Western Digital WD TV Live Media Player

June 2010

201006_westerndigitalbA few years ago, two of the most intriguing products reviewed by the SoundStage! Network were the Logitech (formerly Slim Devices) Squeezebox network music player and its big brother, the Transporter. By making it easy to stream digital audio files from computer networks to audio systems, these and other music servers have changed the way many audiophiles listen to music. These days, it’s rare to find a home-entertainment system without the capability for computer networking, and network music players are no longer rarities. Some makers of high-end audio gear now produce network music players as well -- Linn has stopped making CD players altogether, to concentrate its efforts on their DS line of digital streaming players.

In the computer industry, technological advances come thick and fast; media players that play audio and video files are now widely available, often for less than $100, and many of them can play high-definition video and high-resolution audio files. One of the most popular such players is the Western Digital WD TV Live. Its already-low price of $149 USD is often discounted; I was interested to see how such an inexpensive media player would perform in a high-quality audio/video system.

Description

The first thing I noticed about Western Digital’s WD TV Live was its size. At only 4.875”W x 1.625”H x 3.875”D, it’s smaller than most desktop external hard drives, and only a little larger than most portable external hard drives. The TV Live has an Ethernet port but lacks built-in WiFi, though it can be used with a USB WiFi adapter (not included). Its two USB ports can be used to connect hard or thumb drives formatted with the FAT or NTFS file systems, for the storage of media content. Output options include HDMI, TosLink optical audio, and nonstandard component and composite video, along with analog audio outputs on 1/8” jacks with adapter cables (provided). A wall-wart power supply and a small remote control are included.

The front-panel display indicates the TV Live’s power status and connection of USB devices. The player is passively cooled (no fan noise), and its tininess makes it unobtrusive.

What doesn’t it do?

The appeal of the WD TV Live is in the wide variety of audio and video file formats it can play. Although I didn’t try all of them, it supports these video formats: AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (h.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG1/2/4, AVC, VC-1), MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, and WMV9 (VC-1). Also supported are these audio formats: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF, OGG, Dolby Digital, and DTS.

The TV Live will also display picture files in the GIF, BMP, JPG, TIF/TIFF, and PNG formats. It has limited access to Internet media services, including Pandora and Live365 Internet Radio, Flickr image and video hosting, and the ubiquitous YouTube.

The user interface is fairly basic. Files on USB drives can be sorted by folder, filename, and date, or by various types of metadata for audio files (artist, album, genre, etc.); the TV Live also supports playlists. Album art can be displayed if available, and thumbnails can be generated for video and picture files. Although the interface is fairly rudimentary, it’s generally informative and intuitive to use, and the graphics look clean and professional.

Setup

I didn’t use the WD TV Live with a WiFi adapter, but connected it to my home network via an Ethernet cable. It had no trouble finding shared network folders and media servers, and played back both standard- and high-resolution audio files and hi-def video files with no problems. I did most of my auditioning using an external USB hard drive connected directly to the TV Live.

The TV Live was connected to an Anthem Statement D2 A/V processor via HDMI for both audio and video, and TosLink for audio only. I didn’t test any of its analog outputs. The main components of my review system were a Paradigm Reference Signature v.3 surround speaker system comprising S6 v.3 mains, a C3 v.3 center, ADP3 v.3 surrounds, and a Sub 1 subwoofer; Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and eVo6 power amplifiers; and a 1080p, 56” JVC RPTV. Cables were by Analysis Plus and DH Labs; power cords and power conditioners were from Essential Sound Products, Zero Surge, and Blue Circle Audio.

Performance

I connected the WD TV Live to my home network and watched a few YouTube videos of typical quality for that site; i.e., barely watchable on my 56” RPTV. Some 720p material on YouTube was better, but it still looked somewhat soft and lacking in overall quality. Entering search terms on the onscreen keyboard with the navigation keys was also slow and tedious, making it a chore to access YouTube this way. I also listened to some Internet Radio via Live365, and found the sound quality similar to that of AM radio, and sufficient only for background listening. I wasn’t able to access the Pandora radio service because my ISP was recognized as originating in Canada.

As expected, I was able to watch many types of standard-def video files -- AVI, MPG, WMV, VOB -- but my main interest was in playing back hi-def video. The TV Live had no problem playing all of the hi-def 720p and 1080p MKV and M2TS files, encoded with H.264 and WMV VC-1, that I had on hand. In fact, an uncompressed 1080p M2TS file ripped from the Blu-ray edition of Inglourious Basterds looked and sounded spectacular on my 56” RPTV: I could see no difference in video quality between the Blu-ray and the file I’d ripped from it. Small details were visible in Shosanna’s mirrored reflection as she prepared to unleash her assassination plot against the Nazi high command in her theater. The darkened background in that room was pitch-black in places, with shadows and gradations of light visible in others. Her blood-red fingernails and makeup looked lusciously real.

The sound wasn’t quite as good as with the Blu-ray, but was still excellent. This probably had something to do with the fact that while the TV Live identified the soundtrack as DTS-HD Master Audio, it would output only DTS core at 1.5Mbps. Bass was still very deep and powerful on David Bowie’s “Putting Out the Fire,” from the film Inglorious Basterds, but a little less defined. There was also a slight loss in soundstage depth and imaging. The closing credits of Slumdog Millionaire feature a delightful Bollywood dance number to the song “Jai Ho.” The deep, wide soundstage of this scene was slightly reduced through the TV Live as it played the soundtrack in DTS core from a MKV file, and the imaging of voices and percussion was not as sharp compared to the Blu-ray.

Even playing back 720p MKV files ripped from Blu-rays and compressed by a factor of three to four times down to 8GB looked and sounded very good. Although the picture was a little soft when compared to the original Blu-rays -- to be expected, due to the increased compression and scaling to the lower 720p resolution -- the picture was still pleasing, and vastly preferable to standard-def DVDs. For example, The Bourne Ultimatum lacked a little detail, especially in dimly lit scenes, but was still highly watchable, and the 1.5Mbps DTS core soundtrack sounded spectacularly holographic.

As much as I loved being able to access dozens of hi-def movies instantly from hard disk with the WD TV Live, there were a couple of operational limitations that I found frustrating. The first was that the TV Live’s video output resolution had to be set manually, or automatically by detecting the resolution of the display device. This meant that if the resolution of the source file differed from the output resolution, the TV Live would automatically scale it to match. I would have preferred a Source Direct mode; that way, the video signal could be output in its native resolution, and any scaling could be performed by an outboard video processor, such as the one built into my Anthem Statement D2.

There was also a lack of a Goto function; a specific point in a video file could be accessed only by fast-forwarding or fast-reversing to it. For example, if a video file had no chapter stops, it took roughly four minutes to scan through an hour-long portion of the file. Fortunately, the TV Live remembers if a video file has been stopped during play, and returns to that point when play is resumed, even after powering down. Still, the lack of a Goto function quickly became irritating.

I was quite satisfied with the WD TV Live’s quality of playback of movies from hi-rez video files, but was less enthusiastic about its reproduction of audio files. Most of my music collection is now in the form of FLAC files; playing these, the TV Live didn’t sound as transparent as I would have liked. Bass on “Queen of the Supermarket,” from Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream (CD, Columbia 88697413552), was slightly indistinct, and there was a touch of nasality to his voice in “The Wrestler.” There was a big, rich sound to Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) (CD, Streamline 0602527210360), the driving beat present throughout. I just wish it had been tighter so that I could have more easily followed the modulation of the bass. Overall, the sound of the TV Live with audio files was good but not great. There was a gratifying fullness to the sound, but not without some loss of detail and transparency.

The TV Live was capable of playing 24-bit/96kHz stereo FLAC and WAV files, but the frequency of the digital output was reduced to 48kHz. Additionally, hi-rez multichannel WAV files were played only as two-channel signals, and hi-rez multichannel FLAC files couldn’t be played at all. If you’re looking for something with which to play hi-rez audio files, the WD TV Live is less than ideal.

Comparison

Compared to the Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player and the Sony PlayStation 3, the WD TV Live offered many advantages in the playback of video files -- such as its support for the NTFS file system, which permits files larger than the 4GB limit imposed by the FAT file system used by the BDP-83 and PS3. Another advantage was the TV Live’s ability to play a much wider variety of file formats. The BDP-83 and PS3 can play only a few types of media files, and are thus not well suited to being used as media players.

