Small loudspeakers are attractive to nearly everyone, even audiophiles, and modern technology makes it possible to reduce cabinet size without losing too much quality. As the majority of speakers in the world attest it is possible to produce satisfying music even if the lowest bass notes are lost in the process. In their favour smaller loudspeakers can throw a wide stereo image in which they virtually disappear from the stage. Danish manufacturer Dali Industries only produces loudspeakers, from tiny ones to large beasts, and comes up with new ranges from time to time. I have the latest monitors in the entry level Opticon range, models that have benefited from trickle down technology from far more expensive models.
The Opticon 1 and 2 (below) have a lot in common. The woodwork is vinyl wrapped with high gloss baffles but this can be hidden behind a magnetically secured grille. But the elegant looks and the way the drivers are mounted make grilles unnecessary unless you have children running around. The 25mm thick MDF baffle is curved for optimum diffraction. The woofer cones are made of a paper and wood mix and have the distinctive Dali red/brown colour. The driver magnets contain an SMC pole piece, a technology developed for the top Dali models. This Soft Magnetic Compound material significantly reduces Eddy currents (a natural current that acts like a brake), and has a positive effect on distortion figures and linearity. At 2000Hz both models crossover to a coated soft dome tweeter, coated because the material is very thin, ferro fluid is used for cooling the tweeter voice coil and helps to control of the coil movement. Both speakers are bass reflex systems, the port in the 1 (above) being cleverly integrated with the terminal panel. Single wire loudspeaker terminals accept bare wire, bananas and spades, and rubber feet are in the box as well as small brackets to hang Opticon 1s on the wall. The bigger Opticon 2 needs at least 10cm between the wall and the back panel but could still be placed on a shelf.
The system I used for the review consists of a Bluesound Node 2, NAD M51 D/A converter, Exposure Audio 3010S2 Pre and Monoblocks. Cables are AudioQuest (Ethernet and digital), Crystal Cable (interconnects) and Supra (power and loudspeaker). The open stands I use are a pair of Custom Design FS104 to support both Opticons. The distance between the back of the speaker and the wall is 70cm and to the side wall 50cm. Although Dali recommends no toe-in I use a little to reduce side-wall reflections. The speakers are 170 cm apart and about two meters away from my ears.
This results in a nice stereo image with the Opticon 2, Jane Monheit’s voice stands clear of the piano on ‘Over The Rainbow’ (Taking a Chance on Love, Sony Classical), and in front of the other musicians. The voice is placed high enough and the stereo image stretches nicely towards the side walls. The cymbals on the right side are not as obvious as on other monitors, many of which seem to emphasize the higher notes. This is probably in order to give a high end impression to the customer in the shop, but results in a fatiguing sound at home with prolonged listening. Dali is into a flat frequency response using a soft dome tweeter to hand out detail. The wide stereo image with its depth comes forward again when playing a new Enya recording Dark Sky Island (Warner Bros). The powerful monoblocks create a wall of sound with this, it’s not in your face but starts somewhere between the loudspeakers. Bass is tight, even in in a room that is often plagued with standing waves when the reflex port is wrongly tuned. Music flows free of the baffles with ease, but an extended run-in period was required to achieve this, I’m talking of about 80-100 hours. Electronic music from a group called Bliss shows how deep this speaker reaches into the bass, which is not overpowering but firm and alive. Sound effects are clear on the ear and although this is not my normal type of music, it is relaxing and exciting on this speaker. The Bobo Stenson Trio’s intimate version of ‘Song of Ruth’ (Cantando, ECM) is in another league. Here it’s the percussion rather than the piano that’s the star, it’s punchy, sometimes tiny and distant and all over the area in front of me. Returning to the piano my comment needs some extra explanation. I love piano sound and invested in costly monitors to get the closest sound to the real instrument. Opticon is one of Dali’s budget lines and it is unrealistic to expect the same results. You need to move up the price ladder for a more genuine piano sound, nevertheless when you listen to this track you will be amazed how exciting it is on the Opticon 2. A Linn recording of flute concertos written by Mozart profits from the large, deep and high soundstage I mentioned before. For this the Opticon 2 is maybe a little too polite and lacks some enthusiasm from time to time. It’s a speaker to listen to for longer periods rather than one that gives maximum thrill power. So I continue with Mozart and play the bassoon and clarinet concertos following the flute. It’s an hour well spent and I keep my eyes closed so as not to miss a single note.
After removing the Opticon 2 the 1 (below) takes its place and I play some of the Mozart concertos again. What you notice immediately is the smaller size of the orchestra, both drama and stereo image are reduced because of the smaller bass driver and box. Don’t forget that two Opticon 1s have less physical volume than one Opticon 2 and the cone surface of the Opticon 1 woofer is almost half that of the bigger model. What is preserved is the open midrange and the tender way the high notes are handled. During the weeks I used both of these Dalis I noticed that the Opticon 1 is the more enthusiastic performer of the two. It’s a little more exciting and faster sounding. I enjoyed jazz combos on this little gem like the very old We Gets Requests by the Oscar Peterson Trio. The lower notes are handled well and although they do not go that low you still know they are on the stage. Piano is fast, tender when asked for, dynamic at other times. Do not blame the Opticon 1 for the distortion that you hear, it is all part of the original 1963 recording. ‘Hello’ on Adele’s 25 is a lot less distorted for that matter. When she lets rip the Opticon 1 hold its own and remains in control. It won’t put you in the front row of a concert hall it’s more like row 20, so still loud enough to be exciting. Although the Opticon 1 is capable of playing Adele, a smaller voice like the one from Eva Cassidy is more my cup of tea. Her ‘Time After Time’ with an acoustic guitar is full of emotion, very clear and intimate. It reinforces the fact that the Opticon series is not about first impressions, but about delivering hours of music at home. Which is far more important but maybe hard to explain to newcomers. Use the Opticon 1 within its limits and it will make you very happy. Jim Tomlinson and his wife Stacey Kent are excellent performers on this model, you can hear the quality of the recording and the way that the sound opens up even at higher than usual volume levels. Given the price of these speakers they are very natural, dynamic and a pleasure to listen to in the long term.
Making a choice between the Opticon 1 and 2 depends more on likely use, room size and choice of music than on differences in presentation. Both share a sound; non-fatiguing higher notes, open midrange with little coloration and tight bass. They are definitely part of the same family. The difference is made by the woofer size. The bigger Opticon 2 will deal with larger rooms and should be placed further away from the walls than the Opticon 1. The 2 will handle large orchestral works more easily, filling a room with higher sound pressure levels. The same goes for pop music. However if you need a pair of loudspeakers for your study where they end up close to a wall and your choice of music is jazz combos, singer/songwriters or ambient electronica the ones might be the best choice. In both cases you will get a very satisfying result and real quality in both build and sound. Competition is stiff in this price range, but these Dalis are up among the front runners.