Thoughts on Usher S-520's...upgrade?

Hello all.

First let me say that I'm fairly new to the hi-fi world (about 5 years now) and have so far centered on "budget hi-fi".

I love monitors (and they fit in my office where I do most of my listening) so a few years ago I did my research and bought some Usher 520's (before the price hike) based off the glowing reviews (professional and user). I added an Outlaw LFM-1 Compact to fill out the low end (I'm not a huge bass head; the Outlaw's volume is halfway and the crossover is right at 60 where the Ushers start to drop off) and it integrates well I feel with the 520's.

Well I've loved this combo for years now (I am running it off of a Cambridge azur 640a v2 amp and DAC Magic with lossless files from my computer) and have left it alone since it is certainly "good enough", if not great sounding to me.

But...sooner or later upgradeitus hits us all right? Or, if not that, just curiosity at what other monitors might sound like and if I'd prefer them over my 520's, since, after all, these are the only "real" pair of speakers I've ever owned.

So my question is what the general consensus is of the Usher S 520's here, especially compared to more expensive speakers. Is it worth it to go up to $500 to $700 ish (new msrp anyway) monitors? Will it be enough of a step up in SQ to justify the cost (remember I got the 520's for $330 shipped)? Or do the Usher's lack in some criteria that I can't really hear since I've never compared them to other good monitors in their price range or higher? I will say that I love their neutrality and transparency, detail and accuracy (I don't like "warm" or "natural" sound), but it seems that they are a little lifeless or flat as well, maybe even a little recessed in the mids (voices can be a little distant it seems).

So, short version, is there something in the next tier of monitors that will have much of the Usher 520 SS (accuracy, transparency, revealing, detail, neutrality, tight/taut bass, etc.) while adding maybe some excitement or energy? Perhaps also go lower in the bass region so I can listen to them without a sub without them sounding as lean as the 520's do without my sub. I'd like an all-rounder since I listen to much of everything, although I mostly listen to rock (all decades and genres), synth pop, and singer/songwriter. I also would need speakers that sound good a lower volumes (I mostly listen at mid volumes) although can crank too (the 520's seem to do this).

Thanks for any input, so far I've got a list of about 20 monitors to look at, but that's fun to do and I take a long time looking and considering before I buy anything!
Ok, how about this:

Good monitors in the $500 to $1000 ish range (new msrp anyway) for my setup/tastes? :D

(SS preferences being, again: neutrality and transparency, detail and accuracy, articulation and revealing, tight/taut/lean bass instead of tubby/loose/overdone, realistic and uncolored mids, sparkling highs...slightly bright, forward, and energetic SS overall but not harsh, aggressive, shouty/in your face...i.e, I don't like "warm" or "natural", "mellow" or "laid back" sound.)

I get the sense browsing around here that unless you spend that much (or more) you are decidedly "low-fi" and not serious about audio and not too worthy of consideration.

I contest that, and think there are huge markups in audio just based off this assumption (if it's less than such and such it can't be good, so let's make sure to price our product at a "serious" price point...we'll make more money anyway...), and that, especially these days and with monitors, one can get great sound around $300ish that was unavailable just 10 or so years ago (better design, technology, and ID pricing). I also know about the whole problem of listening to the speakers more than the music; a "recovering audiophile" friend of mine has warned me off that and now "only" has a $2500 2 channel set up (he lives in a different state and I've never heard any of his gear). But I am willing to spend up to $1000ish on some good monitors since I have the money and it is worth it to me to try anyway.

Ok, wrote too much again! :P
I briefly owned a pair of the 520s, mine were the bright yellow. Loved the looks but did not really care for the sound. Knowing that, you might not have the same taste as I do so...
Have also owned Revel M20, Silverline SR11 and SR15, Quad 12L2 and 11L, PSB Platinum M2 (least favorite), Polk Audio LSi7, Soliloquy 5.0s and a few others. I kept the Soliloquys as they really do it for me and I got a super deal on them.
Beside the Soliloquys, the Polks are my recommendation. Good luck.
Part of the fun of upgrading is doing the research. You can start with online reviews at TAS and stereophile, etc. Or you could do a search for monitors in your price range here on audiogon and research the ones that seem interesting. If you buy used try to buy a pair with a decent resale value so you can sell them w/o loss or not much of one if you end up not liking them. I'm not sure answers here will do much more then your own research will.
Thanks guys!

