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DALI Oberon 3: a passive for the masses?

  • One of the nice things about passive loudspeakers is the ability to tailor their sound to your liking with the gear you choose to associate them with. Of course, this means more boxes than a pair of active or powered loudspeakers, but sometimes more is, well, more.

    The rear-ported DALI Oberon 3 standmount loudspeakers are a two-way design which incorporates DALI’s patented Soft Magnetic Compound (SMC) technology coupled with their proprietary wood fibre cone woofer. DALI’s SMC offers very high magnetic conductivity and very low electrical conductivity. According to the company, these characteristics eliminate the frequency dependency of the electrical and magnetic properties of iron parts in a speaker’s driver so that when SMC is applied to the Oberon 3’s magnet motor system, there’s a dramatic reduction in the unwanted distortion caused by mechanical loss in the magnet system – a dramatic enough reduction that, according to DALI, is both audible and measurable.

    The Oberon 3 features an in-house designed and manufactured 7″ low-loss wood fibre cone woofer with a rubber surround. This wood fibre cone is reportedly the product of years of research and is constructed from a blend of fine-grain paper pulp reinforced with wood fibres, creating a light, supple, yet stiff driver. Since the crossover point of the woofer is 2,400Hz, its output covers most of the mid-range frequencies so listeners can certainly hear if wood is good in this context. The company rates the woofer’s low frequency handling down to 47Hz.

    Taking over the upper-mid and high frequencies is DALI’S 29mm soft dome textile tweeter which extends frequency response to 26kHz. The Oberon 3’s sensitivity is rated at 87dB (2,83 V/1 m) with a nominal impedance of 6 Ohms and DALI recommends a minimum of 25 Watts for sufficient drive. The 350 x 200 x 315mm (HxWxD) cabinet is constructed from high-density CNC machined MDF that is dressed up in high-grade vinyl. Finish options include White and Light Oak with Mountain Grey fabric grilles, and Black Ash and Dark Walnut with ‘Shadow Black’ grilles. My favorite finish is the Light Oak which was not available in the review sample because I’m not alone in this preference. That said, the Matte White / Mountain Grey review samples strike me as falling on the handsome side of the visual spectrum.

    Back in 2019, I had the pleasure of spending a few days touring the DALI factory in Nørager, Denmark and I walked away very impressed by the place and, of greater importance, the people behind DALI’s products. One thing that came into clear focus during my visit is the importance of balance when it comes to the design process: there is no single magic bullet that brings a loudspeaker to its finished state. Rather the sum of the parts creates a realm wherein the beauty of balance—the interplay of every aspect of design, materials, and production—informs the process.

    DALI, which stands for Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries, built 250k loudspeakers in 2018 ranging in price from roughly $229 to $20k/pair. The Oberon 3, at $899/pair, fall into the lower end of the price pool. I paired the Oberons with the budget-friendly NAD C 338 integrated amplifier ($699) and the shockingly refined Clones Audio 25iRX integrated amplifier ($1975).

    My listening room is a barn which makes it a large room to fill with sound: overall dimensions run roughly 35’ x 45’ with 12’ ceilings, while the actual listening area divides that width in half. Among the first of many surprises from the relatively diminutive DALIs was their ability to do a convincing job of filling this listening space with sweet, liquid, music. I placed the Oberon 3 where all of the loudspeakers I listen to live, roughly 6’ from the front wall and more than 4’ from the side ‘walls’ where the sound image they threw into the room extended well beyond the loudspeakers in every dimension. They sounded BIG.

    Paired with the gain-clone Clones Audio 25iRX integrated amplifier and using the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer (or Weiss DAC501) as source, the resultant sound though the Oberon 3s was at once superbly defined, fluid, and robust. While being surprised by bass response from standmount loudspeakers is no longer surprising, the Oberon 3’s way with bass-heavy music like “Archangel” from Burial’s Untrue had enough oomph to seal the deal while offering up the concomitant noise and vocals with silky smooth appeal.

    At the same time, acoustic music shone with tonal richness and rightness. The Weather Station’s 2011 folk release All Of It Was Mine consists of Misha Bower’s chirpy vocals backed by strings (guitar, violin, and banjo) and the Oberon 3 had no problem relaying a goodly portion of pluck, body, and individual voice of each stringed instrument while throwing Bower’s voice center stage with near 3D presence. I admit to being pleasantly surprised over weeks of time by the Oberon 3’s rich and crystal clear clarity on offer from such a moderately priced speaker. I will also say that the Clones / DALI combo makes for a visually appealing package.

