While not the most expensive speakers in the TAD line, at $24,000/pair, this is a statement loudspeaker product that aims to bring benchmark audio playback to the home environment. In a nutshell, it both looks and plays the part at an exceptional level.
TAD Labs CE 1 Speakers
- Combines the clarity of the best studio monitors with the dimensionality of the best home speakers
- Concentric drivers create a point source for the high and midrange frequencies
- Generates lower, deeper bass than many floor standing speakers through the use of a novel porting system
- Luxurious fit and finish
- Can reveal the limitations of your source components
Most people can be forgiven for never having heard of TAD (Technical Audio Devices) Labs. They are a wholly owned subsidiary of Pioneer Electronics that was formed in the mid-1970s to bring Pioneer’s history of speaker design know-how into the professional audio market. That know-how being quite prodigious since Pioneer began, originally, as a loudspeaker company over 70 years ago. For 25 years since its founding, TAD developed and grew an enviable reputation in the recording studio world. Around the late 1990s, Pioneer was looking to extend its product reach into the ultra-high end market and it was decided that TAD, as a brand, was to help spearhead that effort.
3 Way Bass Reflex Bookshelf Speaker
One 7″ MACS (Multi-layered Aramid Composite Shell) Woofer, one 5.5″ Coaxial Driver with a Magnesium Cone for the Midrange and a 1.4″ Beryllium Dome Tweeter
34 Hz to 100 kHz
250 Hz, 2 kHz
Maximum Input Power:
85dB (2.83V, 1m)
20.6″ H x 11.4″ W × 17.5″ D
$24,000/pair; Optional Stands (TAD-ST2) – $2,400/pair
TAD, Coaxial, Beryllium, Concept Evolution, Bookshelf Speakers
Coinciding with this new initiative was the hiring of well-known speaker designer and engineer Andrew Jones, formerly of KEF and Infinity, to work with the all Japanese team. Tapping both Pioneer’s heritage in speaker making and TAD’s expertise with professional technologies such as concentric and compression drivers and component materials like magnesium and beryllium, TAD developed and released their first consumer speaker in 2003, the well regarded TAD Model 1. A few more critically acclaimed speaker models later, we fast forward to January 2015 at CES in Las Vegas and to one of the best sounding rooms, in my personal opinion, of the entire show. There we find TAD Labs newest loudspeaker, the CE 1, powered by a dedicated line of TAD electronics.
Andrew Jones (who has since left TAD/Pioneer and moved to ELAC) was leading the introduction/demonstration of the TAD CE 1s to a constantly packed room of listeners. Playing selected music tracks from a laptop, connected via USB cable to a TAD DA1000 DAC and through a TAD preamplifier and finally a pair of TAD mono-block amplifiers, the sound was vibrant, clean and lifelike with tight, extended bass throughout the room. A quick glance around confirmed that many of the other show attendees were having similar experiences.
I came away from the show duly impressed but I really wanted to see if those speakers could bring a similar performance to my home environment as opposed to a well-crafted show display. First question; would TAD simply scoff at my request to review a not-insubstantially priced piece of equipment? Second question; at the off chance that they wouldn’t dismiss me completely, how many of my offspring would I have commit to indentured servitude in exchange for the privilege of listening to the CE-1s in my house?
Happily, the fine folks at TAD/Pioneer were all too delighted to indulge my request and also offered to send the matching speaker stands, the DA1000 DAC and a M2500 stereo power amplifier along help recreate the synergy that I heard at CES. Thankfully, no children or limbs were mortgaged or sold in the writing of this review!
The TAD CE 1 loudspeakers are categorized as a “bookshelf” speaker design but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Given their size and weight, there’s no bookshelf that I know of that would provide them a safe and adequate home. I would classify them as a monitor speaker, given that the optional TAD speaker stands are almost a must for proper configuration in a listening environment. The speakers themselves are a ported, 3-way design.
The 7 inch woofer is made of multiple layers of laminated woven and non-woven composite material (aramid fibers) with the traditional dust cap area completely integrated into the cone. It also features a robust voice coil and a large, neodymium magnet structure.
