Energy Reference Connoisseur RC-70 Speaker System
This is a momentous time for Energy Speaker Systems. Until recently, Energy was one of several brands owned and operated by Audio Products International of Toronto, Canada. (The others included Mirage, Athena, and Spherex.) Now the API brands have been merged into Klipsch of Indianapolis, Indiana, creating a new fusion of Canadian design and American ownership. Energy has also moved their manufacturing to China, where they will have more control over parts, while achieving greater cost-effectiveness. John Tchilinguirian, the longtime lead designer for the brand, has moved on to independent consulting. That makes the Energy RC-70 towers, RC-LCR (serving as center), and RC-R surrounds partly a chapter from a previous tome and partly the first chapter in a new story.
In the hierarchy of Energy's larger speakers, the Reference Connoisseur speakers sit between the bleeding-edge Veritas line and the more value-oriented C-Series. If you are looking for something less bulky, check out the similar but smaller RC-Mini monitor, the home-design-friendly Take Series, the Act sub/sat systems, or the three in-wall/-ceiling lines, the Veritas Custom, Reference Connoisseur Custom, and EAS series.
A couple I know recently decided to banish all vinyl-clad furnishings, including loudspeakers, from their home. Reference Connoisseur products would meet their standards, with real wood-veneer enclosures in warm cherry, darker rosenut, and black-ash finishes. Pull off the magnetically attached grilles, and you'll see a brushed-aluminum finish on the metal baskets that hold the drivers.
The RC-70 is the largest of the three new Reference Connoisseur towers. The RC-70 looks like a simple rectangular solid, but inside it has full-length bracing that's been computer-tweaked to prevent cabinet resonances from polluting the musical river. Its dual-rear-ported enclosure has enough depth to encompass sufficient volume to produce good bass and a front surface just wide enough to accommodate the girth of its 6.5-inch woofers.
With the inclusion of its 5.5-inch midrange driver, the RC-70 is the only three-way model among the three Reference Connoisseur towers. The woofer and midrange cones are both constructed of Kevlar. Energy specified the thickness and weave and also added a proprietary resin coating. In a move borrowed from the Veritas line, the 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter sits in a separate chamber to isolate it from vibrations.
Aside from the tweeter, the driver mix changes in the RC-LCR and RC-R. The RC-LCR is a left/center/right speaker, although, for this review, I used it only in the center position. Its dual 5.5-inch Kevlar-coned woofers are smaller than those in the towers. Flanking the tweeter in the center of the enclosure is a pair of 2-inch, aluminum cone midrange drivers.
There's no getting around the fact that the RC-70 and RC-LCR don't speak with precisely the same voice. Sticklers may prefer to match the front channels with three RC-LCRs to achieve perfect panning effects and the most even front soundstage. A system with five of them might arguably be the ideal surround system for music. (Steve Guttenberg used three in his Energy review in the June 2006 issue.) However, I didn't regret having two RC-70s in my listening room; it was a brush with greatness.
The RC-LCR's woofers and tweeter reappear on the front of the RC-R surround speaker, with two more of the 2-inch midrange drivers on either side of the enclosure. A switch beneath the grille lets you select between bipole mode (with the midranges in phase) and dipole mode (with the mids out of phase). Next to the switch is something quite rare—a dial that adjusts the output of the side midranges from 0 decibels (off) to 1 dB below the level of the front drivers. Silencing the mids turns the speaker into a monopole unit.
So, you have three options. Monopole operation is best for localized surround effects in the rear of the room (usually my preferred mode for surround music). Bipole operation offers what the manual calls a more "large" and "expansive" sound. And, finally, dipole operation is designed for an "even more expansive" and "even larger" sound. The choice is yours. I went with the dipole setting, as I prefer the fullest possible soundfield.
Second from the top in Energy's subwoofer line, the S10.3 has a 10-inch, front-mounted, hybrid-cone driver with two downward-firing ports. The driver substrate is polypropylene, with deposits of ceramic, glass, and mica to add stiffness. A patented Ribbed Elliptical Surround—which has construction similar to the tower's woofers—allows for excursions of up to 1.57 inches peak to peak. In plain English, you've got a cone that's strong and stiff, suspended in front with a piece of rubber that's strong and supple, being pushed and pulled a fair distance.
The sub's volume control is on its front—where it belongs—and its phase control is continuously adjustable between 0 and 180 degrees (many subs provide just a two-position toggle). If you prefer to set the crossover in your receiver, you'll want to take advantage of the crossover-bypass switch to prevent bass from being routed through two filters when one does the job. The finish is vinyl, not a genuine wood veneer.
