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10 ‘must-hear’ active loudspeakers

  • Not everyone taking an interest in a better hifi system wants to engage in the sport of hi-fi: mixing and matching amplifiers to extract the best performance from a pair of passive loudspeakers before adding a DAC and network streamer.

    Many modern hi-fi buyers have a thirst for better sound quality at home but derive zero pleasure from making decisions about what goes with what and how to wire it up. Die-hard audiophiles often have a hard time believing that some people just don’t want to configure their own system.

    After all, we know that an abundance of choice paralyses our ability to make decisions – and so the would-be newcomer puts hi-fi in the ‘too hard’ basket and spends his/her disposable income on something else. Shame on the audio world for making everything look so complicated even if sometimes it isn’t.

    Active loudspeakers not only take the configuration/setup pain away but they remove the need for a hi-fi rack and show interconnects and speaker cables the door. A pair of loudspeakers is all she wrote, often landing with numerous audible benefits over passive equivalents driven by outboard amplifiers. The die-hard audiophile subsequently faced with optimal sound quality and passive + BYO amplifier as mutually exclusive choices will often dismiss actives as “lifestyle” hardware; as if good looks were a bad thing!

    Active loudspeakers allow us to sidestep journeyman audiophillia altogether.

    What follows are ten active loudspeakers from the road less travelled (than ATC, PMC, Focal, Meridian etc.) that 1) I see as giving serious momentum to the active movement in the audiophile world and 2) that I have spent time with.

    For those who are hard of reading: this is not a best of list.

    Let us begin…

    Grimm LS1 (€18,000/pair)

    The LS1 from Dutch company Grimm could be the Grandaddy of modern active loudspeakers. (Modern being the last 8 years).

    A pro-audio-aimed model whose wood-y outward aesthetic also speaks to home-based audiophiles. With digital and analogue inputs, it’s a complete audio system in which designer Bruno Putzeys gives us a DSP-powered crossover that talks to a 2-way driver configuration via Hypex nCore amps. (The optional bass unit makes it a 3-way).

    In the majority of active loudspeakers, the electronics sit behind the drivers inside the speaker cabinet. In the LS1 they reside in one leg of the supporting stands. Clever. The front baffle goes extra wide for good reason too: to minimise the LS1’s interaction with the room. The wider a loudspeaker’s front baffle, the lower the frequency at which it begins to radiate omni-directionally — and talks to the walls to cause image-smearing first reflections. Grimm specifies the LS1 as uni-directional down to 250Hz.

    I’ve heard the LS1 a handful of times at my local store but, like an audio show, the high street is no place for a review. For that, we look to Marja and Henk and 6moons to fill in the blanks.

    You can watch my extended video interview with Bruno Putzeys here.

    Kii Audio Three (€10,000+/pair)

    If the Grimm LS1 is the Grandaddy, then Kii Audio’s Three is the younger, cooler uncle. Also from the mind palace of Bruno Putzeys but with a Future-Fi twist, the Three is a large active standmount loudspeaker with optional custom stands (€more) and Kii Remote (€more) for volume attenuation, digital input extension and DSP-powered output customisation (which we’ll get to momentarily).

    A quick glance at the Three might erroneously cast them as a two-way with side firing bass enhancement. As a passive design, the Kii Three’s narrow front baffle would give an early start to omni-directional dispersion and any resulting first reflections. The room would soon make itself known to the listener. Appearances can be deceptive – the Three’s more modern shell houses some very smart technology.

    The Kii’s side- and rear-firing drivers have their output controlled by Putzey’s highly advanced digitally active crossover and a sextet of Hypex nCore amp modules to net a cardioid dispersion pattern that minimises interaction between the loudspeaker and any proximate boundaries. The room (almost) vanishes to see the Kii Three’s full-range output go where other large standmounts and floorstanders cannot.

    On Kii judgement, direct experience is all my own. Sat atop their custom stands and digitally controlled by the Kii Remote, these actives deliver a wow factor like no other speaker I’ve ever heard in an apartment. A complete hifi system that just won’t be beaten by the same money spent on separates and a long overdue advancing of loudspeaker design.

    You can find more Darko.Audio coverage on the Kii Three here and here.

    Avantgarde Acoustics Zero 1 XD (€14,000/pair)

    This German company are largely known for their uber high-end horn systems. We cup our hands to our mouth to project sound further. Our ear is a horn that funnels sound inward. Emil Berliner’s gramophone used a horn to amplify the sounds generated by needle running through a record’s groove. According to Avantgarde, “A horn is the most natural and powerful way to amplify sound.”

    For modern loudspeaker thinking applied to a horn philosophy, Avantgarde offers up the Zero 1 XD: a pair of white (or black) 3-way metre-tall monoliths that see a high-efficiency horn-loaded tweeter and midrange driver – plus 12” bass driver – meet with post-crossover amplification. The tweeter/mid see 50 watts of Class “A/AB” each whilst the bass driver gets some serious kick and control from 400 Watts of Class D.

