Standmount speakers are not quite as popular as they once were in this price range, partly because their floorstanding alternatives often look very attractive, don't require stands and give the impression that because they're bigger, they must sound better.
But it's worth remembering that it is very difficult to make a tall speaker cabinet that remains inert for this sort of money - in fact it's difficult at any price. Standmount or bookshelf designs have the advantage of smaller cabinets that do not resonate so easily and can therefore produce a cleaner, less boxy sound.
Admittedly, their smaller size can limit their absolute loudness and bass extension but the lack of flapping panels mean that precise imaging is where they shine - it's no accident that professional recording studios tend to favour standmount designs for playback. They are also extremely musical and entertaining, but please, try not to put them on a bookshelf!
Price: £845 More info: Acoustic Energy Size (HxWxD): 29.5x18x25.5cm Weight: 8kg Drive units: 25mm magnesium dome tweeter, 90mm alloy cone bass/midrange Sensitivity: 88dB Impedance: 8 ohm Power handling: up to 200W Frequency response: 55Hz-22kHz (+/-6dB) Real wood finishes: Black
Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic
Of all the so-called classic products in the hi-fi world this is one of the few that deserves that epithet. The original AE1 was introduced in 1988 and has gone through a number of changes since that time, resulting in the super sexy AE1 MkIII currently in production - the Classic on the other hand is “as close as we can be” to the original AE1. Hence the pro-style cabinet finish and black anodised metal drive units.
Inside the cabinet there is a sloping baffle made of a mix of concrete and latex, this to avoid parallel surfaces and the nasty standing waves that they can induce. Another contrary touch is the single wire binding posts, another nod to its original professional orientation.
In the listening room you can hear why this speaker has made a comeback, it is attractively nimble and yet delivers decent bass extension for something so compact. The sound is not as rich nor as open as some of the competition but the tunes it plays down in the bass are quite distracting. It also delivers the sound of metal instruments with a greater realism than most - cymbals are very real, but pianos on the other hand could do with a bit more warmth. The AE1 has a highly revealing midband that's up with the best at the price and a sense of musicality that's also in the top league. This is a welcome return for a true classic.
Hardcore styling, good power handling and bass for size
Not to everyone's aesthetic tastes and not as smooth as some
Price: £499 More info: B&W Size (HxWxD): 28x16.5x27.6cm Weight: 6.7kg Drive units: 25mm aluminium dome tweeter, 130mm Kevlar cone bass/midrange Sensitivity: 84dB Impedance: 8 ohm Power handling: 30W-100W Frequency response: 45Hz-50kHz (-6dB) Real wood finishes: Wenge, rosenut, maple
This beautifully designed compact speaker is the smallest aspirational speaker in B&W's substantial range - the company calls it a “wolf in sheep's clothing”, but it's one good looking sheep! It achieves its clean lines by magnetically retaining the grille, which is why there are no little holes on the front baffle. The rest is down to its sharp edges and smart aluminium metalwork.
The CM1 has two rangemates in the CM7 floorstander and CM Centre and thus can be built into a multichannel system. A matching stand is also available. The main driver has a 95mm Kevlar cone while the metal dome tweeter claims a phenomenal 50kHz extension to take advantage of high resolution sources.
This is a very clean and smooth loudspeaker with wide dynamic range and decent bass weight for its size, but perhaps for these reasons it doesn't have the charm that less neutral designs exhibit. However, in the context of a group where the competition costs at least 60 per cent more it delivers a strong result that reflects the company's technological strengths and its ability to fine tune products.
It is not as revealing as the rest of the group but may well have lower overall distortion because sensitivity to the level of notes is very high and its ability to follow a tune is also impressive. Put enough power behind it and you can also get some pretty serious level which is rare in compact speakers at any price.
Great design, composed low distortion sound with articulate bass and extended highs
A little short on thrill power
Price: £795 More info: PMC Size (HxWxD): 40x20x30cm Weight: 8.5kg Drive units: 27mm silk dome tweeter, 170mm doped cone bass/midrange Sensitivity: 90dB Impedance: 8 ohm Power handling: 40w-150w Frequency response: 40Hz-25kHz Real wood finishes: Cherry, oak, maple
PMC's trademark is the use of transmission line (TL) loading. This approach differs from conventional reflex loading by placing a long 'tunnel' (in this case 1.5m long) between the vent and the back of the main driver. The idea is that higher frequencies are damped out and the remaining low bass that comes out of the TL is in phase with that of the drive unit. The TB2+ is the second model in a range that features three floorstanders, three centre channels and a subwoofer, it is also available in active form with an onboard 60-watt power amplifier.
It's probably the TB2+'s higher than average sensitivity rather than its TL design that gives it such an easy and open sound but the TL's contribution may well help the expansiveness of the soundstage. This speaker also has an appealingly natural balance - there's a little bit more enthusiasm for cymbals than average and the box's size had me expecting more weighty bass but there's no denying its ability to shift air.
The midrange is a little more obvious than usual which brings voices and the like to the fore and this, coupled with the expansive soundstage was impressively resolute thanks to low distortion and that sense that it doesn't have to try too hard, which makes it great for long-term listening.
High sensitivity, open relaxed sound, great looks
Could sound more solid perhaps
Price: £799 More info: Ruark Size (HxWxD): 33.5x20x27cm Weight: 8kg Drive units: 27mm textile dome tweeter, 150mm pulped fibre cone bass/midrange Sensitivity: 86dB Impedance: 8ohm Power handling: 25W-120W Frequency response: 50Hz-22kHz (+/-3dB) Real wood finishes: Natural oak, rich walnut
Ruark Sabre III
Ruark, one of Essex's better kept secrets, made a very shrewd business decision in the late nineties by becoming the distributor for the Tivoli table-top radio. But that's only one part of its business - it has been a speaker maker for much longer and the Sabre III is the latest incarnation of its most diminutive Heritage series model. This beautifully finished design is the standmount in a range of three models. Sabre III it is a carefully executed reflex loaded two-way with a 95mm paper coned main driver and a larger than average soft dome tweeter.
Of the speakers in this group the Sabre is the most conventional. It doesn't have any wizzy features or high technology, which might just be why it sounds so good. The key to its appeal is its excellent sense of timing - whatever music you play it is always on the money when it comes to this most elusive of qualities.
It also images well and has good dynamic range for its size, but its limitations are also size related - bass is inevitably limited in depth and its ability to cope with high levels is not infinite. You can play loud for example, but not as comfortably as you can with some of the competition. All of which is understandable and easily ignored when you put on a great piece of music and are thrilled by its textures and rhythms - it sounds better than it looks, and it looks pretty good.
Excellent timing, beautiful midrange, great quality of finish
Limited bass grunt and power handling
If this handful is anything to go by you will be hard pressed to find a bad standmount in the £500-£1,000 price range - the standard is really very high. Which makes it difficult to pick winners because tastes, systems and rooms will all play their part.
If you want a big easy sound the PMC has the clear advantage, if you prefer a warm, relaxed balance that reveals things in a calm manner check out the B&W, if precision is your bag and you have a powerful amplifier the Acoustic Energy is a scorcher but if you prefer normal listening levels and enjoy a good tune the Ruark is extremely enticing.