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Product Review - Dynaudio Contour 1.1 Mini-Monitor Speakers - June, 2001


Arvind Kohli


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Specifications:

Drivers: One 1 " Cloth Dome Tweeter, One Magnesium Silicate 6" Woofer; Ported

MFR: 48 Hz - 22 kHz 3 dB 

Nominal Impedance: 4 Ohms

Efficiency: 86 dB/w/m;

Power Handling: 150 Watts

Size: 12 " H  x 6 3/4" W x 11 1/4" D

Weight: 15 Pounds Each

Finish: Beech Wood Veneer

MSRP: $1,699/Pair USA


Dynaudio North America, 1144 Tower Lane, Bensenville, Illinois, 60106, Phone (630) 238-4200; E-Mail info@dynaudiousa; Web http://www.dynaudiona.com/main.htm

Introduction

Working in the manufacturing sector for several years has taught me some basic lessons that apply to all manufactured products, including audio. Lack of attention to detail quickly adds up to a shabby product. If you skimp on enough quality materials and processes, it shows. Conversely, just because you use very expensive materials or spend a lot of process or effort, it does not ensure a good product. It is easy to cut corners or throw money at a problem. Either way, everyone eventually loses. But, it is a fine art of determining what aspects are most critical and paying attention to miniscule detail there. These rules apply to audio equipment. Just because expensive finishes are used or exotic materials and designs are employed, it does not mean it will sound good or justify the additional expense. And, using sub-standard materials or designs that ignore basic principles will result in obviously poor sounding products.

If someone has figured this all out, it certainly is the folks at Skanderborg (Dynaudio's home). Read through their web pages, and you will quickly see how much detailed attention is paid to the most basic aspects of speaker design and manufacture. It actually makes you wonder why is everyone else not doing the same.

My interest in mini-monitors arose from some very simple realities. The need for high-fidelity while accommodating a limited budget of space and funds. Mini-monitors are much easier to place than floor-standers and cost significantly less. The cost of additional drivers, crossovers, cabinet, and freight adds up to more than you think. The big compromises with most small speakers are lack of bottom end and inability to play very loud. Generally, they image better due to the smaller size of the front baffle since higher frequencies can reflect off large baffles, which would theoretically produce a smeared sound. Also, the sound is more coherent, i.e., sounds like coming from a single point, because the drivers are physically closer together.

The Manufacturer

Dynaudio was co-founded in Skanderborg, Denmark in 1976 by Wilfreid Ehrenholz, and two other partners who have since retired. Skanderborg is still the Manufacturing and R&D center, while the export and marketing office is in Hamburg, Germany.

They started making speakers with drivers sourced from other manufacturers, as is the common practice. But, they quickly concluded that the only way to produce speakers to their satisfaction would be to build their own drivers, which they started in 1980. They also started to supply other manufacturers (this is called OEM) and the DIY market.

Today, Dynaudio is a very respected name among high-end producers of raw drivers, and their products are used in speakers made by high-end brands such as Wilson. Eggeleston, Totem, and Red Rose just to name a few. However, only 8% of Dynaudio's sales come from raw drivers. The majority, 55%, comes from their 3 lines and 25 models of finished speakers. Mobile Fidelity, their car audio division, accounts for 25% and DynaudioAcoustics, and the pro-audio wing accounts for 12%. They have discontinued sales to the DIY market as of January 2000.

Wilfried Ehernholz is still involved in the design process, and Mark Thorup, who has been with the company for about 17 years, heads the design team at Skanderborg. The design process is a blend of art and science. State-of-the-art tools like anechoic chambers and cabinet resonance measurement devices are used throughout the process. At the end of the design process, each prototype is also put through a critical listening procedure. It can take up to 5 years to design a new model. They obviously do not skimp on spending time and effort where needed. And with this kind of investment in each new model, you can be assured that they do not introduce models just to make press. If you make a quality product, it should not need change for a long time.

Although they have quite a following in Europe and around the world, they established a formal presence in the USA only about six and a half years ago. But in that short time they have made a huge impact on the audiophile market here, although I feel they are still not as popular as they ought to be.

Product Introduction

Currently, Dynaudio offers 3 lines. Each speaker produced in all models is subjected to 86 quality tests and have a 5 year warranty. All models also feature "magnesium silicate polymer (MSP) one-piece cone drivers, large diameter voice coils, large and highly efficient center magnet structures, soft dome tweeters and midrange drivers, 100% in-house manufacturing and component sourcing for all speakers, and cabinets that are hand built by master craftsmen using only the highest quality woods and natural veneers".

