McGary Audio

Essential Sound

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Audiophile Speaker Review!
Benchmark SMS1 6.5-inch Two-Way:
"DAC Company Debuts New Speaker"

Price: $2,450 per pair
Likes: precise midrange/treble
Dislikes: fragile grill hook 
Wow Factor: hi-end  in a small box
More info: Benchmark SMS1

by John Gatski
  I have reviewed some really good speakers over the last couple of years but the speaker reviewed here came as a bit of a surprise. Known for its superb line of DAC, A/Ds (DAC1, DAC2, ADC1, etc.), Benchmark began expanding its line in 2013. First with the ultra- quiet ABH2 analog amplifier, co-developed by THX, and now the SMS1 speakers.
  Developed with Dave Macpherson of Studio Electric (Salt Lake City), the SMSI is about as close to neutral as you can get out of a reasonably priced small loudspeaker, and it has good bass from 45 Hz on up. Mate them with the ABH2 amp and you have a terrific small system for hi-res playback, or as a foundation for a 5.1 surround system — by adding two more amps and three additional speakers.

  The Benchmark SMS1 is an acoustic-suspension, two-way, compact loudspeaker. The basic model is priced at $2,450 per pair. It is designed with a 6.5-inch high-performance woofer and a 1-inch soft dome tweeter. Rated frequency response is 44 Hz to 22 kHz, plus or minus 3 dB. The crossover is centered at 3 kHz. Sensitivity is 88 dB. The nominal impedance is 6 ohms and recommended power is 30-200 watts. The well-braced cabinet is stiffened to eliminate undesirable resonances, which keeps the image clean and focused, yet the SMS1 only weighs 23 pounds.

SMS1 two way: 6.5-inch/1-inch drivers

  Unlike most hi-fi speakers the SMS1 sports not only the typical speaker binding posts (bi-wireable), but also the professional SpeakOn connector, a termination system that twist-locks — and with a substantial amount of metal-to-metal contact with the jack surface. Benchmark said it can even measure lower distortion using Speak-On cables over conventional speaker termination. The rear panel also includes a bi-wire switch.
**The removable grill is designed to be left in place while playing through the SMS1. Cabinet dimensions are 10.75" W x 13.5" H x 9.87" D. Recommended stand height is 36 inches. Benchmark also sells a custom-ordered stand for the SMS1 at $249 per pair. The cabinet finishes are black, mahogany and padauk. The upgraded, solid hardwood sides are an additional $200 per pair.

The compact Benchmark SMS1 is an impressive, two-way crossover speaker with Benchmark’s typical attention to quality. Its compact size makes it easy to place, and suitable for many kinds of listening environments. The speaker's standout characteristics include vocal clarity and imaging.

The setup
  Coming on the heels of the Benchmark ABH2 amplifier review, I was able to pair the SMS1 with the company’s reference amp, as well as my other amps on hand: the Rogue Audio Medusa digital/tube hybrid, Bryston 14B-SST, Pass Labs Xs-150 super class A, and my vintage Macintosh MC275. Preamps included my Coda line stage and Rogue Audio Model 99 Magnum tube line stage/phono pre. During the testing, I used various DACs and their line outputs, including a Benchmark DAC2-D, Oppo HA-1Mytek Stereo192-DSD, Resonessence Labs Mirius and the new Parasound Zdac.
  Sources included Oppo BDP-105 and Marantz UD-7007 universal players, Macbook Pro using Audirvana player software and a Dell Venue tablet with the USB Audio Player Pro software player. Music ranged from 16-bit CD to 24/384 PCM — and 5.6 MHz DSD.
**All wire connections were made using Wireworld premium cables, including analog, digital, USB and HDMI (to operate the LED). All power connections were made through Essential Sound Products Essence II power cords and power strip.
  The speakers were placed on my Apollo speaker stands and toed in a few degrees. I tested the speakers with the grills off and on. My preference was with them off, but they are designed to be left on without adverse acoustic effects, according to Benchmark Vice-President John Siau, who also is chief engineer/designer.
**As delivered, the speakers were brand spankin' new and had no factory break-in time, so I put them on a continuous four day diet of test tones and music, courtesy of Bluetooth and the Oppo HA-1. It took about two weeks of playing to really hear them at their best.

