Usher Mini Dancer Two HiFiPlus 11/2009

Usher Mini Dancer Two floorstanding loudspeaker

Chris Martens
HiFiPlus 11/2009

As some HiFi-Plus readers may know, Usher’s Be-718 stand-mount monitors have found considerable favour in the US, receiving particular praise in a review authored by Robert Harley, editor-in-chief of our US-based sister magazine, The Absolute Sound. In fact, the Be-718 has earned a commanding reputation as one of those magical products that successfully caters to listeners with (very) high-end tastes, but whose price fits within sensible, real-world budgets. What’s not to like about that?

Well, good though the Be-718 is, it does have a few acknowledged limitations such as adequate, but not great, low bass response as well as a somewhat limited dynamic envelope (the Be-718 offers serious dynamic punch as traditional standmount monitors go, but — let’s face it — it is not a fullsized floorstander). To understand the mission of Usher’s new Mini Dancer Two, then, picture it as a floorstanding speaker that leverages the design and core sonic strengths of the Be-718, but that addresses customers’ expressed desires for deeper bass and more expansive dynamics.

The Mini Dancer Two uses the same exotic metal dome tweeter as the Be-718 plus two of the 718’s mid-bass drivers, placing them in a D’Appolito array and housing them in a tall, deep, reflex-loaded floorstanding enclosure with curved sidewalls. The resulting speaker is quite large (‘Mini’ in name only) and strikingly handsome, with an overall level of fit and finish that makes the Mini Dancer Two appear more expensive than it is. As you’ll discover in a moment, the theme of value that belies price applies to the sound of this speaker, too.

Like the Be-718, the Mini Dancer Two is a highly detailed and revealing speaker, yet one that never sounds cold, sterile or overly analytical. Instead, it presents layer upon layer of subtle sonic details and musical textures in a natural and unfussy way, almost as if saying, “retrieving tons of musical information takes no great effort on my part; can’t all speakers do that?” It also possesses tonal purity in spades and is blessed with a rich, vibrant, evocative sound that pulls you deep inside the music. On most material there’s an overarching quality of ease about the Mini Dancer Two that represents, I think, a step forward from what the Be-718 can do.

Imaging and soundstaging are very good, although the Mini Dancer Two gives a different and slightly more distant perspective on the music than the Be-718 does. Unlike many of the other Usher models I’ve reviewed, the Mini Dancer Two seems to image best with the speakers facing straight ahead and not ‘toed-in’ toward the listening position. Be aware, though, that the speaker needs some run-in time (50-100 hours) before it fully opens up. As playing time accumulates the sound becomes noticeably smoother, more expansive, and more three-dimensional, while bass impact and pitch definition also improve.

As promised, the Mini Dancer Two’s bass reaches lower and with greater impact than the Be-718’s does — down to a claimed 28Hz (the same cutoff frequency Usher specifies for some of the larger, more expensive Dancer models, by the way). A particular strength of the Mini Dancer Two is its smooth, seamless way of handling transitions from lower midrange frequencies (think cellos or baritone saxophones) on down into the bass region—an area where some competing speakers can sound a bit ‘woolly’ or overblown. Whereas some US listeners have chosen to augment the bass output of their Be-718s with subwoofers, I think that, on most material and in most rooms (especially UK-sized room spaces), the Mini Dancer Two offers all the bass output and extension most listeners would ever require.

“The Mini Dancer Twos
are never more fully in
their element than when
playing well-recorded
acoustic jazz material.”

In terms of dynamics, the Mini Dancer Two builds upon the strengths of the Be-718, offering a bolder, more expansive and, yes, more explosive sound overall. I found the Mini Dancer Two to be a sensitive speaker and one that was easy to drive, though with one caveat. The Mini Dancer Two presents a relatively low four ohm load, which some amplifiers can handle beautifully, but others cannot. Assuming your amp is amenable to low impedance loads, it should have no trouble making the Mini Dancer Twos sing with real gusto.

