Monday , October 26 2020

Buchardt A500 review and measurements: This feels like the future of hi-fi speakers

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Gadgets for humans

I want to see more of this in the audio industry

Last year I wrote that Buchardt Audio‘s popular bookshelf speaker, the S400, was near endgame material. It sounded good enough that I felt it would be difficult to find a speaker that was a clear upgrade without opting for something larger or in a different price category altogether. Nearly a year later, I stand by those comments.

But if such qualities were true with the S400, they are doubly so for the company’s new flagship bookshelf, the Buchardt A500. The A500 may look nearly identical to the S400 from the front, but on the inside, this is an all-new, far improved speaker. One would hope, for a price tag starting at €3,500 (roughly $4,150).

Unlike the S400, the A500 has built-in amplifiers and processing in each speaker, allowing the company to eke every ounce of performance out of its hardware. This is common in studio monitors, but is only just beginning to make waves in the more mainstream hi-fi market. Buchardt goes further too, by providing custom tunings that can deeply affect the speaker‘s acoustics, going far beyond basic EQ.

Second, Buchardt adds an extra layer of convenience through its optional wireless hub, which supports a host of standards like Chromecast, AirPlay, Spotify, Bluetooth, and more.

Bringing it all together is an effective room correction system that tidies up bass performance in your room – something that is the bane of most hi-fi systems.

On their own, none of these features are completely unique. But it’s their combination that arguably makes the A500 the most versatile and refreshing speaker designs I’ve tested to date. Let me break down why.

For some hi-fi traditionalists, EQing a speaker is already a bit of a taboo. If so, the A500 is heretical.

Buchardt has created a variety of ‘Master Tunings‘ for the A500. These are essentially carefully curated profiles that can be loaded onto the speaker to change its performance characteristics for different use cases and preferences. This not only alters the raw frequency response of the speaker, which you can do with any half-decent equalizer, but also its maximum output capabilities and directivity (how the speaker‘s sound differs at various angles).

The various profiles can dramatically affect the sound of the speaker — with some of them being so different, it’s like you’re listening to different speakers. Moreover, throughout my months with the speakers, Buchardt has continued to add new profiles, with more sure to follow.

At the time of writing, there are seven different profiles — some of which are minorly tweaked subsets of others — that can be downloaded from Buchardt’s website. This makes the A500 the most difficult and time-consuming speaker I’ve ever had to review, for the simple fact that my impressions change with each tuning.

Some highlights, along with my brief impressions:

Phew. Got all that? It’s almost too much choice, as chances are you will spend days or weeks comparing the lot of them to see which you prefer. But I will take flexibility over the alternative any day.

Loading profiles is a quick but inelegant process. You’ll need a USB drive handy, as you’ll have to download the profile you want from Buchardt’s website onto it, plug the drive into the speaker, power cycle the speaker, and then repeat for your other unit.

Thankfully the speaker only takes a few seconds to update, so it’s not too much of a pain. Still, I wish there were a way to switch profiles via Buchardt’s app for quick A/Bing. Speaking of…

I reviewed the speakers using Buchardt’s WiSA hub, an optional accessory that turns the A500 into a surprisingly capable wireless streamer (the speaker costs €3,750 or $4,434 with the hub). WiSA is a growing wireless audio standard involving a multitude of brands — if you happen to have another WiSA hub, you don’t technically need to buy Buchardt’s. Not having used the technology, my expectations weren’t very high.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised — the wireless component of the A500 is surprisingly painless. The WiSA hub was quickly detected by the Google Home app on my phone, after which I connected it to my WiFi network. I then paired the speakers to the hub (there’s a pairing button on each unit), and was up and running in less than 5 minutes.

The hub supports basically every streaming option I care for. Though I assume most will be using the A500 in a 2.0 setup, the technology currently supports 7.1 audio and recently added support for 5.1.2 Atmos as well. Audio up to 24bits/96kHz is supported too, ensuring more than enough resolution for all but the pickiest of audiophiles, and there is no latency I could detect either.

But more remarkable is the fact that in three months with the speakers, not once did they drop a connection – not even for half a second. The speakers themselves communicate via their own proprietary network too, so even when my Wi-Fi network went down, the speakers would keep on chugging along.

If you don’t feel like streaming, the Hub also supports almost every physical input you could want including RCA, 3.5mm aux, optical and coaxial Toslink, HDMI ARC, and USB. You could, of course, also connect to the speakers directly, though they only support XLR inputs (you’ll need an adapter if you want to use another connection type).

