April 2000Dynaudio Audience 40 Loudspeakers
by Greg Smith
For some reason, Dynaudio speakers haven't managed to catch my attention. To start, I never did get the point of the raccoon in their print ads. The company's marketing literature includes the opinionated Book of Truth, which contains a lot of statements I find hard to agree with. In particular, the stereotyping of speaker design by country of origin I'd characterize as a rather broad generalization. Additionally, Dynaudio has always built drivers and speakers that were expensive and somewhat inefficient, neither of which are characteristics I normally find attractive.
With this as background, I started my review of Dynaudio's lowest-priced model, the $699-per-pair Audience 40. Living for a few months with this compact speaker, I was left more impressed than I was expecting to be.
Details and system
It's easy to move the 10.6-pound Audience 40 speakers around your room, and their 6.7"W x 11.1"H x 9.7"D size isn't hard to find a place for. The cabinet is extremely well constructed, and my samples were finished in a very attractive rosewood vinyl finish. You have to get pretty close to notice it's not real wood. It would be criminal to order this speaker in the dull black ash finish (light cherry is also an option) when such a nice wood facsimile is available at no additional cost. Dynaudio doesn't give any particular suggestions for a stand to put the speaker on, suggesting that placement is "less critical than most speakers." I used the 36" metal pipe DIY stands I made a while back and initially played the speakers in my office.
The rated -3dB response of the Audience 40 is 53Hz to 28kHz, which means these speakers go up a lot higher than a typical model. While this has little impact relative to what your ears are capable of, it does suggest that the 28mm (1.1") soft-dome tweeter is particularly light and nimble. The crossover to the 15cm (about 5.9") woofer is at 1800Hz, with a 6dB/octave slope. It's extremely impressive that Dynaudio has engineered such a wide bandwidth into their tweeter. Since a woofer of the size used in the Audience 40 is typically capable of output above even 4kHz, the fact that it's only running up to 1800Hz means the transition to the tweeter should be smoother than average. Normally the down side to transitioning the drivers in this fashion is that the excursion of the tweeter becomes a limiting factor regarding how loudly the speaker will play. This particular Dynaudio design seems unfazed by any demand I've placed on it, with the woofer always seeming to be the limiting factor. Dynaudio rates the power handling as being in excess of 150 watts, and my tests suggest a similar figure. The sensitivity of the design is 86dB at 2.83V/1m, which sounds a bit worse than it is; the rated 4-ohm impedance, which reportedly doesn't dip below 3.7 ohms, means that a good amplifier will deliver more power into this speaker than an equivalent 8-ohm system.
Associated equipment starting out (as you'll read, it changed over time) was the Parasound C/DC-1500 CD changer feeding an AMC 3020 integrated amp and connected with AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cable and both Belden 89259 and JPS Ultraconductor interconnects. My review samples had 100 hours of extra break-in time put on them at the factory, so I hooked everything up and started listening right away.
Use and listening
When you play a small speaker, you expect it to be good at certain things and bad at others. I would not have predicted that my first impression of the Audience 40s was of their powerful dynamics. Even with a low-power amplifier, the speaker delivered some of the best transients I've ever heard a two-way design in this price range produce. Both large- and small-scale driver movements were precise and tightly controlled, without the gross driver and cabinet resonances that often accompany inexpensive speakers. After a month's worth of listening solely to the Dynaudio system, I dragged the $430-per-pair Clements 107di speakers into the room for comparison. Since the AMC amp doesn't quite have enough oomph to drive the woofers of the 107di well, I switched to my venerable Proton D1200, and used it with both the Clements and Dynaudio speakers.
I played "Things She Said" from Toy Matinee [Reprise 9 26235-2], and the first thing that jumped out at me is how much better strings sounded on the Dynaudio speakers. The superior low-end response of the Clements 107di speakers, which are rated -3dB at 40Hz, was also quite audible on this track; the Audience 40 is -3dB at 53Hz. Moving on to "Fallen Angel" from Robbie Robertson [MFSL UDCD 618], the Clements speakers again had an obviously more powerful bottom end. But when comes to delineating midbass detail and resolving percussion, the Dynaudio speakers gave crisp snaps, while the 107di was on the muddy and mushy side.
After the first round, the Dynaudio speakers proved they couldn't match the low frequencies of the much larger Clements speaker; no surprises there. I switched back to the AMC 3020 amp to focus on the rest of the frequency spectrum a bit closer. While it doesn't have quite the same level of bass slam as the big Proton unit, the AMC's high-frequency resolution and transient response are much better than those of the old beast. I pulled my original CD of Jethro Tull's Aqualung [Chrysalis VK41044] and cued "Up To Me." The tonal balance of the vocals compared with the rest of the song was slightly more even and balanced with the Audience 40 speakers than what I'd been getting from the 107dis. But the biggest difference was that the Dynaudio tweeter dug way deeper into resolving the recording and mastering noise of this early CD release. Skipping back a couple of tracks to flirt with "Mother Goose," I found a lot of output in the 60Hz-100Hz region that the Dynaudio can kick out well -- too much so, in fact. In my smallish office, there was a bit of a resonant build-up that made the woofer sound sluggish. Similarly, the bass line of Quarterflash's [Geffen 2003-2] "Harden My Heart" was strong enough to overwhelm the place. Usually when I hear that it means the speakers are too close to the wall.
