For many years good sound was unobtainable on a budget. You needed to spend a lot of money to get quality approaching "hi-fi," and it might not even happen then. In 2017, though, companies such as Pioneer, Elac, Emotiva and Q Acoustics have rewritten the rule book. with genuine hi-fi products at a price almost anyone can afford.
The Q Acoustics 3020, which retail at $299, £199 or AU$499 each, are small monitors with a sound precise enough to belie their price. While larger competitors such as the Elac B6 offer fuller sound with better bass, the 3020 is the one to get if space is tight. Very few affordable speakers offer this level of engagement, and they're the perfect cure if you find you music or movies generally sound "boring." They're fantastically dynamic, and will let you hear your favorite music anew.
Solid as a (gloss white) brick
While some of the more costly Q Acoustics speakers feature a "gelcore" construction -- sandwiches of MDF and gel which renders the cabinet basically inert -- the cheaper 3020s are no still no slouches when it comes to minimizing resonance. Knock on the side of the 3020 and it gives off a faint "glonk," while the Elac B6 rings a little more when struck, like the wooden box it is. Of course cabinet rigidity isn't the only factor to consider in speaker design, but it has an impact on sound.
In another nod to resonance reduction, the 5-inch Aramid Fibre/Paper driver and 1-inch soft dome tweeter are acoustically decoupled from the cabinet. The speaker is small at just 10 inches tall by 9 inches deep and 6.7 inches wide (260 by 226 by 170mm). Its rear port sits above an unusually angled set of binding posts. The models we received came in an attractive gloss white, but the 3020 also comes in gloss black, graphite and walnut. The gloss finishes cost a little extra at $329. A pair of magnetic grilles is included.
The 3020's frequency response is measured at 64Hz - 22kHz (+/- 3 dB) and the rated sensitivity is 88db, which makes them marginally easier to drive than their English (B&W) or American/German (Elac) competition.
How do they sound?
To get started, we put the Q Acoustics 3020 speakers on 24-inch-tall metal floor stands, and used a Sony STR-DN1080 AV receiver with an Oppo UDP-205 Blu-ray player. This little speaker has a rear port, so jamming it up against a wall impairs the sound.
Right away the 3020's sound was engaging and fun. For a speaker this small, its ease with dynamics is impressive, so you don't get the feeling it's straining to keep up. We felt no immediate need to add a subwoofer, and that's saying something when you consider the Q has just a 5-inch driver. Still, the CNET listening room isn't terribly large at just 11 by 20 feet, so if your room is a lot bigger and/or you crave maximum impact, buy bigger speakers or add a sub.
Playing a late 1970s-vintage live Grateful Dead concert recording, "Cornell 5/8/77," the 3020s ambience retrieval abilities shined. It felt like we were in the concert hall! Jerry Garcia's and Phil Lesh's vocals were natural and believably present. More than anything else, it was the 3020's freewheeling dynamics that made us sit up and take notice again and again.
To put the 3020's sound in perspective we trotted out a set of similarly priced bookshelf speakers, the Emotiva Airmotiv B1 ($299/pair), which earned our praise earlier this year. The two have different tonal balances, the B1 is a little richer and fuller sounding speaker, the 3020 has more presence and detail. Stereo imaging on Spoon's "Hot Thoughts" album was big and spacious over the 3020s, less so over the B1s. The 3020 is less forgiving of harsh-sounding recordings, so there's no decisive winner here, they're both top performers.
Listening in stereo with Kraftwerk's "3D" concert Blu-ray, the 3020s unleashed gobs of synthesizer texture, but the music's visceral slam was MIA -- this is a little speaker, after all. Since we had just unboxed a snazzy new SVS SB-4000 subwoofer ($1,500) we tried mating that 102-pound brute with the 3020, not all that sure what to expect. All it took was a couple of minutes of fiddling with our Sony STR DN1080 receiver's bass management crossover (at 100 Hertz) and volume controls, and then the SB-4000 and 3020s made beautiful music together. Incredibly enough, once the sub and 3020s were dialed in, the bass seemed to be coming from the speakers! Kraftwerk and a few movies demonstrated the 3020's ample skills with music and home theater.
Still, most 3020 buyers will use them unaided by subs. Hooked up to a stereo receiver like an Onkyo TX 8020, the little speakers will sound great, despite lacking the bass punch of something like the Elac B6. While we didn't compare the Q directly to the Elacs for this review, the B6 remains our favorite bookshelf speaker in this price range, in part because of the fact they have amazing amounts of bass for the money.
Should you buy them?
This pint-size speaker has a lot going for it! The Q Acoustics 3020's sound distinguished itself with music and stereo home theater, and its four finish options and compact size should make for an easy fit with any decor. If you don't have the space for the B6, or you're just looking to wring every ounce of detail out of your recordings, the 3020s are a sound purchase.