Dayton Audio MK Series Speakers
Photo courtesy of Dayton Audio
Review by Jim Wilson
The subject of this review is the Dayton Audio MK Series speakers; the MK402 bookshelf and matching MK442 center channel. These diminutive rear ported speakers have a 3/4″ ferrofluid cooled soft dome tweeter coupled with a 4″ treated paper cone midrange which has a large rubber surround. The MK402 contains a single midrange driver, measures 9.5″x5.75″x6.5″ (HWD) and is approximately 8 pounds. The MK442 has two midranges positioned in the ubiquitous MTM (midrange-tweeter-midrange) alignment, measures 5.75″x15″x6.5″ (HWD) and weighs about 10 pounds. The MK402 is able to handle 80 watts max while the MK442 doubles that and can deal with up to 160 watts. Quoted frequency response is the same for both, 60-20kHz.
Dayton Audio is the ‘house brand’ for Parts Express (PE), a company almost everyone reading this is familiar with. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if half of you have bought something from them. Count me among those who have. The DIY crowd has been eagerly buying their amplifiers and drivers for years. Dayton Audio/Parts Express also sells finished products. I reviewed the SUB-1200 a few years back, a stalwart budget subwoofer if there ever was one.
The MK402 speakers retail for $69 a pair while the MK442 comes in at just a few pennies under $50. That means the 5 speaker system I’m currently listening to sells for $188, less than 2 Benjamin’s. PE doesn’t charge for shipping on orders over $100 so that $188 is all you pay. Throw in a pair of the SUB-1200 subwoofers and an entire 5.2 system doesn’t even cost $500 delivered to your door. Low cost does not mean you sacrifice support either; these speakers come with a 5 year warranty.
You know me, I rail against anything that comes single boxed. The dominate package delivery companies seemingly don’t feel my purchases are important and all too often I get things that look as though an elephant sat on it. The display packaging for the MK Series speakers is constructed from fairly thin cardboard but the review samples were sent inside another box and partially due to that there was not a single blemish to be found. That works for me.
The MK402 come in pairs. They have 1″ molded soft foam inserts cradling the entire top and bottom of the cabinets. The drivers were oriented so they were facing each other, adding extra protection to those critical components. The MK442 center switches things up by using endcaps made from the same 1″ soft foam material. Speakers and center were neatly wrapped in plastic bags to shield them from the elements. The presentation was rather impressive for speakers costing what these do. The only accessory is the owner’s manual.
Normally this part of my evaluation is the Impressions section but frankly “no way” is my impression of these speakers so the title got changed. No way. That’s it, short and sweet. I just love a good review theme and in the case of the Dayton Audio MK Series speakers it was easy to come up with one. To be honest I didn’t even try, it jumped out at me almost instantly. The theme is just those 2 words; no way. Like I said, short and sweet. Why? There’s no way a speaker this size that cost what these do should sound like this. Uh uh, no way, yet it does. We’ll get back to that.
Whenever I unbox something new to review I make sure my laptop is within arm’s reach. I’m a firm believer in first impressions – hence the reason I (usually) have an Impressions section – so I always want to capture those initial thoughts. Invariably they get incorporated in the article someplace so for me it’s critical to jot them down. Sitting here looking at the Dayton Audio MK Series speakers two things strike me immediately; these guys are pretty small, and visually they don’t appear to be budget speakers.
Typically very inexpensive speakers look the part, lacking any character and showing obvious signs of suspect quality control. The cabinets are routinely square boxes, the grills made from cheesy material, the vinyl covering often poorly applied. Not so here as these speakers don’t look anything like their price suggests they should. Differentiating them from other products in this class, Dayton Audio incorporated slight contours on the front bezel of the MK Series speakers and then tailored the grill to accentuate those scalloped edges. There was no sloppy workmanship to be found either, everything was neat and tidy. Take a look:
These certainly don’t look like entry level speakers, even though the price implies otherwise. I think Dayton Audio hit a bullseye in the styling department. Construction quality was equally good as there were no issues found. And yes, I really did look. Nothing gets a mulligan from me, no matter the price. Speaking of price…
My opinion of a product is always based upon dollars; if something costs a lot of money I expect a lot from it. I become more judgmental as the price goes up. Cost less and I’ll expect less, it’s all about proportion. Assessment relative to price. What happens if something costs next to nothing yet doesn’t perform or look the part? You screw up my process, that’s what happens. It’s rare but I will happily take that 10 times out of 10. Hey, I like a bargain too. The Dayton Audio MK Series speakers screwed up my process. These things punch well above their weight, that much will become apparent. It’s not all roses however as they did show their modest pedigree in a few areas. Documentation was one of them.
