I mentioned in my answers to my "meet the founder" interview that we've rearranged how some rooms are being used, which means that where my HiFi system is now situated, the large speakers I currently have (Dali Oberon 7s) are no longer the right choice. I need to replace them with much smaller speakers.
This led me to thinking that this can't be an uncommon situation, so I thought it'd be interesting to discuss the options and considerations for getting the best results out of small speakers for those space constraints.
As for what counts as a small speaker? There's no universal standard for when small becomes medium, so you'll have to put up with mine, which is this: if I say it's small, it's small. If you disagree, then just broaden or narrow your options accordingly! Generally, anything less than 10 inches tall and 8 inches wide is what I am considering small, or perhaps ultra-small.
Before looking at the options available, let's discuss how we might go about deploying a set of small speakers in a space-constrained room.
There are three main ways to deploy small speakers: on stands, on a shelf/desk, or on brackets on the wall. There are speakers designed to be "on wall" or "in wall", but this is really a different subject, so we'll put a bookmark in that, and maybe return to it another time.
Speakers on stands will generally deliver the best performance, as the speakers will be at optimal listening height, and well isolated from their surroundings. Filling the stands with some sort of inert filler can make a big difference too. However, you may not have the space to do this, and if you have the footprint available for stands plus speakers, you could also consider some small floor standing speakers.
So-called bookshelf speakers can also sit on, well, a bookshelf, or a desk. This is a bit of a compromise, and you may find that the speaker's performance across the frequency spectrum changes - they may be closer to the wall than necessary, and at certain frequencies, whatever they're sitting on may start to resonate, thus resulting in those frequencies sounding disproportionately loud. The way around this is to employ some sort of isolation under each speaker.
There are a couple of cheap and cheerful approaches you could try, such as making some big balls of blu tack, or cutting up some squash balls, but I'd encourage you to consider something a bit better, and designed specifically for the purpose.
We would recommend investigating the IsoAcoustics range of dedicated speaker and electronics isolation products. They range from £45 per puck for the Orea Graphite, all the way to £499 for a four pack of Gaia I speaker isolation feet, with various options in-between for speakers, electronics and turntables. To learn more about these, feel free to read our blog about them here.
There are also isolation options available from other well renowned manufacturers. Dali make adjustable isolation cones which come in a pack of 4 for about £40 a pack. If you want something a bit better, Quadraspire do a pack of 4 for about £110 called the QPlus Evo. For even better isolation, at £199 the MoFi Ultra Low Noise Feet, which are an essential part of the MoFi turntable's design, are really superb. At the top end, Chord Company also make isolation feet, but these will set you back about £400 for the SM5 or SM7s. If you have to put your speakers on shelves or a desk, I would definitely recommend you include some sort of isolation solution in your budget.
Wall brackets are the other option. They have the advantage of being isolated from the floor, and from a shelf or desk. They do come with some challenges. They're a bit fiddly to install, but once they're up, they're very solid, and grip the speaker well. However, they're arguably not very pretty, and if you care about aesthetics, and chose a beautiful speaker such as the Dali Menuet SE, it can be a bit of a shame to spoil its lines with a black bracket. There's also the challenge of getting the cable to them, unobtrusively. Using a slim cable such as Chord Leyline can help, and depending on your situation you may be able to channel the cables and make them effectively invisible. You also have the challenge that you're probably not going to put the brackets at optimal listening height, so there's going to be a compromise in stereo image and potentially reflections. If you want to go down the brackets route, we recommend the Vogels VLB 200 which are about £60.
Having considered the mechanics of where the speakers are going, let's look at some options for small speakers.
Starting at the budget end of the range, the Dali Spektor 1s are diminutive, and great value. At just short of 9 1/2 inches high, 5 1/2 inches wide, and just over 7 1/2 inches deep, they're a reference for size.
Their obvious competitors are the Fyne F300is. Very slightly bigger (about half an inch in all dimensions), the 300 series lacks the IsoFlare™ point source driver of its older siblings, but the entry level Fynes are very good indeed.
I like both very much. The Spektor has been the budget bookshelf speaker to beat since it was launched, and you can't possibly go wrong with it, but I think the Fyne has just a little more oomph, and is slightly more sensitive. Aesthetically I personally prefer the Dali, but if you need an entry-level small speaker, either one will serve you very well.
Moving slightly up in the range, but similar in size, Dali have the Oberon 1. The Oberon is an interesting range, connecting the true budget Spektor range and the first of the higher-end Opticon range. When it came out I was skeptical, but when I first heard them I was very impressed. The Oberon really is a superb little speaker - it does everything well, and has a very neutral, musical presentation. If your budget can stretch a little, it's definitely a worthwhile upgrade over the Spektors.
Fyne don't have any other truly small bookshelf speakers - the smallest F500 doesn't qualify as an ultra-small speaker at nearly 13 inches tall, 12 1/2 deep and nearly 8 inches wide.