The TV Live reproduced hi-rez video files nearly as well as did the BDP-83. Although it sounded very good with film soundtracks, there was more definition in the bass when I used the BDP-83 to play an MKV file of the 1.5Mbps DTS soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. There was also a greater sense of space in the cavernous mines of Moria during the battle with the Balrog. However, between the BDP-83 and the TV Live, the picture quality of this 1080p file was indistinguishable.

Playing FLAC and WAV audio files was not the TV Live’s strong suit. The Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB converter that I use to send S/PDIF digital audio from my laptop computer to my Anthem D2 A/V processor was clearly superior in this regard. Peter Gabriel’s voice on his Scratch My Back (CD, Real World 180030000178) sounded faintly congested in comparison. Although the piano and strings on “The Power of the Heart” sounded quite clear, they simply sounded more realistic through the UD-10.1. There was also a solidity and power to the piano’s lower registers that was lacking with the TV Live.

Conclusion

At a street price of just over $100, Western Digital’s WD TV Live offers plenty of versatility in the number of audio and video file formats it can play, in addition to its network streaming capabilities. It does have some limitations when playing audio files, such as its inability to output 24/96 digital audio, and a less transparent sound than more expensive, high-quality digital audio sources.

If you need an inexpensive media player to play hi-def video files, the WD TV Live is a good choice. If you’re looking for something to play audio files through a high-end system, I suggest you look elsewhere.

. . . Roger Kanno
rogerk@soundstagenetwork.com

Western Digital WD TV Live Media Player
Price: $149 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.

Western Digital
20511 Lake Forest Drive
Lake Forest, CA 92630-7741
USA
Phone: (800) 275-4932

Website: www.westerndigital.com

Monitor Audio Silver RX6 / RX Centre / RXFX / RXW-12 Home-Theater Speaker System

201006_monitorpairJune 2010

Over the years, Monitor Audio has earned the reputation of being one of Britain’s most prestigious and widely respected makers of loudspeakers. To some, that statement might sound somewhat insignificant, but I think it remarkable -- the UK has one of the most fiercely competitive speaker markets in the world. With competitors such as B&W, ProAc, Mission, and Acoustic Energy all vying for big shares of the market, a manufacturer can’t afford to make speakers that are merely on a par with the competition. In such a market, any company that wants to be competitive needs to aim well above the bar, and put forward products that not only offer the virtues of performance, quality, value, and innovation, but do so in a way that will ensure they are not only noticed but remembered.

The founders of Monitor Audio recognized this in 1972, when the company began, and later when they designed a speaker that was the antithesis of the conventional. The R852MD carved out its own niche by being the first loudspeaker to include an alloy driver. Its dome tweeter, made of a combination of aluminum and magnesium rather than a single metal, made this speaker not only sound good enough for people to take notice, but impressive enough to be remembered. So began the long relationship of metal drivers and Monitor Audio.

Over the years, Monitor has advanced this technology, and now uses several metals and alloys throughout their various speaker lines. The subjects of this review comprise a member system ($3975 USD) of the all-new Silver RX line.

Silver RX series and Silver RX6

Monitor Audio’s Silver RX speakers aren’t simple revisions of the RS line but evolutions. For instance, the Silver RX6 ($1250/pair) is a 2.5-way bass-reflex tower with two 6” Ceramic-Coated Aluminum Magnesium (C-CAM) drivers and a gold C-CAM dome tweeter, much like the older RS6. But quite a bit has changed. First, Monitor has completely redesigned the cabinets of every speaker in the series. The RX6 towers in particular have grown in every dimension when compared to the RS6, now measuring 35 5/8”H x 10 13/16”W x 12 3/16”D, yet weighing a still manageable 36 pounds. The most notable growth, though, is the thickness of the MDF walls, which has been increased to 19mm throughout the entire cabinet. This was done to reduce cabinet resonances and increase cabinet rigidity; it also marked the first of four major improvements made during the redesign of the line, all of which are based on technology trickled down from the GS series. Next up was the addition of radial and cross-bracing techniques, which again offer increases in cabinet rigidity, and therefore lower cabinet colorations even further. Knocking with my knuckle any of the top and side panels sounds a lot more inert.

The third improvement was the addition of independent chambers to house the midrange and bass drivers of the Silver RX6 and RX8 towers. This way, each chamber can be individually tuned to provide better bass control and imaging. Finally, and arguably the most ingenious, was the use of bolt-through driver technology throughout the Silver RX line. This ties driver and cabinet together with a bolt that extends from the rear of the drive-unit through the back of the cabinet. The driver is then tensioned into the cabinet by tightening a small nut on the rear, which essentially compresses all four sides of the cabinet while securing the driver in place. Trickled down from Monitor’s flagship Platinum series, this is said to further increase the speaker’s overall bracing and increase its rigidity.

The 6” C-CAM midrange and bass drivers have been redesigned to incorporate the latest version of Monitor’s Rigid Surface Technology (RST).  Essentially, this is the use of dimples in the surface of the cones of the C-CAM drivers, which Monitor claims significantly increases the cone’s rigidity. This in turn makes it possible to use thinner, lighter cones. In addition, RST is said to minimize the generation of standing waves in the cone’s surface. The drive-units’ rigidity has been increased through the use of baskets cast of a new, nonmagnetic polymer.

Used throughout the Silver line is a new 1” C-CAM gold-dome tweeter, whose damped rear chamber helps to improve clarity and offers a slightly wider frequency range of 2-35kHz. This means that this tweeter can be crossed over to the midrange cone lower than before, for a more seamless transition. With a moderate impedance and above average efficiency, these speakers should be easy to drive with any decent-quality A/V receiver.

Silver RX Centre and Silver RXFX

Changes made to the new Silver RX Centre center-channel speaker ($675 each) and Silver RXFX surround ($750/pair) were essentially the same as in the Silver RX6, differing only in cabinet design and crossover frequencies. These speakers have sealed enclosures and, because of their smaller size, somewhat less thick cabinet walls, though they’re still thicker than the outgoing RS models.

The squat RX Centre -- it measures 19 11/16”W x 7 5/16”H x 7 7/8”D -- was redesigned to ensure that it would perform better in a closed cabinet or close to a wall. This was made possible in large part by the increased rigidity afforded by the bolt-through driver technology, but also by the thicker walls. The RX Centre’s bass extends to only 45Hz; its crossover frequencies are 500Hz and 3kHz.

The compact RXFX surround (11 13/16H x 4 3/4W x 9 13/16D) has clearly been well thought out. It has hardware for hanging it flush to a wall, recessed terminals, and selectable dipole or bipole operation. Its smallish sealed cabinet houses a single 6” C-CAM RST driver flanked by two 1” C-CAM gold-dome tweeters -- no mystery why its bottom-end output is limited to 60Hz. But not to worry -- these surround speakers integrated so well with the rest of the system that they all but disappeared.

Silver RXW-12

Laying the foundation for this system is the Silver RXW-12 subwoofer ($1300), which has undergone a few significant changes of its own. Having grown slightly in size, to 13 3/8”H x 13 3/8”W x 16 1/8”D, the new cabinet’s walls are still made of 1”-thick MDF all around, as are the internal radial and cross-bracing, but the RXW-12 has a completely new 12” C-CAM driver with a two-magnet motor system and a massive 3” voice-coil. Powering this is a class-D amplifier rated at 500W RMS, with a Switched Mode Power Supply Unit (SMPSU) claimed to deliver a peak output of over 1000W. This new amplifier affords the RXW-12 enough grunt to reliably reproduce frequencies as low as 21Hz. The RXW-12 also has a two-position EQ, to address boundary interaction. There’s also a 12V trigger, so that the RXW-12 can be powered up or down via a signal from one of your associated components.

Silver RX system

Visually, all of the speakers in the new Silver RX line exude class and quality; their impeccable fit and finish, in my opinion, are unparalleled among their peers. The bolt-through technology pays dividends not only technologically but visually, eliminating any trace of mechanical driver attachments on the front of the cabinet. To complement this new look, Monitor has replaced (in all but the RXFX surround and RXW-12 sub) the older plug-in grilles with ones that magnetically attach. In addition, the RX6 tower comes supported by a heavy, cast-metal plinth that screws securely into the bottom of the cabinet. Also provided are well-thought-out, adjustable feet that end in rubber (for hardwood floors) or spikes (for carpets). The choice of high-quality veneers has changed; cherry and silver have been dropped in favor of sexier high-gloss black or white, for an additional $200/pair. The standard finishes are all real-wood veneers: Black Oak, Walnut, Natural Oak, and Rosenut.

