I've had the pleasure of owning a pair of Swans' new 5.2 speakers for about two and a half months now, since mid March, so I thought it was high time I honored my promise to Jon Lane to post an online review. I'm still waiting for the new 5.2C center speaker to come out; when it does I'll be getting one of the first shipment and posting a review of its performance with the mains at that time.
To be clear, these are the new 5.2F (referred to as the "Swans Classic Series" in the HiVi brochure and web site) purchased from theaudioinsider.com (http://www.theaudioinsider.com/cgi-b...der/SW5.2.html), and not the popular Swans Diva 5.1 which were for a short time called "5.2" in the United States. Upon the introduction of these entirely new 5.2s, the temporarily renamed Divas went back to being called 5.1s. (Those are still available from newegg.com for outrageously cheap prices.)
This review will be entirely subjective, filled with interesting adjectives and a variety of entirely personal opinions, but conspicuously devoid of fascinating charts, graphs, high-tech test results and meticulously documented scientific measurements. If my opinions and listening impressions don't mean jack to you without the support of these types of data (or if you're the type that believes a person's listening impressions are utterly worthless without a DIRECT SIDE-BY-SIDE CAREFULLY CONTROLLED DOUBLE BLIND A/B COMPARISON), I suggest you quit reading now and wait for the professional reviews to come out. Those guys have such cool jobs don't they?
In a Nutshell
This review is rather verbose (there's an understatement) so if you'd just like the quick & dirty up front, here goes:
In a word, I love the speakers and I highly recommend them. They're extremely listenable and non-fatiguing, detailed with sweet mids and highs. They're extremely natural sounding, quite neutral to my ear or slightly on the laid-back side of neutral, with a nice big soundstage and excellent imaging. My engineering partner and I are both very impressed with them. We both feel they are serious quality speakers, definitely a great value for the retail price of $999. They're also very versatile, meaning that they sound fantastic with a wide range of source material from music (old and new rock, pop, '80s, funk, acoustic, classical, jazz, folk, electronic, you name it) to home theater. They also look amazing. On the downside, I strongly dislike the binding post design (in fact I think it's retarded). They're not bi-ampable as they feature a single set of smallish binding posts, mounted in a highly inconvenient shallow recess under the bottom of the speakers. I really think unfortunately Jon will lose some sales due to this design. Another potential concern is that while they're not the most demanding or inefficient speakers ever and they do sound really good with my mid-level Onkyo TX-SR702 100 watt/chan. receiver, they really do want and deserve quality amplification to bring out their true potential. But put a good amp on these babies (just one, as I said, can't bi-amp) and they're magic.
A bit of background about me (This part's boring, skip it unless you really want to know why I think I have ears )
I'm a working professional audio engineer, or more accurately a "mixologist." I've been doing studio recording for almost 20 years and live sound off and on for almost as long, and full-time for 5 or 6 years now, mostly for very high end bands and orchestras for weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, private parties & events, etc. These are not "The Wedding Singer" type bands (much as I'm a fan of Adam Sandler). These bands are the real deal and a blast to work with. They regularly do high profile corporate events, including several governors' inaugural balls. The band I work with full time recently opened for Elton John at his pre-Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. The members are/were members of major acts and have toured with EVERYone, including Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang, Teddy Pendergrass, Patty LaBelle, the Emeril Live show, and many more. I also do live 24-track digital recording, having worked for many years in small recording studios plus owning my own gear. I know quite a few guys in the business who can reel off specs and model numbers while rewiring the space shuttle for you (which trust me, I can't do) but I know VERY few people who can put a mix together like I can. I'm one of only two engineers trusted to mix the showcases for two of the biggest private event orchestra management companies in the entire northeastern US region (and the other engineer is my business partner Mike.) For examples of my work please feel free to visit my web site at www.popularsoundproductions.com and check out the sound samples. Oh and I'm 37 and have been singing and playing keyboard (often professionally) since I was 4 and producing music since not long after that. I attended Temple University's Esther Boyer College of Music, where I majored in music education with a jazz/commercial voice performance emphasis.
