Bryston Mini-T Loudspeakers
Mini to the Max
The Bryston name is recognized by most audiophiles, who probably associate it with the company’s legendary and near bulletproof power amps. Beefy, well-engineered, and sporting a 20-year warranty, this Canadian company’s amplification has acquired an extremely loyal following. Bryston’s amplifier designs received positive press for decades before the company branched out into digital gear. I reviewed their BDA-1 DAC in the March 2011 issue and was very taken by its sweet sound, ease of use and ability to improve any digital front-end in which I tried it.
Knowing the company was expanding into further new products did not prepare me for their next foray, loudspeakers. When James Tanner posted news of this online, I admitted I was intrigued but somewhat doubtful. Surely speaker design requires a whole other set of skills than the company is known for? After all, how many companies in the high end can you name that produce great amps, great digital gear and great speakers?
Regular updates on the speakers’ progress were posted on Audio Circle, where Bryston has a very active circle. It was clear from the start that James was taking this process very seriously. Initially conceived as a project to build a reference speaker utilizing six channels of active amplification with DSP for his personal use, James and colleagues soon decided that a passive stereo design marketed under the Bryston name had great commercial potential. Partnering with Axiom Audio to leverage facilities and production capabilities, including access to an anechoic chamber, but utilizing their own custom designs throughout, the Bryston range of speakers aims to offer a top level speaker designed and manufactured in North America at a competitive price. At $2695, the Mini-Ts are early evidence that the company means business.
The name ‘mini-T’ is misleading. These speakers are not mini-monitors, nor are they bookshelf-sized as the terms are typically used. Rather, at 22.5” x 10.5” x 10” and 42 pounds, once you place them on stands they appear more like floorstanders. The weight is accounted for by the heavy driver magnets and thick, non-resonant cabinets, designed using vibration analysis to remove distortion. The result is a substantial speaker that does not seem destined to sit on a shelf. Perhaps ‘mini’ is a form of Canadian understatement!
Specified as drivable with as little as 10 watts, the Mini-T’s are a three-way, rear-ported design containing a 1” titanium-dome tweeter, a 5.25” midrange driver, and an 8” woofer, so you have a good sense of where the money goes. The pair I received are perhaps more attractively priced than they are finished. This is not to say they are ugly, but at this price you are clearly not paying for elaborate veneers (a sweeter looking wood finish is available at an upcharge). My plain black vinyl pair was certainly acceptable-looking in my living room; but these are not speakers designed – like so many these days – to catch your eye. They do however, most certainly catch your ears.
I first heard these at RMAF and was immediately taken with the pleasing, full sound in the room, so much so that I asked for a pair to review. They arrived quickly, with matching stands, simply but safely packed, enabling easy one-person installation in minutes. There’s a lot that can be said about the design philosophy and the approach taken by Bryston to create a great measuring speaker, but you can find that all online within their ever-informative website. My job is to report on the sonics, and to that end I tried the speakers with various amps, in two different rooms over several months, to get the fullest possible picture of how these sound on a variety of recordings. To cut to the chase, there’s an awful lot of speaker here for the money and in the right set up, these might be all you will ever want. That’s the advanced summary, and for those of you who don’t want to read further, that’s perhaps all you need to know. But for the serious listeners out there, let me give you some of the details.
If I had to characterize the sound of these speakers in a word, it would be ‘smooth’. The Mini-Ts present the most even, coherent, full-range sound I’ve heard from a non-floorstander. For some reason the sonics might remind you, as they did me, of the experience of hearing a ‘real’ high end stereo system for the first time; that moment when you realized that better equipment made music sound better. The Mini-T sonics are comfortable, engaging and pleasing on the ear from the outset. The trouble is, ‘smooth’ is a term ripe for misinterpretation so let me explain further what I hear.
From the moment I first listened to them, I was taken by the even-handed sonic picture that emerged. I found myself looking at the enclosures and smiling at the full, rich, room-filling sounds that were emerging. One’s initial impression might be that the Mini-T’s are a little on the warm side, but that is misleading. When you listen closely, you realize there is no treble-reduction or mid-bass enhancement at work – it is more that the whole frequency range seems to come at you in a uniform manner that I suppose most accurately could be described as flat. Yes, of course these speakers are designed to provide a flat frequency response (as most companies will claim for their own designs) and Bryston can back that up with measurements, but that word is also troublesome as a sonic descriptor since it often carries connotations of sounding dull or lifeless. Not so the Mini-T’s. What you get with these is detail without harshness, bass without bloat, and a palpable mid-range that gives vocals true presence.