The Audience line has 11 models and is intended as the entry-level line. They start at $699 USD. At Dynaudio's top end is the Reference line with 4 models, including their flagship model Evidence that is available for a mere $85,000 USD per pair!

In the middle lies the Contour series with 10 models consisting of 3 mini-monitors, 4 floor-standers, 2 center channels, and 1 subwoofer. This is a wide enough assortment to accommodate a variety of budgets and setups, including home theater. At the start of this line is the Contour 1.1 reviewed here, with an MSRP of $1,699 USD. The line tops out at the floor stander model 3.3 at $7,299 USD.

The Contour 1.1 was intended as a successor to the 1.0 model and was introduced in 1995. There was not much of a difference between the 1.0 and the 1.3 mini-monitors, so the 1.1 was conceived to provide a significant alternative to the other Contour mini-monitors. The most significant changes in the 1.1 model were a much higher quality tweeter, smaller woofer, and smaller cabinet. The 1.1 was also designed to be an easier load to drive with lower current requirements throughout most of its operating range.

Setup

My listening room is 16' by 16' by 8'. For casual listening, the 1.1 speakers were placed so that there were 70" between the tweeters, and 128" from the tweeters to the listening position. For critical listening sessions, all three points were about 70" from each other, and well away from room boundaries.

The sample units were placed on 26" stands, positioning the tweeters right at ear-level. Dynaudio supplies a set of foam plugs for the ports, and this allows for closer placements to the rear walls without the frequencies at the port getting too much of a boost.

Dynaudio America burned the samples in for at least 120 hours before they were shipped to me. Talk about paying attention to detail. I had not even plugged the speakers in and I was already impressed.

The Outside

The review samples were in a Beech finish; other available finishes are Rosewood, Rustic Cherry, Black Ash, Cherry. For an additional 10%, you can get them in Bird's Eye Maple, Walnut, Black Matte Lacquer, and White Matte Lacquer. The finishes are very smart looking. The aesthetic impression is of simple classic lines and solid build, very Danish, and very attractive. If you rap your knuckles on the top, you might end up with bruises. They are as hard as concrete. The sides were not as dull as the top when rapped, which is expected from a larger surface area. However, it is as inert as I have ever heard a cabinet sound.

The insides of the cabinet are coated with a sound absorbent material. This allows the cabinet to absorb the back waves. The use of non-toxic materials prevents expelling particles of fiberglass (commonly used in many brands) or other unhealthy materials into your room via the port.

All their cabinets are hand-built with woods sourced from non-endangered species, and not from rainforests. The quality of the cabinets is extraordinary. If I did not know better, I would swear that they were fashioned out of a solid block of wood. Seams are nowhere to be seen, unless you look point blank. The glue used in all cabinets is non-toxic, and made in-house of natural materials. Real wood veneers are applied to MDF frames that are extensively braced within. Each pair of speakers are built from the same sheet of veneer to ensure matching, and it takes about a 10 days to build a pair of Contour 1.1 cabinets. Again, the attention to detail leaves them with few peers.

A standard cloth grille is provided, but I liked the look better without the cover. I could not perceive a significant sonic difference either way. Now, here is where I actually did find something to fault the samples with. The name badge applied to one grille was slightly crooked . There I did it, I finally found something to pick at, so now I could relax having proven my keen powers of observation as a critic.


A single set of 5 way binding posts are on the back of each speaker, not allowing for bi-wiring or bi-amping configurations. This is a thorny topic with many audiophiles, but Dynaudio is convinced that it does not make a difference, and so, does not provide the extra set of connectors just to keep within popular opinion. Even if you don't agree with them, you have to admire their fortitude to not pander just to make a buck, not to mention what you will save in cables and amplification. Al Filipelli further explained that being able to design from the driver up allows the designer to not have to fuss over complicated crossovers or the need for bi-wiring.

The Inside

All Dynaudio tweeters are made of chemically treated fabrics. In their experience, soft domes have faster decay times and less ringing. This means the tweeter has less of a tendency to keep creating sound after the audio signal has stopped. The Contour 1.1 tweeter is a 28mm soft dome unit with a 4mm voice coil, mounted to the front baffle by a large metal plate. The heat from the tweeter is passed on to the magnet structure via their Mangnaflux liquid. The magnet is firmly connected to the front plate that in turn acts as a giant heat sink for the tweeter assembly. In the Contour line, the chamber behind the tweeter is sealed and acoustically dampened to prevent resonance and distortion from the back wave of the tweeter. If you were to move up in price to the Confidence line you would have a larger and longer magnet assembly, more intricate damping in the rear chamber. Again, note the attention to detail.