For a somewhat more critical look at the speaker after hauling them home, I decided to use the any-load, any-time power capabilities of the Warner Imaging Endangered Species amplifier. Source material was spun by the Sony DVP-S500D DVD player, connected to an Acurus ACT-3 surround decoder with the Max Rochlin Memorial digital interconnect. All analog interconnects were JPS Ultraconductor, all speaker cable AudioQuest Type 4. Initially I was comparing against the Genesis APM-1s I normally listen to stereo with in this fairly large (23'x15') room, which I thought would be a nice challenge for the little Dynaudio boxes to rise to. Stands were still the home-brew models, but they proved to be a bit of a limiting factor initially. In my carpeted office and without the volume going up very high, the stands were fine. At home, I got considerable rocking, which is a very bad thing when it comes to a speaker stand. With the larger and considerably heavier speakers I normally have on hand and review on these stands, like the Clements and Genesis 750, the weight of the speaker is sufficient to keep the stand weighted down, perhaps with a bit of Blu-Tack added. The Audience 40 has more bass output per pound of speaker than anything I've encountered before, and this meant I had to do something more dramatic to quell the vibration.
Enter a reviewer-sized box of Vibrapods, loaned to me by SoundStage! writer John Potis along with some enthusiastic recommendations for how to use them. I'm still experimenting with their effectiveness when used as replacement feet on electronics, but what I can unquestionably recommend them for now is coupling smaller speakers to a stand. Using four of the original Vibrapods underneath each corner of the Audience 40, in between its bottom and the stand, was extremely effective at reducing the front/back swaying I had been fighting. I had a number of the model designed for heavier equipment involved with the speaker/floor coupling as well, which also helped but not to the same magnitude as the ones up top. After all the pods were in place, the bass tightened up and the speaker enclosure sounded like it was working against a quieter noise floor, presumably because of the reduced vibration in the cabinet and stand system. Add another thumbs up to the Vibrapod endorsement campaign. At $48 for a set of eight to use between the speakers and stand, I'd consider the money well spent considering the magnitude of improvement -- especially if, like me, you've skimped on the stand.
Even in this fairly reflective listening room (wooden floors and not a lot of damping), I still preferred the Audience speakers with their grilles removed. Dynaudio designed the speaker for this style of listening, and I can't imagine anyone would like them better with the grille in place. Starting "Refugee" from Camel's Stationary Traveller [Decca 820 020-2], the Audience 40 speakers were obviously congested when played at higher volumes. In particular, notes from David Paton's bass guitar tended to bleed into the midrange a bit. Switching Davids, to Mr. Baerwald's Triage [A&M 75021 5392 2] and "Silky Secret World", I found a very solid center vocal and overall placement of instruments. Off-center material was resolved particularly well for a speaker in this price range; I never had a sense that there was a hole anywhere in the soundstage. As far as depth goes, the trumpet part of "Refugee" is placed fairly far back when listening on the APM-1 speakers. I wasn't able to get quite the same amount of front-to-back separation out of the Audience 40. To be fair, the quasi-ribbon tweeter of the Magnepan MMG is the only reasonably priced driver I've ever heard play that part correctly, so I'd chalk this one up to being par for Dynaudio's $699 course.
Kevin Gilbert's Thud [PRA 60401-2] was recorded on all analog equipment, and this is really highlighted by the Dynaudio system. I could hear deep into the tape noise, a little too deep. It reinforced my suspicion that the extreme high frequencies of the Audience 40 are tweaked a bit upward relative to the rest of the treble. This may or may not be a benefit for your personal taste. On the unquestionably welcome side, the sound was very alive, and I was also struck again by the extreme dynamic rushes this speaker is capable of. Sudden, unexpected notes appear and disappear so quickly it's enough to make you jump. And even on this very demanding material, the speakers were comfortable filling my entire room with an average of 90dB worth of music. Not too bad for a system whose woofer is less than 6" in diameter!
Bass and port plugs
The owner's manual of the Audience 40 speakers states the speakers are designed to be one to one and a half meters away from the rear wall. If you put them much closer than that, you'll hear the overly fat bass response I observed above; in my office, I could only get the speakers about 30 inches away (that's less than a meter) from the back wall, but I still got decent imaging out of them. To help ameliorate this effect, particularly troublesome if you need to place the speakers against a shelf, Dynaudio supplies a set of foam plugs that go in the rear port of the speaker. In general, closing up the port of a speaker isn't a good idea, but in this case a beneficial effect was engineered into the system. Dynaudio has been worrying about problems like this for a long time. Back in 1993, I remember buying a product they called the Variovent, which was a special fiberglass-filled port you could put on your custom-built speakers to convert a closed-box tuning to an "aperiodic damped cabinet." This was effective at lowering the resonance frequency of a closed box in the same fashion stuffing it or increasing its size would.
