July 1, 2009

Dynaudio Excite X12 Loudspeakers

Category: Loudspeakers


Denmark’s Dynaudio International, founded in 1977, has grown into a speaker-making powerhouse offering a broad range of models for every budget and selling them worldwide. One step up from their entry-level DM line and four steps down from their top series, the Evidences, Dynaudio’s new Excite series of speakers includes one center and four main models. At the top of the range is a three-way floorstander, the X36 ($3600 USD/pair), and a two-way floorstander, the X32 ($2800/pair). Below these are two stand-mounted two-ways, the X16 ($1600/pair) and the subject of this review, the X12 ($1200/pair). The X22 center-channel speaker ($850 each) allows you to create a complete Excite-based home-theater system.

I suspect that, given the choice, most reviewers would opt to review the biggest, most expensive model in any given line of speakers. I’m the opposite. My priorities -- affordability, practicality, and value -- are things that I think most consumers are looking for, and they’re usually found at the bottom of a speaker line, not the top. Hence my decision to find out what the bottommost speaker in Dynaudio’s second-lowest line could deliver.


The X12 is small -- 11.2"H x 6.7"W x 10"D -- and, at about 14 pounds, fairly light. But it’s robust. Made of MDF, the X12 feels more like a dense, solid block than a hollow box. Rapping a knuckle on a sidepanel produced the sound of a supersturdy cabinet; the front baffle, in particular, seems rock-solid.

All Excite models, the X12 included, are finished extremely well, with real-wood veneers on all sides except the baffle, which is an attractive gun-metal gray. The standard real-wood veneers are maple, cherry, rosewood, and black ash. (The Dynaudio reps let me know that white and black high-gloss finishes -- complete with gloss front baffles -- will soon be available for $1275/pair.)

Each X12 has a 1" silk-dome tweeter and a 5.5" magnesium-silicate polymer woofer, crossed over at 2kHz with first-order slopes. First-order crossovers are desirable because they produce minimal phase shift; the downside of such crossovers is that because they have a very shallow slope of 6dB/octave, there is a broad overlap of the drivers’ outputs, each driver operating far beyond the crossover point. Whether that’s good or bad will largely depend on the drivers themselves, and how well the engineers have implemented the design.

The specs are what you’d expect for a speaker of this size and configuration. Dynaudio says that the X12’s sensitivity is 86dB/2.83V/m, its impedance 4 ohms, and its -3dB down point about 50Hz. One thing worth pointing out is the X12’s "impedance correction" circuit, which Dynaudio says kicks in above 100Hz to smooth out the impedance and thus present the amplifier with a friendlier load. This will give amps that might normally balk at the X12’s lowish load of 4 ohms -- i.e., many A/V receivers and numerous tube amps -- a fighting chance.

System and setup

I had the X12s for about six months, and so was able to use them with a wide variety of amplifiers, including a Zanden Model 600 integrated, which puts out only 30Wpc. They sounded fine. Mostly, though, I drove them with the Classé Audio CAP-2100 integrated, whose 100Wpc provided way more than enough power. Toward the end of the review period, I also used the X12s as part of a two-channel music and home-theater system that included the Anthem Statement D2v A/V processor; the speakers were driven by two channels of the Axiom Audio A1400-8 eight-channel amp.

During that time I used many different digital sources that varied considerably in price: the very inexpensive Oppo Digital DV-480H universal player, the moderately priced Stello CDT100/DA100 Signature transport and DAC, and the ultra-expensive Simaudio Moon Evolution SuperNova CD player. Cables were DH Labs’ least-expensive models: White Lightning interconnects and ST-100 speaker cables.

Stand height proved important. I found that if the X12s were placed too high, the midrange could sound slightly recessed. With the tweeters slightly below ear height, the balance was ideal. I settled on 24"-high Foundation speaker stands, which put the X12s’ tweeters about 32" above the floor, or about 6" below my ear height when seated. (The usual height for a tweeter optimized for on-axis listening in my room is between 36" and 39".)


The overall character of the X12 was precisely what I expect from a small, modern, high-quality loudspeaker. Provided my ears were slightly above the tweeter axis, it had a relatively neutral balance with no obvious sags or exaggerations. As I said above, while the highs sounded right with my ears on the tweeter axes or even a little below, the midband sounded a touch depressed. I definitely liked listening from slightly higher up.

