The latest member of the Squeezebox family of digital music players refines some of the features of previous models, such as the Squeezebox Classic, while adding many new ones. The most obvious difference is its bright, 4.3"-wide touchscreen, but this amazing little box has a lot more to offer. Still, its design is unprepossessing for an audiophile product -- it’s almost entirely plastic, and looks more like something that a store would display with the clock radios instead of with the audio gear. In fact, one review I read found fault with it for costing $299.99 USD -- a very high price for a clock radio, that writer thought.
The Touch is not a clock radio. It’s an audiophile streaming device capable of handling 24-bit/96kHz music files that also happens to include clock-radio functions among its many extras -- so many extras that, rather than being too expensive, it’s a bargain.
The Logitech Touch measures almost 6”W x 3.57”H x 3.18”D, with a screen 4.3”W x 2.2”H. The front is smooth, with no controls or ports, its sleek, shiny surface decorated only with a discreet Logitech logo. The touchscreen and case are tilted back about 30° from vertical (the angle can’t be adjusted). On the back are a headphone socket, a pair of analog RCA outputs, optical and coaxial digital outputs, an Ethernet port, and a USB output for attaching an external hard drive. The headphone output can be used for external powered speakers if you’re connecting the Touch to an external drive and using the Touch’s own internal server, the Tiny SBS. (Smoothing out the Tiny SBS functions was one of the main reasons the Touch was released five months after its initial street date.) On one side is a nearly invisible slot for inserting an SD card. Since music releases on SD cards seem more in music’s future than its present (Cardas has put out a few, and there are rumors of others), this seems a feature that for now will be used mostly by photographers. The Touch’s digital-to-analog converter is an AKM Semiconductor AK4420 stereo chip. The Touch produces 2V RMS output on the RCA outputs. The Touch is claimed to be bit-perfect to 24/96 and will play these file formats: FLAC, AIFF, WAV, Apple Lossless, WMA Standard, MP3, AAC/HE-AACv2, and HD-ACC.
Also included is a power cord incorporating a transformer to be plugged into the wall, an infrared remote control, two AA batteries, RCA stereo analog connection cables, a cloth for wiping the screen (Logitech cautions against using anything abrasive), and an instruction book. One of Logitech’s greatness weaknesses over the years has been a lack of printed instructions, so I approached this 156-page volume with great hope -- only to find that its heft was the result of its ten pages of very basic information in English being duplicated in 12 other languages. There is another manual, Getting to Know Logitech Touch WiFi Music Player; you can find, read, and download it here.
Connecting the Touch
The presence of the Touch’s internal server, the Tiny SBS, means that one could simply connect the Touch to an external drive containing music files and plug a pair of powered speakers into the Touch’s headphone jack. The typical user, however, will probably want to use the Touch to stream music stored on a computer to a main audio/video system. To do this, you must download to your computer Logitech’s free Squeeze Center software; the Touch can then be configured to work with either a wireless router, or hardwired with an Ethernet connection. You select Wired or Wireless operation during the setup, an incredibly simple process. For the most part the Touch worked well wirelessly, though the sound dropped out once in a while, which might not have happened had my computer and audio system not been 30’ and several walls apart. Hardwiring them together with a 50’ Ethernet cable solved the problem.
The Touch did most of the searching for networks and addresses, but should you have a problem with this, you can call a toll-free number: (877) 887-8889. Logitech’s Squeezebox help line is possibly the best in the industry -- as complete and detailed as its printed manuals are incomplete and general. I found that the technicians really did try to help me. Most of my inquiries were solved at Level One, but if your problem is thornier, you can be transferred to Level Two, where you’ll be assisted by engineers who really know the product. Addressing customer problems and complaints is one of Logitech’s primary ways of gathering information that needs to be incorporated into future firmware updates, so they’re interested in getting things to work right.
Using the Touch
The Touch’s home screen gives you a choice of basic functions: My Music, Internet Radio, Settings, etc. Select one by tapping it directly on the touchscreen, or by using the right arrow button on the remote. You’re then taken to another menu, where you can make a more specific choice, and then perhaps to a third menu for more options. To return to a previous menu, swipe left or use the remote’s left-arrow button. It’s more complex to describe than it is to do. I found all of the menus to be clear and intuitive -- in a phrase, user-friendly. The touchscreen was very sensitive and easy to use -- I never had to tap a desired function more than once -- and every bit as responsive as my Apple iTouch.
Readers who haven’t played music from downloaded files will find the Touch’s controls very much like those of a CD player: Play, Stop, Pause, Chapter Skip forward and back. The Touch has one thing the Squeezebox Classic lacked: fast forward, activated by using a slider bar on the touchscreen. Using fast forward via the remote control hadn’t yet been finalized at the time of writing, but will probably involve holding down the Chapter Skip button.
The following comments apply mostly to using the Touch as a device to play files from a computer. All commands can be given by tapping the touchscreen or pressing a key on the remote. The remote control works pretty much as did the one with the original Squeezebox and, also like that remote, has no touchscreen of its own. Some people feel that this was a mistake, and that the touchscreen should have been on the remote rather than on the Touch itself. Whether or not you agree will depend on how far you are from the Touch when using it. My Touch is just to my right on a shelf about 2.5’ away, so it’s easy for me to use the remote to scroll through titles while looking at the Touch’s screen. Moreover, the Touch’s remote has one very useful search feature not on the Touch itself: You can use the numbered keys to display letters of the alphabet, just as you would a telephone keypad. For instance, if you tap 2 (ABC) three times, the program will take you to the beginning of the Cs (a big letter C is displayed on the screen), and you can scan down from there. Or say you want to search something at the end of the Cs: You can click 3 (DEF) once to get to D, then scan up into the Cs. The scan accelerates the longer you hold down the direction button; until you get the hang of it (it won’t take long), you might find yourself zipping by your chosen title. I found this much easier than using my clumsy fingers on the screen itself.
In another search function available on the remote, you click in the first two or three letters of the entry you want, but this is slower than getting to the first letter and scrolling up or down. How you can search depends on how you’ve set up your music library. I use iTunes and can search by album title, artist name, genre (particularly handy in December), and year of release. The information for the Touch remote’s commands can easily be loaded into a universal remote control. I’d already set up and configured my Harmony 890 universal remote for the Squeezebox Classic, and was delighted to find that all of those controls worked for the Touch as well.
