Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
There’s a lot to be said for matching the speakers to the room. In my first nine years of writing about audio, beginning in November 1995, the staples of my review queue were compact, two-way, stand-mounted speakers. They tended to work well in the listening room of the apartment I then lived in, a space about 14’L x 11’W. Bigger, bass-heavier speakers -- typically, three- or more-way floorstanders -- usually overloaded that room. But in 2004 I began reviewing those much larger speakers -- by then I’d moved into a house, and now had a much bigger room that could support more bass and demanded more output. I still live in that house; overall, my room measures about 36’L x 18’W, though the listening area itself is only 18’ square. (The rest of the space is occupied by my office, photo studio, and storage.)
That’s not to say that I’ve entirely given up reviewing small two-ways -- as a reviewer, I have to be open to all sorts of speakers. But I know from experience that for any speaker to work well in my current room, it must be able to deliver pretty deep bass or its sound will be too light. To fill the space with sound, it must also be able to deliver fairly high SPLs without strain.
Most compact two-ways can’t do one or either of those things. But last May in Munich, at High End 2017, when I heard a pair of Dynaudio’s new Special Forty loudspeakers charging up a large listening area, I had a hunch that this new model from the well-known Danish brand might be an exception. I asked them to send me a pair.
The Special Forty was created to celebrate Dynaudio’s 40th anniversary, in 2017, and is surprisingly affordable at $2999 USD per pair (about which more below). But unlike many commemorative models, the Special Forty is not being produced in a limited edition, nor is it a member of one of Dynaudio’s many series of models. Quite literally, it’s in a class of its own.
That the Special Forty is not a limited-edition model might make it seem a little less, well, special -- but Dynaudio has included some unique features that make it desirable enough. Like all Dynaudio speakers, the Forty was designed and is manufactured at their headquarters, in Skanderborg, Denmark.
The Special Forty’s drivers are improved versions of extant Dynaudio designs. The 1.1” (28mm) soft-dome tweeter, the Esotar Forty, is based on their highly successful Esotar2. Improvements include what Dynaudio calls “a new pressure conduit,” described as “a specially shaped vent that lets us devote more space to the rear chamber and controls how the air moves from the back of the diaphragm into that space. The chamber itself is packed with more damping material and, in conjunction with the pressure conduit, helps to absorb rear radiation from the tweeter diaphragm.” Presumably, the damping of rear-directed energy results in a more controlled, more linear response. There’s also an “aero-coupled pressure-release outlet under the tweeter’s voice-coil” that, Dynaudio claims, “equalises the pressure immediately under the voice-coil with that outside to reduce any air pockets that could stop the coil moving as it should. This reduces resonance -- and manifests itself in the form of a more detailed performance.” Like the Esotar2’s, the Esotar Forty’s silk diaphragm is stiffened with a coating of Dynaudio Secret Recipe (DSR).
The Special Forty’s 6.7” (170mm) woofer is based on Dynaudio’s 17W75 driver, used in their more-expensive Confidence and Evidence lines. Its cone is made of magnesium-silicate polymer (MSP), the material Dynaudio uses in all their woofers and midrange drivers. Dynaudio touts this driver as their “best-ever 17cm woofer,” largely for what they claim is the superior design of its basket, to improve airflow, and “a sophisticated hybrid magnet system for lower distortion and higher power.” Increasing the speaker’s overall bass output, which Dynaudio specifies as bottoming out at 41Hz, -3dB, is a smoothly tapered port that vents to the rear. Also on the rear panel is a plate for the speaker’s single pair of high-quality, five-way binding posts. (The Special Forty can’t be biwired or biamped.)
