Usher S i SW 520

6moons.com 10/2010

Glen Wagenknecht

Building on a strong foundation: Prelude. Usher has managed to carve out an enviable name for itself since its modest inception in 1972. By 1999, owner and chief engineer Lien-Shui Tsai decided on a course that with the help of designer Dr. Joseph D'Appolito saw his company enter new territory of driver design and manufacture, giving Usher the advantage of being able to design and build product to their own specifications from the ground up. In 2003 US distributor Stan Tracht entered the picture and North America was introduced to a powerful new high-end contender. In the years that followed, the house of Usher has become an entrenched veteran which continues to impress public and press alike with an array of product occupying niches from popular budget to state of the art.

Usher has continued to push forward the latter, with their renowned BE beryllium series now superseded by pioneering efforts in diamond but the company never lost sight of the importance of their value line. This is where most audiophiles get their first exposure to the firm and Usher has consistently proven that a well-designed product needn’t be high priced to be high performance.

The Usher S-520 has been such a success story. It remains Usher’s best-selling model and continues to garner critical and audiophile acclaim despite being what many would regard as a mere entry-level product. The introduction of the SW-520 bass module is an unusual move paralleled by only a handful of companies and then generally with product of considerably loftier pretensions. Such a specialized product constitutes a leap of faith on the part of the designers and indicates something is happening with the S-520 far beyond its budget acclamation. Before beginning on the full S+SW-520 review, I decided to run the monitor bi-wired with and without my own Paradigm subwoofer to get a baseline on their performance. Time to see whether and why these little monitors demanded such newfound attention.

Mini assessment of the S-520: It was immediately obvious that the S-520s were strong performers. From the upper bass up, they were actually quite remarkable. The S-520s cast a huge soundstage that expanded in all directions with very good localization of instruments. They reproduced hall size convincingly and resolved detail and ambient information with an aliveness that was wholly disproportionate to size and price. The Ushers were remarkably uncolored in the critical midrange and upper midrange, showing far more refinement and pedigree than this price point suggested possible. They managed a level of detail and transparency that approached a good panel speaker with an engaging level of micro dynamics as well as a respectable level of macro albeit not of rock monitor status. All things considered, this was definitely no budget performance but well in excess of expectations.

Alas no speaker is perfect. With well-recorded acoustical material that fell within the window of the speaker’s favored bandwidth, the presentation was quite lifelike. As the frequency range descended downwards and out of bounds, the S-520 showed limitations. The speaker went down reasonably low with good articulation and minimal coloration but progressively less weight. It gave a good account of cello and a portion of the drum kit but the lack of deep bass left the presentation of modern material with high tonal contrast (heavy bass lines, treble energy and recessive midrange) a little thin. When I tried to push the speaker harder to force its low frequency limits, the situation did not improve and the box began to draw some attention to itself. The S-520 simply lacked authority in this region. In view of its monitor stature, this was a normal failing and harmless compared to its definite virtues.

The little Usher demonstrated a lot of potential when treated as a high-end product. It showed off some stellar soundstaging and resolution but also displayed obvious bass limitations. Listeners whose first priority is massive bass regardless of other qualities or the realities of price won’t find the solo S-520 quite satisfying. For those who value high-end refinement in all other parameters, the S-520 is an absolute gem. Given the level of performance demonstrated here and the established list of accolades already received, most speaker manufacturers would have been more than satisfied to rest on their laurels especially considering the available quality and depth of the rest of their speaker line. Want something better? Buy a more expensive model. Why did Usher instead decide to mess with success and release the SW-520?

Basic Overview of the SW-520: Here is where the real tale begins. The problem with the S-520 is that anyone who bothered to put it into a better than budget system discovered as did I that the speaker isn’t just good but out-of-joint good. Better ancillary equipment translates into higher and higher levels of performance which eventually make the lack of bass all the more disproportionate. What Usher had on their hands was well beyond a high-value budget wonder. Might its few normal limitations be addressable? Enter the subwoofer.

