March 15, 2009

Energy CB-20 Loudspeakers


The Jesuits say that if you give them a boy to age seven, they’ll show you the man. I think I began listening to music -- with some awareness of what I was listening to -- when I was 10 or 11, on my first Sony Walkman, and, like a Jesuitical training, this early experience seems to have shaped my audiophile preferences. Don’t tell anyone, but I still like cheap earbuds like the ones I used to wear around my parents’ house as I listened to AC/DC’s Back in Black, and I still like bass a little more than I should. Bass is like carbs: You know it’s bad for you, but once you’ve got the taste, it’s hard to resist.

The challenge faced by every bookshelf speaker is bass reproduction and extension. The laws of physics dictate that a speaker’s bass response is dependent on the amount of air moved by a given driver, and the drivers of a speaker small enough to fit on a bookshelf simply can’t be that large. Energy’s CB-20, a sharp-looking, carefully thought-out and engineered bookshelf model ($350 USD per pair), meets this challenge head on.


Energy, which used to be one of a family of brands owned by Audio Products International in Toronto, Canada, is currently owned by the Klipsch Group. While Energy markets the CB-20’s styling and features as part of its line of home-theater systems, a pair of CB-20s can also serve as the voices of a traditional two-channel audio system.

The CB-20 is a two-way, magnetically shielded bass-reflex monitor. Its rear-firing port makes it less ideal for a bookshelf or entertainment center than for a set of stands, and Energy supplies two foam port plugs that allow you to tweak the speaker’s bass performance, in case you find it necessary to thin out the bass (perhaps when the CB-20s are placed flush against a wall). The cabinet is of average size and weight (12"H x 7"W x 9"D, 11 pounds) and comes in a single choice of finish: black ash. This high-quality, realistically tactile-looking vinyl veneer is nicely offset by the glossy black baffle, whose sloping lower edge captures the light in appealing ways. The 1" aluminum-dome tweeter (protected by a black plastic "Y") and 6.5" woofer, both colored silver, give the CB-20 a high-tech look that belies its modest price. Around back, in addition to the port, are gold-plated five-way binding posts and a threaded insert for wall mounting.

Energy claims for the CB-20 a frequency response of 60Hz-20kHz, a crossover frequency of 2.2kHz, an efficiency of 92dB, and 8-ohm impedance. My auditions were done with the CB-20s set up on 24"-high speaker stands (which put the tweeters at just about the level of my ears when seated), about 8’ apart, slightly toed-in, and with their grilles off.


The CB-20s replaced a pair of Athena Technologies AS-B2.2s, a discontinued model of almost equivalent size and engineering philosophy that sold for $249/pair. My system comprises an Oppo DV-970HD universal disc player linked by Monster Cable interconnects to an NAD C325BEE integrated amplifier. The Energys were hooked up to the NAD with 9’ lengths of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cable.


In the owner’s manual, Energy stresses a break-in period, but the CB-20s sounded first-rate right out of the box: rich, robust, easily driven (a wide amplification range of 20-150Wpc is recommended), and able to fully retain that sonic character, whether whispering acoustic jazz or pounding out rock’n’roll.

The four solo albums Rod Stewart made from 1969 to 1972 may have made the argument that he was the best singer in the world, and his 1971 album, Every Picture Tells a Story (CD, Mercury 558060), is that period’s high-water mark. Led by Ron Wood’s slide guitar, Martin Quittenton’s rhythm guitar, and Mickey Waller’s titanic drumming, no acoustically based band ever rocked harder, and few groups have ever communicated as much camaraderie and sheer joy in music making. Both of those claims were ratified by the CB-20s’ ability to establish the group’s presence and then "disappear" into the soundstage. Through the Energys, Waller’s drums on the title track had the immediacy of a live performance: realistic and impactful. Stewart’s voice, passionate and unrelenting, was projected with dynamic accuracy, and the twin guitars were detailed and airy, with the high frequencies particularly delicate and highly resolved.

Two years after Every Picture, the Who arguably reached their pinnacle with Quadrophenia (CD, MCA MCAD-6895). The more I listen to it, the more I realize that it’s bassist John Entwistle’s album. Through the CB-20s, the transients in "The Real Me" were transparent and Entwistle’s attacks dynamic, and were tied together by the precision of the bassist’s gallop across his strings. In "Cut My Hair," the CB-20s properly put Pete Townshend’s sweet vocal in the foreground, while his acoustic guitar’s fret board shimmered and its body resonated with woody timbre. The greatest service performed by the CB-20s, however, was on behalf of Keith Moon, whose virtuosic drumming throughout this album was rendered with believable low-level clarity and punch, the cymbals having long, natural decays and crisp airiness.