The woofer is a 150mm (6") unit with a 38mm voice coil housed in a die cast basket. Woofers for all models are made of a Magnesium Silicate Polymer but with varying thickness. The woofer is mounted overlapping the sidewalls, and this increases the rigidity, which reduces the cabinet from resonating to the woofer's back wave. The magnet assembly for the Contour 1.1 varies from most other Dynaudio models, in that it does not have the wider double magnet assembly, but instead it has a longer motor. This design allowed for the smaller woofer size and lower current requirements. Moving up to the Reference series you would find the magnets made of Neodymium, which provides more magnetic power for the same mass.

The voice coils are made of pure aluminum for lightness and conductivity. Yes, I said conductivity. While aluminum is less conductive than copper at room temperature, according to Al Filipelli of Dynaudio North America, copper loses its conductivity dramatically as it gets warmer. The engineers at Dynaudio felt that at operating temperatures, aluminum was the better choice with the added benefit of lightness. The coils are hand-wound, coated in a thermoplastic, and then subjected to expansions and contractions until a single mass is formed. This is done to prevent the coil from warping.

The crossovers are built with hand wound air-core inductors. Capacitors for the Contour and Reference lines are sourced from Solen with custom specs, and all capacitors are made from polypropelene only.

I think it would be negligent of me if I did not tell you a little about Dynaudio driver production. Each driver goes through 85 quality checks at each stage of production. Actually, after the first operation, each stage rechecks the work of the previous operation as well as their own, so 84 of the 85 checks are done twice. Then there is a final check on the assembled cabinet, for a grand total of 86 checks. Because the tolerances are so tight, there is no need to search for matched drivers in the Audience and Contour lines. Drivers for the Audience and Contour lines have to be within 1 dB tolerance and 0.25 dB for the Reference line. The Reference line drivers are actually built by engineers rather than production staff. It takes from 30 to 45 minutes to make a single driver, compared to the assembly lines that take a fraction of that time at the competition. The readings for all drivers are logged into the database at Dynaudio, and in the very unlikely event of having to replace a driver, Dynaudio would reference the readings of the original driver to find a matching replacement.

Attention to detail, yes. Do you pay for it, yes. Is it worth the cost, you tell me. Would you want your speakers to be made with anything less? Actually, considering the effort from design to shipping, I am surprised it does not cost a lot more. Make no mistake, this is world class manufacturing, with very few peers in any industry.

The Sound

Obviously, this is the heart of an audio review. A manufacturer may cut corners or expend mountains of effort. "But does it make a difference in the sound?" is the question a review needs to attempt to answer. Of course, it can never fully be answered due to all the variables that are out of our control, but here is my attempt.

Imaging on the 1.1s is uncanny. "Track 10" (Test CD 3, Stereophile, STPH 006-2) is a great recording for this purpose. It has several takes of a person walking across a 45' stage ringing a cow bell. I nearly fell out of my chair when I first listened to this track. The sound was not even in the same room, it sounded like he was down the hallway of my house that is adjacent to the right channel. "Diamonds on the soles of her shoes" (Paul Simon, Graceland, Warner Bros., 946430-2) is another good track. The backup vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were spread evenly across the stage and place behind Paul Simon.

"Zapateado" (Pepe Romero, Flamenco, Phillips, 422069-2) is a great track to judge depth of soundstage. The footwork of the dancer on the wooden stage should give you a clear impression as he moves forward, back, and sideways. With the sense of depth being projected, it seemed the dancer, Paco Romero, was in my kitchen. I suppose the builder should not have bothered with all the walls in my house if the 1.1s were going to disregard them so casually.

"Acoustic drum solo" ( Russ Henry, Test CD 2, Stereophile, STPH 004-2) is an excellent minimalist recording in stereo of a drum kit. The image was so precise, that most of the time I could place each piece of the drum kit in both dimensions (wide and deep). This is also a great track for speaker placement, as I was able to tweak placement until I had an image roughly the size of an actual drum kit about 8' in front of me. This ended up being with the tweeters aimed at a point just behind my head.

