Budget-conscious speakers with a terrific insight into high-end sound, and too few niggles to cause concern.
ONE OF MY favourite affordable standmount speakers of recent years definitely has to be Q Acoustics’ little Concept 20s (reviewed here). With their matching stands, amazing build quality and gorgeous gloss white (or black) finish, they not only look good, the sound far surpasses their modest price tag. Their clear and airy, uncongested musical performance combined with surprisingly good bass response was a real eye – and ear – opener and I was quite sorry to see them go.
British based Q Acoustics have their speakers built in China which probably accounts for some of the low cost factor but even still, it almost seems like someone in the finance department has miscalculated for, as the old cliché goes, you really get a lot of bang for buck.
The fact is, I believe that these days it is more difficult to produce a poor piece of hi-fi equipment than it is to produce a good one, and that’s not even mentioning the subjective nature of the hobby. A phonostage, for example, or a DAC, may be considered too warm or too dry, lacking in bass or soundstage size, yet it’s a very rare occasion indeed when something might be described as being truly awful all round.
For myself – and for the many others who may consider their wallets to be a little on the light side – the biggest deciding factor is often (though admittedly not always) price versus sound quality. That is, in terms of getting a lot for as little as possible. For the most part we budget conscious audiofools are spoilt for choice at the low end of the scale where all the basic boxes can be ticked for relatively little money. You may not always achieve anything approaching “high end” sound but every so often, something comes along that ticks all the boxes and gives you a taste of the extraordinary without making your bank manager – or your better half – cringe.
Which brings us, via a slight, albeit relevant digression, right back to the Concept 40.
Build And Features
The Concept 40s are a medium sized 2-way reflex floor stander (972h x 288w x 380d mm) and they’re basically an expanded version of the 20s, but with two 125mm mid-bass drivers to go with the 25mm soft dome tweeter. The cabinets sit on three chunky floor spikes – with the back two attached to attractive glass stabilising “wings” – and the rounded edges and high gloss finish complete the aesthetic appeal, causing even audio atheists to want to stop and have a listen.
The cabinet construction is ingenious, consisting of an inner and an outer MDF shell, glued together with a non-setting Gelcore substance which helps keep the cabinet completely dead, eliminating cabinet resonances and turning unwanted energy waves into heat. The aluminium front plate into which the drivers are mounted also acts to help prevent unwanted resonances by clamping a sheet of butyl rubber to the front of the cabinet. All this adds up to quiet cabinets and, hopefully, totally uncoloured sound. Speaking of colour, the Concept 40s are available in gloss white or, if that’s not manly enough for you, gloss black.
The rear ported floor standers are reasonably easy to drive, with a measured 90dB sensitivity and a nominal 6 ohms impedance (although, confusingly, the website states 8 ohms). The recommended amplifier power handling is 25 – 125wpc and the frequency response is a pretty nice 53 Hz – 22 kHz (+/- 3dB), crossing over at 2.3 kHz. Sure, with those measurements you can hardly expect them to plunge into the depths of low frequencies, but that treble is likely to be more than adequate for most of us. (As a comparison, my Reference 3A floorstanders. which I consider to have plenty of bass for my small to medium room, along with excellent treble, are measured at 42 Hz to 20 kHz (+/-3dB).) Two pairs of good solid binding posts accommodate either single or bi-wire speaker cabling, which brings us to the most important bit: listening.
For amplification I used Unison Research, Sugden and Line Magnetic amplifiers, and sources were my MHDT Labs Stockholm and Rotel’s RDD-1580 DACS, along with my Well Tempered/Analog Instruments/Benz turntable with Trichord Dino and Fi Yph phonostages, both used with an Auditorium A23 SUT.
The first thing I noticed with the Concept 40s was that they sounded a little sluggish or overly laid back, but after running them in for a good few hours they improved considerably (or did I just become accustomed to them?) although the laid back nature remained to a degree. Actually, it’s a little unfair using the term laid back in the general sense; perhaps polite or slightly reserved, not unlike that quiet guy with the glint in his eye who you just know if you fire him up, pour some lightening juice down his throat he’ll be the life of the party. And while they certainly responded well to a bit of current when turning the volume up a bit, lower listening levels revealed equally enjoyable listening sessions, especially if I was prepared to sit back and really relax. And with a day job like mine and the hideous hours I keep, who wouldn’t be prepared to sit back and relax to good speakers and good music once in a while?
