26 August, 2012

Review: TAD TSM-2201, Sony BDP-S190

Review: TAD TSM-2201, Part I
Review: Sony BDP-S190, Part I
Review: Pioneer SP-21BS-LR, Part II

Sometimes the system achieves synergy without much effort. Here I am reporting on some unusual combos that effortlessly gelled. But first, introduction of some new players.

TAD TSM-2201-LR (official info)
The TAD is relatively new and there hasn't been any report in the major audiophile press. But in a short time it has acquired quite an underground reputation. This Taiwan review has great pics of the drivers and crossover.

The TAD is not small, quite bulky in fact, as it has to house an 8" woofer. Its unusual shape reminds me of Darth Vader. There is rumor that there is soon to be a bass module, a TAD "puppy"! I find that difficult to believe, but let's see.

TAD, made in China In HK, it caused a frenzy because of the affordable price, and the first lot sold out in no time. You don't often find affordable loudspeakers bearing the name TAD. Last time it was more than a decade ago, when the TAD TSM-300 sold like hotcakes here. The TSM-300 achieved legendary status and its second-hand price remains very high today. Ten years later, the TSM-2201 sells for roughly the same sum as the TSM-300, so how do they do it? The answer is, these are now made in China instead of Japan.

A Cautionary Tale I briefly auditioned them before buying at Audio Unison 阿二 in Mong Kok. The salesman 阿志 was very nice. I asked for a tube amp, and they used a Manley PP EL34. The sound was quite uncolored and not bad. I quickly decided and had a pair delivered a few days later. As soon as I hooked them up, I heard a buzzing sound on a piano cut in one of the tweeters.Switching the left for the right confirmed my worst fears, a defect for sure. Two days later, I took them back and exchanged for another pair. I have to commend the shop for their service. But I am a bit alarmed that this should happen to TAD!

Sony BDP-S190

Regular readers of these pages know my devotion to Sony products extends to the bargain category. Previously, the over-achieving DVP-PR50P and DVP-SR200P won my Best Buy 2010 award. Those made me watch closely Sony's next moves.

Enter the Blue-Ray era. Sony's entry level BDP-S190 (I think model name may be different depending on your country) caught my eyes. I don't yet have any Blue Ray discs, but shall be getting some. Finally I took the plunge and got this player - to first try out its audio quality. I have posted pictures of the internals in my Preview.

Sound
Over this period, I have the speakers upright and tried several combos. The TAD TSM-2201 effortlessly reflected all changes, but remained highly musical. If you associate "monitor sound" with "coldness", you are mistaken (or using the wrong gear) in this case. Gears used:

Digital 1: Sony CDP-553ESD as transport/Sonic Frontier SFD-2 Mk II
Digital 2: Studer A730
Digital 3: Sony BDP-S190 Blue Ray player
Digital 4: Sony Play Station 1 (after small mods)
Analogue: Lenco GL-75/SME 3009S2i/Denon DL-103R
Preamp: Leben RS-28-CX
Amp 1: Rotel RB-870BX
Amp 2: Wavac MD-300B
Amp 3: Kondo Ongaku
Integrated Amp: NAD 3020


Round 1 Leben + Rotel Brand new, the speakers tended to sound just a trifle lean (so is the Rotel when not warmed up), but there was nothing grating at all. The combo drove it effortlessly. I was immediately impressed by the the TAD's sense of scale. This ain't no puny bookshelf sound! It is a big sound, room-filling and substantial. Its vertical dispersion is better than anything in its class. Bass was not particularly deep, but quick and authoritative. I quickly settled into playing with all kinds of toys and enjoyed telling the differences. The clean sound responded well to the tubed SFD-2 and the 16-bit A730. The brand new Sony BDP-S190 however performed beyond my expectation. A very clean but musical sound. The TAD reflected every minute difference in the source.

Round 2 NAD 3020 In many ways, this simple setup yielded nothing to the previous combo, and it made me have great respect for the NAD! Read my report here. The warm sound of the NAD suited the TAD to a T. So there, you can drive TAD on the cheap!

Round 3 Leben + Wavac This came as a great surprise. I have read that the TAD is power-hungry, so contrary to my usual practice I was not in a hurry to try out my SET amps. When I hooked up the Wavac MD-300B, I expected gross distortion. But no! The 300B amp drove the TAD surprisingly well; there was no sign of the sort of irregularities (like muffles treble) that one associates with inadequate power. In fact, the TAD gained from the increased microdynamics on offer (a matter of fact with SET amplification).

On the Signum recording, which is NOT particularly outstanding, I heard an incredible amount of extraneous sound (like pages turning, baton hitting the stand etc), attesting to the outstanding resolution of the TAD. I relished the ending to the Cinderella, a cornucopia of colors delivered in the inimitable St Petersburg fashion. Yes the TAD reproduced all that with ease!

With most material, I actually prefer the TAD driven by 300B. Recently, this is my daily staple. I don't hear many trade-offs. The bass may lose just a little control but it is still fulsome and powerful. Even Mahler played quite well, with only occasional audible soft-clipping. Yes, there is a bit of compression here and there, but the overall scale is surprisingly intact. And yes, I can easily tell the Zurich orchestra does not have the colors of the St Petersburg!

I think I'd not casually advise people to go the SET route with TAD, unless you have a really high quality preamp as well as a well built SET amp with good transformers. However, it should be said that my previous experience with the TSM-300 was highly positive. That model could be even more easily driven by SET amps. However, the TSM-300, even if placed horizontal, suffered from bass control when so driven. In this important respect, the TSM-2201 is better - the bass remains controlled even with less power. I am sure a good PP tube amp shall also drive the speakers well. As a matter of fact I don't think they are a particularly difficult load.

TAD TSM-2201 vs Pioneer SP-21BS-LR
Despite the gargantuan price difference, these are made in the same factory and likely employ the same tooling. You can even see the mesh used are of the same type. If you look at the pics in my Part I Review of the SP-21BS-LR, you shall see even the crossover components look similar. Of course, the TSM-2201 has better drivers and cabinet, and it bears the name TAD rather than Pioneer, but this makes the Pioneer appear even more of a bargain. The Pioneer we know was designed by Andrew Jones, who as TAD head engineer I presume also designed the TSM-2201. Sonically, the difference between the two is big. The TSM-2201 can play much louder and has more details and micro- and macrodynamics, but comparison also shows the cheap Pioneer to bear quite a bit of sonic resemblance (essentially superb neutrality) and to be a great value.

Conclusions
  • The TAD TSM-2201-LR immediately catapults to the top of my "small" loudspeaker list. It shall for sure be a "Best Buy 2012" component. In its class, I think its transparency and dynamic prowess would be unsurpassed for quite a while.
  • The Sony BDP-S190 is a marvelous CD player! You shall notice that during this period I have been playing with a few different digital sources. There shall be a slug-fest report later. Rest assured that even in this august company the Sony is not shamed!
Next, I shall have the TSM-2201 horizontal. I am sure, as in the TSM-300, the sound would scale new heights.

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