Thinking Outside the Box
Photos by Tony Cordoza Great sound used to mean opting for speakers in generic rectangular boxes, while curvy, stylish designs had all the hi-fi credibility of a Blue Light Special boombox. No longer. Call it a design renaissance, or call it the Triumph of the Significant Other, but more and more companies are now coming out with home theater speakers that actually take real-world living conditions into account. These systems tend to be small enough to be unobtrusive, easy enough to set up to assuage the fears of neophytes, and stylish enough to show that they're, well, cool. But then there's the Big Question: can an objet d'art speaker actually sound good? To answer that provocative query, we rounded up four inexpensive to moderate-priced systems-the Jamo A210PDD ($599), the Tannoy FX5.1 ($699), the JM Lab Sib & Cub ($1,195), and the Velodyne Deco ($1,499). For each listening test, I placed the system's subwoofer on the long left wall of my 15 x 25-foot home theater, not far from my 42-inch widescreen TV. The front left and right satellites were placed on knee-high stands to either side of the TV, with the center speaker resting atop the set. I positioned the surround speakers above and slightly behind my listening position, on high shelves about 4 to 5 feet to either side. My 90-watt-per-channel Denon AVR-2802 digital surround receiver and Rotel RDV-1080 DVD player provided a level of performance that let me concentrate on the sound of the speakers. All four systems can be unboxed and set up within an hour, unless you use thick speaker cables or attempt a complex installation, such as wall mounting the satellites. Then it will, of course, take longer. The speakers' exotic shapes-and especially Jamo's flying saucer-like subwoofer-put me in a UFO frame of mind. So I picked the 20th-anniversary DVD reissue of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial to see if any of these systems are worth phoning home about. This disc has a lot going for it in the sonics department: everything from subtle sound effects through a wide range of human voices to room-shaking spaceship liftoffs, all accompanied by the lavish, exceptionally well-recorded score by John Williams. Jamo A210PDD Jamo supplies two thin manuals with the A210PDD system, but the effort to include nearly every language except the one spoken on E.T.'s home planet has left them thin on useful information. One manual is nothing but safety warnings in 19 languages, the other a few pages of diagrams showing things like where to connect the speaker wires, followed by the warranty in the same barrage of tongues. I was able to glean, however, that I shouldn't pour wine on the A2Sub or use it as a flowerpot stand. (In all fairness, Jamo offers a helpful interactive guide to speaker placement at www.jamo.com.) While these warnings assume that people will place the disc-shaped subwoofer on the floor, Jamo supplies a triangular bracket so you can mount it on the wall instead. But I refrained from drilling any holes in my wood paneling, putting the sub in the same floor position as the other models. The oval A210 satellite resembles a football sliced in half lengthwise. Its perforated metal grille has a plastic surround meant to look like brushed metal, and its matte-black plastic back has a ball joint with a 2-inch metal post for attaching the similarly finished stand/wall mount. The mount allows the speaker to be oriented either vertically or horizontally, and together with the ball joint it makes aiming the speakers exceptionally simple and flexible. To use Jamo's unique speaker connectors, you strip half an inch of insulation from the wire, twist each of the two strands tightly so there are no loose bits of wire, and insert the ends into small holes to either side of the ball joint. Two small recessed plastic knobs-one red, one black-have arrows that point to the appropriate holes. You then insert a small flat-blade screwdriver in each arrow and twist it to secure the wire. The holes are so small that it's difficult to insert even 16-gauge wire. Since the subwoofer lacks speaker-level inputs, you have to connect it to your receiver's line-level sub/LFE output. You use the large thumbwheel that protrudes from the top of the cabinet to adjust the volume. Since the sub is designed to work only with this system, there's no crossover control. And although it fires downward, it has an unprotected passive radiator firing upward. The first thing I discovered upon launching into E.T. is that the A210PDD system plays surprisingly loud for its diminutive price and size. (Since the Jamo would easily fit inside anybody's spaceship, it could make for a good dorm-room system.) But beware: when E.T. or Gertie (Drew Barrymore) shrieks, you might panic-there's a high-frequency emphasis that makes metallic noises like jangling keys sound too bright. Voices sounded clear, but on the thin side. And while the subwoofer did reasonably well, it couldn't quite compensate for the satellites' lack of lower midrange. During the early scene where the spaceship roars away, leaving E.T. behind, I had to turn the sub up fairly high to help the ship escape earth's gravity. And the lush musical score sounded more like it was playing in one of those mini theaters at the mall rather than in a grand 70mm showcase. Despite all that, the Jamo AP210DD is an attractive enough speaker system for movies and music. It conveyed exemplary imaging with sparkling transients during two-channel CD listening. Bruce Springsteen sounded more hoarse than usual on The Rising, but jazz trumpeter Clark Terry wailed sweetly on his Jazz at the Village Gate. And the Brahms Symphony No. 4 played by André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic poured forth with presence and excitement, if not particularly strong cellos. For $599, this Jamo system might not take you to the outer limits, but it will provide respectable sound on a budget. Tannoy FX5.1 Tannoy captures the award for having the smallest satellites and biggest subwoofer of the four systems here. The silver plastic enclosure