You wait ages for a bus then two come along at once. It’s the same with stereo powered speakers, both the Elac DCB41 ConneX and Q Acoustics M20 HD having graced HiFi Starters recently. The ConneX did nothing to dent Elac’s solid reputation. Boxes that small shouldn’t sound that big. Their connectivity was also impressive, incorporating digital, analogue, phono, Bluetooth and HDMI inputs. £500 isn’t loose change but the Elacs are solid value. An £89 Wiim Mini streamer into their optical input was all that was needed for a complete system.
The Q Acoustics M20 HD have RSPs of £439 / US$699 / €549 (less on the street) and are very similar. Two-way stereo speakers – a 22mm tweeter and a 125mm mid/bass driver – with power amplification built in. Multiple inputs. Small form factor. As with the ConneX, all the M20 HD’s electronics reside in one speaker, which you set as left or right. The other is lasso’d by a short length of standard speaker cable. And like the ConneX the M20 HD has equalisation for use in different positions.
So they’re peas from the same pod, but the differences are important, enough to potentially sway you one way or the other. Most obvious is size. The M20 HD may be small but it’s still bigger than the DCB41. In particular deeper, requiring a sizable desk for desktop use, deep shelves for bookshelf placement etc. If space is at a premium the DCB41 may be your friend.
In addition the M20 HD lacks the phono and HDMI inputs of the DCB41. Fair enough, it costs £100 less. But a turntable will need it’s own phono amplifier (or use an external one). And your TV will have to use the optical digital input. Not a problem, it works fine. That input’s just not then available for a BluRay player, XBox / Playstation or similar.
Like the DCB41 the M20 HD has USB connectivity. Like the DCB41 it’s for computers only, the lack of drivers nixing use with phones, USB streamers or Single Board Computers (e.g. Raspberry Pi). No problem for the review, I pressed the Wiim Mini streamer into service again (using its optical output). Besides, the M20 HD’s Bluetooth (aptX, the higher quality version) compensates. Realistically phones will play through Bluetooth for example.
On the analogue front the M20 HD has both RCA and 3.5mm connections but only one can be used at any time. Plugging something into the 3.5mm socket negates the RCA input. A shame, two analogue inputs would be useful. Finally on connections there’s a subwoofer output should you want more bass.
Both the DCB41 and M20 HD have rear-facing ports to help the bass go lower. The potential downside being greater care needed in positioning. Would the M20 HD be fussy about close-to-wall use, the bass reflecting off it to negative effect? It’s often the case, but not always. The DCB41 worked fine snug to the wall for example. If it’s really a problem you can plug the M20 HD’s bass ports with the foam bungs that Q Acoustics provides as part of the package – very thoughtful.
Build quality / looks
Available in black, white or walnut, all versions have non-removable black grills. The look is rather chic thanks to the rounded edges. They also give the M20 HD a narrow base though; check they’ll fit the top plate if using stands. Build quality and finish is very nice, I’ve seen lesser quality on £1,000 speakers.
The main M20 HD speaker has three discrete buttons on top to control volume and to power them on. The latter changing colour to show which input is in use – white for optical, blue for Bluetooth etc. Handy. I used the buttons occasionally but the small, neat remote control was the de facto choice.
All in all the M20 HD is well-designed and simple to use. Subtle bragging rights are in order.
Like the DCB41, the M20 HD proved to be flexible on positioning. In fact they were very similar, both working optimally on stands with the rear of the speaker 20-30cm from the wall behind them. Sitting on a coffee table – as seen in the photos – also worked well. Which is reassuring. In the real world that’s more likely than stands.
The M20 HD’s EQ is also good. The effect it has on bass is subtle and it doesn’t mess with the rest of the frequency range. Three options are provided – free space, wall and corner positioning. Bass reduces as more surfaces come into play. So it’s maximum in free space, minimum in corners. Don’t treat those as hard and fast rules though. Experiment, taking time to see what works best for you.
Straight out of the box the M20 HD works well. As with the DCB41 though, if funds are available then a little TLC pays dividends.
Lossless streaming clearly sounded better than lossy music. Replacing the supplied speaker cable with something better was also beneficial. Budget £25-50 if you can. And for ultimate sound quality perch the M20 atop some Isoacoustic Mini Pucks. £75-£100 for a set of eight isn’t beer money. They do make a difference though, justifying the extra outlay. They don’t mess up the looks either.
Pamper the M20 HD and they respond well. Don’t and they still deliver.
Good as the Elac DCB41 sound, and they do sound great, the Q Acoustics take things to a higher level. I kept shaking my head at how well-sorted they were. In pampered mode, giving of their best, they’re a very refined design.
That’s not to say genteel. Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ hammered out of the M20 HD setup with real weight, the density of sound remarkable for such small boxes. Dynamics were good too. And the speakers were comfortable at high volumes, not straining at all. ZZ Top’s ‘La Grange’ and The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ showed the Metallica experience wasn’t a one-off. Large scale organ works – say Durufle’s Choral Works (Houston Chamber Choir on Signum Classics) – had an appropriate nobility about them.
