April 15, 2009
Boston Acoustics CS-226
times of financial uncertainty, high-value products become even more attractive. Last
December, I favorably reviewed
the Elemental Designs A6-6T6 tower speaker ($500 USD per pair). Now, hot on the EDs
heels, comes another floorstander at the same price: the Boston Acoustics CS-226.
The CS-226 ($499.98/pair) is petite as tower speakers go:
37.8" high, 8.25" wide, and 10.4" deep. For stability, each speaker has
four outriggers to somewhat broaden its stance, but the CS-226 is not designed for spikes;
rather, it makes do with simple rubber feet. The cabinet is of 0.75"-thick MDF, and
each speaker weighs 33 pounds. As you might expect from that weight, the enclosures
arent completely dead; still, when I rapped them with my knuckles, they gave out a
solid thunk, indicating that there were few resonances caused by any lack of
internal damping. The review samples were clad in a vinyl cherry finish as good as any
vinyl Ive seen on a speaker. Black is also available.
Each speaker has two woofers: 6.5" plastic cones
injected with graphite that operate up to 2.8kHz, at which point theyre crossed over
to a 1" Kortec soft-dome tweeter. According to Boston Acoustics, Kortec is "a
synthetic fabric Boston developed for exclusive use in our dome tweeters. It has very good
thermal qualities for holding its mechanical characteristics over a wide temperature
range, and is light weight with high internal damping characteristics for extended but
smooth frequency response." There is a port on the rear, and amplifier connections
are made via one pair of good-quality (though not elaborate) binding posts -- no biwiring
for these babies. The CS-226 is rated fairly efficient at 89dB/2.83V/m. Boston Acoustics
claims a frequency response of 46Hz to 25kHz, ±3dB.
The only disappointment was the sketchy, generalized
instructions. In just two booklet-sized pages, the owner is: 1) given the basics of how to
unpack the system; 2) advised that floorstanding speakers are designed to be the left and
right speakers of both stereo and multichannel systems, while bookshelf and center-channel
models are configured for tabletop/shelf use; 3) instructed how to hook up the speakers;
4) advised to set a Dolby Digital, DTS, or Dolby Pro Logic home-theater system for
floorstanding or bookshelf models; 5) encouraged to add a Boston Acoustics subwoofer; and
6) informed of the five-year limited warranty, maintenance and service procedures, and
what to do if service seems necessary. However, no advice is offered about proper
placement of a specific speaker model: I can imagine an entry-level buyer placing a pair
of rear-ported CS-226s against a wall, then complaining that the bass is boomy. If
anything, its entry-level buyers who usually need the most guidance and assurance.
System and setup
During most of the review period, the CS-226s were
connected to my main system: Dual CS-5000 turntable with Grado Gold or Shure M97Xe
cartridge; and Sony CDP-X303ES CD player and Magnum Dynalab Etude tuner run through a Linn
Majik 1P integrated amplifier. Interconnects were Linn (CD) and Straight Wire (tuner), and
speaker cables were 14-gauge AR. I compared the Bostons mostly with my NEAR 50Me Mk.II
tower speakers ($2500/pair when I bought them in 1997), but also with the Elemental
Designs A6-6T6s noted above. Toward the end of the review period I swapped out the Sony CD
player for a Marantz SA-8003 SACD/CD player driving, via Dayton Audio interconnect, a
Marantz PM-8003 integrated amp (reviews here soon). Power came from a dedicated circuit
feeding a PS Audio Soloist in-wall power conditioner and surge suppressor. My listening
room measures 11W x 17L x 7H, is done in drywall (but with wall
treatments), and has a cork floor, most of which is covered by a 9 x 12 rug.
I first set up the CS-226s about 5 apart and
3.5 out from the front wall, but the bass was underwhelming. After moving them
around a bit more, I found they sounded much better about 6 apart and 20" from
the front wall.
A much greater difference can be made in a systems
sound by changing the speakers than by changing any other component. This review offers
three distinct speaker "sounds."
First, I pitted the Boston Acoustics CS-226 against the
Elemental Designs A6-6T6. As often happens, the first track I played was "You Can
Call Me Al," from Paul Simons Graceland (CD, Warner Bros. R2 78904). My
initial impressions were that the BAs sounded polite and a bit disengaged, while the EDs
were more forward and put forth a more rollicking performance, although with muddier, less
precise bass. Rhythmically, there was nothing wrong with the Bostons; they just
werent "getting into" the tune. Their overall sound improved when I turned
up the volume, and this was when I discovered that they wanted to be closer to the wall
behind them. The soundstage was broader with the Elementals, but both pairs of speakers
offered up good depth of field.
