HE2006: Usher Audio

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by Josh Ray on June 16 '06

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It was 10 minutes to closing on the last day of the show and I found the Usher room completely empty. What better time to sneak in, throw on the Flaming Lips, crank the volume and see if these imports have any balls?

The track was Free Radicals off their new "At War with the Mystics" album. The speakers were the brand-spanking new V series (the reddish speakers). I demoed the pair second from the left. $1500 and, yeah, balls the size of cantaloupes. Free Radicals is a damn tough track to get right. Excellent mastering with dynamics that cause most "easy-listening" speakers to shrivel up and die. Not the Ushers. They sounded like orcs on wargs with big battle axes, which is a big compliment in my book.

And then someone showed up to shut the room down before I could get more music on. We will meet again, Usher. Oh yes, we will.

Usher also makes a preamp and amp which did duty for all their different speaks. Pics next page of the $2520 R-1.5 amp with 250 watts of power and the $2280 P-307 A preamp. With the top V-series speakers, you're looking at a total price of $6300 for one sick package.

The big speaker shown is the $14,400 BE-10, sporting a 1" tweeter and 5" midrange both made out of beryllium. Beryllium is incredibly difficult and toxic to work with. If I'm not mistaken, The Usher BE-10 is the least expensive speaker with a beryllium midrange. Someone suggested to me that in order to hit these prices Usher must have a very unique beryllium driver factory half-way across the globe. Kinda like the Willy Wonka chocolate factory but with beryllium instead of chocolate and, well, use your imagination for the rest...