Information can be displayed on the Touch’s screen in different ways. You can choose a background from among nine offered; few will want to keep the default, because letters are hard to read against its background. I settled on Harmony, a combination of purple and dark blue in which words and titles stood out better. If your music files are tagged with the album cover, the Touch will display it while that album is playing. You can choose from among several Now Playing displays: album cover plus text, album cover alone, text alone, a pair of analog VU meters, or a spectrum analyzer. You select the display you prefer in the Settings menu, then tap the screen or click the Now Playing button to cycle them in succession. You can also choose a screen saver that will appear when the player is stopped or playing.
But if you sit far away from the Touch when you listen, or are on the move, you’ll probably want to get a different remote. The Touch automatically displays small text when you tap the screen and large text when you use the remote, but if you’re more than 5-6’ away, the screen is not easy to read. In that case, you can either purchase Logitech’s remote controller, or an Apple iTouch (or iPhone) configured with the iPeng app ($9.95). Then you can use all of the amazing features of the iTouch as well.
In addition to being a music player, the Touch has many other features, the most important of which is its ability to access Internet Radio. Though you must have your computer on to stream music from it, the radio feature will work whether your computer is on or off. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of stations from which to choose, and they are well organized by category on the Touch menu. I found that stations varied widely in terms of features. For instance, some would give a readout listing the song currently playing and perhaps the artist as well, but other stations offered nothing more than their own names. You can always get more information on stations, including the broadcast frequency by pressing “+” on the remote and selecting More Information.
If you log on to www.mysqueezebox.com (registration required), you can select apps to use with your Touch. Some of these, such as Rhapsody, are pay-as-you-go, but many are free. One of the most interesting, the Live Music Archive, I first discovered while writing about websites that offered HD downloads; here you’ll find hundreds of free legal recordings made by fans at concerts. It’s a voyage of discovery to surf the Archive, which contains performances by many musicians who are not household names. But you’ll find Dave Matthews and the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as the largest collection of Grateful Dead concerts you could imagine.
And you can use that SD card slot on the side of the Touch to display slide shows of photos taken with your digital camera. Later, if and when music on SDs becomes commonplace, you’ll be able play those as well. And mustn’t forget -- you can set the Touch to function as an alarm clock, and a rather sophisticated one at that.
Squeezebox products are constantly updated through their network connections -- in the three or four weeks I had the Touch hooked up, it received eight or nine updates. I would turn on the Touch, and there’d be a message on the screen telling me an update was available. Then I’d highlight and tap the correct frame to begin the download. Downloading each update took only a few minutes, and then I was ready to go. I welcome such updates; they let me know that I own a piece of equipment that is being kept current, and not being allowed to lapse into an early obsolescence. Every firmware update has caused some function to run a bit more smoothly or opened up possibilities for the future. For instance, a Logitech technician told me that one thing the company is now working on is a deal with Amazon.com that would allow cover art to appear automatically, without the user having to search for it. That and other new features will be made available through automatic firmware updates.
And if you’re going to own a Squeezebox Touch, you’d best be prepared to visit Logitech’s forum, either when you need to, or just once in a while to see what’s new. The forum is for customers but is monitored by Logitech’s senior engineers; if you have a problem or suggestion and post it on the forum, you’ll get pertinent comments from an engineer that will help your situation. Many forum members are deeply conversant with computers and constantly tweak their systems, but others simply want to know how to best configure their Touch for their needs. On the forum you can find out about plug-ins that you can add to the Touch to personalize it (there are already several for the clock, and one to make those aforementioned VU meters look sexier). Bottom line: You can be assured that buying a Touch is not a dead-end purchase but an ongoing adventure. Few companies offer such support.
My disc player these days is an Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player. I use a Yamaha RX-V661 receiver as a preamplifier, my main power source being an Outlaw 750 five-channel amplifier. My speakers are all MartinLogan: two Ascents and a Theater in the front, three Aeriuses for the surround channels, and a Descent subwoofer. Because I ran the Yamaha in Pure Direct mode for this review and the Touch supports only stereo recordings, not surround sound, 95% of the time the Ascents ran full-range on their own. With a few recordings, particularly of pipe organ, that included very-low-frequency bass, I found it fun to use Yamaha’s Neural Surround setting, which kicks in the subwoofer and surround channels.
Though its 24/96 DAC was the single feature of the Squeezebox Touch that I was most looking forward to, I thought I should first try the Logitech with some Apple Lossless files while I still had good aural memories of how they sounded through the Squeezebox Classic. One recording I know backward and forward is España, with the late, great Ataulfo Argenta conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (CD, Decca Legends 466 378-2). I created both Apple Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz and AIFF 16-bit/48kHz files from this CD a few years back, and had used Chabrier’s España to test the Squeezebox Classic. It sounded just as splendid via the Touch. The opening pizzicato flourishes had palpable presence and good tone, the cymbals had sheen and sparkle, and the bass was solid as the proverbial rock. Better yet, it had more stereo separation than through the Classic, and better imaging. I often play this recording for guests, but only later do I tell them that it’s a digital file made from a 1957 master tape, just to see their jaws drop in disbelief. Talk about a recording that has stood the test of time!
I then ran through a whole group of Apple Lossless files I’d made from CDs at 16/44.1, of all genres, from classical to rock. All passed with flying colors. In general, regardless of genre, they seemed to bear out the promise of the Chabrier: better stereo separation, better imaging, and excellent frequency response. Once in a while one wouldn’t sound quite as good as the rest, but on going back to the original CD I would find that the fault lay there and not with the Touch. More often the file would sound better than the CD: a bit sweeter, and closer to what’s generally thought of as “analog” sound. Curious, but welcome, for a digital device.
Then I delved into the 24-bit/48kHz and 24/96 files I’ve downloaded from various sites over the past two years. Almost all of the hi-rez files I have were downloaded in FLAC format, and then, using dBpoweramp, converted to AIFF at 24/48 or 24/96. The Touch will handle FLAC files, but iTunes, where my music library resides, will not, hence the need to convert them.
