Doing it wrong
Yes, I’m doing it wrong. I think that’s the best place to start any confession, audiophile or otherwise. Because, clearly, this whole “near-field” thing is just not the same as the “audiophile thing” that most of you are into. I’ll just stipulate that this is the case. And then, also, offer that the Boenicke W5 loudspeaker sitting on a desk is a remarkable thing that you should definitely try out.
A decade ago, I did something rather obtuse with a pair of Joseph Audio Pulsar loudspeakers. It happened because, once upon a time, I had this great big Ikea desk. The desk was huge. Something like 30 square feet of space. I had computer #1, computer #2, a place for a leather writing pad, and space for a Luxman integrated. So, natch, I squared off my 27″ monitor with a pair of Pulsars, on trial/loan from Command Performance AV in Falls Church, VA, and what do you know? It not only worked, it sounded amazing. And by amazing, I mean I started looking over my should at my “main rig” (with now long-gone Merlin loudspeakers) with a hairy raised eyebrow and a serious case of upgraditis.
Now, not every loudspeaker does near-field listening well. I know that. I’m sure there’s a technical reason for this but I can’t remember what it is. But I do remember those Pulsars rocking it out in that “pro-audio” monitor position and I remember thinking “holy crap!”
And that brings me back to The Desktop. As I mentioned back in “episode #1”, my world has changed, the worm has turned, the cheese has been moved, all that. For better or worse, I’m actually spending more time in front of a keyboard these days. And that means that my main systems are gathering dust. My prime system, with the absolutely mind-blowing Tidal Piano G2 loudspeakers and massive Bricasti amps, only gets turned on once a month or so. System 2 with the Volti Rivals? It’s been over a year. System 3, with the Living Voice speakers? Well, they’re in my office at “the office”, and when I return in August, will get a whole lot more playtime — and I suppose that means that that system will become System 1 ….
Life and times, people. Life and times. Such problems! But I digress.
The issue at hand is what to do in the closet that I call my “home office”. This space is suboptimal in all the ways. Irregular shape. The short wall is maybe 7′ or 8′ long. Multiple stacks of books. There is literally nowhere to put floor-standing speakers or stands for anything. As a listening space, the best I can say is that it was absolutely made for headphones — and that’s about it. So, natch, I decided that speakers were a must. But they had to fit on my desk. And the desk in question? 46″ wide and 2′ deep. Bwahahaha! Madness!
To make a long story short, I quickly dismissed the all-in-one solutions — speakers with DACs and amps built-in. The sound quality coming off of my non-negotiable iMac just wasn’t anywhere on par with the sound I was able to get off of an Innuos ZENmini, which meant either settling on speakers with integrated streaming (definitely an option) or moving to a two-computer setup. Some experimenting led me down the second path. And now I have a mini- “rack” for a very limited amount of audio gear. But the desktop constraint remains — any and all speakers must live there.
I started with a pair of LS3/5a speakers from Falcon Acoustics. I picked up a pair of the 50th Anniversary Gold Badges from Music Direct. These speakers are, in a phrase, “the berries”. But if you’re familiar with LS3/5as, these are definitely those. Limited bass, a bit diffuse at the frequency extremes, and more than a bit warm in tone. They’re more gilded than the Tidals, for sure, but for a monitor, they’re engaging. I will offer that I adore them. They are my reference, but I will be the first to confess that they are what they are. You can check out our review here.
The Big Tiny Boenicke W5
I first heard the Boenicke W5 speakers at the Florida show this year. I’m not sure they were intended to be the main event, but when I swung through the room, there they were. I’ll confess something else at this point — the entire idea of this series was born right there, in that room, looking at the W5. Because my first thought was — holy cow, those speakers are TINY.
My second was, I think I’ve seen something about these speakers somewhere before (though they have been substantially reworked — all new drivers, all new crossovers).
My third was, how on earth do they sound that BIG? And then: I wonder if I could fit those on my desk???
They are tiny. The website suggests that they’re 3.5kg per speaker, which will be absolutely wonderful news to those of you used to positioning 100kg loudspeakers. They’re also narrow — 4″ wide (and 8″ deep by 11″ tall, just to round out the numbers). That’s the good news. The 4Ω load with 83dB of sensitivity are the bad. But while common sense says that you’re gonna need power to get them up and screaming, the fact that my ears are less than 1m away from the 3″ drivers means that common sense need not apply. And, while the Naim Uniti Atom (40wpc) had absolutely no issue tossing them around like mortar rounds, I found that the ampsandsound Nautilus (8wpc) also had no problem making them into pounding percussive pistons of power. And yes, I love me some awesome alliteration. Quality writing, right there.
In addition to the 3″ wideband aluminum driver on the face, and the “ambient” rear-facing tweeter, the Boenicke W5 also have a side-mounted, crossover-less 5″ Tang Band long-throw woofer. Ideally, the woofers would be aimed at side walls to fill in the lowest registers, but since we’re several zip codes away from ideal (no side walls), I played a bit. I had the best luck with the speakers when the woofers were pointing inward, but I did try the other way, with the drivers on the outside, and even jacked the toe-in so the face of the speakers looked like I was “crossing” the tweeters in front of me. That’s how I remember them being set up in Florida. But here, on the desk, that didn’t work. For one thing, too much toe-in looked weird in the extreme near-field, and also consumed too much desk space. For another thing, near-field imaging with the tweeters significantly off-axis was just suboptimal. My eventual setup, “aimed at the ear”, meant that I was able to see the inside of the cabinets while listening.
