Looking like the speaker equivalent of a 4×4 car, Paul Rigby reviews the Benchmark SMS1 speakers
“Benchmark don’t do fashion.” You see, I like it when a company says that sort of thing…even if the tone could be accused of being rather cod colloquial. Nevertheless, the essence smacks of individuality, belligerence and plain ol’stubbornness. Doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a good product, mind you, but it does indicate an outfit with a furrowed brow of concentration and a company that isn’t following the crowd.
One result of that attitude is that this pair of stocky speakers are sealed – not ported, as many new designs are. Benchmark was wary of the ‘one note bass’ effect and a reduction in accuracy. Of course, this means that the SMS1s do not do well in terms of efficiency, so you’ll need an amplifier with guts to drive them.
At the sharp end is a 170mm custom-made polymer woofer and a 25mm soft dome tweeter while, at the rear, is an unusual rear-mounted toggle switch to choose between single and bi-amp modes. Related to that, instead of two pairs of binding posts, the company offers a SpeakON 4-pole connector for bi-amping (which is a lot neater than the usual system).
Other highlights include custom film capacitors from Clarity Cap on the crossover while all inductors are custom wound air core, to minimise distortion. On the front, the stainless mesh grills are fabricated from the same material used for microphones. Also, in terms of aesthetics, the NS1s arrive with a black, mahogany or padauk removable side panels: apparently they add strength and damping enhancements.
Spanning a meaty 270mm x 345mm x 250mm, the NS1 weigh in at a similarly meaty 21.7kg.
Starting with the title track from Dakota Staton’s album ‘Round Midnightfrom the original Capitol release, issued in 1960, I wanted to test the Benchmark’s ability to sort out the busy soundstage while also handling dynamically chaotic organic orchestral instruments. What hit me immediately, though, was not the output from any instrument: unless you count Staton’s voice as one. It was her delivery that attracted the ear because of the enormous amount of air and space the surrounded her voice. It was as if someone had removed the roof from the studio. She was suddenly standing in a larger environment while her voice seemed to have more body and a richer tone. It also had a strangely 3D presentation. As if you could walk around it. An intriguing effect.
Not everything was wonderful about the vocal delivery, mind you. Yes, Staton exuded emotion and nuance while her famed diction (she was one of those singers that could almost sing the punctuation, such was her precision) but there was a slight forward edge during her crescendos. Accuracy was lost during this sequence as a midrange bloom took hold. Nevertheless, there was much to admire here.
I was impressed by the broad nature of the SMS1 soundstage. Clarinets and strings had a beautifully resonant aspect, letting the ear know that all of these instruments had a specific character. Another feature of the soundstage was the piano’s ability to make itself heard. Normally, this element of the song has the piano running along the base of the soundstage, largely unheard except for a few scattered notes. The Benchmarks were able to separate the piano from its surrounding orchestral instruments which provided a delightful keyboard rendition while delicate percussion effects via treble-infused cymbals, again normally masked in the mix, were also able to be picked out.
From jazz vocal to dub – a more contemporary release, Rootmasters’, Elephant Puddle (2007), featuring The Orb’s Alex Patterson and a chance for the SMS1s to display their bass qualities.
This sequence of music featured a gamut of synth effects, percussion and guitar plus vocal samples. Normally, the product is a mish mash of confusion but the nature of the SMS1s retained, not only a spacial distance between each to provide a sense of order but also a precision that enabled the ear to pick out each and every element along this crowded and heaving soundstage.
Guitars were suitably aggressive while the bass never bled into the midrange area. Hence, any risk of muddying the bass was never an issue. While the higher pitched and louder edges of the synths did add a touch of the midrange bloom, this was relatively minor and largely offset by the magnificent bass response which was deep, punchy, confident, driving and weighty. You almost felt that you could reach into the speaker cabinet and take out the bass and then bounce it like a ball, such was the lively nature of the low frequencies.
Taking a more orchestral point of view I then turned to the spaghetti western soundtrack, Django, from 1966 and Luis Bacalov and the minor piece of music, more mood music really, called Town of Silence.
The airy nature of the midrange from the Benchmarks really came into their own here with the twangy guitar, adding tension and portent, retaining a welcome suite of reverb tails while the secondary percussion from the bongos and wood blocks also added to this spacious feeling. The bass-ridden piano keys emanated from a dark and mysterious place and retained the power from the Benchmark’s massy lower frequencies while the screaming string effects were drenched in emotion.
For the price, the Benchmark SMS1 speakers have a lot going for them. The space and air around the midrange helps these speakers to tackle even the most complex of arrangements while the allied meaty bass means that they will be a good performer within any genre of music. Definitely one to demo.
BENCHMARK SMS1 SPEAKERS
Tel: 03301 222500
GOOD: airy mids, confident and powerful bass, spacious soundstage
BAD: slightly forward midband during crescendos
Origin Live Sovereign turntable
Origin Live Enterprise 12” arm
Transfiguration Proteus cartridge
Icon Audio PS3 phonostage
Aesthetix Calypso pre-amp
Icon Audio MB 845 Mk.II monoblocks
Quad ESL-57 speakers with One Thing mods
Vertex AQ & Atlas cabling