of the FX5.1 satellite (which is also available in black) is a little smaller and more conventional looking than its Jamo counterpart. It has a flat, rectangular front with a perforated metal grille and sides that curve inward to a flattened point at the back. The tweeter sits atop the case in its own ellipsoidal enclosure, like an ultra-miniature version of the tweeter in the famous B&W 800 series speakers. A hole in the bottom of the satellite lets you thread wire to tiny binding posts that reside in an oval cutout on the speaker's back. (Unlike the other systems here, the Tannoy comes with the necessary cables.) You'll be able to get heavy-gauge wire into the split posts, but only if your fingers are dexterous and small. The satellites are meant to be positioned vertically, and their flat bottoms sit nicely on a shelf. Tannoy provides both small and large rubber feet as well as stand- and wall-mount adapters. While the satellites are cute, the 100-watt subwoofer is completely conventional looking. And its nearly knee-high rectangular enclosure and large front-firing port make it harder to hide than many other subs. Like the Jamo sub, the Tannoy lacks a crossover control because it was designed to work exclusively with the FX5.1 satellites. (The crossover is a higher than usual 140 Hz.) But it does include speaker- and line-level inputs, a volume control, and a phase switch. Considering the satellites' tiny size and the system's budget price, I pressed play on the remote with some trepidation. But my fears were allayed as the FX5.1 came to life, sounding much bigger and pricier than it is. Tannoy claims the satellites can reproduce frequencies up to 70 kHz. I was unable to interrogate my dogs to substantiate this claim, but within my hearing range the sound was all there. The dogs became quite excited, however, during the screaming scene when Mike (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie meet E.T. While the satellites slightly favor the high frequencies, they didn't sound tinny or brash. E.T. doesn't waste a moment testing a speaker system's mettle. When a pickup truck roars up a mountain during the opening scene, a close-up of the tailpipe is accompanied by the engine's low-frequency rumble. Then the chase begins, with boots splish-sploshing through water and a key chain jangling as it dangles from the lead hunter's belt. That transient can get lost in the thick montage of sound effects, but with the Tannoy the keys jangled in about the right balance to the rest of the mix, while the exhaust pipe rumbled ominously. When the spaceship blasted off, there was no question it was on its way, although the sound did distort a bit just before the ship hit the stratosphere. Voices had less resonance and authority than on the larger systems here, but they sounded reasonably natural, as did the musical score. The FX5.1 subwoofer might not be very subtle, sticking out from the rest of the mix during some of the upper-bass sound effects, but it did supply plenty of bombast. And one look at the diminutive satellites reminded me of the yeoman's job it was performing. The system plays at fairly high levels, but distortion does creep in if you push it too hard, which means it's probably best suited for medium-size rooms. During my CD listening, the FX5.1 sounded consistently better when I used Dolby Pro Logic II for multichannel playback instead of sticking with the original two-channel stereo. For instance, while the system creates a very good stereo image, adding the center channel made Bruce Springsteen's voice sound fuller and more solidly placed. The three additional satellites pumped a lot more sound into the room, but the improvement might not have been as pronounced in a space smaller than my fairly large home theater. Clark Terry's quintet fared particularly well with the FX5.1. While you can find strictly two-channel systems that will give you better sound for the same price, Tannoy's FX5.1 system acquits itself well for both home theater and music system duties. JM Lab Sib & Cub Even without knowing that JM Lab is French, the design of the Sib & Cub system beckons the eye with European flair. The five matched Sib satellites look like a 21st-century redesign of the Citroën Deux Chevaux. Each has a slightly concave, rectangular metal grille, about the size of a DVD box, surrounded by simulated light wood. The pregnant-looking speaker enclosure is outlined in glossy light gray with matte dark-gray inserts that match the integral stand. An Allen key comes tucked into the base of the stand for adjusting the speaker angle, converting the stand to a wall mount, or removing it entirely. (JM Lab even throws in screws and drywall anchors for wall mounting.) The back of the enclosure has an unobtrusive small oval port and two recessed, spring-loaded metal speaker terminals whose holes had no trouble accepting 12-gauge wire. The design of the downward-firing 75-watt Cub subwoofer is more conventional, but still remarkably handsome. Roughly a foot cubed, it has rounded edges and the same dark-gray matte finish as the satellites. The front panel has a modest, flared brushed-metal port, while the back panel has speaker- and line-level inputs, a power switch, a phase switch, a crossover control (variable between 50 and 150 Hz), and a level control. JM Lab recommends setting the crossover to 120 Hz, but since the control lacks any calibration markings, the manual suggests turning it "three-quarters of the way to the right." That's how I set it for this review. The Sib & Cub kept every sound distinct in the dense mix of E.T.'s opening scene, reproducing the rapidly changing montage with three-dimensional depth. And the spaceship blasted skyward with a civilized amount of rumble. I could have goosed the sub a bit more, but my listening partner preferred to keep her fillings. The dialogue-from E.T.'s grumbly, gravelly baritone to Gertie's little-girl voice-sounded clean, with honest articulation. John Williams's score sounded topnotch, with the kind of dynamic range and presence you'd expect to hear in a good theater. Back