Something about Olympic gymnasts reminds me of mini-monitors. Every time I watch those little girls explode off the floor, spin on the uneven bars, or perform death-defying acrobatics on the balance beam it remains astonishing. Crammed in a package small enough to fit a whole team of 'em in a mini-van, Olympic caliber gymnasts combine the raw power of a weightlifter, the flexibility of a snake, the grace of a ballerina and the daring of a downhill skier. Pound for pound, they and Iditarod sled dogs comprise the sporting world's purest forms, with nothing left to chance and nothing left to waste. So too the mini-monitor. Well designed, it can pull off astounding feats of musical athleticism.
But, aside from their pint-sized shapes, gymnasts and mini-monitors diverge at a fundamental level. Gymnasts are purposeful distortions of real life, too small, too sensitive, too purpose-built to live outside the hothouse of competition, not so the mini. A well-designed mini-monitor is built from the opposite direction, purposefully focusing on the mid-bass through treble frequencies, where 90% of musical content is found. Excess is striped from the mini, not to allow it to perform spectacular feats at the musical margins, but so that the heart of the musical spectrum is accurate, refined, direct and detailed. Or at least this is the hope. And one designer who has found much acclaim for doing just that is Alan Yun of Silverline Audio.
A life-long music-lover and audiophile, Mr. Yun started designing audio gear in his native Hong Kong as a child. Since 1997 he has been manufacturing and selling loudspeakers as Silverline Audio, based in the Bay area of California, although his first speaker company, Classics One, sold over 4000 speakers, largely in Hong Kong and the Far East. The Silverline Audio lineup is amazingly deep, with five monitor speakers and at least that many floorstanders. And over the last three or four years nearly every model has been well reviewed. Which brings us to one of the few that has yet to be covered, the $1,499 SR 11.
A compact loudspeaker, the SR 11 is also beautiful. With a slight slope to all four walls and a flat top, the speaker forms a truncated pyramid that gives it character as well as the illusion of more mass than it actually possesses, although at 12 inches tall, 8 inches wide and 10 inches deep and a hefty 25 pounds the Silverline Audio SR 11 is quite solid. As for the skin, the 11 comes in two high-gloss finishes, red and black, as well as sycamore and rosewood. The review sample sported rosewood veneer, and of such workmanship that, literally, every visitor to the Warnke Diaper and Music Lodge enthused about their quality.
While the look and finish are spectacular, the specs on the 11 are fairly standard for a mini, with a stated frequency range (-3dB) from 48Hz to 22kHz. The nominal impedance is 8 ohms, which is better than normal for a small speaker while sensitivity is 87dB. Yun uses a 4 inch carbon fiber mid/woofer that crosses over to a 1 inch soft-dome tweeter at 3.5kHz. The crossover slope is not indicated. On the back of the 11 are a 1.75 inch port and a pair of gold-plated 5-way binding posts to facilitate bi-wiring. Like I said, fairly typical specs, but what matters with a mini-monitor is what happens inside that familiar terrain. Just as with a pop song, the outline and ingredients may be familiar, but the result can be the Beatles or N*Sync.
And anyone listening to the SR 11 can tell this is no N*Sync. Of course bass is limited, but we expect this. The -3dB point of 48Hz is real, and almost immediately thereafter the sound falls off rapidly. Still, extension this deep using a 4 inch driver is, in and of itself, pretty good. More important, and this is what the 11 is all about, where there is bass it is tight with no overhang, muddiness or blurring, rather it is tuneful, full of musical and harmonic nuance, and accurate. It is not especially powerful, but if you are looking for a 4 inch driver to fill your rec room with rave styled bass you may want to reconsider the whole high-end thing. Or retake Physics 101.
On the other hand, a significant advantage of a 4 inch mid-woofer is that a single driver covers the mid-bass to low-treble range and without the beaming issues that a larger driver would necessarily introduce. When executed properly, this allows a speaker to, well, speak with a single voice over the most significant musical frequencies, and to image beautifully as well. Both of which the 11 does superbly.