Sitting just above the woofer is a 5.5 inch concentric (or coaxial) driver. This unit consists of a midrange cone made of light weight magnesium sporting an underhung voice coil. Besides being responsible for reproducing the middle range frequencies, this cone also acts a bit of a waveguide for the tweeter mounted right in the center of the cone. The tweeter itself is 1.4 inches in diameter and has a vapor deposited beryllium diaphragm making for an extremely light and rigid drive unit.
Beryllium has historically been a difficult and expensive material to work with, but it’s starting to be seen more in the tweeters of higher end speakers. It has lighter weight, higher rigidity and a better acoustic response than competing titanium or aluminum dome tweeters of similar size .The theoretical benefit of TAD’s concentric driver design is that it creates more of a point source origin for the high and midrange sound waves, this results in a more accurate and uniform sound arriving at the listener’s ears.
This idea, of course, isn’t new. KEF and Tannoy have been using similar ideas in their speakers for years. Tannoy, in particular, along with TAD has a history in the pro-audio field where concentric drivers are used frequently in studio monitor designs. As an interesting aside, Pioneer has been developing concentric drivers as far back as 1954!
The enclosure design of the TAD CE 1 is interesting in that it uses both MDF and birch plywood in its construction to help create a fairly inert base. Front baffle width is kept fairly narrow, just outside the diameter of the woofer, to help minimize diffraction.
In addition to this, each speaker has two 10 millimeter thick anodized aluminum side panels that help increase overall structural rigidity and house the unique porting solution. The CE 1 features slot ports on either side of the cabinet, in both the front and the back. TAD asserts that this arrangement helps to eliminate unwanted port noise and resolves any standing wave issues from within the cabinet while delivering the desired bass extension.
The backside of the cabinet sports four large, knurled gold plated binding posts, with removable jumpers, suitable for bi-wiring and bi-amping. These are some of the larger binding posts that I have come across, and they will accommodate banana plugs, spades and bare wire speaker connections quite securely.
The enclsoure is very attractive, featuring a warm olive-wood grain veneer with a mirror finish. There is a choice of black or white side trim with silver or grey aluminum side panels. My review samples had the black trim with silver aluminum panels. When combined with the optional TAD-ST2-K speaker stands the TAD CE 1s made for a very handsome looking set of loudspeakers that would fit with many different kinds of décor.
I should also mention a few words about the associated electronics that TAD sent along with the speakers.
The TAD DA1000 DAC is a goodly sized unit in a modern looking, beveled aluminum casing. It looks very striking and its enclosure feels solid, heavy, and well damped against any outside vibrations. The DA1000 is equipped with a custom, precision clocking circuit that feeds sets of dual differential converter chips (Burr-Brown PCM1794A) for each of the left and right channels along with high quality independent power supplies for both the analog and digital sections.
The optical inputs will handle incoming sampling rates of up to 96 kHz while the coaxial and XLR digital inputs will dance up to 192 kHz. The asynchronous USB input will accept sample rates up to 384 kHz and properly chat with a DSD data stream of up to 5.6 MHz if your source is a Mac, 2.8 MHz if the source is Windows based. The DA 1000 also has both single ended and balanced analog outputs along with a high quality headphone section. The DA1000 can also act as a pre-amp via its digital volume control. The included remote will switch inputs and can control both main and headphone volume. MSRP is $14,000.00
The TAD-M2500 is a fully balanced, Class D stereo power amplifier. Sharing a similar beveled, minimalist design to the DAC, the amplifier has a rated output of 250 watts per channel into an 8 ohm load and 500 watts per channel into a 4 ohm load. Although it’s a Class D design the amp features substantial linear power supplies with big transformers and capacitors. The case is substantial and heavy. How heavy you ask? The chassis is machined from an almost 200 pound block of aluminum. Its final weight is almost 95 pounds. The amp has both single ended and balanced inputs. MSRP is $24,000.00
For the majority of my testing, I used just the TAD electronics and speakers together. After a while I did add in my Bryston BP 25 preamplifier to the mix so that the DAC could just act as a DAC. The speakers themselves were spaced about 8.5 feet apart and toed in slightly so that the sight lines from each speaker would intersect just behind the listening position. Sources were an OPPO BDP-105D universal disc player and a Microsoft Surface 3 PRO tablet running J River Media Center 20 software. Headphones used were the HiFiMAN HE1000s. All cabling was from Blue Jeans Cable, save for the USB cable which was an Audioquest Forest.