Dynaudio claims that the Special Forty’s tweeter can comfortably reproduce frequencies down to 1kHz, and its woofer up to 3kHz -- a full octave below and half an octave above the speaker’s crossover frequency of 2kHz. Output so far beyond the drivers’ passbands is why Dynaudio was able to get away with using a first-order crossover in the Forty. A first-order slope is shallow, meaning that the rolloff of each driver around the crossover range is slow; that is, there’s considerable overlap in the two drivers’ outputs. Dynaudio prefers such an arrangement because they say it optimizes phase integrity and allows them to create a more audibly seamless blend of the drivers’ outputs. The speaker’s specified overall sensitivity is 86dB (2.83V/1m), its nominal impedance 6 ohms -- both pretty typical for a two-way minimonitor.
The shape and size of the Forty’s MDF cabinet is also pretty typical: 14.2”H x 7.8”W x 12.7”D, tapering slightly toward the rear, with beveled vertical edges at the front. It looks like one of Dynaudio’s Excite models, which also don’t look all that, um, exciting. Likewise, the magnetically attached grille is functional but no work of art. Available only in black, it protects the drivers without improving the speaker’s looks, and it definitely degrades the sound -- with the grilles in place, I heard a subtle reduction of the highs and some midrange splashiness.
The build quality is excellent. Like all of Dynaudio’s wood-veneered speakers, the Special Forty is veneered inside and out, to increase stiffness and eliminate warping (veneering wood on only one side can cause it to bend). The result is a super-sturdy cabinet that sounded and felt rock-hard when I rapped it with a knuckle, even though it weighs only 17.9 pounds.
The two veneers offered, Red Birch and Grey Birch, are created in a way I’d previously seen only on a Sonus Faber speaker. Instead of gluing wide, thin sheets of wood to the panels of MDF, Dynaudio makes its veneers by gluing together very thin sheets of wood into a lamination hundreds of layers thick, then cutting down through them to produce thin sheets of striated veneer. The result looks like the edge of a sheet of plywood almost a foot thick: thin, vertical layers or lines of wood separated by even thinner lines of glue. The coating of thick, clear, high-gloss lacquer that Dynaudio then applies makes the contrast of wood and lines really stand out.
In Dynaudio’s dark display room in Munich it was the Red Birch finish that caught my eye -- it’s brighter and more vibrant. There, the Grey Birch looked drab and dull. But my review samples were finished in Grey Birch, and in my brightly lit room they looked fab -- the light really brought out the contrast.
Rarely do audio manufacturers offer warranties longer than five years. But topping off the Special Forty’s topflight build quality and novel veneering is Dynaudio’s long, strong warranty: five years, parts and labor, or eight years with registration. As Edgar Kramer, editor of SoundStage! Australia, might say, good on ’em.
I used the Special Fortys with the topflight gear that’s been serving as my reference system. Up front was a Samsung laptop computer running Windows 10, Roon, and Tidal’s desktop app, feeding an EMM Labs DA2 Reference digital-to-analog converter via an AudioQuest Diamond USB link, the DAC’s analog signal then going into a Constellation Audio Revelation Pictor preamplifier through Crystal Cable Standard Diamond balanced interconnects. The Pictor was partnered with Constellation Revelation Taurus Mono monoblock amplifiers via Audience Au24 SX balanced interconnects, and the Tauruses with the speakers via Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L speaker cables. The preamp and DAC had Shunyata Research Venom HC power cords, the laptop and amps their stock cords. All power cords were plugged into one of two Shunyata Venom PS8 power distributors, which in turn were plugged into dedicated wall outlets with Venom HC cords.
The Special Fortys were set atop 24”-high Foundation stands and toed in about 10°. The speakers were 8’ apart, and each was 8’ from my listening chair. Dynaudio doesn’t make dedicated stands for the Special Forty, but if you wanted to use one of theirs, the likely candidate would be the Stand 20 ($599/pair). I left the Special Fortys’ grilles off for all of my critical listening.
Straight out of the box, the Special Fortys didn’t captivate me as they had in Munich. Their immediate predecessors in my system were the three-way, six-driver GoldenEar Technology Triton References ($8499.98/pair), which I’d just finished reviewing. Each Triton Reference has one tweeter, two midranges, three active woofers, and four passive radiators -- I expected a reduction in bass output and large-scale dynamics, and that’s what I heard from the stand-mounted, two-driver Dynaudios. The bottom octave of the audioband (20-40Hz) went missing, and the Fortys couldn’t play quite as loudly and freely as the Triton References had.
