It always freaks me out a little when a speaker manufacturer (or representatives thereof) grills me about the gear I'll be using to review their products. The fact that they're asking at all usually means they want to send a truckload of accompanying equipment purely for their own piece of mind. I know a speaker review involves a lot of subjective analysis, but I like to control my variables and keep gear changes to a minimum. So, when Bryston's PR agent pitched a review of a sub-$5,000 Bryston 5.1 speaker system comprised of the company's Mini A bookshelf speakers ($1,200/pair), AC1 Micro center speaker ($490), and Model A subwoofer ($1,895), I assumed that the ensuing conversation about my gear rack would eventually lead to a stack of Bryston gear being dropped on my front porch.
It wasn't an unreasonable assumption, given that Bryston is one of the most well-respected electronics manufacturers in the industry. The company's amps are legendary. It was an incorrect assumption, though. As it turns out, Bryston was really itching to have the new speakers reviewed with an AV receiver. Any receiver that I liked, really, so long as it wasn't too exotic.
Yeah, I was as surprised as you are. Once the shock wore off, I have to admit that such Inigo Montoya-esque bravado intrigued and impressed me, and it set high expectations for the Bryston speakers. After all, it's hard not to read a bit of a challenge into that request: "Go ahead, use whatever you want. Our speakers sound great with anything."
It does make sense, though. As the smallest speakers in Bryston's lineup, the Mini A and AC1 Micro don't need a whole heck of a lot of power. But don't let their names fool you: the "compact" Mini A measures in at 15.5 inches tall, 8.5 inches wide, and 8.25 inches deep, and the "micro" center is a good 17 inches wide and 7.5 inches tall. If you read their names and conjured up visions of something along the lines of Energy's popular Take Classic 5.1 system, think again. If Bryston ever produces a speaker that small, I assume we'll be looking at the Fempto A and the AC1 Yocto center.
Scale is relative, though. Compared with the beefy Middle T speakers that Brent Butterworth reviewed awhile back, these guys are positively itty-bitty. Size differential aside, a lot of what Brent said about the Middle T applies to the Mini A and AC1 Micro: the Axiom Acoustics design, the meticulous engineering, the somewhat less-refined aesthetics, and most importantly the incredible sound.
Coming out of the box, I must admit, Bryston's speakers make a bit of a mixed impression. On the one hand, form hasn't merely taken a backseat to function here; it's all the way back in the seat-less portion of the station wagon. In fact, a station wagon may be the best analogy I can think of. An old, 1980s Volvo, to be specific. "They're boxy, but they're good." That's wholly subjective, of course. My wife actually thinks the speakers are gorgeous.
Even if you agree with me that they aren't exactly sexy, there's no denying that they're superbly built. The finish is flawless. The magnetic speaker grilles slide off and pop on with ease, allowing you to easily inspect what is a rather distinct driver configuration for a speaker of this size. The Mini A is actually a true three-way design, with a 6.5-inch aluminum cone woofer, a three-inch aluminum midrange driver, and the same one-inch titanium tweeter used throughout the Bryston line. The speaker also boasts a rear-firing fluted port above its two pairs of rather plain red-and-black binding posts, the latter of which we'll get back to in a moment.
The AC1 Micro center, by contrast, is not a three-way design, nor is it ported. It features two 5.25-inch aluminum mid-bass drivers to the left and right of its one-inch titanium tweeter...and, unfortunately, the exact same binding posts (just two of them instead of four, since it isn't designed for bi-amping).
Those of you familiar with my peculiar binding-post fetish may read that complaint as pure snobbery. It isn't. If my usual, pre-terminated speaker cables were currently in place in my secondary home theater system, I might not have noticed just how peculiar the Bryston speakers' connectivity is. If you're using banana plugs, they should slip right into place. However, I'm currently experimenting with different cables in that room, and as such the ones I'm using at the moment aren't terminated, requiring a bare-wire connection. The binding posts on Bryston's Mini A and AC1 Micro are so tightly spaced, with such thin plastic tightening knobs, that loosening and securing them is literally impossible by hand. Bryston does include a little miniature box wrench with each of its speakers specifically for that reason; but, suffice it to say, connecting the speakers to my Anthem MRX 710 receiver was no quick task.
Once everything was hooked up, though, I ran the receiver's Anthem Room Correction 2 software and sat down to take a look at the results. The first thing that was evident is that the Mini A bookshelf speakers reward careful placement. There was a pretty significant disparity between the bass response of the fronts and surrounds in my room, due to the differences in distance between their rear-firing fluted ports and the walls behind them. One the first pass, ARC 2 suggested a crossover setting of 60 Hz for the fronts and 90 Hz for the surrounds, which was curious because the surrounds were closer to their respective walls. Too close, it turns out. The in-room bass response of those speakers was, in a word, turbulent, with excessively boosted frequencies between 50 and 100 Hz and a bit of a roller coaster between 100 and 200 Hz. Scooching the surrounds forward a few inches smoothed out their in-room response, giving ARC 2 less to do, and it allowed me to set the crossover of both the fronts and surrounds at the standard 80 Hz.
As for the Model A subwoofer, I found it remarkably easy to position, thanks to its modest size (17 by 17.75 by 15.25 inches) and weight (48 pounds), but one caveat worth pointing out for some shoppers is that it does employ two side-firing 10-inch cones and a pair of fluted rear-firing ports, so corner placement isn't recommended, if you normally go that route. Speaker-level inputs make it easy to take advantage of Bryston's own bass-management circuitry if you're just crafting a 2.1-channel setup or don't want to rely on your receiver's crossover capabilities. Other than that, it features a nice array of connections and controls, including a line-level RCA input and output, trigger input and output, and toggle switches for phase and high pass.
The AC1 Micro was a little trickier to set up. As I said above, it isn't ported, so distance from the boundary behind it isn't a major concern. However, ARC 2 seemed to think that 160 Hz was an appropriate crossover setting for the speaker, despite the fact that Bryston reports low-frequency extension of 95 Hz (±3 dB). I couldn't quite make such a low crossover point work, but I did get it down to 110 Hz, which seems a little high on paper for a speaker this size; in practice, though, I never found it to be a problem. I set my Max EQ frequency to 500 Hz to cover a few dips and peaks caused by my room; above that point, the in-room response of the speakers looked remarkably smooth.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...