" by 6.2" box. With a simple first-order minimum-phase hand-soldered crossover that uses oxygen-free copper internal wires and premium parts, the sealed cabinet lacks any ports so it qualifies as a true acoustic suspension design. Due to the sealed cabinet, don't expect a ton of bass. According to its specifications, the Kayak is 3dB down by the time it gets to 65Hz.

The Kayak's cabinet comes in black, walnut, or birch veneers. Frugal users will be pleased to discover the black version costs $100 less per pair. The Kayak has an unremarkable and austere appearance. The plain black grill cover and standard five-way plastic-barreled binding posts do little to spruce up its exterior. If you gravitate toward flashy looking speakers the Kayak's looks will barely float your boat.

Role Audio doesn't supply much in the way of detailed technical descriptions for their speakers. They do say, "The Kayak is a tiny mini-monitor that offers an extremely high level of performance for its size. Its first order, minimum phase, point source, acoustic suspension design gives it excellent time coherence, transient response, and bass response. Its soundstaging and imaging performance are unparalleled. And its ability to replay the nuances and ambiance of music makes it reveal subtitles that most high price loudspeakers gloss over." Promises, promises


Every serious audiophile remembers his or her first high-end epiphany. Mine happened in a tiny studio apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1976. I don't remember the apartment dweller's name, but I do remember he was an ex-neighbor of the Absolute Sound's founder Harry Pearson. I also don't recall much of the particulars of his system except for the speakers. They were original ProAc's Tablettes. On classical music these tiny speakers completely disappeared, substituting the most realistic facsimile of a full symphony orchestra I'd ever heard. My mind was completely and irrevocably blown. Since that moment I've heard literally thousands of good speakers, but very few have made as big an impression as those petite speakers.

For me the Role Kayak speakers are the desktop equivalent of the original ProAc Tablettes. They don't look like much, yet they are monumental miniature speakers. I've rarely heard desktop speakers that can so totally vanish while creating a seamlessly convincing soundstage.

But all small speakers image well, right? Sure, but there's good, and then there's phenomenal. The Kayaks rank in the latter category. Even when placed less than two feet from my listening position a pair of Kayaks not only become sonically invisible, but they also produce a humungous soundstage that rivals my reference Aerial model 5s.  The Kayak's image also has just as much lateral precision as the Aerials. But unlike the Aerials, and every other speaker I've had in my desktop system, the Kayaks just vamoose. When you close your eyes you have absolutely no idea where these speakers are located. Even with the Aerials you have some slight sense of speaker location, especially on multi-mixed pan-potted recordings, but the Kayaks simply dissolve.

Along with their virtual disappearing act the Kayaks do an astounding job of creating a three-dimensional depth. On my own live concert recordings even the wall reflections at the far back of the stage have realistic separation from the back row of instruments. Begona Olavide's Qanun on MA Recording's Salterio floats in three-dimensional space with eerie verisimilitude.

Miniscule two-way speakers often have harmonically and dynamically limited midranges. The Kayak mostly avoids this sonic pitfall. Although you won't find the Kayak puts out a ton of lower midrange and upper bass, it still manages to achieve a surprisingly neutral harmonic balance. Sure, the Kayaks err toward the lean side of absolute harmonic neutrality, yet they never sound pinched, shrill, or stressed, even at high volume levels.

Although on paper the Kayak's 1" ferrofluid cooled silk dome tweeter appears to be similar to everyone else's, it sounds much smoother than many I've auditioned. Even on extremely peaky and harsh sources the Kayak's top end always sounds suave and natural yet highly extended. The Kayaks also excel at resolving low-level details without sounding harsh or artificial. I never felt cross-eyed after long periods of critical listening into complex mixes. Like other great high-resolution speakers I've known, the Kayaks bring the sound to you in an easily decipherable way.

Compared to the rollicking Thiel PCS speakers the Kayaks may appear to be somewhat dynamically reticent, but considering their diminutive size the Kayaks retain a more than acceptable level of dynamic contrast. Although their dynamic sensibilities are better suited to natural acoustic pop and classical music at realistic levels than rap or heavy metal at ear bleeding volumes, the Kayaks never sound stressed or compressed, merely more comfortable at sane volume levels.

