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Usher Be-10
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Costing over £10,000 I am afraid you cannot make excuses for a loudspeaker such as this - it’s right up against the likes of B&W’s 801D and thus playing with the big boys. With this in mind, I wasn’t expecting to be able to be ‘nice’ to the Usher Be-10s. Of course, I knew that they had a great start in life with their state-of-the-art treble and mid units, but in my experience theoretical excellence rarely translates into practical perfection. Being the hardened old hack that I am, I was ready to find fault, but it turned out to be more difficult than I had first thought.


Within the opening notes of the first bar of a cleanly recorded piece of music, played through decent amplification, you can tell just how different these boxes are to almost every other. There is exceptional clarity from top to bottom, but it’s not the usual sort of dry, sterile focus than so many so-called ‘reference’ loudspeakers serve up. Instead, this is natural and effortless. Rather than shining a thousand Watt bulb on the recording and clicking in the zoom lens, the Ushers provide a wide angle window on what’s going on without preoccupying themselves (or you) on individual detail points. Or so it seems, because actually, they also brilliantly resolve every detail of the song, but just don’t draw attention to themselves as they do it. The result is a simple, natural, matter of fact sound unsullied by mediocre transducers.


This is impressive stuff, but the Ushers don’t sound impressive - it’s not like they’re trying hard to push out everything at you. It’s all there for sure, but surprisingly you can take it or leave it as you please - which is one area where they are conspicuously ahead of my reference Yamahas. The combination of enormous detail and delicacy allied to real ease is what defines these loudspeakers as truly great, and it’s all down to the integration between all three drive units. Just having a trick tweeter isn’t enough. It’s the seamless combination of HF and midband units with very similar phase characteristics and tonal character (however unobtrusive this may be anyway) that makes for such an open, lucid and yet so subtle sound. Whilst other Usher speakers have had Beryllium tweeters, to me this almost creates more problems than it solves, because it’s impossible to completely harmoniously marry them to a midrange unit that’s not made of the same super-light material. The end result hasn’t been bad, but still at times seems less than the sum of the parts. Here though, it is the opposite - the two Be drivers give seamless clarity that puts most electrostatics to shame, and then go on to marry up with that big Kevlar bass unit blissfully.


Kraftwerk’s ‘Tour De France Étape 1’ is a case in point. This is a sparse recording with tremendous rhythmic subtlety and layer upon layer of detail. I can honestly say I’ve never heard Ralf Hutter’s deadpan vocoded vocals as clearly as I have with the Be-10s - these speakers communicated the air around his voice with utter ease, remaining unflapped by that pounding bassline and cascading keyboards running very close to 0dB levels. Despite the breathtaking forensic analysis of the elements within the mix, this didn’t distract one jot from the song’s hypnotic rhythm and imposing physical weight, which the Ushers caught brilliantly. The result was an engrossing rendition of a track which I (and many other Kraftwerk fans, I suspect) feel gets better every time you listen to it. Even at very high levels, these speakers never veered towards harshness, which is normally the price you pay for such resolution - even on the opening four bars of the following ‘Tour De France Étape 2’ with its highly modulated keyboard pads, which are forward enough to make projectiles out of lesser midrange drivers!


Likewise, cue up Saxon’s ‘ ‘747: Strangers in the Night’ and the Be-10s cut right through the mix, conveying Barnsley’s finest with sparkling clarity and freshness that makes the music sound like it was recorded last week, rather than three decades ago. It’s great to hear an instant switch from one studio to another, the speakers telling me everything about the new recording yet never letting this distract - or detract - from the musical performance. The band’s epic drum sound, cowering basslines and falsetto guitars are there in all their (rather camp) finery, along with the distinctive strains of Biff Byford’s gruff vocals. I loved the way that, whereas with Kraftwerk the recording had been up close and personal, suddenly Saxon were hanging back, with some aspects of the mix dropping almost behind the rear wall, with everything in incredible focus all the same.


REM’s ‘Maps and Legends’ showed a blissful mix of tonal accuracy, rhythmic alacrity and dizzying detailing. This is a fairly muddy sounding track, appropriately enough recorded during a trip to rainy London in winter 1985, and lacks the glossy sheen of their later (I would say) cruder pop-rock excursions. The Be-10s cut through the grunge like a hot knife through butter, once again ‘snapping’ a completely different recorded acoustic into the listening room as soon as the laser hit the silver disc pits. Where there is usually a muddle of murky guitars doing a pale Byrds pastiche, now I could hear crisply played, deftly strummed, multitracked, layered Rickenbackers chiming “like bells in the night” (as Be Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson once so nicely put it). Singer Michael Stipe's plaintive tones gained a degree of warmth and subtlety compared to the likes of B&W’s 801D, those Beryllium midrange units apparently editorialising an awful lot less about its sound...


Jamiroquai’s ‘Return of The Space Cowboy’ showcased the song’s beautifully smooth and laid back electric piano work, the speakers giving it a tremendously tactile quality that’s so often missed. This is a band that can sound very bland on record, but I’ve found them quite captivating live, and again the Ushers nailed it. The quality of this early nineties analogue recording showed the excellence of the Usher tweeters; they’re blessed with uncanny clarity, delicacy and air - making your average aluminium affair sound like two dustbin lids being bashed together by a twelve year old with an ASBO. The great integration with the midrange unit meant the Be-10s had brilliant phase performance; backing vocals hung well back yet were solid in their location all the same, contrasting well with singer Jay Kay’s imposing lead.


This track also has a big, deep, sumptuous bass guitar pushing it along - and even a bass solo half way through. I found the Be-10 to be very strong in this respect too - powerful, taut, firm and insistent yet never overbearing, the balance was beautifully judged. They also went very loud without showing any strain, giving something very close to a ‘live PA’ sound at high levels. Indeed, my only gripe - and it is minor - is that the Be-10s just lacked that requisite pin-sharpness in the bass. Although I heard negligible box boom from the big cabinets in my small-to-medium sized listening room, it was obvious that these are reflex port-loaded loudspeakers, lacking as they do the instantaneous LED-like ‘on-off’ of my reference Yamahas (which are non-ported, infinite baffle designs). This very subtle time slurring in the bass (and in the Be-10 is it very subtle, I must add) is I am afraid, a fact of life for ported boxes in my experience. Realising that there are many who believe otherwise, I shall brace myself for the complaints, but having chosen to live with infinite baffle speakers all my life, I can sniff this out like milk past its sell by date in my morning coffee!


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