I spend a lot of time thinking about how to shave my beard: which sort of razor to use, whether to use a cream or gel, which brands of each to buy. It’s the same sort of deliberation that goes into assembling a stereo system.
In this analogy, your amplifier is your choice of razor. Three blades? Four blades? Five? Tubed or solid-state, the amp could determine how smooth your music will sound, or how close you get to the artists’ intentions. Your recordings are your face -- you can clean them up, try to improve their quality, but ultimately, you have to do the best you can with what you’ve got.
Last comes the shaving cream: your speakers. Even a dull blade will cut, but a well-chosen shaving cream can soothe and smooth the process. There are, however, dozens of choices, and while each fulfills the baseline qualities, Barbasol, say, might not offer as much comfort as Edge. Maybe Gillette is an improvement on that -- and Nivea might beat them all. Only you can decide.
The remarkable Decade D4M, a two-way, rear-ported, bookshelf loudspeaker ($2400 USD per pair), handmade by Tyler Acoustics in a modest three-person shop in Owensboro, Kentucky, is like shaving with a rich cream that comes in a little pot and goes on with a brush. In the world of store-bought, mass-produced speakers, it’s in a different category.
Tyler Lashbrook is a self-described audio nut who constantly traded, switched out, replaced, and upgraded his speakers -- until he decided to build his own. Pleased with the results, he built another pair. And so on, until 2012 finds him and a few assistants 13 years into it, working out of a 6000-square-foot shop.
Lashbrook designs every speaker his shop makes, using custom-made drivers (he admits to getting some help with the crossover designs from Danny Ritchie, of GR Research), and hand-tweaks each crossover before the speaker goes out the door. Based on the look of his website, you get the feeling he might have designed that, too. It’s . . . quaint.
Tyler Acoustics isn’t a household name, but it is a going concern -- how does it compete with other better-known, more aggressively marketed, more easily acquired brands in the highly competitive speaker market? Lashbrook credits his presence on Audiogon, as well as what must be pretty energetic and enthusiastic word-of-mouth, with keeping his business in orders.
It’s a different shopping experience from walking into a store or adding an item to an online shopping cart. The service is personalized. The product is customized. And, perhaps most unusual of all, all manufacturing is done in the US.
The large, heavy box arrived emblazoned with a sticker reading “Made in the U.S.A.” Inside, the two D4Ms, wrapped in thick plastic, were stacked one atop the other and surrounded by large pieces of obviously hand-packed and made-to-measure pieces of protective Styrofoam. As I removed each speaker from its packing, I could feel every ounce of its 28 pounds. It’s also on the large side for a minimonitor, measuring 16”H x 9.5”W x 12”D. Its bulk makes handling it with care essential.
Once out of the plastic, the D4Ms turned my modest listening area into a fine-furniture showroom. The standard veneers are Cherry, Oak, Black Oak, Maple, Walnut, and Ribbon Mahogany, but for my review samples Lashbrook had selected -- from among the 80 real-wood veneers he offers -- the Blond Bird’s-Eye Maple veneer ($300 extra per pair). I don’t know if it was the wood or the standard satin-lacquer finish, but the D4Ms made my room smell like those stores my parents and I used to visit when we were looking at dining-room sets we couldn’t afford. The scent has since faded away, but those first few days were intoxicating.
The D4Ms smelled great and looked great. The speaker’s hexagonal cabinet is narrower at the front and bows out in the middle, before narrowing again toward the rear; Lashbrook says this design helps break up internal standing waves. The top and bottom panels are slabs of 1”-thick black resin. The D4M’s impeccable fit and finish made it fun to touch -- the veneer was as smooth as polished jade. Knocking on them was equally satisfying; it was as if I were tapping on the front door of an old-money mansion. This speaker is solid.
The D4M’s black grille is magnetically affixed to protect a 1” soft-dome tweeter and a 6” midrange-woofer with a hard, bullet-shaped, copper-colored phase plug. With the grille on, a space between the black fabric and black resin revealed a glimpse of pale Bird’s-Eye Maple, an effect that reminded me of that bit of skin that shows between a man’s sock and pants when he crosses his legs. The speaker looked better with the grille off, and sounded better too: less veiled, with greater balance across the audioband.
The D4M’s frequency response is specified as 44Hz-20kHz, its sensitivity as 87dB, and its nominal impedance as 8 ohms.
System and setup
At first, I hooked up the Decade D4Ms to a Raysonic SP-300 tubed integrated amp (80Wpc) with 9’ lengths of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cables, terminated with banana plugs. Below its large rear port, the D4M has unmarked, nondescript -- but strong as steel -- five-way, gold-plated binding posts. With a sensitivity of 87dB, the D4M presents a demanding challenge to a tube amp, even one with the Raysonic’s power. Based on what I heard, I was curious to know how the Tylers would respond to my reference solid-state integrated, NAD’s C 325BEE; though it puts out only 50Wpc, the NAD has more inherent slam than the tubed Raysonic.
These days, my main source component is an 80GB iPod loaded with Apple Lossless files and mounted in an NAD iPod 2 docking station. A simple Monster Cable Interlink 200 connects the dock to the NAD integrated. For the purposes of this review and for variety, I also played CDs and DVDs through a Pioneer DV-353 DVD player and the same Monster cable.
Using my 26”-high stands to support a speaker that pushes the limits of what can reasonably be called a minimonitor seemed a bad idea, so I used 20”-tall Sanus stands. These put the D4Ms’ tweeters at the desired level -- my ears when I’m sitting down -- and gave them a broader, firmer platform on which to rest.
I placed the Decade D4Ms, sitting on the Sanus stands, about 2’ from the front wall and 4’ from the side walls, where they immediately became the center of attention in my room. Even before they made a sound, the D4Ms’ presence was formidable and undeniable -- like Liam Neeson’s on the big screen.