Once all the equipment arrived and was set up, dialed in and thoroughly tweaked and tweezed it was time to sit down and see if the CE 1 speakers still had the magic that I remembered from CES. A few visual observations struck me while standing back and surveying the whole system. The speakers themselves I found very attractive, in an understated kind of way. The olive wood color and grain was striking but not garish or over the top. The aluminum side panels combined with the warm wood made for a sort of retro/modern synergy that I just found, aesthetically, very appealing.
The TAD amplifier and DAC also share similar design cues with the speakers so everything visually hangs together. Bottom line, this is expensive equipment (over $50,000.00 worth) and it looks the part. My eyes were obviously very happy but what about my ears? Well a lot of what I remembered from that January in Vegas, happily, found its way to my studio. By golly these speakers just sounded absolutely tremendous! One of the first things I noticed, from a sonic standpoint, was the unity and coherence of the overall sound.
The whole frequency range of the CE 1s sounded completely connected from top to bottom with no perceptible gaps in the sound. In contrast, my reference speakers, which consist of MTM monitors and a pair of stereo subs, don’t sound quite as coherent together. The highs, the mids and the lows sound just slightly isolated from one another. It’s a subtle thing and not something that I would really ever notice in my regular system during routine listening. I am, however, familiar enough with the sound of my own speakers in that when I began listening to the TAD system it was like having an “A-Ha!” moment.
So this is what a point-source system can sound like. Everything sounds very natural, very connected and all in balance. The soundstage, in general, was quite room filling. Music sounded exceptional while listening to the TAD speakers in the traditional sweet spot, but even casual listening while sitting off-axis was quite enjoyable as well. There were a number of times that I was working at my computer, over to the right side of the room, while casually listening to some tunes and I would have to stop what I was doing and just take in how good and natural the music sounded. TAD lists the CE 1’s frequency response as ranging from a low of 34 Hz all the way out to 100 kHz. Now I have no clue what species of dolphin or bat TAD plans to market its speakers to but, from this human’s far more limited aural appreciation, the CE 1’s beryllium tweeters had plenty of top end energy and didn’t give a single hint of being strained or challenged from any of the material I threw their way. Top end details, sparkled quite nicely without any harshness or distortion that I could perceive.
I can also say that the quality of bass coming from the CE 1s was quite remarkable as well. Bass response was tight, controlled, detailed and very impactful. There are times that I review speakers where I will want to add my subs into the mix just to see how they would meld with the added low end. I didn’t feel the need to do that with the TAD speakers, their bass just sounded so good. Unless you are looking to use these in a surround system or want to hear every last octave of organ music, I’d imagine most people could forgo using subwoofers with these speakers. Overall the CE 1s played pretty nicely with most off the recordings I sampled on them. I would describe them as a very revealing speaker, as some of the better studio monitors I’ve heard, but not to the point of being ruthless. Some of the music that stood out in my mind during TAD CE 1’s tenure in our home was:
Guitar Noir by Laurence Juber on AIX Records. This is a high resolution recording done at 24 bit 96 kHz with both stereo and discrete surround versions of the performance on DVD Audio. The stereo tracks sounded positively stunning with the acoustic guitar presented front and center; it’s rich and resonant sound completely filling the room. Solo guitar tracks like “In Your Arms” allowed the CE 1s to really showcase Mr. Juber’s virtuoso playing.