Although the owner’s manual isn’t bad, it isn’t all that good either. There was an evident lack of continuity between the MK402 and MK442. The manuals were basically an 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper folded in half – typical for speakers in this price range – but what I found odd was the instructions for the speakers and center were not formatted or written in a similar manner. The layout, information, descriptions, all of it was different. There was a definite sense they weren’t written using the same template. The disparity might not have been as obvious had I not been looking at them side-by-side. Regardless of format, they contain just the basics.
There are other areas were the two products diverge. For example, both the speakers and center use the fairly universal pin/cup arrangement to secure the grill to the front panel. For the MK402 those pieces are both plastic – not at all uncommon – but the pin is thin and doesn’t look very substantial. By comparison, the MK442 has a thicker and more robust metal pin. It seems the latter approach should be used on the MK402 to safeguard against potential issues (note that I never had a problem with the plastic pins on the MK402 during this evaluation). One thing they do have in common is their construction. Utilizing a 3/8th’s painted MDF frame, these things are sturdy. The cloth material is almost transparent and was applied very well. Speakers in this price class always use either adhesive or double-sided tape to secure the company logo, but not Dayton Audio. Instead their emblem is attached with two metal pins pushed through the grill, bent 90 degrees and then anchored inside a special cutout in the frame. If you recall, these 5 speakers cost $188. Just ‘sayin.
Another thing I noticed is they aren’t terribly efficient. Rated at 4 ohms and sporting a rather low 84dB sensitivity (86dB for the center), they do require some amplifier power and/or volume to come alive. People who purchase modestly priced speakers tend to have equivalent gear in their signal chain, specifically the receiver, so that lowish efficiency may come into play for some. My AVR (Audio/Video Receiver) has discrete amplification, meaning each channel essentially has its own amp, so it was never an issue for me. I did have to increase the volume more than customary to get sufficient output for my viewing needs but that never proved to be a problem as these little dynamos held together quite well when pushed. More on that later.
Let’s see, what else. Hmmm… oh yea, the binding posts. Dayton Audio includes 5 way binding posts – unheard of for speakers costing what these do – but my banana plugs would only go about half way in before bottoming out. They felt secure and there weren’t any interconnect issues, but it did look a bit odd with them sticking out like that. Then again, who looks at the back of their speakers?
Alright, enough quibbling. Want to know something that is impressive? The midrange. Check out this driver:
Look at that thing! I’m still trying to figure out what’s more striking, the surround or magnet assembly. Both are oversized and certainly stand out. There’s a vent through the center of the magnet to help the voice coil stay cool. That’s the type of feature you normally see on much larger subwoofer drivers. It’s funny when you hold this thing in the palm of your hand as it looks like the speaker equivalent of a mouse bulked up on steroids. Did I mention there’s a foam ring placed between the frame and front panel to ensure a tight, rattle-free fit? This might be an opportune moment to remind you that each MK402 speaker costs less than $35.
The cabinets are made from 1/2″ MDF and are wrapped in a black vinyl material that has a slight texture to it. Lining the left, right, top and bottom internal walls are sheets of 3/4″ acoustic damping material. Dayton Audio even wrapped the speaker leads in foam. On the bottom of the cabinet are 4 nickel sized stick-on foam pads to prevent the speakers from scratching any surface they come in contact with. It seems Dayton Audio thought of everything.