on earth, Bruce Springsteen sounded a little nasal on The Rising, but Max Weinberg's drums had a visceral punch. The Brahms Fourth sounded impressive using Dolby Pro Logic II-the timpani in particular were well served by the system. Clark Terry's CD allowed the system to blow its horn, so to speak, keeping the trumpet, flugelhorn, and Jimmy Heath's sax well balanced, with some shimmering high hats adding a nice aura. Imaging with two-channel music produced a plausible illusion. Whether JM Lab's handsome Sib & Cub system merits the price is for you to decide, but rest assured that its good looks definitely do not detract from its sound quality. You might be able to find ordinary box speakers that would give you comparable sound for less money, but in many homes there are considerations to buying a system that go beyond mere decibels. Velodyne Deco Velodyne's Deco system is aptly named, since it fits in with the recent retro-industrial look that apes popular avant-garde design of the Roaring Twenties. While the other three systems here stress curves, the Deco's angular lines suggest brawn-even though the satellites are barely higher and wider than a paperback novel. Velodyne is known for take-no-prisoners subwoofers, and there is nothing about the heft and feel of this system that would challenge that reputation. The satellites are housed in dense, nonresonant charcoal-gray molded plastic, with the front framed in matte burnished-silver plastic. They look like bullets viewed from the front, but their overall shape defies description. The front-firing subwoofer, although a cube, echoes the satellite design with a burnished silver frame outlining an unusually shaped grille. With a 600-watt Class D amplifier, the sub asserts itself with ease. Velodyne even marks the low-pass crossover knob with the preferred setting for the system. (Why other companies don't do the same with their subs is a mystery.) The crossover ranges from 40 to 120 Hz, with the Deco setting falling somewhere around 100 Hz. But in another stroke of brilliance, a Subwoofer Direct switch bypasses the internal crossover so you can use the crossover in your receiver or processor. I used my receiver, setting it at 100 Hz. The sub has only line-level inputs. Velodyne leaves you to your own devices for stands and wall mounts, although the satellites do have both keyholes and screw holes on the back. The satellites come with two sizes of rubberlike feet. If you place the speaker above the listening position, the taller feet are supposed to go on the back of the bottom, with the shorter ones in front. If the speaker is lower than the listening position, the taller feet go in front. And for ear-level placement, you use the same size feet all around. You hook up the speaker wire to large, gold-plated spring clips that can also accept banana plugs. The connectors are recessed from the back panel so as not to interfere with wall mounting. Velodyne merits very high marks for a remarkably informative 19-page all-English instruction manual that combines clear prose with useful diagrams. It not only describes setup and placement, but also gives in-depth troubleshooting tips. The Deco system might have convinced E.T. to stay on earth and listen to his departure on DVD. Incredibly full, natural sound filled the room without a hint of distortion. Frequency response was smooth, with no upper-end peaks or artificial bass. The soundtrack was deeply three-dimensional, with every nuance audible. During the classroom scene, I heard whispering under the music that I had missed with all three other systems. The Deco convincingly balanced the layers of sound in the opening sequence, from the low-end exhaust pipe to the jangling keys to the spaceship liftoff. And E.T.'s musical score swelled with the grandeur you'd expect to hear in a restored movie palace that has a great sound system-the Deco made parts of it seem like a symphony with dialogue. Velodyne's system sacrifices nothing in music playback, whether with stereo or multichannel sources. The precise imaging during two-channel playback placed Bruce and Clark right where my TV stood, with all the other musicians arrayed around them. Using Pro Logic II increased the spaciousness without losing the focus. In the Brahms, the triangle sounded less pronounced than on the JM Lab or Jamo systems, while percussion pounded with satisfying solidity. These speakers deliver transients clearly without letting them resonate any longer than they should Bruce was absolutely The Boss on the Deco, with his voice sounding more natural and less abrasive than it did on the other systems, yet still authoritative. Clark Terry wailed with pure honey, although the system tended to gloss over a bit of his horn's inherent edginess. And the sub produced ample bass without thumping its port. The Velodyne Deco system has the heftiest price tag of the four systems here, but it's money well spent. In this comparison at least, price was a pretty accurate indicator of quality. The $1,499 Velodyne system takes top honors for sound, followed closely by the $1,195 JM Lab. The $699 Tannoy sounds great for the money, and you can fit the satellites almost anywhere. The Jamo isn't perfect, but it performs well for a system costing half as much as the Sib & Cub. When it comes to looks, though, it's a closer horse race: The Sib & Cub stands out for pure style, while the Deco deserves kudos for its industrial design. Jamo's AP210DD earns special merit for originality and imagination, while Tannoy deserves recognition for creating tiny satellites that perform well without resorting to boring boxes. In the end, I learned that style and substance are not mutually exclusive. I also came away with a question: why is the moon a crescent at the beginning of E.T., but on the mad bicycle ride to the forest just a few days later, it's full? Oh, well-if speaker designers have entered a phase of creating affordable compact systems that both look and sound great, then I guess anything is possible. MORE: Click here for the lab results (PDF) Click here for details and subwoofer images.