November 2000Silverline Audio SR15 Loudspeakers
by Todd Warnke
There is one reason that both audiophiles and music lovers alike return to the minimonitor. Despite the typical drawbacks -- lack of low-frequency extension, compressed dynamics, and relative inefficiency being the common catcalls -- when used in a sympathetic system, minimonitors can be stunningly intimate. Nothing reminded me of this as startlingly as the first time I placed the Silverline SR15 speakers in my main system. When these little guys opened up and delivered a sonic holograph of bass, drums, trumpet, and a couple of saxes, it was as if the recording/playback tap dance -- musicians, room, mic, recording console, master tape, mixing board, mix master, pressing plant, source, preamp, amp, speakers, room, miles of wire and the influence of the power company -- had been replaced with a simple two-step: musicians and my room.
Sure, I know each speaker topology has its strengths. Electrostat fanatics offer the clear claim that their speakers give an unmatched see-through vision. And theyre right. The BigBoxBoys climb on their empty shipping crates and decree that you aint heard the real thing until youve heard your room load up with 20-cycle bass. And theyre right. And the horn-obsessed will grab a nearby megaphone and shout that no other speaker design comes even close to the dynamics of the real thing. And theyre right. But with all the gear Ive heard in my room, at friends places, and at the audio circuses, no stat, big box or horn has ever been able to re-create the pure intimacy of a well-designed minimonitor.
But let me tell you a ghost story. The first time I heard the SR15 in my system was late at night. I moved the Merlin VSM-SE speakers to the back office and dropped the SR15s in their place. I dropped Kind of Blue [Columbia/Legacy CK 64935] in the transport and went to the kitchen to brew a cup of tea. Coming back and turning down the lights, I was scared out of what few wits I have, because there was Miles playing the Ghost of Musicians Past to my Scrooge. To heighten the illusion, he brought along fellow spirits John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Cannonball Adderley, as well Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Normally the eight of us would have a problem sitting in the living room, but these ghosts had also arranged to momentarily renovate the house. They occupied a stage about 15 feet wide and 12 feet deep, in the space normally taken up by the master bedroom. After a 45-minute, very intimate, very private concert, these shades quickly packed their gear, replaced the wall between the living room and bedroom, and left. What didnt leave was the intimate feel of having shared a real musical event.
Flowery description? Poetic license? Maybe, but my first session with these little Silverline speakers felt exactly as I just described. And each succeeding time I dropped Miles, Joni, the Cowboy Junkies, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Hank Mobley, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Vermeer Quartet or Keith Jarrett into the transport, the same sensations returned. And while Im not here to proclaim the laws of physics torn asunder and that the SR15 is a Wilson MAXX in a cubic foot, I can say that I was almost as shocked at how well these babies did the big stuff as I was at how well they conjured up Miles.
But before we lose all semblance of typical review narrative, lets back up and start over.
A box, a room, and a stereo
The Silverline SR15 loudspeakers are 13" tall by 8" wide and 12" deep. They come in birdseye-maple, rosewood, or piano-black finishes and weigh 20 pounds a piece. The review samples I had, in rosewood, were absolutely beautiful. Confessing what I probably ought not to, on occasion I found myself running a hand over them just to feel the superb finish work. The drivers are a 1" soft-dome tweeter, sourced from LPG, and a 6" woofer from SEAS -- the same drivers used in more costly Silverline models. The SR15 has a 2.5" rear-facing port to augment the bass. The crossover, kicking in at 2.7k, is a first-order design and allows for bi-wiring, a configuration I used throughout the review. Silverline claims 40Hz-25kHz frequency response, 8-ohm impedance, and 90dB efficiency for the SR15s.
Setup was fairly straightforward. I placed the speakers atop 24" lead-shot-and-sand-filled stands, and after a couple of days' trial, I ended up with the speakers spread almost exactly eight feet apart and the front of the speakers about 42" from the wall. I sat right about nine feet back from the plane of the speakers. Toe-in was moderate, the speakers pointed to cross about two feet behind my head. I found that tilting the speakers back just slightly resulted in tighter driver integration and smoother tonal balance.
As for the associated gear, I used both my reference system -- JVC 1050 CD player as transport, Dodson DA-217 Mk II DAC, LAMM LL2 preamp, Blue Circle BC6 amp, interconnects from Cardas and Audio Magic, speaker cables from Cardas -- and a more modest setup that I thought would be a closer match for the way these Silverlines would be used in the real world. So the SR15s also spent a lot of time partnered with an Assemblage ST40 amp, Assemblage DAC 2.0 (upgraded and with the HDCD attenuation defeated), and Analysis Plus Silver Oval speaker cables.
For a minimonitor to work -- hell, for any audio component to work -- it has to get the mids right, and Im happy to report that the midrange character of the SR15 was exemplary. Clear with no muddying of instruments or textures, clean without any overhang or artificial sweetening, the SR15s were also very detailed. Lest you think this means clinical, the SR15s excelled at not just the outlines of instruments, but also their body, depth, and warmth. For example, acoustic guitar held snap, string, and sustain in perfect balance, while vocals, female especially, were exquisitely textured.
Moving up the scale, cymbals hung in the air with crystalline clarity, being neither reticent nor hashy. The soft-dome tweeter was wonderfully detailed, while, thankfully, remaining free of resonance and grit. On the bottom end, bass was tight and well defined, although full volumes tended to cause just the slightest amount of breakup. Bass extension was very even with no obvious bumps, and reached down with complete authority. Since Ive gotten extremely tired of the Kate Moss, edge-accented but texture-thin, haute-fidelity minimonitor, as well as its opposite number, the Queen inspired, "fat-bottomed girls," bass-bumped mini, the tonal even-handedness of the SR15s was a welcome state of affairs.
