Review Types Archives: Audio Hardware

Audio Hardware Review

KEF R300 Speaker Review

This year I had the chance to compare over 20 pairs of bookshelf speakers to each other. Some were good, some were bad, and some stood out. The SVS Ultra Bookshelf offered the best bass of any speaker, bar none. But the speakers that won me over were the KEF models with their Uni-Q driver. The coherence and clarity they offered over the other speakers was huge. The LS50, acclaimed by everyone in the press, offered the most relaxed yet detailed sound of any speaker in my testing.

I wanted to combine that tweeter and midrange clarity with the bass response of the SVS Ultra. I ordered a surround system made up of four of the KEF R300 bookshelves and the matching R600C center channel. Compared to my previous system of Mythos STS speaker, the KEFs are superior. The STS had the lead in bass, but the KEFs blow them away in soundstage, detail, timing and clarity. From the $300 Q100’s to the $1,800 R300s all the way up to the $32,000 Blades, the KEF speakers offered a superior sound that I’m glad I invested in. (more…)

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Sonos PLAY:5 (2015) Review

Despite holding a commanding lead in the whole home audio market, Sonos has not been content to rest on its laurels. This is good for them, as the recent CEDIA Expo showed that everyone is out to try to take over a piece of this market. Everyone from DTS to Yamaha and Denon has their own solution coming out to challenge Sonos. The newly updated Sonos PLAY:5 shows what they are going to do to stay on top of the market.

From the packaging to setup and listening, the Sonos experience is as elegant an experience as you’ll find in home audio. The PLAY:5 is impeccably designed, feeling both incredibly rugged while looking stylish on a shelf. The new Trueplay room correction technology makes it easy to eliminate excessive bass often caused by speaker placement and improves the overall sound. While $500 for a speaker is getting to be expensive for many people, the Sonos PLAY:5 is the best sounding wireless speaker I’ve used to date. (more…)

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Denon HEOS 1 & GO Pack Review

Earlier this year we tested Denon’s entry into the fairly crowded multi-room home audio market. We like the Heos system, albeit with a few caveats. Denon has expanded the Heos line and I had the opportunity to test the compact Denon HEOS 1 speaker coupled with the optional GO Pack. While a little pricey at $300 for the set, I found the HEOS 1/GO Pack package to be an incredibly capable little speaker offering good sound in the right set-up, and great flexibility for moving around to wherever you need music. (more…)

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Paradigm Prestige 1000SW Subwoofer Review

Paradigm has released two subwoofers in its Reference Collection Prestige Series, the 1000SW and 2000SW. In for review is the smaller 1000SW which features a 1000 watt amp and 12” driver compared to the 2000SW’s 2000 watt amp and 15” driver. Each Prestige Series subwoofer includes the Paradigm PBK (Perfect Bass Kit) for automated room tuning and optimal bass performance.

Solid construction, a great looking design, and powerful bass you can hear and feel translate into a top performing subwoofer. The extra investment pays off when you hear how tight and detailed the low end sonics are from the Paradigm Prestige 1000SW. (more…)

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Arcam Solo Sound Bar

Curiously as you spend more money on a sound bar, you often wind up with fewer features. You can find $300 sound bars with multiple HDMI inputs, Bluetooth, and an IR repeater. Once you get to more expensive, and often better sounding, sound bars that sell for $1,000 and up you find ones without any of those. The Arcam Solo Sound Bar is a sound bar designed by an audiophile company that comes with every feature you want. Four HDMI inputs, Bluetooth with AptX, ARC, an IR repeater, AutoEQ, and an optional wireless subwoofer make the Solo full-featured. It also is designed around high-end audio quality just like all other Arcam products are.

For the most part, the Arcam Solo delivers. It sounds very good with both stereo music and with movies. It has four HDMI inputs so you can use it for all your devices to get the lossless audio from them. The IR repeater works well and the AutoEQ system does a good job of optimizing audio for your listening position. The downsides are that it is rather large for a sound bar and without the optional subwoofer the sound is very thin.

Feature Loaded

Specs
Manufacturer: Arcam
Model: Solo Bar
Outputs: 1x HDMI 1.4a with ARC
Inputs: 4x HDMI 1.4a, 1x Optical, 1x 3.5mm, 1x Stereo RCA
Subwoofer: No
Bluetooth: Yes
Airplay: No
Review Date: July 13, 2015
Price: Check on Amazon
Company Website

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Whatever you want in a sound bar, you’ll probably find it inside of the Arcam Solo. Four HDMI inputs that support Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio? Check. An IR Repeater to let you easily control the TV? Ready to go. A setup mic to optimize the speakers and optional subwoofer to the behavior of your room? Also there. The only thing you can really classify as missing is that there isn’t a way to create a 5.1 channel system using it. The Arcam Solo is only a 2.1 channel system but more often this is what people are after.

