Usher Audio Technology X-718
Several years ago, when I was fairly new to high-end audio
and before I began reviewing equipment, I visited a Toronto audio shop to inquire about a
pair of loudspeakers designed and built in Asia. The salesman explained to me that while
great electronics were made in Asia, the best speakers came from Britain, Canada, and the
US. Therefore, his store didnt carry what I was looking for. At the time, I
didnt know if what he told me was true. But even if it was true then, it isnt
When I received for review a pair of X-718 loudspeakers
from Usher Audio Technology, a company based in Taiwan, Id never seriously listened
to a speaker from an Asian company. Now, having spent some time with the Ushers, its
obvious that the British, Americans, and Canadians arent the only ones who know how
to build speakers (not that I ever took the salesmans words as gospel; after all, he
was trying to sell me something he had in stock). In fact, Ill echo fellow
SoundStage! Network writer Jim Saxon, who muttered, in his "Jimmy
Awards" feature on January 15, 2005, that Usher might be on the brink of turning
the audio world upside down.
Although a relatively new quantity in global hi-fi circles,
Usher Audio Technology is not a newcomer. They began 35 years ago as a repair facility for
imported high-end audio gear, a year later began researching and designing amplifiers and
speakers, and by 1979 had introduced preamplifiers as well as class-A power amplifiers.
Whats interesting is that, until 2001, Usher sold almost nothing outside Taiwan.
That year, to expose their products to the international market, they showed them for the
first time at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. The response was reportedly
good; ever since, Ushers speakers have won praise and recognition on this side of
Ushers design work is not done exclusively in Taiwan.
Well-known American engineer Joseph DAppolito, inventor of the
midrange-tweeter-midrange driver configuration that bears his name, works for Usher as a
technical consultant. The company has combined its knowledge of driver design, cabinet
construction, and manufacturing with DAppolitos expertise in crossover design
to establish a product line that has been consistently applauded for its value-for-money
Ushers X series, of which the X-718 is part, is the
second from the top, just under the flagship Dancer series. The X series comprises three
bookshelf models, a center-channel, and a floorstander. The X-718 is a two-way bookshelf
measuring 15.4"H x 10"W x 16"D, weighing 30 pounds, and costing $1300 USD
per pair. The speakers considerable weight owes itself in no small part to the
1.5"-thick (!) MDF panels and solid-wood construction, which, combined with extensive
internal bracing, makes for one of the least resonant cabinets Ive ever rapped a
Each of the five available finishes -- piano black, ivory,
or silver; Gallardo yellow; and Enzo red -- is made using six coats of lacquer. The
hand-rubbed wood side panels tone down the high luster of the cabinet a bit, to give the
speaker a softer look. The review pair came finished in piano ivory, and I was surprised
when I saw and held them for the first time. The styling is striking; the wood panels and
sloped front and rear baffles give the X-718 a dramatic flair. And its substantial weight
seemed a good sign; most of the heavy, well-braced speakers Ive auditioned have had
solid, well-damped sound.
The X-718 boasts a wide rated
frequency response for a bookshelf design: 42Hz-28kHz, +/-3dB. The high frequencies are
reproduced by a 1" silk-dome tweeter fronting a chamber with a vented pole piece said
to reduce internal resonances and thus allow the tweeter to play to lower frequencies,
thereby making a smoother transition between it and the midrange/woofer at the crossover
point, which is about 2kHz.
The mid and low frequencies are reproduced by a 7"
paper-cone midrange/woofer driver. This has a copper ring and a large aluminum phase plug
that Usher claims improve its linearity. The magnet and suspension systems of all X-series
woofers also employ Ushers patented Symme-Motion technology, which is claimed to
result in "precise symmetry in the forward and rearward movement." In other
words, each time the driver moves out, it then moves backward in a perfectly symmetrical
motion. Furthermore, the slope of the X-718s front baffle is said to improve the
phase alignment of the drivers and to reduce internal resonances (presumably because of
the fewer standing waves produced inside an asymmetrical enclosure).