Nor was that all that was missing. The bass above 40Hz sounded tight but wooden -- thuddy, actually -- without the bloom or fullness I’d heard in Munich. I also thought the Forty’s overall voicing was a bit trebly -- not bright, but a little too tipped-up at the top for my taste. But even with those deficiencies, I could tell right away that although I could hit the Forty’s volume limits if I wanted to get out of hand, they could produce normal and somewhat above-normal listening levels in my room cleanly and without strain, and that their midrange was natural and clear, particularly with voices. Still, I felt some tweaking was in order.
I don’t believe in the hundreds of hours of break-in that some audiophiles feel components need to sound good, but I do know that speaker drivers can benefit from some run-in, mostly to loosen up their suspension systems so they can move more freely. So I played the Special Fortys for three days, off and on, at my normal listening levels -- a total of some 20 hours -- with a steady diet of music streamed from Tidal and my music library. I used mostly recordings with deep bass, primarily to get those woofers moving: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Columbia/Tidal), the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA), and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia/Tidal), to name a few.
Those 20 hours didn’t change the Fortys’ sound enough to make them sound like a different pair of speakers, but the improvements were significant. The first 30 seconds of “Misguided Angel,” from The Trinity Session, told me that the bottommost octave was still missing -- only to be expected with a speaker of this size and driver configuration -- but also that the octave just above now sounded fuller and even tighter than before, and no longer thuddy. And the clarity of the bass was astounding -- playing at fairly high volumes such kick-drum-heavy tracks as “Objection (Tango),” from Shakira’s Laundry Service (16/44.1 FLAC, Epic/Tidal), or the title track of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty (16/44.1 FLAC, Asylum/Tidal), I found the bass much cleaner than I’ve heard from any other stand-mounted two-way. Furthermore, when I push most two-ways very hard in my big room, I can often get them to make nasty sounds through their ports -- chuffing and/or other nonmusical noises that are audible at my listening seat. Not the Special Forty. Pushed to pretty high listening levels, their sound remained clean through the bass and the rest of the audioband. The Forty couldn’t be pushed to extremely high volume levels -- the ear-splitting, headbanging range -- but they could easily play loud enough for most people.
I couldn’t be sure if the break-in had also tamed the top end a bit, or if the improvements in the bass now made the highs seem less pronounced, but the Special Fortys sounded so much better balanced throughout the audioband that their sound now seemed perfectly balanced from 40Hz up. After that 20 hours of break-in, I never found myself wishing for a little more of this frequency range and/or a little less of that.
Hearing that kind of difference after 20 hours, I decided to play them another 20. After that, I heard maybe a touch more clarity in the midrange, but the difference was subtle enough that I couldn’t be sure. I then ran them in for 10 hours more, just to be sure they were at their best. From that point until today -- many, many more hours later -- I can’t say that their sound has changed at all. And I wouldn’t want it to.
Time and again in my listening since that break-in time, I’ve noticed how free of colorations the sound of the Special Fortys is, regardless of what sort of music I play through them. This was a bit of a surprise -- other Dynaudio two-ways I’ve reviewed and/or listened to have always had some little coloration or other that jumped out to catch my ear. Most notable was the Excite X12 ($1200/pair, discontinued), whose reproduction of the midrange lived up to the speaker’s name: a little elevated, voices popping forward on the stage a bit more than was accurate. Dynaudio’s original Confidence C1 ($6500/pair, discontinued) did the same thing, to a lesser degree. I found those midrange bumps to be pleasant, Technicolor-like effects, but that didn’t mean they weren’t colorations -- in a word, distortions.