In the current incarnation of the Audience 40, the plugged port also isn't quite a perfectly closed box; since the foam doesn't make an airtight seal, some of the air still gets out. Mark Thorup, chief engineer of Dynaudio A/S in Denmark, suggests that the current thinking on this topic models a speaker with a foam-plugged port to a leaky, yet essentially closed, box. This means that the resonant frequency of the enclosure is higher (around 80Hz), and the bass rolls off slowly below that. In his words, this "high tuning should efficiently reduce the provocation of resonances in the near environment of the speaker and therefore reduce the tendency of rattling and boominess that may occur."
Sure enough, that's what I got when installing the plugs in the Audience 40 speakers. The bass got much leaner at the lower frequencies. But this cleared up the overload and overhang that had accompanied material with a lot of bass below 100Hz when running the speaker unmodified. In a smaller room or in a system where the speaker doesn't need to produce output below 80Hz (like many home theaters), the system may sound better to you if the port plugs are used.
There's another interesting result of converting the ported enclosure into a leaky closed box with the plugs. One of the consequences of using a port is that the system is much more sensitive to frequencies below the useful output of the driver. So where a sealed-box speaker that can produce bass down to 50Hz can handle a fair amount power at 20Hz, a similar ported-box can substantially overdrive the woofer, making what is often described as a flapping sound and potentially burning out something. The design of Dynaudio's woofers are such that it's very difficult to damage them in this fashion, but it's still true that you'll get a lot more distortion when they are pushed hard below their effective range. Using the Proton amplifier, which has a power meter calibrated into 8 ohms but is still useful for relative comparisons, I started getting uncomfortable with the woofer's strained output at around 50 watts' worth of music. With the plugs inserted, I could easily dump over 150 watts of power before I felt the same sense of strain. It's not clear to me whether this is because the driver is outputting less bass in the 50Hz-80Hz region (the main purpose of the plugs) or whether it's because the sub-50Hz material that's more prone to make the woofer flap is removed. Even if you're not placing the speaker close to the wall, it's well worth experimenting with the plugs as a general tuning device. They make a pretty radical change in how the speaker sounds, and it's impossible to predict what might sound better to your ears in your room.
Related to this issue is how much amplifier you really need to drive this speaker with. The little AMC 3020 amp is only rated at 20Wpc into 8 ohms, but it's the type of integrated amp that delivers considerably more power into the 4-ohm load of the Audience 40 -- 42 watts peak, in fact. Having just gotten a feel for how much bass I could coax out of the speaker with essentially unlimited power, I discovered that even the AMC integrated was almost sufficient to hit the maximum output the speaker was capable of, if you are playing back full-range music and are using the system without the port plugs. If the music you listen to has a lot of low-frequency content, you might discover that using a bigger amplifier doesn't really make this Dynaudio speaker play all that much louder. But if you relieve the speaker of the deep bass load, either with the ports or perhaps an electronic crossover like many home-theater products have, its useful power handling is extremely high, especially considering the small size of the woofer.
By no means do I mean to suggest that any old low-power amp will suffice for the Audience 40. In particular, its impedance will prevent this. My Rotel RB-956AX amplifier was happily driving five Genesis speakers in my home listening room; two APM-1s and three 750s, all 8 ohms. Connecting this same amp, which I've had issues with driving 4-ohm speakers in the past, to the Audience 40s was a disaster. The low frequencies were thin, the highs abrasive. The combination made for a wretched listening experience. While the power requirements of this smallest Dynaudio speaker aren't immense, you definitely want to use a high-quality amplifier that doesn't hesitate to push around 4-ohm drivers.
I've always been a floorstanding-speaker kind of guy. When dealing with speakers in the sub-$1000 market, where this generally isn't an option, I tend to pick designs that are as full-range as possible while keeping the overall sensitivity high. But I have to admit the Audience 40 makes a seductive case for the virtues of a compact design, joining an exclusive list of speakers that transcend the flaws that inevitably go hand in hand with shrinking the enclosure and/or drivers. Other speakers in that class that strike my fancy in a similar fashion include the Totem Model One and Merlin TSM, designs selling for twice and three times what the Audience 40 does, respectively. And those comparisons reflect where I really think this entry-level Dynaudio fits in the market.
If you're looking to build a typical $1400 system with the usual sort of relative allocation, where 50% goes toward speakers, it's unlikely that will work out well with this model. The requirement for an amp with a reasonable output into 4 ohms, while simultaneously sounding good under the magnifying glass of the Audience 40's tweeter, is likely to bust that budget. It is possible, as my results with the exceptional AMC 3020 suggest. But I think this speaker would be much happier in the home of a high-end buyer who ultimately plans on spending $3000 or more on their system, but has space or money constraints that prevent buying the ultimate speaker for that end result quite yet. You may be surprised at how little you'd be missing out, because the Dynaudio Audience 40 doesn't make a whole lot of compromises despite its relatively low cost.
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