    Crossover execution, phase correction, group delay compensation and user switchable EQ, user-switchable are all executed by DSP running on an FPGA chip that plays catch on the back panel’s digital inputs: USB, TOSLINK, coaxial and AES/EBU inputs. An ADC-d analogue XLR input remains optional. Intra-speaker sync is handled wired or wirelessly. Adding a further shot of real-world accommodation, each Zero 1 XD can be canted backwards according to listener proximity and chair height.

    You can read Sound & Vision’s review of the Avantgarde Zero 1 XD here.

    Devialet Gold Phantom (€5900/pair)

    Looking like a dinosaur egg wrapped in a space capsule, Devialet’s has possibly the largest mainstream brand awareness of any high-end audio company. The French outfit’s retail store network apes that of Bang & Olufsen, albeit on a smaller scale, but is (more interestingly) augmented by a number of pop-ups appearing in shopping malls and train stations around the world.

    The Phantom comes in three versions – standard, Silver and Gold – with greater spend netting higher Class A/D hybrid amplifier power, lower measurable distortion and, for the Gold, an improved titanium tweeter that offers a considerably greater sense of transparency over its forerunners. The Gold is absolutely the one you want (if you can afford it).

    Whichever version you choose, from those side-firing cheeks, that show us our music, we hear (and see!) a very healthy dose of bass. That makes every Phantom an immediate shortlister for fans techno, hip-hop, UK Garage, drum n bass and EDM listening in anything but small rooms. Sat in front of a pair, it’s not hard to believe that every Phantom is rated down to 14Hz and that they therefore sound best when given a little breathing room.

    A pair of Phantom also require zero additional devices – both DAC and streamer are built into the system. Plug each Phantom into the mains, connect the Dialog router that splits the signal between the left and right channels and you’ll be up and running with SPARK app streaming (for Tidal, Deezer or Qobuz), Spotify Connect or Bluetooth in the time it takes to order a Croque Monsieur and a Cafe Au Lait. An until that Dialog becomes Roon Ready, a Raspberry Pi-based streamer with TOSLINK out can be connected to the Dialog’s solitary digital input.

    These Devialet actives offer a pretension-free, kick-ass listening experience from loudspeakers that look like anything but. Objets D’art that play music. Is the Phantom the world’s best Bluetooth speaker? Do a pair offer audiophile-grade sound quality? Such silly questions in the face of top-to-bottom audio innovation that snatches the better sound conversation from would-be audiophile snobs to properly engage the wo/man in the street.

    You can read my review of the Silver Phantom here and here and more on the Gold, including a factory tour video, right here.

    Genelec 8331 ‘The Ones’ (€4800/pair)

    This Finnish loudspeaker company have been making active loudspeakers since 1978 but in recent years have broadened their pro-audio only approach to take aim at the audiophile market. Genelec has shown their wares at Munich High-End for as long as I’ve been attending; five years.

    The 8331 is the baby of ‘The Ones’ range in which a coaxially arranged mid-bass driver and tweeter are collectively wave-guided by a gently curved front baffle and augmented by ‘racetrack’ bass drivers whose output spills from slits to the top and bottom of the aluminium chassis. Amplification is all Class D. Inputs are digital or analogue. The crossover is done in DSP, along with execution of back panel-applied EQ. Further room correction and/or placement compensation comes from Genelec’s GLM module, its partnering software and a mic stand.

    In use, the point source driver array has the soundstage and its imaging coalesce in the nearfield (hello desktop, mixing console) as well as further away in a more traditional listening room setup. A don’t think for a moment these are only small room loudspeakers. Their low-frequency output and control is the kind that causes jaws to hit floors.

    You can read my review of the Genelec 8331’s bigger brother, the 8341, here.

    HEDD Type 20 (€3400/pair)

    From the most pro-audio focussed of all the manufacturers in this list, HEDD’s Type 20 is a 3-way monitor designed for near- to mid-field studio monitoring. For accuracy-hunting audiophiles, the Type 20 is therefore an opportunity to hear music as the mixing or mastering engineer heard it.

    That unusual-looking tweeter is an Air Motion Transformer (AMT) developed by HEDD CEO Klaus Heinz using the work of quantum physicist Oskar Heil. The super smooth-sounding AMT is augmented by a 4” midrange driver and a 7” bass driver but with a front-firing port to accommodate front-wall-proximate placement. Amplification comes from ICEpower; 300 Watts firing directly into each driver.

    Bucking modern trends towards DSP implementations, the crossover here isn’t digital but analogue. And for those who cannot live without the digital domain’s superior phase correction, HEDD offer up their Lineariser desktop app, available for Windows and MacOS, that sorts phase errors before they arrive at the interceding outboard DAC.

    You can watch my short film about HEDD Audio here.

    Feniks Essence (US$1350/pair)

    When we eat too much, our eyes outsize our bellies. Buying a loudspeaker that’s too big (acoustically), for a listening room is a similar condition. We wish for more than we can personally accommodate.

