Revel M20 Performa Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Bookshelf/Monitor Loudspeakers
Written by Ben Shyman   
Friday, 01 August 2003

The Revel Performa M20 is the compact, bookshelf-sized sibling to the floor-standing Performa F30 speaker reviewed by in April 2001. Revel is the high-end loudspeaker company of Madrigal who is owned by parent company Harman International. Their entry-level Performa line targets audio enthusiasts who are looking for excellent sound and build quality at more reasonable prices than their high-end Ultima line. The M20s cost $2,000 per pair, plus optional stands and grilles.

The Performa M20s are rear-ported, two-way loudspeakers, featuring a six-and-a-half-inch inverted magnesium-alloy woofer, with a low-frequency extension to 44 Hz at -3 dB and a one-inch custom aluminum-alloy dome tweeter. Upon unpacking the hefty 36-pound loudspeakers, I was immediately struck by the exceptional build quality of the Performa M20s. Constructed of one-inch-thick MDF with extensive internal bracing, the M20s are solid as a rock. Mine came in an attractive black ash finish, but are also available in cherry, sycamore and rosewood veneers.

Since I was going to use the Revel Performa Pedestal 1 stands ($200 per pair), I removed the three cast-aluminum feet from the base of each speaker cabinet and reattached them to the base of the easy-to-assemble stands. The speakers screw securely into the stands, making them extremely stable. The stands also have a contemporary look, which compliments the attractive appearance of the M20s and should easily fit the décor of most homes. Some listeners, however, may opt for their own stands, since the Revel Pedestal stands seemed a bit high at 29 inches on their spikes, which position the tweeter 41.5 inches from the floor. This was too high for my tastes. Furthermore, the stands are not sand-fillable. After careful listening, I found no meaningful difference in sound with or without the M20 grilles ($170 per pair) and opted to leave them off in favor of the Revel’s sporty and striking magnesium woofer.

The Revel M20s have a rated sensitivity of 87 dB and nominal impedance of six ohms. While my Proceed AMP5 drives them with ease, most high-end A/V receivers should have no problem providing the M20s with enough power to sing. Interestingly, Revel suggests in its very well-written instruction manual (I’ve found easy-to-understand manuals to be a hallmark of Madrigal, which is a blessing when setting up a Proceed AVP2) that the M20s, with their high-order crossovers, can handle exceptional power levels. No power rating is given anywhere in the manual, just a “rule of thumb” not to play the Revels beyond levels where the sound is clean. I frequently listen to music fairly loud and am still unable to tolerate levels that test that threshold, so it’s safe to say that most other listeners won’t want to try the volume at those levels, either.

The M20s have several features I found accommodating to the less-than-perfect aesthetics of my real-world apartment. Like other speakers in the Performa line, the M20s come with a Tweeter Level Control. Being able to add or trim as much as 1 dB in half-decibel increments was definitely a plus. After much listening in my slightly brighter-than-average living space, I decided on trimming 0.5 dB off the tweeter. Since I would be using the Performa Pedestal 1 stands, I set the Placement Compensation Control to Stand Mount, which provided greater bass response versus Flush Mount, an option for placement of the M20s in a cabinet or on a bookshelf. After much tweaking of speaker placement, I was ready for some serious listening.

I listened to the M20s in two-channel stereo with and without my Sunfire True Mark IV subwoofer as well as in multi-channel surround. Listening gear included a Proceed AVP2 preamp/processor, a Proceed AMP5 five-channel power amplifier, the new Lexicon RT-10 Universal Disc Player and Transparent MusicWave Plus speaker cables and MusicLink interconnects. I used two pairs of Performa M20s, a Performa C30 center channel and the Sunfire True Mark IV subwoofer for multi-channel listening. I broke in the system for several weeks before beginning my evaluation.

