November 2004Dynaudio Contour S1.4 Loudspeakers
by David Millman
However, for whatever reason, it took me until this review to get a pair of Dynaudio loudspeakers into my own rig. And oddly enough, "taking time" would become the theme of this review. The Aesops fable of the tortoise and the hare proved to be quite apt: I was only able to "win" this review by letting it run at its own steady pace.
A little history
Dynaudio was formed in 1977, and, interestingly, the original speaker designs featured OEM drivers matched to Dynaudio's own crossovers. However, according to co-founder and sole owner Wilfried Ehrenholz, Dynaudio soon realized that it would never reach its goals until it started manufacturing its own drivers. Once that happened, the company began its tradition of innovation, which is currently evident in everything from the entry-level Audience 42 bookshelf speaker to the statement-level Evidence Master.
Sitting between these extremes is the Contour line, which features three bookshelf speakers (including the much-heralded Special 25 anniversary edition), three floorstanders, two subs and two center-channel speakers. Much of the development work that went into the Evidence speakers is offered in the Contour products, which makes them an exciting opportunity to experience truly high-end Dynaudio performance at relatively affordable price points.
The speaker under the microscope here is the Contour S1.4 ($2800 USD per pair), a sophisticated two-way design. The S1.4s arrived well packed, though nothing on the outside prepared me for the stunning beauty of the speakers' rosewood veneer. This is clearly of furniture grade, with a luxurious, soft touch. The magnetically attached grille covers most of the front baffle, which is quite striking due to a shield-like 5mm high-mass metal plate that encompasses both drivers. This is said to "guarantee perfect heat dissipation and a stable operating temperature for the drivers." Each speaker weighs almost 28 pounds and features a single pair of WBT binding posts. The posts accept only spades and 4mm banana plugs, and are attached at the bottom of the speaker to a short sealed chamber that holds the crossover. The only other feature on the rear panel is a large port, which sits about two-thirds of the way down.
According to the spec sheet, the Contour S1.4's rated sensitivity is 86dB (2.83v at 1m). Nominal impedance is 4 ohms, dipping just under at times. The frequency response is given as 41Hz-25kHz, with the crossover set at 1900Hz and said to be impedance-corrected. Recommended power is given in three increments, depending on the size of your room: 30 watts or greater are said to be OK for small rooms, 80 watts or greater for medium-size rooms, and a blank check for larger rooms. Given the moderate sensitivity and my overall experience with the Contour S1.4s, I'd vote for more powerful amplification.
The 1 1/4" tweeter is a new version of the renowned Esotec and has a 0.5mm machined-aluminum front with a pure-aluminum-wire voice coil. It sits below the 7" woofer, which uses a molded MSP polypropylene cone and a 3" long-throw pure-aluminum-wire voice coil wound on a Kapton Neodymium magnet ring. The cabinet is constructed of 3/4" MDF with internal MDF bracing and bituminous damping panels.
After installing the Contour S1.4s, I was eager to do some listening. Sonic images of Dynaudio speakers danced in my head, particularly the aforementioned Special 25 minimonitors I'd heard at the 2003 Stereophile show in San Francisco.
For the record, my current system consists of a Pioneer DVD-434 DVD player (with ModWright Level II mods) feeding a Perpetual Technologies P-3A DAC (with ModWright Level II mods), connected to either a ModWright tube preamp and a PS Audio HCA-2 power amp (again with ModWright mods) or a Musical Fidelity A3 integrated amp. All cabling is by Jena Labs, except Mapleshade Clearview speaker cables. I have a PS Audio Extreme Plus power cord on the PS Audio amp, and Acoustic Zen El Niño power cords on the preamp and transport. The DAC is connected to a special Bolder Cable Company power supply that has Bolder cables on both ends. Speakers for comparison were Vandersteen Model 1Cs.
Dynaudio kindly supplied the S1.4s with Stand2 speaker stands, a two-column design with a double-plate top that costs $450 per pair.
Understanding the Contour S1.4s
Some audio products announce their virtues and limitations quickly and clearly, letting you decide whether or not the change is to your liking. But right off the bat, the Contour S1.4s made it obvious that I was going to have to work to understand them.
Starting gently, I put on the Jimmy Rowles/Ray Brown duet album As Good As It Gets (packaged by Concord as The Duo Sessions [CCD2-4938-2]). Nothing fancy here, just two wonderful musicians enjoying studio time together. Rowles' barrel-house piano playing and Brown's knowing bass accompaniment make for a record of seductive fun. Taking on a classic like "Alone Together," the Dynaudios revealed a first bit of personality in the form of a slightly dark view of the musical spectrum, defined by voluminous bass energy and a relaxed top end. This isn't to say that the Contour S1.4s are grossly colored, but the overall fullness and utter lack of treble etch skewed my impression.
