I've started contributing movie reviews to Sound & Vision, one of the last home theater magazines still available in print form (Home Theater Magazine merged with them back in 2013). You can also find some of my reviews on their site online; Everest is up. I'm focusing on titles with Dolby Atmos soundtracks and/or 3D for now.
This year's CEDIA has come and gone, and unless the journalists in attendance badly missed something, I didn't see many announcements with broad applicability outside the core custom install base. (I attended CES and IFA this year, but was not able to attend CEDIA live.)
Sony showed off new projectors, including a native 4K model priced at "just" $10,000, but these had been announced at IFA in Berlin.
JVC introduced a trio of projectors from $4,000 - $10,000 that create pseudo-4K from 4K source material.
Kaleidescape is now offering a 4K digital storage/playback solution in the $5000 - If You Have To Ask, You Can't Afford It range.
There were no new budget projectors announced; those seemingly will wait for CES. There were few new AV receivers, relatively little new home automation gear, and virtually nothing on the Atmos or HDR TV fronts. The exception: Sony's STR-ZA5000ES, a 9-channel, $2700 receiver with Atmos and DTS:X.
I was on the road covering Apple when this happened, so I missed it at the time, but it appears that Pioneer is divesting its A/V reciever and headphone business and selling it to Onkyo by March 2015. While Sony, Yamaha, and Harman all still make A/V receivers, Onkyo (and its Integra custom install brand) dominates the premium segment in a steadily shrinking market. If I read the disclosures correctly, Onkyo intends to keep the Pioneer brand, but will consolidate all back office functions and manufacturing. I like Onkyo's recievers, and Pioneer has been losing money, but this still feels sad. Goodbye, Pioneer.
It's been a long time since I've done a full formal home theater speaker review, but my "reference" Carver HT5.2 speakers are over 15 years old and I've had the upgrade urge for most of the past decade. When Orb Audio reached out early last year* and offered to send over a complete set of speakers with sub, I thought it was time to start the process of finding a new mid-priced system for our home theater -- or at least start listening to something new. Orb sells complete packages that start at $600 and go up to $2500; I tested the $1400 Mod2X. While that's not free, it is quite affordable for a product aimed at enthusiasts. One reason its prices are low is that Orb only sells direct online. Orb is hardly alone choosing this business model, and as the independent audio dealer channel shrinks and moves into higher price tiers, direct sales make more and more sense. Aperion, SVS, Outlaw Audio, and others also sell exclusively online. However, Orb really ought to overhaul its site. The web design is so outdated that it could cause some consumers to question whether the speakers are up to today’s competition. (Spoiler: they are.)
Orb Audio’s guiding design philosophy is contained in its name – its speakers are small orbs (spheres), each containing a single speaker driver. This means that they don’t suffer from frequency dips or noise introduced by the crossover between the midrange and tweeter because there is no crossover and no distinct tweeter. The spherical shape also means that the cabinet does not produce standing waves. Orb is not the only company to use this approach -- Anthony Gallo and Morel are competitors with similar-looking products -- but Orb speakers are the only spherical speakers both designed and manufactured in the U.S.
I received three boxes:
the SubONE, a traditionally shaped 12” cube containing an 8” driver and 200 watt amplifier.
four vertically stacked double Mod2X Orbs for left, right, and surrounds.
a horizontal double Orb Mod2X for the center channel, subwoofer cable, and plenty of speaker wire to connect everything.
The system that Orb sent over represents the pinnacle of its standard line, though the company does offer an Orb Mod4X Custom line for those who simply can’t enough of these little spheres. Each Mod1 Orb is a bit over 4” in diameter; the Mod2X has two of these in an array, a Mod4X has four. I must commend Orb Audio on its naming scheme – it makes selecting a system easier.
You can order Orbs in several finishes – black, hand antique copper, hand antique bronze, hand polished steel, hammered earth, or pearl white gloss. Mine were hammered earth, which are brownish-copper, have a nice texture to them, and look stunning. Seriously, these are among the most attractive home audio products I have ever auditioned, and they really don’t look like speakers as much as modernist sculpture. This is clearly the system for someone with a picky spouse; as long as the room has a modern esthetic and you have a spot to hide the sub, there should be no objections to these objects.
My units lacked an installation guide but I was able to download it online. Installation is not nearly as easy as it should be. I first tried to use my usual heavy gauge speaker wire and banana plugs, but the Orb’s speaker connectors are too small to accept banana plugs, and even the bare wire was too thick to fit. Orb Audio had sent over 16 gauge speaker wire that it sells online (100 feet on sale for $38), so I used that. However, the wire does not come stripped (with the ends ready for insertion) or in pre-cut lengths like you find in home theater in a box systems. I have a wire stripping and crimping tool, so managing this was not a big deal for me, but it might be for your average homeowner. The bigger problem is that each Mod2X Orb consists of two essentially independent Mod1X Orbs connected to each other by jumper cables. These jumper cables are already inserted into the same connector holes as the speaker cable needs to. Unless there’s a simpler solution that I missed, fitting both the jumper cable and the speaker cable into the same connector is both non-intuitive and quite difficult to do. The stands also get in the way of your fingers, further complicating threading the wires. I found myself yanking and pulling and cutting and [muttering politely] throughout the installation process – not the first experience you want a customer to have when they take a product out of the box.
