This isn’t really a review of the Dunlavy SC-III, per se, it’s more of a shout-out to prospective future owners of this remarkable speaker. I bought my pair of Dunlavy SC-IIIs coming up on 3 years ago, after reading a good deal of positive information on the Dunlavy range, but never having heard them in the flesh.
I found my pair on Craigslist, offered by a gentleman who’d owned them from new but was downsizing pending a relocation. Since becoming a Dunlavy owner, I’ve brought many a pair of speakers into my home, partly in an effort the step up from the Dunlavys, partly in an effort to move to a smaller design without losing performance, and partly for the sheer heck of it.
Here’s a quick run-through of potential suitors that have come and gone in the last 3 years –
- Tyler Acoustic D2 – large speaker, pretty nice, not in the same league as the Dunlavy SC-III
- Castle Acoustic Harlech S1 – really nice ‘British sounding’ speaker, up there with Harbeth, Proac etc.
- NHT 2.9 – good sound for the money. My pair were pretty shabby looking and I never got around to refinishing them so I dumped them on eBay
- Quad ESL 57 – this was a speaker I owned 25 years ago and had to leave on the curb for the garbage collector when I moved to the USA from the UK.
- Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor M – typical SF sound, warm, big, but ultimately lacking in transparency and resolution
- Dali Mentor 6 – good value, nice ribbon tweeter, not anywhere near the same league as the Dunlavy SC-III
- Merlin Music VSM BME – excellent stand-mount, knocked the spots off the similarly sized Sonus Faber Cremona M, almost took the baton from the Dunlavy, but not quite.
- Klipsch Heresy I – nice headbangers speaker, whetted my appetite to try a bigger/better Klipsch.
- Klipsh Klipschorn – Big, bold, powerful, dynamic. Too much loudspeaker for my modestly sized room.
I’m sure I’ve missed a couple, but as you can see I’ve tried hard to bring something in to replace the Dunlavy SC-3, but all have fallen short at some level.
Before I move on, if you’re unfamiliar with the SC-III, then here’s a bit more info on their design along with a couple of photos:
Each loudspeaker has a pair of 8″ bass drivers and a pair of mid-range drivers with the bass drivers mounted at the top and the bottom of the cabinet, with the tweeter positioned in the center of the driver array. The drivers are not mounted flush to a baffle, they are spaced off the baffle to provide time-aligned delivery of their specific audio frequency, with the bass drivers sitting slightly forward of the midrange and the recessed tweeters.
First-order crossover slopes are used and the speakers have a pretty flat impedance curve, with a high of 6 ohms and a low of 3 ohms, and an overall 92dB efficiency rating.
The speaker occupies a narrow footprint but stands tall at 72 inches. The designer (the late John Dunlavy) often ran the speakers without spikes or stands, but they do come with bolt-on MDF plates to widen the footprint and add a little more stability, and I’ve modified my plates to use spikes pointing up into the underside of the speaker and down into the floor.
Setup of the SC-IIIs is a little painstaking if you want to get them to disappear. John Dunlavy recommended having the speakers on the long wall, even when the room is quite narrow. Since my room is almost square, at 16′ x 17′, I have mine on the 16′ wall, as that’s the most convenient location for my listening room. I have them well out into the room, at 70″ from the front wall (the wall behind the speakers). I have them spread well apart and close to the sidewalls, and I use QRD panels to catch the first reflection points, with the speakers toed in to the listening position so the drivers shoot about a foot to the outside of my ears. I sit about a foot from the back wall, so the speakers are about 9′ from my noggin. Of course, I’ve spent many an hour messing with the setup, but this is where they work best for me.
How Do The Dunlavy SC-III’s sound?
Above all, they sound very natural and uncolored. They cast a wide and deep soundstage and are coherent from top to bottom of the frequency range. They’re extended on top but they’re lacking in deep bass. I augment my pair with a quad of subs, DSP’d and set up in a Swarm or Distributed Bass Array.
Their main strength is in their ability to remove themselves from the soundstage completely. The soundstage they create is wide and deep but it’s recessed behind the speaker, so it’s easy to suspend disbelief and trick one’s brain into thinking that the speakers are not the source of the sound being heard. It helps the illusion by having the speakers spaced wide apart, as this places them mostly outside of the forward field of vision. They’re the closest to ‘real’ I’ve heard, at least in the way that they get out of the way. If you don’t have 70″ to pull them out into the room, then they’ll work just fine closer to the front wall. In this configuration, you’ll benefit from a little more ooomph, thanks to the boundary reenforcement, but you’ll have a little more speaker inside of the critical area of the soundstage so you’ll sense just a little more instrument localization.