That would seem the obvious solution. For some it may in fact offer a viable alternative to Usher’s own SW-520 but most subwoofers have limitations. They operate best when least heard. That generally dictates the lowest possible crossover point the main speakers will allow. Here it would work flatly against the S-520’s limited response. In my experiments with the Paradigm Servo 15, the optimum crossover frequency was at a higher point where the sub began to become audible. Ideally this would have necessitated a pair of subs for stereo bass. At lower crossover points, the Usher S-520 was also being robbed of the secondary benefit of subwoofers - improved dynamics and power handling. This required a better solution.

It came by way of Stan Tracht, head of Usher USA. He envisioned a superior approach to this challenge and contacted designer Lien-Shui Tsai. Thus the SW-520 was born. Their solution was to integrate the original S-520 as one element of an elegant 3-way floorstander in a cosmetically unified modular design. The bass cabinet’s height was optimized for a proper elevation for the S-520s. The chosen woofer became Usher’s 7-inch 8945A carbon-reinforced design, a proven performer in their well-regarded CP-6311 loudspeaker. This was utilized in a rear-ported cabinet to extend the system’s F3 to a respectable 38 cycles (at -3dB). The woofers were mounted inward facing to maintain the narrow width of the mains. The crossover frequency became a high 200Hz to bestow some dynamic benefits on the monitors but low enough that the bulk of the sonic signature would still be imposed by the S-520. This was to be a plug ‘n’ play affair as an evolutionary design step with guaranteed matching and guaranteed potential for superior performance.

As finishing touch Usher added a 1-inch cast-iron base plate finished to match into which screw four oversized brass spikes. Keep in mind that we are discussing a bass module for a budget speaker. Such details do not usually belong to a budget-conscious approach. One would anticipate that the amount of detail lavished here should produce results well beyond the ordinary.

The arrival: The 2-piece speaker system loan came quite literally together through a collaborative effort between Usher USA via JPS Labs for the woofer sections and Canadian distributor AudioScape for the monitors. The S-520s arrived via Purolator double boxed and sandwiched between a pair of formed Styrofoam top and bottom pieces. Each speaker came in a soft cloth sack to protect its piano-black mirror gloss finish. The box also contained clear soft plastic feet to attach to the bottom of the cabinets for further protection of the finish and to provide some vibration isolation.

The S-520 is a front-ported two-way with a 1" silk-dome tweeter and 5" polypropylene mid/woofer employing Usher’s proprietary Symme-Motion technology. The crossover uses air-core inductors and audiophile-grade polypropylene capacitors. Internal wiring is OFC copper. The rear panel has two pairs of strapped gold-plated brass posts. Cosmetics and finish of the high gloss cabinets are first rate. The front grilles are removable.

The SW-520 bass modules I picked up from the distributor myself. Each speaker was single boxed weighing a stout 71lb and protected by a combination of hard Styrofoam inserts and a softer foam frame on the top and bottom. The finish was further protected by a white cloth sack of somewhat thicker material than the mains.

The woofer bases have a tall narrow front to match the 7-inch width of the monitors and are 29.5 inches high (plus spikes) to optimize the listening height. They have a deep 15-inch profile with the top back edge cut back at a 45° angle from the back edge of the monitor which aesthetically makes the combination appear like a polished single entity and from a practical standpoint gives easier access to the binding posts. A flush-mounted grill on the upper inside portion of each woofer base hides the single 7-inch woofer. Fit and finish matched the S-520 and execution was again flawless.

Usher’s choice to add integral plinths to the woofer sections was easily missed at first glance but certainly not on first attempt to move them. The massive cast iron gives the design greater mass and stability and combined with the large adjustable brass spikes makes it considerably less prone to transmitting of resonance. There is real attention to detail here indicating that this project was approached very seriously.

