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The TAD ME-1 ups the ante for 'small' high-end audio speakers

The Audiophiliac luxuriates in the sound of the TAD ME-1 speakers.

The TAD ME-1 speakers.

This is my first review of a speaker from Tokyo-based Technical Audio Devices Laboratories (TAD), and it's been a long time coming.

I've heard speakers from TAD at audio shows since 2007 and liked the sound, but now that I have a pair of the latest TAD speakers at home -- in this case the Micro Evolution One (ME-1) -- I feel like I'm hearing this company's sound for the first time. The very best speakers (which these are) don't just sound great, but you feel the music and get more involved with it.

The ME-1's drivers, crossover network and cabinet design were under development for four years. It's a three-way speaker with a concentric 3.5-inch (90mm) ultralightweight magnesium midrange and a 1-inch (25mm) beryllium dome tweeter, along with a 6.3-inch (160mm) Aramid fabric laminated woofer. The ME-1's impedance is rated at 4 ohms. The speaker weighs 44 pounds (20 kg), and its measurements run 9.9 by 16.2 by 15.8 inches (251 by 411 by 402mm). As far as small speakers go, the ME-1 is pretty big.

Instead of the usual round bass port, the ME-1 has slit-shaped ports on both of the enclosure's side panels. Their symmetrical front-back, left-right layout is said to eliminate port noise as well as standing waves within the cabinet. The rear panel hosts some of the most beautifully made biwire speaker binding-posts I've ever seen.

The ME-1 is also finished with seven coats of high-gloss black paint, a process that takes three weeks to complete. I've tested lots of high-end speakers, and the ME-1's build quality is right up there with speakers that sell for five times as much.

I have to admit the ME-1's sound didn't bowl me over at first. I liked it, but it's not the sort of speaker that screams detail, resolution or dynamics... it just plays music. Starting on the third day of getting to know the ME-1, it dawned on me how amazingly natural the sound was, that it wins by doing less and lets more of the music's essence through its speaker. The stereo imaging was the best I've had at home, as the ME-1 liberates the music while bringing it back to life.

A lot of what distinguishes high-end speakers from merely excellent, more moderately priced speakers is the way they "separate" each instrument and vocal in recordings -- creating a sound closer to the way you would hear them if you were in the studio with the artists. That was true with my "Percussion Music" CD with classical composers Edgar Varese, Henry Cowell and Charles Wuorinen's works. The CD amply displayed the ME-1's dynamic range stamina with the album's all-percussion symphonies. When I (briefly) played the music loud enough to annoy my neighbors, these small speakers handled power with ease.

Listening to guitarist Jim Hall's "& Basses" duets album with bassists Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Christian McBride and others, the ME-1 sets a new standard for bass definition. Each bass instrument emerged fully formed. That is, the woody textures of the instruments sounded more believably real than I have ever heard before at home. The plucks of fingers on strings, the dynamics and touch of each bassist was palpably realistic. As for hall's guitar, his accompaniments weren't too shabby either!

Listening at hushed late night volume with Miles Davis's funk "Jack Johnson" album, the sound was truly stellar. The electric bass was deep and tuneful, but it was the definition that again grabbed my attention while other small high-end speakers blur the notes more than the ME-1 does. The drums and percussion detailing held up while listening quietly.

The TAD ME-1 next to the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3 speakers.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

During one late night rendezvous with the Kronos Quartet's "Music of Bill Evans" LP, I felt like I was in the presence of the string quartet. I wasn't expecting that, as either the recording's quality isn't that good or I never considered it so, but with the ME-1 the jazzy chamber music sounded so natural. I played this LP countless times before, but never enjoyed the music more thanks to the ME-1s.

I had a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3 speakers on hand, but held off comparing them for a couple of weeks as I just wanted to live with the ME-1s on their own. They sounded very different than the 805 D3s, that much was apparent once I started comparing the two.

The ME-1 is a warmer, more "relaxed" speaker. It has a very high-resolution to be sure, but laid-back at the same time. Stereo imaging is excellent on both speakers, but the ME-1 is more precise and has superior soundstage depth.

The ME-1 felt less energetic than the 805 D3, which seemed more dynamically alive. The ME-1 sounded like a bigger, tonally richer and more organic speaker which appears to put more substance to its sound. The ME-1 was easier to listen to, and with the best recordings the ME-1's sound was more "coherent," so the bass, midrange and treble blend were more seamless than what I heard from the 805 D3. The ME-1 is the better speaker, but to be fair the 805 D3's retail price is half of the ME-1's!

I used a dCS Puccini CD player, SME 15 turntable, Parasound JC-3+ phono preamp, Pass Labs XP-20 preamp and Pass Labs XA100.5 power amps for all of my listening tests in this review.

As you might have guessed by now, the TAD ME-1 is a very expensive speaker. It sells for $12,495 per pair in the US. Prices for the UK and Australia have not yet been set, but that's around £10,000 and AU$16,000.