The main competitor to the Oberon 1 is the Rega Kyte. If you've read my system hierarchy article, you'll know I really rate the Rega Kytes. This is Rega's first foray into phenolic resin speakers, a radical move, and the first I am aware of in the industry. The tweeter is the same as that used in the RX1 and the mid-range/bass unit is same as that found throughout the old RX range. The result is a striking, and extremely engaging speaker. When released they were £500, and they were great at that price, but Rega dropped the price with the release of the excellent System One™, and at £400 these are absolutely superb. They also come with a foot, which helps with isolation, and an optional stand bracket to fit a speaker stand and angle them appropriately.
As much as I love the Oberon, I think the Rega is a class above, and if you can get past the slightly quirky looks (which I actually quite like), I think the Kytes are a quite exceptional speaker, that punch well above their price bracket.
However, should your budget stretch a little bit further, Dali have you covered again. The Dali Opticon series has always been one of my favourites, and I had a pair of Opticon 1s as my main speakers for several years. They were my reference small speaker, against which many others were compared, and I was sad when they were finally discontinued. The release of the Opticon Mk2 series was thus eagerly awaited, and they don't disappoint.
At £699 they're a jump up in price, but for this you get the patented Dali Soft Magnetic Compound drivers, offering reduced distortion, an over-sized tweeter that is an improvement over the original, and a very low loss, low distortion and low colouration mid/bass unit, made from wood-fibre.
Given how much I loved the original Opticons, their new replacements could well be in pole-position for speaker of choice in my system.
However, the point could be made that with nearly £8000 of amplification in front of them, the system might deserve something a little higher-end.
Once again Dali have an offering - in fact two offerings - the Menuet and the Menuet SE. The Menuet SE has been one of our best-selling speakers, and with good reason. Not only are they exquisitely beautiful, with their hand-selected wild-walnut cabinets, they use Mundorf™ capacitors in the crossover, high-end terminals directly from the Epicon series, and offer advancements in both tweeter and midrange/bass drivers.
I've never heard the standard Menuets, so I can't comment, but the SEs are so superb, I don't doubt for a moment that the extra £400 is worth it.
However, if your budget doesn't stretch to £1500, the Meneuts could be worth a try... although at £400 less, this time I am not sure that I wouldn't stick with the excellent Opticon 1 Mk2s, or spend that £400 on something else...
There are two more options I've not yet covered - and both a slightly curved balls.
First, at £900, we have the Ophidian Minimo 2s. John wrote a review of these in March this year, and I auditioned them in my system for a while, and compared them to my Opticons. I liked them very much, and I thought they were beautifully made. There was a lot to like about them, and the aeroflex port system was very interesting, offering very tight and deep bass performance. Helena actually preferred them to the Opticons, but I wasn't sufficiently impressed to replace the Dalis. However, they're very small, very handsome, and delivered a great sound for such a tiny box. For those looking for a very good quality, very small speaker, they could be an excellent option.
Then we have the SVS Prime Satellites. At £389 in their basic black ash finish, and £449 in gloss, as standalone speakers, they're up against it, with the Kytes and Oberons offering very stiff competition. However, for less than £1000 (in black ash), you could have the SVS Prime 2.1 system, which includes the 13 inch SB-1000 subwoofer.
SVS know a thing or two about subwoofers. And the SB-1000, their entry level model, is a mighty impressive one, for the money, and when bought in tandem with the Prime Satellites, you save a decent amount too.
I never used to be entirely convinced by sub/sat systems - it's hard to get the timing right, but when we first auditioned the Prime 2.1 system, we were all blown away by how good it was.
Of course, this opens pandoras box - we could pair any of the small speakers with any of the REL or SVS subwoofers, and the proliferation of options could quickly get confusing, but for less than £1000, in a small room, this could be really excellent solution.
Above the Dali Menuet SE we don't have any truly small speakers - the F500, F500SP and F700s are all quite a bit bigger. Similarly while ATC and KEF have small-ish speakers in their lineup, none are really in the same category as the ultra-small speakers I've discussed today. Maybe in a future article I can compare the next size up?
So what's the conclusion? Well, if you're on a tight budget, you really can't go wrong with either the Dali Spektor 1 or the Fyne F300is. If you can stretch to £1500, the Menuet SE are one of the best speakers either John or I have ever seen or heard - they really are spectacular.
The Opticon Mk2 probably still occupy the sweet spot between the two extremes, but the Rega Kytes at £400 are so good, they're really worth an audition.
The SVS Prime 2.1 system is not an approach many people would think of - it's a bit left-field, and of course pound-for-pound the Prime Satellites aren't a patch on either the Ophidian or the Menuet, but the addition of a subwoofer makes a radical difference - not only to the amount of bass weight delivered but just to the overall experience of the music.
So what will I do? Well, I think I might just go for the SVS Prime 2.1! It's an unusual approach, but that's always been how I roll. However, I'm also going to experiment with adding a subwoofer to the Menuet SEs - I think that could be a very interesting experiment indeed!
I hope you found this an interesting journey through the various options for ultra-small speakers. As ever, if you have any questions, get in touch by phone or email or even with our online chat on any page of our website. You can, of course, also leave a comment below. And, naturally, should you wish to come and see for yourself how tiny speakers perform and compare, feel free to pop into our Lincolnshire showroom for a demo.