The Guttenberg Challenge: Affordable Loudspeakers from Dayton, Micca and Pioneer

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I get pulled into a lot of debates. Political discussions around the proper role of government. The role of morality, whether in the market or in personal life. The proper view and use of Science or it’s tools. The value, purpose, and goals of education, the penal system, life in general.

You could say that I think too much. You could also say that I have no sense of self-preservation. I would probably blow a raspberry at either suggestion.

But one topic that keeps coming back to me is the issue of affordability.

I’ll admit that the prices in audio’s high-end have me more than a little uncomfortable. Quite a bit more. And while that feeling seems at odds with the stuff I read about in most mainstream mags, Art recently published an editorial called “Skin Deep“, wherein he openly mocked the $20,000 price-anchor that the high-end seems to be pivoting around. It’s an unsettling little piece, and done with assurance and authority by perhaps the most prestigious writer in today’s audiophile press.

You have to applaud Art’s sense of outrage: “I’m sorry, but an interconnect is not, under any conditions, worth as much as a new car.” It’s ballsy to see Stereophile take such a stance — even the views and opinions expressed in that piece are soley those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Stereophile, it’s parent company, it’s affiliates, or anyone else on Planet Earth. The fact is, they published it and that means something. To me, at least. But $20k? That’s quite a ceiling.

Looking at my own system, I note quite a few extremely expensive components. While most do not, perhaps, reach as lofty as that $20k price point, some sail past. I’m not going to defend my taste, my income or my lifestyle other than to say that the pieces are what I thought best, at a time when I had the money to do something about it. What I will acknowledge is that even the price of one of those multi-thousand dollar components is way past what “normal people” spend on audio (or “art” generally) in total, and that it’s probably well past what most would-be audiophiles would spend, too. If I were in a confessing mood, I’d reveal that this truth has been … pounded … into my consciousness. Thoroughly. To the point where even took notice. And I’m dense.

Of course, all this brings up an interesting point. Is this hobby actually affordable, in any reasonable interpretation of the term “affordable”? Is high-end audio an intrinsically elitist luxury niche, populated exclusively by the 1% and those hoping to someday climb into such company? Or is there room for more interpretations of “good sound” that might actually appeal to those of us without a HELOC, a trust fund, or a secret tunnel into a conveniently neighboring bank vault?

At the New York Audio Show back in September, I led a panel with Art Dudley of Stereophile, John Darko of Digital Audio Review and Steve Guttenberg of CNet’s The Audiophiliac, around the somewhat arbitrary topic of “What’s Next: a 21st Century Audiophile“. I’ll admit — sitting with those fine fellows really felt weird.

But during that discussion, Steve made a wild claim that high-quality sound could be had for $100For the entire system. And, interestingly, he wasn’t talking about headphones. No, he meant speakers, amp, and source. I’ll admit, when he threw that out there, I laughed. Touring a regional dealership recently, I tried to remember what $100 would have bought me. Maybe a set of footers? An adapter? An anti-static brush? Like I said, I laughed. Well. In my head. I’m not sure I actually let that donkey shout out of my skull, but maybe I did.

Regardless, Steve immediately followed up with actual references — a $30 Class-T amp from Lepai, a pair of B652 loudspeakers from Dayton Audio, and a Bluetooth receiver, and as along as you have a smart phone, you’re good to go.

Guess what I did? I didn’t laugh. I took notes.

About a week later, my own Dayton Audio loudspeakers showed up. I opted for a pair of B652-AIR loudspeakers, a $20 upgrade over the $40 base model that includes AMT tweeters instead of the soft-dome ones. The $20 Lepai showed up a day later. I already had some Geek Out USB DACs (I appear to have a set of these for some reason) from LH Labs and a mini-to-stereo cable from Audioquest. I was ready.

Taking my first look at “Steve’s Budget Bits” in the flesh, as it were, it became pretty obvious that this was not going to rock the Big Rig out of my listening room. But … what occurred to me was that it could make an absolutely incredible small-room system. Maybe a dorm? Or an office rig. For me, I started flashing on “desktop system”. A killer desktop system.

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The problem, which probably should have been obvious, is that both the amp and the speakers only accept bare wire — and no, 10-gauge won’t fit. Neither would the 12-gauge. Scrambling, I recalled a spool of “burial grade” OCC that I was using with a pair of Flagstone PlanterSpeakers from Madison Fielding. More stripping and cursing later, I had the system wired and running.

I’ll offer this. It’s okay.

Interestingly, the speaker+amp combo actually sounds more interesting than a lot of headphones in the sub $250 segment, in that I can get some actual sound staging and visceral bass response. Like most headphones, the bass only approaches healthy instead of actually bathing in it, but the mid-to-top end is actually quite enjoyable — and reasonably resolving. I think I’d stop short of actually recommending either the speakers or the amp, but with some desktop stands to bring the tweets on level with my ears, the sound is enjoyable. Perhaps apropos of nothing, I actually found myself thinking that these little Daytons would be very credible for use as surrounds in a 5.1, 7.1 or 9.1 home theater system. At $60/pair, that’s really not bad at all. But as a hi-fi rig? I really wasn’t feeling it. Sorry, Steve.

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As part of the same sweep of budget-shopping, I picked up a pair of $60 Micca MB42 Bookshelf loudspeakers. I want to say these were recommended at some point, but I’m not sure where or by whom, but, at that price, I figured, what the hey.

