I was first introduced to QLN not too long ago by Well Pleased AV distributor Mark Sossa. QLN as a company has been around since 1977, but has undergone a few management changes throughout the years. Now back under original ownership and designer, the QLN website showcases only a handful of speakers. The first of which is the Prestige 3 floorstander I am most familiar with from the excellent sounding exhibit rooms that Mark puts on at audio shows across the US. Usually paired with Innous servers and Vinnie Rossi amplification, the combination does many things extremely well, but one thing uniquely well – big soundstage from a small source point. It’s a compact two-way design to be exact, the rest of the tower holds nothing other than wood and air for the listener. I never cease to be astounded at the holographic size of the picture those speakers paint, so when Mark asked if we would like to review another speaker from the line, I jumped at the opportunity. For the most part, I try to stay away from large floorstanders in the review realm due to the huge amount of energy, space, and shipping inconvenience they cause. So for an interesting comparison we had Mark ship out the standmount version of the line, the Signature 3. This is the review of the QLN Signature 3 ($6k/pair).
The QLN Signature 3 retains some of the sloped front panel of the floorstander (which extends all the way down to the base), and has a somewhat unusual shape overall. That shape helps let it stand out from a very dense crowd of right angle competitors, so the industrial design is somewhat exemplary without being overly showy. Will it jumpstart a conversation? Possibly, but with less gaudiness than a desperately red sports car. The review pair arrived in walnut with a black baffle. The fit and finish were solid and the 27.5 lb weight per speaker bodes well for internal constructs and wave conformity. Wrapping a knuckle on the top of the cabinet results in a tone higher in pitch than the premium Von Schweikert Unifield 2 MkIII standmount in for review, but lower than the budget Elac Uni-Fi UB5. Running parallel to this idea, the VS Unifield 2 felt the most “dead” or inert to the test while the Elac felt the most responsive – with the QLN landing somewhere in between. While there are more expensive speakers out there in this category, $6k does give you a speaker that feels the part, which may seem like a given but is not always the case.
There are a fair amount of arguments out there on the interwebs about the idea that superior performance can come from the simplicity of two-way speaker designs. While it would be far too shortsighted to draw any lines in the sand around such binary thinking, the QLN Signature 3 is a shining example of what can be done within the less-is-more mentality. In the case here, we see a 25mm soft down tweeter paired with a proprietary 177mm kevlar cone custom-made by Scan Speak. The texture of the center of the woofer has an intentionally irregular surface, a technique used across several manufacturers’ midtone drivers including the new Sonus Faber Olympica Nova line. The sloped front baffle is designed in such a way to assist with time alignment between the two drivers and also intended to suppress standing waves inside the cabinet. Of course, none of that means very much if the combination/culmination of everything doesn’t work, and in the case of the QLN Signature 3, it very much does.
The QLN Signature 3 is a pretty remarkable bookshelf for a few reasons, most of the stemming from the fact that the speaker’s frequency response is incredibly flat. I’ve only rarely heard a speaker that covers such a wide frequency range at so linear an amplitude and phase. What this means is that from the almost invisibly clear top end to the thunderous and punch low end and at both loud and quiet volumes, the QLNs were consistent in their frequency response.
The treble as I mentioned was so clear and free from brightness or the perception of compression or strain it almost sounded boring at first, but playing track after track I realized something very interesting. The Von Schweikert Unifield 2 MkIII I had on hand for comparison was a more “audiophile” frequency response, and gave the impression of a more hi-fi sound, which was tastefully implemented, but gave me the impression of listening to an excellent high-end speaker than the QLNs. On the Signature 3 by comparison, I didn’t notice the excellent treble or dynamic bass, rather I was just pulled into the music. It’s a rare talent, but through folk music, rock, pop, classical, jazz, any genre I threw at them, the Signature 3 just immersed me in the music in a way speakers with a greater ‘wow’ factor can’t quite match. The QLN’s might not make hi-fi sound as impressive as the Von Schweikert’s, but they make music sound like music, and not excellent speakers.
It also helped that the QLN’s had truly tremendous bass for a bookshelf. Many ported two-way bookshelves have powerful one-note bass that is designed to give the impression of more bass from drivers that can’t reach particularly low. These designs betray themselves by never reaching truly deep, and having poor overhang and texture. The QLN’s by contrast seem to do the impossible – the drivers never give an indication that they’re struggling, and certainly never seem to be pushing particularly far out from the cabinet, yet they reach deep and stay clean all the way down. Response starts tapering off in the 40-50hz range, but doesn’t have the sharp, irregular and phasey sudden drop-out, but is relatively smooth. It rolls off very smoothly compared to what I’m used to from ported speakers. The bass that is present is also punchy but superbly clean and clear, with small decay cues and harmonic characteristics easily audible.
The most remarkable thing about the QLN Signature 3 is that it simply doesn’t feel like a hi-fi speaker, it just feels like a device for reproducing music. The midrange is so clean there’s almost nothing to say about it, but not in a dry or clinical way, nor in a rich, overly warm way. The Signature 3 is a rare speaker that doesn’t seem to impart a ton of personality onto the music, and also seems to take an interesting perspective on the ‘they’re here’ and ‘I am there’ presentation choice. Rather than being inherently forward or relaxed the QLN does seem to have an uncanny presence in the room yet generally defers to the baked-in ambient cues in the recordings. The balance ends up being that I sometimes find spookily realistic sounding audio illusions jumping out even in distance mic-ed classical recordings, or hear low level ambient spatial cues in heavily produced modern music.
If it seems like I’m having a hard time saying enough good things about the QLN Signature 3, it’s because I am. This is a rare speaker that really rises above the pack as one that impresses on audiophile qualities, yet proved not only easy to live, but hard to live without.
As previously mentioned of the three bookshelves in for review, the QLN Signature 3 had the lowest reach into the bass region compared to the Von Schweikert Unifield 2 MkIII (review upcoming) and the Fern & Roby Raven II Bookshelf. Just to add a little outside, (wo)man-on-the-street color to the review, I did ask several non-audiophile friends what their preferences were between the three. A few did pick the QLN as their favorite, citing the bass response as a major contributing factor in their decision. In simple terms, very often the Signature 3 felt like it operated like a full-size floorstander – but in a much smaller package. This is where the speaker truly stands out among the rest. “Small package, big sound” might be rounding the corner close to another overused audio review cliche, but here is where it sits most appropriate. Of course the speaker is more than just the low end it produces. The rest of the sound falls subtly into place alongside this foundation. This is done with almost invisible prowess and little flash and bang. The end result is a non-fatiguing, delightful speaker that can rock the house as well as it can disappear into a vibrant string solo.
More information: QLN