Product name: Little British Monitor
Cost: 335 UKP (wood effect) 415 (real veneer)(Currency conversion) - (YMMV)
Reviewer: Andy Norman - TNT UK
Reviewed: September, 2016
The Audiosmile Little British Monitor - or “LBM” for short - is the brainchild of audio engineer Simon Ashton. It is a pair of small active speakers, hand made to order, with line and Bluetooth connections. Normally this isn't the type of device that we would review on TNT-Audio, but Simon's company, Audiosmile, looks innovative and makes audiophile claims for the speakers. Simon managed to get crowd funding for the development of the speakers and is now looking for distribution. He kindly sent us a pair so I got to have a listen.
In the packaging are two, fairly tiny, active speakers with small stands, a power supply and connecting cables. Whilst most bookshelf speakers are far too big to contemplate putting on a bookshelf, these would fit just fine (though it would still be sub-optimum acoustically). The materials are simple but well put together. The braced cabinets are of veneered plywood and the front is finished in a good quality dark leather effect material. It's a matt finish but the real veneer is well applied and wrapped, the drivers are recessed into the cabinet and the visual overall effect is good. They don't look like high quality mass produced luxury speakers but nor do they look as if they've been knocked together in a garage.
Each tiny cabinet contains a mid/bass driver and a tweeter. These are both of aluminium, with the mid/bass unit descried as “long throw” giving it more air shifting power than a typical 3” driver. The left side speaker also contains the main electronics and controls. The signal and power are fed to the right hand speaker through a dedicated cable. The cabinets are ported on the base and there is a switch to adjust the low frequency response to compensate for use near a large surface such as a desk. Thin foam grilles are provided but they are pretty basic and connect with blu-tac. This basic mode of attachment does mean that the speaker front is not affected by the need for magnets or fixings and most people will listen to the speakers without the grille.
The speakers employ an active crossover. This means that each speaker is directly fed from the electronics rather than being filtered by a crossover. This configuration is often used in studio monitors (as well as some hi-fi active speakers) as it should work without the phase issues that crossovers can introduce.
The amplifiers used are Class A/B. This choice appears at first a little surprising given the quality and miniaturisation in digital amps, but Class A/B gives a more powerful output. This is probably necessary to deliver enough power to get a dynamic performance from the tiny drivers. This is reflected in the frequency performance which is pretty flat across the main listening range although the small cabinet restricts the bass response.
The left “master” speaker connects to the mains power with a “laptop” type power supply. A signal and power cable then connects the left to the right, “slave” speaker. Input is either by a single stereo mini jack socket or wirelessly via AptX Bluetooth.
The AptX protocol enables a better quality connection than earlier forms of Bluetooth as it uses improved coding designed especially for audio. I found that Bluetooth operation introduced a slight hum but not at such a level as to be intrusive. I had trouble getting the Bluetooth to connect on a couple of occasions, requiring me to switch the speakers on and off a couple of times before it would connect, but generally it worked well.
The speakers have dedicated stands which work well enough. They raise the speakers to a good angle for desktop listening but, as they aren't adjustable could be tricky to optimise in other listening positions.
There is a volume control knob on the rear of the left cabinet. This may not be readily accessible in some situations so the main volume control for the system is likely to be from a computer, tablet or phone. This worked fine for me as I listened to an iPad2 playing CDs ripped from my collection. Direct line connection sounded significantly better than Bluetooth. Volume was louder and the sound quite a bit fuller than wireless.
First off I listened to the LBMs in my kitchen. It's a fairly big room (at least by UK kitchen standards) but not normally somewhere I listen to music. The acoustics are a bit lively! But it seemed like a good opportunity to capitalise on the small size of the speakers. Volume was not an issue from the small enclosures. Although the speakers are not going to be loud enough for a teenage party, they seemed to me loud enough for most normal listening, and more than loud enough when listened to near field.
Initially I had a little difficulty getting the Bluetooth to connect to my iPad, so I hooked up the headphone output from a DAB radio to act as a rudimentary source. The DAB sound isn't audiophile and I mostly use it to listen to news and speech programmes. Adding the LBM to the equation gave a massive lift over the (reasonable) internal stereo speakers. I found myself tuning to music stations I seldom listen to. At the second attempt I connected via Bluetooth and fed the little speakers some CD quality music from an iPad. I played through a variety of my favourite albums over the next few days. Very impressive, especially with light classical music and vocals.
I mentioned how impressed I'd been with my kitchen listening to Simon and he suggested that it was worth moving the LBMs to my normal listening room to get a real sense of what they're capable of. So I set them up right beside my existing loudspeakers. I hooked up over Bluetooth and set them playing.
