As an (ex)urbanite accustomed to small spaces, I’ve always been jazzed about small speakers that punch above their weight, which is one reason I was curious to give a listen to Audience’s ClairAudient The ONE reference monitor speakers. The product claims strained belief: distortion-free sonics and credible full-range performance when placed near a wall, all courtesy of a tiny, 7-inch-ish cube that uses a single 3-inch driver up front and a passive radiator in the back. They’re kidding, right? At that small a size, I could put them anywhere in the house and I’d hardly see them, or even know they were there. Respected colleagues were raving about them; I had to hear these for myself.
I was admittedly skeptical, given The ONE’s dimensions and not inconsiderable asking price of $995/pair, not including the optional angled desktop stands ($75/pair) and Audience’s optional but recommended matching speaker cable ($199 for a 3-foot pair). In due time, my skepticism was replaced by wonder, and then delight. The ONE is one of the most interesting and appealing loudspeakers I’ve ever come across. What it delivers for its size is a bit uncanny. Let me walk you through how The ONE opened my ears to all of its small wonders.
How’d You Do That?
On the outside, there’s not a lot going on with The ONE, which is part of the point. On the inside, there’s no crossover network (more on this later). You get the aforementioned 3-inch driver up front, which was designed in-house by Audience, with a similarly sized passive radiator in the rear. Once you attach the magnetic front grille, all you see is a little black cube — glossy but not too glossy, as tall as a pocket paperback, and as wide as a handful of them.
Made of a lightweight titanium alloy, the ONE’s lone 3-inch A3S driver is incredibly fast; there’s only 2.5 grams of speaker cone to move. This design began life in a much larger speaker by Audience costing more than $70,000, which used no less than 32 of them, front and back. The passive radiator in the rear is meant to work with a nearby wall to extend the bass energy, and operates in phase with the front driver in a bipolar design. A pair of notably high-quality connection posts rounds out the hardware.
The design goals for The ONE — besides having a tiny footprint — are to offer the speed and distortion-free resolution you’d hear in a planar speaker, only with the authority of a dynamic cone and, when properly placed, enough usable full-range response to be satisfying without a subwoofer (though you’re certainly welcome to use one). If you and your cohabitants are cool with having speakers that take up a bit more space in your abode, a slightly larger model is available: the 1+1 ($1,800), which delivers more bass and louder play through two front-and-back AS3 drivers and side-mounted radiators.
What Do They Sound Like?
Ok, at this size, I admit I wasn’t expecting my pair of ONEs to alarm the neighbors; that’s not what these speakers are for. While The ONEs can fill a small to moderate-sized room with what I consider ample volume, they’re at their best in a near-field listening environment — such as a desktop, study, or bedroom — at low and moderate volumes. The ONEs really impressed me with their speed, neutrality, and purity. The palpable absence of distortion — likely attributable to the earlier noted lack of a crossover — was a bit disconcerting when I first heard it. Then it got intoxicating and, ultimately, addictive. Chords sounded incredibly rich and clean, almost as if there’s an aural magnifying glass on them. Layerings in arrangements become distinct and easily followed. I felt like I was hearing straight into all of the recordings I cued up.
After a break-in period of a few days, I began auditions with Beethoven’s Sonata #7 by way of Angela Hewitt (Hyperion SACD A67518). The second movement begins with moody pianissimo contemplations that debate between major and minor, then erupt in startling strikes of dynamic expression. I wasn’t just hearing a particularly sensitive interpretation of Beethoven, enjoyable in and of itself, and clear as a bell. Through The ONEs and Hewitt’s adroit playing, I was able to appreciate in detail the lingering inner harmonies that would one day become Debussy, and the bold pianism that Liszt would build on just a few years later. Deep classical listening was a pleasure through The ONEs.
Because so much information gets resolved through The ONEs, tiny details in arrangements really get their due. The Beach Boys’ seminal “Good Vibrations,” from Capitol/UMe’s hi res remastered The Smile Sessions, (HDtracks, 88/24) was a particularly good example. I heard little woodwind counterpoints (flute? mellotron?) in the B part of the verses that I’d never noticed before. During the break, I heard Brian Wilson way back in the mix, imitating the iconic Theremin riff with his voice, then vamping on it in different octaves. Between the hi res source and hi res reproduction, even this vaunted chestnut sounded new and exciting.
Properly placed, the ONEs are capable of surprising bass for something so small, and what low end you do get is clean. On Herbie Hancock’s ever-slinky “Watermelon Man,” from 1973’s landmark Head Hunters (Columbia Legacy DSD), bassist Paul Jackson’s big-bottom funk was extremely present, though hardly booty-shaking. On Razor & Tie’s 40th Anniversary remaster edition of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery (HDtracks 96/24), Greg Lake’s manic bass playing goes note for note with Keith Emerson’s Hammond organ during the solo section of “Karn Evil 9, First Impression”, and you hear every bit of it. Still, if you like your music loud, you’ll at least need to add a subwoofer, and even then, don’t expect to get concert levels. The ONEs will handle up to 25 watts; nice on a desktop, modest for other applications.
Audience ClairAudient’s The ONE reference monitor speakers deliver the transparency and speed of planar speakers, only they’re tiny and not fussy when it comes to positioning. They’re most comfortable in near-field listening, but they’ll also shine hiding on a bookshelf in a small-to-mid-sized listening space. I tried them in a home theater configuration in my large living room. At comfortable listening levels, dialogue was clear and the soundfield convincing. We’ve been binge-watching The Wire, having missed it on first run; the slanged dialogue was intelligible, and the barking dogs and roving helicopters definitely gave us the sounds of the streets. However, if you’re thinking of using The ONEs this way, you’ll definitely want a subwoofer to go with them. On your desktop, not so much.
For listeners with ears, taste, and budget who have extremely limited space to work with, The ONEs are a genuine find, and quite unique. Lots of good-sounding bookshelf speakers are out there on the market, but most of them are larger and more visually present. Plenty of speakers choices near this size cost less, but not many of them sound as clean and involving as these do.