Scale is one important aspect of creating a sense of realism, dynamic impact is another. The Dunlavy SC-3 are not dynamic in the same way as the Khorns, they physically cannot move the same amount of air in the room. But given a good subwoofer (or 4), they do pretty well in the dynamics department, though they’re clearly not in the same league as a large horn-loaded system.
They’re beautifully transparent and revealing of the source. I’ve never found details to be missing from the SC-IIIs when I’ve switched to other speakers, and I’ve always found other speakers to sound colored in comparison to the Dunlavy SC-IIIs, without exception.
They image well. They’re almost on par with a small stand mount speaker like the Merlin VSM, but images are perhaps not quite as finely etched on the SC-III. Though images do sit within a larger space, side to side, front to back, and floor to ceiling. There’s more of a soundstage in terms of volume (not decibels, rather cubic feet) than any other speaker I’ve used in my room. It’s almost certainly a function of their time and phase-coherent design that they’re able to stage so well and present solid, near holographic images within the stage.
They’re pleasantly non-fatiguing but they can err towards the analytical if you set them up poorly or drive them with sub-par gear. They’re certainly not warm or euphonic, as were the Sonus Faber, nor are they lean and clinical, they strike just the right balance between the two states. Of course, the previous statement describes the function of the tweeter as much as anything. Yes, the top-end is clean, detailed, airy, but never harsh unless you’ve screwed something up with equipment matching.
They seem to be just as comfortable with tubes as they are with solid-state, though I’m mostly a tube guy so my SS experience with these speakers is limited. Amps I’ve used with the SC-III include a Conrad Johnson ET250s (SS/Hybrid design), Edge NL10.2 (SS), Thor Audio TPA-60 (EL34/KT77), Allnic Audio A-6000 (50w/60w 300b tubes), Devialet Expert Pro 220 CI, Audio Research Reference 110 (KT150), AMR AM-777 SE (SS/Hybrid). I can honestly say that the only amp I didn’t enjoy with the Dunlavy SC-III was the Devialet Expert Pro 220 CI, but I didn’t like that amp with any speaker, period. I’ve never sensed amp power limiting performance even with the 50w 300b amps I’m presently using.
So, in a nutshell, I love these speakers. They retailed for around $4k when they sold new many years ago, and they appear occasionally on the used markets today for anywhere between $750 and $2000, depending on condition and scarcity at the time of looking. I can’t call them ‘giant killers’, since I haven’t really owned any giants (assuming that by ‘giant’ one means super-expensive) at least not in the same time period as owning the SC-IIIs. The Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor M retailed when new for around $10K, if memory serves me, and they can’t hold a candle to the Dunlavy SC-III. I suspect the closest I’ve come to matching the performance of the SC-III was with the floor standing Merlin Music Systems TSM Mxe – the top-of-the-line offering which retailed for around $13K. I sold the Merlins long before the Dunlavy arrived so I can’t really say with certainty that one was superior to the other, but all things being equal, and if I had to choose one to live with from this moment on, and operating from memory, it would certainly be the Dunlavy SC-III.
The problem with owning the Dunlavy SC-III is – where does one go from here? Outside of my own system, the only ‘expensive’ speakers I’ve heard have been at audio shows, and that’s not really a good environment in which to judge the sound of a speaker system. That said, at Capital Audio Fest 2019 there were a couple of different speaker systems within my price range that intrigued me. Speakers from Spatial Audio, QLN, PureAudioProject and one or two others sounded very good and at a sensible price. So, watch this space.
Review Date: November 2021
Original MSRP At or around discontinued date: $4,000
Used Price Range Over Last 12 months From Review Date: $1050
Availability / Scarcity: Quite rare – fewer than 5 available over 12 month period.
Overall Performance In a Vintage System: Excellent 10/10
Overall Performance In a Modern System: Excellent 9/10
Buying/Selling Notes: Make sure the drivers are original and in good condition. Changing drivers on these is not a good idea unless you know what you’re doing and how to buy matched pairs.
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I have the sc-lll’s driven by a PrimaLuna Dialogue HP integrated and it sounds great. Just bought the new blade 2 metas and a Hegel H590 for another room and they are incredible. Trying to find a streamer DAC to compete with the H590 internal DAC (and I need a streamer anyway). Any ideas?
Well, it depends on what you want to spend. The Lumin X1 is a fantastic one box streamer/DAC/server, but it will set you back $10K used. The Lumin T2 will give you 95% of the X1.
If you want to go with two boxes, then the Lumin U1 Mini with SBooster is probably the best in the $2-3K range. Add a good DAC from Denafrips like the Pontus II and that’s a hard combo to beat….of course there are many other options out there, including those from Aurender.
I ended up with the Linn Klimax dsm2 which I upgraded to Organtik for the blades. Now I’m looking for a streamer/ DAC for the Dunlavy’s. Thinking about the Naim nd5 xs2. Any thoughts?