Driven by the tubed Raysonic, the D4Ms sounded full and rich right from the start, even with the volume at a very low level -- a quality I appreciate at night, when the house is asleep. As I increased the volume, the speakers absorbed power as a ShamWow sucks up a spill. I’m used to keeping my amps’ volume knobs at about 9 o’clock for casual listening. The D4M required a 10 o’clock position to produce the same level, but the results were outstanding.
Resolution, inner detail, and separation of instruments combined in just the right proportions to deliver a vital listening experience. In the live version of “Tangled Up in Blue” from Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vol.5: Live 1975 -- The Rolling Thunder Revue (CD, Columbia/Legacy 87047), his voice jumped from the speakers, supported by his attack on his acoustic guitar, and the decay of the notes as they disappeared into the crowd. Attack and decay were in full effect in “A Case of You,” from Joni Mitchell’s Blue (CD, Reprise MS 2038), as the D4Ms conveyed the song’s swinging determination and locked-in desire.
Twenty years after Rolling Thunder, Dylan’s voice had evolved from a wheeze into a croak, and the D4M rendered “Trying to Get to Heaven,” from his Time Out of Mind (CD, Columbia 68556), as a deathbed wish underscored by humming keyboards, an enveloping bass line, and a characteristic drum pattern from producer Daniel Lanois.
The D4M had a surprisingly wide frequency range, with clear (if slightly rounded) highs, all the way down to lows that resonated enough to satisfy even the most craven slave to bass. “Dopeman,” from Jay-Z’s Vol.3 (CD, Roc-a-Fella 546822), rides on an undercurrent of rhythm that, through a lesser speaker, would be lost to the upper rhythm track. The D4M accounted for every layer in the recording while preserving its integration and maintaining the track’s overall sonic effect
The Black Crowes’ “Thorn in My Pride,” from the recent acoustic recap Croweology (CD, Silver Arrow 61544), absolutely shimmered with clear delineation of detail, and preserved this recording’s perfect balance of voices and instruments. The same went for Derek and the Dominos’ cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (CD, Polydor 93701), which might have gotten a bit of bass boost from the Tylers -- but not at the expense of Eric Clapton’s soaring guitar, or his desperately striving vocal duet with Bobby Whitlock.
I began to wonder if the bass response was a result of tube warmth, which can be undeniably addictive but slightly dishonest. I hooked up the D4Ms to my NAD C 325BEE, and there was an immediate increase in slam and musical dynamism. “Strange Waters,” from Bruce Cockburn’s The Charity of Night (Rykodisc 10366), rumbled ominously as the bass drum boomed under Cockburn’s sharply defined -- but not etched -- guitar, as Rob Wasserman’s reverberating fretless bass and the leader’s pleading voice filled the soundstage.
Tyler Lashbrook claims that most of his customers order his large, powerful floorstanding models. But based on the sound of the D4Ms, and the way they generated a soundstage higher, deeper, and wider than I would have expected from a standard minimonitor, he’s managed to design and build a speaker that surpasses expectations.
The Tyler’s high-end dynamics and bass extension when reproducing a track such as “Mockingbird,” from Ryan Adams’s Cold Roses (CD, Lost Highway 434302), in which jangly guitars and sweet voices melded coherently into an airy, delicate, unified whole, betrayed those of much bigger boxes. The D4M sounded detailed but never bright or hashy, and the double-bass intro to “If There’s a Hell Below,” from William Parker’s I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (CD, Aum Fidelity 62), was woody, with cleanly efficient punch.
The Decades even managed to virtually “disappear,” emphasizing the in-room quality of the performances and making for captivating listening. They were never oversaturated by hot, highly compressed recordings, and integrated voices and music as seamlessly as the veneers on their cabinets.
Joss Stone sounded so good in “Victim of a Broken Heart,” from her The Soul Sessions (CD, S-Curve 42234) -- authoritative, soulful, expansive -- that I checked to see how many more of her tracks my collection contained. The D4M passed the crucial speaker test: It made me want more music, urging me to get to the next song while making me want to finish hearing the one already playing.
The Decade D4M also pulled off the most elusive trick in the book. “Electricity,” from the Captain Beefheart anthology The Dust Blows Forward (Rhino 75863), is not a good recording. It was probably made on no budget, and was done no favors by the psychedelic tastes of the time and Beefheart’s own warped genius. The D4Ms demonstrated how forgiving they could be by leavening the song’s electric buzz, and their inherent warmth turned the track into something that homed in on my nerves without picking on my very last one.
Tyler Acoustics speakers occupy a special place in retail audio. The company is too small to be categorized with the myriad better-known brands. But because their designs are not exotic and their materials are not unusual, the speakers themselves can’t quite be called bespoke. Better to say “built to order,” while bearing the characteristics of a singular vision and aural intelligence.
The D4M was superlative with tubed and entry-level solid-state amplification, with CDs and with lossless digital files. I heard no flaws: It managed to retrieve the maximum amount of information from each recording, and deliver music with a flowing, nonfatiguing continuity, song after song after song.
. . . Jeff Stockton
- Speakers -- B&W 303, Axiom M3
- Integrated amplifiers/receivers -- NAD C 325BEE, Raysonic SP-300
- Sources -- Apple iPod, NAD iPod 2 dock, Oppo Digital DV-970H universal disc player
- Speaker cables -- Element Cable Double Run
- Interconnects -- Monster Cable Interlink 200
Tyler Acoustics Decade D4M Loudspeakers
Price: $2400 USD per pair (factory-direct).
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
601 E. 14th Street
Owensboro, KY 42303
Phone: (270) 691-9500
Fax: (270) 691-9600