Note: measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
In my previous “System One” installment, in May, I wrote about Rotel’s RA-1572MKII integrated amplifier and Sonus Faber’s Lumina III loudspeaker. The Rotel sells for $2099.99 (all prices in USD), while the Sonus Fabers are $2199 for the pair. Their prices are a little more than twice what I thought to be an upper limit—around $1000—for each component when I launched this column.
So, this month I decided to pull way, way back and write about a loudspeaker that’s very inexpensive but still worth seeking out for its qualities—KLH’s Albany II, a bookshelf design that sells for just $299.99 per pair. That’s less than 14% of the cost of the Sonus Fabers, and just 30% of what I originally considered to be the max for my “System One” column.
This isn’t the first time we’ve written about this speaker, however. My review samples, which came from Canadian distributor Motet Distribution, were the ones James Hale wrote about in his June “Art+Tech” column on SoundStage! Xperience. In fact, it was his endorsement of the Albany II, combined with its low retail price, that prompted me to bring them to my place and write about them in this space.
History and description
The KLH brand dates back to 1957, when it was founded by Henry Kloss, Malcolm S. Low, and Josef Anton Hofmann. At the time it was known as KLH Research and Development Corporation, and it was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But while the company was initially successful, things eventually got messy.
According to Wikipedia, “KLH had sales of $17 million, employed over 500 people and sold over 30,000 speakers a year before it was sold to Singer Corp. in 1964. Later it was bought by Electro Audio Dynamics Inc. and moved to California in 1980.” The Wikipedia entry also mentions that, following the Electro Audio Dynamics purchase, the brand was “acquired by Kyocera Ltd, a Japanese conglomerate, and production was shifted overseas. Kyocera decided to stop manufacturing audio products in 1989, and sought a buyer for the KLH brand.” Wiki goes on to say that the brand became KLH Audio Systems and moved to Santa Ynez, California, where it “was also known as Wald Sound and Verit Industries.” See, that’s messy.
But since 2017, when David Kelley’s Kelley Global Brands bought the KLH name and set up shop for it in Noblesville, Indiana, there’s been stability. Not long after the Kelley acquisition, KLH released an entire line of speaker products named after towns and cities in New York State. In early 2019, Hans Wetzel attended a KLH launch event for the series, which he wrote about in SoundStage! Access. In August of that year, Hans favorably reviewed the KLH Kendall floorstander for Access.
The Albany II began life as the Albany, which was brought to market at the same time as the Kendall. At that time, KLH’s lineup included an even smaller bookshelf model, the Ames. But they were both more expensive then than the Albany II is now—according to Hans’s article, the Ames was $378.99 per pair and the Albany was $478.99 per pair. Furthermore, the original Albany was a sealed-box design, though the Ames had a bass port.
Flash forward to today and the Ames is no more, but we do have an Albany II, with cabinet dimensions that I believe are the same as its namesake—13″H × 6.5″W × 9.5”D. The driver complement also appears to be similar if not the same as what was in the first Albany—a 1″ tweeter with an aluminum dome and a 5.25″ midrange-woofer with a cone made from woven Kevlar. The two drivers are crossed over at 2.4kHz. Each Albany II comes with a magnetically attached grille to cover and protect the drivers, though for serious listening, you should go grille-less.
The biggest difference between the old and new models is the price—the Albany II is almost $200 per pair cheaper than the asking price of the original Albany. The next biggest difference is the veneer, which is now vinyl instead of wood; this probably helped the company to drop the price as much as it did by cutting the cost of production. To me, that was a wise move because there are plenty of small speakers up to $500 per pair, but few are under $300, so there’s less competition for the Albany II than there was for the Albany. And one other small thing: the Albany II has a port to augment the bass, though, as you’ll soon learn, it’s debatable how much it does.
KLH offers the speaker in two vinyl wood-effect finishes: European Walnut and Black Oak. Our Albany II samples came in the European Walnut finish, which I thought looked good. You can tell it’s not real wood when you get close up to a speaker, but it’s harder to tell from a few feet away. It’s also more durable. Our samples had been to James’s place, then mine, as well as to the lab at Canada’ National Research Council, where we tested them in the anechoic chamber. Through all those travels they’d been taken in and out of the box multiple times and moved around, yet there weren’t any marks when I boxed them up and sent them back to Motet Distribution. But that durability is not only down to the veneer—as far as I could tell, the entire speaker is very well built, with a super-sturdy cabinet, and KLH is confident enough to back this and the other KLH models with a lengthy ten-year warranty—twice as long as you usually get for loudspeakers.
