Hi-Fi shows are not the most forgiving environments to demonstrate a small speaker. Hotel rooms have many factors taken into their design but the performance of a pair of standmounts placed at one end is generally not one of them. At the Bristol show earlier this year, there was little to suggest these rules were any different. The Q Acoustics room was fairly large, full of people and was competing with a pair of leviathans from PMC being played across the hallway. The omens weren’t good.
And yet, when fellow AVF reviewer Steve Withers and I sat down for a quick demo of the brand new Concept 20, the resulting performance was sufficiently impressive to leave something of a lasting impression on both of us. We discussed this on the next podcast and ever vigilant marketing guru Steve Reichert picked up on our comments and as soon as a pair of the Concept 20’s was available, they were dispatched for critical consideration.
So what was it about this little speaker that impressed us? The short version is that Q Acoustics has done something sufficiently unusual in design terms to be of note to anyone with a passing interest in speakers. Normally when a company decides to improve a speaker, they make a beeline for the drivers and crossover for the desired improvements. The cabinet - if it gets a look in at all - is normally the recipient of an extra brace or two and usually a lovely new finish. What you see here is a near complete reversal of this process. The drivers and crossover from a considerably cheaper speaker have been lifted almost completely unchanged and placed in a completely new cabinet that uses technology rarely seen at anything like an affordable level to show what they can really do. Is this literally a case of the Emperor’s new clothes or, once the noise and bustle of the Bristol Show had subsided, did these speakers still grab the attention?
The Concept 20 as the name suggests is almost as much a technology demonstrator as it is a commercial undertaking. For those of you awakening from a coma, Q Acoustics has spent the last few years carving out a significant share of the affordable speaker market with a range of products that used sound design practices, well realised economies of scale and genuinely appealing sound to great effect. Having made a bit of a stir at this level, it was logical enough to think about how the next step up might be achieved. At this point things got interesting.
At first, the thinking was normal enough. The 20i range of speakers make use of fairly conventional (although very well made) drivers in their line-up. While fine for an affordable range of speakers, they were first in the firing line when considering a more expensive speaker. There was a considerable voice of dissent from an unusual source though. Many (but not all) Q Acoustics speakers have been designed in partnership with German acoustic engineer Karl Heinz Fink who might be in contention for ‘Most important bloke in acoustics you probably haven’t heard of.’ Fink was adamant that the drivers of the 20i range were more than up to the task of being used in a more expensive speaker and if they were transplanted wholesale into a different cabinet, they could be made to perform significantly better. As you don’t get to the level Fink has without having a pretty good idea about these things, he was allowed to give his idea a go and the ‘Gelcore’ cabinet was born.
The 20i series uses a cabinet made from sections of 15mm MDF that has some bracing to keep it in order. The Concept 20 has a cabinet of almost identical dimensions but it is instead made of two layers of 10mm MDF that are separated by a ‘special, resonance cancelling compound’ effectively creating a cabinet in a cabinet. This has also been described as ‘glue that doesn’t set’ which rather brings to mind the chocolate fireguard and rowing boat handbrake as a concept but seems to have found a niche here. The compound absorbs energy from the cabinets and converts it to heat (although anyone hoping to use the Concept as a boost to their home heating will be disappointed as a friend more numerate than I thinks that the energy we’re talking about here is rather less than a degree). This greatly reduces cabinet resonance and leaves the drivers to radiate in an almost completely inert enclosure.
This enclosure is immensely solid. Tapping the side of it produces absolutely nothing in the way of hollow sounds let alone flexing. The result is that the Concept 20 feels rather more expensive than it actually is and there are only a small number of cabinets I’ve encountered under £1,000 that feel like this one does. With metal front panel and gloss black finish around the outside, the speaker is bang up to date aesthetically and unlike to offend any sensibilities. The Concept 20 is rear ported and benefits from a bit of space between it and a rear wall although a pair of port bungs are also supplied.
