My obsession with bookshelf style and standmount loudspeakers knows no bounds. I love the challenge to designers, there is a certain undeniable draw to the minimalist approach. With limited box space and inseparable limitations to low frequency production, it seems the perfect metaphor for artisanal craftsmanship within the small confines of driver and cabinet shaping.
The TAD Micro Evolution One (ME1, $12,495) deals its cards out just over the $10k pricepoint and offers an interesting solution for those looking for more answers to questions that every audiophile has. Those pondering the bookshelf avenue of exploration may find them at a lofty cost, but the high end of audio does offer some consolation for these smaller versions of mighty hifi floorstanders. The ME1 is actually a reduced option of the Evolution One TX floorstander, with the rest of the line (including a Reference series) following suit upwards in tag price. Indeed, Technical Audio Devices Laboratories has been around for many years as a subsidiary of Pioneer, producing audio gear for the pro side of things. They even went so far as to employ Elac’s designer and audiophile favorite Andrew Jones for a number of years. Jones did not have a direct hand in the design of the ME1, several common themes can still be found throughout TAD’s Evolution series and his other work. Perhaps in its most obvious form of this manifestation is the 3-way, concentric driver arrangement similar to some of KEF’s arrangements, but also not foreign to Elac’s Uni-Fi and Adante loudspeakers.
The good news is that the high gloss finish and silver trim of the ME1–K (piano black) is very much a high-end build. Each speaker weighs 44 lbs. a piece and the luster and shine of the casework had a deep abyss-like look to it. The matching stands do the fancywork aesthetics justice from every angle for a package deal that could sit happily alongside any sultan’s golden fireplace. But overall the speaker really isn’t that large. Sure, it’s too big for an actual bookshelf or even desktop applications. But sitting on the stands next to a powerful amplifier, the speaker really makes a statement on behalf of high fidelity sound – both in appearance and sonic representation.
Treble frequencies come courtesy of TAD’s micro CST 1-inch beryllium tweeter coaxially set in a 3.5-inch mid range. There is also a 6-inch MACC woofer (Multi-Layered Aramid Composite Cone) for the rest of the spectrum, but perhaps a more interesting proposition comes from the “bi-directional aerodynamic slot” located on either side of the speaker in lieu of any front or rear facing port. Immediate benefits cut down on the impact of rear wall distance, but the bigger picture starts to form around the outstanding performance incurred with this somewhat unique design element around venting bass. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges to designers -how to get the most out of little space. Common attempts to recreate better low-end response can often be accompanied by unusual EQ gestures or much larger real estate moves, just look at any full-size dedicated sub. Andrew Jones himself commented on this interaction in a recent online conversation in the case of bass in small cabinets vs. efficiency:
“Simple physics, it’s not possible to get extended bass out of a small cabinet with high efficiency. If you want bass and efficiency you must use a large box. If you go active then you can equalize an amplifier to get low bass, but you need gobs of power. Midrange and high frequencies are different. It’s easy to design high efficiency drivers and then pad them down in the crossover to match the bass driver.”
All this is worth mentioning because the TAD ME1 do require quite a bit of juice to get fired up. In the case of gear on-hand during the review process, this incorporated a full 400W from Schiit’s new Vidar amplifier in a monoblock arrangement. The end-to-end balanced setup did provide enough low end thrust to impress, but the need for accountable power draw from the amplifier was undeniable. Once a proper front end is dialed in, that’s when things really start to develop their fall colors.
It would be hard to give an accurate impression of the ME1 without mentioning how it excels at low-end reproduction for a standmount speaker size. It reaches surprising depths with relative ease, but moreso than just graceful downward distance the result is resolute and delightfully responsive. Paging through Weezer’s classic “Blue” album on SACD (MoFi reissue) it was easy to detect small changes to the texture and level of the bass drum thump from track to track. Highlighting perhaps the err of lesser playback, not all bass from the single album sounded exactly the same. The overall response in the nether regions was unique to many of the long list of speakers that had slowly make their way through the listening room over the years. Given the smaller dimensions of the space, the size and containment felt like a perfect fit, with less bloom or loss of control than some ported options (both rear and front). In a single word, tight.
The second item that jumped out from the experience was a sense that instruments were “right there” when called upon in the stereophonic field. This didn’t necessarily translate to the largest sonic stage overall, but cymbals hung so close, so delicately around the CST tweeter that it felt like such a pure representation of life in that regard. Like the bass, there was an overwhelming sense of focus and fidelity to the playback.
Both in the listening room and in showrooms across the US, demonstrations of the Micro Evolution One have appeared to keep up with audiophile standards for transparency. The speaker isn’t quite the type to “spruce up” the frequency spectrum or add an overarching sense of warmth to the equation. There was more a sense of ease and forgiveness from the similarly-priced Zu Druid VI by comparison, but in the end most hifi listeners could appreciate the trueness to source. Indeed, the speakers did sound different than the many times I had heard them previously. Slight changes to DACs, amps and other tweaks were touchy, if not outright finicky to adjustments. It was enough to make the frequent tinkerer spend even more on front end nuances.
Bringing it back to the beginning of this venture with Andrew Jones, the comparison to the budget darling $500 Elac UB-5 almost seems like a waste of time. The little speaker also shares a 3-way concentric tweeter design, but for much much less. The vinyl wrap doesn’t captivate the visual soul as quickly, but for entry-level options, few have made such a splash in the past 5 years. Since the in-house pair were already setup for another review, I thought a quick gander might be entertaining if nothing else. The learnings from the time together were both enriching and unanticipated, but perhaps not in the way you think. The sound was surprisingly similar in a few ways and the frequency response was shockingly close between the two. The pan-handled sonic gold from the ME1 that appeared from the comparison filter was the stuff of respectable high end. The acoustic aesthetics showcased how refinement and fidelity sum up to something more natural, cohesive and pleasing to the ear, although it isn’t necessarily shouted during listening sessions in a void.
Once you have the whole picture laid out in front of you, there is little not to enjoy. Although there might be slightly less forgiveness or even romanticism with the ME1 than some other speakers lining the field of play, what you do get feels slightly more aligned with the truth. Carefully massaged into that ethos is a purity and resilience to the overt posturing of soft hands holding up a lack of detail or questionable gear choices ahead in line. Bass regions are first rate for this size class, heavily validating the somewhat extensive cost along with the high end fit and finish. If the power draw alone doesn’t make you want to upgrade your amplifier to better performance, the transparency and revealing nature of the speaker should finish the job for you. The TAD Mirco Evolution One sparkles when called upon and sounds fine tuned when fronted by purley analog pieces. Upon arrival the matching stands can be a bit of a chore to assemble, but once in place complete the look with a refined presentation. Parameters for speakers of this quality are often defined by producing results outside of their price class. Aside from (or in addition to) the cost, the size of the ME1 is likely the more appropriate variable to consider. Not quite the footprint to call shelving with books on it proper home in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the massively respectable 251mm by 411mm by 402mm footprint is defined as a 3-way bass reflex “bookshelf” according to the company website. The performance as a cume clearly lands outside this pigeon hole of small tones and feeble efforts. Big, uber controlled bass, textures finely ground out and controlled energy delivered in a relatively small package take the TAD Micro Evolution One to new levels for the category. Its enough to make a writer sad to return the review sample. In fact, I think I miss them already.
More info: Technical Audio Devices