Usher Audio Technology S-520
While many audiophiles nirvana is a
large, floorstanding speaker rated to reproduce frequencies from DC to UV, my quest has
been to find a really good small speaker. Thats partially due to the fact
that where most people have radios, I have stereo systems -- four at last count, three of
them in rooms where big speakers just wont work. Ive been through a bunch of
decent small speakers over the years, beginning with the Advent 3 (bought in 1980 for $70
and enjoyed for many years), and continuing through PSBs Alpha A/V and Mini,
KEFs Coda 7 (in its day, the best-selling speaker in Europe), and my favorite, the
Celestion 3, the reference speaker for my office system.
So I looked forward to reviewing Usher Audios S-520
($479 USD per pair). The S-520 is Ushers entry-level model: a small, two-way
bookshelf speaker with 1" dome tweeter crossed over at 2kHz to a 5" mid-woofer,
and a front port (a smart move for a bookshelf speaker that might actually be used on a
bookshelf). My review samples were finished in what Usher calls white and what I call
ivory. While Im not enamored of the color (black, red, yellow enamel, and natural
birch are also available), the finish is flawless -- as fine as Ive seen on any
speaker. The S-520 is about 12" high, just over 7" wide, and 10.5" deep,
and is fairly heavy at 15 pounds. Unusual for an entry-level speaker, it can be biwired
and has hefty binding posts. According to Ushers specs, the S-520 is not
particularly sensitive, but 86dB/W/m is not an unusual sensitivity rating for a small
speaker. Its claimed frequency response is 52Hz-20kHz, +/-3dB.
System and setup
For this review, I used the S-520s only in my office
system: Sangean HDT-1x AM/FM/HD tuner, Onkyo DX-6800 CD player, and JVC F-41 turntable
with Grado Green cartridge, all feeding a McIntosh C-27 preamplifier and Carver TFM-15cb
power amp. The systems usual speakers are Celestion 3s ($299/pair in the mid-1990s,
since discontinued). For deep bass, I call on an Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer ($199,
discontinued) fed directly from the McIntoshs center-channel output, so its
totally independent of the satellite speakers. Speaker cables are 6 lengths of
12-gauge stranded copper -- nothing fancy. The Ushers were set on 31"-tall MDF stands
from Sanus Systems. I found the S-520s not at all fussy about positioning in my room, but
for nearly all of my listening they were 18" from the front wall and about 5.5
apart. I found I didnt need to toe them in -- their horizontal dispersion was very
Ive always loved the Celestion 3s effortless
reproduction of everything but really hard rock, but the Usher S-520s beat them. The
crossover from the mid-woofer to the tweeter was seamless -- each S-520 provided a near
"point source," and the overall sound was extremely sonorous and of a piece. The
S-520 also had slightly greater bass extension than the Celestion 3: when I compared the
two without the subwoofer, the Ushers always gave more bass response. But in another
regard, the Celestion and Usher were very close: the overall reproduction of each was
I particularly liked the Ushers reproduction of male
voices, which sound nasal through many speakers. Ive always considered the Celestion
3 to be about as good as any small speaker Ive heard at reproducing the male voice,
but the Usher S-520 was better -- its reproduction had so little nasality that it simply
wasnt a factor in my listening. I first noticed this with radio DJs, and confirmed
it by listening to singers such as Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra. Very impressive.
I use "You Can Call Me Al," from Paul
Simons Graceland [CD, Warner Bros./Rhino R2 78904], for many reasons: lots of
deep percussives; the pennywhistle break; the complex bass part; the strong brass; and
Simons vocals and guitar. Without the Advent sub there wasnt much low bass,
but what the Ushers did reproduce was solid and realistic. Adding the sub at a low level
just filled out the lower registers nicely. The Usher has what British reviewers call
"slam": it handled transients extremely well, without lag, or any sense that the
speaker was falling behind what the amplifier was sending it. The Celestion 3, by
comparison, is good, able to reproduce most transients nearly as well as the S-520, though
not quite as well. With this track, the clear winner was the Usher S-520.
Another song with great production values is Maureen
McGoverns "Anyone Who Had a Heart," from Baby Im Yours [CD,
RCA Victor 60943-2] -- its a tour de force for McGovern and producer Ron Barron.
"Eating the mike" means that a singer is practically swallowing the microphone.
It makes guys voices sound deeper, and womens sound more intimate. On this
track McGovern doesnt so much eat the mike as devour it -- the sound is intense and
vibrant. Her accompaniment is largely piano, bass, and drums, with a smattering of other
instruments, and the bass and percussion are recorded intensely "hot." For most
small speakers, that would mean smeary sound, and with all the hoo-hah on this track even
the Celestion 3 sounds slightly congested. The Usher S-520 handled it all with aplomb.
Again: Advantage: Usher.