Anyway, I was instantly reminded of the Concept 20s when I got into the swing of things. The easy flow of richly textured music, the big open and airy soundstage and the lively treble was all just as I remembered it. Crystal clear, untroubled and natural highs filled the room, giving plenty of insight into all those finer details that may not be as easily accessible with other speakers.
Listening to any of Shackleton’s digital or 12-inch releases, with their Middle Eastern influenced hypnotic electronic loops and mechanical beeps and effects, the Concept 40s delivered swift and fluid melodies and the tense rhythms with decent enough levels of bass. They gave a good view into the murky, gloomy atmosphere created by the English dubstep/techno producer, allowing a three dimensional soundstage of pulsing beats to creep into the room, dragging its crusty, tempo whumping tail with it, creating an often intense but thoroughly enjoyable listening sensation. Dark, wonky, complexly layered electronica at its finest that almost didn’t seem suited to the sight of the beautiful speakers from which it radiated, like a dainty ballerina singing heavy metal or a penguin speaking with a French accent, but they had no trouble with the music at all.
With Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York album on vinyl, that slightly subdued nature was noticeable but rather than sounding dull, the Concept 40s made up for it by producing a lush, deeply layered sound, full of colour and texture and just enough dynamism to keep them imminently listenable. The real point is, these speakers are very easy to listen to. If you’re just passing by you might think them rather commonplace, but sit down and listen properly and you’ll find them very difficult to leave. The Unplugged album (so called despite Cobain’s acoustic guitar being surreptitiously plugged into an amplifier) unlike Nirvana’s other records, is a rich, colourful recording with loads of details and textures revealing themselves when listening properly and on good gear. The Concept 40s helped recreate that lily-decorated stage with a loving golden glow, while allowing the listener to hear highly focused imaging, an excellent sense of scale and good reproduction of timbres. Cobain’s plaintive vocal had real presence and the other musicians were placed believably around the stage with realistically rendered guitars and sharp, un-splashy cymbals.
Whether I listened to jazz or metal, country or soul, the Concept 40s were completely unfazed. The sweaty grunge of the Dirty Three’s ‘Dirty Equation’ from their self-titled first album was an exhilarating onslaught of drums and guitar riffing in which the 40s relished in recreating the sheer tension of Warren Ellis’ furiously climactic violin playing. The Oscar Peterson Trio’s ‘Goodbye, J.D.’ from We Get Requests was delightfully smooth and lively; the pace and rhythm of the playing seemed spot on and the piano was swift with superb tone.
I would have to say though, that my similarly sized Reference 3As are better at conveying the live-like thud-thud of kick drums and bass notes – the like of which I can usually feel through the floor and air as well as hear – and the immediacy and emotion of a guitar solo. But the 40s’ smooth and rich presentation made them so easy to listen to in such a way as to make you forget their relatively minor (and extremely few) shortcomings. Beautiful treble and equally inviting midrange and don’t get me wrong, bass lines were inspiringly tuneful, with no boom or mushiness, and gave at least the sense of depth, in that I could hear bottom end if not exactly feel it. But the 40s are certainly punchy and agile and I could discern no cabinet interference – those things are dead. Another benefit of those dead boxes of course is the level of detail retrieval, which is superb, allowing my ears to get in and behind notes and sounds, seeking out new levels of enjoyment without needing to strain myself. Compared to the standmounts, they perhaps have a more effortless ability to fill a room with music and with more lifelike scale and imagery, finer definition of note edges and fuller transients. Okay, they are considerably more expensive than the smaller 20s, enough to make me wonder why in fact, but I still believe that, taken at face value, they are a true bargain.
Another fine speaker from this relatively new speaker company, the Q Acoustics Concept 40s offer fantastic value for money and more than a mere glimpse into the world of the proverbial high end. Pleasingly musical and with the ability to follow the peaks and flows of musical performances unhindered, with transparency and a distinct lack of congestion, these speakers should slot into any system with ease. With gorgeous looks and their easy to listen to, well-balanced and detailed sound, they’re bound to be a welcome addition to any home. For most users these speakers’ bass will likely be quite acceptable. However, an easy solution for bass-heads would be the addition of a subwoofer, as it would be a real shame to miss out on these for that reason alone.
I can’t wait to see what this company has in store for the future, but for now I’m more than happy to recommend the Concept 40s – for the budget-conscious audiophile and the any-budget audiophile. ANDY BAKER