201006_monitorgroup

System and setup

I used an Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as the source, connected via HDMI only to my Integra DHC-80.1 A/V processor, which fed signals to a Rotel RMB-1075 power amplifier. All interconnects were Analysis Plus Copper Oval In Micro; speaker cables were River Cable Flexygy 8s. All electronics except for the Monitor subwoofer were plugged into a Rotel RCL-1040 power conditioner; I plugged the RXW-12 directly into a dedicated wall outlet.

My listening room measures 25’L x 13’W. I placed the Silver RX6s 8’ apart, 8’ from my listening position, and about 1’ from the front wall. The Silver RX Centre was directly between the two RX6s, sitting atop my TV cabinet, and the Silver RXFX surrounds were placed on 36”-tall stands slightly behind my couch and about 9’ apart. I used the surrounds in dipole mode, as I mostly listened to high-resolution Blu-ray material.

Sound

Before sending me the Silver RX system, the folks at Monitor Audio were kind enough to run them in for me so that I wouldn’t have to spend a few weeks doing that. However, after hooking them up and watching a few favorite Blu-rays, I was caught off guard; they sounded a bit lean, and lacked the kind of dynamic sound that speakers from Monitor’s Silver series have traditionally possessed. So, still not knowing precisely how long these speakers had spent being broken in, I installed them in my living room, for a few weeks of uncritical use with all kinds of media. In that time something of a transformation happened, and the Silver RX6s, especially, came into their own.

I began my viewing and listening with Jon Amiel’s The Core. During the scene in chapter 14 when the sun starts to literally cook the Earth through a hole in the planet’s ozone layer, the microdetails of the sun’s rays cooking the water had real sizzle, giving me a distinct idea of just how hot that water was. Complicated material was handled with ease; the sound of sizzling paint remained even as the melting steel of a bridge groaned, cars thunderously exploded, and the bridge at last fell into the water. In chapter 20, when Rat downloads the secrets of Project Destiny and the final credits roll, a music track is played in full surround; through this system, the overall sound was immersive. It reminded me what it’s like to listen to music while watching a show in a planetarium where the sound seems to come from everywhere, though no speakers are visible.

With Hitman, the Silver RXW-12 proved its worth by adding just the right amount of weight and speed during the scene of hand-to-hand combat in chapter 10, offering forceful impact with every blow. This scene begins in a train car, with a sword fight that ends up on the tracks themselves. I was thoroughly impressed with how the Silver RXFX surrounds re-created the sounds of multiple swords whooshing through the air at high speed convincingly enough to put me right in the midst of the battle. By this time I was starting to get a clear idea of just how much of an improvement the new tweeters brought to the soundstage. The clang of the swords hitting the rails was brilliantly animated, lasting just long enough as the rails ceased vibrating and the sounds decayed. Every component of the new RX system contributed to make this scene terrifically engrossing.

Having been so captivated by the speed and impact offered through the Silver RXW-12 during Hitman, I moved on to another BD and cued up Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. The improvements wrought by DTS-HD over standard DTS were clearly demonstrated through the Silver RXes, especially in chapter 12, when a helicopter’s rotors freeze in mid-air and the aircraft crashes to the ground. The Silver RX system did a remarkable job of delineating the individual crackling sounds of the ice forming on the blades. The fun continued in chapter 14, when water flooding the city was represented by a deep, continuous rumble emanating from seemingly everywhere. However, I did come to realize that, while forceful and convincing, the Silver RXW-12 is more a finesse subwoofer rather than a mere furniture mover. That’s not to say that it won’t dig deep -- it did -- but you’ll have to play with the volume and EQ settings to find what suits your tastes and your room to get it to sound its best.

Rifling through my movie collection once again, I came across Heat. With a grin on my face and the words oooh ya coming out of my mouth, I selected chapter 31 and watched the famous bank-robbery scene. It could have been the shift to a standard Dolby Digital soundtrack, but with Heat I found the overall sound through the Monitor Audios somewhat richer. This didn’t diminish individual sounds; bullets shattering windows were still cleanly delineated, and gunshots were still presented with excellent scale and impact. What did change was the atmosphere in which the scene was presented. Some of the microdetails were now harder to hear or simply absent, but what was added was a sense of depth and realism. Somehow, these speakers managed to create a more convincing atmosphere from seemingly less detail.

Stacking up

Being one who believes that a well-built, competently designed speaker will perform equally well with music and with movies, I briefly listened to some two-channel material before focusing on multichannel recordings. I cued up “Hotel California,” from the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over (CD, Geffen GED 24725), and was immediately struck by how well the leading edges of voices and guitars were illustrated through the Silver RX6s. Kick drums had real kick -- I could feel as well as hear the tempo -- and cymbals were precise and immediate while sounding nowhere near too sharp.

When I listened to this track through a pair of Paradigm Special Edition SE 3 speakers ($699 each), it couldn’t have sounded more different. Although the Paradigms articulated percussion instruments equally well, their sound was livelier, brighter, and crisper overall. Cymbals were fast and vivid, pick slides on guitars were more emphasized, and bass, though not as smooth, felt punchier.

But the Paradigms’ slightly more forward nature charmed me for only so long -- as soon as the volume went up, so did all that well-lit detail, which now became a little too bright. By contrast, turning up the volume with the Monitors proved what I later found to be one of the RX6’s most endearing qualities: its ability to play loudly without losing control or becoming the least bit aggressive. Having the Monitors in my system was like replacing my Integra pre-pro with a tube preamp.

With Heat, the Silver RXs’ richer sound was even more apparent. The Paradigm SE 3s presented background details, such as spent bullet casings hitting the ground, more clearly; voices had greater texture; and the bank-robbery scene had a bit more intensity because it seemed louder overall. But the Paradigms lacked the natural atmosphere I’d heard with Monitors, so in the end this may simply be a matter of preference. I preferred the Silver RXs’ more natural sound.

When I watched BDs with hi-rez soundtracks, the differences were far less obvious, especially with The Day After Tomorrow. The helicopter scene was very realistic through the Monitors; the Paradigms seemed to slightly overemphasize the details of the water freezing, as if implying that the rotors, after freezing, would shatter. During Hitman, I experienced much of the same: the swords hitting the railroad tracks sounded fuller and more tonally neutral through the Monitor Audios. The Paradigm SE system, on the other hand, had a more analytical way of presenting these details.

201006_monitorsubThe last Blu-ray I listened to through these speaker systems was Doomsday. The Monitor Audio and Paradigm systems both did excellent jobs, but it wasn’t till I’d watched the narrative presented by Malcolm McDowell in chapter 2 that I discerned what kept drawing me to the Monitor Audio system: I was captivated by the holistic picture this system produced within the soundstage. Listening to McDowell through the Monitors, I tended to focus on his voice, and not on what was going on behind it. I believe this is what director Neil Marshall intended -- as if to convey the feeling of numbness you get when you’re in shock and able to focus on only one thing at a time. Listening to this chapter through the Paradigms, all of the components of this passage are clear and obvious -- the granularity of McDowell’s voice, the faint voices in the background, the crackling of the fires, the many military sounds. Through the Monitors I could still hear all of these things, but the slightly richer sound of McDowell’s voice at dead center of the soundstage, with the rest of the sounds being presented in a more subtle manner, managed to create a very in person experience.

Summing up

Time and again over the past few months I’ve been thoroughly impressed by Monitor Audio’s Silver RX system, and will be sad to see them leave. My experiences of music, and especially of movies, through these speakers have left me with a strong impression: This system has the uncanny ability to make possible an emotional connection to the sounds it reproduces. If you’re in the market for a new home-theater speaker system, or even a pair of stereo speakers that offer a genuine taste of the high end in a classy, high-quality package, you owe it to yourself to give the Silver RX system a serious audition. Highly recommended!

. . . Aron Garrecht
arong@soundstagenetwork.com

Monitor Audio Silver RX6 / RX Centre / RXFX / RXW-12 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $3975 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor (two years on subwoofer amp).

Monitor Audio Ltd.
24 Brook Road, Rayleigh
Essex SS6 7XL, England
UK

E-mail: info@monitoraudio.co.uk
Website: www.monitoraudio.co.uk

NAD T 175 A/V Processor

May 2010

201005_nad_ti75_leadThe NAD T 175 audio/video processor, introduced a couple of years ago, is one of NAD’s Modular Design Construction (MDC) components, meaning that its audio and video boards are on removable modules. The new MDC modules for the T 175 now include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, and Sigma Designs’ advanced VXP video processing. Owners of the original model can upgrade their units simply by buying and installing the new audio and video modules. If NAD keeps releasing new versions of these MDC modules, owners will be able to keep updating their T 175s without having to buy an entirely new A/V processor for quite some time.