Compared to Maureen McGoverns big and meaty sound,
Gordon Lightfoots voice on his cover of Kris Kristofferson and Fred Fosters
"Me and Bobby McGee," from Lightfoots If You Could Read My Mind [LP,
Warner Bros. RS 6392], couldnt be more different. Ive always loved this
recording for Lightfoots mellow voice, Ry Cooders bottleneck guitar, the
heavily reverbd kneeslaps, and the recordings overall intimacy.
Lightfoots interpretation is fine, and the stereo soundstage is fabulous. With this
track, the Celestions and Ushers were fairly close. Both offered a bit of mellowness that
may or may not be part of the recording (my combo of JVC turntable and Grado cartridge
might have played a major role in this). The Celestions added a very slight nasality, the
Ushers a more mellow sound. Interestingly, the guitars sounded slightly more realistic
through the Celestions, the echo just a bit more spacious. But I wouldnt trade one
pair of speakers for the other.
Ive found that, in reviewing a loudspeaker, how it
handles transients is important: if theyre reproduced well, I usually find that many
of the speakers other attributes are good as well. And one-hit wonder Timbuk3s
"My Futures So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," from Greetings from
Timbuk3 [LP, IRS 5739], has transients in spades -- as well as killer harmonica and
electric guitar solos. This track was a bit more subdued through the Ushers, more mellow
and laid-back -- the Celestions were slightly more forward and, again, somewhat more
nasal. It was a matter of taste.
"Finally Found a Reason," from Art
Garfunkels Fate for Breakfast [LP, Columbia JC 35780], also showed off the
Ushers. As with several other cuts I played, the S-520s were a bit mellower, the
Celestions more forward -- producer Louie Sheltons guitar accompaniment sounded more
real through the Ushers, as did the backing singers. Here, I definitely give the nod to
Another cut Ive used for years is "Bali
Run," from Fourplays eponymous album [CD, Warner Bros. 26656-2], because it has
a lot of percussives both high and low, and a lot of really low bass runs. Again, the
Usher demonstrated slam superior to the Celestions. Mind you, both speakers were
good, but the Usher did a better job of discriminating among the really fast, tight
instrumental voices, and had just that extra bit of bass response: when the subwoofer
wasnt there, their sound was just a bit fuller.
Something new in my reviewing mix is Isaac Hayes
"Theme from Shaft," from the Stax box, found on a compilation disc
created by a friend. It features hot bass, strong horns, and insistent cymbals. Many
people now know Hayes only as the voice of "Chef" on Comedy Centrals South
Park, but those of us a bit older are most familiar with his magnum opus, the
soundtrack to the 1971 film Shaft. Hayess voice is extremely mellow, but it
so well complements the female backup vocalists. This track has a lot of very hot vocals,
and the Ushers just got out of the way and reproduced them flawlessly; the Celestions were
a bit more in my face. Overall, the Ushers provided the more realistic reproduction.
I then swapped Shaft for Schubert: to be precise,
the latters Piano Quintet in A Major, the "Trout," performed by the
Cleveland Quartet with pianist John OConor [CD, Telarc CD-80225], and concentrated
on the final movement, Allegro giusto. The Usher S-520s offered a very lush sound,
even more so than the Celestion 3s, and the instruments sounded closer. Again, this will
be a matter of taste; for different reasons, I like both. But the Ushers did chamber music
I then popped in Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops
recording of Leopold Stokowskis orchestration of J.S. Bachs "Little"
Fugue in G Minor, from The Fantastic Stokowski [CD, Telarc CD-80338]. Ive
used this fabulous recording for more than a decade to test the mettle of speakers large
and small, and the Ushers -- with some help from the Advent sub -- more than did it
justice. The piece begins with a single oboe, then builds to full orchestra, with lots of
bass and highs. The recordings articulation of individual instruments is amazing,
and the Ushers gave each its full due. Listening to this track through the Celestions,
Im in a really fine concert hall; through the Ushers, I was in Cincinnatis
Music Hall, where this disc was recorded, and which favors the strings. Stokowski knew
this -- he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony when he wrote this arrangement.
The Ushers definitely needed a subwoofer to reproduce the full range of orchestral
recordings such as this, but within their frequency limitations they did a fine job. Each
section was where it should be, and the soundstage was spot on. Its rare that a
small loudspeaker can provide such excellent sound.
In a word, the Usher Audio S-520 sounded fabulous.
Is it the nirvana of small speakers? Maybe not quite. But its the closest to my goal
of finding a really good small speaker that Ive heard. Its reproduction is detailed,
yet still able to produce a full sound in which the instruments that are supposed to blend
(say, massed strings) come out sounding as one -- and its finish is worthy of a
top-of-the-line speaker. Yet $479/pair cant be considered egregiously expensive. The
Usher S-520 is the small speaker to seriously consider.
Price of equipment reviewed