The 25mm fabric tweeter and 125mm doped paper bass driver are unchanged from the 2020i and to be honest, this is no bad thing. My experiences with the 2010i 5.1 package was almost entirely positive and as I’ve said on a number of occasions before, there is much to be said for these relatively ‘ordinary’ materials in terms of their naturalness and tonality. The only major change to the mechanical side of the Concept 20 is the new terminal panel incorporating a rather smart quartet of terminals on the rear rather than the underside of the speaker.
The review pair was supplied with a pair of the matching stands that also incorporate the Gelcore technology. In the time they’ve been here, I haven’t been able to decide whether I like the design of the stand which uses a glass outrigger to give the impression of the speaker balancing on a much smaller footprint than it actually is but I’m certainly convinced they are an effective partner for the speakers. The Concept 20’s come with a trio of metal feet that will protect the finish on a normal stand but also ‘lock’ into the top plate of the stand making for a very solid and stable enclosure. The stands are £200 and it is possible to buy some very serious stands for that sort of money but overall ensemble feels solid and looks cohesive.
At the moment, the Concept 20 is a one-off but it seems likely that if the reception is positive, more units will follow. Given that Q Acoustics 5.1 systems have historically done very well both here and elsewhere, it would be sad if this innovative design wasn’t given a chance to show what it can do in a multichannel setup.
The Concept 20’s have been used exclusively in two channel setups. I’ve used them with Pioneer’s A70, a Cambridge Audio 851A and a Naim SUPERNAIT which have all been to hand over the review period. Sources used include a Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100, a Lenovo ThinkPad via this and the direct USB input of the Pioneer, a Naim ND5 XS network streamer with XP5 XS power supply and a Rega RP6 turntable via Avid Pellar phono stage and the internal phono stage of the Pioneer. Material used has thus been a very wide spread of digital and analogue ranging from relatively low bitrate internet radio all the way through to 180gm vinyl and high resolution FLAC.
Finally, to give me something to compare the Concept 20’s to, I borrowed a pair of Epos Epic 1’s off a friend who has gone to New Zealand for a few weeks. As they are almost exactly the same price as the Concept 20 and the larger Epic 5 is one of my favourite sub £1,000 speakers, I thought they would make an interesting point of comparison.
The Concept is an interesting gamble for Q Acoustics. They have moved into a new price point with a speaker that is visually identical to a model that costs half as much when viewed by a casual observer. To succeed, they need to get a customer to first of all get up close to the Concept 20 and then most importantly sit down and listen to it. If they can get people to do these two things, I suspect they’ll do rather well.
The Concept 20 is rather understated about how it goes about its business but the more time you spend with it, the more sense it makes. Quite simply it is one of the cleanest sounding speakers I have heard anywhere near the price. The effects of cabinet colouration on performance are variable and some speakers actually make use of it in the way they go about reproducing sound. The Concept 20 is effectively devoid of any noticeable colouration and this has created a speaker that is exceptionally clean, controlled and detailed.
Listening to a FLAC rip of Goldfrapp’s Head First, the Concept 20 reproduces Alison Goldfrapp’s vocals with absolute assurance and real detail and the result is uncannily real. The separation between voices and instruments allows you to hear everything in the mix without straining but at the same time, the overall presentation is very cohesive and exceptionally easy to follow. The smaller 2010i demonstrated an imperceptible crossover between the tweeter and mid bass driver and this is repeated here. The mounting of the two drivers relatively close to one another almost certainly helps the phasing of the Concept 20 and it sounds impressively together as a speaker.
The clarity of the performance has some unusual psychosomatic effects as well. The Concept 20 has a frequency response that is exactly the same as the 2020i but the cleaner performance realises more low level detail and you would swear blind that the Concept 20 goes deeper than the simpler speaker. The cabinet does show a tiny level of perceptibility if you take this to its logical conclusion. During the ‘rigorous’ low end work out that is Boards of Canada’s Telephasic Workshop, there is a slight sense of activity from the rear bass port but this is not too severe and certainly more effective than most similarly priced competition.