The X-718s nominal impedance is rated at 8 ohms, its
sensitivity at a moderate 86dB/W/m. The speaker has dual binding posts, should you wish to
biwire them. Overall, the X-718s werent hard to drive, but I found myself turning up
the volume knob of my integrated amplifier a little more than I usually do to get them to
play at a level I found suitable.
My review system consisted of the Bryston B100DA SST
integrated amplifier connected to the Ushers by AudioQuest Type 4 cables terminated in
banana plugs. The source was an NAD C542 CD player feeding the PCM signal to the
Brystons onboard DAC through its coaxial digital output via an AMX Optimum AVC-31
Audio reviewers sometimes say that a component let them
"see further into" or "opened a window on" the music. If youve
never heard music reproduced in such a manner and didnt understand what the writer
was trying to convey, listen to the Usher X-718. It was the clearest, most open-sounding
speaker Ive ever reviewed or owned -- the pair of them was extraordinarily
transparent. This was obvious when I listened to Low and Dirty Threes cover of Neil
Youngs "Down by the River," from In the Fishtank [CD, Konkurrent
LC6110]. The soundstage was so expansive that I felt as if I could have gotten out of my
chair and walked around the performers. Sonic illusions such as this are remarkable
because they create an atmosphere so far removed from the one in which the listener is
sitting. To put it simply, listening to the X-718s was fun; they did things as well
as or better than any other speaker Ive auditioned, including some costing far more.
It bears repeating that the midrange is the heart of any
speaker because thats where a lot of the musical energy lies. If somethings
wrong in the midrange, the most extended highs and the deepest bass wont make up for
it. The Usher X-718 had the clearest, most engaging midrange of any speaker I know. It
managed to walk that fine line between sounding too lean or too full; instead, its sound
had a "rightness" that I could listen to for hours at a time. It left me wanting
for nothing. It was neutral to my ears, its portrayal of voices and instruments being more
dependent on the recording than on anything the X-718 itself was doing.
The pristine clarity of the mids had me focusing on
different aspects of recordings Ive listened to many times before, aspects I
hadnt always paid much attention to. For example, I always concentrate on Elliott
Smiths vocals -- not as a conscious choice, but because I like his voice and think
he is a gifted songwriter. Listening to "St. Ides Heaven," from Elliott Smith
[CD, Kill Rock Stars krs246], I was more drawn to the sound of Smiths hand moving up
and down the fretboard of his guitar than to his singing. His voice was still crystal
clear, but the quietness of the background made other aspects of the music, such as this
one, jump out at me. As I listened, I began to think about how sophisticated sound
reproduction has become. In the right system, it can be amazingly lifelike and tangible,
letting me really feel the performance and more easily connect with the music,
because it sounds more present, more real. If you want to experience listening this way, I
strongly urge you to audition the Usher X-718s. They were a portal into the music.
The lucidity of the X-718s midrange owed itself in
large part to the black background created by the speakers. Voices emerged from emptiness,
yet their presence immediately gave me a sense of the acoustic space in which theyd
been recorded. "Snow," from Loreena McKennitts To Drive the Cold Winter
Away [CD, Quinlan Road QRCD102], was recorded at Glenstal Abbey, in Ireland, and is a
good test of tweeter performance. The soft dome used in the X-718 passed with flying
colors, remaining smooth and composed as McKennitts voice soared to great heights.
"Snow" can sound a bit grating through a bright tweeter, and force me to back
off the volume before it gets irritating. The Ushers highs were extended, but
climbed to the Abbeys rafters with such ease that I wanted to turn the volume up.
However, what most struck me about "Snow" wasnt the ease of the vocals,
but the expansive way in which McKennitts voice filled that cathedral. In my
listening room, the wall-vanishing act was in full effect, again owing to the X-718s
low noise floor and their ability to convey the sound of a huge recording venue.
Convincing image placement was another strength of the
Ushers. Listening to "So What," from Miles Davis Kind of Blue [CD,
Columbia/Legacy CK 64935], John Coltranes tenor sax sounded absolutely sublime. The
Ushers drew a sharp outline of him up front and left of center as his instruments
shiny tone electrified the stage. Once again, as with many of the discs I played, I found
myself focused on something Im not typically drawn to: in this case, Paul
Chambers double bass, which had no added warmth but exhibited enough weight and
depth to give the music a solid rhythmic foundation.
