Usher Audio SD-500
The story of the Usher Audio SD-500 (website) has three beginnings. The first being in the pages of several print magazines, online blogs, and forums where I first encountered the Usher Audio name. It was there that I first read about a loudspeaker from Taiwan affectionately called the “Tiny Dancer,” and how it was leaving American audio journalists stunned with its sound and beauty. The second takes me back to Texas in the more recent “before times,” where at Lone Star Audio Fest 2019 the small SD-500 first entered the picture when being exhibited by Derek Skipworth of AudioThesis.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
Thirdly, this story begins (and possibly ends) with the island nation of Taiwan itself, home to Usher Audio and a tradition of innovation, craftsmanship, and a history that dates back thousands of years.
For instance, did you know: In Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei—the National Palace Museum houses over 700,000 pieces of cultural artifacts and Chinese history that date back 8,000 years. These works of art are the last remaining national treasures of The Republic of China (1912—Oct 1, 1949), and were rescued and exported to Taiwan during the Communist Cultural Revolution happening on the mainland under the destructive and invading ideology of the burgeoning CCP.
So, before you think of Taiwan as just an offshoot of the current People’s Republic of China, please know that Taiwan’s connection to the communist occupied mainland is more akin to America’s colonial relationship with England circa the late 1770s. My son—the sometimes scathing amateur historian—says this: “Taiwan is the true China, and the mainland is just a communist charade.”
Before I get too worked up, let’s get back to the speakers.
Build of the Usher Audio SD-500
The Usher Audio SD-500 is a much smaller speaker than the Be-718 (Tiny Dancer) of yore, which weighed in at 40 lbs each, whereas the SD-500 of today weighs in at only 18 lbs each. So does that make the SD-500 a “Tinier Dancer?”
The Usher Audio SD-500 is a two-way reflex enclosure loudspeaker that comes from the Usher’s newer SD Series, which currently comprises only the SD-500 monitor, and SD-503 center channel, which is only a bit telling about the sound, but I’ll come back to that later.
The Usher Audio SD-500 is special for housing a 1.25-inch DMD tweeter, previously only available in Usher’s more premium loudspeakers. The DMD stands for Diamond-Metal-Diamond, referring to the amorphous diamond coating that sandwiches the tweeter’s metal cone substrate. This is an uber-performance high-frequency driver, the likes of which we rarely see in loudspeakers anywhere close to this price range.
The advantage of Diamond as a material used in tweeters is its ability to remain stiff and pistonic under great mechanical stress, along with its excellent heat conductivity and dissipation characteristics. The only downside of such a material is its weight. Hence why the use of a lighter weight “diamond-metal-diamond” sandwich. Tasty!
To accompany all that tweeter technology, an equally impressive and surprisingly dynamic 5.5-inch 0538 mid-woofer. This is a newly designed unit—made from scratch—by Usher that features a hybrid composite fiber cone. This midwoofer, however, doesn’t have much work to do as it hands off to the DMD tweeter via the crossover at 2.1 kHz, which is remarkably low. And only goes to reinforce the idea that when you buy the SD-500 it’s for its outstanding tweeter performance.
Cabinet construction is beautiful and dense, relatively inert, and free from audible vibrations. The front baffle specifically shines in the old knuckle-knock test. Finishes are available in high-gloss: Walnut, Pearl Red, Pearl White, and Jet Black.
The Usher Audio SD-500 is not better than your speaker, it’s different than your speaker in a way that’s better.
The Usher Audio SD-500 is a rare masterpiece of the Asian market. Its build quality and design screams western-like audiophile values. The high-gloss finishing, the sturdy cabinet, and the use of premium components throughout cry a song of an uncommon liberty. A liberty that Taiwan—an island nation that transitioned from an authoritarian state to a democracy in the 1990s—awards its people, allowing enterprises like Usher Audio the freedom and rights to deliver a product as uncommon as their nation’s circumstance.
It’s special in that a speaker (or any product) like the Usher Audio SD-500 could only be conceived and built the way it is within a vibrant and competitive democratic system, that today somewhat mirrors much of our own American system, and also that of Japan. Nothing about the SD-500 feels like it was a product of the CCP government overlords, it feels like true high-end craft, and is imbued with sonic qualities like a world-stage high-end player.
