Dynaudio Contour S5.4, SC, S1.4 surround speaker system

Denmark is home to Dynaudio, one of the world's finest speaker manufacturers. After beginning modestly as a maker of speaker drivers, Dynaudio rapidly gained accolades from OEMs and the international do-it-yourself speaker-building conspiracy. But don't let their industrial background mislead you. Dynaudio's Contour and Confidence speaker lines are among the most classically striking speakers in the market today: business and beauty bundled together, in a high-end showroom near you.

Dynaudio introduced the Contour series in the mid-1980s, and a series of behind-the-baffle technological advances to the line followed. But it wasn't until 2003 that the Contours had their first-ever aesthetic makeover. They now look like slightly less complex versions of Dynaudio's recently updated, more expensive Confidence line. The family resemblance is apparent and appreciated.

The $8000/pair S5.4 is the top of the Contour line. This tower speaker, nearly 5 feet tall, has such an unusual driver arrangement that you'd be forgiven for trying to stand them upside-down. With two 7.8-inch woofers starting barely half a foot down from the top of the baffle, the bass frequencies found themselves emanating practically at the acoustic midpoint between my listening room's floor and its 8-foot-high ceiling. Most speaker designers take advantage of near-floor placement to eke out a bit more bass from the woofers; Dynaudio defiantly sticks their low frequencies at the other end of the cabinet.

Immediately below the S5.4's woofers is a 5.85-inch midrange cone; below that, a 1.1-inch soft-dome Esotar2 tweeter. The Esotar2 is the most recent version of Dynaudio's Esotec and Esotar tweeter technologies—a mainstay of the company for many years now. When I pried off the speaker's magnetically attached grilles, I could see that a seated listener's ears would more closely align themselves with the lower of the two woofers and not with the tweeter, which was nearly a foot below ear level.

In my room, I'm usually forced to put the center-channel speaker on a 24-inch stand or atop an equally low equipment rack, which puts its tweeter far below those in most tower speakers. But when I did that with the Dynaudio system, the tweeter in the 57-inch-tall S5.4 was only 2 inches higher than the one in the SC center-channel. This, I thought, would certainly minimize the perception that sounds were traveling vertically as well as horizontally as they panned across the three front channels.

The SC center-channel speaker's tweeter is straddled by midrange drivers that have the same nominal 6-inch outer diameter of the S5.4's midrange cone, but are nonetheless quite different in appearance and design. With their 2.9-inch voice coils—twice as large as the 1.5-inch coil in the S5.4—hidden behind an oversized dustcap that would look more appropriate on a subwoofer, the SC's 6-inch drivers are designed to cover more of the bass region than their woofer-equipped, 3-way brethren.

In a similar vein, the 2-way S1.4 surround speaker uses the same 2.9-inch voice coil found in the SC, this time driving a slightly larger 6.6-inch woofer. The S1.4 has same, inverted woofer-tweeter arrangement as the S5.4, though its tweeter ends up farther from the floor when the S1.4 is used with its dedicated 25-inch stand.

Dynaudio's stated crossover and frequency-range specifications for the Contours are surprisingly extended—especially the SC's 55Hz lower limit. In any case, with a preamp-processor's built-in crossover set to a THX-approved 80Hz, I wouldn't be getting anywhere near that limit, since I was using my Velodyne FSR-18 subwoofer most of the time. All of the Contours are reflex-loaded, each with a rear port of appropriate size—the SC has two. Dynaudio includes compressible foam plugs for these ports to limit their output, something you might need to do if room and equipment limitations force you to place the backs too close to a wall or other surface. I had no reason to use them.

A single set of speaker posts is provided, so biwiring or biamping the S5.4 is not an option. I can't say I missed it—my garden-hose speaker cables and the tight spaces behind most speakers mean that biwiring is a two-man job (me, and me cursing). Although slots were provided for spade lugs, I wasn't crazy about the clear plastic round "nuts." While I could get a decent grip on them, I feared for their longevity and didn't dare use pliers.

My review samples of the Contours were finished in an incredibly beautiful rosewood veneer befitting the not-inconsiderable sum these stylish speakers command. Those inclined to light maple, cherry, or black ash are humored as well. Ever see Danish furniture? You're looking at it again.

Climb On
With men, it's tall, dark, and handsome that count. With Dynaudio speakers, it's tall, deep, and expansive. How tall, deep, and expansive depends on how much you want to lighten your wallet. I really enjoyed listening to Dynaudio's $16,000/pair Confidence C4s at Home Entertainment 2002 in New York City two years ago, and had planned to review them. But when Dynaudio told SGHT that the more affordable Contour line was about to be redesigned, we decided to wait. The new Contours reflect much of the same design thinking and driver technology that went into their Confidence brethren, at a price that borders on the reasonable, at least in the high-end audio universe.

While the Contours needed considerable break-in before sounding their best, they were pretty okay out of the box. Over time, they slowly shed a series of veils, until I could finally perceive their true sonic nature with the 2-channel material I fed them. With home theater fare, I was favorably impressed with the system from my first flick.

Dialog intelligibility was superb, but I'd run into this before. Had the center been tweaked at the expense of across-the-board timbre matching? Near the end of the review, I reconfigured the Aragon Stage One pre-pro to eliminate any influence of the subwoofer and, using 2-channel material while switching back and forth between stereo and mono modes (with the SC center-channel run Full Range), I could hear some tonal differences, but nothing egregious. The S5.4's dual woofers lent a deeper, fuller tone to foundation frequencies, but from the SC I heard none of the anticipated upper-frequency emphasis, and no telltale hint of sibilance that might have led to its marvelous intelligibility. It was impossible to eliminate the psychoacoustic effects of space and air provided by two large speakers vs. one small one, but the SC nevertheless seemed to be a good match for the S5.4s. The SC is anything but identical to the S5.4s, but it met its primary objective of fixing dialog to the screen. The S5.4 is a large speaker, and it delivered; the SC, small as it is, never seemed dwarfed or out of place.