I don't usually involve friends and family in my hi-fi reviewing but I needed a second opinion to check what I was hearing. I set the LBMs on the floor under my main speakers (Usher Be718). They are so small they barely noticed. Then I set some music playing and called in my wife, and on a separate occasion a friend familiar with the sound of my system, for a listen. I confess I played some tracks that showed the LBMs to best advantage, solo Diana Krall for example, and my wife was very taken with the sound. The other friend, not realising what item in the setup I had replaced didn't readily notice that it wasn't my main system playing.
Although the sound was initially impressive in the larger room, on more critical and sustained listening the relative lack of bass did affect the overall sound, especially on rock or other bass driven music. The sound was a little thinner than I would expect from a full size speaker. There was a sense of listening to a miniature version of a hi-fi. Well drawn images of the instruments but lacking in scale and richness.
Finally I set the little LBMs up in my study, which is where I do much of my music listening. That music's normally delivered by my second system which consists of: a PC with Xonar Essence STX audio board feeding a digital out to an Arcam irDAC, a sweet little Lym Audio tripath based amplifier running into a pair of Acoustic Energy Ae509's. The three way AE509s are oversized for the room but do fill the space wonderfully, so I was interested to see how the LBM would perform. I set them up first sitting on top of the AE509s (as they are one of the few flat unoccupied spaces in the room). The difference in tone was immediately evident. The LBMs did sound very small in comparison. Of course it's a typical audiophile unfair comparison, given the cost and size differential.
I then put the speakers on the desk to listen in a really near field. This restored the sense of a full hi-fi image. The sound was fast delivering a very clear soundstage with a tight bass. Listening to some Paul Simon and Lyle Lovett's “Joshua Judges Ruth” album I was impressed again with the detail but felt they would need to be used with a subwoofer to create an image to compete against full sized monitors. For a specific example, on Paul Simon's “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” the metallic percussion was very well rendered whilst the bass was quite recessed and the drums lacked impact. The relative lack of low bass affected the sense of propulsion in the music, making it less driving in the livelier sections. Having said that, on their own terms they're very good and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend giving them a listen for desktop or other nearfield use.
Finally, I tried improving the source component by connecting up a recent bargain acquisition, a KORG DS DAC 100M. This is a very clear and open sounding DAC which also has ample bass. It was immediately clear that the LBMs are capable of rendering the difference between digital sources. The sound filled out quite a bit. The basic characteristics were still there: great detail and somewhat light bass, but the sound became more listenable and there was more drive.
The LBM is very good desktop or small room system. They sound best fed by a high quality DAC and listened to in near field configuration although they sound pretty good even in a larger room. The sound is very accurate with very enjoyable mid and treble ranges and a fast, if recessed and not very deep, bass. Small and sweet!
In the course of the review, I asked Simon to tell me a bit more about his journey as a hi-fi designer and I thought his answer was interesting enough to reproduce here.
“My journey as a speaker designer probably started as a desire to learn about acoustics. I was trained as a recording engineer and had a small home studio that doubled as my listening room. I wanted to get the best sound from this small room for monitoring and therefore began teaching myself about acoustics in more depth and built some DIY membrane bass traps. Realising that room acoustics are often overlooked by listeners I started AudioSmile to sell nicely made room treatments that don't look too ugly in the home. I was actually invited by Paul Stephenson to treat the Naim factory listening room and I've seen my panels travel with them to exhibitions.
Having gained a lot of knowledge about acoustics I started to take an interest in loudspeaker as pretty much the only mechanical acoustic devices in modern hi-fi. At first I built a few designs for myself and people I know. When visiting a large retailer for high-end kit I couldn't help notice how all the speakers were huge ugly things that dominate the room. So I thought it would be nice to build a totally high-end speaker that was small. After a lot of work this resulted in the original Kensai which was very well received.
I also have an interest in electronics so the next thing I built was an active bass unit to match the Kensai, call the Advantage. The electronics were all my own design and was a real learning curve to achieve performance that matched the Naim SuperNaite I used as a comparison. I'm not only talking about listening tests but also measured technical performance.
Around the same time I was toying with supertweeters and the perceived effects of dispersion patterns on replay. This turned in to my supertweeter products. I still have a long ongoing project to create a speaker that controls directivity throughout the entire range using drivers with individual phase control... but I'm not sure when it will ever get completed!
I like the challenge of making small speakers. In comparison it is easy to build a good sounding large speaker, but building a good small speaker needs more creative engineering.
When I started making the Kensai I used good quality woodworkers to build the cabinets, but I have over time expanded my facilities so that I can now control the entire cabinet building process in house. I really enjoy the mixture of skills required to take something from design and simulation, which is all theory based, through the woodwork stage which is physical and very rewarding to see the beautiful product of labour, and also the electronics production which combines theory with detail work. It keeps me actively learning and gaining skills all the time.”
© Copyright 2016 Andy Norman - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com