I also did full measurements of the R263, which you can see by clicking on the images and notes below:
One listen to the 24/96 download of "Duke's Groove" from David Chesky's great Jazz in the New Harmonic tells what the R263 gets right...which is a lot. Jazz in the New Harmonic is one of those classic Chesky recordings made in a large, reverberant church using just a few microphones and minimal audio processing. It's supposed to sound spacious and natural, and through the R263, it does.
"Boy, do these things have detail, subtlety, and air," I wrote in my lab notebook. I was amazed at how much sense of the room I got from a $1,099/pair speaker. (BTW, I've been to that church a couple of times, and I know what it sounds like.) I especially loved the way I could hear the ring of the ride cymbal echoing off the ceiling, the huge ambience of Chesky's powerful piano chords as they filled the front of the room, and the way the wall behind the musicians reinforced the low grunt of the bass clarinet.
I've been listening to 'Ohana, an album by the father/son team of Dennis and David Kamakahi, often since it was released in the late 1990s, and even more often since Dennis passed away in April. "Ulili'E," the tune that opens the album, is exceptionally tough for any speaker to reproduce. Dennis's deep baritone and the bass notes of the detuned lower strings on his guitar often bloat and boom, or they sometimes sound too thin. The upper strings of his guitar and David's concert ukulele sound etched and harsh through many speakers. Listening to this through the R263 shows that those errors are in the speakers, not in the recording. The R263 completely, totally nailed this tune, sounding unbelievably clear and natural. I had to wonder if it even sounded this good on the recording monitors in the studio. (I bet not.)
After hearing what the R263 did with 'Ohana, it was hard to stop listening to acoustic guitar. So I put on "233 Butler" from acoustic jazz guitarist Julian Lage's Gladwell. (Here's the live version.) The acoustic guitar, upright bass, and drums were wonderfully portrayed, stretching wide across the stereo soundstage and sounding incredibly detailed, but not in any way hyped or exaggerated. Every little scrape of Lage's virtuosic picking and every little acoustic subtlety of his ultra-fancy Manzer archtop came through, in a way I hadn't noticed before with the other speakers and headphones I've played this recording through. Despite all the string plucking going on, this tune often sounds a little dead to me, but it took on new life through the R263...and reawakened my interest in Gladwell.
I knew this review would be incomplete if I listened to nothing but pristine recordings of acoustic instruments, so I put on the exact opposite: "Who You Love," the pop duet by John Mayer and Katy Perry. (HTR insists I put in links to the tunes I use for reviews, but trust me, you'll hate us if you click on that link.) Mayer and Perry's voices, which I usually hear only through the ceiling speakers at Old Navy, sounded amazingly uncolored through the R263. No bloat. No edge with Mayer. No shrillness or thinness with Perry. It almost made me wish that Mayer and Perry could record a tune with David Chesky producing the recording and Chesky Records' Nick Prout engineering.
Hearing how good the R263 sounded with voices, I wasn't surprised to hear how good the C253 center speaker sounded with dialogue when I switched over to the full home theater rig. Because the center speaker has, apparently, the same tweeter and midrange driver as the R263, arranged with the tweeter above the woofer as in the tower speaker, the center sounded almost exactly the same as the tower.
The voices of the actors in the DVD of the children's movie Matilda vary greatly, especially when you consider the high-pitched whine of Rhea Perlman in contrast with the guttural, gruff growl of Danny DeVito. In the scene where the two of them struggle to get DeVito's hat off in a fancy restaurant, the C253 got both of them perfect; I felt like I was the sound guy monitoring the recording on Sony MDR-7506 headphones (the choice of countless pros, and for good reason), except that the sound through the C253 was a lot more detailed, especially in the treble.
Likewise, the superb match between the towers and center was evident when I put on the tiger attack scene from Apocalypse Now. In this clip, the ambience of the jungle wraps around you, and the sound of a flying bird soars around the room from speaker to speaker. The presentation of the flying bird and the buzzing bugs between the speakers sounded incredibly realistic - and made me wish I'd asked for another pair of the Reference Series speakers to use as surrounds.
What does the R263 lack? Bass. The bass response sounds very restrained. It's tight and precise, but it has no oomph. "Sounds great but lacks body," I noted when I played R.E.M.'s "7 Chinese Brothers" from Reckoning, a tune that's a long ways from being tough on woofers.
The much heavier sound of Band of Skulls fared worse. "Totally lacks kick," I noted when I played "Nightmares" from Himalayan. I tried pushing the R263s back closer to the wall behind them to reinforce the bass; while this action pumped up the lowest notes some, it didn't seem to do anything for the midbass region between 40 and 80 Hz. I didn't hear any other noteworthy colorations in the sound; it just didn't have much bass.
Rock recordings that tend toward the bright side, such as Julian Cope's "Planet Ride" from Saint Julian sounded really bright through the R263. It's not that the speaker's treble is elevated; it's just that, when you have a flat treble response and overdamped bass, the speaker tends to sound bright.
The problem definitely wasn't the room or the other gear, by the way. When I swapped my F206s for the R263s, the sound became fuller and more balanced, even though the F206 is a long way from being a bass monster.
Comparison and Competition
As I noted in my review of the Cambridge Audio Aero 6, there's a lot of tough competition in this price range. The Aero 6, for example. This speaker, which is now selling for $999/pair, has a comparably smooth midrange but can't touch the R263's ultra-detailed, ambient treble. Then again, the Aero 6 sounds more balanced; for most music, it doesn't need a subwoofer, where in my opinion the R263 is definitely in need of a sub for anything but acoustic jazz, classical, and folk music.
If you don't mind stepping up a little in cost, you can go with the $1,298/pair PSB Image T6 or the $1,399/pair GoldenEar Triton Seven. I doubt either can quite match the incredible midrange and treble transparency of the R263, although they'd both come close. Both sound more balanced, though, and neither really needs a sub unless you listen to a lot of heavy rock, hip-hop, or action movies.
I expected that a fairly large tower like the R263 would be built for mass-market tastes -- refined mass-market tastes, to be sure, but in the $1,000/pair range, I'd expect a tower speaker to be oriented toward rock/pop and movie sound. The R263, though, seems aimed totally, completely, and absolutely at audiophiles.
The mids and highs of the R263 are the cleanest I've heard from a tower speaker below, let's say, $2,000 (and probably even higher). It comes pretty close to my $3,500/pair Revel F206s, and it might come even closer if the R263 had more bass to balance out the highs better. It reminds me of some of the best speakers that the late Jim Thiel made, speakers that were beloved for their clarity and spaciousness but never, to my recollection, praised for their bass or dynamics.
If you're a devoted audiophile who's looking for an affordable tower speaker, I'd say look no further. If you listen to a lot of hip-hop, rock, R&B or pop, or if you're going to use your new speakers in a home theater system, you'll have to add a subwoofer or choose another speaker.