All of the 24/48 files sounded absolutely satisfying through the Touch. The cycles of Alwyn, Bax, and Nielsen symphonies I’d downloaded from the Chandos site at 24/48 had superb transparency with lots of air around the strings, which sounded sweet and pure. With 24/96 files I heard, as expected, sound comparable to what I’ve been hearing for years now from SACD and DVD-Audio discs. The only drawback was that the Touch doesn’t support these recordings’ surround channels. Other than that, the files sounded identical to the two-channel hi-rez tracks on my HD discs. I tried several titles downloaded from www.hdtracks.com. First was Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (24/96 AIFF, Reference/HDtracks). It was completely convincing: sweet, accurate string sound, a wide soundstage, and imaging that gave a breathtaking idea of the depth of that stage. The strings were in front, the woodwinds centered slightly behind them, and the brass and percussion at the rear, even when playing loudly. The overall effect was lush, with excellent definition.
I then selected an oldie but a goody, also downloaded from HDtracks: Getz/Gilberto, by Stan Getz and João and Astrud Gilberto (24/96 AIFF, Verve/Universal/HDtracks). The gently scintillating “The Girl from Ipanema” was the monster hit from this album that introduced bossa nova to American listeners back in 1963. For comparison, I’d also downloaded the 16/44.1 CD version as an Apple Lossless file. It was pleasing, but the 24/96 version was more so, with greater stereo separation and superior imaging: each singer or player was placed in a precise location. This gentle music is loaded with expressive nuances, such as lightly struck cymbals and rhythmic yet deliberately subdued piano and guitar, all countered by the crunchy and somewhat demanding sound of Getz’s tenor saxophone.
The Rachmaninoff was sampled from a 24/96 master recording, but Getz/Gilberto was, of course, recorded in analog. This is a source of great debate on many audiophile forums: Do analog recordings actually need 24/96 downloads, or is it overkill? My brain said, yes, it’s overkill, but my ears told me that the 24/96 file sure sounded sweeter. To hear more hi-rez recordings that were actually recorded at hi-rez in the first place, I turned to Linn Records. First up was a favorite by jazz singer Ian Shaw, Lifejacket (24/88.2 AIFF, Linn/HDtracks). “Love at First Tequila” features rapid-fire singing over quick-stroke drumming, saxophone obbligato, and occasional supporting vocals, all buoyed by a solid bass line. I could easily hear the individual threads, even as the overall tapestry remained intact. That I could understand every word of Shaw’s quicksilver patter was mostly due to the singer’s artistry, but also to the quality of the recording. I was impressed by the Touch’s reproduction of such complex music.
Along those lines, there’s scarcely any music more complex than a Mahler symphony, and Linn offers a 24/96 download of the composer’s Symphony 6 with the Duisberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Darlington (24/96 AIFF, Acousence Classics/HDtracks). (Linn also offers a 24-bit/192kHz version. At this point, the Touch, incapable of playing 24/192, would halve that resolution to 24/96, but the DAC in the Touch is capable of 192kHz -- who knows what future firmware upgrades might bring?) I don’t know which surprised me more: learning that a relatively small city (pop. 500,000) had such a fine-sounding orchestra, or that it had been recorded with such accuracy. In the opening of this gigantic work, the string basses crunched away impressively with their marching beat, aided by a crisp snare drum. As the movement progressed, I was treated to the natural sound of violins, pointed and insistent but never harsh. Golden, burnished brass made the big climaxes thrilling.
After hours of listening to music files, I turned to Internet Radio and was again very impressed with the sound of the Touch. I’d not previously heard Internet stations sound so good overall, even via the Squeezebox Classic. Of course, radio stations, like recordings, vary in sound quality, but when I was able to find a good BBC station (be sure to load the BBC applet when offered the choice) or a superb jazz station, the listening experience was of high quality.
In sum, the sound from the Touch’s DAC was impressive. Of course, you can use the Logitech’s digital outputs to plug in an outboard DAC, but unless you’ve spent many times the Touch’s price on your DAC, it’s unlikely to sound much better. The Touch won’t make a horrible recording sound good, but it will make good recordings sound excellent, no matter their bit and sampling rates. And with an excellent recent recording with HD mastering, it will give you even higher quality. I never felt I was missing anything by not playing the original CD or SACD . . . except for the surround channels.
At $299.99, the Logitech Squeezebox Touch is a bargain. It gives audiophile results with high-quality music files, offers superb Internet Radio with a choice of thousands of stations, and has a bright, impressive, responsive touchscreen. Its features and conveniences are sure to delight everyone, and Logitech provides a solid support network that continues to tweak the Touch’s features while adding new ones through firmware upgrades. The Touch makes it easy for anyone to join the growing ranks of those for whom downloads are the main source of music recordings, and solves the problem of not being able to have your audio system and computer in the same room. Some might dislike the remote control’s lack of a display screen, but there are advantages to and solutions for that. The Touch is a superb digital music player, and a remarkable value.
. . . Rad Bennett
Model: Logitech Squeezebox Touch WiFi Music Player
Price: $299.99 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
6505 Kaiser Drive
Fremont, CA 94555
Phone: (800) 231-7717
Fax: (510) 713-4780
In October, while wandering the Sound and Vision Expo in
Form and function
Curvi-Hifi’s Model 1 Version 2 ($8000 USD per pair) took company designer Christopher Liauw five years to develop. Its unique single-driver design features sophisticated tapered-line (aka transmission-line) bass loading. And one look at the Model 1’s curving shape will tell you that Curvi-Hifi takes its name literally. Its free-flowing contour is as unique as they come, and mimics to some degree the human form: someone sitting on the ground with his knees drawn up to his chest. This shape reportedly helps reduce internal reflections by dissipating the driver’s back-wave energy away from the driver. Those reflections could otherwise muddy the overall sound by being reflecting back into the driver, and through it to the listener. Curvi-Hifi makes a good point that such instruments as the trombone and tuba don’t have sharp internal edges (though some manufacturers do make tapered-line speakers with sharp internal corners).