I’ve spend a lot of time going back-and-forth on if HDMI in a soundbar is really important, or if it can be skipped. At first you’d think it is an easy decision, since HDMI can handle the lossless audio formats off Blu-ray and it provides more inputs. But is this against the goal of a sound bar? I always thought of a sound bar as a cost-effective solution to improve upon the audio from your TV. Not as your main audio system, but as something you’d install in a second room or bedroom so the audio didn’t suck.

Over time the role of the sound bar has changed a bit. More and more people don’t want a big, complex system in their living room. People want something that sounds good, works well, and doesn’t draw attention to itself. While many of the first sound bars were cheap (and often cheap sounding) because of this, now you have sound bars aiming for the high-end. Having listened to dozens of them in the past few years, there are sound bars on the market that do provide a real high-end listening experience. They all have some faults compared to the traditional speakers and receiver approach, as you can’t just change physics, but they can sound great.

Easy Setup and Use

For the most part, setup of the Arcam Solo Bar is very straight forward. You plug-in all your HDMI devices as you would with a receiver, connect it to the TV, and you’re basically done. The subwoofer paired automatically for me and then I inserted the microphone and ran the AutoEQ routine. This adjusted the levels to be appropriate for my seated position and I was ready to go.

Since the Arcam Solo Bar supports HDMI CEC, in theory it should automatically switch input and turn on devices as appropriate. In some cases, this worked very well. If I pushed Eject on my Oppo BDP-103D Blu-ray player to insert a movie, the Solo and my TV both turned on and went to the correct inputs. HDMI CEC lets the TV remote control the volume of the Solo Bar and the IR Pass-thru let my TV remote work even as the IR receiver is blocked. In this case it works flawlessly.

Two channels, three drivers each

Two channels, three drivers each

Watching TV, which uses HDMI-ARC to send audio from my TV to the sound bar, did not go as smoothly. Sometimes I’d turn on the TV and the Arcam would switch to the correct input, but often it would not. It would sometimes go to the wrong input, or just not recognize the audio stream coming correctly. This isn’t limited to the Arcam, HDMI ARC seems to work correctly around 10% of the time with any device I have tested, but it makes it harder to use without a universal remote.

The Solo Bar can be controlled with your iOS or Android device thanks to an app that communicates over Bluetooth. It doesn’t offer anything over the standard remote, but might be more convenient for people. Built-in Bluetooth also means you can easily stream all your music directly to the Arcam from any Bluetooth device you have.

Sound Quality

To get the most out of the Arcam Solo Bar, it really needs to be paired with a subwoofer. Each channel has dual 4” drivers for bass, but they only can reach so low. Rated to 170Hz, this leaves a lot of lower octaves uncovered by the Solo. While the music sounds very clear and detailed with a tweeter and the dual 4” drivers. It can sound a bit thin and hollow because of the lack of low-end. Adding on the subwoofer fixes this issue, but increases by price by nearly 50%.

With the subwoofer connected music sounds very good through the Arcam. Voices are clear with good stereo separation. You are able to locate instruments and singers in complex mixes while the sound bar and subwoofer integration is well done. The overall sound is a tad darker that the Paradigm Soundscape, but still very accurate overall.

Movies perform better than music on the Arcam Solo. Compared to the Paradigm I was unable to prefer one to the other. The Paradigm has a separate center channel to help with dialogue but I never had trouble with the Arcam. Fed surround sound over HDMI the Arcam creates a very wide soundstage that comes back on the side walls to be equal with me.

Using the Arcam in the living room for a few weeks I was never disappointed in its performance. It sounds far better than my TV and then the Vizio sound bar that usually lives there. I would stream audio from my phone to the Arcam over Bluetooth to listen to Spotify and my favorite podcasts. TV and movies both benefit from the much better sound when compared to my TVs speakers. Perhaps most importantly for people, it integrated into my living room easily.

Small Issues

The main issue with the Arcam in usability is the HDMI ARC issues. I don’t think this is just a problem for Arcam, but instead something that is inherent to HDMI ARC. You could get a more reliable connection by using Optical instead of HDMI, which is what I did, but then you lose the automated input switching that HDMI should offer. A universal remote will let you do both of these fine, but you shouldn’t need one.

