Playback Magazine 09/2009
The Top Tier Starts Here
Usher's Mini Dancer Two, shown in dark "Pioneer" birch finish Playback readers who follow the forum section of our parent Web site www.avguide.com will already know that Usher’s superb Be-718 stand-mount monitor speaker ($2795/pair) comes up frequently in discussions and has generated a lot of reader interest. The Be-718 was favorably reviewed by Robert Harley, editor-in-chief of The Absolute Sound, and has gone on to win many awards both from our own and other publications. It’s a speaker that has earned a reputation as one of those magical “go to” 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 an inevitably limited dynamic envelope (the Be-718 offers serious dynamic punch as traditional stand-mount monitors go, but—let’s face it—it is not a full-sized floorstander). To get a handle on the mission profile of Usher’s new Mini Dancer Two, then, picture it as an attempt to build a speaker that preserves the essential goodness of the Be-718, but that addresses customers’ expressed desire for deeper bass and an even more expansive dynamic envelope.
Usher calls it top tier speakers the Dancer series, of which the Be-718 (also known as the “Tiny Dancer”) is the entry-level model. In the past, the next step up the line was the superb CP-8571 Mk II, which is a wonderful speaker, but one that sells for well over $10,000/pair (too big a step up for many prospective customers to handle). To bridge this gap, Usher has created a pair of Mini Dancer models—the Mini Dancer One and Two. We chose to review the Mini Dancer Two, partly because it appears to offer much more performance headroom than the Mini Dancer One does, and partly because its design is more strongly differentiated from that of the Be-718.
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 beautifully curved sidewalls. The resulting speaker is quite large (believe us when we tell you it is “mini” in name only) and strikingly handsome, with an overall level of fit and finish that makes the Mini Dancer Two seem more expensive than it really is. And as you’ll discover in a moment, the theme of value that belies price applies to the sound of this speaker, too.
Consider this speaker if: you have admired the look and sound of premium priced speakers in the roughly $10k range, but simply could not afford them. In essence, the Mini Dancer Two cuts the cost of entry to that performance spectrum in half. The Mini Dancer Two preserves most of the strengths of the Be-718 (sonic transparency, neutral tonal balance, richness and purity of timbres, and an involving and expressive sound) while delivering noticeably deeper bass extension and even more expansive dynamics. In fact, in some respects it is nipping at the heels of Usher’s larger Dancer models, which is saying a mouthful.
Look further if: you were hoping for a speaker that identically matches the voicing and imaging characteristics of the Be-718’s. In practice, we observed two subtle but noteworthy differences between the Usher siblings. First, the Mini Dancer Two gives a slightly more distant perspective on the music, throwing a soundstage that unfolds behind the plane of the speakers, whereas the Be-718 tends to be more of an “up front” imager. Second, the Mini Dancer Two sounds perhaps a hair less midrange-forward than the Be-718, offering a sound that is arguably richer and smoother, but just slightly more reserved.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced floorstanding loudspeakers)
- Treble: 10
- Midrange: 9
- Bass: 9
- Soundstaging: 10
- Dynamics: 9
- Value: 10
- Usher’s signature exotic metal (beryllium/titanium) 1.25-inch dome tweeter
- Two of Usher’s model 8948A 7-inch mid-bass drivers with composite-reinforced pulp cone diaphragms (the same mid-bass drivers used in several of Usher’s larger and more expensive Dancer models).
- Rigid, curved-wall enclosures (to help minimize internal standing waves) equipped with thick, massive front baffle plates that provide a stiff, vibration-resistant mounting platform for the speaker’s drivers.
- A massive floor pedestal provides a stable, tip-resistant platform for speakers, themselves, complete with recessed, tapped mounting holes for (included) adjustable brass floor spikes.
- High quality, bi-wire ready binding posts (though some will complain the posts are not quite as nice as those used on Usher’s top-of-line Be-20/Be-10 speakers).
- Optional finishes include gloss piano black lacquer or dark “pioneer” birch (which looks and feels downright sumptuous).
- Forward-firing bass reflex port.
Like all of Usher’s Dancer models, the Mini Dancer Two is highly detail oriented and revealing, yet by no means cold, sterile or analytical-sounding. On the contrary, the speaker possesses tonal purity in spades, and blessed with a rich, vibrant, evocative sound that pulls you deep inside the music. The speaker is very transparent, but never in a flashy, “hey, look at me” kind of way. Instead, as you listen to the Mini Dancer Two, you may discover that extra layers of subtle inner details and textures in the music simply present themselves in a natural and unfussy way (almost as if the Ushers a saying, “retrieving tons of musical information is no big deal for me, really; can’t all speakers do that?”). On most material there’s a quality of ease about the Mini Dancer Two’s sound that represents, I think, a step forward from what the Be-718 can do.