Point is, there’s surprisingly little compromise to using the wireless system. It’s as painless to set up and supports as many streaming standards as ‘smart’ speakers do, while offering more flexibility too.

Different rooms and placement options can alter your speaker’s sound, especially at low frequencies. Most A/V receivers include some form of room correction to compensate for this, but it’s exceedingly rare to find room correction on a pair hi-fi speakers. The inclusion of room correction — only available with the WiSA hub — is one of the best things about the A500.

The company is using its own proprietary room correction which takes a more minimalist approach than that found on many receivers. Buchardt’s system focuses exclusively on lower frequencies where you room has a massive audible impact. Thought it only works with the iPhones 6S or newer at the moment — I’m team Android, so Buchardt had to lend me an iPhone — it’s quite simple to use.

If you’ve ever tried TruePlay on Sonos, the process is fairly similar. The speaker will emit an ungodly loud pink noise, and you’re asked to move around your room waving your phone around in large circles. Buchardt suggests using your whole room, though you can also try simply waving the phone around your listening area. In any case, the process takes 30 seconds to 1 minute, depending on how large the area you’re covering is.

Once completed you’ll see both the frequency response in your room below 1,000 Hz and Buchardt’s correction (most of the magic happens below 400 Hz or so). You can then transfer that correction onto the hub. The improvement was obvious every time I tried it — more balanced, tighter bass. The correction correctly helped reduce the excess bass caused by my placing the speakers close to the walls and helped tame some interference notches in the bass as well, but more on this later.

I did still feel like I could get a better result at my listening position by tuning my speakers manually, but I’ve been doing this for a while. As an automated system, the A500 performs admirably.

Though the profiles and EQ do significantly alter the speakers’ sound, there are some commonalities throughout. This is most notable in the soundstage, where the A500 always strikes a pleasant balance of soundstage size and imaging precision. The speaker has a vast sweetspot too, with a soundstage that doesn’t immediately snap to one speaker if you move off center. This is in part due to the use of smaller-than-usual 3/4-inch tweeters.

The changing bass directivity with different profiles does have some impact on the sense of envelopment, so you’ll have to experiment with your preferred profile. Overall the A500’s spatial presentation is hard to fault.

It’s also worth noting that though different tunings are clearly noticeable, the overarching sound is ‘neutral’. I find the midrange-forward tuning to be most natural — the others seem a hair recessed in the vocals — but none of them are as esoteric as what you might find from other hi-fi brands.

Though the bass spatial presentation can change with tunings, if you’re coming from speakers without subwoofers, you’ll be surprised by the sheer quantity the A500 has to offer from its dual 6.5-inch woofers. Compared to ‘normal’ bookshelf speakers, the A500 is in a completely different league. It can legitimately play down to about 22 Hz-in room and you will feel every bit of it. It won’t be quite as clean or get quite as loud as a proper subwoofer system, but that’s what the tower version of this speaker, the A700, is for.

Another very welcome and rather unique detail is the A500’s built-in loudness compensation. The A500 will adjust its bass response (and to a much lesser extent, treble), depending on how loud you are playing the speakers. Research has shown our ears are much less sensitive to bass at lower volumes, so one normally needs to turn the bass knob way up at low volumes for the proportions to sound right.

The A500 does this automatically, and it works wonderfully — this is perhaps the best speaker I’ve heard for listening at low volumes, at least without implementing loudness compensation myself.

One negative point: the speakers do have a small amount of hiss when idling. This is usually inaudible in a living room setup and always inaudible with music, but may matter if you intend to use the speakers on a desk. Buchardt does say it’s working on a way to minimize this, but it’s worth noting in case you’re sensitive to hiss.

This is going to be long. If you don’t care about measurements, feel free to skip this section. But if you’re looking into this speaker, you probably care at least a little about science-based speaker design.

As noted earlier, the combination of a myriad profiles, room correction, and loudness compensation made the A500, frankly, the most annoying speaker I’ve ever had to measure. Luckily, Buchardt is one of the blessed few manufacturers that actually provides extensive measurements openly, especially among hi-fi companies. My job, then, is not so much to reveal the A500’s performance as it is to confirm it.

To save me some trouble, I only performed my full suite of measurements for the stock and nearfield tunings.

Using a quasi-anechoic technique that allows me to hide room reflections from my measurements — I can approximate the speaker‘s “true” sound. We begin with a graph called a ‘spinorama,’ so-called because it involves rotating the speaker around its horizontal and vertical axes to capture its sound at 70 different angles.

The spinorama distills all that data into one simple graph, giving us a detailed overview of both the speaker‘s direct sound and its directivity tendencies.