One small word of caution is in order, though. Because the Mini Dancer two can play very loudly without apparent distress, it can be tempting to turn up volume levels higher than is wise. The Ushers will let you get away with this, up to a point, but when really big crescendos come along with volume levels already cranked to the nines, it is possible to overload the speakers, causing them to sound congested and, if further provoked, to take on a somewhat raw edge that tells you it’s time to back things down. The Mini Dancer Twos are never more fully in their element than when playing really wellrecorded acoustic jazz material, a great example of which would be Jen Chapin’s delightful reVisions Chesky SACD, which features reinterpretations of classic songs of Stevie Wonder as performed by a masterful jazz trio. I put on ‘Master Blaster (Jammin’)’ and was floored by several aspects of the performance.

 

First, the Mini Dancer Two’s gave a powerful and breathtakingly nuanced rendition of Stephan Crump’s nimble, syncopated acoustic bass lines. The Usher’s not only conveyed the size and resonant qualities of the instrument’s wooden body, but also let me hear subtle cues that let me know when Crump was leaning forward to dig in and apply more pressure as he plucked the instrument’s strings— giving some phrases an extra bit of ‘pop’ or others greater emphasis by teasing out a deeper, more sustained ‘growl.’

Similarly, the Ushers did a phenomenal job with Chris Cheeks’ gorgeous sax performance. Cheeks stands to the left front side of the stage, as the Ushers clearly revealed, and the speakers exposed even the subtlest shifts in his dynamics, revealing delicate reed sounds and mouthpiece noises, Cheeks’ breathing between phrases, and the sound of his fingertips flying from one fingering position to another on the horn.

“Usher’s Mini Dancer Two is a wonderful
speaker that gives you a big taste of what
ultra-high-end speakers can do, but at a less
than stratospheric price.”

But in the centre of the stage, standing a few feet behind her sidemen is Jen Chapin—a vocalist whose evocative and at times feisty style fits Wonder’s music to a ‘T.’ The Ushers quickly revealed Chapin’s gift for modulating both the dynamics and pitch of her voice to turn lines some singers would pass over lightly into unforgettable hooks. At some points in ‘Master Blaster (Jammin’)’, for example, the Ushers let me hear Chapin wind up, like an athlete preparing for a surge of exertion, and then explode into a musical phrase with full force, giving certain lines an intense burst of exuberance.

Finally, throughout reVisions, the Ushers showed how the acoustics of the recording space (St Peter’s Episcopal Church in New York City) were, in a sense, ‘phantom performers’ that contributed much to the overall feel and vibe of the recording. Because the trio is so open and exposed in this record, you can easily hear how individual musical lines and phrases momentarily energize the room and then gracefully decay back into silence. In all the ways I’ve outlined above, the Mini Dancer Two’s served and enlivened, but did not embellish upon, this spectacular recording.

To test the Mini Dancer Two’s low bass capabilities, I put on the third movement (‘Landscape: Lento’) of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica (Bakels/Bournemouth; Naxos, CD), which serves as a pipe organ tour de force. The Ushers acquitted themselves beautifully, never flinching or faltering as organ pedal notes descended lower and lower. I’ve played this movement many times on systems with and without subwoofers, and my sense was that the Usher’s offered sufficient depth and power that a sub wasn’t necessary (though I suppose low bass aficionados might wish for a sub to extract the last few ounces of low frequency ‘shudder’ from the pipe organ). My only criticism would be that the Ushers were perhaps very slightly under damped down at the very bottom of their response range.

Usher’s Mini Dancer Two is a wonderful speaker that gives you a big taste of what ultra-high-end speakers can do, but at a less than stratospheric price. This speaker is detailed, nuanced, and expressive, essentially delivering full-range frequency response in a package that looks good and offers solid value for the money. More importantly, the Ushers are simultaneously communicative and informative, meaning that they show you what’s going on within the structure of the music, and then help you grasp—on an emotional level—why that structure matters. Who could ask more than that?

Technical Specifications

Usher Mini Dancer Two floorstanding loudspeaker

Driver complement: one 32mm (1.25-inch) beryllium/titanium dome tweeter, two 178mm (7-inch) mid-bass drivers
Frequency response: 28Hz – 40 kHz (±3 dB) Sensitivity: 90 dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions (H x W x D): 123 cm x 35.5cm x 48 cm
Weight: 41kg/each (including plinth)
Warranty: Three years (drivers)/one year (cabinets), parts and labour
Price: £3,500/pair