The audition
  Since I still had the Benchmark AHB2 amp on hand, I thought it would be a great amp to start the listening sessions. First up was The Anthony Wilson Trio Our Gang, one of my favorite SACDs, which features jazz guitar ace Anthony Wilson, a drummer and Hammond organist playing originals, plus Jazz and Pop instrumental covers. I love the warm, open sound with the ever-present drum cymbals, a solid kick drum and the interplay between Mr. Wilson’s Gibson jazz guitar and the organ. On good speakers, the slightly warm DSD texture has an intimate jazz club feel, and I am happy to report that the Benchmark speaker pair aptly relays the recording’s midrange and treble character — and with good bass.

SMS1 rear panel

  The speaker exudes an even bass above 40 Hz and a present midrange and treble — with excellent execution of transients. The soft dome tweeter has commendable clarity, yet is not hard sounding. Drum cymbals have just the right amount of metallic sheen — without a hint of brittleness.
  Versus the similarly sized Legacy Studio ribbon-tweeter speaker, a favorite small speaker of mine, the Benchmark had a bit more treble impression on top, but the bass character and midrange clarity were similar. They both have the capacity to fill up the acoustic space in a small room.
  On the Tom Jung-recorded Flim and the BBs - Tricycle digital recording from 1983, transferred to DSD a few years ago, the SMS1s projected the ultra- dynamics of the recording just fine. The piano and horns are quite potent on this recording and get a bit of extra kick from the high-res transfer (originally a Mitsubishi X-80 16-bit/50-kHz PCM recording); the SMS1 pair handled it all just fine.
  I like how clean these speakers are in the crossover region, 2 kHz-4 kHz. Very easy on the ears at louder levels. Benchmark’s John Siau said “the film capacitors are the absolute best that we can buy. They are custom built for us in the UK. The inductors are all air-core. We have completely avoided iron-core inductors in order to minimize distortion. This adds cost, but we are pleased with the results.”
  For a 6 1/2-inch woofer in an acoustic-suspension design, the SMS1 relayed the Tricycle recording kick drum with a good deal of whack. They may be small, but they still have solid bass. In the center of the room, my RTA showed the speakers to play dead flat at 50 dB and only 3 dB down at 45 Hz.
  Two-way speakers sometimes inaccurately render vocalists, especially a female vocalist. The woofer/tweeter compromise can sometimes project audible aberrations in either a too-forward or recessed vocal presentation. Or the tweeter exhibits an overabundance of sibilance. The SMS1 is not one of those speakers; the female vocalists sound nearly perfect. On the hi-res download of Linda Ronstadt - Heart Like a Wheel, the singer’s full power can be heard without any harshness. The single “You’re No Good,” is a prime example. Her range and power propels the tune through the SMS1 duo, but the voice maintains its sweetness.

“One key to the speaker’s vocal clarity is our choice of the crossover frequency,” Benchmark's John Siau explained. “It is deliberately placed above the female vocal range. Most two-way speakers place the crossover in the middle of the female vocal range.”