Here’s the spinorama I get for A500’s stock tuning:

Explanations of how to interpret these lines are provided over at Speaker Data 2034 and Audioholics, but here’s a quick summary:

The A500 performs admirably with its stock tuning.

Buchardt produces a graph akin to a spinorama, and notably, my measurements match Buchardt’s very closely:

There are some subtle differences that can be attributed to differences in measurement technique. I’m not looking for a perfect replica here, but rather to confirm that the same basic performance is evident in both my and Buchardt’s measurements. In either spin, what we see is mostly top-notch.

First, we see quite a flat listening window that almost entirely stays within +/- 1.5 dB throughout the frequency range, indicating what should be an overall neutral sound. This means for the most part, the A500 will not color your music. The on-axis curve rises slightly, potentially making the speaker a bit bright, but this is largely immaterial as Buchardt recommends this tuning be used off axis — with the speakers aimed straight forward rather than right at the listening position.

Second, note the remarkable bass extension; down to 25Hz, as Buchardt claims. You can’t get past physics, so the A500 will likely have more distortion at very low frequencies than a larger speaker with bigger woofers, but in my experience with the A500, I’d gladly take the bass extension over not having it at all. Besides, distortion is usually less pejorative to actual music than audiophiles like to admit and you can always opt for tuning with less bass (or the A700s) if distortion is a major concern.

No speaker is perfect, and in the sound power (and ER/PIR curves as well) we see a bit of a dip in the upper mids that may color the sound somewhat, depending on how the speaker interacts with your room. I suspect this is why I preferred the more mid-forward tuning; it helps negate this dip by adding a bit more midrange energy, but your mileage may vary.

But I’m nitpicking. Overall, this excellent performance in the frequency response domain typically reserved for some of the best studio monitors.

Speaking of, you could definitely use the A500 as a studio monitor if you wanted to. Here is the nearfield tuning:

Once again, it matches Buchardt’s very well:

The measurement is very similar to the stock tuning on the whole, but is flattest on-axis, making it less bright and more suitable for use in a typical studio setting where the speakers are aimed right at the listening position. It is almost entirely within +/- 1dB from 24 Hz to 15 kHz. That makes the A500 the runner-up for flattest speaker I’ve measured, second only to the impeccable Neumann KH80 — which, as far as I know, is the flattest speaker on the market:

You’ll also note the bass has similar extension to the stock tuning, but performs differently off-axis. Here, the upper bass off-axis response is closer in level to the direct sound. I found this resulted in a ‘fuller’ sound to the speaker. Depending on your room, you may prefer this rendition; you’ll have to experiment and see.

Without having to do a full spinorama, you can see how the above tunings, as well as the midrange-forward and 3-way tunings compare based on their on-axis sound:

Investigating the off-axis behavior further, we see the A500 demonstrates excellent directivity control, meaning the sound radiated off-axis changes smoothly as you move further from the center of the speaker.

Good horizontal directivity control is crucial for a good spatial presentation, especially in an untreated room. It means the sound that eventually gets reflected off your walls should be similar in tonality to the direct sound, and it is largely the interplay between the direct sound and similar reflections that gives a speaker a high-quality soundstage.

We can visualize this in several ways. First, we have the raw response from 0-90 degrees (stock tuning):

We see the speaker’s sound changes smoothly as one moves to larger angles off-axis.

Another way I like to display directivity is to separate the horizontal components of the early reflections curve. These estimate the sound that will bounce off of the walls to the front, side, and rear of the speakers. I have also included the total horizontal reflections (the average of the former three curves) as well as the horizontal early reflections directivity index, which shows how much horizontal reflections differ overall from the listening window. As always, we want this curve to be smooth:

Lastly, a polar map is a more intuitive display of directivity for some people. In this graph, the horizontal centerline represents the on-axis, as you move away from the center, you can see how much the sound changes based on the shifting colors.

In each of these, the A500 performs admirably. Of particular note once again is the bass directivity in the stock tuning. Most speakers become roughly omnidirectional below 500Hz, while the A500 in its stock tuning retains some directionality to below 200Hz. Whether this will actually sound better depends on your room and tastes, but it should lessen room interaction in this region. More importantly, at least the A500 gives you the choice.

You can see the same graphs of the nearfield tuning, for instance, shows a bass with different directivity properties, although directivity here too extends lower than on a typical speaker its size:

Vertical dispersion, like the S400 before it, is arguably the A500’s biggest flaw — but that’s also true for most speakers. While vertical directivity has much less of an impact on our impression of the soundstage, it can still have some impact on timbre.

