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.
All that said, nothing about the setup process really prepared me for the sound of Bryston's "mini" speakers. I fired up my system and intended to let play whatever Blu-ray disc happened to be in the tray at the time to let the speakers break in a bit before sitting down for some serious listening. The disc in question was Transcendence (Warner Bros.), which I had just watched the evening before and whose sound mix had struck me as the most impressive thing about it. Not this impressive, though. Before I could walk out the room, I was drawn in by the clarity and purity of dialogue pouring out of the AC1 Micro. More so than that, as I moved from near the door back to my normal seating position to listen a little more intently, I was stuck by the sheer consistency of the dialogue. Moving from side-to-side, I was impressed by just how little the tone and timbre of the center speaker changed, which isn't unheard of with M-T-M center-channel designs, but it's uncommon enough to be worth noting. It's obvious that Bryston and Axiom put a lot of thought into the driver configuration and crossover networks.
The clarity of dialogue so drew me in that I sat down to re-watch a film that I honestly had no intention of watching again, much less so soon. By the second chapter, I was ready to proclaim Bryston's Mini A and AC1 Micro amongst the best speakers of their size that I've heard in many a moon. Early in the scene, there's a moment when a crazed anti-technology activist fires a pistol at Johnny Depp's character. The night before, that moment hadn't really resonated with me, sonically speaking. It was a bang. The sort of loud bang I've heard any number of speakers deliver perfectly ably in my years of listening. I might have jumped. I honestly don't remember.
Through the Brystons, though, it didn't sound like a speaker system making a banging gun-like noise. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it sounded like a gunshot. If I was a cartoon cat, I would have been hanging from the ceiling by my claws. Simply put, there was none of the dynamic compression or restraint (or distortion) that one expects to hear in some degree with even very good home theater speakers.
That same effortless dynamic bombast proved to be just as impressive with a film I actually did want to watch: Cameron Crowe's masterpiece Almost Famous (Paramount) on Blu-ray. Chapter seven, in which Stillwater takes the stage in front of a roaring crowd and rips out an incendiary--incendiary!--rendition of "Fever Dog," has always been one in which I keep my finger on the volume control. And that's not like me. I like it loud. But this scene simply gets too loud too quickly for my comfort.
Not through the Brystons, though. From the moment the scene starts and the din of the crowd rips through the room, I was in the stadium. I was part of the crowd. Then the kick drum kicked in, the guitar howled, and it's about as close as I've come to being at an actual rock show in quite a longer time than I care to admit. A few more minutes of this, and I would have needed ear protection. But through it all, the speakers never felt strained or stressed. Resonance was, as far as my ears could detect, non-existent.
The other thing I couldn't help but notice in that scene is just how seamlessly the Model A subwoofer blended with the satellites. Not only that, but the sub in and of itself is utterly musical, without a hint of audible resonance, no bloat, and a remarkable room-filling quality. This is, to my memory, the first time I've ever run a single-sub system in this room that didn't make me long for a second sub, just to even out the bass coverage.
That really gave the subwoofer, and the system as a whole, an edge with bass-heavy music like "Sing Along," from the DVD-Audio release of Blue Man Group's The Complex (DTS Entertainment). The low-frequency effects in this track pack a serious wallop, but I never really found myself focusing on the sub while spinning the track. It's easy to forget that it's there, in fact. I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. You can seriously feel the pressure in the room crank up when the bass hits. What I mean is that it's easy to forget that all of that thud and roar and rumble is coming from a single box in the front of the room.
More so than that, though, what struck me about the performance of the speakers with this track was the incredible dispersion characteristics of the main speakers themselves. I got up and walked around the room for a bit and was taken aback yet again by just how consistent the sound of the Mini A speakers was from pretty much anywhere I went. What's more, when sitting anywhere reasonably close to the room's sweet spot, the speakers create an enveloping bubble of sound that's rich, dimensional, and engrossing. It's not as if sounds are coming from right there (and you can't see me right now, I know, but I'm pointing right at one of the Mini A speakers), but rather that a wave of sound is coming from over there (and my finger's still pointing in roughly the same direction, but waving around a bit as to indicate a less specific place). With the surround mix of "Sing Along," Dave Matthews' voice remains rock-solidly centered in the front, but all of the other musical elements absolutely explode in space. Some of the swish-swish instruments whiz right by your head, whereas other, more percussive PVC contraptions are off to the rear of the soundstage.
