March 15, 2009
Energy CB-20 Loudspeakers
The Jesuits say that if you give them a boy
to age seven, theyll 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. Dont tell anyone, but I still like cheap earbuds like the
ones I used to wear around my parents house as I listened to AC/DCs Back in
Black, and I still like bass a little more than I should. Bass is like carbs: You know
its bad for you, but once youve got the taste, its hard to resist.
The challenge faced by every bookshelf speaker is bass
reproduction and extension. The laws of physics dictate that a speakers 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 cant be that large. Energys
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-20s 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 speakers 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 Cables Double Run speaker cable.
In the owners 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
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 periods high-water
mark. Led by Ron Woods slide guitar, Martin Quittentons rhythm guitar, and
Mickey Wallers 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 groups
presence and then "disappear" into the soundstage. Through the Energys,
Wallers drums on the title track had the immediacy of a live performance: realistic
and impactful. Stewarts 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 its bassist John Entwistles album. Through the
CB-20s, the transients in "The Real Me" were transparent and Entwistles
attacks dynamic, and were tied together by the precision of the bassists gallop
across his strings. In "Cut My Hair," the CB-20s properly put Pete
Townshends sweet vocal in the foreground, while his acoustic guitars 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 Energys 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-20s 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 Whos definitive versions of
"Baba ORiley" and "Wont Get Fooled Again," recorded live
at Shepperton Studios for The Kids Are Alright (CD, MCA MCAD-543694) -- 15
minutes worth of Entwistles careening intensity and Moons 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 Lucs Lantern (CD, Thirsty Ear 57158), William Parkers
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 Yamamotos piano.
In "Makin Whoopee," from Branford
Marsaliss Trio Jeepy (CD, Columbia CK 44199), Jeff "Tain"
Wattss cymbals rang and Milt Hintons old-school bass resonated presence across
the soundstage, enabling the music to cross the unnaturally imposed boundaries of this
tracks 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 Id 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 Jordans 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 Keefs
wheezy, up-front croak was gripping.
For Chris Whitleys 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-20s glitzy fitnfinish, 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,
Through the Athenas, Chris Whitleys vocal shifts in
"Indian Summer," from high falsetto to reassuring baritone to anxious tenor,
werent as tightly defined or as well delineated as through the Energys. Nor did this
track quite retain its bluesy relentlessness through the Athenas; as Whitleys 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 Whitleys 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. Its 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