I also enjoy skiing, fine coffees, and long walks on the beach.
The Swans arrive
As I did with my SVS SBS-01s and my Ascend CBM-170SEs, I had the Swans delivered to my engineering partner Mike's home so we could evaluate them together and so I could hear them first on his Rotel equipment. Mike is an excellent engineer who's been in the live sound reinforcement business for over 20 years and I respect his opinions hugely. I figured (aside from break-in and acoustic room treatments) the Swans may never sound better than in his house on his gear.
The shipping boxes are HUGE!! The speakers stand about 46.5" tall so you can imagine the boxes almost looked like refrigerator boxes. They were very securely double boxed with hard foam all around the inner box. When we finally got down to the actual speakers, they were enclosed in soft white cotton bags to protect the finish. Mike got a great laugh from the included white cotton gloves, which of course are to protect the finish from fingerprints while handling the speakers, but unfortunately they also make them slippery and extremely difficult to handle. After a few minutes trying to handle the speakers with them on (and unsuccessfully trying to convince Mike to wear a pair too while he laughed at me), I gave up and took them off.
The speakers are GORGEOUS. The color is more brownish/orange as you'll see in the included pictures (assuming I can figure out how to post them), and definitely not the strong reddish color shown on theaudioinsider.com. The black piano glossy top and bottom caps are beautiful, and I'm no furniture expert but the veneer finish on the rosewood side panels looks excellent to me. Quite a few guests have complimented their beauty and even my wacko speaker-hating mother doesn't seem to mind them at all (once she got used to their size). That's saying something; she HATED my black ash B&W DM602 S2s and they were about half the size of these.
The feet on mine are brass I think and not spikes as shown on the site, but more like flattish round feet with rubber pads stuck on them. I would like the feet with the rubber better than spikes for hard floors or flat carpeting, but I did find the rubber pads tended to come off if I moved the speakers around on the carpet. Also they're very short, maybe 1/4", and the bottoms of the speakers pretty much sit right in your carpet if you have carpets with any thickness at all. (This is a problem due to the bottom location of the binding posts; more on this in a minute). Jon Lane says he believes I got the wrong feet with mine so I'm currently waiting for him to send me a set of the proper spiked ones when they come in stock.
Now here's my least favorite part. The bottoms of the speakers have recessed middles where the single metal (I think gold-plated or at least brass) binding posts are located. I am NOT a fan of this design choice. The binding posts are OK but definitely not the hefty things found on many good speakers like Mike's B&Ws or Dalis (comparisons later). I actually had quite a bit of trouble getting the included HiVi 12 gauge bare wire ends into the holes in the posts without the wires getting all separated. I had no trouble slipping the bare wires into the big-a$$ posts on Mike's Rotel amp. Mike's speaker wires are 12 gauge Monster, but when we switched to the Swans we used the nice HiVi 12 gauge wire that came included with the speakers. This is serious wire -- we had trouble even separating the ends of the zip cord to strip it.
Later when I brought the Swans home I tried using banana posts and then skinny pin-type connectors with them, but no luck. As far as I can tell there's no type of connector that can be used with this bottom-mounted design. The recess is very shallow and the posts are mounted at a weird, shallow angle, so if you tried using any kind of connectors, they'd actually touch (or in the case of thick carpet like mine, be crushed into) the floor below. I'll try to post pictures of this arrangement. My solution to the problem was to attach short jumper cables to the binding posts, say 2 feet long, and I attached the pin connectors that I'd bought to the ends of those jumpers. These connectors have holes in the screw-down tops so you can stack them with banana plugs. I covered the exposed pins with electrical tape then used dual banana plugs on the wires from the amp so now I can connect them to the jumpers or remove them at will to move the speakers around or change amps without having to lay the speakers down on their sides to mess with the binding posts. Ugly, but it works.