Interestingly, when Id first started listening to the
Ushers, Id thought they were perhaps a bit bass deficient. Id ended up
positioning them 33" from the front wall and 24" from the sidewalls, so the bass
reinforcement from the room was limited -- Im not one to sacrifice a big
three-dimensional stage just to get a little more oomph in the low end. But as I
listened more, it became obvious that the X-718s didnt lack bass. They just sounded
so clear that at first I hadnt realized how deep they were going. If youre
accustomed to speakers that bloom in the low end, the X-718s might be a revelation for
"The Gates of Istanbul," from Loreena
McKennitts An Ancient Muse [CD, Quinlan Road QRCD109], features percussion
whose low-end extension is far out of the reach of any bookshelf speaker Ive ever
auditioned. However, through the X-718s I heard such powerful, well-controlled bass that,
even though I wasnt feeling its full impact, the extraordinary clarity got my full
The X-718 performed remarkably well across the board. I
enjoyed the pair of them with all types of music, and found myself in awe when listening
to discs I thought I knew well. Its biggest shortcomings are those faced by all bookshelf
speakers, owing simply to their size: restrictions in extreme low bass and high-output
capability. But within its limits, I know of no equal at the price; even at $1300/pair,
the X-718 has "Bargain" written all over it.
I compared the Usher X-718s with the PSB Platinum M2
stand-mounted speakers Ive owned for almost two years ($2000/pair without stands).
Ive heard a few different speakers since buying the M2s, but had found nothing I
thought could match their overall performance -- until the X-718s showed up.
Although the Platinum M2 is extremely clean-sounding, the
X-718s midrange reproduction elevated cleanness to another level. Before the Ushers
arrived, I hadnt known how much better voices and solo instruments could sound. The
answer came as a revelation, and was made all the more impressive by the fact the X-718 costs
Playing Low and Dirty Threes cover of "Down by
the River" again, I found that the M2s sounded fuller through the mids, with images
more fleshed out and a soundfield that was a bit more dense. The M2s are fairly small
speakers with an uncanny ability to sound huge and create an enormous soundstage. With the
X-718s, the stage was still wide and deep, but the background was so quiet that I heard
more of the air around Mimi Parkers voice as she crooned the lyrics to what, in Neil
Youngs original version, is a rock anthem. The intimacy of the Ushers brought me
even closer to the music. As much as I love my Platinum M2s, I preferred the Ushers
midrange presentation and the way they let me hear further into the music.
According to the manufacturers specs, the Usher is
down only 3dB at 42Hz, while the PSB is down 3dB at 50Hz; I thought Id hear quite a
difference in the low end. But despite that discrepancy in rated low-frequency extension,
I heard little difference between the two in this region. Neither speaker lacked for bass,
but the Usher didnt play that much more deeply. The M2 is just as impressive
in this regard. However, the X-718s low noise floor made it easier to hear the
attack and decay of bass notes, and in the process yielded superb low-level detail. The M2
does this to a degree; the X-718 made it even more apparent.
At the other end of the spectrum, the PSB and the Usher
both offered smooth, extended treble that was usually pleasing, unless the recording
itself was of poor quality in this regard. I cant say I preferred one over the
other. Both tweeters were highly detailed without being fatiguing, and invited hours of
extended listening, which speaks well for both speakers -- although, again, it must be
pointed out that the X-718 costs about a third less. If PSBs Platinum M2 is a good
value, Ushers X-718 is a great one.
Usher Audio Technologys X-718 is a marvelous
loudspeaker that anybody looking for a bookshelf model needs to hear. Even if youre
considering spending more than their asking price, you should at least audition them -- I
think youll be impressed by the high-quality fit and finish that $1300 can buy. More
important, you might fall in love with their sound, as I did. The X-718 is very easy for
me to recommend -- its the best speaker Ive ever owned or reviewed.
Price of equipment reviewed