One downside of this slightly darker tonality is that low-level listening often came across as dull and uninspired. Virgin's terrific reissue of David Sylvian's landmark Secrets of the Beehive [Caroline 91310] never achieved its familiar liftoff without ample volume. Given the clarity of the recording, the thoughtful soundstage and engaging dynamics, I've never needed to lean on the gain when playing Secrets of the Beehive, but not doing so with the S1.4s led to an overly polite presentation.
At this point, I got the bright idea to head in completely the other direction. Thanks to the Jack Black film School of Rock, my young son is an AC/DC convert, so I recently picked up the Sony/Legacy reissue of the Australian band's early-career classic High Voltage [Sony/Legacy 80201]. Subtle it ain't, but that primal four-four riff-metal is about all anyone needs to rock out. And, with sizeable volume, the Dynaudios could indeed rock. But here's where another bit of personality revealed itself. There was a certain boxiness to the Contour S1.4s that I couldn't shake. I was clearly aware that these smallish two-ways consist of two drivers placed inside a box with 90-degree angles. The much-treasured disappearing act was not to be.
Next on my listening plan was the Tomasz Stanko Quartet's lovely release Suspended Night [ECM 1868]. This is gorgeous stuff -- sweet, beautiful, searching, impeccably rendered and astutely recorded. Suspended Night is simply wonderful in that late-night Chet Baker/Miles Davis way. Manfred Eichner's production infuses the record with his signature ECM cool, a pure but slightly detached view that adds to the haunting quality that pervades the record. The Dynaudios maintained a consistent detachment of their own. Without a doubt, I like audio gear, that makes me jump, that grabs me and says, "I am going to make you listen all night long." This is not the same as an exaggerated or overly forward presentation. One would (and I would) tire quickly of that. No, this is that special quality that we all know when we hear it.
And for the first 200 hours, the Dynaudios didn't have the "it" I crave. Instead, it was that "cool," an icy "cool," that habitually left me feeling like my joy was dulled around the edges. Were the Dynaudios perhaps more of a monitor than I was used to? Or were they perhaps more accurate than I could adapt to? What kind of audiophile would that make me?
I still had the Audio Magic Stealth Kukama DAC that I had reviewed, so I swapped it into my system. The difference was immediate and precise, and exactly as I had described it in my review. The same recordings suddenly had more bloom and life. Swapping around my power cords, I noticed similar differences with each change. For example, the Musical Fidelity A3 integrated, which has a lightweight presentation, was obviously lightweight (the A3 is rated at 85Wpc, which seemed on the shy side; the PS Audio HCA-2, at 150Wpc was far more commanding). Changing a PS Audio Extreme Plus Power Cord for an Acoustic Zen El Niño cord gave me obvious control (a PS Audio strength), but less of the romance I associate with Acoustic Zen. Chalk one up for accuracy, which I appreciate as a reviewer but couldn't bring myself to get excited about.
So I stopped trying to get excited. In fact, I simply stopped listening, right in the middle of the review process. Surprised by my experience but dismayed by the lack of progress I was making, I swapped my Vandersteen 1C speakers in and got my groove back on. Immediately, I was enjoying music again. Song after song was freer, less constricted, with more bloom and surprisingly more air up top.
Perhaps the Dynaudios had aspirations of their own, and perhaps I found their limits before their successes. Looking at the speakers every day, looking at the incredible cabinetry, I finally became curious again. How could I be so nonplussed by this product? So, after nearly two months of stasis, I reconnected the Dynaudios and put on another 50 hours of playing to get them loosened up again. I played all kinds of music for eight hours a day, bringing my total hours up to well over the 300 mark (and there were perhaps more logged -- I believe the speakers I had were used for promotional purposes by the company before coming to me).
After this extra playing, one of the first records I put on was the remastered edition of Miles Davis' legendary Kind of Blue [Columbia/Legacy CK 64935]. Obvious yes, but I find it to be a great reference point for me. My notes indicate my surprise at the Dynaudios, "Wow, the sound is clearly better. Less boxy, less square, a little more vibrant." "So What," one of the great album openers of all-time, began its sultry swing with more purpose and sense of vivacity than I remembered.