Description

The newest T 175 ($2999 USD) is the top of NAD’s line of standard home-theater components, which also includes several MDC surround receivers; the T 175 is their only separate surround processor in that line. The T 175 includes NAD’s most advanced audio module, the AM 200 Dual DSP. In addition to Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, it supports Audyssey’s MultEQ XT room correction, and Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ. In addition to Audyssey’s standard and Flat EQ target curves, the T 175 includes NAD’s own target curve, developed by Paul Barton of PSB Speakers. (PSB and NAD are both owned by the Lenbrook Group.) According to Barton, the NAD curve is subtly different from the Audyssey curve in having slightly less high-frequency energy. Barton is well versed in this subject; in the late 1980s, he was involved with the Athena Project at Canada’s National Research Council, which investigated digital signal processing for loudspeakers.

The T 175 also includes Dolby Pro Logic IIx and NAD’s EARS processing, the latter said to add subtle enhancement of the surround ambience present in two-channel recordings. For those who want to adjust the audio settings themselves rather than rely on Audyssey’s automatic calibration, the speaker levels and distances can be set in respective increments of 1dB, and of 1’ or 0.3m. The subwoofer crossover points can be set independently for the front, center, and surround channels from 40 to 200Hz, in increments of 10Hz.

NAD’s VM 200 video module features Sigma Designs’ VXP broadcast-studio-quality video processing. This is a premium video processor, but the T 175 offers only the most basic video adjustments of edge enhancement, noise reduction, brightness, and contrast -- though this did make setup relatively simple and speedy.

The T 175 measures 17”W x 5.75”H x 13.75”D and weighs 17.6 pounds. Its exterior is finished in matte black, with a thick metal faceplate that gives it a solid look and feel. A substantial toroidal transformer can be seen through its top vents. The audio and video inputs, all of them assignable, consist of four HDMI, three component video, three coaxial, and three optical digital audio inputs. Also included are analog stereo audio and composite and S-video inputs, and a single 7.1-channel analog audio input. That last is a direct input with volume control only, and no DSP of the audio signal. Video monitor outputs are available on the composite, S-video, component, and HDMI connections. There are coaxial and optical digital audio outputs, and the AC cord is removable. Additional composite video, S-video, optical, and stereo analog inputs are available on the front panel, along with a headphone jack and an input for a media player or the Audyssey calibration microphone. Up to four listening zones can be configured, and there are options for adding an iPod dock, and XM satellite and DAB radio tuners.

201005_nad_t175_rear

The slim remote control is easy to hold, with a nice heft. It’s backlit, with a handy LCD display that indicates the device currently selected and the last button depressed. It also signals when its batteries are running low. There are even buttons that give direct access to channel levels and the Audyssey MultEQ target curves. This is one of the most functional remote controls for a surround processor from a specialty manufacturer I have ever used.

Setup

One problem I had with the T 175 was what sounded like a clicking relay each time the unit locked to an audio signal. This occurred at the beginnings of Blu-ray Discs or DVDs, when I cycled through multiple trailers and menus, but it also happened whenever I skipped a chapter or track on any video or audio disc. It would even occur between tracks, when I played straight through CDs or SACDs with either the Oppo BDP-83 universal player or the Sony PlayStation 3. This issue was isolated to the digital inputs; it didn’t happen when I used the analog audio inputs.

Performance

The T 175 might have limited options of video adjustment, but its picture quality through the Sigma Designs VXP video processor was outstanding. Native 1080p material from Blu-ray Discs looked immaculate. The plentiful inky blacks in The Dark Knight were beautifully reproduced with superb shadow detail, and outdoor scenes, especially those presented in the 1:78 aspect ratio, had outstanding clarity and detail.

 Public Enemies, which was shot in HD video, had an eye-catching and hyperdetailed look. In the final scene in the women’s prison, the bright white background of the prison walls was starkly contrasted with the ruddy complexion of Special Agent Winstead (Stephen Lang). The various shades of gray and the textures of grout on the walls, Winstead’s suit, Billie’s (Marion Cotillard) dress, and her tearful eyes, were striking. In one of the early scenes, as Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) chases Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), the detail visible in the lush green vegetation of the fields and orchards was impressive. It was also easy to distinguish the differing weights of material in clothing, such as Purvis’s heavy wool pants and Floyd’s comparatively lightweight suit.

The 480i video signals from standard DVDs also looked excellent through the T 175. Standard-definition CGI animation can look outstanding when properly deinterlaced and upscaled, and it did with the NAD’s VXP processor. Cars, with its bounty of bold primary colors, had plenty of visual pop, and plenty of detail was apparent in the many logos adorning the cars. At times, the bright lighting effects in the desert outside Radiator Springs looked almost like real sunlight. And although it was entirely artificial, there was a sense of dimensionality to the racetrack and stadium in the opening scenes.

Deinterlacing torture tests, such as the “flyover” of the Colosseum in Gladiator, were handled smoothly, as were the empty grandstand seats in the racetrack shots on the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD. The VXP video processor was able to immediately lock on to the seats with no visible moiré patterning. The “Jaggies Tests” exhibited only a slight wavering in the most extreme portion of the tests. More natural-looking material, as in Ang Lee’s Hulk, looked exceptional. The Hulk himself looked cartoonish and artificial, but the beautiful cinematography and natural lighting of the live-action shots were remarkably smooth and realistic.

Inglourious Basterds looked fantastic on Blu-ray, but the sound quality was even more impressive in DTS-HD Master Audio through the T 175. Giorgio Moroder (music) and David Bowie’s (words) “Putting Out the Fire,” which originally appeared in the soundtrack of another film, Cat People (1982), is used to fantastic effect in this film, and sounded simply stunning. The music was spread effectively among the speakers, and Bowie’s voice was wonderfully lucid through the front speakers. When the actors began speaking, the music was mixed down and pushed into the background, but it was still easily distinguishable, and the dialogue was equally intelligible. The shoot-out in the tavern demonstrated the T 175’s ability to reproduce startling dynamics while maintaining a sense of control and composure so that the sound didn’t become overbearing. Even more noteworthy was the NAD’s ability to capture the aural ambiance of the claustrophobic setting. Background conversations and even an old phonograph sounded as if they were actually taking place in a small basement tavern. The soundtrack of Inglourious Basterds is of reference quality; with the T 175, I was completely immersed in the film’s reality.

Morph the Cat, from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly Trilogy (DVD and CD, Reprise 9362433252), in both 24-bit/96kHz stereo PCM and 5.1-channel DTS, was equally involving. This nearly perfect pop album is reminiscent of Steely Dan’s Gaucho, but unlike that much older recording, Morph has all the richness and highly detailed sound of today’s best hi-rez recordings. In DTS, the silky-smooth vocals on “H Gang” were wonderfully contrasted with occasional jazzy horn riffs, and while the surround channels were very active, there was a nice balance to the soundstage in all directions. In hi-rez stereo PCM, the title track was even better defined and more articulate, though it lacked the surround envelopment of the DTS version. In particular, the bass was deeper and more taut, and the voices sounded even sweeter.

Playing standard-resolution 16/44.1 stereo PCM from CDs or from my laptop through the Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB converter was also very satisfying. There was a dimensionality and smoothness to the sound that reminded me of a really good CD player or dedicated DAC. The piano on Jackson Browne’s “Sky Blue and Black,” from The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne (CD, Elektra 7559621522), had a fullness, especially in the lower registers, and an unforced quality to Browne’s unhurried singing. The pinpoint imaging of “Lives in the Balance” was appropriately holographic. If, like most people, you have a lot of standard-rez digital stereo recordings, you won’t be disappointed in the T 175’s reproduction of them.

201005_nad_t175_front

Comparison

The NAD T 175 doesn’t have the multitude of setup options of my reference A/V processor, the Anthem Statement D2, or the Anthem’s high level of transparency -- but neither does it have the much higher price of the D2 ($7499 when available). When I listened to “Heart of Gold,” from Neil Young Archives, Vol.1: 1963-1972 (CD, Reprise 0093624996057), the Anthem was better able to convey a sense of energy from this live recording. There was a darker background, and more smoothness to Young’s harmonica, in addition to an authenticity in his voice, that just sounded more alive. The NAD still sounded excellent with music-only recordings, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to both standard- and hi-rez two-channel recordings through it. Overall, I preferred the sound of the Anthem Statement D2, but considering that the NAD T 175 costs less than half as much, it came surprisingly close.