The same holds true with stereo music, as well. "The Wolves (Act I & 2)" from Bon Iver's debut album For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar) really shone a light on the Mini A speakers' ability to excel in 2.1 mode, especially in the way they rendered the dense, multi-tracked mix of Justin Vernon's vocals. In terms of tonal balance, the speakers were exactly what I'm looking for: even-keeled, with no appreciable emphasis on any one band of frequencies over the others. But even a few egregious dips and spikes in their response would have done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for their ability to penetrate the room, even with such a simple mix.
Of course, the mix isn't so simple all the way throughout. As it devolves into percussive cacophony starting at around the four-minute mark, the Mini As shone brighter still, flinging random drum beats past my head with startling precision.
Mind you, I wouldn't go so far as to say I've never heard other speakers convey that same spaciousness, depth of soundstage, and stability of image nearly as well; but, when you combine that aspect with the Bryston system's excellent dispersion, its dynamic capabilities, its deliciously neutral midrange, and its exquisitely impactful yet nimble bass, you're left with a system that has almost no sonic faults.
I said "almost." If there's one bone to pick with the Bryston system, aside from aesthetics (which, as I pointed out above, are a wholly subjective concern), it's that the subwoofer, for all its strengths, does come up a bit short on the very bottom end. Bryston reports 28-Hz low-frequency extension for the sub (-3dB), but no matter where I placed the sub in my room, it ran out of steam pretty quickly below 35 Hz and had next to nothing going on by the time you get down to the 20- to 25-Hz region.
For the most part, I kind of forgot that fact when watching movies. It's only the films whose soundtracks I know intimately where it became a concern. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal) on Blu-ray is one example. The bass battle between Scott and Todd in chapter 13 is pretty epic throughout, with tons of ferocity but also tons of control. When Todd wins and blasts Scott through however many brick walls, there's this subterranean low-frequency rumble that the Model A subwoofer couldn't fully resolve.
Given my choice between a sub that reaches down to 20 Hz or below and one like the Model A, which performs so beautifully across almost the entire bass spectrum, I'd take the Model A any day. But it's still worth noting, and it did knock half a star off of the overall system's otherwise flawless performance rating.
Comparison and Competition
The fact that Bryston's speakers are made in partnership with Axiom Acoustics makes the latter a good place to start in terms of comparisons. Interestingly, the AC1 Micro seems to be, at least on the surface, a clone of Axiom's VP100 v4 center-channel speaker. Same dimensions. Same driver configuration. Same tweeter, as far as I can tell. The 5.25-inch mid-bass drivers do look slightly different, but the reported frequency response, power handling, and nominal impedance are identical. They also weigh exactly the same, so I would be skeptical of any claims that there's a ton of extra internal bracing. It could be that Bryston made some modifications to the crossover network; but, not having heard the VP100 v4, I can't say whether or not they sound different. The Axiom center speaker does sell for a good bit less, though: $336 vs. $490 for the equivalent Bryston (the AC1 Micro does carry a 20-year warranty, if that helps).
The Mini A bookshelf and Model A subwoofer, meanwhile, don't have their own Axiom clones, although they obviously share a lot of common DNA with that company's other speakers. The thing is, the three-way design of the Mini A puts it in a pretty distinct category, almost of its own as far as bookshelf speakers go.
Ignoring that and going by price alone, it does have a bit more competition. Other $1,200/pair (ish) bookshelf speakers include Bowers & Wilkins' 685 S2 and (while they last) Paradigm's Studio 10 v5, just to name two.
So, did Bryston's smallest 5.1 speaker system rise up to the (hinted at) challenge of blowing me away with relatively modestly priced electronics attached? Undoubtedly so. Even without the horsepower of a separate amp behind them, their transient response, their capacity for dynamics, their beautiful tonal balance at any volume, and their sublime dispersion characteristics made them amongst my favorite bookshelf speakers that I've auditioned in quite some time. Perhaps ever. And the system's Model A sub might not reach as deeply as I'd like, but in all other respects it's an overachiever.
It's just a shame that the speakers are, as my momma would have said, unfortunate-looking. But hey, if the missus is any indication, there are people who dig that sort of rugged but well-groomed look (and I'm talking about the speakers here, not her choice in spouses, thank you very much).
Overall, though, even their looks wouldn't keep me from buying the system if I were in the market for a package in this price range. So, if you've got a Bryston dealer in your area, I highly recommend dropping buy and given them a listen. Just don't be surprised if they're hidden behind an acoustically transparent screen.
• Visit our Audiophile Bookshelf and Small Speakers category page for similar reviews.
• Bryston Middle T Floorstanding Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the Bryston website for more product information.