Building a sound system on a tight budget and high hopes? Cast your eyes and ears on Q Acoustics’ newest and biggest passive bookshelf speaker, the 3030i. These stylish speakers deliver an acoustic performance way out of proportion to their $399-per-pair price tag.
Designed in Britain, the Q Acoustics 3030i deliver detailed and robust audio reproduction accurate enough that they could be used as studio monitors. Be forewarned, however; such honest articulation and dynamic range also has a downside: They will lay bare any performance or production weaknesses present in a recording. And with added oomph comes the potential for real-world environmental issues, as these mighty mites could expose the quirks of smaller listening-room resonances, demanding a bit of sleuthing (and tweaking) to resolve. Not to worry, mates. We’ve cracked the case!
Birds of a feather
A bump-up from the $299-per-pair Q Acoustics 3020i speakers that got me frothing in an earlier review, the 3030i share the same shapely looks and two-way reflex speaker design—only with the sturdy MDF cabinetry bulked up an inch or two in each direction: 12.8 x 7.9 x 13 inches (HxWxD). That depth could be challenging to anyone who deploys them on an actual bookshelf, since those planks tend to measure just 9 to 11 inches deep. Weight is up by a couple pounds as well, to 14.1 pounds per box.
The 3030i uses the same 0.9-inch decoupled dome tweeter found in the 3020i, with the crossover circuit set at 2.4kHz, but there’s a 6.5-inch stiffened, coated-pulp mid/bass driver in the larger speaker. You’ll find this same driver in the Q Acoustics floor-standing model 3050i. Compare that to the 5-inch driver in the 3020i. The additional 1.5 inches of diameter might not seem like a lot, but when combined with a cabinet that’s effectively doubled in volume—from 6.1 to 12.5 liters—you can expect it to move a lot more air, delivering much bigger, deeper, and wider-dispersing bass.
A pal invited in to listen (at a safe distance) wondered “Where’s the subwoofer hiding?” With good reason. The 3030i kick almost as much bass butt on their own as the 3020i do when I have them augmented by a big ‘ol MB Quart subwoofer. Opting for the more muscular model is like getting a serious sub thrown in for a Benjamin. You’ll be de-cluttering the joint, too.
Q Acoustics specs the 3030i’s frequency response as 46Hz-30kHz (+3db, -6dB), whereas nothing stirs below 64Hz in a 3020i. And with sensitivity of 88dB, these puppies will sound good with as little as 25 watts of amplification (that’s all that my ancient B&O Beocenter 9000 can muster.) The 3030i delivered a wallop with both of the streamer/amps I also tested them with: a Sonos Amp (billed as 125 watts per side into 8 ohms), and a Bluesound PowerNode 2i. While the BlueSound component has a lower power rating—60 watts per channel into 8 ohms—I perceived its performance with the 3030i to be both louder and sweeter sounding than the Sonos.
Ready to party hearty
After living with the 3030i for several weeks—they do require about 50 hours of break-in—I can testify to their versatility under fire. Whatever you throw at them, these things can handle with aplomb, so long as you have them set up properly. (See the cautionary tale below.)
Liking to stay current, I’ve put these things to the test with a variety of recent releases streaming on the high-res streaming services Qobuz and Tidal. Take nuevo-punk rocker Machine Gun Kelly (Tickets to My Downfall) and swirling psychedelia from my Philly homies The War on Drugs (Live Drugs), both good for heady, out-of-body experiences.
While mowing down super fresh acoustic bluegrass pickings from Sturgill Simpson (Cuttin’ Grass – Vol 1) and the classical/folk mashing Long Time Passing set (celebrating Pete Seeger) by the Kronos Quartet and vocalizing friends, I scribbled the word “bristling” in my reviewer’s notebook. Then I got jazzed with bass master Ron Carter and friends in concert on Foursight – The Complete Stockholm Tapes. The 3030i portrayed the audiophile-grade Kronos and Carter recordings so vividly that I could close my eyes and be sitting-in on the sessions.
More of a hip hop homie? A Tidal Masters playlist mashing up Trey Songz (Rain), Lil Wayne (Green & Yellow), and the percolating Fredo Bang (Top) proved the 3030i equally adept at message spreading and party starting, with well-articulated vocals/raps, samples, and deep banging bass.
I also spent lots of time revisiting well-engineered recordings I know like the back of my hand, including Steely Dan’s jazz-rock catalog, James Taylor’s recent American Standard collection, and Joni Mitchell’s classic Blue and orchestrated A Case of You sets.
