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Glen Wagenknecht
Financial Interests: click here
Sources: Luxman Brid CD Player modified by Audio Upgrades to be a now tube-less, zero oversampling machine with integral volume control
Audio Space CDP 8A CD Player
Preamplifier: Audio Space Reference 2S
Amplifier:Bel Canto 200.4
Speakers: Apogee Duetta Signature, Paradigm Servo 15 subwoofer
Cables: Signal Cable Silver Reference interconnects and speaker cables, digital optical and coax cable, Audio Art SE cable loom
Resonance Control: Solid Tech, EquaRack Footers, Weizhi Precision Gold Glory footers, Boston Audio TuneBlock2 footers, Superspikes, and Black Diamond
Powerline conditioning: Noise Destroyer power filtration
Accessories: TrueHarmonix Black Magic CD Mat
Room size: 12' x 17'
Review Component Retail:  $479/pr for monitors, $899/pair for bass sections

Building on a strong foundation:
Prelude. Usher has managed to carve out an enviable name for itself since its modest inception in 1972. By 1999, owner and chief engineer Lien-Shui Tsai decided on a course that with the help of designer Dr. Joseph D'Appolito saw his company enter new territory of driver design and manufacture, giving Usher the advantage of being able to design and build product to their own specifications from the ground up. In 2003 US distributor Stan Tracht entered the picture and North America was introduced to a powerful new high-end contender. In the years that followed, the house of Usher has become an entrenched veteran which continues to impress public and press alike with an array of product occupying niches from popular budget to state of the art.

Usher has continued to push forward the latter, with their renowned BE beryllium series now superseded by pioneering efforts in diamond but the company never lost sight of the importance of their value line. This is where most audiophiles get their first exposure to the firm and Usher has consistently proven that a well-designed product needn’t be high priced to be high performance.

The Usher S-520 has been such a success story. It remains Usher’s best-selling model and continues to garner critical and audiophile acclaim despite being what many would regard as a mere entry-level product. The introduction of the SW-520 bass module is an unusual move paralleled by only a handful of companies and then generally with product of considerably loftier pretensions. Such a specialized product constitutes a leap of faith on the part of the designers and indicates something is happening with the S-520 far beyond its budget acclamation. Before beginning on the full S+SW-520 review, I decided to run the monitor bi-wired with and without my own Paradigm subwoofer to get a baseline on their performance. Time to see whether and why these little monitors demanded such newfound attention.

Mini assessment of the S-520: It was immediately obvious that the S-520s were strong performers. From the upper bass up, they were actually quite remarkable. The S-520s cast a huge soundstage that expanded in all directions with very good localization of instruments. They reproduced hall size convincingly and resolved detail and ambient information with an aliveness that was wholly disproportionate to size and price. The Ushers were remarkably uncolored in the critical midrange and upper midrange, showing far more refinement and pedigree than this price point suggested possible. They managed a level of detail and transparency that approached a good panel speaker with an engaging level of micro dynamics as well as a respectable level of macro albeit not of rock monitor status. All things considered, this was definitely no budget performance but well in excess of expectations.

Alas no speaker is perfect. With well-recorded acoustical material that fell within the window of the speaker’s favored bandwidth, the presentation was quite lifelike. As the frequency range descended downwards and out of bounds, the S-520 showed limitations. The speaker went down reasonably low with good articulation and minimal coloration but progressively less weight. It gave a good account of cello and a portion of the drum kit but the lack of deep bass left the presentation of modern material with high tonal contrast (heavy bass lines, treble energy and recessive midrange) a little thin.  When I tried to push the speaker harder to force its low frequency limits, the situation did not improve and the box began to draw some attention to itself. The S-520 simply lacked authority in this region. In view of its monitor stature, this was a normal failing and harmless compared to its definite virtues.

The little Usher demonstrated a lot of potential when treated as a high-end product. It showed off some stellar soundstaging and resolution but also displayed obvious bass limitations. Listeners whose first priority is massive bass regardless of other qualities or the realities of price won’t find the solo S-520 quite satisfying. For those who value high-end refinement in all other parameters, the S-520 is an absolute gem. Given the level of performance demonstrated here and the established list of accolades already received, most speaker manufacturers would have been more than satisfied to rest on their laurels especially considering the available quality and depth of the rest of their speaker line. Want something better? Buy a more expensive model. Why did Usher instead decide to mess with success and release the SW-520?