A standard reference for me when giving new speakers the once-over is Holly Cole’s Temptation album. This well-recorded gem captures Holly in close-mic’d proximity with strong stand up bass, piano and percussion backing. While the album sounds good on most rigs, it can sound spectacular on great set-ups, with space, details, and presence to the fore. From the opening moment, where Holly purrs “Here we go”, you can tell within seconds if the sonics are good. The Mini-T’s reveal Cole’s breath and with your eyes closed, the illusion of her being near is compelling.
As the album winds on, and that double-bass starts to push your speakers around, the quality remains. Some speakers get flabby on later tracks such as “Train Song” or harden the bass so that details are muted and percussive lines blurred. The Mini-T’s however can deliver what I know is on this album without a feeling of being short-changed either in bass extension or in mid-range resolution. On ‘Falling Down” for example, the ability of these comparatively small boxes to deliver clearly separated bass, piano and drum lines, each fading independently and spreading out while leaving Holly firmly in the middle is quite remarkable. Close your eyes and you’d believe you were listening to large floorstanders.
There is a coherence to the music played through the Mini-T’s that I found truly exceptional. This evenness of response is apparent on everything, from driving rock to acoustic jazz. All seems to hang together in a continuous manner that allows you to hear individual lines without one or other frequency band dominating or capturing your attention. Tord Gustavsen’s Being There certainly sounds like it is all there, replete with the complex percussive drive I love on my reference rig.
While we’re on the good stuff, let me comment on another great attribute of the Mini-T’s: soundstaging. Yes they require stands to work appropriately but moving these speakers, even with stands, is an easy task for one person. I positioned the review samples in a plausible location in each room, well clear of nearby walls, and then adjusted to taste. This never took very long. What I found was that Mini-T design makes it fairly easy to gain good results, and with minor tweaking, in two different rooms, I created an excellent illusion of soundstage width and depth.
Obtaining width is usually not too difficult in my home if the speakers are moveable but soundstage depth is a quality that I often struggle to obtain, even with very expensive speakers. Not so with the Mini-T’s. These speakers offered up surprisingly holographic qualities that placed drummers seemingly a little behind vocalists, or guitarists to the fore of bass players, depending on the recording. With eyes closed, the Mini T’s could create the impression of real three-dimensional instruments being played in a physical space. In their product literature, Bryson speak in detail about the care taken with the on- and off-axis dispersion patterns of this design and I have to say, they seem to have nailed it. In terms of creating a truly tangible, three-dimensional soundstage, the Mini-T’s are as good as I have heard in my rooms and much better than most.
A quality that matters for me in any speaker I keep at home is the ability to sound good at low volumes. Yes, I like to crank up the sound and rock out like anyone else who grew up in the 1970s but the reality of family life means much of my serious listening is at night, with the volume turned down to more intimate levels. Too many speakers just fade away at this point, failing to deliver details you know they can reveal or deflating the soundstage to the point of dullness, killing the overall listening experience. Not so the Mini-T’s. Almost spookily, they sound largely the same at any volume so it is possible to drop the volume and still have a compelling listening experience that gives you all the music you know is on your recordings.
The corollary of this graceful presentation at all volumes is the ability to drive these to loud volumes without quite realizing it. Some speakers start to sound constrained when you crank the dial but not the Brystons. That smooth, pleasing presentation continues as you up the volume with more powerful amps and you might not appreciate quite how loud you are listening until someone else interrupts your listening. Yep, that Bob Ezrin-produced new album by Deep Purple (Now What?, 2013), really does encourage loud listening, with long instrumental interplay between Steve Morse’s guitar and Don Airey’s keyboards. This is rock out music of the old school where a bit of volume is required to for full appreciation, and the Mini-T’s can get you into the zone without a hint of bother.
