The Absolute Sound 12/2012
Good Gets Better
Usher Audio is a Taiwanese loudspeaker-maker known for developing high-quality loudspeaker drive units that rival offerings from such famous Scandinavian firms as Scan-Speak or SEAS. But unlike those powerhouse Nordic firms, Usher has leveraged its driver-making expertise to create several families of loudspeakers, collectively known as the Dancer Series. Thus far, Usher’s two best-known Dancer models have been the flagship Dancer BE-20 floorstander ($21,995/pair), which I reviewed in TAS 181, and the smaller but no less impressive MiniDancer BE-718 stand-mount monitor ($2799/pair), reviewed by Robert Harley in TAS 176. Those two products represent the bookends of the Dancer lineup; between these two extremes Usher has sought to create a middle model that would combine some of the dynamic clout and full-range reach of the big BE-20 with the musicality and accessible pricing of the BE-718. That middle model is the Dancer Mini Two Diamond DMD (or Mini Two, for short) floorstander, priced at $4999/pair.
To appreciate what the Mini Two really is and why it exists, it helps to picture the speaker as an improved, floorstanding version of the well-respected BE-718, but one that aims to provide enhanced dynamic range, dramatically better lowfrequency extension, and even higher levels of resolution and nuance. The original BE-718 was a classic bass-reflex, two-way stand-mount monitor based on a 7" mid/bass driver and an exotic 1.25" beryllium/titanium dome tweeter. The new Mini Two is also a two-way bass-reflex design, but one that uses a pair of the BE-718’s mid/bass drivers configured as a D’Appolitotype
array flanking Usher’s all-new 1.25" DMD (diamond-metaldiamond) ceramic/metallic tweeter.
A cursory review of the Mini Two’s published specifications reveals that this floorstander offers, as promised, higher sensitivity (90dB vs. 87dB), deeper bass extension (28Hz vs 42Hz), and more extended treble response (40kHz vs. 35kHz) than the original Be-718. Numbers like these can, of course, be misleading, but as we’ll see in a moment the Mini Two Diamond DMD really does deliver on the promise of preserving the BE718's uncanny musicality while extending its capabilities and overall reach in meaningful ways.
Two final points I should address before we discuss the Mini Two’s sound involve its sheer size and the reasoning behind its DMD tweeter. First off, let me tell you that the Mini Two is “mini” in name only. In reality, this is a large (48.4" tall) and substantial loudspeaker. In fact, the speaker enclosures feature elegant and beautifully veneered curved wall and bass-reflex cabinets weighing 83 pounds each and that come with massive 37-pound cast-iron floor plinths that bolt to the main enclosures, providing rigid attachment points for Usher’s adjustable floor cones/spikes.
Pretty much everything about this speaker is beefy. Second, let’s consider the DMD tweeter from which the speaker draws its name. Those familiar with Usher’s already excellent beryllium/titanium tweeter might well ask why a replacement was sought, given that the old unit was regarded by many as one of the finest piston-type tweeters ever made.
The answer is that Usher saw an opportunity to create a tweeter that combined the best aspects of conventional diamond and metallic diaphragms, by creating a hybrid dome made of a very thin lightweight-alloy center-layer covered on both sides with ultra-thin layers of diamond-like carbon coating. The resulting diaphragm, says Usher, is “effectively a diamond dome with a reduced mass and a well-controlled, appealing sound signature, resembling very closely a perfect piston in its behavior.”
Some years back I reviewed Usher’s original Mini Two speaker for AVguide.com and our sister publication Hi-Fi+. That first Mini Two was a direct precursor to the Mini Two Diamond DMD, and the fact is that, while the Mini Two was very good, the new model is, on the whole, even better. To my way of thinking, one of the most essential aspects of the Usher “house sound” involves an almost uncanny ability to find a middle path when navigating the thorny divide between sonic truths versus sonic beauty. Thus, Usher’s Dancer models have traditionally been able to deliver accuracy without sounding uptight or clinical, to deliver a full-bodied and dynamically engaging sound without become sloppy, syrupy, or overblown, and to provide a revealing look at inner details in recordings without becoming punishingly unforgiving or finicky.
The Mini Two Diamond DMD is no exception, though it hews noticeably more closely toward the “truth” side of the spectrum than the original Mini Two did. Part of the reason why is that the Mini Two Diamond DMD (which looks much like the original Mini Two on the outside) sports unseen but quite audible enclosure improvements, so that bass remains powerful but is tighter, more incisive, and better defined in pitch than before.
The benefit is that subtle traces of low-end thickness or congestion present to some degree in the original Mini Two are now banished. Perhaps as a result, the tricky transition region from the midbass on up into the lower midrange also sounds cleaner, more open, and more focused than before, with collateral benefits in imaging and soundstaging.
The midrange of the Mini Two Diamond DMD sounds much like that of the original Mini Two or BE-718, which is a good thing, though the higher you climb in the frequency spectrum the more the effects of the new Diamond DMD tweeter make themselves heard.
What exactly are those effects? Well, the first and most obvious difference is that the Diamond DMD tweeter is better able to resolve low-level treble details, which is the sort of change that—on good recordings—makes the speaker sound more “continuous” and thus more realistic.
Transient and textural details are rendered with greater speed and less grain, while the sounds of echoes and other reverberant cues become more explicit and tend to linger on the air, rather than being prematurely truncated.
