Q Acoustics Concept 500 Speaker Review
£4,000 for a Q Acoustics speaker? You’d better believe it.
What is the Q Acoustics Concept 500?The Q Acoustics Concept 500 is a 2.5-way floorstanding speaker. In terms of driver layout and complement, it is extremely similar to the Concept 40 floorstander that Steve Withers reviewed in 2014. The Concept 40 is still a live product (no wonder really as it’s still one of the best speakers you can buy at the price) and it costs £999. You might assume therefore that the Concept 500 has pushed the price up a bit – possibly even doubling it. The reality is that it takes Q Acoustics to a new place entirely. This is a £4,000 speaker. It goes head to head with some very serious brands indeed and it does so armed with a name that while associated with very capable products is not one that carries much weight at this price point.
In order to compete at this level, you might assume that the kitchen sink has been thrown at the Concept 500 in order to justify their existence and you’d be right up… up to a point. This is a very sophisticated speaker indeed but one that still uses design principles that we have seen in the company’s products at lower price points. This is a speaker that is still recognisably a Q Acoustics design. Given how well some of these design features work at the existing price points, there’s every indication that they will be as effective at higher ones too but in a world of exotic materials, the Concept 500 can look almost ordinary at some points – 'almost' being the important word there. The proof of the pudding has always been in the eating and Q Acoustics has impressed us at every price point they’ve contested up to now but can the Concept 500 keep up the good work?
SpecificationsAs noted, the Concept 500 is a 2.5 way floorstander and the most significant difference over the Concept 40 is that it moves to the driver arrangement seen in the 3000 series of speakers of woofer/tweeter/woofer rather than the tweeter/woofer/woofer layout of the Concept 40. If you are assuming that the jump in price means that the Concept 500 has moved to drivers of solid unobtanium, you’ll be disappointed. To be completely clear, while they might look similar to the drivers used in the other models, the units used in the Concept 500 are bespoke to it but they follow some established design thinking.
This means that the visible section of both the tweeter and the mid bass units are made from materials that might be considered ‘ordinary.’ The tweeter is a fabric dome design while the larger units are made from treated paper. Both these materials are found on speakers that cost a great deal less than this but, just as crucially, they can be found in designs that cost a hell of a lot more too. Behind their visible frontage, they also sport technology that doesn’t make it to the more affordable designs. The tweeter is built around a mechanically decoupled mounting that keeps it isolated from the outside world while the internals have also seen refinement and enhancement over the more terrestrial versions.
The work that has been undertaken on the mid bass drivers is more significant. They boast an enhanced and fairly large voice coil and the whole driver has been rigorously designed with a view to avoiding resonance or lost energy for reasons we will cover shortly. What this means though is that the Concept 500 has a clear link to its relatives in terms of the driver design and complement albeit on an enhanced scale.
Where the Concept 500 really moves on from the more affordable Concept models is the cabinet. This is a truly impressive piece of engineering but like the drivers has its origins in existing Q Acoustics technology. Key to this is the ‘Gelcore’ substance. This comprises solid cabinet materials separated by a layer of non-setting gel. In the smaller Concept speakers, the use of Gelcore was on the side walls of the cabinets with a single ‘layer’ of the system- ie two pieces of MDF with a single gel layer. The Concept 500 takes the principles to an altogether new level. Every surface of the cabinet is made from Gelcore – including the top and bottom and the front plate. The gelcore is also a double layer type with three MDF sections separated by two layers of gel.
The result of this is an extremely inert (and seriously heavy) cabinet but it is just the start of the work that has been undertaken on it. This structure is then internally braced via a point-to-point system that braces the points that have been determined to need bracing rather than placing corner braces at a few points and hoping for the best. Specific resonances are then attended to by a series of Heimholz resonators that run up sections of the interior of the cabinet. More commonly encountered in car exhausts, these quell resonance by responding to and absorbing single frequencies eliminating their output and, with it, the potential resonance. One momentarily noteworthy aspect of this is that the resonators contain a substance with a tradename of ‘Unicorn Hair.’ This is unlikely to help the argument that we’re an industry of lunatics with a snakeoil fixation.
All this effort has resulted in a cabinet that is supremely quiet – that is to say that it has pretty much no appreciable impact on the output of the actual drivers. This lowering of the noisefloor has had some unexpected consequences that have resulted in further work needing to be undertaken. During the development phase, when the cabinet had been ‘finished’, the measurement results weren’t completely in keeping with what the engineering team were expecting. After a considerable amount of test work, the culprit turned out to be components in the crossover crossing over into audibility – not because they’d got louder but because so many other sources of noise had been removed.