The rear panel may prove daunting at first as there are altogether four pairs of gold-plated binding posts, with each double pair joined with gold-plated brass jumpers. Normally this would indicate bi-amping or internal biwiring capability but not here. The arrangement is actually simpler than it looks. Only one of the input pairs is wired to the crossover and only one of the top-mounted pairs is internally wired to feed the S-520 with a 200Hz-up filtered signal. One could run single or bi-wire jumpers.

This allows for some degree of flexibility in system tuning. Substituting different jumper cables can fine-tune the character especially of the S-520s. To demonstrate this, JPS Labs was kind enough to include some of their own jumpers and several lengths of Ultraconductor 2 speaker cable. This gave me opportunity to see the S-520/SW520s performance in an array of mix and match circumstances.

Setup:

Initial listening was done with the S-520s bi-wired with Audio Art Reference and running full-range atop the SW-520s which served purely as speaker stands. Following these sessions the SW-520/S-520s were tested in various configurations. The benchmark configuration using the supplied jumpers with a single run of Audio Art Reference cable into the SW-520s and then a JPS Labs jumper cable to the mains with JPS Ultaconductor 2 cable. JPS Labs jumpers then replaced the stock jumpers. Next I tried a loom comprised exclusively of JPS Labs. A mixed session followed with Audio Art cable from the amp, JPS jumpers and the Signal Silver Reference biwire to the monitors.

Issues:

I encountered a few minor issues with one of the SW-520 bass modules which was easily remedied. On initial testing, the right woofer exhibited distortion at moderate levels to have me contact Usher. They immediately shipped a replacement woofer but in the interim the original regained its composure and was never replaced. I also discovered that the binding post to the monitor was wired out of phase on the same mass module. This was resolved by running the jumpers in reverse. So much for preliminaries. On to listening!

 

 

• "The Jovial Broome Man" from the Best of Baltimore Consort [DOR-90023] demonstrates the virtues of minimal microphone technique and unbridled dynamics. A wonderfully risqué little piece with vocals and instruments captured with subtle details and real acoustical space.

• "Fanfare for the Common Man" from FIM Super Sounds III [FIMXR24 073] is a Winston Ma remaster of the Reference Recordings classic by Professor Johnson. It has all the right stuff, massive attack, generous decay and the sheer weight conveyed on the drums for always a good system workout.

• "Lost Love" from The Lightkeepers: Pinar Toprak [Moviescore Media MMS-10012] is a haunting soundtrack that captures a sense of melancholy with symphonic sweep and the local texture of America’s east coast with a distinct flavor of violin work. Impressive work from Toprak and the Pro Arte Orchestra of Belgrade.

• "Can Can: All Star Percussion Ensemble" from Top 12 in Gold Plus [Golden String Audiophile Repertory FIM GS DXD 001] is Winston Ma demonstration material remastered in 24-bit 352.8kHz. Fast attacks and excellent localization of instruments on a huge clear soundstage serve a whimsical percussive interpretation of Offenbach’s material.

• "Andy Lex" and "Cooper, Thanks for the Birds" from Ladybirds: Regional Community Theatre: Tyler Pursel & Teeter Sperber [Creep Records P 95991] is an unusual rock concept album built upon the style of modern stage musicals, capturing innocence through wisdom of relationships. Bouncy synth, piano, boys choir and Beatlesque homage drift from light to powerfully dark. Well recorded with artificial soundscape and good bass authority. Something a little different for those who explore the eclectic.

• "Into the Light" from Hand Built by Robots: Newton Faulkner [Brightside Recordings 88697113062] demonstrates Faulkner’s rapid fire lyrics and explosive guitar work that manage to weave a tapestry of remarkable insight and intelligence into ambitious and entertaining musical material. Recorded with transparency, detail and immediacy as a priority.

• "Love on Your Side" from The best of the Thompson Twins Greatest Mixes has extended and dimensionally enhanced remixes of the group’s classic 80’s pop material. High contrast frequency extremes, clean midrange, decent dynamics and a wall-to-wall artificial soundstage done with flair and fun.

• "Soul of Great Drum Music" from Usher be There is Usher’s own demo disc with a wealth of well-recorded and challenging material. This cut is a percussive dream with subtle detail, dynamics, great instrument localization, acoustic space and the kick of massive drums.

