Aperion Intimus 533 Cinema HD Speaker System and Yamaha RX-V861 A/V Receiver

Dress your home in cherry and amber.

If I didn't know better, I'd suspect some kind of hands-across-the-water design coordination in this month's Spotlight System. When the people at Aperion Audio hit upon the handsome cherry veneer finish that graces the Intimus 533 Cinema HD speaker system, the last thing on their mind was the amber display, a longstanding traditional trait, incidentally, of Yamaha receivers. Nonetheless, a harmony did arise between the two golden hues. Of course, the speakers also come in a high-gloss, piano-black finish, but then, the receiver has a black chassis. This merely proves my point, doesn't it?

I arranged this month's marriage of Portland and Japanese sensibilities and, therefore, take all the credit for their various virtues. The Aperion package features the new Intimus 533-T tower speaker. Yamaha's RX-V861 A/V receiver features Silicon Image's Simplay HD certification, ensuring that it will feed the HDMI input of an HDTV with no compatibility hassles.

The Unpacking Ceremony
Aperion Audio is one of the few speaker makers that sells direct to the consumer. There are three ways to buy: by Web (www.aperionaudio.com), phone (888-880-8992), or from the factory showroom in Portland. All speakers come with a 30-day, money-back guarantee and a 10-year warranty, showing a commendable mix of short- and long-term support. The company ships free in both directions. And the support doesn't stop there. You're always welcome on the Aperion Website, where blogs and photo galleries now join the live chat and forums. The shopping and education engine has been renovated and renamed Aperion University.

As a reviewer, I serve as a surrogate for the consumer. I wonder how consumers react when they take a product home, uncrate it, and find it inadequately protected by easily punctured cartons and disintegrating styrofoam. So, it was heartening to find the Intimus 533-T towers packaged in dual cartons with the kind of foam inserts that you couldn't destroy, even if you're the kind of person who rips apart phone books in bars. Opening the golden drawstrings of Aperion's royal-purple bags turned the unpacking process into something ceremonial. Ta-dah—meet your new speakers.

When I loosened the purple bags and let them slide down the towers, I found myself looking at two cherry-veneered obelisks. They were as graceful as they were rigorously rectangular, with right-angled edges and no curves. If I'd gone for the high-gloss, piano-lacquer finish, my reaction would have been no different. In addition to the towers, the review system also included the Intimus 533-VAC center and Intimus 532-LR bookshelf speakers—I used the latter as surrounds—and the Intimus S-10 subwoofer.

The smaller speakers all come with their transparent rubber feet attached (as opposed to thrown loose into the box). This may be a mixed blessing if you want to use the center vertically, not horizontally. The towers come with a fixed pedestal that matches the remainder of the enclosure. All of the speakers come with gold-nut binding posts.

The towers, center, and surrounds all feature the same mineral-filled, 5.25-inch polypropylene woofer and 1-inch silk dome tweeters. The center is the only one to add a 4-inch polypropylene midrange. Its dual 5.25-inch drivers include both an active woofer and a passive radiator. The sub driver has a 10-inch paper cone treated with polyvinyl acetate and backed with a 200-watt amp. An enormous heat sink graces the back, presumably a testimonial to the potency of the amp, along with a long, slot-shaped port near the bottom edge.

Make the Scene
Although Yamaha's receiver pricing is typically broad, the company is nearly legendary at the RX-V861's price point of $1,000. The black aluminum (not plastic) front panel and amber display reflect a timeless quality. It's what goes on behind them that changes from year to year.

As I mentioned above, the Yamaha receiver is Simplay HD certified, ensuring that its HDMI jacks (two in, one out) will deliver a 1080p video signal to a Simplay HD–certified display (from manufacturers such as Hitachi, Mitsubishi, RCA, Samsung, or Sanyo). For a complete list of certified HDTVs, surround receivers, and other gear, see www.simplayhd.com.

HDMI is an audio standard as well as a video standard. On the audio side, the choice of HDMI 1.2a (as opposed to HDMI 1.3a) may come as a disappointment to some users. Although it allows digital transfer of SACD, it does not support the new lossless surround standards, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. But any surround format can enter the receiver through its analog inputs. That will be the simplest and best solution for most people, including those of you who own Blu-ray or HD DVD players.