Detail is excellent, but is not as prominent at lower levels. In my opinion, there is only one level to playback at, and that is the actual sound level at the recording event. At lower levels, the 1.1s are still good at detail, but they really open up when you play them at louder levels that approximate the recording event. You will have to play them at moderate to high levels to get everything they have out of them. "Angel" (Sarah McLachlan, Surfacing, Arista, 18970-2) and "My Skin" (Natalie Merchant, Ophelia, Elektra) have very soft passages, and on lesser speakers, the syllables at the ends of some verses are barely audible. The 1.1s actually allow you to hear even the last letter whispered. The sound of the slide on steel strings was more distinct than I have ever heard on "Rollin & Tumblin" (Doug McLeod, Test CD 3, Stereophile, STPH 006-2)

Accuracy of instruments is a big aspect of what Ilook for in speakers. "Acoustic drum solo" (Russ Henry, Test CD 2, Stereophile, STPH 004-2) was perhaps the best test I could come up with. I could easily identify the various drums within the kit, even on the soft drum roll sections. Other examples of natural sounding instruments are the Alto Sax on "O Grande Amor" (Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, Verve, 314512414-2) and the Double bass in "All or nothing at all" (Diana Krall, Love Scenes, Impulse, IMPD233).

Female vocals on "Angel" and "My Skin" (Natalie Merchant, Ophelia, Elektra) and several others were breathtaking, actually goosebumping (how's that for poetic license in prose). There was no excessive sibilance at all. On "Angel" I could notice the reverb that must have been added to the vocals, because it created a distant, echoey effect that I had not heard before.

Male vocals were also as clean as I had ever heard. "Girl from Ipanema" and "O Grande Amor"  have some resonance at passage ends inherent in the recordings. I use this recording often to judge male vocals. The 1.1s did the best job of controlling the resonance without sounding anemic and overdamped. "Rollin & Tumblin" is an excellent standard to judge baritone male vocals, and the 1.1s again did an excellent job of sounding natural and not tipping on the side of boomy or weak.

Frequency response is rated as 48 Hz to 22 kHz 3 dB. Impedance is rated as 4 Ohms nominal, with a minimum of 3.6 Ohms at around 200 Hz. Combined with a sensitivity of 86 dB/W/M, these are not the easiest speakers in the world to drive, although they can be driven with low powered amps. My 30 wpc NAD 912 easily drove these speakers to moderate volumes, beyond which it seemed like the "soft clipping" (read compression) feature of the amp started to kick in. In a smaller room I also tried them with a 50 wpc Audio Analogue Puccini and 150 wpc Acurus DIA150 to as loud as I care to go and did not hear any distortion or compression. But the real abilities were revealed with the Bryston 4B with its ample power and tremendous bass control, and this is what I used for all my critical listening.

I think the combination of the Bryston 4B and Contour 1.1 has firmly established my reference point for firm bass. In my opinion, firm bass is a very important aspect of a system since it completely defines the tonality of lower piano notes, double basses, organs, drums, etc. My two reference recordings for this purpose are "Acoustic drum solo" and "All or nothing at all". I cannot say much more than the drum kit and double bass sounded more real on the Contour 1.1 than on anything else I have ever heard.

Overall, I would have to say the 1.1s did not "sound" like other high end speakers I have listened to. There was a complete lack of character, whether it be warm or analytical or any of the other adjectives often used. Actually, I pretty much never noticed the speakers. They simply disappeared, and I am not just talking about imaging. They were neutral, so neutral I kept forgetting about them. Some people may expect their high end speaker to have a unique sonic signature that evokes a sense of luxury. I prefer hearing exactly what is there, warts and all. That is what the 1.1s do. I can honestly say that unless I was consciously thinking about it, I ceased to associate the speakers with the sound in the room because everything sounded so much like it should. I think that is probably the nicest thing I have ever said about any speaker. I found the review particularly difficult to complete, because instead of taking notes, I would get carried away into the music and come out empty handed from many a session. My single greatest impression of all the listening sessions was how much I enjoyed myself.

Conclusion

What you need to consider is this: they do cost $1,700, you will need at minimum a decent and moderately powered amp, and a good pair of stands will add to the cost too. To really get the best out of the system, you need to play at moderate to loud volumes, and add a good subwoofer if you must have the lowest frequencies.

In return, they will image like few others out there, sound so natural you will forget they are in the room, look like a minimalist work of art, be flexible on placement, probably last forever, and get you more excited about music than equipment again.

Well, I think you can safely say I absolutely love these speakers. If I were to pay $1,700 for a pair of speakers, I would want them to be made with this much attention to detail and sound this good. I think they definitely raise the bar for other manufacturers.

I would like to thank Mike Manousselis and Al Filipelli of Dynaudio North America for the technical and background information for this review.

Associated Equipment:

Speakers: Monitor Audio Bronze 3
Triangle Electroacoustique Titus xs
Amplifiers: Bryston 4B
NAD 912
Acurus DIA 150 (integrated)
Audio Analogue Puccini SE (integrated)
Preamps: PS Audio IV
NAD 917
DVD: Panasonic A-320
Pioneer 414
Connectors: Self designed

 

- Arvind Kohli -

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Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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