The Special Forty produced none of that in any part of the audioband. From about 40Hz up, it was as uncolored as I’d found the Revel Performa3 F206 ($3500/pair) when I reviewed it. As a result, when I played Bruce Cockburn’s The Charity of Night (16/44.1 FLAC, True North/Tidal) or Glen Hansard’s Rhythm and Repose (16/44.1 FLAC, Anti-/Tidal), Goldilocks came to mind: Not too forward and not too relaxed, I thought, but just right. Nor did I hear any of the reticence in the extreme highs that Hans Wetzel heard when he reviewed Dynaudio’s Emit M10 ($799/pair) for SoundStage! Access, or that Jeff Fritz found in the sound of their Contour 60 ($10,000/pair) when he reviewed that speaker for SoundStage! Ultra. Both blamed the problem on those speakers’ soft-dome tweeters. But the Special Forty, too, has a soft-dome Dynaudio tweeter, and I found its highs very extended, never dull, and always exceedingly clean.
For those who like colorations, the kind of neutrality offered by the Special Forty might not appeal; after all, certain colorations can be exciting, which is why they’re described as euphonic. But those who like to hear, as accurately as possible, what’s actually on the recording, and not the sound(s) of their equipment, will welcome this speaker. With the exception of that bottom octave, I found the Special Forty faithful to the recordings I played through it.
I consistently marveled at how much detail the Special Forty could reproduce without sounding as if it were forcing it on me. I also enjoyed the vast illusion of space the pair of them could provide from recordings that contained such information -- and which weren’t limited to super-duper audiophile recordings. Before I sat down to finish writing this part of the review, I streamed “Is It a Crime,” from Sade’s Promise (16/44.1 FLAC, Epic/Tidal), and was awestruck at the width and depth of the soundstage. Not all of this was the speakers, of course -- my current electronics are particularly adept at unveiling every nuance of a recording -- but, after all, it was the Dynaudios that were actually moving the air and making all the sounds. Fed good enough signals, the Special Fortys seemed to hold nothing back, and not just “for the price” -- their breadth and depth of stage was on a par with any speaker I’ve heard at any price.
Similarly, following all that break-in, when I sat down to listen more critically to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, it was at first to evaluate the Special Forty’s reproduction of bass and dynamics. But by the time I got to track 4, “Within,” with the group’s trademark lead vocal -- sounding highly processed and robotic -- juxtaposed against Chilly Gonzales’s very natural-sounding piano, my attention turned to how much detail was flowing through, and how expansive and well-delineated the soundstage was.
For the most part, Dynaudio’s Special Forty is special, though not everything is to write home about: the cabinet’s shape and its grille won’t elicit oohs and aahs, and the conventional two-way driver configuration, the commonly used crossover point of 2kHz, and the single pair of binding posts will raise no eyebrows. What’s really special about the Special Forty are its topflight build quality, its unique and exceptional-looking veneers, and, most important, its sound -- the Dynaudio designers have wrung from these two new drivers sound that fills even a large room, and that delivers topflight neutrality and resolution at a very reasonable price.
About that price: When I saw the Forty Special debut in Munich and noted that its retail price in Europe was €2999/pair, I figured that, with the current exchange rate, duties, and taxes, it would wind up costing $3999/pair in the US. Halfway through my critical listening at home, I’d heard enough to consider that a good deal. It was only then that I learned that the speaker actually sells for $1000/pair less over here. That makes the Special Forty not a good deal, but a great one -- reason enough to rush out to hear a pair for yourself. I had a bit of a rough start with the Special Forty, but it wound up being one of the most transparent-sounding two-way speakers I’ve ever heard.
. . . Doug Schneider
Dynaudio Special Forty Loudspeakers
Price: $2999 USD per pair.
Warranty, parts and labor: Five years on purchase, eight years with registration.
Phone: +45 8652-3411
Fax: +45 8652-3116
Dynaudio North America
1852 Elmdale Avenue
Glenview, IL 60026
Phone: (847) 730-3280
Fax: (847) 730-3207