The room where I set up the “System One” components is 19′ long by 15′ wide, with a ceiling that’s 8′ high. The components are set up along one of the shorter walls. The Albany II has a single set of binding posts on the back, to which I connected a Bluesound Powernode integrated amplifier-DAC ($899) with QED XT25 speaker cables ($84.99/2m pair, but discontinued). Rated at 80Wpc into 8 ohms, the Powernode provided more than enough power for the Albany IIs. The speakers were set up on 24″-high Monoprice Monolith speaker stands ($109.98/pair), with their backs 23″ from the wall—except for when I tweaked their positions, which you’ll read about later.
You can see a Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 turntable in the accompanying photos, but I didn’t use that for this write-up, mainly because the Powernode has no built-in phono stage and I wanted to keep this system simple. As a result, I played back music in the way the folks at Bluesound seem to really want you to do with the Powernode—streamed from whatever music service(s) you subscribe to, since the BluOS software that runs on the Powernode supports most of them. So I streamed everything you’ll read about here from Tidal, using my Samsung S20+ phone as a controller.
KLH claims a frequency response of 35Hz–23kHz, ±3dB, for the Albany II, but after I played Lana Del Rey’s “Dark but Just a Game,” from her Chemtrails Over the Country Club (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Interscope/Polydor/Tidal), I could tell that this is wishful thinking insofar as bass extension goes. This track has seriously deep bass, but that was mostly missing through the Albany IIs—I could only hear a few upper-bass grunts from the speaker, but nothing below, say, 80Hz. I even tried moving the speakers so their backsides were 11″ from the wall behind instead of 23″, in order to get more low-end reinforcement, but while that emphasized the upper bass a little, it put some congestion into the lower midrange and did nothing to increase the lower bass. Therefore, I ushered them back to their original positions. This is all to say that if you want to hear reasonably deep bass with these speakers, you’re going to have to add a subwoofer into the mix—and KLH has several sub models to offer. Or get one of the floorstanding KLH models.
But that lack of bass output doesn’t make the Albany II a write-off. Surprisingly, the Albany IIs didn’t sound anemic or threadbare in the way some bass-light speakers do—they simply sounded lacking in the lows. And if you’re not big into bass, you might be able to get over that deficiency fairly easily, particularly because of the way their midrange sounds—super-clear and surprisingly realistic, especially when reproducing vocals.
For example, even though “Dark but Just a Game” was missing its bass, Del Rey’s singing voice was reproduced as cleanly as I’ve heard it with speakers several times the Albany II’s price. Playing track 1 on Chemtrails Over the Country Club, “White Dress,” I marveled again at how clear her voice sounded and how well it projected out of the cabinets and into the room—freely from the speaker enclosures, which helped to make the soundstage spacious and the musical presentation quite involving. And when I played Van Morrison’s “Spanish Steps,” from Poetic Champions Compose (16/44.1 FLAC, Mercury Records/Tidal), which he released in 1987, the sound of his sax soared into my room with almost all the breathy detail I could ask for. Overall, these tracks sounded shockingly good for speakers that sell for only $300 per pair.
With Del Rey’s “White Dress,” I could also focus on how well the Albany II’s tweeter performs. The song is inherently bright sounding, so if a speaker is too hot in the high frequencies, it can emphasize the treble too much, making the sound not only too bright, but also irritating. Yet when I played the track, the high frequencies from the Albany IIs sounded prominent, but the speakers never sounded too bright, nor did they sound irritating. If anything, the Albany IIs’ prominent highs emphasized the airiness of the recording, which was a good thing. My impression of the highs was reinforced with “Spanish Steps”—the delicate cymbal strikes throughout the track sounded exceptionally airy and clean, and never did I get the impression that the treble was turned up too much.
