The future of speakers (I hope)

Last year I wrote that Buchardt Audio‘s popular bookshelf speaker, the S400, was near endgame material. It sounded good enough that I felt it would be difficult to find a speaker that was a clear upgrade without opting for something larger or in a different price category altogether. Nearly a year later, I stand by those comments.

But if such qualities were true with the S400, they are doubly so for the company’s new flagship bookshelf, the Buchardt A500. The A500 may look nearly identical to the S400 from the front, but on the inside, this is an all-new, far improved speaker. One would hope, for a price tag starting at €3,500 (roughly $4,150).

Unlike the S400, the A500 has built-in amplifiers and processing in each speaker, allowing the company to eke every ounce of performance out of its hardware. This is common in studio monitors, but is only just beginning to make waves in the more mainstream hi-fi market. Buchardt goes further too, by providing custom tunings that can deeply affect the speaker‘s acoustics, going far beyond basic EQ.

Second, Buchardt adds an extra layer of convenience through its optional wireless hub, which supports a host of standards like Chromecast, AirPlay, Spotify, Bluetooth, and more.

Bringing it all together is an effective room correction system that tidies up bass performance in your room – something that is the bane of most hi-fi systems.

On their own, none of these features are completely unique. But it’s their combination that arguably makes the A500 the most versatile and refreshing speaker designs I’ve tested to date. Let me break down why.

It’s like having 3, 4, 5+ speakers in one

For some hi-fi traditionalists, EQing a speaker is already a bit of a taboo. If so, the A500 is heretical.

Buchardt has created a variety of ‘Master Tunings‘ for the A500. These are essentially carefully curated profiles that can be loaded onto the speaker to change its performance characteristics for different use cases and preferences. This not only alters the raw frequency response of the speaker, which you can do with any half-decent equalizer, but also its maximum output capabilities and directivity (how the speaker‘s sound differs at various angles).

The various profiles can dramatically affect the sound of the speaker — with some of them being so different, it’s like you’re listening to different speakers. Moreover, throughout my months with the speakers, Buchardt has continued to add new profiles, with more sure to follow.

At the time of writing, there are seven different profiles — some of which are minorly tweaked subsets of others — that can be downloaded from Buchardt’s website. This makes the A500 the most difficult and time-consuming speaker I’ve ever had to review, for the simple fact that my impressions change with each tuning.

Some highlights, along with my brief impressions:

  • Stock tuning: Allows the speaker to easily reach 25Hz at high listening levels in my room while maintaining a good level of high-frequency energy. Buchardt has slightly tweaked this tuning since I began my review, emphasizing a little more midrange, although the original version is available too. With this tuning speaker has a snappy bass that is rare for a speaker this size, helped by the unique bass directivity that somewhat emphasizes bass in the forward direction and lessens negative interaction with your room.
  • Mid-forward tuning: Largely the same as the above, but is EQ’d to push the midrange forward even more. This is great for people who really like forward vocals or for those using the A500 in a home theater with no center channel, as it really emphasizes voices and dialogue. This is my personal favorite tuning.
  • Nearfield tuning: Is also flat down to 25Hz, but has slightly less treble. The soundstage is also different with this tuning, having a more enveloping sound compared to the snappier tuning with the stock design. This is ideal for nearfield use or studio use, where the speakers are typically aimed right at the listening position. It also sounds great in the living room, although it doesn’t get quite as loud as the above tunings.
  • 3-way tuning: Normally, the A500 uses its front and rear woofers in unison to extend the bass. Here, the rear woofer instead handles the bass while the front woofer handles the midrange. Buchardt notes that “high SPL and deep bass are not the strongest side of this tuning, but a more delicate midrange presentation is what we aim for here.” I didn’t personally see a reason to use this tuning over the other ones — it sounded slightly different, but whatever difference in the midrange there may have been was masked by the noticeably diminished bass levels. It may be more useful for those using the A500 with a subwoofer.
  • 3-way tuning with 1,800Hz crossover. Whereas the above tuning has a crossover for the midrange and tweeter at about 3,000 Hz, this one sets the crossover lower. That may yield more midrange distortion as the tweeter is forced to work harder, but should improve vertical directivity. This would allow you to move further up and down from the center of the speaker without changing the sound too much, so it could be particularly useful for nearfield setups where small movements result in steep angle changes.

Phew. Got all that? It’s almost too much choice, as chances are you will spend days or weeks comparing the lot of them to see which you prefer. But I will take flexibility over the alternative any day.

Loading profiles is a quick but inelegant process. You’ll need a USB drive handy, as you’ll have to download the profile you want from Buchardt’s website onto it, plug the drive into the speaker, power cycle the speaker, and then repeat for your other unit.

Thankfully the speaker only takes a few seconds to update, so it’s not too much of a pain. Still, I wish there were a way to switch profiles via Buchardt’s app for quick A/Bing. Speaking of…

Painless wireless audio

I reviewed the speakers using Buchardt’s WiSA hub, an optional accessory that turns the A500 into a surprisingly capable wireless streamer (the speaker costs €3,750 or $4,434 with the hub). WiSA is a growing wireless audio standard involving a multitude of brands — if you happen to have another WiSA hub, you don’t technically need to buy Buchardt’s. Not having used the technology, my expectations weren’t very high.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised — the wireless component of the A500 is surprisingly painless. The WiSA hub was quickly detected by the Google Home app on my phone, after which I connected it to my WiFi network. I then paired the speakers to the hub (there’s a pairing button on each unit), and was up and running in less than 5 minutes.