I have Dad to thank for my love of all things hifi and all things musical – and somehow in December he agreed to let me give a new home to the core components of the hifi system that started it all.

The components I’ve grabbed so far are:

  • Pair of Tannoy Mercury M20 speakers, with matching Target spiked stands
  • NAD 3020B amplifier
  • Dual 505-2 turntable

After unloading, I figured the mains-powered electronics would need some time to warm up to prevent condensation due to having spent four hours in the boot of a very cold car causing problems. So the first thing I did (after pouring myself a hearty Whisky Mac) was to get the speakers running with my existing gear – a 15-year-old NAD 302 I bought new in 1995, fed by iTunes played at 88.2KHz 24-bit through an EMU 0202USB audio interface from an elderly second-generation iMac.

To provide a reference point: my previous speakers were an unknown-model 3-way Magnat design, each employing a 1″ metal tweeter, 2″ high-mid paper cone, and an 8″ mid-bass treated paper cone. These were themselves a bit of a bargain when I found them. The cabinets about the same size and shape as the Tannoys, and when purchased new I would guess they were at similar price-point.

I’ve grown used to a slightly over-loud treble from the Magnats – perfect for the room I originally bought them for, but not so good in larger, more open spaces with less damping, such as a typical open plan living-room/kitchen/dining-room that they’ve served for the last year or so. Though well-extended, the Magnat’s treble delivery doesn’t quite sound ‘real’, and they could have trouble delivering a stable, centred lead vocal. Since each cabinet measures the same response using RTA/pink noise, and the drivers/cabinets are undamaged, I’ve yet to find a cause for this. Otherwise their sound was slightly warm and reasonably accurate, though I did find myself removing the bass-port tuning tubes to provide a more natural, dynamic bass-line. Curiously this also extended the the audible bass response by another octave.

By contrast, the Tannoys are a two-way design using a 1″ silk dome tweeter paired with a translucent white plastic 8″ mid-bass driver. Their sound is much warmer and smoother than the Magnats, with well-defined bass-notes that don’t noticeably allow any one bass note to play louder than any others. Upper bass notes are actually slightly less prominent than I’m used to, but there is a stronger and more accurate response below 100Hz, allowing kick drums and sub-bass lines to underpin the mix even at very low volumes. The sub-bass lines of any material I’ve played through them have shown they can keep up with the rhythm of even the fastest Prodigy or Underworld tracks, as well as allowing movie soundtracks enough bass to not need a sub.

What I remembered about these speakers in their original home was that they hold their soundstage together at extremely low volumes – this bodes well for micro-dynamics at more normal listening levels, but also allows for very enjoyable late-night listening when everyone else has retired to bed.  At more ‘normal’ listening levels (around 60-90dB depending on source and time of day) these speakers really come into their own, painting a very natural image and revealing the differences between recordings like nothing else I’ve spent significant time with.

I would say the real magic with these speakers has to be the way they present vocals. They don’t do the usual high-end hifi fancy trick of making the vocal sound like it’s right in front of you and about to take your face off – and I’m aware that some might say this is a bad thing. Instead, they present vocals in a way that seems effortless and yet somehow forces me to hear every last word, and they seem to do this without obviously emphasising any particular frequency range commonly associated with vocal intelligibility. It’s almost distracting at times – a song playing in the background suddenly demands attention in a way I’ve not experienced before. That is a stunning achievement now, but somewhat surprising considering I’m listening to boxes made some 25 years ago. Really, my only criticism of these speakers is that the treble doesn’t seem to obviously reach as high as I’d like. Anything above around 13KHz seems slightly muted.

This has been a lot of fun – these are speakers I can live with for daily use, yet are revealing enough to tell me when something’s not right in the recording or the playback chain.

And finally: thanks Dad, for letting us rob you that Saturday afternoon!

Update – 5th January 2013

Turns out that the speakers we have may not be the “Golds” that we all initially thought they were.  Ours are single-wired and marked as Mercury M20 in a gold logo at the bottom-right corner of each speaker.  The M20 Golds I’ve seen recently were biwirable, and featured black-plastic mid-bass drivers in place of the white units in ours.  I’ve therefore updated the model references in the article and the title.

Whether or not ours are really “Gold” or just standard M20’s, nearly two whole years have passed since the original posting, and I stand by my comments about the sound of our examples – and I’m not looking for replacements anytime soon!