I preferred NAD’s own EQ curve to Audyssey’s target curve -- it had a bit more bass, and a fuller sound that didn’t sacrifice bass definition. However, the reduced HF energy in the NAD curve, as described by Paul Barton, might explain that perception. “Putting Out the Fire,” from Inglourious Basterds, sounded a little thinner with the Audyssey curve; switching back to the NAD curve resulted in a richer sound with no loss of detail. Even so, the differences were fairly subtle; some might prefer the Audyssey curve, but I commend NAD for providing another option.

I was disappointed by the T 175’s paucity of video adjustments. That said, many users don’t want to contend with complex video adjustments, and won’t use them even if they’re provided. And Sigma Designs’ VXP is still considered one of the best video processors available. With the high-quality ABT processing built into the Oppo BDP-83 and the earlier generation of VXP processing in the Anthem Statement D2, the three components I was comparing had nearly indistinguishable picture qualities. At times I thought the NAD outperformed the Oppo and Anthem in HQV Benchmark’s “Jaggies Tests,” but its scaling and deinterlacing of the standard-def DVD of Cars looked a bit soft. Still, these differences were relatively minor and fleeting; images from all three components looked very good, whether they were processing 480i video from DVDs or simply passing along 1080p signals to my 56” RPTV.

The inclusion of MDC in the T 175 is no insignificant feature. The original T 175 didn’t have VXP video processing, or the ability to decode Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. Hopefully, NAD will continue to upgrade its MDC modules so that T 175 owners will be able to take advantage of the latest technologies -- such as HDMI 1.4 (which appears to be required for 3D video), or Audyssey DSX or Dolby Pro Logic IIz.

Conclusion

The NAD T 175 may lack some features and flexibility, but it’s still an excellent performer. It includes the latest VXP video processing, and has exceptional sound with both movie soundtracks and music, all for a reasonable price of $2999. Assuming continuing MDC upgrades, the T 175 should remain a solid recommendation well into the future -- something that can’t be said for many other surround-sound processors.

. . . Roger Kanno
rogerk@soundstagenetwork.com

NAD T 175 A/V Processor
Price: $2999 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

NAD Electronics International
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
Canada
Phone: (905) 831-6555

Website: www.nadelectronics.com

Aperion Audio Intimus 6-IC In-Ceiling Loudspeakers

201005_aperion_ng_bMay 2010

One of the great audio success stories of the past few years is Aperion Audio. The company emerged, seemingly from nowhere, to blow away reviewers and consumers alike with its great-sounding, well-built speakers at surprisingly low prices. Among Aperion’s newer products is its series of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, from which I took on the Intimus 6-IC in-ceiling model ($149 USD each).

Description

The 6-IC is robust -- it feels heavier in the hand than its claimed weight of four pounds would have you think. Included in the speaker’s overall dimensions of 9” diameter by 5” deep are a 6.5” woven-fiberglass mid/woofer, a 1” silk-dome tweeter, a frame to mount both drivers, a crossover, and a pair of binding posts. Aperion claims a (probably generous) frequency response of 50Hz-22kHz, but doesn’t specify to what tolerance (i.e., +1/-3dB). The 6-IC’s sensitivity is specified as 88dB; Aperion recommends a range of amplification of 20-200W.

The Intimus 6-IC’s tweeter isn’t quite coaxial. Mounted on a three-armed support in front of the mid/woofer, it’s angled off to one side rather than pointed straight ahead -- which means its output can be aimed. Simply rotate the entire speaker until the tweeter points at the desired spot, then lock it in place. If that provides too little or too much treble at the sweet spot, the driver’s output can be boosted or attenuated using a sliding switch mounted on the speaker’s frame. An identical switch offers the same boost or cut for the bass driver. Both switches also feature a neutral position.

Setup

Installation involved unboxing the 6-ICs and hooking up some wire. The Intimus is designed to be set into a ceiling, and I’d originally intended to use the pair of them for my A/V receiver’s surround channels. However, I decided that the surround-channel outputs would give me little to base a review on, so I put the speakers to use in my wife’s workout area. There they’d pull full-range duty, and would have to prove their boogie potential before they would be judged acceptable.

Calling our unfinished basement a “workout area” gives the space a classier name than it deserves. The first problem I faced was the fact that there’s no ceiling into which these in-ceiling speakers could be installed -- the only things overhead were exposed floor joists. The space between each pair of joists is 18 inches, and each joist has a lip along its bottom edge. Those lips offered perfect supports from which I could suspend 18”W shelves of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) from Home Depot. The shelves solved my lack of ceiling, and made cutting the holes and installing the speakers dead easy: I could do all the work on a bench, then just install the shelf between the joists.

Aperion includes two cutout templates with each 6-IC, one printed for the purpose, and the other, the cardboard ring that supports the speaker in its box, as a standby. I used the cardboard ring, as it made tracing circles of the right size on the shelf boards easy. Once I had my circle traced, I drilled a starter hole inside the circumference, inserted my jigsaw’s blade, and, about a minute later, had a more or less perfect circle. Installation in a normal ceiling would require less trouble: a simple one-handed drywall saw would make quick work of most ceilings.

It was perfectly fine that my circle wasn’t exactly round; each speaker has an edge lip more than wide enough to hide all but the grossest cutting errors. The holes cut, I inserted the boards between the selected joists and secured them in place with generous helpings of Blu-Tak, which also offered the advantage of isolating each board from the floor structure above. Next I pulled some previously installed Analysis Plus Blue Oval in-wall speaker cable through the hole and, setting the speaker on the top shelf of my stepladder, inserted the cable into the nice-quality binding posts affixed to each Intimus’s crossover circuit board.

I inserted fiberglass insulation into the new ceiling cavity I’d made, to cancel out any standing waves created by the speakers’ backwaves. I also made sure that each tweeter was aimed toward the center of the room. In making the 6-IC easy to install, Aperion fits each speaker with four little swing-out arms that act as compression clamps when a screw is turned. The first twist of the screwdriver forces the arms out into position (they remain tucked in to ease the insertion of the speaker into the hole), and each subsequent turn causes the arm to clamp down on the ceiling from the inside. I tightened the four arm clamps on each 6-IC and noted with satisfaction that both speakers were clamped tightly in place. All that remained was to put in place the metal mesh covers. Total installation time for both speakers: about 30 minutes.

System

For this review I dug out my old friend, Blue Circle Audio’s CS integrated amplifier. Not wanting to give up the Simaudio Moon CD3.3 in my main system, I paired the CS with an NAD C 515BEE CD player. Interconnecting duties were performed by TARA Labs’ RSC; the speaker cables were Analysis Plus Blue Oval. Anyone installing speakers in walls or ceilings would do well to use purpose-designed and certified speaker cable. No one wants to find out from their insurance agent that fire damage isn’t covered because a non-spec speaker cable shorted out inside a wall.

Sound

201005_aperion_g_bSpeakers installed in a wall or ceiling are at a natural disadvantage to their enclosed cousins: They lack the benefit of a cabinet designed to get the best out of them. With that in mind, and given the Intimus 6-IC’s low price, I set my expectations fairly low. I couldn’t expect such speakers to perform miracles.

My initial reaction to the 6-IC was that the treble was too hot, the bass fairly weak. I therefore set the equalization switches to boost the bass and cut the treble, then left the speakers to cook over the course of a weekend. After that, the speakers had clearly broken in, so I started playing reference tracks while applying some coats of shellac to a woodworking project.

Now that they’d been run in, I noticed that each Intimus 6-IC had a much more integrated sound than before, when it seemed as if woofer and tweeter were having nothing to do with each other. The bass response tightened up nicely but was still on the weak side. There was, of course, no faulting the speaker for this -- a 6.5” mid/woofer can do only so much in that department. When I played recordings of sax-piano-drum jazz trios, the 6-IC didn’t sound as if it lacked anything much, especially at background listening levels. Lower volume settings were also well suited to reproducing pop and rock.

But when Mrs. Smith works out, she wants volume and pounding bass, two areas where the 6-IC’s weaknesses showed. Madonna’s Music (CD, Warner Bros. 47598), a workout favorite, was reproduced cleanly and pleasingly from the midbass up at a volume level that would preclude normal conversation, but there was no flesh on the low-bass bone. Again, I’d expected this; it represents not a performance flaw, but an inherent limitation of this type of speaker.