Thanks for the recommendations Timrhu. I've heard of a few of those (at least the makers if not the models). Am I off in thinking that PSB and Polk are kind of mid-fi brands? You recommend them, but it seems A/V boards are filled with those brands for HT and "music" listening...

And Tholt I know what you're saying, and I have probably 30 speakers on my list (in fact I'll post it), but I wanted to get a consensus on how well the 520's were liked in general, and also if there was another easy recommendation for a similar speaker to the 520's only "better" (like maybe even another Usher...but I'd kind of like to try something else). Or one that most would recommend given my tastes.

PS: What's TAS? The absolute sound? I will say I'm semi-wary of pro reviews because it seems all speakers they review are good/great (including several reviews of the 520's) and they are all recommended. Well are all speakers really that good these days, or are these people and/or their mags getting paid to say so by the speaker makers?

Anyway, I think the more and more my ears "evolve" the more I hear flaws in the 520's. I still think they are great speakers, but it seems they might be kind of hard or flat in the highs, and lack treble sparkle or air. And they can be kind of flat or cold/clinical or dull overall in a way. Exciting music will not be colored, but it might not be as exciting as it should be. It's hard to know in a way because, again, I lack the direct comparison with other speakers (at least in my house with my set up...I'm not a big believer in hearing speakers at other places with other setups than ones own since the SS can change so much with so many different factors and I need hours and hours with any new piece of gear to really start to get a good handle on it's SQ and SS).

Here's some speakers I'm looking at (sorry for dupes, so many to keep track of):

Era Design Five ($750-$900)
Four ($500-$600)

Epos ELS3 ($330)
Epos M5 ($650) (4 ohms)
Epos M12.2
Epos M12i

Aperion Audio Intimus 6B ($500)

Swan Diva 2.1 ($330-$450 ozht, free shipping)
D2.1SE ($679)
D1.1se ($570)

Monitor Audio BR2 $450
Gold GS 10

Mordaunt-Short Avant 902i
Mezzo 2

Totem Dreamcatcher

Tannoy Mercury F1 Custom

DALI Lektor 1

Acarian Alón Li'l Rascal Mk.II

Revel Concerta M12

Triangle-Stella-ES Triangle Comete

Silverline Minuet

Amphion Helium2

Quad 12L2

ACI Sapphire

Swan Tempus

Totem Mite

Spendor S3/5

Dynaudio Audience 42
DM 2/7

DALI Lektor 1

Quad 11L2

Acoustic Energy AE22

Mordaunt-Short Mezzo 2

Neat Motive 3

DALI Mentor Menuet

Nola Boxer

Btw, how well is Swan regarded, because those things are like 40% off right now!
Tholt really does give good advice for your search. I will add the best way is to purchase used from reputable sellers and listen yourself. Over the years I have done this and it is telling. So many speakers that were hyped by professional reviewers did not work for me at all.
I paid less than your budget for my Soliloquy 5.0s with their dedicated stands, best stands I've seen btw. Their are bargains to be had, you just have to be willing to go for it when they present themselves.
I stand by my Polk Audio suggestion. One of the best sounding monitors I have had in my room. I understand Polk Audio has a less than hi-end reputation but they do build some nice speakers. I can only speak from my experience, with my equipment in my room. YMMV. Good luck.
I know Timrhu, I didn't mean to imply he didn't.

And yes, you never know until you get a speaker in your room, with your set up, and listen to it for hours/days with all sorts of material whether it will work for you or not. That's why I understand why people buy 2 or 3 at a time and either return the ones they decide against or resell them. This method costs more, but you've got a better chance of getting something you really like. I've actually been doing this with headphones and headphone amps over the last few months. I still have some of each to sell back!

One problem I have with used speakers (or headphones) however: How can you tell if they are damaged or not when you get them?

Yes, I know many audiophiles treat their equipment well, but I also have seen a few stress their gear to the extremes either testing it or showing it off. I was yelling at this one guy once above the screaming loud music (friend of a friend) that his speakers where distorting and he just laughed it off. I went right up to the drivers, and, (going nearly deaf in the process) clearly heard them distorting. He sold them used a few years later. Were they damaged by this? He listened to volumes that would cause distortion often. But at low volumes his speakers still sounded fine. Do you have to literally blow out the cone or fry the spider or whatever to truly damage speakers? Or will they lose fidelity even if they still work ok (at low volumes at least) with no real audible distortion?