The Devil and the Scrunts
The sound that emerged from this hodgepodge of speakers surprised me with its full, rich, easygoing nature. The forthright quality I've always associated with Energy was still there, but a voluptuousness that I had not previously heard from the brand joined it. With my usual 80-hertz crossover, the system generously ladled out lower midrange and upper bass, in contrast to many systems that thin out where the speakers meet the sub. The sub's bass response wasn't quite as taut as that of the speakers. It was more rounded and seemed to detach slightly, although it was also tuneful and performed well under stress.
Some movies pose challenges in dialogue delivery. With the DTS soundtrack of The Devil Wears Prada, fashion fiend Meryl Streep establishes a narrow dynamic range—from deadly sotto voce, down to a near whisper, and finally to an actual whisper. The RC-LCR's vocal delivery, like Streep's, was understated. (This was after I'd set the levels with an SPL meter, with the center channel 1 dB higher than the mains.) To compensate, I hiked the master volume. That enabled me to more easily catch dialogue while literally amplifying surround-rich material like parties, street scenes, and the violent thunking of expensive coats hitting a desk. If the RC-LCR was reticent, it was also commendably smooth, with no excessive sibilance or spit, and with nothing nasal or chesty in its character.
In Lady in the Water, the challenge was not vocal intelligibility per se, but the sheer strangeness of made-up words like "narf" and "scrunt." The center speaker delivered the Dolby Digital–ized consonants just precisely enough for my ears to hear them, but I still couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. When I switched on the subtitles, I saw that the equipment was accurate and that my ears had not been deceived. Then I could settle in and enjoy the whimsical story about an apartment house full of freaks, something the manager and staff of my building could easily relate to. The dramatic scenes didn't make the Energy speakers flinch, although the sound of an automated sprinkler suddenly erupting into all channels did make me flinch.
Miami Vice wraps its combination of action movie, film noir, and cheap, televisionlike visual language in a shroud of disappointingly conventional music and effects. The Energy speakers kept up with all of it, although that wasn't much of a challenge. The Dolby Digital soundtrack showed some early promise when synthesized musical pulses echo the rhythm of a just-concluded shooting. After that, things got dull. Still, to my way of thinking, any movie that features more than one song by Audioslave isn't a total waste of time.
The Sopranos, season six, episode one, features a loud blam that punctuates a key scene (and punctures a key character). The combined explosion from the subwoofer and speakers was suitably shocking.
The Universe and the Saint
BT stands for Brian Transeau, and his work, This Binary Universe, comes with two discs: a CD and a DVD with a DTS surround soundtrack. Naturally, I fired up the latter, and it rewarded me with mostly (but not entirely) abstract images that complemented the mostly (but not entirely) synthesized music. The RC-R surrounds made the most of the busy surround mix. "All That Makes Us Human Continues" was akin to wandering through a brightly lit, glass-enclosed rail station—like, say, Berlin's giant new Hauptbahnhof—while experiencing an inner crisis. The melody morphed from comforting to disturbing, then back again, while shards of light flickered on the screen. The ultimate effect was pleasant but not profound—more on the order of a nice sherry than a stiff single malt.
A piercing harmonica (is there any other kind?) kicks off track one of Robyn Hitchcock's This Is the BBC, a collection of studio-made radio performances dating from the mid- to late 1990s. As I walked from speaker to speaker, with the CD playing in Dolby Pro Logic II, I confirmed that the center was a little reticent compared with the left and right speakers, although none of them was either unduly bright or unduly mushy. This made the harmonica less painful, but it also blunted Hitchcock's edgy voice, slightly defocusing the music's emotional center and opening up the clean, dry BBC mixes. I got a better soundstage when I shut down everything but the two RC-70s. It reminded me that these two towers are as well balanced and satisfying as any I've ever heard in two-channel mode.
Recordings with multiple voices and complex acoustics practically beg for surround treatment, and that's what Bach's St. John Passion got from the Channel Classics SACD release with the Netherlands Bach Society. The performance used a one-voice-per-part arrangement, sacrificing the mellifluous character of a chorus for the specificity of individual vocal performances. There emerged an invigorating and moving contrast between the soundfield's soft, dark, enveloping enormity and the brilliant spotlight hitting each of the voices. The two-disc set includes a hardcover 192-page booklet with lyrics in English, Dutch, German, and French and a rich assortment of sacred artwork. It's expensive but worth it.
Great ideas, well executed, abound in this Energy Reference Connoisseur speaker system. The RC-70 towers provide a powerful combination of high performance, high value, high quality of construction, and understated elegance. As two-channel performers, they are monsters. In the RC-LCR, Energy offers an unorthodox driver array that would well serve every channel in a differently configured system. I loved the versatility of the monopole/ bipole/ dipole surrounds, and I developed a healthy respect for the sub. Wish Energy and their new owners luck—this remains one of the most fascinating brands in the speaker business.
* Audio editor Mark Fleischmann is also the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).
• Conventional on the outside; less so on the inside
• Voluptuous midrange and full, rounded bass
• The sub's driver is strong and stiff and is capable of large excursions