I asked Jon Lane about this design decision and he wrote me the following response:
"The [x.2] did away with the somewhat over-done dual inputs of the 6.1. By appearances you may conclude that the new input terminals are below grade, but electrically they're actually superior since they use about a quarter the combined mass and surface area as the old posts. It's a simpler, but more direct input and while it would be fun to have the big milled-from-a-solid-block posts, we made a decision to go with parts that gave us both the much cleaner look and more direct signal path we were looking for. Bi-amping/b-wiring is falling out of vogue fast so it seemed to also coincide with the current market."
Jon's the man and I'm not going to argue, but I still hate the design and wish I had the option to bi-amp. I'd love, for example, to try powering them with a pair of T-amps, just for laughs, since they're cheap and I'd love to hear them but I'm pretty sure one wouldn't do the job. I don't know where the idea came from that "bi-amping/bi-wiring [two entirely different animals] is falling out of vogue"... Pretty much every decent speaker I've seen is bi-ampable. Ah well, nothing's perfect and I still think the 5.2s are a steal. Once you get them hooked up, they're hooked up.
First impressions: In Mike's room (Comparison to B&W DM604 S3, B&W Nautilus 802s, and Dali Helicon 800s)
Mike's room is I believe 22' x 14' x I think 8', flat wall to wall carpet with openings on two sides to a hallway and the kitchen, no acoustic treatments (yet... I'm working on him). He's currently using an Integra 9.4 pre/pro with a Rotel RB-1090 on the mains and a 5-channel Rotel on his center and surrounds. The RB-1090 is a nice amp, amazing sound (maybe the slightest bit on the warm and buttery side of neutral), 380 watts/channel at 8 Ohms. Definitely more than enough juice.
At the time we had the Swans in his house, he was using an older Onkyo AVR as a pre-pro. Unfortunately it's very limited in crossover settings; setting speakers to "small" sets it to 100 Hz. I believe setting it to "large" forces frequencies below the xover to both mains and sub, so we left it set to small or used Direct mode to bypass the sub and send a full-range signal to the mains only.
At that time Mike had just sold a pair of B&W Nautilus 802s that he had for a month or two, and he was using his DM604 S3s that we'd both spent a couple years enjoying until he settled on a new set (the Dali Helicon 800s he has now). So, we are both very familiar with the sound of his room and how his various speakers sounded in there.
We listened to the B&W DM604 S3s for a bit first to have a fresh reference before switching to the 5.2s. The 604s sounded outstanding with the Rotel amp. Keeping in mind that the 604s were fully broken in while the Swans were not, plus the B&Ws were positioned a couple feet closer to both side and back walls so they got the benefit of a little more boundary reinforcement, the Swans held their own very nicely in comparison. In fact while the B&Ws seemed to have somewhat deeper low end extension (again possibly due at least in part to break-in plus placement) and seemed capable of higher playback levels before distortion (they can handle a ton of power), Mike and I both decided we preferred the mids and highs of the Swans over the 604s. They're both so good it's really a matter of preference, but we felt the Swans had a smoother and more listenable high end and were more forgiving of brighter source material while still maintaining outstanding detail on warmer stuff. This isn't too surprising; the B&Ws feature an aluminum dome tweeter whereas the Swans use the same highly respected silk dome tweeter as the older x.1 line. (I REALLY like this tweeter!)
We felt the Swans couldn't fill a room with sound quite like the 802s Mike had just sold (unsurprising, those were like $8,000 new, with dual 8" woofers) and of course the bass response isn't nearly as full and clean, but they definitely kept up with his 604s, especially in the mids and highs.
The bottom end on the 604s seemed to be more defined and accurate than the Swans. We both felt the bottom on the 5.2s was just a bit boomy and undefined, less punchy and accurate than the 604s, but still not bad at all. They definitely have enough bottom for most music listening without a sub; it was the clarity we found somewhat lacking rather than extension or fullness (plus IMO the 604s have a REALLY nice bottom end when properly powered).
I've discussed this issue with Jon Lane on his forum and I want to make it clear that I am NOT saying I don't like the bottom end on the 5.2s, or that they're in any way inadequate. In fact Jon was quite surprised to hear me make this comment at all. In fairness, I've become convinced that the bass shortcomings we heard were more a combination of newness (they do need break-in), room placement and interaction (no room treatments), and the fact that the Rotel might not be the best amp match for these speakers, than any actual deficiency in the speakers. Read my comments below about the Swans powered by my new Technical HiFi Blue Ice Z-5000 amp.