And then there was the auspiciously stumbled-upon classical blast from my childhood past—Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat, Op. 83—as done up by Van Cliburn with the Chicago Symphony. That’s an early RCA Victor stereo recording my father played incessantly and that sometimes drove me batso because of distorting piano bits I detected in the first and third movements. Yeah, I was a precocious teen audiophile wannabe. I used to think my dad had purchased a bad pressing. But as the warts-exposing Q Acoustics 3030i revealed, streaming the same recorded performance from Chicago classical radio giant WFMT, the original engineering had been botched! (The piece and performance are still pretty terrific, though.)
How do these honest speakers fare with TV content? DirecTV and streaming shows played reasonably well, too, presenting a convincing stereo dimensionality with ghost-centered dialog even though I had the speakers spaced five feet out to either side of the screen. But here too, there was no glossing over weaknesses. Without the tone equalization of DSP that’s applied in powered speakers, the dramatic dialog in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) had a different, thinner aura than the studio-recorded musical bits. And it pained me to hear how vocally worn Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band mates sounded in a recent Saturday Night Live performance.
A cautionary tale
True to the code of small monitors, the 3030i are best heard with their tweeters at ear level. So, the Q Acoustics rep who’d coordinated this review recommended I also take on their carefully matched, 25-inch-high, 3030FSi speaker stands ($209 a pair), which promised to elevate the speakers to just that level for a sofa-seated listener. The companion stands are also a nice addition for aesthetic reasons, making for a “modern industrial” bundle that’s particularly spiffy in white.
As it played out, though, the speakers (and a set of QED interconnects) arrived first; the stands had been lost in transit. So, I initially hooked them up in my family room to the Sonos Amp (and later the Bluesound Powernode 2i amp) and rested the speakers atop a spare pair of shorter, 19-inch-high stands. And honestly, that combo proved quite agreeable, especially after I removed the 3030i’s magnetic speaker grills, which really opened up their presentation.
Ironically, the 3030i’s sound took a significant turn for the worse when the official stands turned up and I switched them over. “Gee, they sound tinny” noted another masked-up visitor, and I sadly concurred. Joni Mitchell’s usually chiming dulcimer on All I Want plunked harshly, more like a resonator-backed banjo. Vocals were grainy, and Steely Dan guitar solos by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Hugh McCracken, and Larry Carlton were now painfully piercing, shrieking, and tortuous.
Only after I performed a radical treble downshift (-4 ticks) of the factory-tuned-bright Sonos Amp’s EQ settings, a 1- or 2dB treble reduction on the Bluesound Powernode 2i, and enacted modest bass boosts on both devices did the sound become palatable in my listening room, a 13 x 20-foot sonic hot house with 1850-vintage Southern Pine floors, lots of windows, and lath-and-plaster walls. Pulling the speaker stands away from the backing wall did no good. Switching between high- and lower-resolution streaming services made little difference. Putting the supplied foam bungs into the back ports of the speakers was no help, either.
Finally, I had an “a-ha” moment: I laid hands on the tubular metal stands and the floor beneath whilst music played and felt lots of sonic vibration being sucked out of—and feeding back into—the speakers.
Clearly something was awry, Constable. During the stand assembly, I kept in place the little rubber boots that had arrived already fitted over the screw-on spikes, which were intended to isolate the stands from my reverberant hardwood floor. But close inspection now showed they weren’t. After I’d turned the stands upright and plopped ‘em down, those spikes had silently bored through these rubber dampers to make metal-on-wood contact, which was all wrong for this super lively room. That unsympathetic room vibration (literally felt in the floor and walls, too) was now wreaking havoc on the musicality of the speakers, introducing a high-end harshness that was not at all in evidence when I auditioned the pair in a much larger, open-floor-plan living/dining room.
Not to fret, I found happy solutions for the sonic distress—first informally on my own, and then officially from Q Acoustics with word of a product upgrade. Solution one was carbon fiber speaker spike isolation pads. Placing these 40 x 10mm, vibration-deadening discs (about $23 for a set of four; I bought two sets) under the spikes also helped me to level the stands.
Once in place, there was peace in the valley. The Q Acoustics/Bluesound combo now was making deliciously sweet, airy music with the amp’s tone controls set flat, while the Q Acoustics/Sonos Amp pairing mostly satisfied my sensitive nature with the amp’s treble control set just 1 or 2 notches below 0. Solving this problem was so gratifying I had to stay up late and celebrate—listening to more music, of course!
The better news is that new 3030i buyers who opt for the matching stands won’t need to spend anything extra to solve potential isolation problems. Q Acoustics has since acknowledged that it had a problem with the vendor that provided those too-soft boots and has since switched back to an earlier supplier with a product that works better with its stands.
However you deploy these fine speakers, you’re going to get great performances for a lot less than you probably expected to pay. Just be sure to pair them with a quality amplifier.