Snell Acoustics XA 2900 surround speaker system Page 2
The AMC900THX dipole surround is intended for in-wall use. But unlike most in-wall speakers, it is completely enclosed in its own cabinet. While this cabinet is shallow in order to fit into the wall cavity created by standard 2x4 studs, the system's performance is independent of the size of that cavity. The driver arrangement is unique: A single monopole woofer handles the bass below 400Hz, two waveguide-mounted tweeters are mounted side by side and aimed in opposite directions in a dipole configuration, and the single midrange is mounted on edge, its forward and back radiations exiting the cabinet in a manner that provides a reasonable approximation of dipole operation. I say "reasonable" because, while the exit ports for this driver's radiation provide the requisite on-axis cancellation null required by dipole operation, the configuration of those ports seems to provide little opportunity for effectively reflecting indirect energy off nearby walls (see photo). The latter effect provides much of the envelopment in a dipole design. In fact, I did find the AMC900THX a little less spacious-sounding than typical dipoles.
I positioned the left and right XA 2900s at the outside edges of my 6.5-foot-wide projection screen, atop stands that positioned the tweeters at about seated ear-height, and toed them in toward the listening seats. The center speaker, as stated above, was located below the screen. To eliminate the need to cut holes in the walls of my home theater room (which I wasn't about to do), Snell provided shallow boxes to mount the surrounds in. These boxes, together with the furring strips I placed on the wall to hang them from, positioned the AMC900THX surrounds about 5 inches out from the wall. This spacing may have been at least partially responsible for the small reduction in dipole spaciousness noted above, since the surrounds are designed to be mounted flush with the wall in a permanent installation. Once the system was calibrated and balanced with the subwoofer, I was ready to go.
The word that best describes the performance of the Snells with film soundtracks is chameleon-like. I did note, however, that very few soundtracks sounded overly bright, which suggested—perhaps—that if the speaker erred at all, it was in the direction of a gently subdued top end. I nearly always preferred to use the XA 2900 system with the THX mode of my surround processor (and its accompanying high-frequency rolloff) switched off. And if I can point to any other distinguishing characteristic of the Snell's sound, it would be a slight forwardness. The XA 2900s' adjustment controls could compensate for both of these qualities, but usually went too far in the opposite direction. The measurements, which I haven't seen as I write this, will tell more.
In the listening tests overall, however, I found little to criticize. In my 3200-cubic-foot home theater room, with 125W per channel on tap, the system played as loud as I could wish for with no sign of strain. Clearly, the 200W minimum recommended amplifier power for the XA 2900 fronts is very conservative. The speakers blended well with the non-Snell subwoofer, erring only in the direction of warmth, which was evident on some—but by no means all—soundtrack dialogue. Apart from this—remember, the center-channel speaker was very close to the floor—I heard none of the common colorations of nasality, excessive edginess, and distracting sibilance. In short, the Snells let the soundtrack do the talking—sweet and musical when needed, punchy and in-your-face when the film demanded.
After 30 minutes or so of exposition, Black Hawk Down is almost constant action. Gunfire and explosions are wall-to-wall, with highly active surrounds. While the Snells didn't cut through the mix the way some brighter (peakier) speakers will on this material, they maintained their composure while simultaneously putting me as close to harm's way as I wanted to get—I ducked more than once as RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) screamed past my ears. But as chaotic as much of this soundtrack is, it also has plenty of small details, from the tinkle of ricocheting shell-casings to the atmospheric and moving score. The Snells got it all.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a very different film with a very different, far more subtle soundtrack. In the river scene, for example, as the baptismal candidates approach the water singing in chorus, their voices sounded both unified and discrete via the Snells. I could clearly hear fleeting characteristics of individual voices in the group, but only by listening carefully—the chorus as a whole was dominant, as it should be. And when Everett sings into the can at the radio station, I could hear the slightly cavernous sound of the can, combined with the slightly dead quality of the studio itself. The overall sound here was more sweet than airy and sparkling, but exciting more for its naturalness than its flash. The dialogue was also very clean, well-balanced, and uncolored.
The dialogue on Planet of the Apes was a little less even, particularly that of the apes. This was clearly due to some later looping (redubbing) to overcome the constrictive effect of the makeup. While this is done on most films, it isn't always done in a way that produces dialogue that sounds as if it was voiced in the correct environment. Revealing speakers like the Snells clearly reveal such manipulation, but while it was audible, it wasn't distracting, thanks to the speakers' inherently low coloration. The dynamic range from the XA 2900 system was outstanding here, particularly in the early space scenes leading up to the landing on the planet (the best part of the film). Also notable was the sound of Danny Elfman's punchy, brass- and percussion-intensive score.
Television productions are not noted for particularly interesting soundtracks. Exceptions to that rule are the DVDs for the series Farscape. The sound on this show—5.1-channel on the DVDs—is nothing short of astonishing, with a huge soundstage and powerful bass. (The 4:3 picture quality on the DVDs is also very, very good.) Some feature films do better, but not many. The first impression I got with the first four Farscape soundtracks on the Snell system was of a huge bubble of sound, very detailed but not at all bright and edgy. The best word to describe the overall sound of these shows on the Snells is awesome. The surround ambience was enveloping; there aren't a lot of discrete surround effects, but the sense of space (pun intended) was immense and well-handled by the Snell surrounds. Dialogue was essentially uncolored, but just a little too full-bodied—a characteristic that appears to be on the soundtrack. There was a huge front soundstage, and while the imaging on these discs is not pinpoint, it dramatically enhances the onscreen action.