Resolution and Dynamics:

The S-520/SW-520 combination had an engaging level of dynamic liveliness. Overt swings were handled with respectable authority and lower level changes were tracked with a level of differentiation that was worthy of comparison to more expensive designs. In some of the cabling configurations the upper midrange became slightly pronounced to be just shy of pushing the speaker into an analytical character but coupled with a very transparent midrange came off sounding as though it had a higher degree of articulation. Bass macro dynamics were surprisingly well handled at reasonable levels and the combined floorstander exhibited greatly enhanced capabilities over a much wider range. Resolution on the SW-520 was good maintaining the overall character of the main speaker with excellent control and definition into the lowermost octaves.

Dynamics and bass performance were comparable to the Mark & Daniel Diamond with a slight nod to the M&D on dynamics and one to Usher for demonstrating slightly better extension and greater ease. As an even more upscale comparison, the Apogee Duetta Sigs went down lower with better coherence but the Usher combination fared far better than expected and rivaled the resolution and dynamic abilities of some of the ribbon hybrids in the former Apogee Centaur line plus outperformed them in bass control and integration.

The Usher combination performed best with playback levels from low to natural where it maintained dynamic and frequency linearity extremely well. This was significant. It allowed playback at real life acoustic levels with accurate dynamic gradations to give the music a more realistic illusion. While the combination played reasonably loud, it was no PA party system. Driven above reasonable levels, the S-520 began to hit its limits and although the SW-520 could be pushed a little further, coherence was compromised and the seams showed.

Frequency characteristics:

The pairing of S-520 and SW-520 retained the monitor’s strengths of neutral response and midrange authenticity but built on them by adding weight to the lower octaves without drawing attention. The quality and quantity of bass were good to within the limits of the SW-520 and the two paired quite seamlessly with a relatively transparent character when not cranked to extreme levels. This acquitted itself well as an almost full-range system and did so with good authority and control. The overall result was a vastly improved speaker which played back a little louder than before and flexed real muscle and power over a wider range. The S-520/SW-520 pair played with a single voice as opposed to betray a sham marriage of disparate devices. As a comparable alternative, the Apogee hybrid line kept coming to mind, with both displaying similar levels of warmth, richness and tonal neutrality. That’s good company for a product claiming mere budget aspirations.

Depending on choice of cables, the character could be adjusted from midrange-centric through transparent so it should be easily matched to a wide variety of systems and tastes. Bass control remained good regardless and the SW-520 never drew attention unless the response was deliberately tailored into upper bass lushness or severe leanness in the crossover range. Paired with a system of those characteristics pulled apart some of the seamless character. The speakers preferred electronics and cable combinations that were neutral or just slightly warm.

It should be noted that the SW designation is a misnomer. You will hear but not feel excellent bass. Usher specs the bass tower down to an honest 38 cycles and while the speaker extends past that point with authority, it does not reach subsonic territory. So while it is a very good woofer, it is not by definition a subwoofer. It does however get close and does so in an impressive fashion to leave few people short-changed. 

Soundstaging and imaging:

Since the S-520 on its own was stunning considering price, the hardest task for the designers here was not to sacrifice anything with the addition of more electronics and cabling. The S-520/SW-520 pairing built on that performance by adding size and proportion to the lower registers. Where the S-520 had obvious limitations, the combination did not. Instruments descending through the bass range maintained their size and gained a visceral presence which the standalone S-520 only hinted at. The floorstander threw out a wall-to-wall stage with good,depth, projection and height where the recording allowed, then populated that stage with life-sized images rather than pristine miniatures, behaving here more like a panel speaker. The overall soundstage and images were a little tighter than my Apogees and closer in character to the Mark and Daniel Diamond + but where the M&D gave a somewhat more forward presentation, the Usher concentrated its plane a little further back. The S-520/SW-520s also managed an excellent disappearing act, becoming incidental in the soundstage to approach the performance of the ribbon hybrids that occupied the same room position in the past.