Mini Dancer Two, showing D'Appolito driver array Though the Mini Dancer Two is not quite as detailed or as effortlessly nuanced as Usher’s flagship Be-10/Be-20 models, it is easily competitive with, and in many cases superior to, the best piston-driver-equipped speakers I’ve heard in its own price class (although there will be stiff competition from Magneplanar’s planar-magnetic Magnepan MG 3.6). In fact, in terms of overall levels of transparency and openness, I found myself intuitively comparing the Mini Dancer Two to speakers about twice its price (or even to more expensive models). These Ushers are simultaneously communicative and informative, meaning 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.
Imaging and soundstaging are very good, though as I mentioned above the Mini Dancer Two gives a different and somewhat more distant perspective on the music than the Be-718 does. Be aware, though, that the speaker needs some run-in time (50 – 100 hours) before it fully opens up and develops optimal three-dimensionality. The sound isn’t bad straight out of the box, but it can seem a little constricted and exhibits very faint traces of treble hardness at first. As playing time accumulates, however, the sound becomes smoother and more expansive, while overall bass impact and pitch definition improves. Unlike most of the other Usher models that I’ve reviewed, the Mini Dancer Two seems to image best with the speakers facing straight ahead and not “toed-in” toward the central listening position.
The Mini Dancer Two’s bass reaches significantly lower 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). In practice this means the Mini Dancer Two can handle bass-rich musical material (for example, music highlighting pipe organs, concert bass drums, 5-string bass guitars, and the like) in a more graceful and satisfying way than the Be-718. A particular strength of the Mini Dancer Two is the smooth, seamless way in which it handles transitions from lower midrange frequencies (think cellos or baritone saxophones, for instance) on down into the bass region—a transition not always handled smoothly in competing speakers.
Does the Mini Dancer Two obviate the need for a subwoofer? The answer depends partly on musical tastes, but I would say that on most material and in most rooms (especially mid-sized rooms or smaller) the Mini Dancer Two offers all the bass output most listeners would ever need or want.
Diehard bass aficionados, however, might still want to use a sub to pick up that last half octave of ultra low-frequency content. Let your ears be your guides. The Mini Dancer Twos do not have the sheer bass clout and definition that the larger Dancers do, I suspect because, in the Mini Dancer Twos, the same of pair of mid-bass drivers must not only handle the entire midrange frequency workload, but also the very lowest bass notes. In contrast, the larger Dancers all use one driver to handle midrange frequencies and one or more dedicated woofers to handle low bass content.
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. My impression, formed early on, is that the Mini Dancer Two is a sensitive speaker and one that’s easy to drive, though with one caveat. The Mini Dancer Two presents a relatively low 4 Ohm load, which some amplifiers can handle beautifully, but others cannot. Assuming your amp can handle lower impedance loads, it should have no trouble making the Mini Dancer Two sing and 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 if really big crescendos come along when volume levels are already cranked to the nines, it is possible to overload the Mini Dancer Two, causing the sound to become congested and, if further provoked, to take on a somewhat raw edge that tells you it’s time to back things down.
Mini Dancer Two rear panel, showing curved cabinet wall and mounting pedestalThe Mini Dancer Twos are never more fully in their element than when playing really well-recorded 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 at once.
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 sound of the wooden body of the bass, 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 giving others more 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 side of the side of the stage, which the Mini Dancer Twos clearly revealed, and as he plays the speakers exposed even the subtlest shifts in 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 as soaring lines erupt from his horn. The sound of the sax was so compelling through the Ushers, in fact, that it was easy to let my attention be drawn to that instrument alone.
But in the center of the stage, and standing a few feet further back than Crump and Cheeks, 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 Mini Dancer Two’s let you hear Chapin wind up, like an athlete preparing for a surge of exertion, and then explode into a musical phrase with full force, belting out certain lines an intense burst of exuberance.
Finally, throughout reVisions, the Ushers do the trick that all really fine speakers do, which is to show how the acoustics and reverberant qualities of the recording space (St Peter’s Episcopal Church in New York City, in this case) are, in a sense, “phantom performers” that contribute 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 sometimes energize the room, and then slowly and 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. Who could ask more than that?
To answer questions about 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 features recurrent pipe organ passages and themes that vary in pitch, timbre, and volume levels. I felt the Mini Dancer Two acquitted itself very well, 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 really necessary (although once again, low bass aficionados might beg to differ and want a sub to extract the last few ounces of low frequency “shudder” of which the pipe organ is capable on this track). My only critical observation would be that the Ushers might be a touch 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, and it essentially delivers full-range frequency response in a package that looks good and offers solid value for the money. Our only remaining question is this: how might the Mini Dancer Two’s work out as the core of a super surround system to include Be-718s as surround speakers and Usher’s new Be-616 in the center channel position? We suspect that might be something to hear.
Specs & pricing
Usher Mini Dancer Two floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: one 1.25-inch beryllium/titanium dome tweeter, two 7-inch mid-bass drivers
Frequency response: 28Hz – 40 kHz (± 3 dB)
Sensitivity: 90 dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions (H x W x D): 48.4” x 13.4” x18.9”
Weight: 90 lbs/ea.
Warranty: Three years (drivers)/one year (cabinets), parts and labor