The bass was decent but didn’t extend too low -- hardly surprising, given the X12’s small size. Still, the X12 delivered clean, tight bass down to about 60Hz before falling off the cliff. This is just enough bass for those who, like me, are willing to forgo deep bass so long as everything else is right; i.e., the upper bass straight through to the highs. But to those who want deep bass -- real bass -- the X12 will likely sound light. Those people should either look at a bigger Excite model or consider using the X12 with a subwoofer.

For me, the sound of the X12 was quite alright -- despite its lack of low bass, this little speaker didn’t just do everything else right above that range, it did a number things better than has any like-priced speaker I know. Such strengths make the X12 special -- the single word fellow reviewer Colin Smith attached to them after he’d heard them at my place under the unique conditions described below.

The first time Colin heard the X12s, I hadn’t told him which speakers in my listening room were playing. Instead, before letting him into the room, I turned off all the lights so that the room was pitch black, then led him to the listening chair, where he sat as I played him a few tracks, mostly of acoustic music with a strong vocal element and a proper recording of acoustic space of the recording venues. These included Sting’s "Angel Eyes," from the Leaving Las Vegas soundtrack (CD, Pangea/I.R.S. 36071), and Greg Keelor’s "No Landing," from Gone (CD, WEA 17513). In this informal "blind test," I asked Colin not to try to identify the make and model of the speakers he was listening to, but rather their size and configuration.

Right off the bat, the absence of deep bass told Colin that it wasn’t a very large speaker. But because of how spacious it sounded, he didn’t think its sound was particularly "light." In the end, he concluded that he was listening to a stand-mounted design about twice the X12’s actual size, or even a small floorstander. Then I flicked on the lights. When Colin saw that he’d been listening to a speaker only a fraction of the size he’d imagined, his eyes opened wide. He could hardly believe it. The sense of spaciousness created by the Excite X12s was better than that from any other small speaker I know.

Nor was space the only thing they did well. Their stereo imaging had pinpoint precision. Even with the X12s placed 10’ or so apart, I was able to get strong center-fill. When a singer’s voice was mixed rock-solid and dead-center in front of the instruments -- as on Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (CD, Columbia CK 45281) -- I always got an image that occupied a solid space in the middle with just the right amount of size and presence, but without ever pulling too much to either side. The result was nearly holographic.

Another strength of the X12 was its clarity in the midrange, particularly with voices. The X12 sounded incisive, direct, and what I like to call "free" -- free from the colorations that make you all too aware that what you’re hearing are sounds from a box. Instead, the X12 had the transparency of an electrostatic speaker, which made voices sound very real and alive. As I write this, I’m listening to Bruce Cockburn’s new live album, Slice O Life: Live Solo (CD, True North TND520). His voice has an airy, effortless quality that floats free of the X12s’ cabinets. If I couldn’t see the speakers, I’d have a tough time pinpointing the source of the sounds.

The same natural ease and freedom held true for female voice. I’ve become a big fan of T.V. Carpio’s cover of the Beatles’ "I Want to Hold Your Hand," from the Across the Universe soundtrack (CD, Interscope B000980102). Through the X12s, I heard great detail and just the right amount of presence, but not so much that the voice became overblown. The voice sounded real, the X12s projecting it out to create an amazing illusion of a real singer in my listening room.

The X12’s highs were also special in being well extended, supersweet, and never having that top-end edginess or listening fatigue so often associated with budget-priced speakers. For example, Cockburn’s guitar on Slice O Life had the kind of extension and incisiveness it should, but without any of the hardness or edge or brittleness that can set in through lesser speakers. Cymbals never "splashed," or had that awful frying-bacon sound. Like its midrange, the X12’s highs floated free of the cabinets, and again -- if I hadn’t been able to see the speakers, I’d have had a tough time saying where they were in the room. In this vein, I’d be more likely to compare the X12 with a speaker like the Paradigm Signature S2 v.1, which retails for one-third more ($1600/pair), than with any speaker costing less.

By virtue of its size, the X12 wouldn’t do superdeep bass, or play loud enough to fill a really big room. I made the mistake of watching Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie at too high a volume in my very large room, using the X12s as the main speaker, with no sub. The X12s distorted quite badly during one particularly loud bomb blast, causing me to rush for the remote control to turn down the volume. But within its limits, the X12s were remarkably refined performers that were commendably neutral and could render an uncanny sense of space. Finally, the highs weren’t just extended, but sweet and effortless -- the kind of performance found in speakers costing quite a bit more. These are the qualities that make the Excite X12, in Colin’s word, special.

See our Dynaudio Excite X12 photo gallery.