Tapered-line speakers are also known for producing bass levels that far exceed their size. This applies to the Model 1 Version 2, which measures only 39.4"H x 6.5"W x 17.7"D. Its narrow front baffle, in particular, helps to avoid excessive diffraction, but the tapered line itself is 7.9’ long, and strategically damped to extend the speaker’s bass response down to 35Hz. The enclosures are made of birch plywood, hand-assembled so that the grain of each ply is perpendicular to the direction of vibrations from the driver. This supposedly helps rapidly dissipate energy and spread it out over a wide range of frequencies, thus minimizing structural resonances. This process is reportedly very labor intensive despite use of a
The 4”-wide, wide-bandwidth midrange driver was designed by Ted Jordan, who has spent decades perfecting single-driver designs with full-range response. This one, with a cone of pressed aluminum, is said by
A single-driver speaker benefits by needing only a simple electrical network, as Liauw explained: “There is no electrical crossover in the Curvi -- the change in radiating area of the drive singlet is dependent on controlled flexure of the driver. There is, however, a filter that compensates for diffraction losses of upper bass output around the cabinet -- without this there would be a 6dB step-down in the frequency response in the upper bass region giving a rather thin and overly forward presentation. A lot of the development cost went into specification of this filter (Christien Ellis of CE Electroacoustics was of vital assistance here). It has to be stressed, however, that the network is very simple and is made up of the best quality components including a heatsink-mounted Vishay thick-film resistor that is hugely over-specified (in terms of power handling) for the application. This results in negligible thermal stress and a very transparent sound. At frequencies above around middle C, this resistor is practically the only element between the amplifier and the drive unit, and at frequencies below around middle C, a 1.25mm-thick copper wire inductor is practically the only element between the amplifier and the drive singlet.” In other words, not much gets in the way of the signal being fed the speaker by the amplifier.
When I received the Model 1 V2s, I was impressed by their fit’n’finish and the quality of their clear finish of satin acrylic lacquer, but their overall appearance is in the love-it-or-hate-it category. In addition to the above mentioned acoustic benefits, Liauw also aimed to boost wife-acceptance factor and change the commonly encountered loudspeaker aesthetic. Modest in size, each speaker weighs 53 pounds and can be moved about by a single person. All internal wiring is solid-core copper, connected to a pair of 4mm gold-plated sockets. You can’t use spades or bare wire -- you have to use banana plugs.
Assembly was straightforward. All I had to do was secure each speaker to its hefty plinth with four screws. Curvi provided high-quality spikes, which screwed into each plinth. At 83dB (2.83V) sensitivity, together with a minimum impedance of 5 ohms at 20Hz (average impedance 8 ohms), the Model 1 does not present a particularly difficult load in terms of current demand, but it does require relatively high-voltage drive. Amplifiers of fairly generous power are therefore necessary to drive these speakers to their full potential. Single-ended-triode amplifiers with power output below 30Wpc will not be suitable for the Curvi if reasonable sound levels are required.
For this review, my reference system consisted of an Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player hooked up to a Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier. The unbalanced interconnects were made by Artisan Silver Cables and Monster Cable. I also used a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion notebook computer to stream digital files via Kimber USB cords from a 500GB Western Digital external hard drive to the Peachtree’s internal DAC. The amplifier was hooked up to the Curvi Model 1 V2s via Monster MCX-2s speaker cables. Power was run through a Lindy six-outlet power conditioner.
I didn’t have to wait long to sit down and enjoy the Curvi-Hifi Model 1 V2s; by the time they reached me, they’d already been broken-in. My initial impression was that Curvi’s simple approach to the electrical and acoustical design of the Model 1 V2s resulted in very pure sound. This made for a very involving experience with a natural musicality -- I felt as if more of the music was getting through to me unaltered by the speakers. This was unlike my experience of speakers that, by comparison, can make music sound processed; in other words, with the essence of the music removed.
A key technical benefit of the single-driver principle espoused by Curvi-Hifi is that there is no mismatch of the arrival times of the outputs of multiple drivers. Perhaps this is why the sound was so coherent, from the top to the bottom of the audioband. This coherence helped create a soundstage of considerable width and height. That stage’s depth was just OK in my room -- I’ve heard speakers that created more front-to-back layering. On the other hand, the Model 1 V2s’ imaging was exceptional. When I listened to pianist Radu Lupu, Uri Segal, and the English Chamber Orchestra perform the Andante of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21, from Essential Mozart (CD, Decca 468517), each of the performers were portrayed in their own carved-out spaces on the soundstage, with air and space evident around each. The soundstage extended just slightly past the outside edges of the speakers, when the recording contained such information. These qualities always added to the realism of the performance, and when the recording called for a wide stage, the Model 1s were able to oblige.
Listening to “Time in a Bottle,” from Jim Croce’s Classic Hits (CD, Rhino/WEA 73890), I was presented with a clear, open midrange, and Croce’s voice was natural and warm. The Model 1 V2 leaned toward the warmer side of the tonal spectrum, though it was never too warm in a euphonic sense. It remained quite neutral overall, but had a warm sound in the mids that helped make voices sound more lifelike. Croce’s guitar sounded natural, with accurate timbre. The leading edges of notes were well defined, and the decaying sound of the notes seemed to go on forever -- again, if the recording contained such information.
I could hear a lot of microlevel detail through the Model 1 V2s -- low-level guitar notes were prominently displayed in the mix. This caught me a little off guard, and seemed quite a feat for a single-driver design; after all, microlevel detail is usually associated with dedicated tweeters. The Model 1’s single driver exceeded my expectations in regard to high-frequency response -- Croce’s subtle striking of his guitar’s strings was very much evident. However, the highs didn’t extend as far as with speakers that have extended, dedicated tweeters. Through the Curvi, very high frequencies sounded subdued in comparison to speakers that have greater HF extension. This didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the Model 1 V2s, but it did affect the speaker’s air and sparkle. The top end wasn’t as crisp as I’ve heard from some speakers with high-quality tweeters.
To put the Model 1 V2’s bass talent through its paces, I played “One,” from Metallica’s And Justice for All (CD, Elektra 60812). This is one of my all-time favorite songs, but its bass can overwhelm inferior speakers. This wasn’t the case with the Curvi, whose bass definition was spot on. There was solid weight, and enough power to make “One” come alive. I could hear good delineation of detail in the sound of the drums: As Lars Ulrich whacked his kit, I could easily concentrate on the tones of the snare and kick drums. The tonal character of each drum stroke was exceptionally accurate. Many speakers can produce generous bass, but only a small number can provide ample bass while delineating different bass notes. The Model 1 V2s were exceptionally good at this, and it anchored their reproduction of “One.” When Ulrich doubled-up on the kick drum and the song’s pace increased, I couldn’t help but drum along in my seat -- the bass definition was that good.