What worries me about Usher Audio and Taiwan, is the looming threat of its best days being a thing of the past. Where for a time, though short, we have a snapshot of a flourishing democracy and people. A nation cast into the history books with everything from art, export, and revolution left as only a memory.
If all goes wrong, the Usher Audio SD-500 then becomes a dignified collectors item, but also a relic of a bygone era.
Sound of the Usher Audio SD-500
The star of the show is indeed the high quality DMD tweeter, there’s no avoiding that. Heck, it’s the reason that most audiophiles will purchase any speakers from the SD Series.
What comes as a surprise is how well the DMD tweeter and 0538 mid-woofer balance each other’s dynamic performance. The DMD tweeter is surprisingly smooth, without sacrificing sparkle and air. It sounds expensive and high-end, though it could be only a smidge less in-your-face for my personal tastes, but that’s just me being picky about crossover tuning.
The 0538 mid-woofer in the SD-500’s cabinet puts equal emphasis on the “woofing” duties with its superbly executed front slot port, and further with its well-mannered mid-range contributing to its dynamically enthusiastic abilities, and ease of listening at loud volumes.
Balance of dynamics on these little wonders has been quite the pleasant surprise, bass strength is matched so well with the high frequency output. While these speakers are not the last word in imaging depth, driver cohesiveness, microscopic detail retrieval, or even purity of tone—all attributes we expect to be locked in with loudspeakers four to five times as expensive—the Usher SD-500 monitors don’t ignore those characteristics either when tethered to the right equipment.
All songs used in my review period listening sessions can be found in our Part-Time Audiophile (War Room) playlist on Qobuz, linked here.
Deacon Blues by Bill Callahan
Off the album Blind Date Party, here Bill Callahan’s dry vocals take to a tight center image while the rest of the acoustic ensemble plays large and touches the corners of the room. Sometimes a bookshelf loudspeaker that is trying to play bigger than it is, pretending to be a small floorstander will impose a bit of extra chestiness and boom in the mid-bass region. Bill’s vocals on this track are great for sussing out this boomy tendency. So far, it’s a win for the Usher Audio SD-500 as Bill’s voice comes through more even-handed than I would have expected, while the midrange qualities of his micing style aren’t exaggerated in the least bit. A good showing for vocals here.
Big Swifty by Frank Zappa
Off the album Waka/Jawaka, here I’m looking at the density of the composition. Overall this track should sound like an electrified marching band, and here with the Usher Audio SD-500 it does just that. What’s most impressive is not the unpacking of details, though the horns push their way through strongly with the large DMD tweeter, it’s the dynamics of this track that are well executed. Done so in a way that makes this classic and familiar recording sound new and almost remastered (though it is not). Even to the point where I grabbed this same track hours later when listening to my Vandersteen 2CE Sigs just to see if this track had been tinkered with.
Warriors by Too Many Zooz
Off the album Warriors, here is what I refer to as a “cheater track.” Here the composition is sparse, the instruments both acoustic and digital are given ample space to breathe and decay. Some will exclaim that tracks like this serve almost no purpose as they sound the same through mid-fi and hi-fi alike, and make for impressive demos, but tell the listener little about the loudspeaker’s ability to unpack complex structures and reveal the nuances of the mix. So why am I playing it? Dynamics. Purely the ability to display powerful passages without leaving the echoes and shadows behind. The little chimes and noise makers that aren’t exactly buried in this track are given their due gloss, speaking of the Usher Audio SD-500 as a cleverly refined and cinematic device for sound.
Time Limit by Casiopea
Off the album CASIOPEA, here it’s all about layering and soundstage depth. In great systems the bass and drums of Casiopea take a backseat to the horn section, and create front to back spacing for the composition. While this arrangement is busy, it feels like it has points where it’s saying sometimes more and sometimes less throughout its duration. The Usher Audio SD-500 didn’t give me that layering front to back, but did deliver on stereo side-to-side imaging, and great skin tone of the snare drums. Is this a deal breaker for me? Only if the speakers cost more. For what I’m getting from a sub-$2K bookshelf monitor, I’m more than satisfied.