The little details in the plucking of the strings and the sounds of his fingers moving across them were rendered cleanly and didn’t disappear against the reverberation of the guitar body. Whenever he would slap the body of the guitar, the sound clearly spoke of skin hitting wood and not just a simple “twack” or “thud.” On other tracks like “Liquid Amber” with the rest of the ensemble, the CE 1’s low end abilities were more than able to accurately convey the weight of the standup bass notes while still capturing the details in the string plucks. And at times when you would have some of the lower registers of acoustic guitar playing with the standup bass, things always remained well defined and pitch-accurate. Bass reproduction never seemed to get sloppy even when the speakers were pushed. Those fancy tweeters on the CE-1a also paid dividends when reproducing the sounds of the chimes and triangles. Their notes and the subsequent decay just simply sparkled in mid-air, so clean and clear but without sounding harsh or clinical.
Currency of Man by Melody Gardot on Verve Records. The CD has a bit of a dark, soul drenched vibe going on about it with a sound mix that has a lot of atmospherics, deep bass lines and some crunchy guitar going on. The TAD CE 1s takes these musical elements and projects them all with a wide and deep soundstage that extends well beyond what you would expect from a couple of stand mounted monitors. The bass hits good and hard in all the right spots translating the funky soul groove of many of the tracks most successfully. These speakers really have the low end capability to make you feel it.
But the “ace in the hole” that these speakers possess is how they handle Miss Gardot’s vocals. On tracks like “No Man’s Prize” and “Preacherman,” her delivery is lush and intimate and the CE 1s translate and image all those details with the silky smoothness and, frankly, sensuality that was intended in the performance. At times it felt almost eerily real, as if Miss Gardot was actually in the room, whispering at me. Chalk up a win for that concentric driver!
Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, featuring Luciano Pavarotti and The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. Philips Digital Classics. I am not a huge opera lover but this one has always stuck with me and this recording is one of the better versions of Pagliacci that I’ve come across. The dynamics on some of these tracks, and the vocal gymnastics, will make a good speaker shine and turn a bad one to mush. The massed vocals of the different choirs were handled deftly by the TAD speakers, the details and distinctness in the many voices shining through as opposed to being blurred into a sonic lump.
The CE 1s also kept up handily with the various vocalists, capturing and properly imaging the quietest whispers, the shuffling of feet across the stage, all the way to the most powerful arias, and placed them all in proper space and dimension. Then, you get to the unmistakable voice of the late Luciano Pavarotti. During the signature performance of “Vesti la Giubba,” Pavarotti’s solo is just so powerful by the end of its crescendo that lesser speakers will sound harsh and brittle when trying to reproduce it. The CE 1s didn’t even flinch at the challenge, even at a decent volume. They rendered Pavarotti’s voice cleanly, precisely and musically without a lick of distortion that I could make out.
Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues by Buddy Guy on Silvertone Records. This CD heralded the popular return of the blues legend to a more mainstream audience. Well recorded and dynamic, this album would test CE 1s ability to rock out a little. And rock out they did! Not simply content to be a speaker for the “arts and croissant” crowd, the TAD speakers rendered Buddy Guy’s Fender Stratocaster with all manic fire and aggression that his playing is known for. “Five Long Years” is the standout track on this album for me. The CE 1s just made me feel like I was in the studio with the performers while the tracks were being laid down, it simply seemed that “live” to me.
Buddy’s vocals were suspended right between the speakers with all the details and character of his voice as it ranged from whispers to shouts completely laid bare. The sustain and bite of some of those guitar notes interspersed with the extended solos were just searing, in a good way. Electric bass lines were defined and easy to follow and the kick drum was solidly felt on every beat. Again, I need to reiterate how surprisingly good the bass quality of these speakers are. It’s comparable in quality from what you might expect from a good sealed subwoofer, but well balanced and integrated into the whole of the speaker, just not reaching quite as low.
I should also quickly note that the electronic gear that TAD sent along performed flawlessly and, no doubt helped bring out the best qualities of the speakers throughout the length of the review. The M2500 amplifier didn’t seem to break a sweat at any time during its tenure. There seemed to be no lack of power coming from it and it always seemed to run cool to the touch even when I was trying to push the CE 1s. Out of curiosity, I swapped the TAD amp out for my trusty Carver TFM-55x just to see if there would be any noticeable difference to my ears.