The Curvi didn’t reach the very lowest depths of a good subwoofer, but I believe its bass depth would be enough to satisfy most headbangers. Equally impressive was that the bass didn’t lose its composure when the song got faster and more complex. I could clearly hear Kirk Hammett’s guitar solo among the bombardment of the other two guitars and drums. This entire passage had weight, energy, sharp attack, and great rhythm, and the bass was always articulate.
It seemed only fair to compare the Model 1 with another transmission-line speaker, and recently I’d received for review a pair of PMC’s new Fact 8s. Unlike the Model 1, however, the Fact 8 is a two-way design with three drivers: two mid/bass cones and a soft-dome tweeter.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the two speakers sounded most similar in the bass; both had well-defined, articulate low ends that were as transparent as those of any speakers I’ve had in my listening room. I could clearly delineate the differences among different assortments of drums -- there was never a hint of “one-note bass,” and notes in the bottom end were reproduced with quickness and snap. There was a tonal correctness to the bass that I have rarely heard outside the upper echelon of high-end speakers.
I also heard similarities in the midranges of these two speakers. Both the Curvi and the PMC were pure and transparent across the midrange, though the PMC had a smidgen more openness overall in the midband. The Model 1 V2 lacked energy in the upper midrange and highs compared with the Fact 8. In the Curvi’s defense, it did extend higher than other single-driver designs I’ve heard, but the Fact 8 had better extension up top. The PMC’s treble was more open, with a better sense of transparency. Everything from trumpets and electric guitars to pianos and saxophones sounded crisper and cleaner through the Fact 8s.
I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with the Curvi-Hifi Model 1 Version 2. It is a musically engaging loudspeaker whose designer has taken a road less traveled, creating deep bass with only a single driver in a fairly compact and uniquely styled enclosure. For this, Christopher Liauw deserves a lot of credit.
The Model 1 Version 2 has a naturally warm, open midrange that remains transparent, and its transmission-line-loaded bass aided in creating some of the deepest, most expressive bass I have heard from a speaker of this size. The downside is that the Model 1 V2’s highs weren’t as airy as those of speakers with a dedicated tweeter. But what the Model 1 lacked in high-frequency extension it more than made up for in audioband-wide purity and coherence. Perhaps because these speakers lack a complex crossover network, I had an overall feeling that music was flowing through them unaltered.
The Curvi-Hifi Model 1 Version 2 is a must-listen for any audio enthusiast who values simple electro-acoustic and mechanical design as well as a free-flowing physical form that also happens to make excellent sound.
. . . Kevin Gallucci
Curvi-Hifi Model 1 Version 2 Loudspeakers
Price: $8000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Flat 58, Granby House
61 Granby Row
Phone: +44 (0)161-247-3325, +44 (0)777 276 6465
Ikon Audio Consultants
Phone: +44 (0)1473 217 853, +44 (0)7956 476299
Now that WiFi seems to have emerged as the wireless computing protocol of choice, the audio world hasn’t lost a beat in developing applications for it. Our friends at Aperion Audio have jumped on the wireless bandwagon with a nifty audio streaming appliance, the Home Audio Link, or HAL. Of course, any resemblance between this device and a certain rebellious computer is purely coincidental -- right, HAL?
"That’s right, Kev."
"What’s in the box, Kev?"
The HAL is a simple affair: two diminutive boxes, each 2" x 1.75" x .75", one labeled Send and the other -- guess what? -- Receive. Each box has a USB connector attached to a 2" lead, a mini-jack input, and a Link button that activates communication between the Send and Receive units when the installation is complete. There’s an additional mini-jack input on the Send unit and an analog output on the Receive unit, courtesy a mini-jack-to-RCA patch cord (included). Aperion includes two AC-to-USB adapters in case your source and/or target (i.e., your audio system) lacks a USB port to supply power. While many of today’s A/V receivers have USB ports, a great many more don’t, and it goes without saying that any older gear doesn’t. If you’re using a computer to transmit the audio signal, a USB port supplies the power. If you just want to use the HAL to wirelessly transmit your iPod or other audio signal, then the AC-USB adapter can supply the power. The HAL also comes with a mini-jack-to-mini-jack patch cord designed to connect an external sound source -- an iPod, MP3 player, or portable CD player -- for remote transmission to your receiver. The HAL costs $149 USD.
"I’m the latest technology, Kev."
The HAL uses a proprietary wireless technology that transmits on the 2.4GHz band, like WiFi and Bluetooth, but isn’t strictly WiFi (that is, it doesn’t use the 802.11 specification). The USB technology serves two purposes: for the Send unit, it pulls the audio signal from the source and provides power; for Receive, it supplies only power.
"I’m fully operational, Kev."
I tried the HAL all over the house with a variety of computer and audio systems. First, I connected the Send unit to an old Hewlett-Packard laptop running Windows XP (told you it was old), and the Receive unit to the Big Rig in my dedicated listening room: Audio by Van Alstine Omega III Star EC preamp, original Sunfire amplifier, and Legacy Classic loudspeakers.
Setup was pretty easy: Plug the Send box into an available USB port, the Receive box’s USB jack to one of the AC adapters, and its analog RCA outputs into an available input on the preamp or receiver. Once the PC and the audio system were powered up, I hit the Link button, and the HAL established the wireless connection. The HP is WiFi’d to a home network via a broadband cable connection and an Apple Airport Extreme transmitter, so I brought up Radio Paradise and . . . nothing. Here I learned the first lesson of initializing the HAL: Once you’ve made the connection and established the link to the Receive box, you need to close your music program and then reopen it. Once I’d done that, Radio Paradise streamed effortlessly.
While jotting down notes in a Word file, I learned about the HAL’s second, um, quirk. It intercepts a PC’s audio output, so plugging it into the PC disables all of the PC’s onboard audio. And, yes, while it streams whatever music you’re sending to your hi-fi, be forewarned: If you’re working on your PC while the HAL’s in action, your rig will also reproduce all the other sounds your PC outputs during the course of doing business, including stray boops, clicks, whee-dos, and "You’ve Got Mail" announcements. Normally this isn’t very important, but if you’re using an application whose inputs and/or outputs are accompanied by audio cues, it’s annoying -- you may want to disable the app’s audio while streaming music to your hi-fi.
