Monitoring On the Cheap: Part 3

In my, ‘Monitoring On The Cheap: Part 2’ post of October 2019 I described refurbishing a pair of 1980s Bowers & Wilkins DM550 hi-fi speakers. That pair of speakers has since been loaned out to a musician/recording engineer friend who uses them regularly for secondary monitoring duties. I purchased the DM550s following some eBay browsing for potential monitoring bargains, so I thought another browsing session might be of use to anybody similarly looking for a ‘previously loved’ pair of passive hi-fi speakers for use in a nearfield monitoring role.

The following eBay items might of course be long gone by the time you read this, however the original listings should still be available for a while if you click on the appropriate link. Hopefully also my description and rationale for shortlisting each one will be of use if you’re actively looking for the same kind of thing. I’ve limited my browsing to between £50 and £200 (either ‘Buy It Now’ or current bid price) and to UK brands that I’m both familiar with and am confident had, at the time of manufacture, design, engineering and production values that would result in reliable, long lasting products. So, without further ado and in no particular order:

In the early 2000s I was asked by a Japanese OEM speaker system and drive unit manufacturer to do a private “review” of three Bowers & Wilkins models. The DM303 was one of them and I almost immediately concluded it was exceptional. Having said that though, there’s actually nothing particularly special or unusual about it. It’s simply a near perfect example of genuinely skilful electro-acoustics, smart industrial design and lean manufacturing working together to create something better than the sum of its parts. DM303s won’t play very loud, and don’t have much bass bandwidth, but they do everything else extraordinarily well. The eBay pair look to be in very good condition, and that’s unusual because the extremely delicate aluminium dome tweeter on the DM303 is completely unprotected (avoid any pair of DM303s that looks like it has, or has had, tweeter damage).

I actually own a pair of KEF Q100s, they’re used for TV audio at home, so I know how good they are. They feature one of the latest versions of KEF’s Uni-Q dual-coincident driver technology and in some respects they’re like KEF LS50s on a budget. The eBay sale pair look a little tatty but it seems to me that speakers with a long working life ahead don’t really need to be pristine aesthetically. The important thing is that the drivers look in good condition with no sign of damage. Q100s can occasionally be found in a white finish which looks decidedly cool and, potentially usefully in a monitoring context, speakers with dual-concentric drivers, like the Q100, don’t really care if they’re used in landscape or portrait mode or even upside-down.

The Rogers dB101 is decidedly off-piste, and actually pretty rare, but bear with me. It was launched in 1996, driven by high-hopes and a generous marketing spend, but sadly, scuppered by a miscalculation on price. It was too expensive to manufacture and consequently uncompetitive in the market. The dB101 was an attempt by previously uber-conservative Rogers to re-locate itself away from the territory of BBC inspired and traditional “British” monitors to a new land of consumer electronics opportunity where striking, design led products could open new doors and engage new customers. Andy Whittle, then Roger’s in-house lead engineer, was responsible for the electro-acoustics, and industrial design guru Peter Stevens, stylist on the McLaren F1 road car, was responsible for the aesthetic concept and enclosure engineering. The resulting speaker very much divided opinion aesthetically (I always liked it), but it sounded great – helped significantly by the specific Audax “aerogel” diaphragm bass/mid driver Andy chose and Peter’s immensely rigid double-wall enclosure design. Like the DM303 described up the page, the dB101 made little attempt to play deep bass, but everything else was spot on. My only concerns with the dB101 are its cheap spring input terminals and that it incorporates a tweeter protection device (a lightbulb) that compresses high frequencies when they get loud. I’d disable the lightbulb for monitoring (and then take care with level ’cause it’s doubtful that replacement tweeters are available). There’s a useful technical piece on the dB101, that includes dismantling instructions, by Mark Hennessy here.

Another KEF but this one much earlier and more conventional than the Q100 above. It’s also one that can be found at genuine bargain prices – the eBay auction I’ve linked to has a ‘Buy It Now’ of £70 with free shipping. Like the Bowers & Wilkins DM303 above, the mid 1990s KEF Coda 7 didn’t offer anything particularly out of the ordinary but it pulled off a very similar, ‘more than the sum of its parts’ trick. I got to know the Coda 7 vey well during my time at Canon Audio because it was one of our main competitor benchmark products. It was the one we kept coming back to for a subjective reference point of what could be achieved with compact budget speakers. There’s no particular clever or innovative technology incorporated in the Coda 7, it’s simply a very well engineered and sorted compact speaker.

I wrote about the Q Acoustics Concept 20 a little while ago and if you read that particular blog post (which you’ll find here), it’ll probably come as no surprise that I’ve included it in this list. I won’t repeat my previous Concept 20 material, because you’ve probably done enough reading by now (and there’s still a couple of concluding paragraphs to go), but the Concept 20 really does pretty much everything needed for compact passive nearfield monitoring.

So, any of these five speakers could provide a good few years of reliable and effective nearfield monitoring. If you buy carefully, the only potential problems with such “vintage” passive speaker might be corroded connection terminals, which can be cleaned or replaced, or degradation of the electrolytic capacitors found in the crossover networks. Electrolytic capacitors are unlikely to fail completely, however their capacitance value is likely to drift over time, which will change the speaker’s performance. I plan to publish a post in the not too distant future on identifying and replacing the electrolytic capacitors in elderly crossover networks. Another factor to consider of course with any passive monitoring solution is amplification. I won’t cover that here but steer you in the direction of an article on the subject I wrote in Sound On Sound magazine a little while ago. You can find it here.

Finally, as with any second-hand purchase, research is vital, as is caution. Know what you’re buying before you press the button. Look at the pictures closely for signs of damage (especially to bass/mid drivers and tweeters) and don’t for a moment believe any eBay seller who writes something along the lines of, “the holes/dents in the cone/dome don’t affect performance”. And if I had to pick one of the five? It would probably be the Bowers & Wilkins DM330s. Somebody please buy them before I can’t resist any longer.

2 thoughts on “Monitoring On the Cheap: Part 3

  1. A great article Phil. I get asked this question quite a lot buying and selling hifi in Brighton where there are a lot of cash strapped music producers. One model I keep coming back to is the Wharfedale 505 (and 505.2) from the late 80s. They are an unfashionable size, and covered in drab black vinyl, but very revealing, and can be picked up readily for little outlay. I always try to keep a pair in stock.

    Another model worth checking out is the Epos ELS3 which has terrifically solid, accurate bass for a small bookshelf speaker.

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    1. Thanks Ben. Good call on the Wharfedale 505 – I’d forgotten it. I believe it was closely related to the very high-tech 708 launched a year or two before – the one with Aerolam cabinet panels and bayonet fit drivers? Graham Bank designed it after he left Celestion. I though of including the 708 but couldn’t find any going cheap enough. There’s also the issue of getting the drivers out if anything goes wrong – there was a custom wrench tool that Wharfedale supplied to dealers, but finding one of those would probably be only slightly more likely than finding the holy grail. The Epos is a good interesting one also. I think it’s one of the models designed by an old Canon Audio colleague of mine (after Creek took control of the Epos brand), so I know it would have benefitted from a good level of electro-acoustic know-how and experience. One of the earlier classic Epos models (ES11 maybe) was on my initial list but there’s not many about and any good ones tend to be expensive.

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