Anyway, thanks again for your input.

And if anyone has any experience with the 520's and wants to rip on them, that's fine with me. I'm not the type that gets offended by what other people say about my stuff, especially people more knowledgeable than I about it. I can admit I made a bad purchase (I have before with audio gear) and won't get defensive. That's immature. I don't think the 520's are bad or were a bad buy, but then what do I know? I just have reviewers to back me up and some people on forums. I did see that WhatHiFi wasn't that impressed by them and was surprised since they seem to know what they are talking about (right?).

First of all, the 520's are pretty good speakers for the money.
Great list by Pw 09.
Unfortunately, I have heard most of the speakers on the list. Don't smoke or drink, so I need some kind of vice.
Have the original Quad 12 and 11. Very good monitors and probably trump most speakers on the list.
The 2 steller nearfields on Pw 09"s list are the Dali Minuet and the Nola Boxer. The Boxer is an extemely good speaker.
The 520's aren't bad speakers. I own them. But they're small and need to be used in the context that they were intended.

Make sure you're room is up to snuff -- ie you've addressed it's shortcomings (adding room treatments like absorption/diffusion, perhaps corner traps). This is true regardless of any equipment upgrade. Room is critical.

The other piece is matching the right amplification to the speaker. I don't know the specs on the Cambridge, but I know Ushers like good quality power, the more the better. You may be surprised if you add a more powerful amp to your speakers what they will sound like, and could give you the body you're looking for. If you still pursue speakers, try to determine that the Cambridge is a good match for them. You've already got a decent sub.

If you go with something like Aperion or Swan on your list (assuming buying new, Swan from The Audio Insider) or if you buy from someone like Audio Advisor, you get a return policy.
Regarding the Boxer, it is looking good to me. However, I wonder if it is a bit "warm" or mid centric? Just wondering...I'm sure it is a superb speaker. I don't want a cold or clinical sound, but I don't want an overly warm or mushy one either. Something exciting and lively with a good balance in tone.

The Quad's do look good too. Lots of British speakers it seems on my list; are they dominating today? The "British" sound?

My office I use the 520's in is small, about 8 x 12 I think. I haven't gotten into the room treatment stuff yet, and can't say I will (gaf and all that lol). I do have a desk, easy chair, and plenty of books on shelves to absorb sound. My Ushers are pretty near field, about 3 feet from my head and 5 feet apart. They still sound a little distant or recessed in the mids, and semi-cold. I used to love this sound (and still do prefer it over too warm and syrupy) but I'd like something a little more intimate, engaging. They can get glarey when played loud too...though REALLY loud which I don't do often.

The Cambridge has 75wpc and I know the Ushers aren't the most easy to drive speaker. (I am looking for a monitor that is a little easier to drive now). I do like the Cambridge (it seems to be good mid-fi at least) and don't wish to upgrade (I got a great deal on it for one thing), but I don't mind getting speakers that the rest of my system can grow with (new amp, new dac).

Thanks again guys, I'm already learning! And Happy 4th all! (For those who live in the US anyway).
Ok, so I'm looking at the Quad 12L2 (good price used, although I'm still wary of used...were these really $1200 new? I've seen more like $800 new...).

I like the forward description, but not the edgy in the high mids one. Also like the aspect that they seem to not be too picky about positioning (I think the 520's are) as I can't be in a "perfect" position for listening (I'm not going to be sitting in a dedicated audio room in a chair perfectly centered between my speakers at the perfect height...etc.).

Funny thing is according to one speaker reviewer, the 11L2's lost to the 520's in a shootout!:

(Though it seems it was close).

On the tech side, I'm a little worried about the 6ohms (I admit I'm ignorant about ohms) and 86db sensitivity of the 12L2. However, that same reviewer says that 40wpc is enough for the 520's which have 84db and that dip to 6ohms.

Meanwhile, been doing a lot of listening to the 520's and while it seems they are doing nothing to little wrong, I'm just not engaged or excited about what I'm listening to. They're like ok, here's the music, I'm playing it without coloration...what else do you want? Excitement, energy, emotion? Nope, sorry. I'm cold, clinical, and accurate, dry...boring.

