April 15, 2009

Boston Acoustics CS-226 Loudspeakers

In these 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 ED’s heels, comes another floorstander at the same price: the Boston Acoustics CS-226.

Description

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 aren’t 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 I’ve 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 they’re 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, it’s 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 11’W x 17’L x 7’H, 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.

Sound

A much greater difference can be made in a system’s 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 Simon’s 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 weren’t "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 women’s 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 firm’s early years. It’s 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 Hornsby’s 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. They’re 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 front wall.

When I don’t begin my review listening with the Paul Simon track, I begin with "Bali Run," from Fourplay’s 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 didn’t 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 NEAR’s larger, heavier, metal-ceramic woofer. The Boston’s highs seemed more extended, with perhaps a slightly better reproduction of the overtones.

Listening to "Smooth," from Santana’s 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 I’ve 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 Ravel’s 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 Boston’s sound, which struck me as lean: tight bass, spare mids, crisp highs. The Boston’s 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 didn’t want to be right up against the wall, but didn’t 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.)

Conclusion

Clint Eastwood’s 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. It’s 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 I’d 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