Review Types Archives: Audio Hardware

Audio Hardware Review

Denon AVR-X2200W Review

Every well known receiver company has an offering around $800. I’ve always found this to be a sweet spot for a receiver–you gain a more refined piece than entry level, but at a point that doesn’t sting as much as flagship models. As we have written before, receivers in this range sound quite similar, so comparisons come down to features and usability. What sets the Denon AVR-X2200W apart and why do I now have one installed in our bedroom system? A robust platform, second to-none guided set-up and some key differentiating features make the AVR-X2200W an easy recommendation. (more…)

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JL Audio f112v2 Review

The JL Audio Fathom f112 has been highly praised in the audio community and the new version 2 arrives with some solid updates. Chief among them is the updated room calibration system. The Fathom subwoofers have a built-in system called D.A.R.O. or Digital Automatic Room Optimization. The previous models employed an analog system known as A.R.O. which is limited to a single frequency. Moving to the digital domain has allowed the JL Audio engineers the ability to equalize with 18 bands. The new version also employs an updated driver and better amp capable of more output with lower distortion.

These are some of the best subwoofers money can buy. They are compact, especially given the amount of bass they output, and beautifully constructed. Bass output is clean with tons of impact. The new D.A.R.O. is easy to run and does an excellent job at smoothing out bass response. If you are looking to build a reference quality home theater, a pair of JL Audio Fathom f112v2’s should be your foundation. (more…)

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Denon AVR-S710W Review

Trying to pick a future-proof receiver in 2014 was a challenge. You had to pick between full bandwidth HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 copy protection, and DTS:X didn’t even exist yet. No matter what option you picked, you knew that in the next year or two you might need to replace it if you got a new TV. By mid-2015 that had changed and it was not hard to find receivers with full HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2 support for UltraHD along with DTS:X and Dolby Atmos support. One of the more affordable options with those features is the Denon AVR-S710W.

For $480 the Denon AVR-S710W has 6 HDMI inputs, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X with 7 channels, HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2, Bluetooth, AirPlay, WiFi, Audyssey MultEQ, and the best setup routine of any receiver. Best of all, I can crank it to reference levels with my KEF Atmos system and it sounds wonderful. For most people, the Denon AVR-S710W offers everything you need in a receiver today and is ready for tomorrow as well. (more…)

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ELAC B6 Speaker Review

Andrew Jones is quite the name in speaker circles. Some know him from his work at TAD, producing some of the best speakers on the market regardless of price. Many more know him from his affordable line of speakers for Pioneer. I got to know him with his line of Dolby Atmos speakers for Pioneer that feature concentric drivers. Now, he is working with ELAC and has produced a brand new line of speakers for them.

The Debut line from ELAC is very affordable, and with the $280 a pair B6 bookshelf it does better than any speaker I’ve heard for the price. The exterior might be a bit plain, but the sound out-performs any bookshelf speaker I’ve heard from the $400 price range and below. Unless you’re willing to spend twice as much money per speaker, you aren’t going to do better than the ELAC B6 today. (more…)

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Yamaha CX-A5100 Processor Review

After a period of massive changes, it looks like things will slow down a bit on the AV receiver and preamp front. In the past two years we’ve seen Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, HDMI 2.0a with HDR and Wide Color Gamut become available. These new standards, along with a push to better implement wireless audio streaming, have caused many people to have outdated receivers and processors. Like myself, many of them have been waiting for these standards to be final before upgrading so as to not be left behind. The Yamaha CX-A5100 updates the CX-A5000 that I have previously reviewed and is set for 2015 and beyond.

Adding DTS:X support along with WiFi and HDMI 2.0a makes it as future-proof as almost any processor can be today. By using the ESS Sabre 9016 DAC, it offers better performance than competitors using less advanced DACs and room correction that sounds much improved over prior versions. The $2,500 preamp market is more competitive than ever before but the Yamaha CX-A5100 makes a solid claim for your dollars here. (more…)

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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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