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In the olden days, Stereo Review used to run articles on how to purchase speakers. One piece of sage advice was to be wary of products that seemed to stand out. Speakers sounding completely remarkable -- usually because they did something the others in the store didn't -- might wear on your nerves once you got them home. All that treble energy for example that spelled detail, space and air in the showroom could mean screech, sizzle and fatigue in the long term. It was good advice.

For the better part of last year, Jeff Day has been writing his Music Lovers series of reviews. While I question the premise that there should be a separate category of equipment designated for music lovers -- I doubt anybody reading this is not a music lover -- I may concede there's a sound that attracts inexperienced buyers in the showroom. I think they gravitate toward that sound because they think it will enhance the enjoyment of their music. And there's no shame in that. What I don't think they realize is how balance is key. It is only when the scales tip too far in one direction or another that a speaker becomes supernatural in some area of performance. By definition, supernatural isn't natural. An obvious example is a speaker that has tons more bass than everything else on the shelf. It may sound great in the store on cursory examination and with your carefully chosen demo disc but when you get it home, suddenly all your music collection has pounding bass and subtlety drained out with the bath water and took tonality with it. The speaker doesn't really have great bass, it's uneven and unnatural bass and soon you'll find that you stop listening to a good portion of your collection because it no longer sounds good.

In my experience, supernatural detail is sometimes a product of a similar imbalance. Be it an aberration in the frequency response such as a bump in the upper midrange or a depression in the lower midrange/upper bass that makes the midrange seem more highly prominent, such tailoring will make some speakers seem more detailed than the rest. You may eventually find though that a lot of these speakers don't have any meat on their bones. They sound fast and agile but the music lacks body and warmth, with nothing to savor left on the palate. They'll produce every technical detail in the recording -- even artifacts of the recording process better left on the disc -- but they won't communicate the soul of the music. This is what some people call a clinical speaker. Others call it sterile. I call it an engineering marvel and completely a-musical. My old JMlab Mini Utopias were just such a speaker. I sold them to a friend and I borrow them back from time to time. Within a few bars of the first CD I play, I usually think I made a huge mistake to ever sell 'em. By the end of the song, I remember why. They sounded spectacular but made no music and were completely uninvolving. But boy did they measure well.

Then there are products such as Silverline speakers. Alan Yun's speakers are remarkable for their musicality. He has been tuning his speakers by ear for years, flat response be damned. Alan tunes in a dip in the midrange,
usually between 2 and 5kHz. This gives his speakers a very laid-back mellow quality that a great many music lovers fall in love with. These speakers have musicality and soul but are not the most highly detailed transducers and their measured frequency response sometimes looks abysmal.

Some speakers sound remarkable due to their highly detailed nature and they throw a huge and highly illuminated soundstage. This is because they are designed with a rising treble that may or may not irritate after a while. It often depends on how well behaved the tweeter is. So it is within that context that I pronounce the Acoustic Zen Adagio Jr. one of the most unremarkable speakers I've ever used. Won't that make some excellent advertising copy for Acoustic Zen! I can see it now: "Unremarkable!" - Well, perhaps not. But it's true. It's also what makes this review a bit of a challenge. How to talk about a thoroughly unremarkable speaker without damning it with faint praise? I suppose the first thing I could do is to state unequivocally that I could easily live with the Adagio Jr. While it's not perfect, its omissions are slight and perfectly commensurate with its class. There's nothing that will inspire long-term regret. It's an extremely well-built speaker with extremely solid performance. To be sure, balanced would be an accurate term to sum up performance and personality. Indeed the Adagio Jr. is an extremely balanced performer, which is one of the reasons it's so unremarkable. It's not long on flash or sizzle. It won't blow your mind in any one area but it won't let you down in any either. In fact, it's very long on bang for the buck.

The Adagio Jr. is an utterly neutral speaker. It's neither forward nor excessively laid-back though it does have a decidedly mellow presentation. It has lots of music-serving warmth, bass and body down as low as it goes, though it's no deep bass hero. Down to 35Hz or so, it's also quite punchy. The antithesis of thin and threadbare, it's an unusually fulsome speaker with loads of color and texture. Up top, it's actually highly resolved -- you won't want for detail -- but extremely sweet and at first blush, it may seem to sacrifice detail in the name of musicality and listening ease. But that's only at first blush. It won't impress with the largest or most airy of soundstages either but it never sounds constricted or closed in. If all this makes it sound I'm equivocating, you'll understand my dilemma. It could seem I am though I'm not. With most performance criteria, the Adagio Jr. rides right down the center of the road. In no single area is it the best I've ever heard but it has no glaring faults either. If I had to point at its greatest strengths, it'd have to be the overall balance of virtues and the forgiving personality.

The Junior's midrange is as good a place to start as any because, well - it's really good. It has the kind of transparency that won't impress at first because some may confuse transparency with openness and air. That's not the case here. Junior is transparent in that it's extremely low in coloration. Male and female vocals sound clean and clear and come across with appropriate body and correct timbre. Brass instruments sound natural, too, with neither too much sizzle nor any undue rounding of edges. Electric and acoustic guitars sound equally natural with no added thickening or thinning. But that doesn't mean that it sounds like every other great speaker in its class. It doesn't. As compared to the excellent Usher Be-718, the Adagio Jr. will appeal to a different listener. I hesitate to call the Usher more 'hifi' sounding because I don't hear it that way at all. I'm very fond of that speaker. Yet sitting next to the Adagio Jr.s, it could well sound that way. The Usher is the more incisive performer and does communicate transparency and an energetic quality in a way the Jr. doesn't. In that respect the Usher exhibits a little more personality whereas the Adagio Jr. allows the focus to remain on the music rather than showing off its own virtues.

Speaking of focus, here the little Adagio is outstanding in yet another understated way. Images emerge in highly delineated and focused ways with no ambiguity. However, they never seem etched in space. Image focus is extremely good but never supernaturally so. I used the Adagios from Peter Gabriel's Up CD [Geffen 06949 33882 4] which was large, in my face and hugely focused to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana [RCA 9026 61673 2] which was huge, distant upon a stage and every bit as amorphous as you'd expect from live music. There was no unnatural spotlighting of individual performers on stage and though plenty detailed to separate out different voices in the chorus, that chorus remained what it is - a cluster of stacked voices. When required, the Jr. Adagios can go wall to wall with an image that is wide and tall with good depth (the addition of a subwoofer caused the Adagio's to completely melt the front wall of my room away) and they maintain the same degree of focus anywhere upon that stage.