Matt Bonaccio has got it into his head that because I review $20,000 speaker cables, I’m a gear snob. Well, not so much. When I’m not eating venison and turtle soup, I’m always on the lookout for a smoking audio bargain.
Walking the halls of the Radisson Blu Sobieski at the 2023 Warsaw Audio Video Show, you might find it easy to fall into the trap of looking only at horrifically priced gear, because that’s what catches the eye first. Not an hour ago, I was in the Kondo Audio Note room listening to a system that cost over €300,000 before even considering speakers and cables.
So it’s refreshing to sit down in a great-sounding room and listen to a pair of speakers that I can actually afford.
“The NCS Audio room sounded great,” Matt said. “Not expensive, though, so you’re probably not interested.” This was a text message, and a slight note of disgust slipped through—I could sense his eyes rolling.
Screw it, I thought. Off I went to the fifth floor to see what’s what. I’m glad I did.
As I walked in, there was some smooth, soothing, end-of-the-show soft jazz playing. It was very cool music, not what you’d typically hear in an exhibition room. I sat down and listened. And listened. The NCS Audio Reference One is a mid-size floorstanding speaker, one that hits the Goldilocks zone—not too big, not too small. It’s an uncomplicated two-way with a front-facing port. The speakers on display were finished in a well-applied white lacquer, and I found their general proportions quite pleasing to the eye. In its white gloss finish, the Reference One retails for €4100 per pair, and other finishes are available for a very small premium.
The author with the NCS Audio Reference One
The Reference One is armed with an 8″ woofer and a 1″ tweeter. I asked Norbert Csere, the designer and owner of NCS Audio, about the drivers’ pedigree. “You’ll be surprised to hear that they’re from Dayton Audio,” he said. “But they are very good drivers, especially the silk-dome tweeter, which we modify in-house. It plays down much lower in frequency than you’d think.”
With its 8-ohm impedance and 88dB sensitivity, the Reference One should be fairly easy to drive. NCS Audio specifies that the bass extends down to 28Hz (no mention of whether that’s in-room or not, and I forgot to ask), and sure enough, the bass sounded exceptionally deep and tight.
I’d been listening for about ten minutes—that’s about two months in a non-show dimension—and then turned to Norbert and asked for some Tragically Hip. He cued up Fully, Completely on the streamer, and we listened through the first two tracks. The Reference Ones handled this straight-ahead rock with panache. Deep imaging, great separation of instruments—these speakers punched well above their price point.
About halfway through “Looking for a Place to Happen,” Doug Schneider walked in. I’d texted him to come up and get photos of this room for the article. Doug sat down and listened, something he doesn’t often do, given his vibratory energy and desire to get shit done. Right then, he asked to take over the playlist. Earlier in the day, Matt and Doug had been debating the merits of Lana Del Rey, with Doug really, really liking her, and Matt not being keen. “She’s a rich, white nepo baby with the vocal range of a gorilla, who’s LARPing as a Latina,” Matt testified. Well then.
Undeterred, and keen to make a point, Doug played “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have—But I Have It” through the Reference Ones. It is a lovely track, somewhat undemanding vocally, but exceptionally well-produced and lyrically beautiful. The Reference Ones reproduced it well, and I could easily see what drew Doug to the song, but I also got a hint of what enraged Matt. In the end, I just enjoyed it, as I didn’t really feel I had much skin in the game.
There’s one wrinkle in this little Polish fairy tale. Apparently, Norbert had an issue with the amplifier he brought to the show, and since NCS Audio is based in Hungary, he couldn’t nip home and grab another. Instead, he visited the next room over and borrowed an integrated amplifier from the Marton folks. The Opusculum Omni is a serious chunk of gear, and there’s no question it sounded great, but it retails for €65,000, which sort of detracts from the my-god-what-a-bargain story I’ve been feeding you.
But we shouldn’t let this price imbalance ruin the day. I found the NCS Audio Reference Ones at one minute to midnight, right before the show ended, and I think it’s important to add these speakers to the list of bargains from Audio Video Show 2023.
Senior Editor, SoundStage!