November 12, 2014
Buying speakers can be an absolute nightmare, especially if you’re on a budget. People might tell you that you’ll need to break the bank to get the best from your record collection but Paul Rigby thinks otherwise. Having explored the pricier compact speaker earlier this year, here’s our pick of the 8 best budget speakers that will still make your vinyl sound fantastic.
Words: Paul Rigby
One of the fashionable flavours within the rapidly developing download and digital cultures is the high definition label HD pinched, rather sneakily, from the AV industry, where HD TVs are the de rigeur these days. Most recently, for example, you are seeing talk of HD music streaming from a variety of services and associated hardware.
For analogue fans, the notion of HD is pretty old hat. Vinyl was ‘HD’ when it was invented in the ’50s. Actually, manufacturers of vinyl-based turntables freely admit that they have yet to thoroughly mine the analogue seam of sound quality. They know that there is still, remarkably, plenty to come. This means that analogue ‘chains’ (the name given to a hi-fi system), are still finding new methods to produce better sound quality from the humble deck. But it’s not just vinyl manufacturers who are constantly being surprised in this way. That other ‘old fashioned’ hi-fi component, the speaker, is also under constant evolution. Often pushed by the vinyl front-end, speaker technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the past ten years, integrating new technologies and manufacturing methods. This means that even the smaller and/or cheaper speaker variants are now capable of producing that famed HD sound quality that all analogue fans enjoy.
Budget speakers are no longer associated with limited sonic abilities. Once aligned with scratchy sound and ear piercing high notes, the budget speaker now offers a maturity and smoothness that would, frankly, amaze any audiophile from the ’70s, for example.
What follows are the top budget speakers for vinyl fans. Do you already own a pair of the following? Tell us about it and why you chose them. Looking to buy a pair of budget loudspeakers not on this list? Write in and tell us why. Looking for speaker advice? We are here to help.
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ROTH OLI RA2
Gordon Bennett! A decent pair of hi-fi speakers for £150? Look around and you can find them even cheaper! Roth is no joke brand, either. They produce top quality stuff. I use a pair of their powered speakers (resplendent with USB sockets et al) for portable digital use. Built to a high standard the RA2s, remarkably, can be described as having a mature, even ‘refined’ sound. In fact, these speakers a quite addictive, in a fun way. They compare very well to more expensive models.
ACOUSTIC ENERGY 101S
One of the recent stars of the low cost speaker design and a company that has put real thought – often with some surprising yet subtle innovations – into its budget designs. In fact, this low cost model borrows a lot of technology from its more expensive brothers. Those drive units you can see here being two examples. In fact, they sound like big speakers but just scaled down a bit and retaining a clean, crisp presentation.
WHARFEDALE DIAMOND 122
The terms ‘low cost’ and ‘value’ have always been associated with the Wharfedale brand. For many enthusiasts, their first ‘proper’ pair of speakers were Wharfedales: me included (Sheltons, in my case). Buying a pair of Wharfedale speakers is a bit like buying a Hoover vacuum cleaner or reading a feature by Paul Rigby. It’s a sign of quality and reliability. Featuring a Kevlar mid/bass unit (yes, the stuff they use for bullet-proof vests) it also has a downward firing bass port to enhance low frequencies. Where? Just inside that tiny gap at the bottom of the chassis.
JBL STUDIO 230
US-based, these diminutive speakers have a typical American sound, offering big and bold presentation. Notice the ‘horn’ enclosure on the tweeter that, says JBL improves the imaging. Anyone who loves rock will use these babies with a fat grin stuck on their face. It doesn’t seem to matter what sort or size room you put them in either, the JBLs seem to fill the room easily. The sound is high, wide and compelling.
CAMBRIDGE AUDIO AERO 2
The principle oddity about this budget design is the tweeter at the top of the chassis. Notice how flat it is compared to the usual domed units you normally see. This thing is a BMR or Balanced Mode Radiator. It’s useful for two reasons. Firstly, it takes over a lot of the midrange duties so the cone at the bottom of the speaker concentrates more upon bass and the tweeter is not as position sensitive as most, so it’ll sound just as good if you sitting off-centre. That ‘sweet spot’ is wider, in other words.
Q ACOUSTICS CONCEPT 20
Like other budget speakers from other companies, the Concept 20 uses drive units from a more expensive model. It’s a little weird in construction because the speaker has a chassis ‘box’ which is then installed into another, outer ‘box’ with a gel in between called Gelcore to dampen nasty resonances and improve sound. A useful upgrade is a pair of the company’s own Concept 20 stands (£200) which improves the sound still further.
WHARFEDALE DENTON 80TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION/ORIGINAL EDITION
Bit naughty, I know, to include the company twice but there is a reason and it’s the reappearance of a classic design, the Denton. The 80 years refers to the age of the company but the speaker itself first appeared in 1967 and was one of the company’s best selling models. In fact, there’s quite a few of the originals still in use and that’s another reason for including it because you can find this classic design on eBay for around £40…less, if you are lucky. It’s still an ideal budget speaker for any hi-fi.
Six hundred quid? Budget? Really? Well, in the long run, yes because these speakers are, well, not just speakers. What you get here is a pair of speakers, an amplifier built in, which means that there’s no need for cables between the two or a pre-amp, saving more cash. You also get a DAC for digital file play. It’s a mini hi-fi on its own. Get yourself a £50 Pro-ject Phono Box phono amp from Amazon, plug your turntable into it, the Pro-Ject into the Quads and you’ve got a complete, quality hi-fi system for not very much.
Aside from his ongoing technology column for The Vinyl Factory, you can read more of Paul Rigby’s scribblings at The Audiophile Man.