High-end sound does not have to be expensive anymore – vintage Celestion SL6S speakers vs. Q Acoustics, Emotiva, Polk Legend, AQ Pontos 9 (Week 50, 2020)

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 50, 2020

Q. I recently purchased the Emotiva Airmotiv B1+ bookshelf speakers. Compared to my old speakers the difference is incredible, especially since they sell for under $250 with tax. It makes me wonder, what does a true “high-end” speaker sound like?

-M.J., Brooklyn Center, MN

A. You are hearing it now with your B1+ speakers! With modern computer-aided design techniques and efficient offshore manufacturing, nowadays you don’t have to spend a fortune to get truly fine sound, especially if you do your due diligence when you shop. I performed an experiment recently that illustrates this well.

My Celestion SL6S speakers on the day I got them. I will tell the story of how another time… 

In my collection I have a pair of Celestion SL6S bookshelf speakers, and the incredible story of how I came to acquire them is a topic for another column. Made in Great Britain by storied manufacturer Celestion, they were considered one of the finest speakers of their day and universally lauded by reviewers. One reviewer called them “a transparent window to the musical performance” and I find that to be an apt description. Even 34 years later their performance is fully contemporary and rates as high-end. When they were introduced in 1986 they sold for $900 per pair, which works out to $2,062 in 2020 dollars.

I recently pulled out my SL6S speakers and as I write this they are still sitting on speaker stands in my living room. I compared them to two of the top bookshelf speakers in the $300 price range, the $315 Q Acoustics 3020i and your own B1+ speakers. What I found is that the performance of these two speakers gets you in the same ballpark as the SL6S. Each speaker had its strong points and the SL6S had the nicest finish, but there was no clear sonic standout among the three. (Please note that I cherry-picked the best speakers in the $300 price range, and most $300 or even $500 bookshelf speakers will not compare well to the SL6S.) Learn more at emotiva.com and qacoustics.com.

Among more expensive speakers that would be more direct competitors to what the SL6S represented in its time, the $1,199 Polk Audio Legend L100 was better in every respect. The bass was deeper and more defined, the imaging more solid, and the L100 had a richer and more elaborate tonal palette, greater presence, and just sounded more real. The Legend L100 remains one of my all-time favorite speakers and a fantastic high-end value at $1,199. polkaudio.com

Also putting in a fine performance was the AQ Loudspeakers Pontos 9, which I also preferred to the Celestions. The Pontos 9 speakers are handmade in the Czech Republic and use high-quality Scan-Speak drivers from Denmark, including ring-radiator tweeters. They are front-ported so they can be used close to walls, and in fact I found the bass and midrange benefited from close wall placement. Vocal reproduction was especially good, as was the stereo imaging and overall sound. The Pontos 9 belongs on your shopping list at $999 MSRP, and they are currently an additional 10% off at the importer website, theaudiolegacy.com.

If you want something that will make you shake your head in disbelief at what you are hearing, look for something beyond a traditional box speaker design. My favorites are Ohm Walsh speakers and Axiom Audio Omnidirectional speakers, both of which take a radically different approach to creating sound and the difference is clear from the moment you first hear them. This comes at a price, with small Ohm towers starting at $1,400 and Axiom Audio omnidirectional at $5,000 including amplification. See them at ohmspeaker.com and axiomaudio.com.