Monitor Audio Radius 90

Launched in 2014 at £350, Monitor Audio’s Radius 90 is one of my favourite super-small speakers. It measures just 198x125x140mm, weighs 2.1kg and has just 1.5 litres of useable volume inside. At the time of its launch it came in a choice of real wood veneer, or piano lacquer white or black – gone was the option of silver which the previous two incarnations had. The finish and construction quality of this speaker is excellent; it’s hard to fault in any way. Inside, a single through-bolt fixes the mid/bass driver to the back of the cabinet for extra rigidity. Rap it with your knuckles and you get a dull ‘thunk’, showing how little room there is in the design for unwanted resonances. This means we’re listening to the box proportionally less than an equivalently priced floorstander (or larger stand-mount); there is less overhang, time-smearing and other such nefarious noises.

The drive units themselves are impressive, and this is where the new Radius 90 really distinguishes itself from the previous one. The latest 25mm Gold coated aluminium dome C-CAM tweeter is claimed to extend to 35kHz, while the simple second-order crossover uses high grade metalised polypropylene capacitors, and transitions to the bass unit at 2.8kHz. Monitor Audio says the high-grade air core and laminated iron core inductors give the lowest possible distortion and insertion losses. The company’s Pureflow 2.5mm square section OFC wiring is used. The new 100mm mid/bass driver has a cast aluminium chassis for strength and rigidity, and a cone made from metal – this is the key difference to the previous Radius 90HD, which employed glass-loaded engineering polymer. Quoted sensitivity is a poor 83dB, so be aware you’ll need a punchy solid-state amplifier, putting out at least 40W RMS per channel for realistic volumes.

The new Radius range offers a choice of two active subwoofers, the 380 and 390, but in designer Dean Hartley’s words, “we tried to ensure the R90 could be used as a full range speaker, so we set out to get a balanced, flat frequency response”. As such, the speakers can be placed on stands, and Monitor Audio makes an elegant bespoke pair that are pre-wired between terminals at the speaker mounting and at floor level through terminals mounted to the stand plinth; the top terminals neatly auto-connect with the R90 speaker terminals. If bass is felt to be limited, the speakers and stands can be rammed right against the rear wall for boundary reinforcement if needed.

Alternatively, this is one of the few loudspeakers you can mount on a bookshelf, ideally rigidly mounted. If you choose to do this, then do make sure it’s a substantial one, preferably close to ear height and always Blu-tac the speakers firmly onto the shelf. Finally, there’s a single point wall fixing, which works with the Monitor Audio speaker mount or any standard wall bracket. Positioned in any of these ways, with just a small amount of toe-in, plus a decent source and amp that aren’t afraid of making bass, you might be surprised by just how deep and strong the Radius 90 can sound. The company claimed a frequency response of 80Hz to 35kHz (-6dB); my ears tell me there’s little in the way of useable bass below 120Hz, but that’s not as problematic as you might think…

Those unfamiliar with the Radius 90 who come into a room with a pair of them playing will often do two things; first they’ll remark on how tiny they are, and then they’ll ask, “but where are the main speakers”. This shows how they’re able to make a sound that is almost TARDIS-like, one that totally defies their physical dimensions. They can fool the ear, leaving the listener questioning the evidence that their eyes are giving them. One reason for this is the solidity and speed and articulation of the bass; given a little rear wall reinforcement, it comes out of its shell and shows itself to be amazingly lithe and communicative. You’ll marvel at the way Bernard Edwards’ breathtaking bass guitar work modulates up and down on Chic’s My Forbidden Lover, for instance. It’s so fast and fun that you forget that it doesn’t have the physicality of, say, the equivalently priced but vastly larger Q Acoustics 2050i floorstander of that time. Better still, the long throw mid/bass driver soaks up quite a lot of punishment before it begins to compress things; you’d never use it in lieu of a PA stack at a live gig, but in a medium sized listening room it goes louder, more cleanly than you might think.

Moving up the scale, and the new ’90 gives a slightly faster, more searching midband than before, making vocals even more immediate, stereo imaging even more explicit and depth perspective better. Played at high volume, Kate Bush’s Snowflake is a stern test of a speaker, but the wee Monitor Audio acquitted itself superbly with these superb recording, showing a richness and warmth that you might not expect from such a modest priced – and indeed sized – box. The two drive units segueway between one another seamless, giving a lovely, natural feel to female vocals; I’d say they’re better integrated than before, as the old Radius 90HD had a slightly softer sound to its low frequency driver than the bright, spry tweeter. The result is a lovely, all-of-piece feel to the music, and it’s not just tonally clean and smooth but is also very good at keeping in phase – you don’t get the sense that you’re listening to two drive units doing their own thing, as you can on some equivalently priced designs. This means the new Radius projects beautifully, beaming vocals and instruments out of its box with laser-like precision.

The speed of this little speaker means that it’s remarkably good at throwing you off the trail. You always know it’s limited in terms of its bass reproduction, but somehow you just don’t dwell on it. Teenage Fanclub’s What You Do to Me is a fine slice of singalong indie rock, and via a big floorstander has a wonderful physicality courtesy of the energetic bass guitar and drum work. Yet play it through the new ’90 and instead you’re drawn to the sweetness of the vocals and the raunchy, grungey guitar playing, plus the sweet, sparkly hi-hat work. Somehow, this speaker flatters to deceive, making the music riotously good fun, emotionally affecting and powerful even – but without actually moving the same amount of air as a larger, looser speaker. The result is a slightly different experience to that of a wider range design, but no less fun – indeed the rhythmic alacrity and ability to signpost dynamic contrasts in the music is on a higher level than almost all price rivals.

It’s only on classical music that you really feel these aren’t quite the universal panacea that you’d hoped. Anyone who’s been to a live classical concert will have experienced the visceral presence of a full orchestra; you know those heavily bowed cellos vibrating you back, that sort of thing. But the wee Radius 90 simply cannot do this. What it can do – and did – with my favourite Karajan recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, was convey the lovely texture of the massed strings – if not the body – and also gave a wonderfully bright and airy window to the recorded acoustic. The tweeter is superb; spacious and extended yet smooth and delicate, it makes makes for a wonderfully open and finely etched sound. The new mid/bass unit is more detailed and faster than before, and this improves things further still. The end result is a little loudspeaker that’s big audio dynamite!

Monitor Audio’s new Radius 90 is practically a unique product on the market. Another step down in size from speakers which are commonly perceived to be the smallest, such as the KEF C1s of this world, its diminutive dimensions actually may be a little extreme for some tastes. Many will want something that is physically bigger and less constrained low down. But by the same token, those with smaller listening rooms which larger boxes could overpower, and/or people with neighbours or family members to keep sweet, will love this little box. Yes, it loses the bottom octave – or two – of the performance, but makes up for this in spades with a wonderfully fast, engaging and incisive sound everywhere else, and is sophisticated and seamless too. If space is limited or you don’t want your hi-fi dominating your room, this is great speaker to try.

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