The importance of partnering
Experience with several amps confirms that while these speakers make music with almost any amplification, as suggested by Bryson, let me tell you that in my experience they really do sound better with higher-powered amps. With an 88 dB sensitivity and a recommended minimum 10W power requirement, you can get away with small amps but what I heard in my rooms suggested there are clear benefits to upping the power. With my classic Naim Nait II integrated (maybe 15W, maybe not, as per all Naim gear) the music was there but somewhat subdued and slow sounding. Bass on Ronnie Earl’s Grateful Heart album was muted and while I could increase the volume to unreasonable levels that would blow the windows out, the quality of instrumental timbre and soundstaging was less than great. More importantly, it was less than I knew these speakers could deliver.
At the other extreme, using them in my reference rig powered by a pair of Spectron Musician III Mk 2 monos (more watts than you will ever likely need), they produced music in all its glory, with detail, resolution and superb control. Transients were alive and realistic, the bass was tight and articulate, and the clarity of lines was beyond reproach. In between, I tried them with a pair of the Digital Amp Company’s new, pint-sized but full-tank powered Maraschino monos (review forthcoming) which confirmed the view that these speakers really respond to clean power, and lots of it. Should this put you off partnering with low-wattage amps? Though I have some sympathy for the ‘it’s the first watt’ quality argument over sheer quantity, I think you are not hearing everything these speakers can do until you partner them with amps that can deliver the goods.
Apart from amplification, the Mini-T’s are also able to reveal changes in upstream components. Better front-ends sound better, and cable changes also seem easier to detect with these. Of course, you want this from any speaker but I sometimes wonder if many of the arguments we read online about the effects of various audio components are compounded by the fact that not all listeners have sufficiently revealing speakers to detect the changes others report hearing. You won’t worry about that with the Mini-T’s. Even as part of my reference rig, where only some of the cables were more affordable than these speakers, the Mini-T’s never sounded like they were letting the side down. Only on string quartet or cello recordings where I played close attention (for example, the Miro Quartet’s Beethoven Suites or Starker’s stunning Period recordings of Kodaly) did I think that perhaps the Mini-T’s reproduction of stringed instruments – particularly the cello – had a smaller and slightly honkier quality than my reference. But this detracted little. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you would have to spend a small fortune on upgrading other parts of your rig before you felt you’d hit the wall on what these speakers could deliver for your rig.
Before I packed them up, I put them back into my reference rig, biwired with expensive cables, for one last listen. With John Fogerty’s “100 degrees in the shade” playing at medium volume, I was taken again by just how easy it is to be drawn into the music with the Mini-T’s at the end of some great electronics. In fact, at the very end, having been away for a short work trip, I played music with these on my return for several hours, enjoying the welcome return home to quality sounds that I’d missed on my travels. Only late in the day did I recognize that I was listening to the Mini-T’s rather than my reference speakers, so good did they sound. Depending on your priorities, you could buy these and stop your speaker search there, confident that you were indeed getting top class sonics, regardless of price.
Mini by name but not by nature, these speakers are true high-end products when it comes to sound. Easy to place, offering accurate, smooth, highly satisfying sound, there is little to quibble about here. Partner with appropriately powered amps, feed them some music, then just enjoy the results.
Over the last two years I’ve experienced two superb sets of speakers at the under $3k price: the Harbeth P3s, and the Von Schweikert VR22s. Both are wonderful, highly musical designs that can give you years of pleasure. To this group I would now add the Bryston Mini-T’s. Depending on your room and your preference for stands or not, money spent on any of these will be an investment in music reproduction that will allow you to concentrate on other matters. Clearly something magical is happening at the $3000 mark for loudspeakers. Pay more at your own risk. Well done Mr. Tanner.
Vinyl: SME 20/2 with SME V arm, and Clearaudio Concerto II cartridges
Phono stage: Whest P.03RDT
Preamp: SMcAudio VRE-1, McCormack TLC-1,
Power amps: Spectron Musician III Mk2 monoblocks, DAC Maraschino Monoblocks, Naim Nait II
Cables: Harmonic Technology phono and interconnects, High Fidelity, MIT and PS Audio interconnects, Elrod speaker cables, Speltz Anti-Cables, homemade 12AWG speaker cables
Power cords: Spectron Thunderbolts, Absolute Fidelity, PS Audio and Wywires.