Then, for a little Midwestern America music, I pulled out
the soundtrack of the film version of The Music Man (CD, Warner Bros. 1459-2) -- in
this case, The Buffalo Bills version of "Good Night Ladies," sung in
counterpoint with the womens chorus singing "Pick-a-little,
Talk-a-little." The music, by the Iowa-born and -bred Meredith Willson, was best
served by the Iowa-born and -bred Elemental Designs, largely because their warmth softened
the rather too-crisp CD mastering. The Bostons, on the other hand, emphasized the sizzly
highs. I kept wishing for a parametric equalizer to tame the sound of this CD.
"The JAM Song" is a beautifully recorded tribute
by a Dallas jingle company, JAM Productions, to all the radio stations who bought JAM
jingles during the firms early years. Its something only a radio junkie could
love, but I use it as a reference recording for its high recording quality. When I
listened to the song through the Elementals, the bass seemed muddled and the highs muted;
the Bostons seemed to have faster response on the bottom, and airier highs.
"Mandolin Rain," from The Way It Is, by
Bruce Hornsby and the Range (CD, RCA Victor PCD1-5904), has always been one of my favorite
tracks -- not only for the song itself, but for its sound as well. The differences in that
sound through the Elementals and Bostons were stark, but it was the Elementals that I
thought did the better job. Their warmth suited Hornsbys piano, while the Bostons
made it all sound a bit too lean, almost "tinkly."
I followed this match with a mismatch, at least in terms of
price. My NEAR 50Me Mk.IIs, which cost $2500/pair 12 years ago, are true three-way
speakers, each with an 8.25" woofer, a 4" midrange, and a 1.1"
inverted-dome tweeter. Theyre also almost a foot taller than the Bostons. While the
NEARs like to be about 5.5 apart and 2.5 to 3 out from the front wall,
the Bostons, as noted above, sounded best when 6 apart and 18-20" out from the
When I dont begin my review listening with the Paul
Simon track, I begin with "Bali Run," from Fourplays Fourplay (CD,
Warner Bros. 26656-2) -- I love the bass transients, and the guitar and piano parts. The
major difference between these speakers, as you might expect, was in the bass and midbass.
The NEAR dug deeper but didnt sound as precise; the Boston put out less bass
overall, but sounded quicker -- perhaps because the sound was coming from two smaller,
lighter, plastic-and-graphite cones instead of the NEARs larger, heavier,
metal-ceramic woofer. The Bostons highs seemed more extended, with perhaps a
slightly better reproduction of the overtones.
Listening to "Smooth," from Santanas Supernatural
(CD, Arista 19080-2-RE1), was instructive. The CS-226 had a crisper high end and less
lower-midrange energy, which gave the tune a proper performance. The Bostons depth
and soundstage width was good, if not the deepest Ive ever experienced with this
track. Again, the bass line was better through the 50Me Mk.IIs; although the slight
midbass bump in the CS-226s response in my room gave a decent impression of low
bass, serious low-bass reproduction will require the use of a subwoofer with the Bostons.
I then pulled out Ravels Le Tombeau de Couperin,
performed by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony in a fine analog recording from the
1960s (CD, VoxBox CDX5032). The NEAR had the more rounded midrange sound, while the CS-226
offered more finely etched mid-treble and treble. While each speaker offered a different
sound, I could easily live with either.
Overall, while the CS-226 sounded somewhat more polite than
the NEAR 50Me Mk.II, in general I was quite satisfied with the Bostons sound, which
struck me as lean: tight bass, spare mids, crisp highs. The Bostons mids,
particularly, impressed me as being truer to the music than the mids of either the NEAR (a
bit too much low-midrange "blowziness") or the Elemental Designs A6-6T6 (too
warm for my taste and electronics). However, the Boston made certain demands on the room
and the listener. It didnt want to be right up against the wall, but didnt
want to be too far out from it either; and it liked some space between it and any
sidewall. Also, once I moved out of the sweet spot formed by the third apex of an
equilateral triangle, the soundstage pretty much collapsed; they had a fairly small sweet
spot. And for truly full-range music reproduction, they need the help of a subwoofer.
(Boston makes a companion sub, the CS Sub10.)
Clint Eastwoods Dirty Harry said, "A man has to
know his limitations." So does a loudspeaker. And within its limitations -- not too
large a room, careful placement, clean source material, clean amplification -- the CS-226
is a fantastic value. Its well designed, well made, and fairly priced. It offers a
sound that contrasts sharply with that of the Elemental Designs A6-6T6 towers at the same
price, and its efficiency and crisp reproduction mean that it will probably sound fabulous
with tube electronics (which Id have reported on here had my Dynaco PAS-3x and
Stereo 70 not been out of service). Anyone looking for an entry-level floorstanding
speaker for music or home theater should hear the Boston Acoustics CS-226s.
. . . Thom Moon
Price of equipment reviewed