But to my ears, perhaps the biggest benefit is the smooth and sophisticated way the new tweeter integrates, and reveals the intrinsic link between treble fundamentals and their associated high harmonics. It’s this quality of integration that makes the new tweeter a winner. With this said, however, let me mention that while the new tweeter takes significant steps forward in many respects, there may be one area where the old beryllium/titanium tweeter was better—namely, in handling very-large-scale dynamic swells. The old tweeter had a certain ballsy and unflappable quality even when pushed very hard, whereas the new tweeter—for all its enhanced resolution and finesse—reaches the upper limits of its dynamic “comfort zone” earlier than the beryllium tweeter did. In practice, this is rarely noticeable except, I suppose, for those who routinely listen to large-scale orchestral pieces or rock music at vigorous volume levels and beyond. The difference is the original beryllium/ titanium tweeter essentially never sounded overtaxed; your ears would cry “Uncle” long before the tweeter did. With the DMD tweeter the sound is more sophisticated across the board, but eventually becomes dry-sounding and then just a little edgy toward the very top of its dynamic envelope (which arrives at listening levels I personally find uncomfortably loud, but you might not)
There is, as they say, no free lunch, so that even the best designs do eventually introduce points of compromise. The key question, of course, is how the speaker performs as a whole, and the answer is that it is a really well conceived and well executed all-rounder—a $4999/pair speaker that makes a ton of sense for aspiring listeners who wish they could spend ten times that sum, but whose budgets lead them to make more realistic, earthbound choices. For a starter, let’s acknowledge that the Mini
Two DMD is essentially a full-range speaker, and not one of those near-full-rangers that is basically dreaming about, but not really accessing, the bottom octave. The Mini Two DMD has useful output all the way down into the mid-20Hz range, as a spin or two through bass favorites such as “Pie Jesu” from the Rutter Requiem [Reference Recordings] or the Bakels/Bournemouth reading of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica [Naxos] makes very clear. Pipe organ enthusiasts will be pleased not only by the depths the Ushers can reach, but also by their weight, power, and reasonably good control. Next, the speaker offers a very coherent, expressive, detailed, and neutrally balanced midrange. As with most two-ways, the
Mini Two DMD’s show excellent smoothness and cohesiveness in the difficult transition region from upper bass to the lower midrange—an area where some three-way (or other more complicated) designs have been known to run into trouble. But where the DMD’s truly distinguish themselves is in dynamic nuance and sheer dynamic punch, starting down in the bass region (think bass guitars and kick drums) right on up through the very top of the midrange. One beauty of the Mini Two DMD is that you have the simplicity, focus, and sonic rightness of a classic two-way design, but with the muscle and grunt that only dual, D’Appolito 7" mid/bass units can provide. To appreciate what I mean, listen carefully to Clark Terry and the DePaul University Big Band play “Moten Swing” from Terry’s Chicago Sessions, 1994-1995 [Reference Recordings], and note the sound of the band’s horn section, in particular. There are moments in that track where the entire band will be cruising along smoothly until—almost without warning—the horn section simply erupts with astonishing brassy beauty and almost shocking dynamic force.
These are passages so dynamically challenging that they cause some (actually many) speakers to shift in an instant from a casual “No problem, I’ve got this” to an “Omigosh, I’m seriously over-taxed” dynamic-overload moment, where the sound can momentarily become compressed, raw, or just plain distorted. But not so, the Ushers. They seem almost to relish the track, tackling it with equal measures of dynamic clout and subtlety, plus something of the exuberant glee of a thrill-seeking child looking to revisit a particularly stimulating amusement park ride. When the horn section rises up, the Mini
Two captures the fierce burnished leading edges of the notes and the forceful golden-toned thrust and projection of the horns in full voice. But even as it does so, the speaker also keeps the details of the recording straight, preserving the textures and timbres not only of the horns but also of the accompanying drum kit and cymbals as well as other instruments in the band. I’ve spoken about the DMD tweeter’s superior resolution, focus, and overall sophistication vis-à-vis the original Usher beryllium/titanium tweeter, and thought I might supply an illustration to help crystallize this point. Try listening to “Talking Wind” from Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek’s Elixir [ECM] through the Mini Twos, and then note carefully the sound of the high-frequency percussion instruments featured there.
Many speakers can give you a nominally “clean” reading of this recording, but the Usher does more; it crosses the boundary line that divides textbook-correct reproduction to instead achieve hints of genuine realism. What makes this possible, I think, is the deft manner in which the DMD tweeter integrates treble fundamentals, harmonics, echoes, and reverberations into a cohesive, believable whole. A point I have noted in previous reviews of Usher speakers is that they do not “deconstruct” musical elements as some loudspeakers do, but rather help music to sound more whole and complete. What doesn’t the Mini Two DMD do? Well, it can’t quite pull off the almost perfectly seamless top-to-bottom coherency and remarkable imaging height of today’s best planar-magnetic speakers, nor can it duplicate the blazingly fast transient speed of full-range electrostats (though subjectively it is not too far off from that standard). And finally, the Usher’s bass, though quite articulate and reasonably well controlled, does not have the even greater tautness and control I’ve heard from certain sealedbox (acoustic-suspension) or transmission-line speakers. But honestly, I am mostly nitpicking here.
Let me conclude, then, by expanding on a point I raised near the beginning of this review. The Mini Two DMD is a finely detailed, nuanced, full-range transducer that is relatively easy to drive and that sounds dynamically alive. These qualities make it ideal for those who know and love what ultra-premium loudspeakers can do, but who have decided (either as a matter of preference or necessity) to hold loudspeaker expenditures within the $5000/ pair price range. Within that range, the Usher distinguishes itself, not by achieving “perfection,” but by doing many more things right for the money than listeners might think possible