The sweet spot was generous and the multi-driver speaker maintained a cohesive character over a wide listening area. The best soundstage occurred in an equilateral triangle not unlike the Apogees but the speakers had a wider area of acceptable seating positions. The only limit was being confined to a certain range of height. In that respect it was less forgiving than the Apogees but more so than the more limited vertical dispersion of the M&D air-motion transformer.

Cable interactions:

The basic jumpers are more than a good starting point. Performance was more than adequate in all parameters and rich in the midrange with ample detail weight and authority. No one is likely to walk away unimpressed or disappointed. Yet careful selection of upgrade jumpers and cables fill out the capabilities. The JPS jumpers between SW-520 and S-520 offered the simplest connection route where distance was too short to warrant a full cable run.

In my listening sessions, the array of cables on hand allowed for a wide variety of sonic signatures as though from a painter’s palette. The JPS cables displayed superb midrange focus and a detailed smooth treble coupled to an understated incidental bass which simply occurred as required. The Audio Art SE cable added authority and control to the bottom and threw the soundstage outwards in all directions. The introduction of the Signal Silver Reference brought the mains back to biwire status, a condition they adored maintaining a tonal balance similar to the JPS and when combined with the Audio Art cable to the amplifier creating huge bass authority. Different matches broadened the soundstage, refined the frequency response and increased dynamic range and detail to a level that should satisfy all but unreasonable expectations.

The big picture:

Usher created the SW-520 to expand the capabilities of the S-520 by extending bass response and increasing overall dynamics. That objective has been more than fulfilled. The integration of the two units is virtually seamless. The woofer has good control, power and responsiveness to match the S-520 and simply extends its range downward to let the combination speak as a single integrated voice over a respectable volume range. The combined speaker’s handling of large complex pieces gave my own Apogees a surprisingly good run, displaying all the best characteristics of a ‘big’ loudspeaker and giving up little by comparison. Not quite as loud but close; not quite as expansive but close; not quite as resolved or cohesive but disproportionately close. The tonal flavor at optimum was a little warmer and more forgiving than the Mark & Daniel Diamond and closer to my older Apogee Centaurs. The S-520/SW 520 also retained frequency and dynamic integrity at progressively lower listening levels in the fashion of those speakers.

Conclusion:

How many have ‘traded up’ from a treasured product only to sacrifice something in turn? Not here. Owners and prospective owners of the S-520 monitor can live bigger without regrets. Usher’s S-520/SW-520 combination offers a clear upgrade path from monitor to floorstander that challenges pricier fare while matching with ancillaries from modest to top tier. Those preferring to leapfrog the evolutionary path and invest in both pieces immediately can do so with confidence and save the anticipation. Either way is a winning scenario.

Who won’t be impressed? The SW-520 is capable of superb bass quality but anyone demanding subsonic depth will want more. The dynamics though improved will still not be acceptable to those whose playback levels approach hearing damage. Other than that, this product should have immense appeal. Usher has lavished a high level of attention on the quality of this value proposition. The sound is far from budget and the value far beyond the ordinary. Easily recommended as a high-performance high-end bargain.

Odsłuch


Sources: Luxman Brid CD Player modified by Audio Upgrades to be a now tube-less, zero oversampling machine with integral volume control
Audio Space CDP 8A CD Player
Preamplifier: Audio Space Reference 2S
Amplifier:Bel Canto 200.4
Speakers: Apogee Duetta Signature, Paradigm Servo 15 subwoofer
Cables: Signal Cable Silver Reference interconnects and speaker cables, digital optical and coax cable, Audio Art SE cable loom
Resonance Control: Solid Tech, EquaRack Footers, Weizhi Precision Gold Glory footers, Boston Audio TuneBlock2 footers, Superspikes, and Black Diamond
Powerline conditioning: Noise Destroyer power filtration
Accessories: TrueHarmonix Black Magic CD Mat
Room size: 12' x 17'