Incidentally, Mike has since replaced his 604s with a stunningly beautiful set of Dali Helicon 800s, with which I am now deeply in love. The Dalis flat out destroy the Swans and all the B&Ws (and most other speakers) I've ever heard. The sound that comes out of those boxes is IMO nothing short of pure magic. But considering their almost $5,000 price tag (they're worth every penny) and the fact that there are only I believe 3 dealers in the whole US, I don't think Jon Lane should lose any sleep over this.
By the way, we listened to the Swans for several hours the day they arrived, plus I left them there for a week or so (encouraging Mike to get started breaking them in for me) and came back a couple times for more listening before bringing them home. During this time we listened to a variety of music at pretty decent volumes (no movies, just music), mostly in direct full-range mode, though we did switch to stereo crossed to his SVS PB12 Ultra/2 sub from time to time, for kicks. Listening crossed over to the sub pretty much eliminated the minor bass boominess and muddiness we were hearing, which was fine with me since I planned to listen in 2.1 most of the time anyway.
Among the material we tried, we listened to Norah Jones, Diana Krall (Live in Paris concert DVD in DTS, WOW, breathtaking), James Taylor (not my favorite but his recordings are extremely clean), Libera (a British modern boy choral group, imagine Enya or Sade but with a boy choir instead of a single female singer; this really tests and shows off the quality of your tweeter and midrange drivers and it sounded wonderful on the Swans, very real and natural), Fourplay (excellent modern jazz, mostly instrumental; their beautiful recordings of keyboards and real instruments really shows off the range of your system and is a great test of imaging, soundstage, transparency, bass, etc. -- the Swans handled it beautifully), Seal, Sade, a little rock and pop including John Mayer and Maroon Five, some of my own mixes and those of a really good producer friend, plus a selection of some material I listened to a lot in the '80s including Journey and a relatively obscure Brit Pop group called The The.
I love my Ascend Acoustics CBM-170SEs with good material like Fourplay and Diana Krall, but I do find I don't really enjoy listening to a lot of rock, pop, and '80s stuff on them because the recordings tend to sound thin and a bit harsh. Not so with the Swans. I think one of their greatest strengths is that they strike an amazing balance between accuracy, neutrality and detail, while still managing to smooth over the inherent harshness found in a lot of mediocre recordings. Norah Jones and Diana Krall, for example, sound amazing on both sets of speakers, but Journey does NOT, and their recordings really aren't that bad. I couldn't really enjoy Journey on the Ascends; they just couldn't seem to give it that big stadium sound it needed. I used to love listening to Journey on my huge old circa 1978 JBL 3-way monitors (12" woofers, 4" midrange, 1.5" metal dome tweeter, if I recall), though they had none of the refinement needed for better material. On the Swans, I can get goose bumps from Diana Krall then rock the house with Journey, complete with the big room-filling sound they need. Nice. Vocals, both male and female, sound especially present, real, full and natural on the 5.2s, adding no sibilance that's not on the recording, and no nasal or boxy quality.
Mike observed that the Swans didn't disappear as completely into the room as the B&W Nautilus 802s, but I personally felt that the fact that he was drawing such a fine and minute comparison between the $999 retail Swan 5.2s and the $8,000 world-renowned 802s was a statement in itself. I think they're quite transparent and while listening, I almost never find myself thinking "wow these SPEAKERS sound good." I usually just find myself absorbed in the music, giving no thought at all to the Swan speakers, which is a great sign. I don't notice them because I don't really hear speakers, I hear MUSIC. I didn't feel that way with my B&W DM602 S2s; I thought they were good speakers but I could hear the SPEAKERS, and it distracted me from the MUSIC.
Mike also made another observation with which I heartily agree. He noticed that the Swans sound outstanding at low volumes and lose none of their presence, clarity or imaging. He felt this was unusual for tower speakers, at least in a lower price range, which often need to be cranked up to come to life. The 5.2s still manage to sound big and utterly natural even at low volumes.