I have to admit I've been listen a lot with headphones over the past 6 months or so, and those can be more intimate than speakers, so coming back to speakers now is a change. But speakers are also more realistic and "rocking" and let you feel the music as well as hear it. So why the detachment?
Grr...look around and just find more speakers instead of crossing some off my list! :P

Ok, so any input on these Dalis? The Ikon 1 and 2; Lektor 1, 2, and 3 are all on sale NEW at good prices, especially the Ikon 1.

I don't know about 2 tweeters, but they seem to be liked, although I've heard "sterile" and that's not what I'm looking for of course. But I've also ready lively and exciting too...
Heard the Boxer at RMAF. Will not dissapoint.
Also, check Ebay for Quads. The seller you looking for is Lanemart. I'm pretty sure he is the US distributer for Quad. Usually has demo or display items for sale in new condition.
I think the boxer's are out of my price range this time. I could buy them, but I guess I'd rather try cheaper first. I did email Carl Marchisotto and got the standard msrp price, then I asked about B stock or what happened to the Nola Mini's which might be more in my price range. He hasn't answered back so far (probably doesn't want to deal with a cheap skate! :P).

Anyway, I did check ebay for Quads and didn't find much (I found some 12L2 for $1000!). Lanemart (thanks for the name!) only has Quad 9L Active's for sale.

Thanks again Mag!

Right now I'm really looking at Quad 12L2's and the Dali's I mentioned above (especially the Ikon 1). Would it be safe to assume the Quad is a safer bet?

Also, the LSA-1 standard looks interesting, although maybe has more of an "airy" or "laid back" presentation that isn't as forward or aggressive.

Still looking...
So I'm looking at the Dynaudio line now, but am concerned with some models low sensitivity and ohm rating. But they are supposed to be lively and quick speakers. Looking at:

Audience 42/52

DM 2/7 DM 2/6

Contour S1.4

Excite X12

Focus 110 140

Unsure of prices, not many used it seems. Anyone know if is a white van site? Some good deals on Dnyaudio speakers there!

Still considering the Quads and Dali's. I've read that the Quads are laid back though, with recessed midrange. Not what I'm looking for if true, although they were recommended for my tastes now I'm confused! Why is this so hard! lol
>>07-06-10: Pw_09
So I'm looking at the Dynaudio line now<<

Therein lies your mistake.

You should be listening not looking.

Yes, it takes some time and effort but the chances of you finding a speaker that suits your personal taste by looking, checking specs, and reading reviews are small.
The S-520 is a fantastic little speaker that works really well in a small room like your office. I don't think the speakers are holding your system back. You mentioned that your office is 8x12 and I'm assuming that the speakers are sitting on your desk, right? First thing I'd do is get some good speaker stands and move them off the desk if they aren't already. Or, get some aurelex speaker pads if you must place them on the desk. Second, the Usher is actually pretty easy to setup and can sound really good close to the wall. You'll lose some depth, but it will help reinforce lower frequencies.
Audio...Nah, I don't buy that. I know what you are saying, but listening to speakers for even a good hour with different setups and equipment than yours is not going to give you an accurate representation of what they really sound like. I mentioned this above. You need to hear equipment (especially speakers) in your own environment, with your own gear, and with tons of material you know well, for days/weeks to really get a good grasp of how it sounds. Anything else is a mere indication that may or may not sound good to you upon extended listening (where flaws start to emerge).

Besides, I bought my 520's based purely on reviews and they have definitely suited me for years. I just now am wanting to try something different, and may or may not like it more.

Josh, my Usher's are stand mounted on either side of my computer desk which is right in the middle of a wall in my office. So they are centered on the wall (about a foot from it), and I even have an easy chair against the back wall that I can sit in and be in their sweet spot.

My problem with them is that they are just kind of cold or clinical and not engaging. The mids seem recessed too, especially on voices. Great speakers, but I want to try something different.