Two-Channel Music
The Revels present a remarkably large and transparent sound stage for a speaker their size. This is clearly the M20’s greatest strength and was highly evident while listening to Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason (Columbia, 1987). Right from the album’s opening track, “Signs of Life,” the placement of the rowboat was very precise fronted by David Gilmour’s richly chorused electric guitar. Segueing into “Learning To Fly,” Gilmour’s vocals took on a liquid feel and were never throaty or unnatural. It was here that I was struck by the width of the M20’s impressive soundstage, carrying Gilmour’s rhythm guitar almost to the extent of my listening area. Tony Levin’s stick bass adequately tested the Revel’s lower limits, which while not as deep as other compact speakers I’ve listened to, were smooth, tight and in full control of the lower octaves. This is in stark contrast to many other compact speakers, which sound sloppy trying to articulate lower octaves, especially at higher volumes.

Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt (Capitol Records) turned out to be an excellent test of the Revel’s abilities. The album is a well-balanced and produced recording that I’ve listened to hundreds of times, yet I never before felt quite as moved as I did with the Revels, which presented McCartney’s incredibly emotional vocal performance so rightly that at one point I felt I could almost reach out and hug him. Layers of percussion, brass instruments and orchestration came through with remarkable clarity on “Distractions” and “Put It There”; I caught myself listening with a big smile on my face more than once. On “Distractions,” the subtlest nuances of the rhythm acoustic guitar, such as the smallest squeak of Hamish Stuart moving his hands across the fret board, could easily be heard. And on “Put it There,” it was impressive how the M20s channeled the lively feel of the tune, characterized by the buoyant bass track and melodic acoustic guitar. To me, Flowers in the Dirt was more listenable than I’ve ever heard because the Revels never interfered or added their own flavor between the music and my ears. While this is one of the Revels greatest strengths, it is something that many listeners may not like. This is to say, a characteristic of the Revels is in fact their lack of character. This was clearly evident on “Flowers in the Dirt.”

High Resolution Music
It didn’t take me long to want to hear my favorite band in DVD-Audio and Yes’ Fragile (Elektra) is among the very best productions released to date. The Revels articulated the finest nuances of Steve Howe’s finger-picking on “Mood for a Day” and acoustic guitar on Roundabout with brilliant clarity. In “Long Distance Runaround,” which in my opinion is the best surround mix on the album, the texture of Chris Squire’s Rickenbacker bass guitar can finally be heard clearly. Howe’s well known electric guitar riff on “Long Distance Runaround” gently alternates between the front and rear speakers. It was here that the Revels added a spaciousness, openness and freshness to Fragile, which was originally recorded over 30 years ago. On “Roundabout,” it was sensational to hear and feel the attack of Bill Bruford’s aggressive drum rolls. The Revels presented Yes as I’ve never heard them before and I look forward to other older DVD-Audio releases by them (Hey Rhino, hint, hint: Close To The Edge).

I also listened to the recently released SACD of The Police’s Every Breath You Take. While the album suffers somewhat from the familiar but nonetheless frustrating irregularities found between recording and production quality on the tracks of many “Best Of” releases, The Police on SACD definitely rocked. I’ve always been enamored with the musicianship of Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers and having a high-resolution 5.1 surround mix of their best and most popular works was awesome. The separation between instruments was among the best I’ve heard on any recording, no doubt the result of the high-resolution format and only having three musicians, and the entire album had a lively and open quality to it that was refreshing. One of the most significant improvements over lower-resolution mixes was in the sound of the hard-hitting and jazzy Copeland. On “Roxanne” and “Message In a Bottle,” Copeland’s aggressive drumming carries the music and, through the Revels, it was easy to feel the attack of the snare drum and hear the crispness and full decay of the cymbals. The Revel M20s are definitely a fast speaker in this regard. On “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” the mix of Summer’s edgy and textured guitar sound is found in both front and rear channels with a spaciousness that was well articulated by the Revels in surround sound. If I had to criticize, though, the M20’s lack of deep bass is apparent throughout the SACD on Sting’s bass and Copeland’s bass drum, and I was glad to have the aid of my Sunfire sub to fill in the missing pieces of the music and let the Revels do what they do best. While it is perhaps not fair to expect the M20s with only a six-and-a-half-inch woofer to have big bass, it was definitely missing here.

Home Theater
Not surprisingly, some of the most fun I had evaluating the M20s was watching movies. The opening scene featuring the D-Day attack on the beaches of Normandy in “Saving Private Ryan” (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) was absolutely earth-shattering. I watched this scene several times and found the Revels presented the sharp-sounding machine guns and explosions with seamless precision and clarity. The Revel’s quickness aided the presentation here. At some moments, it sounded so real that I shuddered in my seat as bullets flew over my head and across the room. The C30 center channel was exceptionally articulate on voices throughout the battle scenes and not once did I find myself wondering, “What did he say?” The greatest flaw with most home theater setups is that too many people skimp on a high-quality center channel. It is, without question, the most important speaker in the home theater and the Performa C30, on and off axis, is nothing short of exceptional.

More subdued but no less emotional than the “Saving Private Ryan’s” Normandy Beach sequence is Disney’s THX-Certified “Fantasia 2000” (Disney Home Entertainment). The sound quality of the orchestra in Dolby 5.1 surround is another grand achievement for Disney, which possesses a catalogue full of them. Animation set to the genius of Ludwig von Beethoven, George Gershwin and Igor Stravinsky was spectacular. Chapter 14 is my personal favorite. Set to Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” the animation depicts the struggle between Mother Nature and the fury of the Firebird, who emerges from an erupting volcano. Mother Nature ultimately prevails with the help of a lone elk to recreate the beauty and green of the countryside. The Revels, combined with the brilliant animation, so triumphantly captured the extraordinary dynamics and emotion of the “Firebird Suite” that they could easily transform a rock and roll listener into a classical music enthusiast. It was a testament to how good the Revels can be with virtually any kind of music.

The Downside
There were moments where I found myself discovering for the first time subtle nuances in music I’ve heard a thousand times. Unfortunately, this also included bad patches and poorly produced sections on some of my favorite older recordings. While a negative for some, perhaps this is a compliment to the Revel’s strikingly clean and neutral sound.

If you are looking for speakers that deliver powerful and deep bass, the Revel M20s may not be for you. I’m not suggesting the Revels are thin in the lower octaves. In fact, quite the contrary – in the lower octaves, the M20s are tight, full and smooth. There are many lower-priced compact speakers with deeper and more forceful bass, but to complain or fault the Revels here is to miss what these speakers are about: high-quality sound and accurate presentation of exactly what the artist and producer intended to be heard. The Revel camp would suggest a B15 subwoofer as a match for the small speaker.

The industrial design of the speaker, while compelling to me with its white drivers, can be overly modern for some. Its rounded look isn’t for everyone and in comparison to the latest speakers from B&W and MartinLogan, the Revels don’t quite keep up in the looks department.

While the M20’s are not cheap, they easily rival some of their more expensive competition. Shoppers looking for a pair of compact loudspeakers in this price range will likely (and should) also listen to the touted B&W 805s, which are nearly the same size and price as the M20s. Each of these speakers have their pros and cons. If you are looking for a very lively speaker and listen to a lot of hard rock, the 805s may be the better speaker for you.

Many listeners, after deciding on the M20s, may feel that they want to add a small subwoofer to compensate for the very lowest frequencies (below 45 Hz), which are absent from the M20s and most other compact speakers of this size. Of course, adding a subwoofer to match the M20’s superb sound would definitely require spending another $1,000-$1,500. This could lead one to possibly scrap a M20/subwoofer combination and opt instead for a pair of Performa F30s at $3,500. That is a decision you have to make depending on your wallet, sound space and listening preferences. The matching Revel B15 subwoofer is a killer speaker, but it is priced around $3,000.

All I can say is that for my modestly-sized apartment in New York City, mating two pairs of M20s and a C30 with a high-quality subwoofer from Sunfire was too alluring to resist. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed with a similar loudspeaker setup. When my listening was complete, I paid the Revel Performa speaker system used in this evaluation the very highest compliment a reviewer can give: I bought them. And I can’t imagine being any happier….that is, until I end up with a bigger listening room.
Manufacturer Revel
Model M20 Performa Loudspeakers
Reviewer Ben Shyman

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