First, the midrange does sound exactly like the mid and upper bass - tight, tuneful, harmonically delightful and accurate. Even more, this coherence makes for a significantly enhanced musical experience. For an example of what I mean think back to the bad old days of digital when pitch speed seemed correct but all the constituent parts were scrambled. In like manner, many speakers chop the spectrum up with drivers hand-picked to excel in a particular range, and they do, but no matter how hard you try, different drivers exhibit a slightly different character that no crossover, cabinet design or driver matching can overcome. This is such a part of the dynamic speaker experience that it takes listening to a full-range 'stat or well designed single-driver horn for many of us to uncover this artifact. Or a listen to the SR 11. Not that it exactly echoes the seamless sound of a 'stat, but with that notably high 3.5k crossover, the 11 extends almost a half octave higher than the typical mini, and that is certainly noticeable... and enjoyable.
Next, the Silverline Audio SR 11 images and disappears as a sound source so effortlessly that even someone as addle-brained as a reviewer can not screw these things up. When I first dropped the pair of 11s in the listening room I placed them approximately where I had placed several monitors before, but since I was not yet to the critical listening stage I did not "dial" them in. After a week or so I did a bit of roughing in, but only a bit, just enough to make sure that the distances and toe was the same for both speakers. The staging after this was so good that it was not until I was looking over some notes several weeks later that I realized I hadn't gone back and obsessed over their placement. Even in their rough placement the 11 flat out disappeared. Spread approximately eight feet and with my seat about nine feet back from the speaker plane, the left to right stage was perfectly continuous between the speakers and even extended several feet outside as well. After dialing them in, the 11 added an equally deep and stable image. The credit for this must lie, not only with that 4 inch mid-woofer I keep harping on and the singular voice it brings to bear, but also with the cabinetry that seems to do a superb job controlling resonance.
At this point do I really need to say that the tweeter is doing its job as well? With staging like this it has to be. Since it comes on at 3.5kHz, it seems to loaf along, not being called into action until absolutely necessary, and so when it does come on it does so with total ease and finesse. This gave the 11 a quiet, but not dark character up top. And this I found to be very lifelike. Also, unlike many monitors, where the lack of bass makes the entire loudspeaker sound tipped up, the 11 sounded very balanced. On sunny recordings, it was bright and open, while with dark ones it was suitably and accurately closed down. None of that constant, backlit stage that many hi-fi speakers possess. By way of comparison, several months back I reviewed the Soliloquy 6.2 loudspeaker (see review here) and commented that it had a tweeter that was detailed but soft, hitting the midpoint of treble frequencies just right but softening the attack a touch. The Silverline Audio SR 11 is just as detailed, a pinch more even, but not soft at all. It also sounds quicker, but somewhat conversely, quieter as well as the 6.2 had a touch of that backlit character.
Dynamically, the 11 is quite good from the very quiet to the moderately strong and then flattens out evenly. The trailing edge faired even better with decay extending all the way into the recording noise floor.
Details, both musical and recording artifacts, were abundant and distinct and inner details were beautifully apparent and coherent as the same time. The only limitations here were those affected by bass extension and large dynamic swings.
Putting it all together, the Silverline Audio SR 11, like any loudspeaker has a character, and in this case it does have a slightly sweet tonal color, but just slightly. By way of explanation, over the review period I used four different amplifiers with the little 11. With each the sonic character of the power source was immediately and readily discernable. And of those amplifiers, I found the Conrad-Johnson MV-60 (see review here) to be a perfect match. Since it too has a slightly sweet character, you might think that the two together would be too much, but since each adds but a slight amount of warmth, and since each is also detailed and extremely musical, it works wonderfully. Considering the combo is just over $4,000 USD, the result is breathtaking. Not to mention a bargain.
Anyway, back to character. The stage, as I said, is immense while also being a touch polite, which is it extends from the speaker plane backwards. Combined with the refined treble, slightly sweet tonal shaping and lack of ability to pressurize a room, the 11 may seem a tad laid-back. On the other hand, it has excellent dynamics ppp to ff, along with world-class detailing, so as long as you stay within its boundaries, it moves along nicely. I even found myself getting out my Parliament records and boogieing along with no problem; at least as long as I didn't try to purposely annoy the neighbors.