I also ran into a weird issue with Bluetooth on my iPhone. If I was watching something on TV and had sound going through the Arcam, my phone would also automatically connect to it over Bluetooth. Many sound bars don’t have Bluetooth enabled unless that input is selected, so your phone won’t connect to it unless you are using it for listening to music. Since the Arcam lets your phone control it over Bluetooth with an app, Bluetooth is always on. Most people might not have something on TV while also watching or listening to something on their phone, but be aware of this if you do.

Good Sound, Fair Value

The Arcam Solo Bar sounds very good, and is very loaded when it comes to features. The main area where it comes up short is value. The Paradigm Soundscape sounds as good, with much deeper bass, for the same price. You can add-on a subwoofer to fix the bass issues but then you’re spending $700-1,000 more than with the Paradigm. What the Arcam does offer is far more features than the Paradigm: IR repeater, HDMI inputs and output, an EQ system, Bluetooth control, and even more drivers per channel.

The Arcam Solo Bar is a very nice high-end sound bar. I wish it was a little bit more affordable to compete directly with the Paradigm but with all its features it will work for more people. If you want high-end sound with the simplicity of a sound bar, the Arcam Solo Bar fits the bill nicely.

Review Summary
Product: Arcam Solo Bar
Reviewer:
Pros: More features than any other sound bar, good stereo sound, great with movies.
Cons: Really needs the optional subwoofer to fill in the bottom end, HDMI ARC still prone to issues.
Summary: The Arcam Solo Bar is a full featured sound bar that produces very good overall sound quality. I would budget in the optional subwoofer because the bottom end can use it.
Value: 2.5/5
Performance: 4/5
Overall: 3.5/5

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SVS Ultra Bookshelf Speaker

SVS has been known for their subwoofers but not associated with other speakers. Their Ultra line, released 2012, is a push to handle all the audio duties in a theater and not just the bass. Designed by Mark Mason, formerly of PSB and now head designer for Thiel, the Ultra Bookshelf speaker offers a lot for the money. A very large bookshelf speaker finished in a beautiful piano black, the Ultra Bookshelf has no trouble filling a room. For $1,000 a pair it is a very impressive speaker, even when compared to those costing 50% more. (more…)

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SVS PC-2000 Subwoofer Review

SVS has revamped their cylinder series of subwoofers with the new PC-2000: a 34” tall, downward firing room shaker. About the only thing in common with its predecessors is the cylindrical cabinet design. The PC-2000 features a new 12” driver from their 2000 series, 500 watt Sledge STA-500D Class D amp, and a rear firing port. Propping up this new design are the elastomer feet of the SoundPath Isolation System. These decouple the subwoofer cabinet from the floor, allowing for better bass performance.

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Pioneer SC-85 Receiver Review

Over a year ago I reviewed the Yamaha CX-A5000 preamp which was one of the first to use the ESS SABRE 9016 DAC in a multi-channel product. The sound quality from this was well ahead of other preamps I had used but it is expensive at $2,500. Now Pioneer has used those same ESS DACs in their $1,600 Elite SC-85 Receiver. With 9 channels of amplification, the Pioneer Elite SC-85 offers Dolby Atmos, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and their most advanced room correction system. No only does it have good specs, but it has the bench performance to back those up.

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Oppo PM-3 Headphones Review

The PM-3 is Oppo’s third planar magnetic headphone, following the PM-1 and PM-2. Unlike the PM-1 and PM-2, the Oppo PM-3 is a closed back design. Not only is outside noise reduced, allowing more of the music to be heard, music leakage from the headphone is also limited. The Oppo PM-3 utilizes a new 55mm round planar magnetic driver featuring much of the technologies pioneered in the PM-1. The lightweight yet durable 7-layer diaphragm and strong Neodymium magnets play a key role in the PM-3’s weight reduction and in turn its portability. The Oppo PM-3 is the first truly portable closed back planar magnetic headphone to hit the market and Oppo hits the ball out of the park with it. Plush padding, soft materials, and near perfect clamping pressure make the PM-3 one of the most comfortable headphones I have worn. (more…)

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Oppo HA-2 Headphone Amp and DAC Review

Oppo’s previous personal audio releases, the HA-1 Headphone Amp and PM-1 and PM-2 headphones, scored very well with Reference Home Theater. Now they are supplementing their personal audio lineup with the new HA-2 Portable Headphone Amp and DAC. Even with the high bar set by their headphones, the Oppo HA-2 performs even better. Packed with an ESS 9018-K2M DAC and a hybrid Class AB amplifier, the Oppo HA-2 offers up a lot of performance in a slim, elegant, well-built chassis. Plus, Oppo delivers all of this for $299.
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