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They sound like a great value, but my issue has nothing to do with sonics, it's more about ethics. Doesn't it bother anybody that all the Chinese-built Usher drivers, up until recently looked EXACTLY like the more expensive Scan Speak drivers made by hand in Denmark, and used by great established companies including Wilson and ProAc? It's riding on the coattails of a great company, in order to gain credibility without earning it. Now beryllium is the material of the moment, and what do you know... And more, they come out with a line of amps and they look like exact clones of Thresholds from the late 80's. Come on! That's just wrong, and nobody mentions it.
Was it the Scan Speak issue that got these guys in hot water before? It would be very interesting to get definitive proof about their driver technology. People have also taken issue with the overall speaker designs as well, throwing out a couple names that could have "inspired" the Usher products.
I have no idea if the similarities are more than just skin deep, but, for a customer looking at them, that's all that matters. When a ProAc speaker that appears to have the exact same driver compliment sells for 3-4 times the price of the Usher, the damage is done and the customer is duped. It's clearly intentional. And the Threshold thing is just wierd. It looks just like an old S-500.
Far east manufacturers ride on others creativity. That's how they learn. They take something real good and make something - sometimes (and these days MOST of the time) - better out of it. Imitation is the greatest form of flatery. Unfortunately, I'm not sure they are in for the flatery. As a speaker designer, I have access to all OEM catalogs with thousands of different drivers from different countries (mostly Europe and China/Thailand). In almost all situations (except for tweeters), far east drivers are simply better and cheaper. Communication with far east manufacturers and R&D people is easier, and faster, and service is better. They want the business, and they do whatever it takes to get it. Will famous makes like Sonus Faber and ProAc survive? Yes they will, as brands owned by far east manufacturers (just like Quad). The sad thing - in my opinion - is that both Europe and America outsourced the production years ago to China. Americans want to buy cheap, so they shop at Walmart. In doing so, they close what's left of american factories. Laid-off american workers now really need to buy cheap, so they buy more from Wally, and the wheel turns. Someday, every single produced item will come from China, and when they decide to raise prices, it will be too late to rapatriate production... I certainly don't want to blame China for taking advantage of this, but american and european shareholders everywhere should start to wonder if their offspings will really beneficiate from short-term greed...
The Chinese do not respect personal space and (individual) human rights, so why would they respect intellectual property rights? Haven't they stolen the ideas for entire automobiles from western manufacturers? So what's a speaker compared to an automobile? :) On the other hand, I'm very impressed with how intelligent, hard working and enterprising they are. Their hard work is benefiting and enriching the lives of rest of the world. Compared to the East Asians, most of the non-western (developing) countries are needy basket cases breeding destruction, poverty and disease...
I've seen and heard this debate many times and always had a hard time figuring where I come down on it. I finally came to the conclusion that each person's stance depends on whether they have a national or world view, with either being reasonable per that view. If you count with a person's wallet, though, I own a pair of Usher CP-6311s. They don't look like any other design I've ever seen (on the exterior) and sound better than any pair of $2,000 speakers I heard, which makes sense, seeing how I bought them. Would I have liked to buy American? Sure, I always would -- and will, as soon as an American company makes something that sounds as good as these do. I guess that puts me in the world-view crowd.
... and lest we forget: It was an American distributor and an American dealer who benefitted from my Usher purchase.
I was told recently that Scan Speak drivers are now being made in China. American Tymphany purchased Scan Speak, along with Vifa and Peerless, and is probably cutting costs. If they are getting their drivers OEMed in China, I wouldn't be surprised if the manufacturer is is pulling a handful off the conveyor belt, so to speak, and slapping a different label on them. This happens in pretty much any industry with manufacturing in China. It struck me that this has actually been happening in Italy for ages. The same factories that make the designer clothes simply put on a different label and sell it to American clothing outlets for a fraction of the price. Wool fabric for Italian suits is only done by a handful of companies who sell to all kinds of people. Same material, different name. Heck, I have a beautiful Emporio Valentini wallet I purchased in Florence that is a perfect knock-off of the Emporio Armani model...
If you're looking for parallels, you don't have stray far afield. The biggest example from the electronics industry was probably VCRs, when the craze started in the mid-80s. All VCRs were made by one of two companies: Sony made their Beta units and Matsushita (Panasonic) made all the VHS units -- regardless of what brand marketed them. As a footnote, Sony invented both technologies but sold the VHS rights because it was inferior and they thought people would choose quality. Boy, were they wrong. It turned out to be one of the great mistakes in electronics history.
Boy have you guys got it wrong, I am an Usher dealer and I thought the same things about them before I became a dealer but I did my research. Here is some interesting tidbits about Usher. Usher is a $70 million dollar speaker company thats sells a boat load of speakers in Asia. Usher is kind of like an Asian version of Wilson design with the multitude of sku's like a big vendor like B&W. Usher makes all of their own drivers except for a few exceptons. The reason they look like a Scan Speak woofer is that Usher buys the cones from Muller in Germany because they like the way the cone material sounds. Usher makes the complete drive system and their drivers measure better than the Scan Speak ones they resemble. Further proof of Usher's vision as a company extends to the hiring of Dr. Joseph D'Appolito. Usher realized that a world class crossover and electrical and acoustical wizard like D'Appolito would be able to help them voice the speakers to appeal to a wide audience. Usher is a rare company who realizes the strengths that have to offer: remarkable cabinet construction, advanced driver and motor designs, but also realized that to make the best speakers they would have to look outward. Usher realized that Beryillium is indeed the best material to make high frequency drivers and as so they went striaght to the source and use the same Beryillium that JM Labs uses, and they then go one better and build a pure Beryillium midrange to boot, beating the famous Focal/JM Labs to the market. Take the woofers in the BE 20's, here Usher purchased Eaton drivers because they are the only woofers fast enough to match the speed of the Beryillium midrange and tweeters! The cabinets are incredibily inert and the speaker s weight 300lbs! The cabinets are a layer of birch wood over two inchs MDF with a lead lined inner core! If you then compare the tale of the tape the BE 20's can easily compare with the WP 8, the Eidilon Diamond, and the $80,000.00 Kharma speakers, while costing 1/2 to 1/4 of thoese speakers! How does Usher get away with this, simple they have a different model, they want to make more people buy their speakers because they price them less and are less greedy! You will be hearing alot more about Usher they are a remarkable company that really cares they are an innovator and not a copy cat company. Their designs are wonderful and the speakers really do compete with much, much, more expensive speakers.
Hi Audiodoctor, Thanks for commenting and the points you hit are very interesting. I'll preempt other commenters and ask if you can address the Threshold S/500 amp issue. Thanks.
Okay Josh now I do think you are right on the amp looking like a Threshold. I haven't explored the amp's lineage, but I do know the Asian Audiophiles loved the original Nelson Pass designs so here I think they did indeed copy the S500, but the other thing to contend with is the amplifier sounds very good and is insanely cheap for the sound. Sometimes imitation is the greatest source of flatery.
here is what nelson pass had to say about the usher amp: "The output stage is the same as some of the Threshold, but they look to have stuck an additional gain stage in the middle. In any case, the patent has expired and belongs to someone else. Usher doen't appear to be shy about copying popular circuits, but it's too bad if they run it at half bias, as the performance was very dependent on full bias."
i have a question for everyone. why is usher always picked on for copying someone else's design(looks)? how many wilson clones(watt puppy) are there out there and no one says a thing.