23 July, 2008

Review and Site Visit: USHER in Taipei

Left: Usher S-520 on top; X-708 on bottom.

Review and Site Visit: Usher in Taipei

My journey with USHER, which somehow I feel has only just started, started with my friend Kris, an avid reader of TAS. Some months ago, after the Usher S-520 won many accolades, his interest intensified. We went to the Shenzhen dealer to listen to it, as well as the X-718 (actually they sell out fast and the dealer frequently does not have them on demo; we're lucky that time) and Kris ended up ordering a pair of Ferrari Red. Around the same time, another friend tubediyer went to Taipei and brought back a pair for me. I remember that time tubediyer spent 4 hrs at Usher and listened to at least 4 models, and posted a report on review33 when he returned to HK.

Contrary to most of what TAS praises, the S-520 turned out to be the real thing. Most of the unusually stubborn LS3/5A people will likely never consider it, even disparage it given a chance, but it is exceptional on its own. I shall write a report later on its performance, but let me go on here with my visit to Usher in Taipei in May of this year.

Happy Hour in Taipei
Due to family duties, I did not have that much free time. But I spent 3 hours over 2 days at Usher auditioning various stuff. First in the ground floor room, where I first auditioned the V-601, X-718 and Be-718. The staff was super nice, and my every wish was attended to by a young man, Mr. 譚興. In this room, they use a HK $2000 Usher integrated amp and cheap Usher CD player (not on the net?) to demo things.

First I auditioned the very cheap V-601, really for cinema. This speaker is really not small, size of ATC20. It sells for only NT 7900 (as opposed to NT 5800 for S-520), a fraction of the cost in the USA. I was stunned by the sound driven by cheap entry Usher electronics. Things are just FULL. It does sound like a big speaker. MOST importantly, it conveys, as almost NO small speaker does (No, 3/5a does NOT do it), a feeling of Live music.

Next, I auditioned the rather famous X-718, younger brother of the Beryllium Be-718 (both drivers are different). A little more refinement and headroom, but the sound of X-718 and V-601 are not THAT dissimilar. In-room feel, live ambience, fleshed-out and well-focused images. Both played classical well.

Being cheap me, I went into Usher intending to buy only something DIRT cheap. The X-718, which I had heard in Shenzhen before, is priced at NT 16,900, double that of V-601. Yes, it is better, but not by THAT much. I was wondering what I'd do. Finally I decided to give the Be-718 a listen. At NT 31,900, it is still very cheap compared to the tons of ridiculously expensive and very bad sounding German speakers out there, but perhaps not so attractive to someone who has more than a pair of speakers with 15' woofers!

The sound of the Be-718 is still similar to that of the X-718 and V-601, but it is definitely significantly better in almost all departments. I am not a fan of Beryllium, or any "rare" metal, and have never really taken to top-of-the-line JM Lab. The Usher Be tweeter though does not bring attention to itself as much though it does give you a huge amount of air. Dynamically, all 3 speakers do very well, but the Be-718 definitely goes a little deeper and sounds a little more powerful.

Nonetheless, one thing bothered me in this room, a little honking in piano decays that did not even escape the Be-718. I attributed this to the electronics. After listening to V-601, X-718 and Be-718 I said to Mr Tam that I thought the honking sound, a bit like microphonics, bothered me. He attributed this to the presence of numerous pairs of speakers around. Obviously, he knew not my living room is packed to the T with speakers. :-)

I asked to play the S-520 briefly, just to have a reference. Lo and behold, there is no such problem with the tiny thing in this room. What's more interesting is that the S-520 sounds obviously VERY close to what it sounds like in my living room. So a little doubt set in and I began to get lost. What to buy? I must buy something (don't ask me why)! The V-601 is a little coarse. The X-718 better but not THAT different. The Be-718 better though more expensive. Moreover, all of them came from the same vein and exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses.

Before I even asked, seeing my dilemma, Mr Tam said why don't we move upstairs and listen again with better electronics (he knew I use ARC etc). So we went to the room upstairs, which is much smaller and where the flagship Usher preamp/amp combo resides.

In this room, I listened to the X-718 and Be-718 mainly, and the V-601 only briefly. The little problem I had with piano resonance completely disappeared in this room. Not only that, sound was really quite a bit better in control as well as in finesse (a lot more power here and smaller here). By this last visit I had 3 Japanese CD's with me for serious testing (pics later):

--Chopin recital/ Halina Czerny-Stephanska Tokyo live (RCA): Now, as rendered by Usher, that's a REAL piano! Big and resonant. You'd never want to listen to the piano on the LS3/5a again.

--Josef Suk/ Bach Partitas (EMI): Appropriate size for a violin, silken tone, rich harmonics. Every little detail is dynamically well articulated.

--Mahler 5th/ Tennstedt/ Chicago LIVE (EMI): Tennstedt's live Mahler 5th recording has excellent sound. Listen to the well executed crescendo's as portrayed faithfully by Usher. Not many big speakers can do that, sounding either compressed or congested. Usher has that rare combination of speed and a leading edge that does not sound frantic. Someone has done excellent work on the crossover.