Ready for this? My room EQ system calibrated the MK402 speakers as Large. Seriously. I figured it had to be a mistake so I ran it again. Nope, it set them to Large on back-to-back runs. Of course I changed that to Small, but I did chuckle knowing these pint-sized wonders confused the room calibration software. I did find Dayton’s advertised frequency response of 60Hz-20kHz to be a bit generous however so I set the crossover for 90Hz instead. Doing so allowed me to push the volume higher, forcing the subwoofer to handle more of the frequency range that might cause a 4″ midrange to balk. I used that to my advantage as you’ll soon see.
Over time I came to find the Dayton Audio MK Series speakers were very tolerant when I lacked self-control. They didn’t come unglued or distort horribly even when I was careless with the volume knob. There was a tendency to get a touch bright and a little strident if I was too cavalier, but they handled excess far better than I thought they would. If some discretion was exercised they exhibited good detail and separation. These pint-sized marvels made me smile a heckuva lot. Insert another $35 reference here.
So overall, how do they sound? Let’s start with the tweeter; there’s really very little not to like here. Usually you can’t say that about a .75″ soft dome housed in an entry level product, but there’s nothing traditional about this speaker. It took a week or so for me to fully appreciate what it was doing, but once I did it was hard not to realize how much it was contributing. While it does lack some upper end sizzle, which virtually all soft dome tweeters do, there’s a certain understated flair to how it goes about its business.
Not to be outdone, the midrange more than holds its own. There was almost no break-up detected until you pushed the thing well beyond what you should. It has a very satisfying sound, easy on the ears and without any perceptible shortcomings. Obviously a 4″ driver will have limitations to what it can accurately reproduce – laws of physics are immutable after all – but I can almost guarantee you will be impressed by what it’s capable of.
Voices, numero uno for me when testing speakers. There is no sound a human knows better than a voice. Male, female, depth, volume, dialect, none of that matters in the end. If it’s a voice our ears know it well so I tend to focus on them. Despite their humble beginnings, the Dayton Audio speakers did a commendable job with dialog. The MK442 fell a little shy of being able to convey the true weight of a human voice but it did an excellent job of making different voices sound just that, different.
For this review I made sure the movies I chose were varied and not just centered on voices though. Does that sound a bit contradictory? It’s not, I wanted to get a good feel for what these speakers could/couldn’t do and variety is the only way to thoroughly accomplish that. Don’t be shocked if you see an emphasis on voices however.
Bet you never saw this movie. Until recently neither had I so you aren’t alone. One evening I was scanning the channel guide looking for something different to watch when I stumbled upon Sicario. Being unfamiliar with that word I had to look it up. Turns out it’s Spanish for “hitman”. With a title like that I was hardly able to look away. Mercifully it wasn’t your typical TV movie fare, which is precisely what I was hoping to find that night.
Emily Blunt plays quixotic FBI agent Kate Macer. She’s part of a kidnap response unit in Arizona. Due mostly to their proximity with the Mexican border she ends up working a lot of cases associated to the various drug cartels that infiltrate her neck of the woods (I wonder if a Mexican theme will come into play at any point). Frustrated by her team’s lack of progress in shutting down the bad guys Kate volunteers to work on a joint CIA/DoD (Department of Defense) initiative to weed out – no pun intended – the key players in those organizations. Josh Brolin is the CIA agent running point on that task force while Benicio Del Toro plays a shadowy figure who is known only by his first name of Alejandro. Things are not what they seem however, and as you might have guessed everything begins to spiral out of control quickly.
This is a character piece, just what I was looking for as they tend to have a lot of… wait for it… voices! What I didn’t anticipate is I would actually like the movie yet it turned out to be so well done I couldn’t help but enjoy it. The individual characters were allowed to form their own persona, slowly working themselves into the plot. Their interactions were largely smooth and well integrated, the dialog evenly spaced and not forced. It all made for a good cadence that felt natural.
