A BMW 1-series in speaker terms? There’s absolutely no sign whatsoever that this £500 British-designed standmounter is a budget product, or indeed a mid-price one. The quality of the finish is so good that those who know nothing about hi-fi could gaze into its immaculate piano gloss veneer and think it was some sort of seriously expensive super speaker. Furthermore, the front baffle detailing is excellent, completely appropriate for a higher end design; it looks crisp, fresh and modern. So yes, it’s small, but it certainly doesn’t look cheap…
Interestingly it has a larger mid/bass unit than you might expect, given its height. Instead of the usual ‘small footprint, narrow baffle’ design, Monitor Audio has gone for a six inch (150mm) driver which forces the speaker to be wider – hence the subtly chunkier look. There are sound engineering reasons for this; whatever some loudspeaker designers may say in public, there’s no substitute for speaker unit size. That’s why you don’t see PA stacks with hundreds of four inch drivers, rather they have tens of fifteen inchers. The bigger the cone, the more air can be moved, and less energy is lost in the driver motor systems the fewer drivers there are. Fitting a six inch driver where you’d normally expect four confers a sense of ease and power to the Silver 1 that many of its rivals lack; it’s not a dramatic difference but any speaker of this smallish size needs all the help it can get. The driver’s cone is Monitor Audio’s standard C-CAM design featuring dimpled RST cone technology, it’s stiff and light.
Matching this up is a new C-CAM gold anodised aluminium/magnesium alloy dome tweeter; this has a damped rear chamber and dome venting, and crosses over from the mid/bass driver at 3kHz. Both units are rigidly bolted to the cabinet, and split two ways via a crossover with polypropylene film capacitors and silver-plated OFC wiring. The compact (312x185x263mm, 6.95kg) cabinet itself is made of 20mm MDF, quite thick for the size of box, and extensive radial internal bracing is used, says Monitor Audio. It is available in a range of premium quality wood veneers or high gloss finishes including Black Oak, Gloss Black, Gloss White, Natural Oak, Rosenut and Walnut. Good lucking grilles are supplied with invisible magnetic fixings, which is a nice touch. There’s a single bass port around the back, along with decent quality binding posts.
Here’s a small speaker that sounds rather bigger than you might expect. Mini monitors actually have a lot going for them, not least the fact that their cabinets are small and therefore easier to keep rigid, and you certainly hear how taut the Monitor Audio’s box is when you push a bit of nineteen nineties techno through them. New Atlantic’s I Know sounded wonderfully crisp and punchy; bass was tight and had very little sense of any overhang. The notes from the bass synthesiser started and stopped extremely clearly, giving a powerful and pulsating feel. The midband sounded clean and detailed, the Silver 1s throwing out lots of information from the innards of the mix. You wouldn’t call this speaker forward, but it is certainly explicit and well defined, and this extended to the treble. For example, the track’s looped drum machine hi-hats sparkled and enjoyed a fine sense of space for a loudspeaker of this price.
As well as giving a tighter, tauter bass than you might expect from a budget speaker, the other benefit of being small is the stereo imaging. The sound comes from something close to a single point-source, letting it fire out into the room very coherently and paint big, bold, three-dimensional stereo images. This is partly because the tweeter and mid/bass unit are located so close together on the front baffle; indeed this has been accentuated on the Silver 1 because the tweeter’s trim ring is slightly clipped, to let the tweeter sit slightly closer even than it normally would. This makes for a wonderfully expansive rendition of Isaac Hayes Shaft Original Sound Track, which is an exceptionally spacious recording – and you can certainly hear this through these speakers. The recorded acoustic sounds positively cavernous, in all three dimensions. Inside this, instruments are located with great precision considering the price of the speaker; it doesn’t give you electrostatic levels of image location admittedly, but it’s not that far off.
So the Silver 1 possesses all the benefits of a good compact loudspeaker, but does it also suffer the downsides? One of the big problems with small speakers is dynamic compression – they’re simply physically not able to shift enough air to track instrumental dynamic changes accurately. Happily though, this wee box proved better than most. This is likely down to the larger drive unit than expected, plus the very rigid cabinet. It certainly makes for a decent performance in this respect; for example, the frantic firecracker drum work on Rush’s Red Barchetta was kept together brilliantly by the Silver 1. As the song built to a crescendo, the speakers kept getting louder without compressing or distorting the music, and were very adroit at communicating the small micro dynamics of the cymbals, for example. Ultimately at high levels there is a slight softening of dynamic peaks, but it is far less intrusive than some other price rivals.
Another impressive aspect of this loudspeaker is its balanced tonality. It is very good at doing a lot of things well and doesn’t have any great weak links. The Silver 1 doesn’t obviously excel at any one particular aspect of the musical performance, instead preferring to relax into the music and let the listener enjoy it without drawing attention to itself on the way. Indeed I found it surprisingly convincing with large-scale classical orchestral music, such as a Deutsch Grammophon pressing of Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 (Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan) just as long as you ‘tune out’ the lack of low bass. I really enjoyed its wide soundstage, and how far it dropped back way behind my listening room’s real wall. I was also pleasantly surprised by its general clarity and transparency; it gave a surprisingly clear window on the musical world without ever sounding overly bright or forward.
Of course the Silver cannot defy the laws of physics; like every good small loudspeaker it can only work its magic over a certain part of the frequency range, leaving the bottom octave to its fate. Still, it started to give meaningful bass from surprisingly low down; LFO’s Low Frequency Oscillation, which as the name suggests has vast tracts of synthesised sub-bass (the US version of this CD even had a sticker on it telling you not to play it loud!), didn’t sound as anaemic as expected. It will never give the low frequency extension you would expect from a floorstander, but people who buy this baby box will already know this and understand it. Indeed, they should love it for what it does so well, which is to sound powerful yet polished, taut and transparent, across a surprisingly wide bandwidth considering its diminutive dimensions.
Monitor Audio has of late got into the groove of making excellent affordable small speakers. From the latest Radius 90 to the new Silver 1, they have the same fundamentally musically honest and enjoyable presentation. There are other, warmer and more euphonic designs around such as the Q Acoustics Concept 20 for example, but this £500 design delivers a bigger sound, less compression and more detail too. Overall then, it’s a super sounding little box and the beautiful finishes merely add extra icing to the cake. If you’re seeking something that’s small but perfectly formed, then look no further.