ALL of these played beautifully here. Control, power, dynamics, speed, you name it. The violin is small, the piano is BIG, as it should be, and the orchestra is totally laid out holographically, with deep, quick bass. Only with the Mahler, played loud, is a little runaway tendency apparent. That's better performance here than I hear in most audiophile's setups. Usher also made me think how come a speaker at this price point can be made to sound small and pinpoint or big and bold? The same company does both!

My problem was solved, at least temporarily. After some deliberation...

--"Yes, I'd like a pair of Be-718 please."
--"No problem. What color baffle?"
--"Black please"
--"...uhhh...I am sorry, we have red, white, grey...everything but black..."

Aiya! Back to square one, or square 2 to be exact. I had decided to be less thrifty and ruled out V-601. I found X-718 excellent but it's somewhat neither here nor there. Now what?

Earlier downstairs I spotted a X-718 look-alike, the slightly smaller X-708. The demo pair is the earlier version with lighter wood panel. Usher wanted to simplify things and since export demands the darker/redder "mahoganny"-like finish, that's what they have now. The lighter wood panel allied to the rather large silver phase plug (no phase plug on 718's) made it look unappealing to my eyes. I was assured the new side panels look prettier.

In desperation, I asked more about the X-708. I was told it's "cleaner sounding" and favored by the Japanese. So I asked to try it out. And that lies the surprise.

The sound is really still in the vein of V-601, X-718 and Be-718. Of those, Be-718 is the most controlled, though still exhibiting a slight runaway tendency at the highest volume (in Mahler). The X-708, though a lower model, to me trumped even the Be-718 in this regard. It sounds like its siblings, big and bold and lively, certainly a little cleaner and, more importantly, it is more controlled during climax and exhibits what sounds to me a truer crescendo (and how Tennstedt delivered a meticulously graded crescendo!). It does not have the hot "liveliness" and "air" of the Be tweeter, but it may be calmer and easier to deal with.

I liked the sound. To me it vanquished whatever slight reservation I had about the V-601 and X-718 and offers an equal, though different, footing to the Be-718. The last thing that remains is to have a look at a new pair with mahoganny wood panels. The salesman was rather amused that I had that serious aversion to the large silver phase plug.

And so I went with the poor salesman to the warehouse! I was not allowed in, but he took out a brand new pair of X-708 for me to examine. Indeed the new panel matched better with the phase plug. However I rejected the first pair. Finishing was not perfect. The side panels have vertical grooves and the stain was not even here. Also, the front of the wood panel (cut-surface) was a little too light. It was too obvious.

The second pair was almost perfect. At this price, I passed over a very slight irregularity in one of the panels. Otherwise you shall never walk out with a perfect pair. Remember the price of these things when you buy a pair!

Did I tell you the X-708 is nominally cheaper than the X-718? At NT 16,000 per pair. Also it's an older model. Both have been in production for a long time.

A pair of these in a large box is rather ungainly. Imagine the surprise of my mother and uncle when I hauled the box through the doors, where they were waiting for me together with my newly wed cousin to go out to dinner. But I had my feast already. You would have missed something if you are traveling to Taiwan but not visit Usher. Their showrooms (there are many) may look like the worst dens, but they are the real things. I admire their low-keyed nature. Thumbs up!

In summary, a few pointers to those who are interested.

--The S-520, at NT 5800, is a great little speaker with exemplary control. It has a fine treble and excellent bass. Mid-range is neutral. Don't expect 3/5a like "richness" here but dynamically it's another story. This is the least "Usher-like" speaker in that things are much smaller and pinpoint in scale, which is actually preferred by many HK "audiophiles", including the 3/5a and Proac gangs. It's not fuzzy; you can match it with anything and it shall sound great.

--ALL the other speakers I auditioned, even the cheapest V-601, have big and bold sound, with a live feeling and a slight tendency to run away at LOUD volume if not well controlled, though most people would never listen that loud. These are for people who like that LIVE sense. You need BETTER electronics (like a good preamp) to get the most out of these speakers. And they are more power hungry, but power is cheap these days. If budget is limited, the NT 6900 V-601 is an excellent choice, though you actually have to spend more at electronics. At NT 16000, the X-708 sounds better to me than the NT 16900 X-718. The Be-718, at NT 31900, has that special sound and even better bass though at highest volume it may not outperform the X-708 in composure.

You may want to know there is a new policy regarding Be-718. Recently, someone bought a pair, took it back to the USA and promptly sold it on Audiogon. The US dealer complained and now Usher would not let you have the BOX (and packing). They can deliver to an address in Taipei but would take back the box!!!!! Have you ever heard of such a policy? Blame the USA mark-up!

The funny thing is that that fellow called back and said he damaged his pair and wanted another pair shipped to the USA. :-)

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