The arrangement worked but I felt the speakers didn’t sound quite as clean as before. Things sounded darker, a little muddier so to speak. So, conversely, what happens when I use the TAD amp to power my regular reference speakers? The overall presentation on my reference speakers was, indeed, a bit cleaner with a little more perceived detail coming through. Both my speakers and the CE 1s share the same impedance rating but my speakers are a just little more efficient. Of course this shouldn’t be surprising given the age and price difference of the two amps, but….I may need to be going amplifier shopping soon, darn it!
The DA1000 DAC subjectively sounded as good as, or better, than any other DAC that I’ve had around here. It was good to be able to hook up my Surface Pro 3 tablet to it, via its asynchronous USB connection and a thankfully painless driver installation. I played a number of high resolution sample tracks that way and the DAC handled it all without any drama. When the DA1000 was used as a preamp as well, it made for a very nice, streamlined, all digital front end.
The headphone amplifier section sounded very transparent and had enough juice to power the HiFiMAN HE1000 headphones I had on hand quite loudly and cleanly. The slender remote control, that gave me dominion over all input and volume directives, was weighty and felt good in the hand. If I had one request it would be that, for a DAC of this price range, I wish it had an HDMI digital input so that I could bitstream everything (including DSD) from my OPPO player via one cable. While a number of people may have dedicated music servers hooked up to their stereos, it’s still just a novelty to me. My OPPO player with an external hard drive works just as well and is a cheaper solution than dealing with another computer in the house.
An in-room measurement of the TAD CE 1 was recorded using an average of nine separate measurements taken from various points in the listening area. This method helps to reduce the effect of room modes and helps give a more realistic indication of the overall speaker response in my studio. The measurements were taken using Room EQ Wizard and a UMIK-1 microphone professionally calibrated by Cross Spectrum Labs. The graph has 1/12 smoothing applied.
The CE 1 measures admirably flat overall with a couple of notable dips at 120 Hz and 270 Hz that are room related, as I have encountered them with other measurements. The treble also dips a touch at 15 kHz before taking off strongly again right up to 20 kHz and most likely beyond. The bass response of the CE 1 is pretty much just as TAD specifies; solid right down to 30 Hz before beginning a steep roll off thereafter. These are pretty impressive measurements for a stand mounted monitor speaker.
THE TAD LABS CE 1 are a Superb Set of Speakers.
- Beautiful design
- Great build quality. Looks and feels expensive, because it is !
- Big, clear, coherent soundstage
- Clean, natural midrange and extended highs
- Impressive quantity and quality of bass
- Include the stands with purchase
- Take everything TAD learned in building this speaker and distill it into a design some of us working stiffs can actually afford
The TAD CE 1s are a superb set of speakers and I positively hated to send them back. If there was some way I could have found to keep them myself, and the associated electronics, without winding up either in divorce court or in jail, I would have done so. The level and quality of bass that came out of those stand-mounted speakers would have, by itself, been an impressive achievement. Combine that with the sublimely rendered midrange and treble from custom made concentric drivers using cutting edge materials and you have something very, very special indeed.
The CE 1s reproduce sound with such a coherency and a live “you are there” quality across its entire operating range, that it really puts to shame a number of larger, more elaborate speakers that I’ve come across over the years. And when I think about all those other grand speakers, I start to wonder why someone would need all that, when such a comparatively (and deceptively) simple speaker design brings so much to the table. The TAD CE 1 is a testament to what a small, talented and focused design team can do when they have access to years of professional studio expertise along with the deep resources and storied heritage of a benevolent parent company.
Yes, the price of admission is a bit steep, but if you have the means, I think you’d be hard pressed to find much better of a reference product at that level. Heck, while you’re at it, buy the TAD amp and DAC as well! Strap a computer to it and call it a day. You won’t need anything else to enjoy some really excellent, benchmark sound.