At this point, I sensed that I was getting somewhere. To make sure that I was still properly calibrated to where my ears had been a few months earlier, I ran back to Tomasz Stanko's Suspended Night. Song after song spoke to me with more energy and excitement than I had previously achieved. And this held true no matter what CDs I put on, even at lesser volumes. The Contour S1.4s still sounded rich, even a touch dark, but their weight and warmth were coupled with detail and vitality. Was I hearing the effects of greater break-in? I can't say for sure, but I can say that the Contour S1.4s began to move me, which led to more time with them, time that I enjoyed.
I had been exploring the Washington D.C.-based Thievery Corporation, which has released a series of excellent compilations and original works. The band also runs its own record label, Eighteenth Street Lounge Music, which in turn is home to like-minded DJs from around the world. One such group is the Karminsky Experience, a London-based duo that recently released the excellent Power of Suggestion [Eighteenth Street Lounge Music ESL066]. The first track, "Departures," is a sweeping, romantic instrumental travelogue, literally beginning amidst airport-terminal samples and then taking off in a free-flight of jazzy chill. The key is the tightly played and very crisply recorded vibes that guide the cut. Well-recorded vibes are an interesting test for speakers, especially when set above a steady groove. There is a lot of treble energy that pours out, with complex overtones, but there is also a special floating quality that vibes can achieve in a well-matched system. Finally, after so much time invested, I got liftoff from the S1.4s. There was more than just clarity and precision -- there was some real life happening.
I jumped over to another grooving track that I've come to favor, "Hey Jack (Afterlife's Remix)" by Howie B., from the Quango label's Dream Therapy compilation [Quango 5015] . A beautiful, simple guitar line opens the track, before the ethereal sonic washes and subterranean bass kicks in. As with the Karminsky Experience, I could now feel the music via the Contour S1.4s.
For most of my time with the Dynaudios, I was able to go A/B against my trusty Vandersteen 1Cs. I understand that some might cry "foul" of the comparison: a $785 floorstander versus a $2800 minimonitor. But in my real world, that's what I had on hand, and frankly the Contour S1.4s represent an aspirational consideration, a chance to evaluate a product that I would certainly consider as an upgrade.
I want to say it up front: I've had the Vandersteens for nine years, and although I've felt the audiophile upgrade itch on numerous occasions, I've never scratched it. The 1Cs absolutely define the word "bargain," and although one can find speakers that might handle a particular kind of music better, and one can certainly find speakers that are more attractive, I've always been hard-pressed to find speakers that allow me to enjoy virtually everything I throw at them, which the 1Cs do with detail and musicality.
Switching back and forth between the Dynaudios and the Vandersteens, I was immediately struck by the presence that returned to the music every time I hooked up the Vandersteens. Stanko's trumpet, for instance, took on added body and depth, and, most important, more soul as well. The "cool" was still there, but also an emotional insight that had been missing. In the rock idiom, guitars, such as AC/DC axeman Angus Young's boyish power-chord mania felt more vibrant, more plugged in with the Vandersteens.
One aspect of this may indeed be due to the different tweeters. Though the Dynaudios claim greater frequency extension, to my ears the Vandersteens seemed to reach more, adding air and a light touch that helped to bring out the excitement within the music. And, of course, Richard Vandersteen's baffleless speaker designs, which float the time-aligned driver array in a structured "sock" rather than the more conventional form, are almost by definition incapable of the boxiness that seemed to hinder my listening through the Contour S1.4s.
Perhaps the greatest difference is that with the Vandersteens, I was simply able to let go and ride with the music. I wasn't thinking about what might develop, or what aspects were impressive, but how much I was enjoying what I was hearing.
I love you, but am I in love with you?
What does all this mean? It means that the Dynaudio Contour S1.4s present quite a challenge, a commitment to exploring what they can do for you, if you have the time to invest in breaking them in properly and also matching your gear precisely. In the right circumstances, you will enjoy a gorgeous pair of forceful, detailed, warm speakers. In the wrong company, you'll wonder why you spent $2800. I realize this isn't an over-the-top recommendation to "forget your mortgage and buy these speakers now." However, that wasn't my experience with the Contour S1.4s, and I don't think the Dynaudio engineers were trying to achieve something quite that simple, quite so fast. On the other hand, it occurs to me that the S1.4s might be a "tweener" product, something that successfully draws on winning aspects of other speakers in the family, but doesn't quite hit the homerun that those products do. In that way it reminds me of my own Musical Fidelity A3 integrated amp, which never quite measured up to what so many other Musical Fidelity pieces have accomplished, both higher and lower in price.
One way or the other, spend some time with Dynaudio speakers. There is a long history of innovation and craft behind each offering, and in many cases there will be something special for your audio system, too.
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