Ongoing impressions: In my family room, Onkyo TX-SR702 receiver vs. Blue Ice power amp
My family room where the Swans now live (till I move them up here to my bedroom in a couple weeks) is 14' x 12.5' x 8' (or 14.5 x 12, I forget), your standard suburban circa 1978 single home family room with drywall, padded wall-to-wall carpeting, your typical comfy sofa & 2 chairs, brick fireplace plus 2 windows on one of the short walls, open doorway plus a half wall opening into the kitchen on one of the long walls, and an opening to the laundry room on the other short wall. Not treated in any way but generally not a bad sounding room; all the openings seem to cut down on flutter echo and comb filtering. I'll post a pic or two if I can figure out how before I fall asleep for the night.
The electronics live in a biggish (for this room anyway) wooden entertainment center on the short wall with the doorway and the opening, flanked closely by the Swans 5.2, which are located approx. 6-7 feet apart on either side of the entertainment center, toed in slightly (front baffles are usually 2-3 inches out in front of the entertainment center.) For critical listening I like to move the Swans about 6 inches out from the entertainment center and several inches forward into the room to improve imaging and lessen the baffle effect from the entertainment center and TV (just your basic old fashioned 27" CRT). It seems to help a bit and pulls the imaging together just enough to notice. I really don't have much room to play here with placement.
Receiver: Onkyo TX-SR702 (100 watts/channel x 7 but my system is 5.1)
DVD Player: Toshiba SD-4900 Progressive Scan with DVD-A capability, connected to Onkyo via coaxial digital cable.
Speaker wire: SoundKing 12 AWG oxygen free copper zip cord (from Parts Express)
Center: Currently awaiting the new Swan 5.2C, so in the meantime I'm using a single Ascend Acoustics CBM-170SE, located on top leading edge of entertainment center angled down slightly towards listening position. Normally I use the CBM-170SEs as studio monitors in my little mixing room, paired with a Hsu VTF-2 Mk2 sub. Outstanding bookshelf speakers!!!! Due to their accuracy they make great studio monitors. Obviously they don't have the big sound or bass response of the Swans (they're not designed to) and they're less forgiving of poorly recorded source material than the Swans, but with good material they're wonderful. One of them sounds great as a center channel while I wait for my 5.2C.
Surrounds: SVS SBS01 on 31" Sanus Systems BF-31B Wood Speaker Stands. I really like these little guys. Slightly low sensitivity at 85 dB so I need to bring them up a few dB in the Onkyo's setup, plus they aren't quite in the same league as the Ascends, but they're definitely cool little surrounds.
Sub: SVS PB10-ISD
I knew bringing the Swans home to my Onkyo TX-SR702 receiver (rated at 100 watts/channel @ 8 Ohms x 7) would be a bit of a disappointment after hearing them on the Rotel amp, and it was. The Onkyo's a decent receiver and sounds good with the Swans, and in fact the Swans sound AMAZING at low volumes (they lose NO clarity, everything is crystal clear and defined including the bottom end, imaging is excellent, etc.), but when I turn it up close to the Onkyo's limits (not even close to distortion, just approaching "loud") I feel the imaging starts falling apart a little and I can start hearing "speakers" rather than just MUSIC. They lose some of their transparency. This did not happen on the Rotel gear in Mike's room, which is considerably bigger than mine and harder to fill. It's not an obvious thing and I would bet most regular folks could never tell the difference, but I would think most non-wealthy music lovers who care enough about audio to drop $1K on a pair of towers would probably hear it.
These effects are a pretty clear symptom of underpowered speakers and pushing your amp a bit too hard. The 5.2s are a 6 Ohm speaker rated at 90 dB sensitivity, not a difficult load but assuming it dips lower at certain frequencies I suspect the Onkyo is just running out of headroom and having a bit of a hard time handling the load at higher volumes. My little SVS and Ascend bookshelf speakers sound outstanding on the Onkyo as did my B&W DM602 S2s, but I'm sure any full-range 3-way 4-driver tower will present more of a challenge.
