For those of us in the "components under $1000" budget category, speakers come predominantly in one flavor: small. While that may be frustrating for those who crave variety in their fiscally prudent audio systems, the fact is that making good floorstanding speakers in our price range is almost impossible. Building a large cabinet that is braced as well as a properly constructed mini-monitor isn't cheap, not to mention the cost of additional drivers and their more complex filter networks. The results are usually seriously compromised, built for no other reason but to hit a three-figure price point.
The small monitor designer has numerous challenges: getting decent bass, dynamics, and overall volume output out of a small box/small driver combo in particular. If solving these specific problems was Swans' design goal with the D2.1SE, their new flagship monitors, they have succeeded in ways I never though possible. Want robust, floorstander sound on a two-way monitor budget? Read on.
A Bird by Any Other Name
No Ugly Duckling
What's Good For The Goose
Doing the tiresome "move, then listen. Move again, then listen some more," dance every audiophile knows so well, I chased the Swans' sweet spot all the way to nearly six feet from the front wall before the bass came under control. This required a very spouse-unfriendly furniture rearrangement to accomplish, and although the D2.1SEs "disappeared" nicely and produced a vast soundstage from this position, I always had the nagging sensation that my 13 x 25 foot living room just wasn't big enough for them. This is something to keep in mind as you read the rest of this review. I would have loved to hear what they could do when they were 10 or 12 feet apart, but doing so in my room only resulted in overpowering bass.
For my regular, "five days a week" listening I settled on placing the D2.1SEs 3.5-feet from the front wall and sent everything below 80Hz to my PSB SubSonic 5 subwoofer. This was a new one on me... using a subwoofer because the stand-mounted monitors have too much bass! I didn't actually like the bass on my subwoofer as well as the Swans' bass from their ideal position, but I liked it better than my wife's ire. Critical listening for this review, however, was done with the D2.1SEs run full-range from the sweet spot.
Graceful As A Swan
Later on in the review period, I took delivery of an MFW-15 subwoofer from AV123. This is a massive, slot-ported 15-incher that demonstrated what the D2.1SEs could not do by themselves. The MFW-15 didn't reveal any new musical information, I could hear most everything with the Swans alone, but a good subwoofer (and the MFW-15 is a good subwoofer) takes those low frequencies beyond mere hearing and makes them part of your life in a real, physical way. The Swans' midrange performance is glorious; particularly with vocals. Renée Fleming's voice on her 2003 SACD Bel Canto was breathtaking. Of course, Renée Fleming is breathtaking anywhere, but the D2.1SEs gave her vocals a lush, evocative quality that I found impossible to pull myself away from. Likewise with "Like Humans Do", the hit off of David Byrne's 2001 effort Look into the Eyeball, the Swans' made smooth listening out of Byrne's occasionally raspy voice.
The Swans' presentation of a full orchestra is shockingly
good, playing loud, complex passages with less congestion than any two-way has
a right to. Soundstaging was excellent on Also
sprach Zarathustra (Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, RCA Living
Stereo), spreading the orchestra out beyond the walls of my room. Instrument
placement was precise, albeit with subtle spotlighting due to a few small peaks
in the response. I often use the opening "
The Swans top end is a bit peaky in spots, and tends to emphasize non-musical details more than I'd like. I found tape hiss on recordings that I didn't know had it, and the "rosin scraping off the bow" sound was more noticeable than usual on Pieter Wispelwey's take on Bach's 6 Suites per Violoncello Solo Senza Basso (Channel Classics, 1998).
Some Technical Stuff
Okay, so I wouldn't recommend the Swans as studio monitors. I probably wouldn't recommend the Sierra-1 for studio use either, but more importantly, I don't want a sonic microscope in my home system. I was something that delivers music in an emotional, involving way, and this the Swans have in spades. When it came to simple listening enjoyment, which speaker I preferred varied from recording to recording. On Saudades by Trio Beyond [ECM, 2006]; Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield's modern tribute to Lifetime (Tony Williams' fiery late '60s power trio); the Sierra brought a little more edgy grit out of Scofield's guitar tone, while the Swans made more seductive listening out of the proceedings. Winner: the Sierra-1. Lush & seductive can be nice, but it doesn't work for everything. In this case, the Sierra's presentation held me on the edge of my seat more effectively.
On the previously mentioned Renée Fleming recording, the brass sounded more lifelike on the Ascends, but loud choral passages came across a bit strained. On the Swans, the orchestra seemed larger (although more distant) with a greater sense of dynamics. Strings, and particularly Fleming's vocals, were warmer and more moving with the D2.1SE. I give the nod the Swans. The Sierra did a better job capturing the pure rock energy of the Rolling Stones' Shine a Light at reasonable (but still loud) volume levels. However, at less-than-reasonable, "pedal to the metal" levels (that you might use as a matter of course in a room much larger than mine) they ran out of gas, and the Swans picked up where the Sierra-1 left off in delivering a fist-pumping performance: a tie.
In the final analysis, I'd still recommend the Sierra-1 for most budget-minded audio thrillseekers, as they are better suited for use in normal-sized domestic living spaces, and are specifically designed with a flat impedance response that works well with just about any amplifier you might have around. That said, the Swans are really more different than they are inferior, and those who need to fill a large space with a lot of gorgeous sound (and are open to a possible amplifier upgrade), they certainly deserve a place near the top of a very short audition list.
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