This meant a wholesale revision of the crossover to eliminate this noise. Some fairly exotic and expensive components have been employed – including a truly enormous air core inductor – to do this and the crossover is mounted in a way that isolates it from the outside world and the outside world from it. The crossover itself has a degree of user adjustment and you can boost or cut the output via means of links that can be used to connect different sockets. Depending on the liveliness of the room, it should allow you to better adapt the Concept 500 to work in that space.
As air moving through a bass port would also be clearly audible, the port itself is extremely large to reduce the velocity and hence audibility of the air moving through it. The port and relatively simple driver arrangement ensure that the Concept 500 presents an impedance of 6 ohms (3.7 minimum) and sensitivity seems good as well. This is not a hard speaker to drive although, as we’ll come to, it’ll show you what your equipment is up to.
DesignWhen you make attractive but fairly conventional looking speakers at sensible prices, there must be a temptation to go a bit crazy when you get a little more budget to play with. To their credit, Q Acoustics has walked a very fine line between making sure that the Concept 500 feels worth the asking price and ensuring that it has a family resemblance to the rest of the product portfolio. In truth, some of this is a necessary function of working with the Gelcore sections. The idea of trying to curve a side section made from three layers of gel separated MDF is one that brings cold sweats to any QC technician so it perhaps isn’t too surprising that the basic design of the Concept 500 echoes some of its smaller family members.
At the same time, this feels like a speaker that costs £4,000. The decision to use a split lacquer and veneer cabinet is an unusual one but the Concept 500 looks and feels fantastic. The quality of both finishes is perfect and the wood section is a little like the Monitor Audio Platinum 100 in that it changes as it catches the light and can look absolutely wonderful. It isn’t perfect – the all-black of the review samples looks a little oppressive from the front and might benefit from trim rings or similar but equally, you’d be hard pressed to say this looks like a ‘budget’ offering.
One of the main reasons for this is the foot arrangement. To impart the required stability, the Concept 500 has a circular stand with spikes placed at the farthest points. It does make the speaker a little more space hungry than some rivals but it looks superb and gives the Concept 500 a degree of elegance that is very likeable. Between the white and the black options, this should work in most spaces.
When I say ‘work’, I do genuinely mean perform. With the adjustable crossover, largely inert cabinet and low velocity bass port that can be further controlled via a large supplied foam bung (which is itself a two piece design allowing for a degree of flow control), the Concept 500 should be easy enough to get working in almost any space that can accommodate them. Special mention also needs to be made of the packaging. This is not a small speaker but thanks to an internal cradle system, I was able to unbox and install them single handed.
All this effort has resulted in a cabinet that is supremely quiet – that is to say that it has pretty much no appreciable impact on the output of the actual drivers
How was the Concept 500 tested?The Q Acoustics has been tested with a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp with Naim ND5XS streamer augmented by XP5 XS power supply. Both of these units have been connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Sigmas mains conditioner. Additionally a Roksan Radius 7 turntable running a Van den Hul DDTII special cartridge into a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage has been used for some test work. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF files, DSD, Tidal and vinyl.
Sound QualityI first heard the Concept 500 late last year at the Armour Home Electronics offices. The speakers, electronics, room and music were largely unfamiliar but even so, it didn’t take very long to establish that I was in the presence of a genuinely significant speaker – even if I couldn’t exactly pin down what it was that was eliciting such a response. Further listening at Bristol and Munich still didn’t exactly nail down what was going on and even when I set the review sample up here, it didn’t click immediately either.
After a little while listening to the 24/96 download of Craig Armstrong’s It’s Nearly Tomorrow, it finally starts to make a degree of sense. The reason the Q Acoustics sounds a little different to rivals is that you genuinely are listening to six drivers in free space. The cabinet holds them in place, channels air around and acts as a stowage point for the crossover but it has no appreciable impact on the performance of any of them.
The result is that the Concept 500 is astonishingly transparent and by this, I mean it presents the music in question with any characteristics your electronics might impart and pretty much nothing else. This is not unheard of at the price – there are some speakers like the recently reviewed ATC SCM40 that have the ability to do something similar but at this price point, relatively lofty though it is, this is one of the largest speakers I’ve encountered and the only one that is ported.