Things improved when I hooked up a Revel Concerta B120 subwoofer. With the bottom octaves now fully present, I found it much easier to enjoy the really quite good midrange and treble performance of the 6-IC. Male and female voices were clear, with no signs of congestion or shouting. Imaging wasn’t at all bad, considering the fact that the speakers were placed well above my ears -- but, for the same reason, the soundstage was a bit out of whack. Still, the 6-IC was good enough that I didn’t find myself wanting to switch back to conventional speakers at the first opportunity.

Comparison

Having no other in-ceiling speakers to compare the 6-IC with, I had little choice but to pit it, admittedly unfairly, against a box speaker: the Mordaunt-Short Carnival2 ($299/pair). And though I couldn’t exactly A/B the M-S and Aperion models, I did have my experience of hearing in-ceiling speakers in other homes to fall back on.

I can’t provide makes or models, but I can say that most other in-ceiling speakers I’ve heard have sounded awful. I’m not talking about the kind of industrial speakers used in stores or elevators, but those found in kitchens and bedrooms across the land, which often sound thin, tinny, and distorted -- nowhere near hi-fi. However, the 6-IC was hi-fi. It made music sound like music, not like screeches emerging from a rusty tin can.

The 6-ICs offered a much more enveloping sound than the Mordaunt-Short Carnival2s, limited as the latter were to a terrestrial mounting. For the same reason, the Carnival2s projected a more realistic soundstage (music tending to be performed in a down-to-earth fashion), and could produce more substantial bass than the 6-IC, which I noticed most with kick drum. I thought the 6-IC more accurate in the midbass; the Carnival2 lacked some definition around the 60Hz level, which tended to make bass-guitar notes blend together. It was an honest draw between the soft-dome tweeters in each model, with no glaring errors or omissions to note.

Conclusion

As surround or background-music speakers, Aperion Audio’s Intimus 6-IC is a winner. I would never suggest that the 6-ICs replace conventional loudspeakers in a conventional system, but then the 6-IC was never intended to be all things to all people. Keeping its inherent limitations in mind, I can say that the Aperion Intimus 6-IC is a most satisfying in-ceiling loudspeaker.

. . . Colin Smith
colins@soundstagenetwork.com

Aperion Audio Intimus 6-IC In-Ceiling Loudspeakers
Price: $149 USD each.
Warranty: Ten years parts and labor.

Aperion Audio
18151 SW Boones Ferry Road
Portland, OR 97224
Phone: (888) 880-8992, (503) 598-8815
Fax: (503) 598-8831

E-mail: sales@aperionaudio.com
Website: www.aperionaudio.com

Polk Audio RTi A1 / CSi A4 / DSW Pro 400 Home-Theater Speaker System

April 2010

rclogosm_noyear201004_polk_groupThe home-electronics industry is a greatly competitive one that offers a plethora of products to the merciless scrutiny of the consumer. So how does a company competing in such an industry persuade consumers to purchase their products? By offering excellent performance at affordable prices. This is the philosophy adopted by Polk Audio, and by adhering to it over the years, have transformed their name into one widely recognized for quality and performance. So when I was approached to review a Polk Audio RTi-series home-theater speaker system, I was intrigued to see and hear what they could do.

I was sent four RTi A1 bookshelf speakers ($339.95 USD per pair), a CSi A4 center-channel speaker ($279.95 each), and a DSW Pro 400 subwoofer ($449.95), all but one finished in handsome real-wood cherry veneer (the subwoofer is painted black). The RTi A1 is the only speaker I know of that sports real-wood finishes at so low a price. (It’s also available in black ash.) List price for the system, as described, is $1409.80.

Underneath that wonderful cherry veneer are five more layers of viscous laminate that comprise the non-rectilinear shape of each speaker. In all five of their RTi A models, Polk employs what they call Damped Asymmetric Hex Laminate Isolation (DAHLI), a cabinet design that reportedly results in a stronger, stiffer, more acoustically inert enclosure. As well, all RTi speakers have gold-plated five-way connection posts spaced far enough apart to make hooking up speaker cables a breeze, regardless of method.

RTi A1

The RTi A1 is a magnetically shielded, dual-ported, two-way speaker with a 1” silk/polymer-composite dome tweeter and a 5.25” polymer/mineral-composite mid/woofer. The technologies developed by Polk for the RTi series are many for a speaker at this price. In addition to the DAHLI system mentioned above, Polk Dynamically Balances and Klippel Optimizes their speakers. What this means in English is that, in an effort to reduce or eliminate factors that deleteriously color the sound, they microscopically observe the operation of each component of each speaker. Along with this, Klippel Optimization makes sure the speaker will perform well at both low and high volumes, to offer a balanced yet dynamic performance.

Once Polk was satisfied with the driver and cabinet designs, they turned their focus to the ports, in an effort to ensure that the air moving in and out of them did so quietly and smoothly, and that the bass output was maximized with a minimum of distortion. This they accomplished in two ways, first by using a unique rear-firing port that Polk calls the PowerPort -- essentially, a long, flared port with a dispersing cone mounted just past its outer end. This reduces turbulence in the air exiting the port, thereby diminishing noise, or “chuffing,” while providing deeper, cleaner, more authoritative bass.

The front port, just below the mid/woofer, uses a technology Polk calls Acoustic Resonance Control (ARC), which takes advantage of the internal resonance created by the driver’s backwave. Polk matches the frequency of this resonance with the front port’s tuning frequency. Because the port’s and the cabinet’s internal resonances are thus the same but out of phase, the peak resonances within the cabinet are canceled, resulting, Polk claims, in a more natural sound, with lower midrange distortion.

All of these technologies combine in this little bookshelf -- it measures only 12"H x 7.375"W x 11.5” D -- to help it reach as deep as 60Hz, -3dB, while maintaining an efficiency rating of 89dB.

CSi A4

The CSi A4 center-channel speaker, designed to partner the RTi speakers, is, in my opinion, the jewel of the quintet, especially considering its price of $279.95. Measuring a modest 20"W x 6.875"H x 8.75” D, the CSi A4 uses the same 1” silk/polymer-composite dome tweeter as the RTi A1, along with much of the same technology and components, but differs in having two 5.25” drivers. The CSi A4 doesn’t dig quite as deep as the RTi A1 but comes close, with a claimed frequency response of 65Hz-26kHz, -3dB, and the same claimed efficiency of 89dB. The CSi A4 has only one set of speaker terminals on its rear panel, which prevents biwiring, and vents via a single front-firing ARC port. It seemed to work -- the CSi A4 exhibited an almost complete lack of boxiness.

Also contributing to that lack of boxiness is the contoured top of the cabinet, whose shape creates an asymmetrical internal space to help eliminate resonances there, but also gives the listener the option of flipping the speaker upside down and placing it on the floor, so that the driver axes point up, toward the listener. Whether placed atop or below my display, voices sounded clear and concise through the CSi A4, with lifelike presence. The off-axis sound, too, was excellent.

DSW 400 Pro subwoofer

Keeping in mind that flexibility of setup is key in a system of small bookshelf models such as this, Polk offers three subwoofers that mate well with the RTi series, yet occupy little floor space. Included with the review system was the smallest of the three, the DSW Pro 400 powered subwoofer ($449.95 each), whose digital amplifier, Polk claims, puts out 360W peak to drive its single 8” composite polypropylene cone down to 30Hz, -3dB. Measuring just 14.625"H x 13.75"W x 13.75"D, the DSW Pro 400 takes up less than two cubic feet of space, and can be oriented so that its cone fires either downward or to the front.

To my disappointment, Polk’s three DSW-series subs don’t share the RTi and CSi series’ high-quality real-wood veneers. Instead, they’re finished in an attractive flat black that’s sure to fit any décor (it can be painted). Under the finish is an extensively braced cabinet of MDF with a slot-loaded port.

Around back are two pairs of line-level inputs, an LFE input, a low-pass filter adjustment, an On/Off/Auto switch, and two pairs of five-way binding posts. To control the remaining adjustments and setup options, Polk has included a fantastic remote control, the size of a credit card, that I found so easy and intuitive to use that opening the manual to complete the setup proved unnecessary. Other than basic power and volume control, the remote lets you switch among four phase positions in 90-degree increments, from 0 to 270 degrees.

Depending on the size of the room and the sub’s location in it, the DSW Pro 400 offers a choice of four equalization settings: Corner, Cabinet, Mid Wall, or Mid Room. I found this approach refreshingly straightforward and very effective: you simply select the appropriate position, and the DSW Pro 400 optimizes itself with preset slopes to provide the best performance possible from its position.