That’s partly down to the M20 HD’s ability to throw a big image, which is deep as well as wide and tall. The recording acoustic is portrayed well. Performers aren’t pinpointed quite as well as some dearer speakers but that does nothing to undermine the feeling of being there.
Focusing in on bass performance, Christian McBride’s ‘Afirika’ (with Angelique Kidjo from Conversations with Christian) was nicely balanced. His acoustic bass was fat enough to convey the music’s bounce whilst also being suitably taut.
Want something more raucous? ‘Bliss on Mushrooms’ (from Infected Mushroom’s Head of NASA & The 2 Amish Boys), has become my go-to subwoofer test. A riotous cacophony that builds until at 1’30” all hell breaks loose, bass spewing anywhere and everywhere into your room. The M20 HD rode the pumping beat majestically, making me laugh out loud (literally). The Q Acoustics do fun too.
Treble isn’t overly extended. The bright recording of Enter Sandman’s didn’t draw undue attention to itself, as it often does. There’s plenty of detail to be heard though, even if at times a little more transparency would be welcome. The overall tone is also marginally dark, focused on the midrange down rather than the waist up. Presumably that’s a design choice, Q Acoustics having voiced the M20 HD that way. Fine by me.
Overall the M20 HD is more broad-brush rather filigreed. A slightly darker coffee roast. More Highland than Lowland whisky. That the comparison is to the finer things in life such as malt whisky is perhaps more the point. The M20 HD powered speakers are rather intoxicating!
At £400 a single Sonos Move costs the same as the M20 HD duo. Adding £89 for a Wiim Mini streamer pushes the M20 HD setup to £500, 20% more than the Sonos. It sounds so much better though. The Sonos, a lovely device in its own right, is left reeling.
The M20 HD sounds a lot bigger courtesy of it being stereo – there’s a proper soundstage. It’s also louder, decidedly weightier and more dynamic. Better controlled, more detailed too. And so on. In all cases by a big margin. Think: family saloon versus Porsche 911. With hindsight, comparing the M20 HD to the Sonos wasn’t a good idea.
Time for a stiffer test – say hello to a Marantz PM6006 amplifier, Elac Debut B6.2 speakers and Wiim Mini (the same comparison used for Elac DCB41 review). Cost circa £730, nearly double that of the M20 HD. There’s also an extra box to accommodate (the amplifier). And the speakers are fussier on positioning – they need more room behind them than the M20 HD.
Listening was interesting. As with the DCB41, the separates sound better. This time it wasn’t such a big gap though. There was also an element of different-not-better. The Marantz has a lighter voice against the slightly darker tone of the M20 HD. Neither is right or wrong, we’re talking preferences here.
Blasting out ‘Enter Sandman’ was fun (will I ever tire of it?) With the separates the musicians were more precisely placed in the soundstage. It was easier to hear the contribution of each. They also had a weightier bass, but only just. On the downside the track’s bright nature was there for all to hear, cymbals in particular tipping over into splashy at times. In comparison the M20 HD proved an easier listen. It wasn’t tame though, the raw thrust of the music was just as apparent.
John Smith’s latest single, ‘Talk To Me of Mendocino’ is a delicate duet with Katherine Priddy. One listen had me booking tickets for a forthcoming gig. The Marantz / Elac system showed its colours on the track, having greater air, delicacy and transparency compared to the M20 HD. There was also more detail on show. A definite win for the separates system.
Other tracks showered the separates to be quicker than the M20 HD, dynamics in particular were stronger. ‘Sooki Sooki’ from Gerald Albright (30) positively burst from the Elac B6.2 speakers for example.
Overall the separates came top, as they should for nearly double the money. Kudos to the M20 HD that they weren’t that far behind though. Surprisingly close in fact.
The Q Acoustics M20 HD powered speakers aren’t perfect. The lack of a phono amplifier is no biggy, just use an external one. HDMI would be nice though, the extra flexibility worth any slight increase in cost.
Whilst the Q Acoustics are small they’re not tiny; Elac’s DCB41 work better where space is restricted. The depth of the M20 HD in particular could rule them out in some situations. Conversely the M20 HD’s EQ settings work well, meaning they’re pretty flexible on positioning. And build quality is very good, the looks rather chic. Sonically a little more transparency wouldn’t go amiss.
But hey, that’s me making no allowance for price, mentally comparing the M20 HDto my £2,400 Graham LS6 speakers. That the M20 HD genuinely excited me is more relevant. Words like ‘wondrous’, ‘big’ and ‘weighty’ peppered my listening notes. You don’t expect that from a £399 device. Were I starting out in HiFi I’d make a beeline to the M20 HD. Paired with the Wiim Mini streamer they make for one hell of a starter setup. On your marks…..