Most, but not quite all. The Epos borrowed for comparison was able to go a little lower overall and avoided the same sense of energy from the port. The altogether simpler cabinet of the Epic 1 can’t match the Concept 20 once you begin to compare the midrange and treble though. The Epos is a very well sorted speaker but compared to the remarkable clarity of the Q Acoustics, it sounds muddled and slightly confused. Details that are plain as day with the Q Acoustics can be lost in the mix.
The most impressive aspect of what, when all is said and done, is an inexpensive speaker is that it responded amazingly well to improvements in the electronics it was connected to. Connected to a pairing of Naim electronics with a value not far shy of seven grand, the Concept 20 was able to reveal what differentiates the SUPERNAIT amp from the Cambridge Audio 851A and Pioneer A70. At no stage did £350 of speakers being run off electronics twenty times the price of them seem lopsided or artificial and the performance was exceptionally enjoyable.
Equally, I don’t think the Concept 20 is a magic bullet that will make a group of underperforming electronics sound a whole heap better. The partnering equipment doesnt need to be expensive but it needs to have a reasonable amount of power on tap and you will need to take into account that if it has any bad habits, the Concept 20 is going to show them up for you to hear. It is also worth pointing out that this also applies to very compressed material as well. Sources like Spotify are fine but some internet radio stations started to sound a little unpleasant with the Concept 20 pointing out just how much of the signal is missing. This is hardly the fault of the speaker but something you ought to bear in mind.
The final comment I have about the Concept 20 is the most subjective and hardest to pin down. By and large, it is an enjoyable and extremely involving sounding speaker. It has an ability with voices and instruments that means that acoustic material in particular is startlingly good. Other than absolute bass extension, it has the Epos Epic 1 on the ropes across most of the frequency spectrum. What is slightly harder to describe or account for is that when listening to something fast and lively - Aha Shake Heartbreak by the Kings of Leon being a good example - the Q Acoustics just seemed to lack that last spark of timing and agility that the Epos could bring to the performance. I suspect this is personal preference coming to the fore here - for me timing (for want of a better term) is a huge part of the musical performance and the Epos has a spark of this that the incredibly accurate Concept 20 doesn’t. I need to make it plain, I could spend hours listening to the Q Acoustics and come away marvelling at what they do but in this one deeply subjective area that some people have no real concern with, I found they couldn’t always deliver the knockout punch.
- Incredible transparency and detail
- Superb build quality
- Attractive design
- Slight lack of bass extension
- Will not flatter poor electronics
- Dedicated stand is pretty pricey
Q Acoustics Concept 20 Standmount Speaker Review
I don’t really like hyperbole in reviewing - saying something is the best thing since sliced bread and a real game changer always runs the risk of you looking like a complete idiot when the product you say is the best thing ever is bettered not long after you praised it to the rafters. As such, I will choose my words carefully because in many ways what Q Acoustics has built here is incredibly exciting.
The Concept 20 is a great £350 speaker and in some aspects of performance, it is so far ahead of its price competitors that it will present them with a bit of a headache. It is capable of creating performances that are detailed, tonally vivid without being overblown and featuring a soundstage that is rarely anything other than entirely believable. The effect of that clever inert cabinet on those ‘ordinary’ drivers is to ensure that all you hear is the drivers working as the designer intended. This sounds simple but there aren’t many designs that achieve it as well as this. Even with the matching stands included, £550 is a perfectly reasonable price for this level of performance. In fact, the first standmount that has clear capabilities over the Concept 20 is the Guru Junior that costs another £245 less stands. The weaknesses are by comparison, impressively small. Some designs at a similar price have slightly deeper bass and in the thorny area of timing, they have to content themselves with merely being good rather than great.
The catch is that the Concept 20 will show you what is wrong with your electronics if you give it the chance. It isn’t ruthless and neither will it render big chunks of your music collection unlistenable but a speaker this able demands electronics that are similarly well sorted. They aren’t a universal cure for systems that aren’t working perfectly and while I feel, they in themselves are a very competitive price, getting the best out of them is not something you can do on the cheap. If you put the effort into the rest of the system though, the price of astounding transparency just got a whole lot cheaper.
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