Why does that last part matter? Simply put, the Concept 500 has phenomenal bass. In the time it’s been here I’ve played about with the positioning and the bungs and settled on using the outer bung with the foam inner removed. This gives very fractional room interaction but it’s worth it for a low end response that is simply sensational. Q Acoustics claims a low response of 41Hz (albeit with no roll off quoted) but in room, it is extending down into the low 30Hz region without any appreciable sense of output drop. The bass is the same as the upper registers in that it is simply the bass of the recording with no real sense of the signal path exerting any influence of its own on the performance. Make no mistake, this is a full range speaker in the truest sense of the word.
That lack of cabinet interference also means that the soundstage of the Concept 500 runs an electrostatic speaker close in terms of the sheer effortlessness of the image it creates. The effect is tangible, solid and unwaveringly three dimensional in a way that even very competent rivals simply struggle to match. The sense of space gives performances space to breathe and deliver the sense of individual performers in a way that is really only noteworthy when you return to another speaker. Listening to the live performance of All that you give by Cinematic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, the Concept doesn’t simply handle massed ranks of musicians, it luxuriates in them.
This transparency places huge demands on the drivers because they effectively become the sole audible component in the speaker. The good news is that while the materials used might be considered slightly conservative, their performance is exceptionally good. This speaker is a classic case of the balancing act that companies have to decide upon when making speakers of this nature. Compared to the sophisticated ribbon in the Monitor Audio Platinum 100, the top end of the Concept 500 isn’t quite as open or expressive (although using the crossover adjustment to give a slight lift it gets closer than you might expect) and it doesn’t dig out midrange detail with the same nonchalance as the ATC SCM40 or revel in being driven hard but, viewed as a balance across the audible spectrum, this is a deeply impressive performance.
What is especially noteworthy is how forgiving it is. For a speaker that will tell you almost everything that is possibly going on in the mix, it does so with such refinement and control that even when you hammer them with some Rage Against the Machine they keep doing what they do without really highlighting the many and varied limitations of the mix. Trying to put this in terms that might make sense to the AV rather than the HiFi fan, this is the equivalent of a 4K TV that still looks incredible with a 480i NTSC feed. Obviously the nature of the partnering electronics will play a role in this – the Concept 500 is naturally going to show up the limitations of amps and sources that aren’t up to scratch – but partnered with equipment of any quality (and it has to be said, quality in this case does not necessarily equal hugely powerful) and you will be on the receiving end of a truly masterful system.
Picking holes this speaker is extremely hard. Having listened to a variety of different designs at similar price points, it is possible to find individual attributes I might prefer from other designs but they struggle to match the crushing all round competence that this speaker has. My own Neat Momentum speakers for example are fractionally more fun when being played hard with big hammering electronica from my teenage years but in most other ways can’t get near the Concept 500 – not least for that astonishing lack of boxiness. I think it would be perfectly legitimate to wind up choosing another speaker at this price point because it subjectively does something better but I’d be surprised if you didn’t concede on listening to them that the Concept 500 is able to challenge pretty much any price comparative rival in any one proficiency and then better them in most others.
The reason the Q Acoustics sounds a little different to rivals is that you genuinely are listening to six drivers in free space
- Exceptionally accurate yet unfatiguing sound
- Easy to setup in room
- Easy to drive
- Superb build and finish
- Rather large
Q Acoustics Concept 500 Speaker ReviewWhen my learned colleagues review video equipment, their decision to award a Reference Status badge to a product is simple – the performance must be an absolute benchmark against which other products can be judged. This is usually reached in co-operation with extensive measurement and reams of comparative data. Here in the subjective world of audio, the tools available to me are rather less – it would be possible to measure the Concept 500 in room but this would be as much a story of my lounge as it is the speaker. There is also the absolutely indisputable fact that this isn’t the best speaker in the world – not least because at Munich, it was revealed that a lot of its design philosophy has gone into the FinkTeam WM-4 which at €65,000 might be the best. Despite this, I am awarding a Reference Status badge.
Why? Partly because the amount of money it is necessary to decisively better the Concept 500 is considerable. The next most affordable speaker to be more impressive in this test space is the Focal Sopra No2 which as of June 2017 costs in the region of £10,000. As such, the Concept 500 sets an incredible benchmark at £4,000. This is also one of the most impressive demonstrations of applied technology I’ve seen in a while. This is a very sophisticated device but the key aim of that sophistication is to be inaudible and in this it succeeds admirably. Finally, the demands it makes of any would-be owner are commendably small. This is a big speaker but it is easy to place, offers some in room adjustment and it is easy to drive at the same time. It might be a whole new price point for them but Q Acoustics has built another speaker that is the new standard to beat.
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