Now I simply can't afford a Rotel so based on a bunch of reading (mostly on AVSForum.com) I ordered a Technical Pro (or Technical HiFi, they can't seem to settle on a name) Z-5000 Blue Ice 2-channel power amp. 350 watts/channel at 8 Ohms, stable down to 2 Ohms, can't find a bad word about this amp anywhere. I use Crown (Macrotech) and QSC (PLX and Powerlight) amps in my job every week and LOVE them both, and would have chosen a smaller amp from one of these two companies (probably the Crown XLS-402), but with the good reviews on the Blue Ice plus the RCA unbalanced inputs, low price and reportedly quiet fans (they are, almost silent), I took a chance on the Blue Ice. I posted a detailed review of it on avsforum.com a few weeks ago.
As usual I tried it at Mike's first on his new Dalis, and basically we agreed that it's POWERFUL (actually louder than the Rotel at any given pre-out volume), but slightly brighter and somewhat unrefined compared to the clean sweet sound of the Rotel. It did NOT have the powerful bass response that the Rotel has. Not at all unsurprising; the Rotel has a rep for smooth, warm, lush sound, whereas the Blue Ice is a cheap pro amp designed for DJs. The Dalis sounded great with the Blue Ice but when we hooked the Rotel back up, we were both like oh yeah, THAT's why we love these speakers so much.
Interestingly, after this I didn't have high hopes that I'd love this amp with the Swans -- but I do! It has WAY more than enough power and headroom, so they no longer sound choked. They're transparent, imaging fully intact, and magical. Less refined and sweet, a touch rougher than they should be, but it's a big improvement overall from the receiver. And the bass is outstanding with this amp! Absolutely no boominess at all, just clean, unlimited punch and power. Makes me drool, wondering how the 5.2s will sound in a good treated room with a real quality amp. I've been researching acoustic treatments like a fiend lately and the consensus seems to be that average equipment in a properly treated room can sound better than world class gear in a bad or untreated room. The Swans 5.2 are IMO way better than average speakers, especially at their price point, so paired with a decent amp, good source components, and a good room, wow. In the next few weeks I'm combining all my HT gear plus my recording and mixing gear in my 11' x 11'9" x 7'6" bedroom (the Swans plus 2 subs will be stupid in there!) with some DIY acoustic treatments. I'll post updated impressions after I get this all set up.
By the way, I've watched several movies using the Swans now including Doom, Chicken Little and a couple of other Pixar movies, Master and Commander, The Legend of Zorro and others, first with a BIC Venturi DV62CLR-S center speaker with Ed Frias' xover mods and more recently using the Ascend CBM-170SE as a center, and I have to say, even with the Onkyo powering them (there's no room to keep the Blue Ice hooked up in my entertainment center; it'll get hooked up permanently upstairs) their HT performance is outstanding. The B&W DM602 S2s I used to have had a nice big sound for HT but lacked the smooth beauty that both the Swans and the Ascends have; the Ascends sounded sweet and clean but lacked the big sound needed for sweeping epic soundtracks like Lord of the Rings. I'm pleased to say that the Swans 5.2 give me the best of both worlds and more for HT performance and I couldn't be happier with them. And I can't WAIT to get my 5.2C!!
As if I haven't said enough already, let me finish by saying that I love my Swans 5.2 and I think they're an outstanding value for $999. If these were sold in any retail store I'm very confident they'd be priced at at least $2000, probably more like $2500. And considering how they sound and look, no one would blink an eye at that price and I think they'd do very well. Personally I care a lot more about a speaker's sound than its looks, but these 5.2s are gorgeous. If the lame, single bottom-mounted, too-small binding post arrangement doesn't bother you, you can't go wrong. I haven't heard the 4.2R rear or C center speakers but the 5.2C will have the same tweeter and excellent paper-kevlar 6.5" mid/bass drivers that 5.2Fs have so the HT system performance should be very well matched.
Bottom line: Highly recommended, 2 thumbs up.