A few months ago, when I reviewed Paradigm’s Reference Studio 10 v.5, I concluded that "it is now my top choice for a compact two-way loudspeaker costing under $1000/pair." That hasn’t changed. The Studio 10 v.5 is a very good deal for $798/pair, doing some things better than speakers priced much higher. For example, the Studio 10 extends lower in the bass than does the Excite X12, and can play quite a bit louder without strain. I played punishing movie soundtracks through the Studio 10 v.5s and was in awe of how clean they sounded, even at close to ear-splitting levels. The Studio 10 also sounds very neutral, drawing little attention to itself and acting more or less as an open conduit for the sound. Overall, the Reference Studio 10 v.5 is a great all-around speaker -- a moderately priced two-way that does many things right and very little wrong.

Dynaudio’s Excite X12, however, has its own charms, as well as some strengths that, to some, will justify the 50% leap in price. Despite the Paradigm Studio 10 v.5 going deeper in the bass, which often helps create a greater sense of space, it was the X12s that actually sounded more spacious. As a result, the X12s’ soundstage was also a touch larger, but at the same time a little more precise. For a combination of spaciousness and soundstage precision, the Excite X12 is the best low-priced speaker I know.

In the midrange, it was hard to pick a clear winner -- though both had strengths here, they were slightly different strengths. The Reference Studio 10 v.5 is superneutral, highly detailed, and very precise -- perhaps even more neutral and evenhanded than the Excite X12. But in comparison to the X12, the Studio 10 can sound just a touch closed-in, not quite as effortless and free. Whereas voices leapt from the X12s, they’re tied by a shorter tether to the Studio 10s’ cabinets. And I rate the X12’s midband transparency a notch higher.

Then there’s the one small knock I had against the Paradigm Studio 10 v.5: its highs. The Studio 10’s top end is very clean but a touch dry, which can make it sound a bit clinical at times. The X12 sounded clean, provided it was played within its limits (the Studio 10 v.5 can take far more high-volume abuse), but it’s supersweet, and a little more effortless and airy than the Paradigm. As I’ve said, I’d compare this aspect of the X12’s performance to speakers costing more, not less.

In visual appeal and build quality, the two models are different but still comparable. The Studio 10 v.5 costs a good bit less than the Excite X12, but looks as if it costs just as much, if not more -- Paradigm has done a bang-up job in this department. Unlike the Studio 10, the X12’s overall quality doesn’t exceed its price -- it’s just a very-well-made speaker with very good fit’n’finish -- but it’s no letdown. In these terms, the X12 is what you’d expect for the price.

If price is a consideration, the Paradigm Reference Studio 10 v.5 is a great all-around monitor that does a lot right, including going deeper in the bass than the Excite X12 and being able to play amazingly loud -- and it’s still my choice for the speaker to get for under a grand. But Dynaudio’s Excite X12 has certain strengths that I haven’t found in any speakers costing less than $1200/pair. If someone chose the X12 over the Studio 10 v.5 to get those strengths, I can certainly understand why -- they’re why I liked the X12 from the first moment I heard it, and why it remains a favorite to listen to today.


In some ways, Dynaudio’s Excite X12 won’t seem too, um, exciting, at least for its price. It’s very well built and nicely finished -- but at $1200/pair, it should be. It has a fairly neutral tonal balance and is very well extended in the highs, but its size limits its bass extension. The X12 is fairly easy to drive and should work well with a wide variety of amps, but it will play only so loud, and is better suited to a small- or mid-sized room than to a large one. In that way, it’s kind of ho-hum.

But any ho-hum quality is overcome by the Excite X12’s tremendous strengths. The X12s do the best "disappearing" act of any small speaker I know of at or near its price. Voices and instruments exit the cabinets leaving no hint of where they came from. The X12s also create a sense of spaciousness that make them sound like much larger speakers, and lay out a soundstage with first-rate precision. The midband is marvelously detailed and beautifully fleshed out -- voices sound natural, real, and alive, and the way they leap from these little boxes is impressive to hear. Last but not least, the X12’s highs extend freely, cleanly, and sweetly. These are traits that beg comparison with speakers considerably higher in price.

Every loudspeaker is a balance of compromises. You can’t get everything out of a pair of small boxes -- there will always be deficiencies. But it’s the Dynaudio Excite X12’s considerable strengths that make it special, even unique -- I don’t know of another small speaker that plays quite like this one. The Excite X12 is now one of my favorite small speakers, and certainly is something to get excited about.

. . . Doug Schneider

Price of equipment reviewed