Brazil by Django Reinhardt
Off the album The Great Artistry of Django Reinhardt, I’m searching for tone quality. I’m glad I went on this hunt, because it’s a part of the hobby that sometimes I think gets overlooked and under prioritized. Is it because we as audiophiles are too scatterbrained and looking for audio acrobatics too often? Maybe. Is it because fewer and fewer loudspeakers and electronics deliver on tone? Probably. Yes, this is a 1953 recording and its age is not hidden, but the tone is there to be unearthed and the Usher Audio SD-500, which until now had me thinking their midrange to be only so-so, did me a solid. Django’s guitar stands proud of the mix, as it should, and moves around scales with a warm glow throughout this track’s almost comically short run time. Put this one on repeat.
Firebringer by StarKid Productions
Somewhere up above I called attention to the SD Series comprising only a pair of bookshelf speakers and a center channel. Knowing that, I thought I’d give the Usher Audio SD-500 a go at a musical theater production, Firebringer from StarKid Productions. I’ve never been much of a fan of the home theater ideology outside of those megabuck installs that I run across when attending an Audio Advice LIVE event. So with that, I broke out my trusty calculator and deduced that if I take 5.1 and deduct 3.1 (for the taxman) that leaves me with 2.0, better known as STEREO. Doesn’t that feel better? I know for my own domestic situation it makes sense.
What the SD-500 did in stereo for the Firebringer production was something outstanding. The above video is cued to the 8:00 min mark, where song and dance take precedence in the storyline. What I received was clean subterranean floorstander-like bass, harmonious top end vocals and effects, along with convincing spatial details (where recorded). If the center channel from the SD Series is this convincing, I might have to reconsider my math one day.
The Tinier Dancer vs McKenzie Van Oss
It’s not uncommon for me to take audio components on the road during my review term. Sometimes it’s for crowds gathered in public, but sometimes just for an audience of one.
McKenzie Van Oss is herself a tiny dancer, and a soloist with the Carolina Ballet here in Raleigh, North Carolina. She’s a singer-songwriter, composer, and touring indie/pop musician. She even has her own record label, Stereo To Heaven Records. Nice name right? McKenzie also has excellent hearing and an extensive appreciation for music and the complex emotions it evokes in the listener. She’s quite frankly a perfect sounding board for this kind of deep dive into sound.
McKenzie and I spent an afternoon in her home studio listening to various audiophile chestnuts, along with a few examples from her own catalog. Her first reaction was to the completeness of the sound. Brilliant and sparkly details, with powerfully extended dynamics specifically were the first characteristics of note, and once the shock was over they were followed by a welcomed warmth and smoothness in the treble. Though at times, the tweeter came across with more energy and expression than McKenzie expected or had experience with, the sum of her experience remained positively jaw dropping. If McKenzie looks familiar, it’s because you may have seen her in our HUBCON 2022 coverage, linked here.
Conclusion – Usher Audio SD-500
I occasionally will say, “bookshelf monitors don’t get good or fun until you enter the $5K mark.” I will continue to spew such things upon people, until it becomes clear that inflation has moved that bar up to $7K. For some small speakers I’ve loved in the $5K range, that $7K reality has already come to be.
The Usher Audio SD-500 at just under two grand ($1,950 USD) is an outlier. It offers enough of the high-end luxury experience that we associate with upmarket offerings, that only in side-by-side comparison to such loudspeakers do its shortcomings become apparent.
This diminutive “Tinier Dancer” moves with soul and warmth, making it an impressive and still easy listen. Even playing well with modest components, but attach them to something more refined, and the Usher Audio SD-500 moves up the refinement scale accordingly.
Joy and bewilderment (the good kind), were a constant during my review period with the Usher Audio SD-500. For those with $5K (or less) to spend on a luxury loudspeaker, consider auditioning this affordable monitor and potentially finding a dynamic all-rounder and saving yourself three grand in the process.
- Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier
- Parasound NewClassic 200 Integrated
- Schiit Audio Modius DAC
- Schiit Audio Mani Phonostage
- VPI Industries Cliffwood Turntable
- Grado Green Phono Cartridge
- Cardas Clear Cables