By Don Lindich
Week 17, 2019
Q. I recently fell in love with the MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL X floorstanding speakers. They have a very warm, rich sound and the best soundstage I’ve ever heard. My problem is placing them properly, as ideal placement in my room would have the sound blocked by furniture that I would rather not relocate. Do you have any recommendations for bookshelf speakers that deliver a similar warm, musical sound, even if the soundstage is not quite as impressive? I’d like to stay under $2,500/pair, but am willing to spend up to $5,000/pair if the sound quality justifies the cost.
-S.G., San Jose, CA
A. As you mentioned, proper speaker placement is critical for sound quality and creating a 3-dimensional soundstage that makes you feel like you are there at the performance. To get the best results with bookshelf speakers, put them on stands and place them in your room the best you can given the furniture and surroundings.
If you want a really impressive soundstage, you need something that uses non-conventional speaker technology. I will start with a few premium-priced options for you, then move on to some more affordable choices for those with a smaller budget.
Though they are not bookshelf speakers, I suggest you check out the Ohm Walsh line from Ohm Acoustics. These unique, patented speakers use a special driver (called a Walsh driver, after inventor Lincoln Walsh) that is placed on top of the cabinet rather than in front. This is effectively the same thing as a bookshelf speaker on a stand, and should clear your furniture so the sound will not be affected. The sound quality is warm, lifelike and involving, and one of the most common comments about them is they sound like music, not speakers. You also get a huge, open soundstage with precise placement of the performers, and unlike electrostatic speakers this soundstage can be enjoyed from almost anywhere in the room. Ohm Walsh speakers are handmade to order in the USA and start at $1,400 per pair. If you move up to the Walsh 3000 ($4,000 per pair) or Walsh 4000 ($5,600 per pair) you will be very happy indeed.
I just got back from the AXPONA audio show in Chicago. At the show I heard quite a few very expensive speakers, many of which did not sound very good despite the 5-figure prices. A premium speaker brand that sounded absolutely great everywhere I heard them at the show is Alta Audio. Alta Audio speakers use a ribbon tweeter to create beautiful, sweet sound and an open, airy soundstage. The Alta Audio Io bookshelf speakers at $3,500/pair are worth a look and a listen.
The Heil Air Motion Transformer (Heil AMT) is a special tweeter that sounds wonderful and creates a very realistic 3-dimensional space. The $999/pair GoldenEar Technology Aon 3 bookshelf speakers use an advanced version of this tweeter that incorporates a folded metal ribbon and very strong magnets. They are extremely transparent and if you are after warm sound, I would pair them with tube amplification.
A more conventional Heil AMT is found in Emotiva Airmotiv speakers. The $399 Emotiva Airmotiv T-Zero tower speakers have been a hit recommendation this year, as readers who purchased them continue to contact me with raves. The Emotiva Airmotiv B1 bookshelf speakers are only $229/pair and not only do they share the sonic character of the T-Zero towers, they make much more bass than you would expect from the small size.