During one scene Kate and the CIA strike team – consisting of mercenaries and ex-special forces members – attempt a nighttime raid on an underground tunnel used by drug runners to transport product between the US and Mexico. As they set out across the desert I clearly heard their labored breathing and assorted footsteps on gravel as they zeroed in on the tunnel entrance. Once inside the US forces encounter resistance. Shots rang out from multiple weapons of different calibers. Even in those claustrophobic surroundings each piece of the soundtrack remained distinct and identifiable. Calls between team members echoed throughout the tunnel, none of which were overwhelmed by the cacophony of other noises. Everything seemed to blend perfectly, cohesive and balanced. Less than $200 for 5 speakers, have I mentioned that recently? Moving on…
The Professional (Blu-ray)
“Leon!” Natalie Portman screams. Yes, that Natalie Portman. In her acting debut she plays Mathilda, a 12 year old girl orphaned when corrupt DEA agents assassinate her entire family because her father was skimming their drugs. At the time of filming Natalie was only about 12 herself so it wasn’t much of a stretch. Her neighbor, a man named Leon, witnesses the aftermath of the massacre and ends up taking her under his wing. Little does Mathilda know that Leon, played by renowned French actor Jean Reno, is a ‘cleaner’. Basically he’s a hitman, and a very accomplished one at that (wait, another hitman?). Leon’s handler Tony, the man who arranges all his jobs, is Danny Aiello. Throw Gary Oldman into the mix as deranged DEA agent Norman Stansfield – whose team gunned down Mathilda’s family – and you have one pretty stellar cast.
Leon is an uneducated immigrant from Italy, a functional illiterate really. Mathilda and Leon eventually form a tight bond as he tries to teach her about life from his perspective. Part of those lessons center around Leon’s profession as his protégé is bent on avenging the death of her little brother, the only one of her family she really cared about.
The scenes with the two of them alone were my main area of focus because of the disparity with their respective voices. Jean Reno is baritone, with a deep and ominous timbre. Natalie is a pre-pubescent teenage girl who sounds just like a pre-pubescent teenage girl, so when they were talking to each other there was quite a contrast. The MK Series speakers did a very nice job of separating them, allowing for both distinction and character. Leon’s low-pitched growl underpinned Mathilda’s squeaky little voice impressively. On top of that what I found particularly well done were subtle nuances that make up a scene; the opening and closing of a door, the sound of rubber soles as someone walked across a tile floor, a TV playing in the background. This movie doesn’t have many complex facets, so the speakers weren’t taxed for the most part, but when called upon they proved to be more than capable.
From Dusk Till Dawn (Blu-ray)
This one was released in 1996 and up until that point George Clooney had mostly been in bubble gum TV series and forgettable movies. Some of the former were quite popular at the time; E/R, The Facts of Life, Murder She Wrote, The Golden Girls and Roseanne among them. Lucrative paychecks for sure, but they were all pretty bland and generic shows. His movies weren’t much better. Who could forget Return of the Killer Tomatoes? Actually, who would want to remember it? I’m sure Mr. Clooney was able to pay his bills from royalties but the material was probably a little boring for an actor. That all changed when director Quentin Tarantino came-a-calling and offered George a character that was a total departure from what he had been doing for years. Rumor has it he jumped at the chance to change his image.
In From Dusk Till Dawn Clooney plays a heavily tattooed, unstable hard case named Seth Gecko. His psychotic brother, Richard Gecko, is none other than Tarantino himself. The cast also includes Harvey Keitel – a favorite of the director – along with Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong fame), tough guy Danny Trejo and ex-NFL star Fred Williamson. Mrs. John Travolta, Kelly Preston, has a cameo as well. Pretty diverse cast if you ask me. But then again, this is Quentin Tarantino we’re talking about here.
The crux of this story is the Gecko brother’s flight from justice. Seth is doing time for a botched bank robbery where several people were killed, including more than one law enforcement officer. During Seth’s trial Richard busts into the courthouse, shoots the place up and springs his brother. With the Feds hot on their tail the two of them head for Mexico where they are set to rendezvous with a local bad guy named Carlos (Cheech Marin) who is going to provide them safe haven in El Ray. On the way Seth and Richard hijack a family in their motorhome – Harvey Keitel and his 2 kids, one of whom is portrayed by Juliette Lewis – with the intent of using them as cover to get across the border. Once safely inside Mexico they all head to a bar in the middle of nowhere to meet up with Carlos.
