Audio '08: Hear it Roar

Revel IC15 $749 each Revel Speakers

Watching video and audio fight for attention this past January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was like watching Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Video played the Obama role, with appealing yet vague promises of 150-inch HDTVs and high-def digital downloads. Audio was stuck in the Clinton role, touting a wealth of accomplishments but struggling to capture the attention of crowds that had given it up for dead.

The truth is, there's at least as much going on in audio as in video, and the latest developments are ones that anybody, not just enthusiasts, can appreciate. The video world fixates on numbers now - 1080p, 120 Hz - but the mass-market failure of the super-high-resolution DVD-Audio and SACD formats taught the sound guys that numbers don't guarantee success. Audio manufacturers stopped focusing on specs and directed their efforts toward making their products friendlier and more convenient to use.

SEE NO EVIL. HEAR NO EVIL

Why does audio get so little attention? It's partly because manufacturers have worked so hard to make their products less visible. The latest generation of ceiling speakers for home theater provides a perfect example. Custom installers (and their clients) have embraced these speakers because they provide a full surround-sound experience without displacing couches, chairs, or paintings. But early models did have a touch of evil: pivoting plastic protrusions that smeared the sound.

A few years ago, Triad created the first really good-sounding home-theater ceiling speakers, with drivers mounted at a fixed angle on a sturdy enclosure.

Other manufacturers have now followed Triad's lead: Polk Audio with its THX-certified LCi-RTS100 ($2,399 a pair), Definitive Technology with its UIW RCS II ($599 each), and most recently, Revel with its IC15 ($749 each, shown above), which deploys an unusual rectangular woofer to deliver an extra dollop of bass.

Now, too, there are minimally visible subwoofers to go with the ceiling speakers. These aren't the minisubs made popular years ago by Sunfire and others; it'd be more accurate to call the new ones microsubs. Velodyne has compacted a 61/2-inch driver, two passive radiators, and a powerful digital amplifier into a mere 9-inch cube. The MicroVee ($999, shown below right) can't deliver the room-rattling bass of the company's larger subs, but it can easily fill out the sound of a small in-wall or on-wall system.

MicroVee subwoofer $999 Velodyne

In-wall subwoofers have long been the last resort for home-owners who want bass but don't have the room. Recently, engineering efforts have allowed these formerly anemic components to compete with any other subs on the market. The most compact of the new generation of in-wall subs is the Artison RCC-300 ($800), which measures only 12 inches high and 91/2 inches wide. It has two slim, oval-shaped woofers facing each other. Because one woofer pushes down when the other pushes up (and vice versa), they cancel each other's vibrations, which makes the bass sound punchier.

SURROUND WITHOUT SHAME

Who doesn't love the enveloping effect of surround sound? But who does love the unattractive assemblage of speakers? Audio engineers have tried to solve this problem by squeezing the five-plus speakers of a surround system into a single enclosure. It's an especially elegant solution if all five speakers can fit right under a flat-panel TV.

Several manufacturers have figured out how to make this concept work well - perhaps a little too well for their own good. After hearing a certain demo at CES, I asked the company president, "How can you sell a conventional 5.1 system after people have heard this?" With a heavy note of resignation, he admitted, "I don't know."

Yamaha's YSP-4000 ($1,800) is as high-tech as a speaker gets: 40 tweeter/midrange drivers, each with its own digital amp, along with two small woofers, all in a single cabinet. Through sophisticated digital signal processing, the YSP-4000's tweeter regiment beams sound to bounce off your walls and re-create the sonic effect of a full surround-sound system.

Polk's solution, the SurroundBar, is less high-tech but still effective. (Models include the entry-level SurroundBar, $799; the SurroundBar 50, $999; and the SurroundBar 360 DV Theater, $1,195.) It uses a time-proven technology called crosstalk cancellation, which feeds a second speaker with a slightly different signal to fool your ears' direction-perceiving mechanisms. Polk dubs its twist on this technology SDA, or Surround Dimensional Array. Definitive Technology's new SSA (Solo Surround Array) line (which includes the $899 SSA-42 and the $1,099 SSA-50) is similar but with a different industrial design. Probably the least expensive entry in this field is Zvox's Model 415 ($499), which is smaller than the rest and has all of its amplification built in. (The Yamaha YSP-4000, Polk SurroundBar 50, and Zvox 425 are reviewed in 7 Simple Solutions).

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