Other details — the design is “bass reflex”; the port is large and rear-mounted. Again, since my setup means no rear-wall support, I had no issues — or choices — with placement. I also experimented with vertical placement. Since the design includes a small backward rake to the cabinet, you may be fine with them directly on a lower stand or your desk. I used some IsoAcoustics stands (with the shortest spacers) to provide a bit more on-ear directionality, with a bit of isolation/coupling to the desk.
I should note that the speakers that I have on loan are the “Standard” version. There are two upgrades available, an SE version and an SE+ version, both of which add upgraded parts and tuning. I’ll have to defer on these but I will admit, I’m deeply curious.
Another upgrade, the ComDev, is also available for all models. Or implementations. Or whatever. And if that sounds mysterious, well, it is mysterious. The ComDev is a pair of small sealed wooden boxes, each with a pair of cables terminated in spades. It looks a lot like the resistor networks I used with my old Merlin and Magnepan loudspeakers, but I’m told that this is not that. No idea what it is, however. You can hang them off the binding posts of the speaker or the amp (and I was encouraged to try both). I did, and over the weeks, I was intrigued and puzzled. Perhaps a lower noise floor? Perhaps a more focused soundstage? I will offer that the improvements, to my ears, were subtle.
Boenicke W5 Impressions
These speakers are tiny. Did I mention that? They’re not dramatically smaller than the Falcons, but they sure do seem like it, and that difference makes my desk setup feel significantly more on-purpose. I like that. My wife likes that, too. The core ash finish not only (nearly) matches my desk, but the speakers are, and look like, they’re made from solid wood … while my desk is very clearly a cheap veneer. Adding the W5 is clearly classing up my joint.
I did most of my listening with the Nautilus, because why not make it difficult? That did mean turning the knob on the amp from a 6 o’clock position (off/zero-dB) to something closer to 2 or 3 o’clock, where the sound field was fully enveloping.
The W5 are really quite different from the Falcons. While we’re not talking competitive with a floor-standing speaker, the bass on the W5 was deeper and punchier, with bigger dynamic swings, than my reference LS3/5a monitors. The track “Royals” from Lorde plays unabashedly in the subsonic — and while the sound was fulsome here on my desk, I know what this tune sounds like on a full-range system. The W5 gets good marks for at least making the attempt.
Imaging, however, is crazy-precise, and the illusions are wickedly sharp. “Hurt”, off Johnny Cash’s American Recordings IV, is heartbreakingly intimate. Age, time, and some seriously dubious life choices have carved his iconic voice into an intricate and richly-textured instrument, and the W5 (at least as set up on my desk) took me right there, sitting at his knee, as he played and sung this last will and testament. Absolutely, terrifyingly, wild.
I found “Harmony Hall”, a relentlessly toe-tapping recent release from Vampire Weekend, almost impossible to listen to without moving. Imaging put singer Ezra Koenig’s voice floating directly into my “line of sight” — my monitor was speaking to me, but this is also when I noticed the great vertical imaging.
Switching up only slightly to “Feel It Still” from Portugal. The Man had me grinning from the silent-to-pop dynamics, and that made me go for “I’m An Old Cowhand” from Sonny Rollins, and then “Bubbles” from Yosi Horikawa, just to see what would happen — and what happened was my eyes snapping back and forth as the band joined Sonny from the right, and then, attempting to track the ping-pong balls as they dropped all over the soundstage.
Feel free to insert “goofy grin” here.
The sound of the W5 is less wooly/tubey than the Falcons. I want to say that this increased transparency is an unqualified good thing, but given the all-over-the-map state of modern mastering, an unqualified good just isn’t always so. I found, on the regular, that I was adjusting the volume track-by-track as the different loudness/compression schemes changed, a difference dramatically more obvious in the near field. But, listening past that, I want to say that the W5 was much more neutral than the Falcons, but not to the point of leanness. Changing the position of the speakers helps to fill in, and for those of you blessed with “good spaces”, I know that positional changes/room coupling will yield some dramatic benefits.
Wrapping it up
After all this time with the Boenicke W5, I can offer the following observations:
I love my desk.
I love working.
I am never leaving my office.
And I am aware that those statements are directly correlated to these:
I love these speakers.
I should turn up the volume.
In my office, the Boenicke W5 look fantastic and sound even better than that. Better still, they fit perfectly next to my iMac (and yeah, that matters).
If I didn’t already own the Falcon Gold Badge LS3/5a speakers, I’d look to buy the Boenicke W5. Of course, at $5,390USD/pair the W5 is almost 50% more than even the most expensive version of the Falcons, but hey, them’s the breaks. These speakers are excellent. Even here, on a desk, in a wildly sub-optimal environment.
This whole desktop journey is turning out to be huge fun. I suppose that it’s a capsule of what the larger audiophile experience is like. Done well, it’s about brilliant sound, wrapping around you, lifting you, buoying you, and taking you on a build-your-own adventure. And what I have in this system, with the W5 in play, is “what it is all about”, right up until it’s time to emerge back into my regular life. And even then, the happy glow trails after me like motes of luminous dust.
I have no hesitation in recommending the Boenicke W5 — even if you’re not space constrained. At some point, I hope to be able to say more about that. But, for now, I suspect you’ll find, as I did, that these little wonders are both a delight and an ongoing invitation to
waste invest enormous amounts of your “productive” time.
Good luck with that whole “getting things done” thing.
For more information, including where to hear them yourself, check the Boenicke website.