The second test was to move the Send box about 30’ away, into another room, and plug it into my Mac Mini. Aperion advises that the HAL is virtually plug’n’play with PC and Linux operating systems. Well, as we’ve seen, almost. However, with a Mac you need to go into the Sound controller in System Preferences and set the output to the HAL. The good news is that once the HAL was plugged in, the Mac saw it, and all I had to do was select it. I did, and Radio Paradise’s sound blared from the Big Rig in all its glory. OK, the Big Rig isn’t for MP3 sound, however much I love Radio Paradise -- but this was one critical test the HAL passed with flying colors.
Back to the Music Room, the Big Rig, and another OS, this time a Xandros-based Linux system in an ASUS EEE PC a few years old. The EEE PC is a neat bit of engineering, eschewing a hard disc for an 8GB flash drive. I’ve used mine as a traveling companion; its light weight and diminutive build are perfect for the road, especially for the cramped space of a long flight. The HAL could transmit any sound from the EEE except Internet streams. The EEE has an internal sound processor, but the way ASUS has configured the Xandros means it doesn’t engage when you call up an Internet sound application. Instead, Mozilla’s Firefox browser, the EEE’s only browser, summons an Internet-based sound generator that bypasses this EEE’s sound capability. I could never get the EEE to direct Internet-streamed sound to the HAL. However, because the Aperion did transmit the EEE’s transaction noise to the Big Rig, I’m fairly sure that if I’d stored some music on the EEE, the HAL would have done the job.
The next test was to take the HAL’s Receive box downstairs and connect it to the A/V rig in the family room (Onkyo TX-SR800 receiver, PSB VS400 tower speakers, PSB VS300 center speaker, Mirage LF100 subwoofer) while leaving the Send box in the upstairs office. All the WiFi in the family room is broadcast from the home LAN and the Airport Extreme in the office. Despite a shot of about 65’ through a series of walls, all at an angle -- which, depending on the angle’s acuteness, can make a 4"-thick wall seem a foot or more thick -- the WiFi signal came through with fairly decent strength. (The Airport Extreme broadcasts using the 811.02(n) specification.) The HAL boxes searched and searched, but never found each other.
So, for the final test, I moved the Send box downstairs. We’ve added to our family another ASUS EEE PC (I’ll call this one the EEE2), a Windows 7-based wonder that took to the HAL like an audiophile to vinyl. The EEE2 streamed Radio Paradise to the A/V rig without a hitch. Interestingly, the EEE2’s Internet signal is from the same LAN signal in the upstairs office. I then took the EEE2 on a walk, with it still connected to the LAN and the HAL to the A/V rig. About 35’ from the Receiver box, the signal began to degrade. First came the occasional dropout. Then, as I turned from the hall into the kitchen, about 40’ from the Receive box, the signal disappeared. At the same time, because I was moving closer to the center of the house -- the office is directly above the kitchen -- the LAN signal doubled in strength. From this I concluded that the loss of the audio signal was attributable to the HAL rather than to the signal strength from the Airport Extreme. Aperion claims a range of 100’ for the HAL, but I couldn’t even approach that within the configuration of our house. I suppose -- and I didn’t have a 100’ traverse available -- a straight shot without doors or walls might reach that far, but in our version of the real world the HAL had obvious limitations.
Finally, I tested the audio input on the HAL’s Send box. I plugged the Aperion into the other AC-USB adapter and connected my iPod Touch to the mini-jack ports. Predictably, the sound came through the A/V rig clear and unfettered. Then I connected a portable CD player, the Panasonic SL-SV570, again through the mini-jack ports. Same result. Still, the USB connection on the Send box is a power source as well as a signal transmitter, so I repeated both the iPod Touch and Panasonic CD player tests using the EEE2’s USB port as a power source. Identical results.
I’m struggling with the notion that I’d ever actually want my iPod or portable CD player playing from my computer -- or some other remote location -- to an audio rig. Still, I know folks (my daughter comes to mind) whose idea of a music library is whatever will fit on their iPods. In fact, I’ve come home to hear her iPod streaming to the A/V rig with carefree abandon, the HAL plugged into the EEE2’s USB port, while she unlearns yet another set of declensions of irregular French verbs.
"I’m sorry, Kev. I can’t let you say that. Wait . . . yes I can."
The Aperion Home Audio Link is a nifty appliance for wirelessly linking sound sources to a home audio rig. As we move ever so slowly but ever so surely from physical to virtual media, and to a time when lossless downloads will become the dominant audio format, the means for storing audio files -- indeed, all media -- will necessarily be tied to the means of acquisition: the Internet. Most of us have PCs (the lucky have Macs) that are inextricably linked to the ’Net, generally full-time via some sort of broadband connection. However, few of us have that kind of capacity within easy, wired reach of our home hi-fi. Given, then, that in the not-too-distant future our music collections will be warehoused on file servers instead of as racks of LPs and/or CDs, the ability to easily and wirelessly link the two will also become a critical component of the listening environment. Yes, purists will inevitably decry signal degradation -- I have no way of testing this -- and there will indeed be wired solutions, but here is one wireless appliance whose signal sounds terrific, and whose sole limitation seems to be too many walls.
Like the ASUS EEE2, the Aperion HAL has become a fixture in the family room. We use the EEE2 for ad hoc data queries both earnest and whimsical ("Who won the American League batting title in 2003?" "Who played the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?"). When it comes to music, we can put a CD in the Pioneer DVD player, connect my or my wife’s or my daughter’s iPod directly or via the HAL, or stream one of thousands of Internet Radio stations. On Sunday mornings we favor classical, while on Saturday nights we tend toward golden-age jazz -- and there’s always Radio Paradise.
The Aperion HAL is an amazingly versatile little device -- and if you want to stream the same sound source to multiple locations, Aperion offers additional Receive units for $70 each. After struggling for years with trying to stream or otherwise play Radio Paradise over something other than the Audio Engine A2s connected to my Mac Mini, the HAL has provided a painless, wireless solution. It’s one of those lovely appliances that will have you wondering how you ever did without it. Very cool, and highly recommended.
So. Are we cool, HAL?
"Yes, Kev. We’re cool."