Setup

I set up the Polk system in my 13’ x 25’ listening room with the front speakers sitting on a pair of 24”-tall speaker stands, each 1’ from the front wall and from the side of my TV cabinet. The rears were placed on 30” speaker stands about 1’ to the side and behind my couch, and the sub midwall, roughly 2’ from the right front speaker. Power was provided via a Rotel RSX-1058 A/V receiver delivering 75Wpc through River Cable Flexygy 8 speaker cables, and all source material was played by a Denon DVD-5910CI DVD player via River Cable Audioflex Gold Plus analog and HDMI cables. After positioning the DSW Pro 400 subwoofer to fire downward and taking about five seconds to set it up, I toed-in all four RTi A1s about 15 degrees toward my listening position and was ready to go.

Movies and music

I was eager to hear if the RTi A1 system’s performance would match its outstanding build quality, and I wasn’t disappointed. One thing I love about small, well-built bookshelf speakers is their uncanny ability to image and “disappear” from room, system, and sound. For the most part, the Polks did just that. When playing chapter 29 of James Cameron’s Aliens, in which the team attempts to draw the aliens toward them by directing them down two corridors, into an ambush of automated machine guns, the RTi A1s did an excellent job of conveying intensity, displaying surprisingly good dynamic range and decent midbass punch for such small speakers. This was evident with each shot the machine guns fired down the corridors, and by the sheer volume of what was going on. The DSW Pro 400 did a great job of conveying impact with each shot, while never making me aware that it was 2’ outside the “circle” described by the five non-sub speakers. Detail from both the RTi A1s and the CSi A4 was clean and well defined yet never brash, as some smaller systems can sound when pushed to higher volumes. 

When I watched chapter 11 of The Descent, the RTi A1s worked together to convincingly reproduce the aural experience of being in a cave -- I could hear water trickling down walls around and behind me, even though I was much more focused on watching the spelunkers trying to cross the underground crevasse. I was also very pleased with the performance from the center channel with this film’s soundtrack. Most of the characters have thick accents that can be difficult to understand unless heard clearly, especially when they’re talking fast or screaming in fear, yet the CSi A4 did an admirable job of articulating every word. In fact, voices -- quiet or loud, male or female -- were lucid and concise from every source signal I fed the CSi A4. Although the center-channel speaker is timbrally perfectly matched to the RTi A1s, it was so tonally correct that it could easily be used in a system with higher-end speakers. 

The Polks’ dynamic, hard-hitting sound made watching action movies a particular treat. No matter what I played, the speakers always seemed to beg for more, as if to say, “Go for it -- we can take it.” In chapter 21 of Transformers, a battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the Polks’ dynamic nature paid dividends: explosions had smooth yet taut bass from the DSW Pro 400, and ample detail and texture from the RTi A1s and CSi A4. Each time a piece of concrete, stone, or glass was smashed to bits, The RTi A1s did a terrific job of providing the impending crack on impact, and also of resolving the intricate sounds of the stone or glass crumbling, and the pieces hitting the ground. 

The RTi A1s and CSi A4 also presented transients with momentum and precision. In chapter 8 of Daredevil, when the Daredevil is brawling with a criminal in a grungy pub, the camera floats through the air as various sounds are highlighted on the soundtrack -- background music, overlapping voices, bullet casings hitting the floor -- even as a consistent sound picture is retained of what’s happening front and center. All of these sounds started and stopped very quickly, yet all were presented clearly enough to be understood -- a perfect example of just how well the Polk speakers could work together to create a holistic theater experience. 

The DSW Pro 400 didn’t offer the lowest octaves or highest volume levels that I was hoping for. This was no doubt partially due to my slightly large room; most people with a room my size would probably choose Polk’s larger, more powerful DSW Pro 500 or even the DSW Pro 600. 

What the DSW Pro 400 did deliver was a bulletproof confidence toward movies and music, yielding smooth, controlled, punchy bass while seamlessly integrating its sound into that of the rest of the system. In fact, when listening to two-channel material, I found the DSW Pro 400 quite musical, especially with jazz and blues. “Cold Cold Heart,” from Nora Jones’s Come Away with Me (CD, Capitol 5 32088 2), was quite enjoyable through the RTis plus DSW Pro 400. Voices were vivid yet smooth, sounding slightly forward. Bass-guitar plucks had a lingering finish that added a nice richness to the music, and piano notes seemed to hang in the air longer than I’d expected them to. 

Conclusion 

Polk Audio has built another quality product at an affordable price. The RTi A1s not only looked brilliant in their real-wood veneer, they offered plenty of detail, control, and excellent dynamics, which all came together to reproduce multichannel source signals with an invitingly three-dimensional soundstage. The CSi A4 further upped the ante with a sound almost entirely free of coloration, clear and articulate and devoid of any dreaded boxiness. Rounding out the system was the DSW Pro 400, which, when used in a room of appropriate size, proved to be a good, easy-to-use subwoofer that excelled with music and movies alike.

Put it all together and you have a true winner that deserves to be auditioned by anyone looking for a killer entry-level home-theater speaker system.

. . . Aron Garrecht
arong@soundstagenetwork.com

Polk Audio RTi A1 / CSi A4 / DSW Pro 400 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $1409.80 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor (subwoofer amplifier: three years).

Polk Audio
5601 Metro Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215
Phone: (800) 377-7655
Fax: (410) 764-5470

E-mail:polkcs@polkaudio.com
Website: www.polkaudio.com

Naim Uniti All-in-One Audio Player

April 2010

rclogosm_noyearThere’s an old story from the 1950s about President Eisenhower touring one of the first rooms to house a large mainframe computer. The electronic behemoth rang and whistled and flashed, and the head computer scientist challenged the President to ask it a question, any question at all. Eisenhower thought for a moment, then said, “Computer, is there a god?” More bells and whistles and flashing, and out spat a card with the computer’s answer: “There is now.”

Naim Audio’s Uniti ($3795 USD) hasn’t quite been sent from the heavens, but it marks an evolution -- and a revolution -- in audio engineering. Its acceptance of and reliance on computer technology, as well as its complete refutation of the idea that separate components make the best audio system, mark a sea change in high-end audio.

The Uniti combines Naim’s Nait 5i integrated amplifier and CD5i CD player, adds an FM tuner (no AM), and is enabled for Internet access, opening up the listening possibilities to a computer-based music server and Internet Radio.

Were this all it could handle, it would be impressive enough, but the Uniti is just getting started -- it’s outfitted to connect to a home network and play audio files stored on UPnP drives, and also plays audio files stored on USB memory sticks.

Description

The Uniti measures a standard 23.25”W x 9.5”H x 19.75”D and weighs 25 pounds. It retains Naim’s trademark look and sophisticated styling: subtly textured, sharply cornered black metal. In the left third of the faceplate is Naim’s trademark CD drawer: to open it, you pinch a handle and pull it out in an arc. Below that are a mini-stereo input (it accepts analog and digital plugs), a mini-headphone socket, and a USB port. In the center is Naim’s logo, which glows green when the Uniti is powered up, and on the right are the display, and a pad of buttons that nearly repeat the functionality of the remote control.

It’s hardly surprising that any Naim product embodies high-end design standards. Their aesthetic speaks class, and imparts the look and feel of quality. Many power amps weigh twice as much as the Uniti (you can put a brick in a Sony receiver and it, too, would be heavy). But the Uniti is rock solid: I could have sworn it weighed more than its 25 pounds. Its rubber feet make it nearly impossible to budge even slightly, and I can’t imagine it being the slightest bit susceptible to vibration.

Of course, the foundation of the Uniti is the Nait 5i, an integrated amplifier that has remained at the top of its class through many iterations; its 50Wpc into 8 ohms or 90Wpc into 4 ohms should be more than enough to power all but the most ornery speakers. Naim supplies European-style speaker inputs that, in the spirit of safety, accept only banana plugs (no spades, lugs, or bare wire allowed).

Also on the rear panel are the power-cord socket and main power switch. This switch is the only way to turn the Uniti off, so it must remain accessible to the user. Also on the back are sockets for the supplied WiFi antenna or a network cable, and an iPod dock connection that runs off Naim’s n-Link iPod connector cable ($150). There are two five-pin DIN sockets for Naim preamps (the Uniti lacks a dedicated phono stage), subwoofer outputs, a line out, a socket for an FM aerial (not supplied), three standard analog and four digital inputs, and a few other features that are unique to Naim systems.

