Review: Emotiva X-Ref Speakers

Emotiva made its name by offering high-end audio electronics that look like they cost thousands but actually cost hundreds. With the X-Ref line, it’s trying to do the same in speakers. The company has offered speakers in the past, but X-Ref is its first concerted effort to deliver a broad line of speakers at prices low enough to attract budget-minded-yet -serious home theater enthusiasts. The line includes two tower speakers, two LCR (left/center/right) speakers, two bookshelf speakers, one surround speaker, and two subwoofers.

There’s nothing special visually about these speakers; they’re ordinary matte-black boxes with conventional driver complements. With X-Ref, the excitement is in the details. The speakers were designed by Vance Dickason, a highly experienced engineer revered as author of The Loudspeaker Design Cookbook. Dickason is known not for exotic flights of fancy or slavish devotion to specific technologies, but for his meticulous attention to the vital but unglamorous tasks of fine-tuning crossovers and nailing the bass loading.

Eager to work in a review of the X-Refs before the holidays, I requested samples of two key models: a pair of XRC-6.2 LCRs and an X-Ref 12 subwoofer.

The XRC-6.2 uses two 6.5-inch pulp-cone woofers and a 1-inch silk-dome tweeter. Most LCRs place the tweeter right between the two woofers, on the same axis, but the XRC-6.2’s tweeter is at a 45° angle to the two woofers’ common axis. In my opinion, this is the proper way to build a two-way LCR speaker. Here’s why:

The sound waves coming from a woofer and a tweeter interfere with each other at frequencies near the crossover point as you move along their common axis. This interference boosts some frequencies and cuts others. The real-world result is that if the drivers are placed horizontally, as with a typical center speaker, the sound will change slightly as you move your head side-to-side, because you ears move closer to one driver and further from the other. When you turn the speaker vertically, the interference patterns shift 90° and become less intrusive, because when you move side-to-side, your ears remain at the same relative distance from all the drivers.

Thus, an LCR speaker with the woofers and tweeter on the same axis will sound different when positioned vertically than it does horizontally. The sound of the center speaker won’t quite match the left and right, and you’ll lose that wonderful “acoustic bubble” effect you get with a well-matched set of home theater speakers.

Putting the tweeter at an angle to the woofers makes an LCR speaker sound more consistent whether it’s placed horizontally or vertically. You might sacrifice a little bit of sound quality with the speaker in the vertical position, but you’ll gain sound quality in the horizontal position. And with careful selection of crossover points and slopes—all in a day’s work for Dickason—you can get great sound no matter which way you flip the speaker.

The X-Ref 12 looks like a fairly ordinary, compact 12-inch sub, but its beefy driver and powerful 600-watt amp should give it more oomph than an average 12-incher. (It’s not clear exactly what technology the amp uses. The website says it’s a high-efficiency design with a switching power supply; from that description it could be Class D, G or H.)

The sub’s best feature, though, is its digital control system, activated through a single knob/pushbutton on the top and a tiny alphanumeric LCD display. The digital control system lets you select Music or Movie EQ mode; adjust the crossover in 1 Hz steps; and adjust phase in 45° increments. A 3.5mm jack on the back lets you activate the Movie mode automatically using a 12-volt trigger signal; this could come in handy if you have a receiver or surround processor that offers 12-volt trigger outputs programmable for different sources and/or surround modes.

The digital control system also provides a two-band parametric equalizer. You can adjust the frequency, gain, and Q (bandwidth) of the two EQ bands. I’ve found that an equalizer like this, used with some basic DIY measurement gear, does more to improve your system’s bass than anything else you can buy, especially if you can’t place your subwoofer in an optimal position.

Great engineering, great features, yes, but what do the X-Refs sound like? Well. . . a lot different from what I expected.