For a relatively small speaker, the CB-20 offered an impressive measure of bass-level information. To my ears, the Energy’s sonic signature leaned away from the clinical, re-creating the higher frequencies with a smooth rolloff that complemented its bass-focused sound. On balance, the CB-20’s strength was in producing tightly defined, musically full-bodied sound that did justice to good recordings and wrung the most from mediocre ones. With Entwistle and Moon in the rhythm section, the CB-20s quenched my thirst for low-end notes.

I then turned to the Who’s definitive versions of "Baba O’Riley" and "Won’t Get Fooled Again," recorded live at Shepperton Studios for The Kids Are Alright (CD, MCA MCAD-543694) -- 15 minutes’ worth of Entwistle’s careening intensity and Moon’s barely controlled fury. The relatively small CB-20s provided just the right amount of slam. With Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Burnin’: Deluxe Edition (CD, Island 335902), bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett loped with a natural linearity and a thrilling mellowness that put the band in the room and pushed the sonic floor toward the basement. On Luc’s Lantern (CD, Thirsty Ear 57158), William Parker’s acoustic bass sits high in the mix; the CB-20s conveyed plenty of exhilarating pluck and thwack while deftly handling the lightness and tonal variety of Eri Yamamoto’s piano.

In "Makin’ Whoopee," from Branford Marsalis’s Trio Jeepy (CD, Columbia CK 44199), Jeff "Tain" Watts’s cymbals rang and Milt Hinton’s old-school bass resonated presence across the soundstage, enabling the music to cross the unnaturally imposed boundaries of this track’s severe channel separation. Rounding out this rhythmic, melodically improvisational trio session was Marsalis sounding forthright and emphatic on tenor sax in "The Nearness of You," and greasy in "Gutbucket Steepy."

Up to this point I’d kept the volume to a reasonable level, with an occasional up-bump for an added bit of excitement. But sometimes I need it loud, and I was able to crank it up as much as I could bear for Keith Richards’ second solo album, Main Offender (CD, Virgin V2-86499). For this last test, I put away my CDs and patched my iPod into the NAD C325BEE. Steve Jordan’s drums cracked, the guitars of Richards and Waddy Wachtel slashed and stung, and in "Wicked As It Seems," the depth of field implied by the contrast between the backing vocals and Keef’s wheezy, up-front croak was gripping.


For Chris Whitley’s Dirt Floor (CD, Messenger 4), I reconnected the Athena AS-B2.2s. A two-way monitor engineered similarly to the Energy CB-20, the 2.2 cost $101 less per pair when still available. However, it lacks the CB-20’s glitzy fit’n’finish, its cabinet sounds a bit more hollow when rapped, and through it music sounds more loose and woolly, almost tubelike. But any speaker costing less than $400/pair is a collection of sonic compromises; the Athena errs decidedly on the warm side, while the Energy offered taut, engaging bass and, most of all, balance.

Through the Athenas, Chris Whitley’s vocal shifts in "Indian Summer," from high falsetto to reassuring baritone to anxious tenor, weren’t as tightly defined or as well delineated as through the Energys. Nor did this track quite retain its bluesy relentlessness through the Athenas; as Whitley’s slide squeaked up and down the neck of his guitar, the music lost a bit of air and clarity. Through the CB-20s, however, the stomp of "Scrapyard Lullaby" was believably realistic, and the wistful mood created by Whitley’s National Steel and gentle vocal was liquid and soothing.


A rule of thumb among audiophiles is that the better something looks, the worse it sounds. If this were true, the Energy CB-20 could not qualify as an audiophile speaker. It’s attractive enough to match any décor, or the taste of any age group or significant other, and it can handle the complexity and dynamic range of digital music with grace. Its uncolored sound and skills at imaging are rarely found for $350/pair; its designers, having paid equal attention to musical truth and pleasing appearance, deliver high quality and superior value in a single package.

In the modern lines of its design and the dimension and definition inherent in its engineering, with the CB-20 Energy makes a bold, impressive statement. I found the Energy CB-20 convincing, involving, and remarkably fun to listen to, with power and presence disproportionate to its size. The CB-20 was balanced at very low volumes, remained free of distortion as the volume was potted up, produced a coherent sound founded on midrange accuracy, offered clear, accurate highs, and packed visceral bass blows with an unquestionable ability to play loud. It competes admirably with other models in the crowded category of bookshelf speakers, and even in the category of entry-level floorstanders -- and at a manageable price. A pair of them might even stave off a case of audiophile upgradeitis.

. . . Jeff Stockton

Price of equipment reviewed