Setting up the Subwoofer, on the other hand, was remarkably simple: plug it in to the wall, plug a standard RCA cable (like the speaker wire, Orb will be happy to sell you one) to the LFE out jack on your receiver, and you're pretty much done, unless you need to mess with the settings. There's a phase knob and you can select the low pass frequency if you aren't using a receiver. The wood veneer on my sub didn't exactly match my dark home theater surroundings but should fit into many homes. I have a pair of absolutely massive coffee-table sized subwoofers from Outlaw Audio; I was eager to see if the relatively small cube from Orb could produce reasonable output.
The Orbs produce extremely bright treble and incredible imaging; my notes describe it as “crisp, clear.” It wasn’t so bright as to be grating, but it is hardly neutral. The satellites also cannot produce much bass; the auto-configure setting on my receiver set the crossover at 150 Hz; my usual speakers are set to THX standard 80 Hz. Unsurprisingly, when listening to music via “pure direct” mode on my receiver (which bypasses all room correction, surround modes, and bass management) the music sounded thin and lacked bass — though even in this worst case scenario, imaging was superb. Mark Knopfler’s voice on his album Sailing to Philadelphia was coming from the dead center of the room, and I had to double check to ensure that the center channel was indeed off.
Moving to stereo with bass management and room correction in place, I played some classic AC/DC (Back in Black) which was rich and loud enough that I had to turn it down for fear of waking small children two floors away. I tried jazz, classical, pop, rock… all are satisfying in a way that cheap speakers are not. Is this the best sub/sat system I’ve heard? Hardly. They are still on the bright side, and despite that they are not the last word in clarity. The sub is doing too much work in the upper bass (trombones from New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band were localized to the sub), and the highs lacked “air” around them (a clunky phrase, I know. Describing sound is imprecise).
For movies, the Orb system is far more satisfying than a soundbar, and the SubONE is clearly better than what you’ll find in a cheap HTiB system. The SubONE is not as authoritative as the ore expensive Sonos SUB ($699) which I had on hand, and possesses none of the room-shaking stress of my reference pair of Outlaw Audio LFM-1’s ($499 each, also $100 more than the $399 SubONE). Practically speaking, Star Wars Episode II’s seismic charges scene (Chapter 28) didn't have the impact of the lowest frequencies. Explosions certainly had plenty of boom in the 50 - 100 Hz range where most of the bass is in soundtracks. But going through my other Star Wars discs, the brass in the main theme is quite brassy, and Darth Vader's breathing distinct from rest of sound mix.
A more recent John Williams score, for Lincoln, is much more understated. The music rarely calls itself out, and the Orb speakers absolutely shined, underscoring the movie without drawing attention to themselves in any way. Brass was sweet with no spitting, and piano notes had the proper resonance. The dialogue was exceptionally clear - a bit bright, perhaps, but that benefitted intelligibility.
For a final demo, I got lost in The Matrix on Blu-ray. Music. Expended shell casings. Self-important dialogue. Explosions. It’s all good.
Orb Audio sells direct to consumers online, [cue infomercial voice] “passing the savings along to you!” The Orb Audio speakers are not the last word in sonics, setup was more difficult than it has to be, and the company needs to invest in a more attractive, modern web site. But the bottom line is that products that sound better are either more expensive or less attractive. Even compared to other online-only speaker vendors, Orb provides tremendous value for the customer who requires both good looks and good sound.
*Orb sent the system right away. It took me most of the year before I got a chance to finally unbox and set up the system. In the interim, Orb improved the subwoofer, so I swapped the old unit and tested the new one before giving the system a listen. Then it took me another few months to finish and edit this review. Orb is not a huge conglomerate with endless resources for reviewers, and I apologize for the endless delays on my end.
A practical guide for the order in which you should upgrade (or build) your AV system:
Avi's Audio Heirarchy:
External speakers - even a cheap soundbar - are nearly always better than the tinny ones built into your HDTV.
More speakers and discrete surround sound are always better than a soundbar.
Subwoofers in particular make a movie sound like a movie. (Note: I have found that there is often gender bias when it comes to subs - stereotypical men want them to make things go boom, stereotypical women don't think they watch movies where it will make a difference. The men are right on this one.)
Room correction - whether practical or algorithmic - is magic. You will hear a difference. In most cases, it makes a bigger difference than better speakers.
Better speakers make a bigger difference than better amplification or processing.
If you've settled all of the above, higher resolution formats can sound subtly better.
Of course you need functional cables, but I'm not a believer that crazy expensive cables or power conditioning provide audible improvement (it's never been proven in double blind tests. If your religion requires you to buy expensive cables or light eight candles or pray six times a day, go ahead - I do not wish to disparage your form of worship). Note: power conditioning can be essential if you live in areas with unstable electrical feeds, but that's to protect your gear. It should not provide audio improvement in areas with stable power no matter what the marketing literature says.