I next went on a Bruce Cockburn song spree, first playing “Pacing the Cage,” from The Charity of Night (16/44.1 FLAC, True North Records/Tidal), released in 1996, and then, because I liked what I heard, I listened to everything on Anything Anytime Anywhere (16/44.1 FLAC, True North Records/Tidal), a “greatest hits” album that was released in 2002. I know “Pacing the Cage” so well that it only took a few seconds to realize that the deep sounds from Rob Wasserman’s bass that provide a solid underpinning to the music were pretty much absent. Furthermore, Cockburn’s acoustic guitar and vocal both had less presence and robustness than I usually hear, which I attributed to the lack of low bass output from the Albany IIs. But, as it was with the Del Rey songs, Cockburn’s vocal popped from the enclosures of the speakers with striking clarity and oodles of detail, while the high-frequency sounds that emerge when he plucks his guitar were reproduced cleanly and with an effortlessness that I find lacking with many budget speakers.
The songs on Anything Anytime Anywhere were reproduced with the same sonic qualities I observed with Chemtrails: low bass was definitely lacking, which was really noticeable on tracks where drums are prominent, but it was in the midrange and high frequencies where the action was. Cockburn’s voice and the instruments that occupy these frequency ranges consistently sounded detailed, clear, and open. But when I turned the volume up on songs like “The Coldest Night of the Year” and “Call It Democracy,” I noticed that the speakers could sound a little crusty, meaning I was hitting their output limits. That’s one of the drawbacks of such small speakers—they can only play so loud before they give out.
I followed the Cockburn songs with Nirvana’s Nevermind (16/44.1 FLAC, DGC Records/Tidal), because I wanted to see how the Albany IIs would sound with hard-driving rock. I focused mostly on tracks 1 and 3, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are.” Again, the lack of low bass was obvious, but the midrange and highs were impressively clean—at least at normal volume levels. When I turned the volume up, the crunchy-sounding guitar Nirvana is known for got too crunchy, meaning I was again hitting the speakers’ limits, which had me turning the volume back down.
Surprisingly, the Albany IIs fared better reproducing two songs by Marc Anthony that I really like: “Vivir Mi Vida,” from his album 3.0 (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Music Latin/Tidal), which was released in 2013, and the title track of the soundtrack for the 2006 film El Cantante (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Norte/Tidal). Anthony not only sings in this movie, but he also stars in it, playing real-life Latin salsa-singer superstar Héctor Lavoe. Jennifer Lopez, Anthony’s wife at the time, played Lavoe’s wife, Nilda.
“Vivir Mi Vida” and “El Cantante” both feature plenty of acoustic percussion instruments, which are recorded cleanly in what sounds to me like a lively acoustic environment. So if you play these songs back loud through your stereo, and your stereo is up to the challenge, you can get the feeling that you’re listening to the music in a big room with a lot of hard surfaces—think concrete, tiles, and so on—which is typical of Latin America.
With both tracks, the lack of bass from the Albany IIs was still apparent, but not as apparent as with the other music I’d been playing. I chalk that up to Latin music often having plenty of energy in the upper bass, but not so much in the low bass. And when I turned the volume up, I expected the Albany IIs to fall apart like they did with the Nevermind tracks, mostly because these songs are really dynamic and impactful. But at these higher-than-normal volume levels, the Albany IIs still sounded clean. It’s only when I pushed them to extremely high playback levels that I heard them fall apart—they went from clean to harsh, like I had heard with Nevermind. That’s not to say that I would recommend these speakers get used for Latin-music dance parties in big rooms, but depending on the type of music you play, every so often you can probably crank them up to wake-up-the-neighbors listening levels without wanting to turn the volume down. But overall, I’d say that the Albany IIs are best suited to moderate listening levels in smaller rooms.
Inexpensive speakers always have limitations, as do small speakers. KLH’s Albany II is both inexpensive and small, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it has some weaknesses. Sonically, the main thing the Albany II lacks is appreciable bass output below about 80Hz. The other thing is that it can’t play super-loud—and once you hit its limit, it can sound crunchy and hard. But, played within its limits, the Albany II offers great clarity from the midrange and up through the highs, and it projects sound freely from its enclosure better than many other inexpensive speakers. The result of those strengths is a clean, incisive, spacious sound that, as James also found, can make vocals and acoustic music really come alive.
All told, this may not be the $299.99-per-pair speaker to get, but if your finances demand it, it certainly is one speaker that you should look at before you settle on anything else in and around this price—particularly if you value clarity through the midrange and highs, a spacious and open sound, and the peace of mind that comes with having a well-built speaker that’s backed by an impressive ten-year warranty. However, if you do buy a pair of Albany IIs, just be prepared to add a subwoofer if, one day, you decide you want to hear some deep bass. More than likely, that day will come.
. . . Doug Schneider