Because of their somewhat lean lower midrange and upper bass, the Kayaks blend very easily with high quality subwoofers. Using a standard 80 Hz crossover on my Earthquake Supernova Mk IV the Kayaks seamlessly merged with the Earthquake. MA Recording's Salterio. The wide variety of drums and low frequency percussion instruments all sounded believable and dynamically adept while blending into the subwoofer's range.


The definition of best always hinges upon one's personal preferences. I'm an old-school audiophile who prefers imaging accuracy, musicality and low-level detail over dynamic power, bass extension and slam. Given my own predilections it should come as no surprise that I was completely captivated by the Kayaks. Once you hear the Kayak speaker in a nearfield environment you may well flip out as well. Given their size and price the Kayaks deliver a level of performance that ranks as nothing short of amazing.


Frequency Response: 65 HZ - 20 kHz +/-3 dB -6 dB
Sensitivity: 85 dB/W/m
Rated Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended Power: 35 to150 watts
Dimensions: 8 x 5.5 x 6.5 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 7 pounds each
Price: $795 per pair (in Birch, or Walnut) $695 a pair (in black)
Manufacturer: Role Audio, P.O. Box 13396, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA 27709
Manufacturer Website: www.roleaudio.com



Role Discovery Speakers
The Role Discovery speakers were designed to combine the Kayak's best attributes into a speaker with greater sensitivity. They have two 4.5" long-throw carbon fiber drivers instead of one in a larger cabinet that delivers more bass extension. Although they do retain most of the Kayak's traits, they prove that in physics there is no such thing as a free lunch.


Imagine a Kayak that doesn't disappear quite as completely and has more lower midrange guts and you have the Discovery in a nutshell. Compared to the Kayak the Discovery reminds me of a slightly slower, more powerful older brother. The Discovery's additional dynamic verve comes at the expense of the Kayak's speed. The Discovery and Kayak share many family traits. They both have superb high frequency rendition, astounding inner detail and low-level resolution, and remarkable depth recreation. But the Discovery does not image with the same level of cabinet invisibility as the Kayak. In this respect the Aerial model 5, which has larger physical dimensions, does a better job of disappearing.

The Discovery's extra midrange/woofer and larger cabinet give it more lower midrange energy capabilities, which translate into a slightly warmer harmonic balance and greater dynamic punch. In a mid-field listening environment these attributes would have more positive effect. As a desktop speaker the Discovery's added midrange capacity doesn't improve its performance appreciably over that of the Kayak. 

If you must use a low power tube amplifier the Discovery speaker's 90dB sensitivity verses the Kayak's 85dB may make the difference between usable and unusable, but for anyone with over 50 watts per channel the Discovery's increased sensitivity is far less important. Sure, the Discovery speaker will play louder when fed the same amount of power, but its inability to magically disappear renders it more on a par with other similarly-priced mini-monitors – good but not super special.


Don't misunderstand me; I think the Role Discovery ranks as a fine speaker, especially if you need high sensitivity. In most performance areas it ranks higher than most other comparably priced speakers I've heard. But when you put the Discovery next to the Kayak the Discovery comes off as a less ideal speaker for a desktop environment. On a desktop bigger is not necessarily better. The Discovery proves this to be the case.


Frequency Response: 60 HZ - 20 kHz +/-3 dB
Sensitivity: 90dB/W/m
Rated Impedance: 8 ohms Minimum Impedance: 4.1
Recommended Power: 25-150 watts
Dimensions: 12 x 5.5 x 6.5 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 13 pounds each
Price: $998 per pair (Birch finish), $899 per pair (black finish)
Manufacturer: Role Audio, P.O. Box 13396, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA 27709
Manufacturer Website: www.roleaudio.com



Coming Attractions
The next installment will be about speakers again. I have ERA's Design 5 speakers, which were created by Aerial's Michael Kelly as well as two speakers from Dali. I also have PS Audio's GCC-100 integrated amplifier. So till next time, enjoy the music.































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