From Dusk Till Dawn is quintessential Tarantino; part gore, part slapstick, part eccentric, part ‘what did I just see?’. Where those disparate elements reach their zenith is at that bar. Like the memorable Chalmun’s Cantina – simply known as “the bar scene” from Star Wars – there are mutants galore, only in this case they’re vampires disguised as humans. Once the sun goes down they reveal their true identity, and that’s when things go from bad to worse for this hapless fivesome.
Up until this part of the movie I had been focusing mostly on voices, which never seemed to be a problem for the MK Series speakers, but when I got to the bar scene I shifted my attention to ancillary sounds. In so doing I began to notice how well they handled subtleties. The sound of clinking glasses, hushed conversations off to the side, the creaking of wooden floorboards, a band playing in the background. All these elements make up the real life experience of being in a place like a bar so if they aren’t rendered properly you’ll likely notice. I was impressed by how well those details were created, producing an almost 3D sound field in the process. The bar scene – or should I say scenes – take up about 20% this movie, a pretty considerable percentage. I replayed all of them just to be sure what I thought I heard the first go around was accurate. Turns out it was so the investment of time proved well worth it.
2.1, a configuration that means only a subwoofer and a pair of the MK402 speakers would be used. This is where I felt things might get a bit strained as I was going to be relying on just 2 speakers that retail for less than $70. It costs about 50% more than that to fill the tank on my diesel pickup truck. It’s also about 1/28th of what my reference L/R speakers cost, so yea there was some drop off, but once again these miniature speakers left me pleasantly surprised.
Rock Candy, Montrose (CD)
Ronnie Montrose has played with many industry luminaries. He’s shared the stage and/or recording studio with the likes of Van Morrison, Herbie Hancock, Boz Scaggs, Edgar Winter, Gary Wright and The Neville Brothers. Oh yea, and a couple of guys named Sammy Hagar and Johnny Winter (Edgar’s brother). Ronnie has laid down tracks and traded licks with some pretty impressive musicians over the years. My first memories of him are from the 1970’s with his eponymous band Montrose. In spite of the many accolades he has earned since then that era is his heyday as far as I’m concerned, and this song is likely his signature piece from that period.
Rock Candy is from their debut album simply titled Montrose. “simply” is an apt description as most of the songs are not overly complex, but like a good AC/DC or Judas Priest tune they just work (I wonder if “Judas” will come into play again and form yet another theme). The original Montrose album was also the launching pad for a teenage phenom, the aforementioned Sammy Hagar. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
Hagar has a significant role in this song as both his guitar and vocals are recorded up front and in your face. Denny Carmassi’s drums are right there with Sammy, so for a set of speakers there’s a lot going on for a rather simple melody. This is an anthem from my youth, played on a set of speakers that seem to be at home when you twist the volume, so what do you think I did? That’s a rhetorical question as I’m fairly certain you know exactly what I did.
As the volume rose the Dayton Audio MK Series speakers came to life, putting out more sound than they had a right to. The soundstage wasn’t as wide as I generally prefer, but for something that can literally fit in a shoe box they ‘rocked’. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Sammy’s voice dominated, as did his funky off-tempo rhythm lick. None of that prevented Denny’s snare from producing his telltale ‘thwack’, nor did it overshadow Ronnie Montrose during his leads. I must have listened to this song half a dozen times while writing the last few paragraphs and never once did I feel compelled to turn down the volume.
Save Yourself, Stabbing Westward (CD)
There’s no way these speakers can soun… wait a second, I’ve already said that. I need to come up with something new. Actually, no I don’t; considering what they cost there really is no way these speakers can sound like they do. Right now I have them cranked beyond what any sane person would, yet they aren’t protesting all that much. They’re starting to get a little shrill on the top end but they haven’t lost their composure entirely. How often can you say a $70 pair of speakers has “composure”, especially when pushed?
For the few reading this who have even heard of Stabbing Westward, Save Yourself is possibly the only song you know from this band as it did get considerable airplay in the late 1990’s (What Do I Have To Do came out about 2 years earlier but it didn’t get as much exposure). This one has a head-bobbing rhythm that makes it a good choice for a bar band doing covers. It’s also pretty good for a speaker evaluation.