. . . Kevin East
Aperion Audio Home Audio Link
Price: $149 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
18151 SW Boones Ferry Rd.
Portland, OR 97224
Phone: (888) 880-8992
Fax: (503) 598-8831
In 2004, I reviewed a home-theater speaker system based on the original Paradigm Reference Signatures, which, I said then, "redefine high-end multichannel sound at a reasonable price." Several of those speakers became the basis of my reference speaker system and remain so to this day. However, speaker technology constantly advances, and since then Paradigm has twice updated their "statement" line. All of the drive-units in the speakers have been updated or replaced, some speaker models have been dropped from the line entirely, and several new ones have been added.
With all of the updates that Paradigm has made in the Reference Signatures, I was eager to hear what the latest iterations could do. The review system I received comprised (all prices USD, per speaker): the Reference Signature S6 v.3 mains ($2899 each), C3 v.3 center ($2299), ADP3 v.3 surrounds ($1799 each), and Sub 1 subwoofer ($3799), for a total system price of $15,494. The speakers come in a standard Cherry finish, but are also available in Natural Maple or Piano Black finishes at additional cost.
The v.3 Reference Signatures look very similar to earlier versions, but closer inspection revealed some of the improvements in the drivers. Paradigm introduced their 1" tweeter of pure beryllium and their cobalt-infused midrange driver in the v.2s. In the v.3s, the midrange has been further improved and the woofer entirely redesigned; the latter features a Non-Limiting Corrugated (NLC) surround and a new motor structure said to improve cone excursion by an astounding 50%. This more efficient woofer has allowed Paradigm to increase the outputs of the tweeter and midrange, which, they say, had been held back in earlier versions.
The Reference Signature S6 v.3 is a mid-size, three-way floorstander; its 1" tweeter, 7" midrange, and two 7" woofers are in a tightly grouped vertical array. There’s a front port directly below the lower woofer, and a panel recessed into the bottom of the rear panel holds high-quality binding posts for biwiring or biamping. At only 43.75"H x 8.25"W x 13.5"D, the S6 v.3 is quite compact but weighs a dense 70 pounds.
The same woofers and tweeter are used in the Reference Signature C3 v.3 center-channel speaker, along with a 4" version of the cobalt-infused midrange driver. The tweeter is directly above the midrange, this vertical array flanked on each side by a single woofer. The C3, too, has binding posts for biwiring or biamping on the rear, as well as two ports. The C3 v.3 is just as solidly built as the S6 tower, and weighs a healthy 45 pounds while measuring only 26.5"W x 9.5"H x 13"D.
The Reference Signature ADP3 v.3 is a dipole surround design in which the same tweeter and 4" midrange as are used in the C3 are positioned in a similar vertical array duplicated on the two angled sidepanels of the sealed trapezoidal enclosure. On the front of the speaker is a single 8" bass driver with a slightly less aggressive-looking NLC surround. Like the other Reference Signatures, the ADP3 v.3 can be biwired or biamped. It measures 14.125"W x 13.25"H x 7.5"D.
While the above are all updates of earlier Signature models, the Reference Signature Sub 1 is an entirely new design similar to the larger Sub 2, which Jeff Fritz reviewed, and which won a SoundStage! Network Product of the Year award. It’s a short hexagonal column, its six woofers with NLC surrounds arrayed in vertical pairs on every other one of its six sides. These 8" cones are driven by two class-D amplifiers claimed to output a combined total of 1700W RMS and 3400W peak. All Paradigm subwoofers are now DSP-controlled; the company’s Perfect Bass Kit (PBK-1) room-correction system is included in the price.
Although the Sub 1 measures only 20.25"H x 19.875"W x 17.875"D, it weighs a whopping 109 pounds. The subwoofer’s sixth, rear facet is occupied by a large, extremely solid aluminum panel on which are provided controls for level, crossover frequency, and variable phase. The inputs are a pair of stereo RCAs or a single XLR jack, and a USB input offers connection to a computer, for use of the PBK-1 software. A DC trigger input is provided to control the power, or the Sub 1 can be set to Auto sensing. Available only in standard Cherry or Piano Black, the Sub 1 is constructed to an extremely high level of fit and finish, and has a rock-solid feel appropriate for a high-performance subwoofer costing $3799.
In fact, all of the Reference Signatures were finished to an incredibly high standard. My only complaint was that the plastic tabs of the pressure-fit grilles seemed a little fragile. Otherwise, I can’t overemphasize the sense of luxury and cutting-edge engineering that I experienced when listening to these speakers in my system.
I ran the PBK-1 room-correction software on the Sub 1 in various locations and found that it required the least amount of correction in the left front corner of the room. I then set the Sub 1’s phase control so that the sub’s output blended as smoothly as possible with that of the mains, and ran the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software on the entire speaker system through Anthem's Statement’s D2 audio/video processor. After listening to the system this way for a while, I turned off the Sub 1’s PBK-1 room correction because it seemed somewhat redundant, and reran ARC, letting it perform all room correction. I couldn’t tell the difference between these two setups, so I left it in the latter configuration, figuring that the less the audio signal was manipulated by room-correction digital signal processing, the better.
The S6 v.3s and C3 v.3 replaced the original S8s and C3 at the front of my room. I set the ADP3 v.3s on 50"-tall stands just behind me, along the sidewalls, and slightly angled to give the best combination of imaging and surround envelopment. The rest of my system consisted of my usual suite of electronics: Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and eVo6 power amplifiers, Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player, Sony PlayStation 3, Trends Audio UD-10.1, cables by Analysis Plus and Essential Sound Products, and power-conditioning products by Blue Circle Audio and Zero Surge.
Reference Signature v.3 sound
The Paradigm Reference Signature v.3 speaker system had an exceptionally clear midrange and smooth, extended treble, as I’d expected. Jeff Fritz and Doug Schneider have reviewed Reference Signature speakers with pure-beryllium tweeters, and have commented on their clarity and transparency. What I did not expect were the new models’ dynamics and sheer slam. My reference system of original Reference Signature S8s, C3, Servo-15 v.2 subwoofers, and Mirage Omni 260 surrounds is no slouch, but the Signature v.3s with Sub 1 sounded clearly superior.