All in all the Silverline Audio SR 11 is remarkable little speaker. While the sensitivity is fairly standard at 87dB, the load is a true 8 ohms so amplifier matching is more about finding the right wattage for the room size and listening levels you enjoy rather than needing a certain current level first and foremost. The sound is detailed, precise and harmonically rich, organic in a word, if also touch polite. Bass, at least as deep as the 11 can reach, is rich, fast and full of nuance. The 11 only shows problems at the margins - below 45Hz and above ff sound pressure levels. The first of those issues can be easily mitigated with a sub, while the second is a constant issue, at least at this price and quality point.
The Silverline Audio SR 11 has a lot of competition. So rather than survey the field let me look at two speakers that bracket it. The Totem Arro at $995 and the Soliloquy 6.2 at $2,495.
The Totem is a good looking little guy, and when you fill the base, has superb bass extension, deeper than the 11 even though both use a 4 inch mid-woofer. But for that extension the Totem asks for a couple of things back. First, it is inefficient. Second, it presents a more difficult load. These two things combine to mandate quality solid-state amplification. Not necessarily a problem, but certainly something to which you must pay careful attention if you are to hear the Arro at its best. Next, the Arro has a tendency to bottom out when playing a lot of bass. So, while it goes deeper, getting more SPLs out of it is a balancing act. Lastly, as good as the Arro is, and it is my favorite floorstander for under a grand, it is not as detailed as the 11.
The Soliloquy also has deeper bass extension than the Silverline. It is nearly as detailed, and is a touch more efficient as well. Like the SR 11 it can be driven by a tube amplifier as easily as by a transistor one. Still, there are trade-offs. Even though the 6.2 is a superb stager, the 11 is world-class in this regard and bests it. The 11 also has better detailing, although both are at the very forefront of what is possible at this price-point. I prefer the treble on the SR 11 as it is a touch less active, and when called upon, is a touch more detailed. Still, this is a slight difference. On the other hand, the SR 11 is certainly a bit more refined as well up top and so may match better with solid-state electronics.
Land of Confusion
Just to cover all the comparisons here, Silverline Audio offers an elaborate line of monitors, which can be confusing, but each model has been focused on a specific target. The 17, at $2,499, sits atop the price structure. And with a -3dB point of 38Hz, it also offers the deepest bass. At $999 the 12 is the most affordable and has specs similar to the $500 more expensive 11. What separates the 11 and the 12, among other things, is the cabinet bracing. The 11 weighs 25 pounds per speaker, while the 12 weighs 24 pounds a pair. The 12 also uses a 5 inch driver to reach to the same -3dB point, which makes sense as a less rigid cabinet would not be able to extract as much bass from a 4 inch driver. This difference, plus others, adds up to a speaker, in the case of the 11, that is more focused, offers better detail, dynamics and finesse. The $1,799 model 15 uses a 6 inch mid-woofer with a -3dB point of 40Hz and crosses over at 2.7kHz (the lower crossover point is needed to avoid beaming with the larger woofer). The trade off here is deeper bass and greater dynamics with the 15 but better definition, staging and a cleaner harmonic structure with the 11. When I reviewed the 15 several years back I was struck with how well it imaged, but the 11 is clearly its superior. And over its bandwidth window offers greater detail as well. This makes the Silverline Audio SR 11 a mini-monitor design in its purest form. It does not attempt to go where no mini has gone before; instead it attempts to perfect the form. For those who appreciate this type of speaker, the 11 is the Silverline model to look for.
So how do I sum this little guy up? First, he's far more Beatles than N*Sync. The form is familiar, but the results are special. It has limits, of course, but within them it exceeds beyond all reasonable expectation. Finely focused on its mission, it delivers. And as long as you are as equally focused on what it does well, this may be the best $1,500 you could spend. Like any monitor, it is not for all folks and all music, so with that caveat, I call this my mini-monitor reference. But perhaps the finest compliment I pay them is this. When my father-in-law asked my advice on a small pair of speakers I told him to buy the Silverlines.
Type: Two way, rear port, bi-wireable
Tweeter: 1" soft dome
Midrange/Woofer: Carbonfibre paper 4" mid/woof
Croissover Frequency: 3.5kHz
Frequency Response: 48Hz to 22kHz
Impedance: 8 ohm nominal
Power Handling: 15 to 200 watts
Dimentions: 12 x 8 x 10 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 25 lbs.
Finishes: Rosewood, Sycamore, High Gloss Red, HG Black, HG Racing Green