Dynaudio Contour S5.4, SC, S1.4 surround speaker system Page 2

The full-range S5.4 will appeal to audiophiles who've graduated to home theater, and it should help them get the most out of their CD and LP collections. With your processor, you can safely configure the S5.4 as a Large speaker (i.e., one that requires no bass crossover) and miss nothing of musical value. And switching out your center, surrounds, and subwoofer should still leave you a very satisfying conduit to your 2-channel collection when the two remaining speakers are as sufficiently full-range as the S5.4s.

Pulling out Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms (LP, Warner Bros. 25264-1) and cueing up the bass-fortified "Ride Across the River," I experimented by turning the subwoofer on and off via remote control. Only in the quietest passages, near the end of the song, was I able to hear differences in low-end extension and level with the S5.4s by themselves, and then with my Velodyne FSR-18 subwoofer. The sub's 18-inch cone moved more air and provided a more fortified attack, but the unassisted S5.4 was still highly articulate in the bass.

A testament to the quality of the S5.4's bass was provided by Steve Winwood's new CD, About Time. Without reading the liner notes, the casual listener might assume that the bass is played by a bass player. But a month ago, when I saw Winwood in concert from the second row, I watched the dying art of rock bass played on the pedals of a Hammond B-3. It was an amazing feet—er, feat: Winwood belted out song after song, left hand playing the rhythm, right hand on the melody, and left foot pounding the bass—all while singing. The S5.4 was able to clearly describe the more fully developed yet nonpercussive nature of the B-3's bass notes. Liner notes? We don't need no stinkin' liner notes!

Tonally, the S5.4 was very balanced. During the break-in period, I found it could be off-putting, with an upper-midrange glare and a degree of midrange grain—but it never bordered on "bright," an audiophile slight if there ever was one. Cranked up enough that Miles Davis's trumpet was generating 90dB peaks at my listening chair on "Pharaoh's Dance" (LP, Bitches Brew, Columbia GP 26, "Stereo 360" label), the splat of his notes was tempered only by the engineer's heavy hand on the reverb. I checked a copy of this record out of the Norristown Public Library in the early 1970s and didn't much appreciate it then, thinking it sounded like a lot of noise. Well, I bet it did on my $100 stereo of the time, with its BSR mini-changer turntable and ceramic cartridge. In my current rig, the Dynaudio Contours let each instrument have its say without getting flummoxed.

Even with the speakers almost 9 feet apart (center to center), the S5.4s built a very solid center image and projected good depth. I might have gotten even better depth from them with more experimentation, but one suffers such self-imposed limitations for the sake of domestic tranquility. But with their baffles about 30 inches out from the wall behind them, and toed-in enough that their sidewalls disappeared from view, the S5.4s proffered music with both grace and body.

That's not to say they were incapable of a high degree of resolution. The S5.4s suffered no fools—bad recordings received little of the euphonic coloration so in vogue with some in the 2-channel world. But neither did the Contours, whether the S5.4s alone or all five, ever declare themselves the enemy of all that is imperfect. Music was always rich and enjoyable, and limitations in the recordings were clearly apparent.

The Contour system didn't miss a beat with movies, projecting a highly energized soundfield without the squawking and compression that signal a small system reaching its limits. A recent DVD favorite, The Italian Job, sandwiches beaucoup dialog between action sequences at the film's beginning and end. The helicopter flyovers in chapters 12 and 13 seemed to hover above the screen, highlighting a clear advantage of tall speakers. The climactic traffic-jam sequence features sparse but rhythmic soundtrack music behind a host of soundstage cues, including what sounded like Maxi Coopers careening over sidewalks and through a mass-transit tunnel in L.A. The music and effects were kept quite distinct, yet with no loss of excitement.

Many lesser speakers are overwhelmed by this type of audio action; the overall effect can still be involving, but the homogenous nature of the sound is what I've found turns true-blood audiophiles off to home theater. The Contour system was able to combine emotion with accuracy across the breadth of the frequency spectrum.

In terms of dynamics, the Contour system did slightly better with home theater than with straight music. What I like to call "jump factor" was almost there, but not quite within reach of what some other speakers can deliver. Specifically, I'm thinking of the Ariel Acoustics 10T or the older KEF 104.2, which turned Telarc's Timewarp CD into a mid-1980s freak show that left me grinning from ear to ear. In some ways, even the lighter but more rhythmic drive of the diminutive Alón by Acarian Systems Point V speakers in my study exhibit this "jump factor." Big speakers can have a problem with intimacy, and the S5.4s were no exception. While inviting, they didn't seduce in the way small speakers such as the Alón can. On the other hand, the Alón breaks down horribly at anything approaching home-theater levels. C'est la vie.

Object of My Affection
I first thought that the Dynaudio Contours were at somewhat of a price disadvantage by virtue of their being manufactured across the Atlantic, and I imagined that the somewhat weak US dollar wasn't helping things much. But a Danish dealer acquaintance tells me that, no, Dynaudios are expensive everywhere!

Still, a good speaker is a good speaker, and the S5.4 bears comparison with any of its contemporaries. Those with back-to-basics sensibilities will find the Dynaudios complex and resolving but not the slightest bit "analytical." The Contour S5.4s were extremely good when driven as a 2-channel system; when joined in home-theater mode by the Contour SC and Contour S1.4s, they were even more expansive and mood-enabling. And the system's looks will appeal to the well-heeled.

Is the Contour S5.4 the right speaker for everyone? Those enamored of large dipole planar or electrostatic speakers might not develop a taste for what Dynaudio, or any other maker of dynamic speakers, has to offer. But the Contours laid to rest the myth that all box speakers sound boxy—in stereo, the S5.4s were nearly as free and clear of boxy colorations as any planar I've heard. Those who prefer speakers of true full-range response may never be satisfied with anything that's not designed to reproduce a 16-foot organ pipe—something that even an $8000/pair speaker would be hard-pressed to deliver. But in the range above 30Hz, the Contour S5.4s were absolutely controlled and effective, with great swing. While warm, they didn't necessarily hit 98.6°, so they're just shy of being completely intimate.

But I'm trying awfully hard to say almost anything critical about what must, in the final analysis, be considered an excellent speaker. If none of the above caveats sound like you, then I highly recommend that you run out, find a dealer who carries the Dynaudio Contours, and have a listen for yourself.