  “One key to the speaker’s vocal clarity is our choice of the crossover frequency,” Siau explained. “It is deliberately placed above the female vocal range. Most two-way speakers place the crossover in the middle of the female vocal range.”
  On Diana Krall - Glad Rag Doll, Ms. Krall’s (aka Mrs. Elvis Costello) warm, husky tones are delivered spot on with nary any excessive sibilance. And as a two way, the voice level was balanced with the rest of the instruments.
  Male vocalists stay true through the Benchmark speakers as well. From the Willie Nelson - Stardust SACD, Mr. Nelson’s half nasal/half chest singing style, does not sound overly thin on these speakers as I have heard them on other two ways (and even some three ways). An evening listening session with several choral group SACDs, also confirmed the SMS1 pair’s superior vocal delivery impression.
  As I got through more and more albums of hi-res music, I also noticed a common thread through all the recordings. The imaging is spacious with impressive width and detailed depth. In the 8 ft. to 10 ft. distance, they fill up a small-to-medium room quite nicely. Music with multiple track layering could be clearly heard.
  On the SACD reissue of Bob DylanInfidels, the track “What’s A Sweetheart Like You,” has multiple rhythm guitars and a lead guitar underlying the basic rhythm tracks. On headphones and a really good DAC, the separate tracks are easy to pick out. Speakers have to be on their game to reveal the instruments in the same fashion, and the Benchmarks did a nice job opening up the mix to hear all those guitar layers. My MartinLogan electrostatics deliver more separation among the guitars on that song, but the electrostatic is noted for its vast imaging properties. For the SMS1 to project substantial audio detail is quite a testament to the speaker.
  Siau attributed the SMS1‘s precise stereo image to the selection of the best parts available for speaker crossovers and drivers. “The key here is the tight tolerance of the crossover and transducer components. Slight differences can create phase differences between the right and left speaker. These phase differences can produce errors is the spatial imaging. We have minimized these phase differences through the use of precision capacitors and inductors.“
  My impressions of the SMS1 was not confined just to the Benchmark amp; the speaker pair’s consistent accuracy and easy-to listen to quotient was there when playing through any of my amps, though each amp imparted its own character into the equation. The Benchmark amp was extraordinarily clean, and no idle noise whatsoever. The $65,000 Pass Labs Xs-150 had the widest space impression. Midbass was solidly flat in response with the Bryston 14B-SSTII and the Rogue Audio Medusa tube/digital hybrid.

In the studio
  Because of the SMS1’s size, they made a great pair of closefield speakers for my home recording rig. I used them with the compact Benchmark AHB2 stereo amp. As a monitor system for my DAW, the components included the Benchmark amp, SMS1s, and a DAC2-D as the D/A and preamp. Sitting them on my pro Raxxcess stands and located about four feet from my workstation desk, these speakers delivered their truthful tone through my various quality check and editing playback sessions.

Premium parts used in SMS1 crossover

  The SMS1 is an excellent pro-caliber passive monitor. The workstation audio was clean and smooth. Specifically, my 24-bit acoustic guitar recordings were uncannily real in their dynamics and spaciousness through these speakers. It’s what I expect from a Benchmark product. Of course, most pros go for powered speakers because it makes for a simpler system, but as with the Bryston Mini-Ts reviewed a few weeks ago, passive hi-fi speakers with the right amp can be a credible choice for studio monitors.
  For the money and taking into consideration its USA-build and high quality audio character, I did not find much to complain about in the Benchmark SMS1. Placement near the sidewalls can cause the midbass to rise. I like a minimum of six feet. And I did have one ergonomic snag; the removable grill on one speaker broke into two pieces when I inadvertently pulled one end a bit too hard. The tug separated the attached end of the grill from the grill frame. You must pull from the center of the grill to remove without stressing the grill ends. Benchmark says the grill ends have now been strengthened to reduce accidental breakage during removal.

The verdict 
  The compact Benchmark SMS1 is an impressive, two-way crossover speaker with Benchmark’s typical attention to quality. Its compact size makes it easy to place, and it is suitable for many kinds of listening environments. Standout characteristics include vocal clarity and imaging. Bass is pretty darn good as well, especially for an acoustic suspension/6.5-inch driver arrangement.
  In a marketing sense, I also think Benchmark is shrewd — with its recent roll-out of non-digital products for the hi-fi market. The new products (ABH2 amp and these speakers) in 2013-2014 have increased the breadth of its line to reach more customers. You can have a nearly complete hi-fi playback system that is all Benchmark— DAC, preamp, amp and speakers. The only thing you need is a player.
  In the end there will be folks who buy the complete system (I talked to several interested potential customers during the review process), but I am certain there will be plenty of audiophiles who buy the speakers a la carte and match them with their own amps. Either way, the Benchmark SMS1 is a first rate speaker. It goes on my list of recommended small speakers and recipient of the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award

  John Gatski is publisher/owner of the Everything Audio NetworkArticles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio NetworkAny unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.

No comments: