Acoustic Research AR90 Review

I remember seeing a set of these at a local used HiFi shop about 10 years ago. Their large, multi-driver appearance really stood out in a shop full of monitors, turntables, and amplifiers. They were set-up in about the only decent listening space in the crusty old shop so I figured they were at least decent. I never did get a chance to hear them at the shop and had all but forgotten about them until an old friend had stumbled upon a set and asked me if I would like to put them through their paces. I did not hesitate to take him up on the offer.

Often times getting a large-sized speaker system set-up properly can take a lot of work, the AR90’s were no exception. Weighing in at 82lbs each and measuring 44″X14.5″X15″ moving them around can difficult if your the only one doing it. Luckily, I have an easy route to my listening room which is free of narrow doorways and flights of stairs. Once inside and set up 4 feet from the backwall and 4ft from sidewalls I started with amplification choice. I ended up using my McCormack DNA 1 Deluxe with matching RLD-1 Pre-amp for most of my listening as I felt they offered the most uncolored performance.

Upon first listen I was shocked and surprised at the AR’s ability to dissapear in the room. Large, multi-driver designs often have a hard time with driver blending, soundstage, and imaging as those qualities require excellent crossover and driver design, something that costs lots of time and money. Before listening, I feared that the side-mounted 10″ woofers would create problems with placement as other similar designs have in the past, but the AR90’s proved to be very easy to set-up in my room.

When I critically listen to speakers I look for neutrality and consistent sound across a wide range of music. I have reviewed speakers that sounded absolutely real with the right live acoustic jazz recordings but were unbearable with classic rock. All speakers have their strengths and weaknesses which does keep things fresh for a reviewer like me but for someone that is looking to not go around the mary-go-round of buying and selling speakers, it takes a speaker that can do most things right. The AR90’s fall into the “keep for a while” category. Their sound is not overly soft and smeared, nor is it sharp or harsh. They are fairly neutral with a slight softness that helps smooth out hot recordings but doesn’t lose treble detail that makes well recorded material have that “real” sound.

I compared the AR90’s to the Kef 104/2 References, Monitor Audio RX8’s, and the Wilson Audio Watt/Puppy 7’s. The Wilson’s, AR90’s, and Kef’s were all far ahead of the Monitor Audio RX-8’s in the treble region, in that order. The Watt/Puppy 7’s had the most detail and accuracy in the top end, but certain recordings or “hot” electronics ruined the experience. The Kef’s weren’t far behind the AR90’s but did not have the same air or smoothness, though far smoother than the RX-8’s were the Kef’s.  The RX-8’s clearly had a hyped top end which might have sounded good with the right recording and in a quick listen showroom setting, but over time distracted me from the music. The Midrange performance of the top three were very similar in detail and naturalness. I found the Kef’s to do the best with the human voice and female vocals. The AR90’s had the best male vocal reproduction with a nice full sounding lower midrange. The RX-8’s did not approach the other three in midrange performance. In the bass region the Wilson’s and AR90’s were in a league above the rest. Both speakers produced deep, fast, and accurate bass. The Kef’s were very good in their frequency range which tapers off around 45hz, though not as detailed as the ladder two. The RX-8’s produced deeper bass than the Kef’s but seemed far less natural. The RX-8’s bass was nice with electronic music and some pop recordings but when playing a jazz cut with stand up bass the sound became confused, likely due to an uneven bass response and what seemed like extra output around 45hz. With the same jazz cut playing on the AR90’s I could close my eyes and the musician sounded like they were playing in front of me. All of the little nuances in the bass region that make something sound “live” were their.

Overall, I have really enjoyed my time with the AR90’s. Having heard so many speakers costing multiple times more than current going rate of these, I find myself scratching my head and wondering just how far loudspeaker design has really come since 1981? Are these going to offer a frequency response as flat or distortion numbers as low as the new mega-buck speakers? The answer is no, but at 1/50 the price, they get damn close!

Below is my rating of these speakers based on every speaker I have listened to or owned, all of my experience in hi-fidelity audio reproduction, and years of being a musician. A perfect 10 is considered indistinguishable from live music. The quest continues:)

Build Quality, Fit & Finish: 7/10
Sound Stage Depth: 6.5/10
Sound Stage Width: 7/10
Imaging: 7/10
Bass Accuracy within Speakers Low Frequency -3dB point: 8/10
Midrange Accuracy: 7/10
Treble Accuracy: 7.5/10
Percussion Disc Dynamic Test: 8/10
Ease of Use: 5.5/10
Value: 10/10