(Reprinted from the Fall 2004 Audio Ideas Guide)
Part of my series on Desktop Audio
Another Chinese entry, the Swans T200A is part of a wide range of products made under the Swans name by Chinese driver manufacturer Hi-Vi Research. The company’s products range from exotic, cost no object ribbon designs to very affordable multimedia products. The T200A resides high up in their multimedia line and is billed as a “true professional active monitor”.
If the T200A is aimed at the professional/studio market it sure doesn’t look it. In contrast to the non-descript looking black boxes one often finds in studio environments, the T200A is a rather bold looking speaker. It features a triangular front baffle faced with a silver coloured aluminum plate. Two more triangular sections finished in shiny black piano lacquer slope back from the baffle and then stop about a third of the way into the speaker’s 27 cm depth. The rear section of the speaker consists of a more traditionally shaped box which is ported at rear. Another unusual touch is that the piano lacquer front section of the speaker protrudes almost an inch in width and height from the traditional box at rear, creating a sizeable lip.
In terms of features and amenities, however, the T200A certainly does lean more towards the professional studio monitor than the bargain multimedia speaker. First and foremost there is a 40 watt amp in each speaker, as opposed to putting the electronics in one speaker of a powered pair. As such each speaker has its own level control and inputs, in this case both RCA and balanced XLR inputs are provided. On the rear of each speaker you’ll also find a power switch, AC power input plug, a large aluminum heat sink, and a bright blue power indicator (which is bright enough to cast a blue glow on the wall behind the speaker even from several feel away). There is also a matching blue power LED on the front baffle of each speaker which shines with equal intensity. It can be hidden with the supplied grille covers for those who find the high-tech look a little much.
Not surprisingly the speaker makes use of drivers from Hi-Vi, in this case a 1 inch “natural fibre knit neodymium iron boron magnetic ball style tweeter” and a 5 inch magnesium alloy long throw mid/woofer. With its gold coloured, parabolic metallic surface and no dustcap or phase plug, the mid/woofer is quite unusual and stylish looking.
Because they arrived first I ended up listening to the Swans for the longest period of time, using them at work over a period of several weeks. I set them up on a large desk, about 18″ from the rear wall and three feet from my head. While not in the heavyweight class of the Genelecs, the Swans acquitted themselves very nicely. Listening via Itunes through my Powerbook, both with the without the Echo Indigo, the T200A did not suffer from the heavy colourations which plagued the Edifiers. While a little on the bright side and voiced to be a bit thin sounding overall, the speaker was otherwise relatively neutral and did a decent job in the midrange.
Befitting a studio monitor the T200A was very revealing, with lots of treble detail. On rougher sounding source material this detail could occasionally become too much of a good thing, but the high frequency extremes of the speaker can be somewhat tamed by using the grille covers (I did most of my listening with the grilles off). The speaker’s revealing nature was very useful in hearing the difference between the Powerbook’s headphone output and the Echo Audio Indigo sound card, which smoothed the top end considerably. The difference between MP3s and AIFFs was also audible, the T200A, for instance, sounding smoother and more involving playing the uncompressed AIFFs of Orchestra Baobab’s Specialist in All Styles rather than the 256 Kbs MP3s I had ripped from the disc.
Lately I’ve been enjoying Sarah Harmer’s latest album (All of our Names), as well as her first full length release (You Were Here). Both records sounded particularly good on the Swans, her unique, sweet sounding voice very honestly and directly conveyed by the speakers. In comparison to the top flight Genelecs, the T200As were not the last word in midrange transparency, and sticklers will say they lacked a little bit of body on vocals, but they could certainly sound involving enough to draw my attention away from work.
I picked up the latest Tortoise album (It’s All Around You) during the review period, and was treated to more of the bass heavy, rhythmically complex instrumental tracks they’ve become famous for. Despite bass response down to only 60 Hz, and a somewhat lightweight balance as a result, the Swans got the rhythm right and had me reaching for the volume control on tracks like “Salt the Skies”. With forty watts aside, twisting the volume knob up gave good results, the speakers able to handle plenty of juice before audible strain set in. Listening in the nearfield at just three feet away I could get more than enough volume when I wanted it, clean punchy midbass, and plenty of oomph overall. They don’t have the authority of the Genelecs, but few small speakers do, and of course there’s always the possibility of adding a sub, especially at the price.
Imaging and soundstaging were decent, with good size and nice wide spread on Phillip Glass’ score for Kundun, which sounded very good on this system. They imaged a little better with the grilles on, but sounded a bit more detailed and lively with them off; a tradeoff individual users will have to decide on for themselves. At modest to moderate volume levels the Swans featured good separation of instruments and musical lines with things only getting congested at volume levels which demanded too much of them. Dynamic contrasts were well conveyed, but not with the stark relief of speakers in the class of the Genelecs. Again, a good sub would help in this department, but getting a good one will likely at least double the cost of the system. It also assumes you’ll have room for one under your desk.
Shortcomings aside, the Swans T200A packs an enormous amount of performance into an attractive and sonically impressive package. There are certainly many better sounding powered monitors out there, but for $400 US the Swans really distinguish themselves. They certainly embarrass most low end “multimedia” speaker systems for only slightly more money. If you like the way they look and have enough desk space for a larger than average computer speaker, the T200A may well be your best choice south of $500 US.