Infinity TSS-800 Speaker System
Like a master linguist conjugating a verb, Harman International has a way of reusing original ideas to good advantage in different settings. So, it's not exactly a surprise to find a family resemblance between Infinity's high-end Cascade speaker line, circa 2006, and the TSS-800 set, circa 2007. They share a unique extruded-aluminum form that's tapered at both the top and bottom, for starters.
But they diverge in other ways, starting with price. A 5.1-channel configuration of the Cascades sells for more than $5,000, whereas the TSS-800 stakes its claim to budget territory at $899. The TSS series also includes the larger TSS-1200 and the smaller TSS-500 packages ($1,299 and $549, respectively). In case you were wondering, TSS stands for Total Solution Series.
Though smaller than the various Cascades, the TSS-800 satellite still has a good heft, thanks to its metal enclosure. Infinity claims that its depth and slightly up-front voicing are both optimized for wall mounting alongside a flat-panel display. But if you do that, you'll cheat yourself out of a little imaging depth—most speakers sound better at least a foot from the wall—as well as the treat of seeing the satellite mounted on its extremely simple and elegant L-shaped metal pedestal. The pedestal adds 2 inches to the height of the speaker and enables it to sit on a shelf or TV stand. There's also an optional floor stand, the TS-STAND1200, for $229 per pair. Attaching the speaker to the pedestal is an utterly painless, two-screw operation. I had the whole set attached and ready to go within five minutes.
I quickly came to appreciate the high quality of construction. While poking around behind the rack, I managed to knock the right speaker off the stand (mine, not Infinity's). It survived without a scratch. These speakers are as close to childproof as you'll ever get. Little fingers can't puncture those tough metal grilles.
Although the speakers include gold-nut binding posts, you're going to have to deal with cable issues Infinity's way. The posts are on the bottom of the speaker facing down. They have non-removable plastic plugs in the center, so the use of banana plugs is verboten. The posts sit in a recess that also would defeat the use of spade lugs. Infinity supplies an 18-gauge, black speaker cable with soldered tips. I stuck with Infinity's cable, mounting it into dual banana-plug adapters to avoid struggling with the non-perforated binding posts of my Rotel RSX-1065 reference receiver.
Instead of the Cascades' flat diaphragms made of a ceramic-and-aluminum composite, the TSS-800 uses conventionally shaped cones and domes, made of an anodized aluminum called MMD (metal matrix diaphragm). Anodizing is often mentioned in speaker reviews but rarely defined, because all audio reviewers are mischievous little obscurantists at heart. It's an electrolytic process that adds to the thickness and density of the metal and shields it from corrosion. Infinity refers to the satellite's larger driver not as a woofer, or even a mid-woofer, but as a midrange, presumably to indicate that it has very little bass response. That, in turn, requires the sub to operate at a higher crossover frequency and provide more of the upper bass.
The horizontal center uses a midrange on each side of a tweeter. It looks smaller than its 13-inch width; although handsome, these speakers are extremely unobtrusive. Inside the sub is a downward-firing, 10-inch MMD woofer. Infinity provides dual power ratings, both the standard RMS (a respectable 150 watts) and peak (300 watts). Viewed from above, the sub's enclosure has two tapering edges at front left and back right, shrewdly harmonizing with the twin tapers of the satellites.
All Serial Killers Love Donovan
The interminable Zodiac initially bonds with the audience by punctuating massacres with amazing musical artifacts of the 1960s. Most memorable is Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," with screaming lead and bass guitars by future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. The song really benefits from a surround mix, and the Infinity speakers made it huge and menacing. Another bloody scene, set by a lake, used almost infinitesimal sounds of nature as a backdrop for another attack. It was during such quiet moments that the TSS-800 satellites were often at their best. A lower-rez system would have soft-focused the background noises into inaudibility.
Miss Potter bravely mixes beauty and innocence as an antidote to business-as-usual Hollywood brutality and cynicism. Kudos to star and executive producer Renée Zellweger for insistently following her vision. Dialogue was everything here, and it came through with word-for-word clarity. Sun-dappled scenes set in the English countryside were suitably strewn with birdsong, and while there was enough of it to come through virtually any speaker system, it was pleasingly detailed through this one.
There was not as much twittering in The Contract, despite the fact that the story line follows a father-and-son team trapped in the wilderness with a dangerous professional assassin played (against type) by Morgan Freeman. Instead, the plot ramped up into a steroidal action movie, busy with whirring and noisily crashing helicopters. The midrange component of the sound effects was well shaped. Bass was powerful enough at the right moments, but not as well shaped. And I wasn't satisfied with how the sub integrated with the satellites.
To improve the integration between the subwoofer and the satellites, I raised the sub crossover from 100 hertz (my default setting with most small systems) to 120 Hz (as high as I ever dare to go). This gave the sub more chances to woof as I went on to the musical part of the listening sessions.
The TSS-800's solid movie performance did nothing to prepare me for its finest moment. Intégrale des Poémes is a collection of short piano works by Scriabin, performed by Pascal Amoyel. The recording is a classic melding of direct and reflected sound, with a reverb that's long enough to be noticeable but short enough to blend with the instrument. I've heard the CD through a few systems, including my reference system, but the Infinity speakers somehow kicked it into "you are there" territory.
Nirvana's Incesticide blends performances taped for BBC broadcast with others recorded in a similarly flat, no-nonsense fashion. The satellites did nothing to sweeten the astringent vocal and guitar sounds but did give them plenty of bite. The rhythm-section performance was uneven. On some cuts, there seemed to be a disconnect in the drum kit, with snares coming out of the satellites and bass drum from the sub, but nothing shared between them. Placement of a sub running this high in frequency becomes especially critical, not just for the common task of optimizing low frequencies, but for localization of the much more directional mid-bass range, too.
Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning is a two-CD set featuring Bert Jansch, one of my all-time-favorite acoustic guitarists. The Infinity system rendered the guitar in all its twangy subtlety, easily communicating the things about Jansch's touch that make him a connoisseur's guitar god. They did nothing to soft-pedal the digital grittiness of the excessively equalized vocal—a flaw in the mix that's also audible in other systems. Filling out the bottom end of the vocal required a slight increase in sub volume from 45 to 55 percent of the max.
The TSS-800 continues Infinity's latest train of form-factor thought with a beautifully overbuilt satellite that outclasses most of the competition. They're gorgeous, rugged, and voiced just about perfectly for wall mounting. I have a feeling they're going to find themselves flanking a lot of high-end plasma and LCD sets.
* Audio editor Mark Fleischmann is also the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).
• Tapered form factor borrowed from higher-end Infinity lines
• Solid metal enclosure and diaphragms
• Ideal for wall mounting