    Desktops listeners aren’t immune to ocular overreach. We might want the best sound for our home offices but even in mine – where the desk itself measures 2m x 0.75m, is made of solid wood and is almost a two-man lift – loudspeakers like the KEF LS50 Wireless are just too much. Time to think quality over quantity.

    Active loudspeakers sidestep separates in a hifi rack and the associated cable salad to offer the small possible footprint. Minimalism is less essential in an open room but desk hounds couldn’t do without it.

    Enter the Feniks Essence whose 4.5” custom coaxial driver (with 2cm tweeter), ICEpower amplification and Gordon Rankin-designed (USB) ESS Sabre 9018 DAC are housed in an all metal enclosure for one of the tidiest, sturdiest and most visually elegant desktop loudspeakers to come to market, originally via Kickstarter and then via the Eversound name before being born again as Fenix.

    An analogue volume pot mounted atop one of the two speakers drives home the feeling of luxury with a big L. And audiophiles with more exacting standards needn’t dismiss the Feniks as the just another example of the other L: lifestyle. Not all good looking, feel-good loudspeakers suffer sound quality compromise. Here sound quality follows form to see the Fenix cast music as a pop-up book in front of the listener where pin-point imaging is reproduced to a more appropriate scale for the listener’s ear-brain. The Essence are lightning fast too – a quality less commonly discussed by those who would slice the frequency spectrum three ways before calling it a day.

    Desktop audiophiles looking for ‘best’ should bypass the Feniks at their peril. But also those listening in the tiniest of living quarters. The Essence might be the number one active loudspeaker choice for high-end listening in high-rise Tokyo.

    You can read my review of the (Eversound) Feniks Essence here.

    Dynaudio Xeo 2 (€1300/pair)

    Whilst we’re talking apartment audiophiles, those looking for a larger dose of low-end action a bit more punch than the Fenix can offer, but without too much of a hit to clarity, imaging, diminutive dimensions and cabling, should seek out the 25cm-tall Xeo 2 active from Dynaudio.

    The Xeo 2 forego USB in favour of TOSLINK and Bluetooth (plus ADC-d 3.5mm analogue) where the digital signal is converted to PWM to directly drive each driver’s amplification module. Two per speaker: one for the 2.8cm soft dome tweeter and one for the 14cm MSP mid/bass driver.

    A downward-firing reflex port makes the Xeo 2 less sensitive to front wall and a wifi inter-link keeps left and right channels in sync without the restriction of a physical cable.

    You can read my review of the Dynaudio Xeo 2 here.

    KEF X300A / Wireless (€700/pair)

    And an Ethernet interlink is what joins one stereo-paired KEF X300A to the other loudspeaker. Regular readers might imagine the nod here would go to the LS50 Wireless but the first cut, as they say, is the deepest. This commentator’s first exposure to KEF’s internal powering of their trademark Uni-Q driver array – one that asked us to Hifi Our Computer – came via the USB-only X300A. A is for active. A second bite at this set menu of 24/96 DACs, Class A/B amps and coaxial drivers came via the white, Apple AirPlay-able wireless version.

    As we now know, Roon talks to AirPlay. Alternatively, a Raspberry Pi can add RAAT-fuelled Roon Readiness, virtual Squeezeboxing or UPnP. A cleaner USB feed will come from ALLO Digital’s USBridge. Bargain basement appendages that didn’t exist at the time of the X300A’s release recast the KEF actives and their Wireless cousins as complete streaming-capable hi-fi systems to offer the impossible: an even greater value quotient than the LS50 Wireless.

    That’s assuming you can find a pair. Everything we see online points to the X300A/Wireless being a discontinued line, which in turn means that if you can find a pair, they’re likely to sell for well below retail. Happy hunting.

    You can read my review of the KEF X300A here and the X300A Wireless here.

    Acoustic Energy AE1 Active (£1000)

    Previously a popular passive design, in late 2016 British manufacturer re-invented their AE1 standmount as an active loudspeaker. The twin front-firing ports were moved to the rear – and changed to a slit – but the aluminium dome tweeter remained. The mid-bass driver here is aluminium too.

    However, the AE1 Active separate themselves from all of the above listed models (HEDD excepted) for two clear and distinct reasons: 1) the in-speaker amplification is Class A/B throughout with 50 Watts applied to each driver; and 2) the signal path is entirely analogue – no ADC greets the analogue signal entering the speaker via its RCA or XLR socket to turn the signal into ones and zeroes.

    The all-new AE1 are actives for purists who, rightly or wrongly, turn their nose up at Class D amplification and who, rightly or wrongly, insist that an all-analogue signal path is the only way they’ll hear their existing DAC’s full capabilities.

    Further, a choice of cherry wood, white and black finishes means the AE1 Active will meet with a broader range of tastes in home decor. Just don’t call it WAF.

    You can read What Hi-fi?’s review of the Acoustic Energy AE1 here.


    Five more active loudspeaker manufacturers worthy of consideration:

    Manger (pictured in header image)

    Lyravox

    Dutch & Dutch

    SGR Audio

    Linn

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile. John used to live in Sydney. Now he lives in Berlin.

    Follow John on YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter

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