The only members of Stabbing Westward with longevity were the two guys who formed the original band; Christopher Hall (vocals, guitar) and Walter Flakus (keyboards). Perhaps not coincidentally they are prominent contributors on the bands most lucrative songs, including Save Yourself. The Dayton Audio MK Series speakers treated me to a boisterous rendition of this hair metal classic. Christopher’s voice was lively, as the mix intended it to be I’m sure, yet the guitars and keyboard were never far behind. Throw in the contribution of the drums and these little speakers executed wonderfully. I may have to listen to this one again. Actually, “may have to” is a bit of a misnomer as I did listen to it again.
Please Don’t Judas Me, Nazareth (CD)
What happens when you combine a fringe 1970’s band with a song that has a weird title? You get something commonly referred to as a ‘deep track’. From Nazareth’s most popular and commercially successful album, 1975’s Hair of the Dog – which also spawned the only song most people know this band for, Love Hurts – Please Don’t Judas Me is one of a kind. For me it’s a tune with a lot of history, inextricably linked to a pivotal time in my life. How many of you are searching the internet for it right now? Most won’t like this one as it’s definitely an acquired taste, something you have to hear many times before it resonates (assuming it ever does). Give a listen after a bad day and it will probably make more sense:
Treat me as you like to be treated
Please don’t blacklist me
Leave me as you’d wish to find me
Don’t analyze me or sacrifice me
Please don’t Judas me Please don’t chastise me
Show me just one shred of kindness
Try to help me see
Guide me in my hours of blindness
Don’t despise me or categorize me
Please don’t Judas me
Judas is a biblical reference to a person who was a traitor. My connection to this song is not in a religious context however, it’s the betrayal aspect. Who among us can’t relate to that? I didn’t include it because I was attempting to make a point, it was due to the fact I know this song very well having heard it so many times. That means any deviation would be instantly recognizable, making it perfect material for a review.
Dan McCafferty handles the vocals (Brian Johnson from AC/DC is often compared to Dan as their voices sound very similar), while Manny Charlton plays both guitar and synthesizer on this track. Darrell Sweet mans the drums, so right there you have 4 different things your speakers better do well if you want to get this track right. Then there’s Simon Phillips playing the tabla. Don’t feel bad if you have to look that up as I had to do the same thing. It’s an Indian percussion instrument with a unique sound that fits this particular rhythm brilliantly.
Throw that much complexity at a set of speakers costing less than a decent meal for you and a date and you can bet they will fall all over themselves. Um, nope. I was a bit taken aback by how well the Dayton Audio MK402 navigated material that should have been too difficult for them to properly handle. Each of the instruments was easily identifiable, filling its own space and not getting stepped on by the others. For a crescendo I upped the volume more than I probably should have (why am I always playing things too loud?). Those little midrange drivers were working their tail off yet it hardly sounded like it. Bravo Dayton Audio!
No way, plain and simple. Dayton Audio is known for low cost, not low quality, and the MK Series speakers may be the ultimate expression of the company ethos. There’s simply no way this 5.0 system costs $188, yet no matter how many times I check their website the price never changes. These speakers could be sold for twice what they are and nobody would complain. I am somewhat reminded of the granddaddy of all small speakers, the often celebrated Realistic Minimus 7. You have to be of a certain age to remember Radio Shack when they legitimately mattered, and I just happen to be one of those people. I owned a pair of their legendary bookshelf speakers and habitually abused them, yet they survived for many years. The Minimus 7’s remained a gem no matter what I put them through, not something I can say about all the speakers I have owned in the past. It’s not a stretch to conclude they were way ahead of their time. I don’t know if you can truly compare the new Dayton Audio MK Series to those fabled speakers but if there’s a modern day equivalent the MK’s may very well be them. If you are on a tight budget these are the speakers to buy.
These measurements were taken using an Omnimic. The speakers were positioned in the center of my listening room with the microphone 1 foot from the front panel.