Notably, the A500 has a very narrow listening window. You are unlikely to notice a problem in a living room setup, but in the nearfield you will want to make sure to listen directly on axis (this is the point where the waveguide and woofer edge meet) when possible. Here you can see how dramatically the response can change being just 10 degrees above the reference axis.

The 2.5-way nearfield tuning performs similarly in this regard. However, it is possible the 3-way tuning with the 1.8 kHz crossover mitigates this issue. Unfortunately, I did not have time to test this.

On the plus side, Buchardt’s floor and ceiling reflections are relatively well-controlled, an area other speakers normally have bigger problems with:

Also, you can once again see the difference in bass directivity between the stock and nearfield tunings:

Now we turn to the A500’s room correction. Below we have a moving microphone average of the in-room performance from my listening position with both speakers firing. In red is no EQ, in blue is with EQ.

By default, my room has too much sub-bass and not enough higher bass. Here we see a clear improvement; the A500 does a bang-up job of reducing the dramatic bass nulls present in my room with no EQ — especially considering it’s doing this EQ with the microphone on an iPhone 6S.

The EQ has an immediate impact on the clarity and ‘snappiness’ of bass notes when turned on. As one would expect from the measurements, it sounds both bloated in the sub-bass and missing some impact in the bass when turned off. You’ll also notice how the EQ does pretty much nothing above 400Hz or so, which is Buchardt’s intended behavior.

Can I achieve better results with manual EQ? Sure. I can apply filters until I get a perfectly straight in-room response if I want to, but at this point, I’m mostly hitting diminishing returns.

That said, I do wish Buchardt allowed you to perform some manual EQ from its app. Though its automated system yields an obvious improvement, my room still misses some energy in the lower mids and the A500 EQ doesn’t quite correct this as much as I’d like.

This is still just nitpicking though. If you already know what you’re doing, feel free to apply your own EQ or tweak Buchardt’s results. The A500’s system isn’t magic, but for many hi-fi enthusiasts that have never properly corrected the in-room bass response of their speakers, the dead simplicity of the A500’s EQ could be transformative.

You might note that the bass is still somewhat elevated here; this is because the A500’s loudness compensation is in effect, adding some bass energy to account for our low sensitivity at lower volumes.

So lastly, here is a look at how the speaker’s bass response changes with SPL level. These measurements are captured with room effects in full tow at a distance of 3m/10 feet, so only focus on the general contour of the curves. You can see how much more bass the A500 applies at low SPLs relative to at high SPLs. You can also see compression kicks in at about 88dB for a single speaker firing in my room (with dual speakers, you should be able to reach 3-6 dB higher).

Phew, got all that?

Let me be clear. I’m not promising the A500 is going to be the best speaker you’ve ever heard, nor that it’s the right speaker for everyone; such claims are unrealistic.

The cynic might also suggest that much of what the A500 offers could be achieved manually and for a lot less money than €3,750, or approximately $4,434. If you already have an amplifier and access to EQ, you could get a good speaker for under $2,000, EQ it to your liking, add a subwoofer or two for another grand, and still have money left over.

But all that is missing the point. You could also spend this kind of money — or far more — for a system that sounds much worse.

What’s special about the A500 is that it does something so few other hi-fi companies dare to do. Buchardt isn’t just telling you what a speaker should sound like; it’s giving you the freedom to alter the fundamental acoustics of its speakers to find something that works for you.

Many audiophiles enjoy mixing and matching components, collecting vintage gear, and/or carefully tweaking their rooms to maximize their speaker’s performance. They like to show off their gear to show how audio is serious business.

That great, but not practical or desirable for everyone. Unless you are an audio professional, I believe speakers should adapt to your home and lifestyle, not the other way around. I enjoy traditional bookshelf speaker setups, but I’m also ready for hi-fi to move on from its traditions.

Like another pair of high-end active speakers I tested earlier this year, the Dutch & Dutch 8C, it’s the versatility and convenience packed into a compact package that set the A500 apart. It’s a speaker that recognizes that rooms are flawed and tastes can vary — sometimes within the same person — and is designed with the flexibility to account for these variables.

As far as I’m aware, there is nothing else in the market that packs measurements (and in turn, sound) this good, with this much functionality and convenience, in a package so compact and living room-friendly. That Buchardt publicly shares such extensive measurements of its speakers to back up its performance is just icing on the cake.

If it’s not clear by now, the Buchardt A500 gets my highest recommendation. I just hope other hi-fi companies copy its transparency and willingness to break the mold.

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Published September 17, 2020 — 22:09 UTC

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