The Uniti isn’t a simple plug-and-play component, but initial setup took about 30 minutes without my having to read too far into the manual (available online). There are a lot of settings to scroll through via the remote control, but if most users are like me, they’ll find that few of the Uniti’s default settings will need to be changed, the notable exceptions being configuring the network connection and adjusting the front-panel display. More ambitious users can customize the Uniti as much as is imaginable. There are ten input options alone, as well as options for the speaker (subwoofer) and headphone outputs (the headphones respond to their own volume setting, separate from the loudspeakers), and options for customizing CD playback, such as Auto Play and Auto Select. You can even reprogram the keys on the remote, a task that seems reserved for those whose obsessive-compulsiveness might need professional attention.

The Uniti was remarkably skilled at finding the wireless network in my home, a process that, outside my home, is almost always mysterious and too often hit-or-miss. Usually I get to “Select Network” and hope for the best. The Uniti obliterated any frustrations by performing as expected, simply requesting my network password (entered via the remote), and connecting when confirmed.

The display can be programmed to illuminate for anywhere from ten seconds to an hour. Heat -- of which the Uniti generates a significant amount -- is bad for the display, so keeping the display on for more than an hour at a stretch would be unwise. Fortunately, the blank display comes back to life whenever the remote is used (or simply if you press the Disp key). The remote is essential to the Uniti’s operation, even if the buttons on the front panel perform the same tasks: the Uniti, meant to be engaged from a distance, isn’t really a hands-on machine. Thankfully, Naim has designed a slim, sleek, solid plastic remote that is substantial and weighty without being the least bit clunky, and that balances comfortably in the hand.

The Uniti took the place of my NAD C 325BEE integrated amplifier, the Oppo Digital DV-970H DVD player I’ve been using to play CDs, the Tivoli radio I’ve been using as a tuner, my NAD iPod dock, and all the interconnects that link that system. It also at least postponed my desire to acquire a standalone Internet table radio. Consider that: The Uniti upgraded and replaced four beloved components and their cables -- and added the riches of the Internet -- in one fell swoop. And it has the ability to change with the changing digital times with features I didn’t readily need to use.

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Sound and functionality

At this point, the reputation of Naim’s Nait line of integrated amplifiers is beyond reproach. Silky-smooth throughout the entire audioband, they’re responsible for the captivatingly clean and endlessly satisfying musical reproduction delivered by the Uniti, whatever input was selected. The NAD C 325BEE is a respectable, workmanlike amp more admired for its bang for the buck than for its nuance, subtlety, or refinement. These qualities, however, are exactly what the Nait 5i is known for. On the other hand, it costs three to four times the NAD’s price. But even on its own, the Nait might just be worth it.

The Nait 5i brought out the best from whatever it played. I loaded disc 3 of King of the Blues, which covers B.B. King’s career from his rawly recorded early tracks through the slick, heavily produced work of the 1980s and early ’90s (MCA MCAD-D4-10677). “Chains and Things,” however, comes from his commercial and, arguably, artistic apotheosis in the mid- to late 1960s, and in the tray of the CD5i section of the Uniti, there was clear separation among B.B.’s stinging embellishments, his controlled, slightly desperate vocals, and the bedrock backbeat laid down by his band. My reference speakers are a set of B&W 303s -- well-balanced bookshelf monitors that don’t go terribly low (due to obvious size limitations) but do exceptionally well with voices, and generally get the midrange just right. The combo of CD5i and Nait 5i was able to go just a little bit lower than my NAD-Oppo pairing, and took me a bit by surprise. “The Thrill Is Gone” delivered drama and gravitas, the strings accounting for the emotional highs, while the slightly richer, fuller, more enveloping bass kept B.B.’s lament grounded in a reality that was all too present. Using the Uniti to play CDs gave me a top-of-the-line feeling I never quite get from my solid but entry-level gear. The proof was not just in my mind but in my ears.

These days, much of my CD playing is done for product auditions. I confess that the listening I do for pleasure is almost always to Apple Lossless files via my 80GB iPod. Hooking up an MP3 player to an integrated amplifier has become common practice (the front-panel audio input offered with the NAD C 325BEE was the main reason I upgraded from the NAD 320). I jacked into the Uniti with a simple Belkin mini-to-mini patch cord, put the player on Shuffle, and let it rip. Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” from Dark Side of the Moon (CD, Capitol C2 81479), was resolved and detailed, and its bits and pieces -- the soaring, moaning voice, the delicate piano, the drums -- added up to a great, soulful whole. The Uniti dug deeper than the professional sheen Floyd is famous for; it plumbed the music’s depths.

“New York State of Mind” may be Billy Joel’s greatest, most versatile song. Its fine craftsmanship resists oversinging, and Joel’s own version was brash and knowing, the Uniti able to get just a little wistful along with the singer-songwriter. The Uniti’s spatial cues were right on target: each musical element -- Joel’s voice out front, the drums giving the song height, the sax first recessed and then coming forward -- was clearly delineated and crisp without being antiseptic.

The Uniti’s front-panel input behaves as any other: the iPod was the source, and the device itself controlled its internal organization. Shuffle play can be as seductive as an online session of World of Warcraft, the hours vaporizing in a cloud of random segues, the listener hanging on for another three or four minutes, over and over, to find out what might come next. Unfortunately, without the benefit of a dock connection, the iPod inevitably runs its battery down. The Uniti’s n-Link cable charges the iPod, but also takes over navigation. You can’t search through your playlists, tracks, albums, and songs as you would with the iPod’s click wheel, but instead you can use the Uniti’s handset and display to monitor your progress. I was disappointed, however, when I couldn’t seem to retain the random sequence I’d begun while away from home. I could Shuffle songs in total, but I couldn’t Shuffle by playlist, at least not without starting over. I would have preferred to avoid repeating songs I’d already heard.

CDs may be disappearing from my life, daily replaced by a larger iTunes database, but the feature that makes the Uniti a revolutionary product is its ability to stream Internet Radio. And not just stream it, mind you, but stream it in the sort of high-quality sound you experience in its more “traditional” modes of music making.

Once the Uniti is connected to a network, wireless or otherwise, the world is suddenly available at the tip of a thumb. Navigating with the Uniti’s handset is plain, simple, and straightforward. The iRadio menu offers Genre, Location, Podcasts by Location, and Podcasts by Genre. Searching by Location funnels to Continent and Region, then to Country, then by Stations within that country: conventional radio stations that broadcast over the Internet as well as Internet-only offerings. Japan, Poland, Nigeria, Argentina, Nebraska -- you name it. There are more than 300 choices in New York State alone. The mind boggles.

I jumped from the BBC to techno from Tokyo, to “Smoke on the Water” and similar rock classics on Cyber FM, to the Texas Tornados on Tucson’s KXCI. Internet Radio is not for those inclined to attention-deficit disorder. (The Uniti’s 40 presets will help you focus your choices.) The sound was as reliable as FM or CD, better than adequate in even the most obscure case, and a stake through the heart of terrestrial broadcasting. My Tivoli AM/FM tuner is officially on notice. Come to think of it, so is my TV. Who has time to watch television when thousands and thousands of songs and voices are available to be uncovered by the Uniti?

Conclusion

Not only does Naim innovate with the excellence of its integrated amplifier and CD technology, their engineers have delivered a remarkably versatile all-in-one integrated amplifier system that suits the age of consolidation as well as the age of the Internet. The Uniti is upscale -- in appearance, in sound, and, let’s be fair, in price.

To spend $3795 on a Uniti is a lifestyle choice, a cliché commonly misapplied but here apt. The Uniti is not for the casual listener. It simply has too much to offer not to be used and loved for all it can do, no matter how attractive or appealing its package, or how enticing the idea of a single component taking the place of four or five boxes and their attending cables.

The Uniti, a pair of speakers designed for 50Wpc of power, and a set of solid speaker cables terminated in banana plugs, and you have a state-of-the-art sound system that begs to be a way of life.

I’ve owned power amps and preamps, rack systems and receivers, turntables and CD changers, and more radios than I can remember. The Naim Uniti, however, is a component for listening in 2010, with an eye and an ear to 2020. Sure, it plays CDs and plays them well, but the Uniti’s real benefits -- its integration with the Apple iPod and its ability to stream Internet Radio -- render everything else redundant at best, and at worst, obsolete.

. . Jeff Stockton
jeffs@soundstagenetwork.com 

Naim Uniti All-in-One Audio Player
Price: $3795 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Naim Audio Ltd.
Southampton Road
Salisbury SP1 2LN
England, UK
Phone: + 44 (0)1722-426600
Fax: + 44 (0)871-230-10-12

E-mail: info@naimaudio.com 
Website: www.naimaudio.com