Dynamically the little SR15s spoke with perfect clarity in the microdynamic range. Much like a quality tube amp, these little guys have that rare and magical ability to breathe. Also, like a great many tube amps, the SR15 found itself slightly restricted on large swings, and in a tubelike way. Rather than racing effortlessly from whisper to scream, when pushed the Silverlines slowly rounded off the peaks. For perspective, I know of very few speakers that get this right. Actually, I dont know of a single speaker that gets it exactly right, so this criticism can fairly be leveled at every speaker. But by focusing on low- and mid-level dynamics, the SR15 takes advantage of what it does well, and by rounding the full-scale blasts, it minimizes what the Laws of Physics decree it cannot do. The combination is quite pleasing, if short of perfection, and if youre looking for perfection at $1800 a pair, its time to go back to Consumer Reports for your audio reviews.
Two skills that any quality minimonitor must have are the ability to stage and disappear. And these the SR15 does superbly. Width and depth were drawn with near-architectural skill. Even height, a rare ability, was well rendered. And, with a rock-solid stage, the speakers simply failed to draw any attention as a sound source. The only criticism I can offer is that the players on the stage, most especially with large-scale forces, were less than life-sized. Since few minimonitors can pull this off, and the ones that can are many multiples of the SR15s' price, this is a situation I can live with.
An area of particular skill, and one that is somewhat controversial among audiogeeks, as least American ones, is pace, rhythm and timing, or PRAT, as the British inventors of the idea call it. While not quite as quick off the note as a classic Brit-box, a significant part of what gives the SR15 such an enjoyable presentation is that it keeps the beat. Many minimonitors over-reach their drivers, and in trying to offer the illusion of deep bass, they end up muddying the midbass. The ponderous result is impressive with a few recordings, but wrong for real music. Other minis fail to reach deep enough into the bass to even register on the PRAT scale at all. The SR15 goes both deep enough to give us the rhythm section, and gets on and off the notes with graceful balance. I found that this meant the even bass-heavy and full-scale music had a satisfying sound. Like I said earlier, the SR15 could not quite reach deep enough to conjure up the full specter of Bill Laswell with his one-off project, "Blind Light" (The Absence of Time [Alda 001]), but it was able to communicate the timing, feel and imagination of Laswell, and in doing so it communicated the more important parts of this album -- as well as nearly every other album I played.
The whole picture
So far I see that Ive portrayed the SR15 accurately, but Ive also picked the SR15 apart, and mostly by nits. That is doing the speakers a great disservice, as the totality of these speakers is not reached via a standard audiogeek laundry list of sonic parameters. All speakers are compromises, much less those that cost less than two grand. The wonder of the SR15 is how canny their compromises are. They reportedly reach down to the lower 40s, and perhaps could have been designed to go lower, but not without sacrificing tonal clarity. Rather than reaching for full crescendos, they concentrate on the microdynamic and midrange swings, where most of the action is. They stage wonderfully, but without the hyper edge definition that characterizes audio speakers -- as opposed to musical ones. They are detailed, but without harshness, and they have superb timing. The combination of these ingredients results in a balanced, satisfying musical meal. Perhaps if the SR15s had been designed with less of this balance and more with an eye to a particular skill, they would stand out, but they would also be less of a speaker. In the end, without drawing attention to themselves or any particular sonic area, the SR15s simply get out of the way and allow music to happen.
Comparing the SR15 to my Merlin VSM-SEs with Battery BAM, which sell for just shy of four times the price of the little Silverlines, is patently unfair. So I wont. But comparing it to the Totem Arro I reviewed a while back, with a retail of $1100 per pair, is fair, so I will.
Even though its a floorstander, the Arro is a smaller speaker than the Silverline. Even with a much smaller woofer -- actually, at 4" its mid-driver filling the role of a woofer -- when placed very near the rear wall, the Arro goes almost as deep as the SR15. And it images as well, while doing a very surprising job on the dynamics, often sounding like it can turn larger swings than the Silverline. In all, the Arro is a beautiful and graceful speaker. On the debit side, it does have a slightly dark and overly rich tonal balance that can obscure detail and texture. And compared to the SR15, it has less of a sure sense of rhythm. Finally, it is very power hungry. Ive seen measurements that indicate sensitivity in the low 80s, and I believe it. To get the most out of the Totem Arro, you need a bunch of power. On the other hand, the Silverline, with its impedance of 8 ohms and claimed 90dB sensitivity, should be an easy load for any amp, up to and including the more powerful single-ended triodes.
To my ears, the SR15 is worth the $700 premium over the Arros, especially if you have a medium or large room and/or a low- to moderately powered amp, solid-state or tubed. Of course, $700 is significant, and with the Silverlines you will also need to buy stands, bringing the price to close to two times that of the Arro. In a sub-$5000 system, this would probably make the Arro a better choice as you always need to start with a quality source and electronics. But over that range, and way beyond it, the SR15 is the real deal.
Its a balance thing
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the SR15s. They are self-effacing, almost to a fault. And they are well balanced, again, almost to a fault. They are warm, yet detailed; powerful, but fleet; beautiful in and of themselves, yet transparent to the source. Give them a high-quality signal, pick just about any amp on the market to drive them with, and prepare to get very intimate with them. If you like music, you will have started a very long-term relationship.
Copyright © 2000 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved