Usher Audio AC 10 Loudspeaker
Usher Audio AC 10 Loudspeaker
Eastern Manufacturing, American Design, World-Class Value
Driver Compliment: 1” ceramic tweeter, 4” ceramic midrange, 10”woofer
Sensitivity: 87db @ 1w/1m
Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
Frequency Response: 29Hz – 20kHz (-3db)
Power Handling: 100w
Crossover Frequencies: 320Hz and 3.8kHz
Dimensions: 12.5” x 28” x 46” (wdh)
Thee High End (U.S. Distributor)
6923 Inwood Road
Dallas, TX 75209
The Proof Is In The Packing
I’ve been very fortunate this past year to spend a lot of time listening to some wonderful reference-quality loudspeakers. With the exception of the dazzling $3,995 Chesky Audio C-1, most of these speakers cost anywhere from $8,000 to $13,000. Speakers in that range tend to be of similar quality and performance so I often have to look hard for something special that may set one speaker apart from the pack. This is usually something completely unrelated to the sound of the speaker, but still leaves a lasting impression about the quality of the company. In the case of the Usher Audio AC-10, that something special was their packaging.
Normally trying to get a speaker the size of the AC-10 back into its shipping carton is about as much fun as trying to get a slippery 5-year-old to stay in the tub after he realizes that “SpongeBob SquarePants” is on Nickelodeon. Even with a little help, packing big speakers can be a world-class bitch. Not so with the AC-10s. While many of their competitors often pack their speakers in something barely stronger than Saran Wrap and chunks of Styrofoam, the Usher speakers come in a nice cloth “sack” and can be easily lifted and set snuggly into heavy-duty cartons with thick foam braces that are form-fitted to the shape of the speakers. This attention to detail is also prevalent in the design and construction of these visually and sonically stunning speakers. But please keep reading to find out more about these special loudspeakers because no one would pay more than eight grand for speakers just because they’re packed nicely … would they?
An Asian Sensation, An American Curiosity
Mr. Tsai Lien-Shui founded Usher Audio about 30 years ago. The company’s goal is to produce very high quality audio components at affordable prices. When the “Dancer Series” (the premier speakers in the company’s rather broad loudspeaker range) popped up on the U.S. audio scene a few years ago, the initial response was rather uneven despite the considerable buzz that they created overseas. Depending on which audiophile chat room or bulletin boards you were reading the Ushers were either “really awesome” or “a complete rip-off” (of another company’s design). The latter reaction is probably due to the fact that many of the speakers in the Usher “Compass” line’s “X” Series and Dancer Series bare a striking resemblance to speakers in the vaunted Sonus Faber speaker line.
Now this wouldn’t be the first time that one speaker designer built a speaker with a strong resemblance to another. Take a look at the Snell XA Reference, which looks like a Thiel design, and remember how much the Carver Amazing loudspeaker looked like the classic Apogees? But regardless of a speaker’s looks the bottom line is how well the design is executed.
Enter the D’Appolito Effect
When I first saw the ads for the Usher speakers two things immediately caught my attention: First, the aesthetics of the cabinetry reeked of fine furniture-quality craftsmanship. Gorgeous hand-built walnut cabinets with gorgeous black satin baffles that are elegantly sloped to enhance sound dispersion and time-phase coherency, are mounted on bases that resemble gorgeous walnut surfboards. Beneath the bases were not just simple threaded spikes, but heavy-duty machined brass cones that help give the speakers an extremely rigid coupling to the floor. Toward the bottom of the rear of the speakers are two sets of gorgeous five-way speaker posts. The result is a speaker that is thoughtfully designed, looks as though it belongs in the Museum of Contemporary Art, and did I mention that it is gorgeous? Also, the speakers are huge. The AC-10, the second smallest of the Dancer series, is still nearly 4’ tall and weighs more than 125 lbs!
Second, and more importantly, was the name of the man who was responsible for their design: Dr. Joseph D’Appolito. Now those of you who have traveled in audiophile circles over the years are very familiar with his name and contributions to loudspeaker design. His midrange-tweeter-midrange (MTM) driver configuration (also known as the D’Appolito configuration) has been used in too many other manufacturer’s designs to name.
So just when did this odd marriage of a renowned speaker designer and a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer begin? “I began consulting on speaker designs for Usher about five years ago,” said D’Appolito. “I designed the crossovers for all the Usher speakers and do the final voicing.” He also specifies the cabinet designs and tests prototype drivers from his lab in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Ironically, only one of the top-of-the-line Dancer series speakers utilizes the fabled driver configuration and that is the stand-mounted model 777. The AC-10s, like most of the Dancer series speakers use the classic tweeter-midrange-woofer(s) arrangement.
So when you couple this legendary designer’s expertise, with cabinetry that is this bold and dare I again say gorgeous, the expectation is that there is a new player in town and that he is gunning for that lofty perch of unattainably expensive loudspeakers. Not so fast folks, despite their build quality, looks, and designer’s pedigree, the Usher AC-10s are priced at only $8,400! Now while this is not a cheap speaker to say the least, its quality of build and performance rank it up there with speakers such as the highly-praised Kharmas and Avalons; speakers that cost at least twice as much.
The Wonderful Sound of Misery
The AC-10s are about as close to a complete speaker as I have heard in some time. It begins with those gorgeous cabinets that I described above and continues with their driver compliment. The AC-10 uses a 1” ceramic tweeter and a 4” ceramic midrange much like those used in newest Talon audio designs.
One of the songs that I spent a great deal of time listening to while evaluating the AC-10s was the dark and melodic “Miss Misery” from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack [Capitol 2338]. The song was performed by Elliott Smith. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Mr. Smith at age 34 took his own life in his apartment in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles on October 22nd.
Smith was once referred to as “the unhappiest man in the land.” After listening to the lyrics of this Academy Award nominated song, it’s hard to argue. The song is about a man who seems to have embraced a relationship with emotional pain. I remembered listening to the song through the AC-10s and noting how purely melancholy Smith sounded on this track. The AC-10s were able to convey the emotion of Smith’s voice and the crispness of his acoustic guitar playing. This can be directly attributed to the splendid imaging afforded by the ceramic tweeter and midrange and Dr. D’Appolito’s crossover design.
Room to Boom … or not
Big speakers such as these tend to flourish in large rooms such as mine (24’ x 28’) since there is plenty of room for the bass to boom. But the AC-10s never exhibited a desire to sound bass-heavy; you might even say that the bass performance was somewhat refined. This is the direct result of a specially designed 10” bass driver that was developed by Usher and manufactured in house. The Yellow Jackets’ recording “ Greenhouse” [GRP GRD-9630] has long been one of my bass performance reference discs. Jimmy Haslip’s super-deep bass lines can reduce a lesser speaker to sounding like a bloated, unmusical annoyance. But through the AC-10s, the bass sounds as if were created by an instrument. This is one of the few speakers I’ve heard that makes using a subwoofer just plain silly.
A good disc for checking out the full musical spectrum is WAR’s “Anthology 1970-1994” [Avenue Records R2 71774]. From the early ‘70s grooves such as Spill the Wine, which featured former The Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon, to the East L.A. car anthem, Low Rider, the AC-10s bring attention to the fine musicianship of this most under-appreciated R&B/funk/soul band. Of particular note is Lonnie Jordan’s organ playing on cuts like the classic All Day Music. I’ve never heard the level of detail surrounding the keyboard strokes be as well resolved as it was through these speakers. As big as the AC-10s are they do a tremendous job of rendering low-level detail with such finesse that they maintain the individual character of each vocalist; whether it be the gentle sadness of Elliott Smith or the dynamic range of Kurt Elling.
The Revolution Has Begun
During the HE 2003 Show in San Francisco, I was visiting with Stan Tracht of Thee High End, Usher’s U.S. distributor and he gave a complete tour of the Usher line of speakers and electronics all of which appear to be solidly built but reasonably priced. I asked Dr. D’Apollito how were they able to produce such high quality gear at such great prices? “Eastern manufacturing costs are much, much lower,” he said. “Also eastern manufacturing technology has caught up with the west and most of their plants are much newer and more efficient. This is something the rest of the high-end audio manufacturing world will have to deal with.” This is very true. There were a number of other companies such as Xindak and Ming-Da who were making their presence felt at the Show and will continue to offer gear that more than challenges the best of many U.S. companies from a sonic and quality standpoint and absolutely kills them from a cost standpoint. In these tough economic times equipment of the level of performance will become more and more appealing to U.S. audiophiles who simply can’t afford to take out a second mortgage just to build a quality system. In fact, one of the reasons why Dr. D’Appolito is working with Usher is because he is delighted with the value that Usher is offering to the high-end audio world.
The Usher Audio AC-10s are a revelation in every facet of what high-end audio is all about: thoughtful design from a reputable designer, gorgeous looks, the liberal use of high quality materials, great sound and did I mention that they are packaged nicely too. Highly recommended.
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