However they caught my eye, I’m just glad they did — while they’re the smallest of the bunch, the Micca are a terrific little pair of speakers. The 4″ driver is certainly a big step down in size from the 6.5″ on the Daytons, and it swaps a nifty little AMT for a silk dome tweet. But what it might trade on the down-low, it gains directly in terms of coherence. The top-end is sweet, the band through the mid-bass is very transparent. For every bit that I wasn’t feeling the little Daytons, the Miccas were working it out. This might be the ultimate desktop speaker and of the three, reminds me most clearly of a studio-monitor in its frequency response — very linear. And that’s not a bad thing.

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Musically, the best of the bunch were a pair of $95/pair Pioneer SP-BS22 LR loudspeakers. If you’ll pardon the cliche, these boat-tail shaped loudspeakers, designed by Andrew Jones, play at an entirely different league. While the Micca brought a very compelling desktop package, the Pioneers are clearly wasted here on the desk. In fact, putting them on your desk is pretty much an invitation to do nothing productive.

They’re not perfect, sadly. First, that big rear-facing port means they’ll do best a bit off the wall. Not a big deal, but it does make desktop use problematic. Second, the little 4″ driver can only do so much, too — don’t expect cavernous bass. Third, and perhaps most problematically, was a mid-bass bump that lent a little extra to male vocals — I noticed this watching The Daily Show clips … because Facebook. Anyway, I swapped the other speakers in and out, and found that the Dayton’s do this too, though a little less, and of the set, it was the Micca that provided the most linear response through this part of the band. An interesting result. With music, this was much less noticeable and I suspect has more to do with the voicing of the loudspeaker and trying to flesh out a design that simply cannot “go there” on the low-low end. For what it’s worth, this attempt to cheat physics is a pretty common “design feature” that I’ve found with just about all non-studio-monitor stand mounts, headphones, and in-ear monitors. That soupçon of extraness, placed just-so, makes them all seem a bit more interesting to listen to, and without it, sound a little thin.

To-may-to, to-mah-to. Yous picks yer poisons. Anyway, with that expectation properly set, the speakers will happily over deliver.

Bass reach and thwack is a big step up from the Micca; while that may seem a little odd given that they use the same size driver, but the port on the back of the Pioneers is about an inch larger and the cabinet is at least twice the size. And then there’s that voicing thing.

With pluses in the “FTW” column around bass, improvements continued. As with the Miccas, the imaging could be crazy-specific, but the little Pioneers did something that the littler Miccas couldn’t seem to manage: depth. Even sitting on little stands on my desk, the Pioneers clearly added a third dimension to the sound stage. This was a “hey, wait a minute” moment, too, and I might have lost an hour or so listening, positioning, and trying to coax that sense into a full-blown scale. I had best luck with them about a foot off the wall, but I’m guessing that higher volume playback than the extreme near field setup I was fiddling with will require more space. And, I learned, more space also squares out that mid-bass hump. It’s still fun, but much less chesty, though I’m sure John Stewart will be disappointed to hear that.

Like the Micca, the Pioneers actually have “real” 5-way binding posts, so no worry about wires. The veneer is pretty nice, and given the price point (and the finish on the other two speakers), this was a very healthy step up the fit-and-finish ladder.

I’m having a hard time not loudly recommending these speakers, but these little suckers are for keepers. Mine! Mine!

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With these speakers, I also had a chance to test out the much-more-expensive Class T amp from Trends Audio, the new $225 TA-10.2 SE. Again, this amp wildly outclasses the little motorsports mount from Lepai, but at 11x the price, that’s not unexpected. How does it better it? The top end, actually. It’s just a whole lot sweeter and a lot less grain. But the Trends amp is only 10 watts per channel. Fine for your desk, but that’s about it. At least, with these speakers.

The Dayton Audio DTA-120, however, is “only” $99. Like the other two, it’s a Class T, but this one features headphone outputs. Not sure that matters to me, but it’s a nice touch. And, happy of happy, it sports 60 watts per channel! Guess what? Both the Dayton Audio loudspeakers and the Pioneers practically jump with this amp. You know. With joy? Boy howdy does that make a difference.

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Okay, so here’s the skinny.

The Lepai amp + Dayton speaker system was $80. The Dayton amp + Pioneer speaker system was $200. That’s a big spread, in real world money. The first system is “movie and dinner out with the wife and kids” money. The second is “super-special anniversary dinner with the wife” money. It’s probably not fair to say that the second takes the first out back and beats it down to a bloody stump, but there you go.

I’m pretty sure that means I’m failing the Guttenberg Challenge. Especially since I had to add the source in still. I was using a Geek Out from LH Labs, which adds at least $200 to the total. Don’t shoot — it’s what I had. Did I mention this is a part-time gig? Anyway.

What I do know is that this current system is completely rocking my desk. And I’m loving it.

So, what have you put together for two-channel listening for less?

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The Speakers

Dayton Audio B652-AIR

  • Frequency Range: 70Hz-20kHz
  • Nominal›Impedance: 6Ω
  • Sensitivity: 85dB
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 7″ x 12″ x W x 6″

Micca MB42

  • Frequency Range: 60Hz-20kHz
  • Nominal›Impedance: 4Ω
  • Sensitivity: 85dB
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 6″ x 9″ x 6″

Pioneer SP-BS22-LR

  • Frequency Range: 55Hz-20kHz
  • Nominal›Impedance: 6Ω
  • Sensitivity: 85dB
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 7” x 13” x 8”