Some features are new, and some are unique. In the latter category is the "scene" control. Actually, there are four of them—four buttons on the front panel and four more on the bottom edge of the remote. Like the macro function in better universal remotes, each scene control is actually a grouping of other commands. The preset scenes cover DVD, CD, TV, and radio play, but you're not restricted to those. You might set scenes for iPod, XM, sports, or gaming use.

Other features include Yamaha's proprietary presence channels. They are derived, not discrete. The receiver accepts an optional iPod dock ($100). The sub's phase-select switch duplicates the phase control found on the back of most subs. Additionally, with a built-in phono input, you needn't add an outboard phono preamp to accommodate your turntable. And there's a sleep timer, in case you'd like to use your home theater system as an alarm clock (now that's dedication).

Whatever, Nevermind
Nevermind by Nirvana is best known for Kurt Cobain's throat-ripping vocals, but it's also a great CD for rhythm-section sound. The bass riff that underpins "Smells Like Teen Spirit" should feel like thunder. And the ominous acoustic guitar and bass on "Something in the Way" should feel heavy and menacing. I heard most of what I wanted, especially from Dave Grohl's mighty bass drum resounding mostly out of the sub. The speakers didn't seem to produce much bass of their own, even when I played them full range or with various crossover settings. For the latter, I settled on 100 hertz and kept it that way for the rest of the auditions. Guitars proved to be pretty sizzly, and I found myself wandering among volume settings from track to track to achieve the right feeling. The top-heavy feeling came more from the Aperions than the Yamaha, as I discovered when I briefly connected the Aperions to my Rotel reference receiver.

The center channel disappeared for the SACD multichannel mix of Rebecca Pidgeon's The Raven. The job of conveying her unaffected soprano fell to the towers, producing a strongly outlined and up-front vocal image drifting in Chesky's trademark ambience. Technical concerns gradually receded as I became diverted by her hybrid of folkiness and Chesky-esque jazz-pop. The Celtic traditional feeling was strong on tracks like "The Witch" and "The Raven." On "Heart and Mind," Pidgeon seemed to be channeling Natalie Merchant. Her acoustic guitar was usually prominent in the arrangements, although the recording downplayed it in favor of the voice. This resulted in a slight disconnect. I felt the presence of two Pidgeons, one playing guitar behind the front speakers and another singing in front of them.

I've lately collected a lot of recordings by the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, including a Decca re-release series called Richter: The Master. In volume one, disc one, the master navigates Beethoven sonatas in the ideal acoustics of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The Aperions delivered the piano with a glassine purity and delicacy that emphasized the middle and upper keys over the lower ones. There was a definite front-of-the-hall feeling, although it never grew tiresome. In fact, I turned the volume up, not down, compared with my rock and cinema settings.

Soft-Spoken Drama
Moving on to movies: Breaking and Entering starts, appropriately enough, with the sound of glass shattering from back to front. The quiet reverberation of an office loft was just as effective as the rattling ambience of a construction site. But dialogue was the star, as Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, and a great supporting cast wove a tale of love and deceit. With the crossover at 100 Hz, male voices were slightly localizable in the sub. When I knocked down the sub level, the problem resolved, without starving the effects or music.

Music was the star in Copying Beethoven. While Ed Harris didn't penetrate to the heart of the master quite as well as he did when he played Jackson Pollack, the excerpts from the Ninth Symphony totally satisfied, as you'd expect from a performance by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw. The string sound was a bit hot but not deep-fried (in other words, I felt no need to turn it down). Also briefly appearing on the soundtrack were the Takacs String Quartet and pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Stephen Kovacevich. Everything sounded great in Dolby Digital 5.1.

Night at the Museum includes a DTS soundtrack with a bit less reverb than you'd expect from a story set in New York's Museum of Natural History. That's OK—an authentically large dollop of reverb would render the dialogue muddy and effects insupportable. Instead, the voices of Ben Stiller and the supporting cast of stellar comic actors did their screaming, yelping, and carrying on in the timeless, close-miked ambience of the dubbing stage. The stomping of the skeletal T-Rex reminded me of a replay of Jurassic Park.

This month's Spotlight System did a fine job of anchoring my home theater—and the Aperion cherry-veneer speakers managed to brighten up the room even when the Yamaha receiver's amber display went black. True, ordering speakers via the Web or phone may cause some nervousness. But with Aperion's 30-day, money-back guarantee, you have nothing to lose by auditioning the speakers in your own home. This system may be the value play for you.