The speaker market is one of the most mature of all categories in audio.
The basic forms that most designs fall into was pretty much decided thirty plus years ago and while key price points have edged up thanks to inflation, the usual suspects are to be found locking horns at the usual points on the ladder. At the same time, there have been innovations – the materials and design technologies have grown ever more sophisticated and we've seen speakers at surprisingly low price points deliver excellence time and time again. At the same time, when we have looked at more expensive designs, they've wowed us with just what is technically possible. 2016 was a good year for speakers and 2017 is already shaping up pretty well too.
Wharfedale Reva 2 – £599 – Recommended
The Wharfedale Reva 2 is an interesting example of a brand taking a speaker that works well at a given price and then stretching the features and premise to produce a speaker at a totally different price point. The Reva is, at least to some extent, a 'super Diamond' which expands on the engineering in that speaker to produce something that is more sophisticated and more in keeping with the asking price. With a complex cabinet, innovative bass port and the standard exceptional build quality we've come to expect from the IAG group, the Reva 2 is visually lovely.
It's also sonically excellent and the Wharfedale Reva 2 displays a consistently accurate and honest presentation that simultaneously manages to be usefully forgiving of poorer recordings. The bass performance is good for a speaker of these relatively small dimensions and the result is something that should work well in a variety of systems while looking excellent and feeling like money well spent.
Rega RX-1 – £798 – Recommended
As a company, Rega only replaces something in their range when they have a compelling reason to do so. The small number of speakers that formed the range for many years had established a very loyal following and the news that they were being replaced was quite significant. The RX Series takes many of the design characteristics of the older models – including a very unusual tweeter designed to prevent reflections from the rear of the driver being reflected back out of the cabinet. The cabinet itself is sharpened up and results in one of the most handsome products we tested all year.
The RX-1 is much more than a pretty face though. This is a speaker that is easy to drive, forgiving in terms of positioning and usefully compact. It is also an absolute riot to listen to. The Rega never fails to sound fun in a way that many more expensive and sophisticated speakers can fail to do. With any form of rhythm or bassline, they simply come alive and deliver a sound that is endlessly entertaining. Few speakers made good on the 'just one more song' idea as well as the Rega RX-1 did.
Sonus faber Venere S – £3,599 – Recommended
When is a £3,600 speaker a bargain? The answer is when you are confronted with it and you'd swear blind that you were in the presence of a £6,000 or even £7,000 unit. The Sonus faber is a very big speaker but it is also a seriously handsome one, built to exacting standards and featuring some excellent components. If you have the room to allow them to shine – and this turns out to be rather less than you might think thanks to a clever downward firing bass port, your room is going to benefit from some products that are inarguably furniture as well as speakers.
Don't for a second assume that they are slack in the business of being speakers though. The Venere S is an incredibly refined and wonderfully rich sounding speaker that is able to convey scale in a way that smaller speakers will always struggle with. If you listen to large scale orchestral work in particular, the Sonus faber delivers it with an urge that makes it very hard to go back to a smaller speaker afterwards. This is a proper high-end experience at an (almost) terrestrial price and that makes the Sonus faber Venere S something a bit special.
Spendor S3/5R2 – £1,050 – Highly Recommended
Judged objectively, the Spendor is a sort of living fossil that should have no place in the best offerings of the year. The thing is that when you consider the ancestry of the design, you realise that this is a seriously impressive piece of equipment designed to criteria so stringent that no off-the-shelf design could compete. In the case of this speaker, you then keep refining it and improving the design until you end up with something that pays homage to the original while offering the promise of higher performance.
And crucially, the Spendor delivers. The key strength of the S3/5R2 is the same as it has always been – a simply incredible coherence across the midrange that dredges up tiny details that turn a performance from good to truly lifelike. Where this version kicks on over older models is that the performance at frequency extremes holds up far better than a box of these tiny dimensions should. This is a slightly oddball choice in a world of computer modelled flow ports and exotic drivers but be under no illusions, the Spendor S3/5R2 still delivers a truly superb performance.
Neat IOTA Alpha – £1,385 – Highly Recommended
Let's deal with the obvious bit first. The IOTA Alpha looks a bit weird. It barely makes it to knee height and looks a little like a pedal bin – especially if you go for the white finish. A somewhat unexpected conversion of the tiny IOTA standmount into a floorstanding speaker, it features some heavy revisions to make it's teeny dimensions work, including canting the visible drivers back at an angle and adding an additional bass driver to give it some extra heft. The result is a speaker that can effectively hide in plain sight.
You really ought to be considering the Neat even if this last attribute isn't a requirement. The IOTA Alpha sounds impossibly good for a speaker that isn't actually visible from my listening position. It hits harder, images better and cracks more smiles than it has any right to. In fact after a while your brain simply accepts that what it is hearing has no bearing on what it is seeing and lets you get on with the business of enjoying whatever you play on it. The Neat IOTA Alpha is not simply one of the best speakers of 2016, it is one of the very best speakers of the decade.
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