Even without a sub, the S6 v.3s could play incredibly loud with excellent control of the lowest frequencies. Listening to "Poker Face," from Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster: Deluxe Edition (CD, Streamline/Interscope 0602527210360), I might have thought a subwoofer was hooked up, but the large amounts of bass were coming from the compact floorstanders alone. Although the S6 v.3s couldn’t quite reach down to the lowest octave, they still went plenty low while exhibiting almost no bloat, which gave the music a solid, punchy sound. Even at insanely high volume levels, there was little if any congestion, and voices remained clear and composed.
Adding in the other channels of the Reference Signature v.3 speaker system for multichannel music and film soundtracks resulted in even more spectacular sound. The rooftop chase and subsequent fight inside a building in The Bourne Ultimatum, on Blu-ray, sounded amazing. The serene sounds of birds and the echoing musical score is punctuated by extreme dynamics as the chase begins. The scene then shifts to a hushed hallway with an uncanny sense of space, as a baby cries in the background. The 360-degree soundstage was seamless, sounds moving from speaker to speaker as the chase progressed through the building.
Powerful musical numbers such as "Jai Ho" and "O . . . Saya," from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack on Blu-ray, were reproduced with authority by the Reference Signature v.3s, but my favorite musical passage in this film is the subdued "Latika’s Theme." During the final scene, in a train station, my room filled with gorgeous ethereal vocals as Latika appeared like a vision. The bass in this passage is low in volume, but the tight control exhibited by the Paradigms let me follow subtle changes in the beat even as I easily understood the dialog, which is spoken barely above a whisper.
It would be difficult to overstate just how well the Reference Signature v.3 system reproduced all types of program material. The S6 v.3s would be at home in just about any high-end, two-channel sound system. The C3 v.3 and ADP3 v.3s were just as capable, expanding that reference-quality sound to multichannel recordings. The Sub 1, with its unique hexagonal shape and six drivers, deserves special mention for its ability to fill my room with massive amounts of bass without noticeable distortion. This ultraclean reproduction of low frequencies allowed it to disappear aurally, yet still rattle objects at opposite ends of the room. "Hips Don’t Lie," from Shakira’s Oral Fixation Tour (Blu-ray), has some serious bass; the Sub 1 energized my entire room while maintaining a tight grip on every note. That grip was so absolute that it sometimes felt as if the Sub 1 was directly coupled to my room; no matter how loudly I played it, the bass was evenly distributed, with little, if any, distortion.
The Reference Signature v.3 surround system easily outperformed my reference system of original S8s ($5400/pair, discontinued), C3 ($1500, discontinued), two Servo-15 v.2 subs ($2500 each, discontinued), and Mirage Omni 260 surrounds ($1000/pair, discontinued). With the new speakers I heard more dynamic sound, a smoother, more extended treble, a clearer midrange, and bass that was plentiful, yet just as clean and articulated as the higher frequencies.
The Reference Signature v.3s’ midrange purity made voices sound dazzling. Singer-songwriter Rebecca Pidgeon, on the 24-bit/88.2kHz download of her The Raven: The Bob Katz 15th Anniversary Remaster, sounded about as good as I have ever heard a recording sound. There was an effortless and soaring quality to "Kalerka," and she sounded just as lucid on "Spanish Harlem" -- I was easily able to follow the musical flow of the double bass. The woody resonance following the pluck of each note sounded wonderfully unique. Through the original Reference Signatures, there was more homogeneity to the bass and a slight coarseness in Pidgeon’s voice.
Listening to the 24/96 version of "Heart of Gold" from North Country, included in Neil Young Archives, Vol.1: 1963-1972 (DVD, Warner-Reprise 075993999662), there was an enhanced sense of a live performance. The original Reference Signatures provided a palpable feeling of energy from Young’s concert, but the v.3s really brought this recording to life. The acoustic guitar had a deeper, more solid feel, and the harmonica was brash without becoming irritating. Even Young’s rambling introduction to the song, which elicits mild laughter from the audience, was more intelligible.
My two Servo-15 v.2s are able to fill the room with ample amounts of low frequencies, but the Sub 1 was more articulate, and able to go lower with less distortion. This was noticeable with both music and film soundtracks, but was clearly evident when I played the 20Hz test tone from the Hsu Research/Boston Audio Society Test CD 1. The Servo-15 v.2s amply energized the room, but drew attention to themselves by generating some physical noise as their single 15" drivers worked feverishly to reproduce the tone. Playing this same track, the Sub 1 remained completely noiseless as its six drivers worked in unison to cancel out cabinet vibrations and smoothly distribute the bass in all directions. The entire room eerily filled with bass, with no indication of its origin; loose objects seemed to rattle at random throughout the room -- and even in other rooms.
The Paradigm Reference Signature v.3 system is an absolutely stellar combination of loudspeakers. At $15,494, it is also the most expensive home-theater speaker system I have reviewed. Even so, I consider it an excellent value for its exceptionally high level of performance.
For both movies and music, each component of the Signature v.3 system performed flawlessly. The S6 v.3s were spectacular, whether on their own or as part of a 5.1-channel system. Some manufacturers’ center and surround models seem afterthoughts, but the C3 v.3 and ADP3 v.3 matched the performance of the incredible S6 v.3 note for note. Add to all this a truly world-class subwoofer in the Sub 1, which includes Paradigm’s sophisticated PBK-1 room-correction system, and it’s hard to imagine a better home-theater speaker system at any price.
. . . Roger Kanno
Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3 / C3 v.3 / APD3 v.3 / Sub 1 / PBK Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $15,494 USD.
Warranty: Five years, speakers and subwoofer drivers; three years, subwoofer amplifier.
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Western Digital WD TV Live Media Player
Price: $149 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.
20511 Lake Forest Drive
Lake Forest, CA 92630-7741
Phone: (800) 275-4932
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Phone: (905) 831-6555
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).
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.
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.
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.
Speakers 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.
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.
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
Aperion Audio Intimus 6-IC In-Ceiling Loudspeakers
Price: $149 USD each.
Warranty: Ten years parts and labor.
18151 SW Boones Ferry Road
Portland, OR 97224
Phone: (888) 880-8992, (503) 598-8815
Fax: (503) 598-8831
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
5601 Metro Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215
Phone: (800) 377-7655
Fax: (410) 764-5470
There’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.
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.
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?
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
Naim Uniti All-in-One Audio Player
Price: $3795 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Naim Audio Ltd.
Salisbury SP1 2LN
Phone: + 44 (0)1722-426600
Fax: + 44 (0)871-230-10-12