    Next up on the partner parade was the more affordable NAD C 338, using the Primare NP5 network player as Roon Ready streamer. The overall sound signature shifted with the NAD toward a fuller, less resolution-rich presentation. Acoustic guitar gained body and weight down low, albeit with less clarity as compared to the Clones 25iRX. Kid Koala’s Music To Draw To: Satellite from 2017 features Emilíana Torrini on (stunning) vocals over wavy amorphous and ambient synths, guitars, and other machines and the NAD / DALI combination put more weight on tone and body as opposed to the resolution and texture that’s more than apparent with the Clones Audio in charge of the driving.

    It was clear that the DALI Oberon 3 allowed the different voices of the Clones Audio and NAD to shine through while retaining a convincing full-bodied and colorful sound. The Clones 25iRX integrated amplifier is rated at 30 Watts per channel (into 8 Ohms) while the NAD outputs 50 Watts into 4 or 8 Ohms and both had no problem driving the Oberon 3 as loud as I cared to listen. In terms of preference, I found the Clones Audio 25iRX integrated amplifier a bit more exciting with greater clarity and resolution but we are getting into horses for courses territory while ignoring the significant price differential between these two fine integrated amplifiers.

    On the loudspeaker comparison front, I had the DALIs flanked by the less expensive ELAC Debut 2.0 B5.2 ($350/pair) and the more costly Golden Ear BRX ($1,598.00/pair), both standmounts. Some conclusions nearly write themselves and I don’t have any surprises up my comparative sleeve. Do you remember Shrinky Dinks? Just draw on the special Shrinky Dink sheet, pop it in the oven, bake, and out comes a shrunken version? While I still feel the ELAC Debut loudspeakers are a screaming bargain, the comparison to the more than twice-priced DALI made music played through the ELAC sound like it was pasted to a Shrinky Dink sheet and sent through the oven. The difference in inches between the ELAC’s Aramid fiber woofer and the Oberon’s wood fibre cone woofer is only 2 1/4” yet the difference in body, weight, and frequency response speaks volumes.

    The ELAC also sound somewhat softer up top and a bit less dynamically snappy as compared to the Oberon 3. All of these things translate into a less engaging experience because we’re talking about a less convincing reproduction. Again, no surprises here given the price and material differences. A more equal contender from the ELAC lineup would be their Debut Reference Bookshelf Speakers at $600/pair but alas I don’t have a magic cupboard at the back of the Barn full of every loudspeaker currently in production.

    The Golden Ear BRX sport a 6” cast-basket bass/midrange driver, a folded ribbon tweeter, and a pair of 6.5” planar infrasonic radiators mounted on either side of the BRX’s cabinet so we are not talking about apples to apples when comparing the BRX to the Oberon 3. With that in mind, it should come as little to no surprise to learn that the Golden Ear BRX gives us more weight and a richer, more full-bodied presentation as compared to the Oberon 3. But, and this an important but, unlike the ELAC comparison, I did not feel an equal level of loss when moving back to the Oberon 3 from the more expensive Golden Ear BRX.

    What you get more of from the Golden Ear BRX translates into a more muscular, more physical, and colorful musical event. “Archangel” from Burial was more sinister and scary, The Weather Station sounds riper on the vine in terms of greater tone color variation and texture, and music in a general sense felt more embodied in room, or in this case, in Barn. However, in the case of moving back to the Oberon 3, the absence of these comparative values didn’t hit so hard because the DALI’s strengths are so strong.

    Oberon is the King of Fairies in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream wherein Oberon slips his wife a Mickey with the juice from a special flower that was struck by Cupid’s arrow, making he or she who drinks it fall under a spell. After I finished performing my reviewer comparison duties, I put the DALI Oberon 3 / Clones Audio 25iRX integrated amplifier / totaldac d1-tube system back together for a few days of uninterrupted listening. I didn’t have to, mind you, I wanted to. Moving through all manner of music, from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s film score for The Staggering Girl, to Lightnin’ Hopkins Live At Newport, to Miles Davis’ A Tribute To Jack Johnson, to Metz’s Atlas Vending, I was continually engaged with the makings of the music, never once falling into critical listening mode due to perceived shortcomings.

    One potential drawback of listening through lots of gear in all price ranges on a regular basis is a sense of loss – the experience of missing things that are no longer there due to a change in gear. Perhaps DALI’s SMC tech is akin to Cupid’s elixir but in any event, the Oberon C have been touched by some kind of special sauce transforming an affordable speaker into a compellingly balanced music maker.

    Further information: DALI Speakers

    Written by Michael Lavorgna

    Michael Lavorgna was born in Paterson, NJ into an audiophile’s home. He’s been listening to music on the hi-fi since the ‘60s and has been writing about this experience for some 15 years. Michael has contributed to 6moons and Stereophile and was the editor of (the recently-disappeared) AudioStream from its inception in 2010 until 2018. Michael's new home is TwitteringMachines.com.

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