Anyway, I think I've pretty much decided on some Quad 12L2 from seller Lanemart on here. I've realized that no matter how long I take to read reviews I won't be hearing the speakers in my room with my set up for weeks. That's the way to figure out how a speaker sounds and if I like it or not, nothing else (including showrooms or even people's houses). If I don't like them (doubtful), I'll sell them back and try something else, or, more likely, keep them to compare to something else and sell the one I like the least back. That's the real way to determine if you like something or not: compare and contrast in your room with your own equipment. It is expensive for awhile, but when you sell everything back you don't like as much then you're ok. I recently did this process with a few pairs of headphones and headphone amps. I have one amp (selling the other 2 now) and 2 cans (tried 5 total).

Thanks everyone for your help, and sorry to be a pain! I'll post impressions of the Quads after I get them and listen to them for awhile...if anyone wants to hear what they sound like with my "cheap" gear anyway.

I'd also like to say that Carl Marchisotto DID email me back when I asked about B stock Boxers or the Nola Mini's (it went into my junk box for some reason). So no, he didn't just brush me off as a cheap skate. :P He even gave me the email of a dealer that might help me and said that the mini's haven't been made for 3 years and the boxers were better (I bet I'd love the mini's myself!). So just clearing that up.
>>07-07-10: Pw_09
but listening to speakers for even a good hour with different setups and equipment than yours is not going to give you an accurate representation of what they really sound like.<<

Wrong again.

1 hour of listening is plenty of time to discern a speaker's personality. Granted you won't get all the nuance but certainly will have an idea if it's a contendor or pretender.

With more experience you'll understand.

Good luck.
It sounds like you really want to try a new speaker which is understandable. There are much better speakers out there, but the S-520 is very good at it's price.

Be careful of getting too much speaker for your small room. You may get too much low end that will overpower the mids/highs. You will probably need to move the Quads further out in your room and you definitely need to move your listening chair away from the back wall when listening.
Audio, no way.

I've listened to lots of speakers (dozens) over the years (I'm glad you know how many I have though) and if I go back and listen to them again, in the same set up (friends houses, dealers), they sound different from what I remember, because I only heard them briefly with just some material. It takes several listens over weeks/months (like at friends houses) to start to know how a speaker sounds. And even then, it's not your equipment and it's not, much more importantly, YOUR ROOM. That's why some speakers sound great in some rooms, and not so much in others. Some of my friends have moved their speakers around (same gear) and in different rooms they sound better or worse. I have too with my Ushers (and several other low-fi speakers I've had before that). They are great in my office, not so much in my living room.

With better ears and less of an ego (I heard that speaker, I judge it as this blah blah based off such a limited time with it--like 5 minutes I'm right, you don't need to own a speaker yourself for weeks to know what it sounds like! pssh! such nonsense! I went to a meet! I KNOW!) you'd understand.



Thanks Josh, but I'm mostly going to be listening at low volumes and I don't mind getting blown away by what I have now, which gets VERY loud and I have a sub too in my small room. But that's only when I rock out, which isn't that often.

So I doubt an inch more bigger woofer (and about 10hz deeper) than the 520's with the Quads is going to kill me. In fact, I'm looking for a more filled out sound, one that I can turn off my sub with without feeling I'm missing something or it sounding too thin (the 520's without a sub do).

We'll see of course, once I've had a good week or so with my room and my gear and my material if I like them or not. I bet I will. :)
The Usher S 520 are good speakers. With a small mid woofer that was tuned to go down to 50Hz, the midrange should be a bit recessed (no surprise here)

Some of these listed below deserve an audition

Usher X 718
Totem Rainmaker, Totem Mani 2
Dynaudio DM 2/10, DM 2/8 and DM 2/7
Dynaudio Focus 110, 140, 220
Dynaudio Excite X 12, X 16, X 32
Dynaudio Audience 52,72, and 82
PSB Image B6, Image T5, T6, PSB Image T45, T55, and T65
Some Amphion models
Some Dali models

Dali makes some decent speakers too but IMO Dynaudio is usually better than Dali. You do need a decent sub for most of standmount models regardless of brands.
How bout a full range speaker Vandersteen 2CE sig II
((In fact, I'm looking for a more filled out sound, one that I can turn off my sub with without feeling I'm missing something or it sounding too thin (the 520's without a sub do).))
In a larger room there is no substitute for a good full range speaker. as Hieule5 mentioned above Consider The Vandersteen 2CE sig IIs would play well at all volumes have smooth in room bass response down to 29 HZ
and disappear like a mini Monitor.
Best Johnnyr