Monday, February 8, 2010

Aperion Audio Intimus 5B loudspeakers

(This was written in June 2009.)

It was the proverbial dark and stormy night here in the Pacific Northwest, and I had my reference system ripped apart and spread all over the floor of my listening room. I had old stuff going out and new stuff coming in, and I was making room, dusting shelves and cleaning jacks in preparation for the new set-up. Suddenly, I had a hankering to listen to my UK pressing of XTC's English Settlement (more specifically, “No Thugs In Our House), and I glanced around for a quick solution. I saw an unopened box containing a pair of Aperion Audio Intimus 5B mini-monitors. I thought to myself, “I can get these up in running in a couple of minutes,” so I grabbed a box cutter and got to work.

In no time I had the 5Bs sitting on the floor, hooked up to a SimAudio I-7 integrated amp via a pair of Audience Maestro speaker cables. I hadn't received a pair of stands yet, so I figured I'd at least get them broken in a little beforehand. Then a funny thing happened. These tiny little Aperions sounded really good just sitting there on the carpet while playing “Runaways” and “Ball and Chain” and “Senses Working Overtime.” Sure, the soundstaging and imaging were slightly askew and earthbound due to this haphazard arrangement, but these speakers sounded full and detailed and pleasant. I was able to get through all four sides of the LP easily and even moved onto a couple more LPs.

“I can't wait to get these set-up properly,” I thought.

Coming back to earth...
After getting these broken in and positioned on Sound Anchor stands, the hyperbole lessened just a little bit. These little speakers aren't quite the Second Coming, but they still offer plenty of value and performance for their size. The Aperion Intimus 5B, the “middle child” in the Intimus bookshelf range, takes advantage of Aperion's new 1” silk dome tweeter and redesigned 5.25” woven Fiberglas woofer as well as their custom HD-X3 crossover. My pair arrived with the “furniture grade” cherry finish that looks like it was carved from the same log as every other Aperion speaker I've seen. The veneer is real wood, however, which is becoming rarer at this price point. (Glossy black is also available for the same price.)

When I removed the Intimus 5Bs out of their very thorough packaging (which includes the ubiquitous Aperion purple velvet bag with yellow drawstrings, a nice touch), I truly wondered how much was left for the drivers, crossovers and cabinet. Manufacturing these speakers in China and selling them directly certainly saves a few bucks, but Aperion also offers free shipping, a 30-day money back guarantee (including return shipping), a 10-year warranty and excellent customer support. Considering that these speakers cost only $450 a pair, you may start to wonder how this Portland-based company makes a profit.

Feeling the Illinoise
The Intimus 5Bs wound up performing their best with a little bit of power behind them. These speakers are relatively inefficient (84 dB) and have a steady 6-ohm impedance. While I started with the 150wpc solid-state SimAudio I-7 on that fateful, inclement night, I eventually tried the new conrad-johnson LP66S tube amplifier which offers 60wpc. The 5Bs sounded a little more soft and indistinct with the CJ, and dynamic contrasts seemed to retreat into similar shades of gray. Aperion recommends at least 25 wpc for the 5Bs, but I'd go a lot higher just to preserve that full sound. The I-7, therefore, stayed in the system for the remainder of the review.

After extended listening sessions with the I-7 at the helm, I still felt that the bass performance of the 5B was genuinely impressive considering the size of the enclosure. According to the specs, the 5Bs are down 3 dB at 75 Hz and down 6 dB at 62 Hz. I felt, however, that the added body in the lower frequencies was due to a bump in the mid-bass response, not unlike a classic LS3/5a. While I'm not a fan of added colorations, I do prefer this type of sound to some modern mini-monitors that cut off suddenly under 60 or 70 Hz and remove the foundation completely. (In most cases this presupposes the addition of a subwoofer.) The soundstage was surprisingly large as well, extending well beyond the boundaries of my listening room. Again, I had to shake my head in disbelief that a speaker so small and inexpensive could get these fundamentals right.

The 5Bs ultimately came up short in the delivery of inner detail. I imagined a child coloring with crayons, getting all of the borders and lines perfect but becoming suddenly uneven and shaky when it came to shading the interiors of those shapes. On Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, for example, I couldn't hear as much air and separation between instruments during complex and busy songs as “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” or “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” (Yes, those are real song titles.) These instruments would blend together as if the musicians were sitting in each other's laps, especially if I turned the volume up a bit. More intimate and streamlined selections such as “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Jacksonville” fared much better, with Stevens' voice sounding appropriately breathy and fragile.

One more caveat involves the grille covers. It's been a while since I've heard a grille cloth alter the overall sound of a speaker this drastically. With the grilles in place, the treble became excessively grainy and harsh, and I thought I had finally found the Achilles' Heel of these little speakers. Once these were removed, the upper frequencies smoothed out considerable and even took on a slightly liquid and warm character. Finally, there's the standard disclaimer that accompanies most mini-monitors...don't turn them up too loud, and don't think you're going to impress your buddies when you play the new albums from AC/DC, Metallica and Guns 'N' Roses.

But did I mention the price?
It seems kind of silly to nitpick about dynamics and loudness with a $450 pair of speakers that are just slightly larger than the aforementioned LS3/5a. As good as these are as stand-alone speakers, I'm sure that they realize their potential when mated with one of Aperion's subwoofers. (I've used one of these in the past and found it to be another outstanding bargain.) I also discovered that the 5Bs are excellent near-field monitors and might be the perfect speakers to hook up to your computer. Aperion recommends them as an excellent solution for gaming as well. In this type of application, the 5Bs will allow you to hear deep into a recording while retaining the same sense of scale as in a normal configuration.

The repeated use of terms such as “near-field monitor” and “LS3/5a” and “mid-bass bump” in this review may be a clue to my true feelings about the Aperion Intimus 5Bs. Are they a poor man's LS3/5a? I was able to hear the Stirling Broadcast update of that venerable BBC monitor for a couple of months earlier in the year, and I was constantly reminded of them during my time with the Aperions. I think the Stirlings possessed that inner detail that the 5Bs lack, but at nearly four times the price. If I needed a small speaker for a small price, however, I'd probably choose the Aperions. If I needed a small speaker that sounds good while lying surreptitiously on the carpet, the choice is even more obvious.

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