Pinnacle Microburst MB 5500 Speaker System
Speakers needn't be big. Smaller speakers are better candidates for wall-mounting, they're less-visually intrusive on stands, and they're more-harmonious mates for flat-panel displays.
Pinnacle has topped my short list of small-speaker makers (with or without the hyphen) since 2002 when I raved about the Quantum/
SubSonic system. True, the company doesn't exactly have the subwoofer/satellite market to itself, and, at $1,699, the Quantum/
SubSonic costs more than any other sub/sat system I've reviewed since then. However, its satellites' neutrality and its high-performance sub's compactness remain unsurpassed, at least by anything I've experienced in my listening room.
With the advent of the Microburst system, also known as the MB 5500, Pinnacle courts comparison with a tough competitor—itself—and poses an additional challenge by pricing the new system at $899 for five satellites plus a sub. (The MB 5000 includes the five satellites without the sub for $399, but the MB 1000 sub is not sold separately.)
The sub-$1,000 market is a hungry one, but can Pinnacle cut the price nearly in half while matching their previous performance benchmark? Let's just say it's hard to beat the best. The question, then, becomes: How much of the Quantum/SubSonic's sterling performance can the Microburst deliver at a fraction of the cost?
First thing to go is the Quantum's liquid-cooled titanium tweeter. The Microburst tweeter is also liquid-cooled, but it's made of Mylar, a nearly indestructible plastic. The MB 2000 satellite exchanges the Quantum's dual carbon graphite mid-woofers for a single polymer cone unit. In the MB 3000 center speaker, dual mid-woofers flank the tweeter. Replacing the Quantum's die-cast and braced aluminum enclosure is a more-economical extruded plastic box with a tough woven-nylon reinforcement that minimizes cabinet resonance. The back panel still includes gold-plated binding posts, and, for easy mounting, there are keyholes and threaded inserts. Overload protection is provided, although the speakers did not shut down while I was using them.
Two-inch voice coils and 30-ounce magnets animate dual 6.5-inch high-excursion drivers in bipole configuration in both the SubSonic and Microburst subs. The MB 1000 sub has a smaller amp, at a rated 200 watts versus 350, with anti-clipping circuitry. Its back panel is stripped down to a single line input, crossover dial, volume control, and phase switch—minus the higher-end model's dual line ins, high-level ins/outs, crossover bypass, and power switch. Pinnacle does throw in a 6-foot interconnect cable with gold-plated connectors, though. The MB 1000's enclosure is slightly larger, but it substitutes rubber feet for the SubSonic's floor-hugging metal cones. Pinnacle claims a response down to 32 hertz (see our lab measurements).
Hitting the Keys
I connected the Pinnacles to my Rotel RSX-1065 reference receiver and Integra DPS-8.3 universal disc player and got down to work. I've never heard a molded-plastic-enclosed speaker without some degree of up-front coloration; it always becomes obvious from the first instant. In this case, the minor colorations were easy to tune out, whatever their source. My brain simply added the sound of the MB 2000 and MB 3000 to the list of things it considers natural.
Next listening adjustment: the sub. Compact sub/sat systems require a higher crossover than larger speakers. The MB 5500's 3-inch woofers—really mid-woofers—can't play as low as the 6.5-inch woofers in my reference speakers, so the sub has to take on a wider range of frequencies. As the crossover frequency moves higher and more of the instruments and vocal fundamentals emanate from the sub, placement of the sub becomes even more critical, as well. Usually, the crossover rises from 80 to 100 Hz or more; and, accordingly, I expect a different treatment of the frequencies surrounding the crossover.
One consequence is that, in piano recordings, a greater proportion of the keyboard's left side downshifts into the sub, along with the percussive weight of the hammers hitting the strings. This makes the system's performance from the crossover on down all the more critical. A well-integrated sub/sat system can reproduce left-hand notes as musically as higher ones while also preserving the complex percussive sound—really, the percussive feel—of a piano.
That's exactly how the MB 1000 sub handled The Piano Works by Chopin, a 13-CD boxed set from Brilliant Classics, the formidable Netherlands-based budget label. Unlike a lot of small subs, which try to compensate for their small size by substituting belligerence for subtlety, the Microburst sub was authentically musical in its upper reaches: It held a pitch. The satellites also excelled at delivering the harmonic signatures of the various instruments, a combination of antique, reproduction, and modern. The Pinnacles delivered each one like a separate stripe in a pianistic rainbow.
Two of the discs featured works for piano and orchestra. Brilliant Classics doesn't believe in close-miking, and, when I sat front-and-center, the Pinnacle soundstage enveloped me in the highly naturalistic recordings, giving them an authentic concert-hall feel.
A Darker Tone
Initially, I thought the Microburst system was voiced identically to its higher-end sister, which I regard as a paragon of neutrality. Indeed, it's close. But a quick run-through of my standard CD-R tracks revealed a slightly darker midrange, with the inner-detail spotlight a shade less bright. This made it easier to crank up the volume on my standard metal tracks while other styles of music gave up nothing in liveliness.
Still, the family resemblance was remarkable. Vocals were extremely natural. I could hear the hand-off between center and sub on male vocals like Bill Morrissey's on the title track from Inside. But, even when he dropped down the scale, literally down into the sub, he didn't start booming. The sub handled his lower vocal range with immense detail and realism.
Nor did it go soft on Danny Thompson's string bass on "The May Day Psalter," recorded with Richard Thompson, from the Circle Dance charity compilation (Green Linnet). With an undisciplined sub, I can almost visualize the printed notes on a score going blobby, swelling out of shape. The Microburst sub rendered pitches cleanly and evenly, focusing each note.
Command and Kill
Master and Commander sounds impressive on just about any competent system. This shipboard tale flings an impressive variety of stressed-wood effects in all directions, and the Pinnacles made me aware of every dark corner of the ship. In addition to delivering the inevitable cannon fire, the sub also conveyed the low creak of the oceangoing vessel commanded by Russell Crowe, the sense of tons of pressure exerted on wooden boards by a remorseless sea.
The first of many gunshots in Kill Bill: Volume 2 is the one that immediately follows Uma Thurman saying: "It's your baby." It made me jump. I kept going until the buried-alive scene, with the sound of hammer hitting nails, a pounding thunk combined with a metallic ding. That seemed like a good time to bail out—I do a lot of my critical listening during the day, but staring at the inside of Tarantino's sick mind is something I like to save for nighttime.
Once again, Pinnacle provides best-in-class performance in a popular category—in this case, the less-than-$1000 sub/sat system. Even accounting for their plastic provenance, the satellites come closer to neutrality than other products I've experienced of similar construction, size, and price. Pinnacle also retains its knack for building subs that are both small—not just in the footprint, but in all dimensions—and musically reliable.
So how much of the Quantum/SubSonic's performance can the Microburst system deliver at just over half the price? Not all of it, but a lot of it, especially in the bass department. That makes the MB 5500 system an ideal mate for mid-line receivers priced at around $500.
* Mark Fleischmann's book Practical Home Theater, now in its fourth edition, is available through www.quietriverpress.com.
• Sub is among the industry's smallest high-quality competitors, yet it also delivers deep, accurate pitches throughout its range
• Satellites are very close to neutral despite slight colorations