Emotiva X-Ref XRC-5.2 Speaker System Page 2
Using the, ahem, rotary encoder takes some getting used to. It has two modes, one to select parameter and one to adjust parameter, so you need to recognize which is operating at the moment to avoid unintentional setting changes. The knob has no indentation or texturing to grab hold of and requires a hard touch. I eventually found the best way to budge it was with both thumbs.
Associated equipment included a Rotel RSX-1550 surround receiver, Oppo BDP-83 SE universal disc player, Rega Planar 25 turntable, Shure M97xE cartridge, and Bellari VP530 phono preamp.
Please Please Me
The Emotivas performed well from the get-go. They had a definable character, which took the form of a warm, rich, and ingratiating midrange. Big, but not vague; subtle, and not grossly unbalanced. With some content, the voicing was perceptible; with other content, the speakers seemed to disappear. The bipole surrounds—each with its single woofer firing directly at the listener and dual tweeters firing elsewhere—had the diffuse character of the genre. I had thought the direct-firing woofer would occasionally rebel against this tendency, but in practice, surround effects seemed very diffuse to my ears. The sub was powerful for its size and, not surprisingly in a product with a sealed enclosure, free of obvious bass-bloating ringing or port noise. I used the subwoofer’s Flat setting throughout the movie demos and well into the music demos (until I ran into one content/hardware combination with different demands).
I wanted to see Mr. Nice—the story of a charismatic Welsh hashish smuggler—so badly that I was willing to settle for a DVD with Dolby Digital. Even in lossy surround, the combination of classic rock and Philip Glass that erupted from the speakers was vivid enough to take me by surprise, and there was more happening than just the familiar pleasure of hearing stereo chestnuts rechanneled to surround. The musically communicative midrange of these speakers began speaking (and singing) to me from the outset. There was, however, a little too much chest weight in the male speaking voices, prompting me to give the subwoofer’s rotary encoder a quick spin for volume adjustment.
In The Ward (Blu-ray, DTS-HD Master Audio), all the patients in a mental hospital happened to be attractive young women. This brought a shift in vocal content, with a dominant proportion of female voices and more strenuous emoting. But by this time, the voices were dialed in (or rotary encoded), and there were so few speaker-related distractions that I ceased to be aware of the speaker system. It achieved anonymity, like a secret agent getting into his trench coat and dodging behind a pillar.
Tigerland (BD, DTS-HD MA) unfolded its tale of a rebellious, Vietnam-era, army private in a mostly outdoor setting. Familiar war-movie soundtrack elements, including a pounding tympani and bongos were tunefully delivered by the subwoofer. Gunfire was slightly rounded off, which made it easier to take, with no need for hasty lunges at the volume control. Rainfall was slightly less convincing with these bipole surrounds than it would have been with my reference monopoles. This is less a knock on Emotiva than part of my ongoing struggle with the subdued surround aesthetics of bipoles. I like precise surround effects perhaps more than an average listener, a preference developed over many years of listening.
Textures, Shaping, Ease
Schubert: Complete Overtures, with Christian Benda leading the Prague Sinfonia, arrived on a Blu-ray disc with DTS-HD MA. Just as I listen carefully to vocal reproduction in movies, I also obsess about orchestral reproduction, especially when the content is high-resolution surround. My notes contained a new (for me) word: wholesome. In other words, I was agreeably surprised by the sweet, but convincingly shaded textures, dynamic shaping, and overall sense of ease the Emotivas coaxed out of this demo. So much so, in fact, that I immediately bumped up the performance rating half a star. This was the kind of demo that makes people fall in love with high-resolution surround as a music medium, and Blu-ray in particular. Note that this is an audiocentric release—video content consists of the Blu-ray and Naxos logos accompanied by track information. There is no full-motion video. This disc demands your attention on the basis of sound quality alone. It sure got mine.
A Foot in the Door: The Best of Pink Floyd (CD) completely skipped over the music from the half-dozen or so studio albums from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle. But while it didn’t entirely fulfill the premise of its title, it did allow the subwoofer and the speakers’ dual woofers a chance to fine-tune Nick Mason’s inconspicuous (and therefore underrated) flow-oriented drumming in the well-recorded later albums. If an unsubtle, ported subwoofer is what you’re used to, you might marvel at the greater control of this sealed 10-incher in the frequencies dominated by drums and bass guitar, dovetailing beautifully with the sealed enclosures of the XRC-5.2. Some subs go after slam and fail to sing. The X-Ref 10 has a more musical set of priorities.
Mandance (LP) by Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society was the only demo material that seemed light on the bass—not a suitable stance for a drummer-led, free-jazz/funk band. But I didn’t want to change subwoofer volume and crossover decisions that had worked so well for previous (and subsequent) content. So I cheated a little, shifting from the subwoofer’s Flat EQ setting to the Movie setting. This immediately brought out both Jackson’s kick drum and the twin basses of Melvin Gibbs and Rev. Bruce Johnson. Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid was a prominent early member of Jackson’s band, and he danced joyfully between the speakers, taking on a golden tone that stemmed in part from the speakers and in part from my vacuum tube phono preamp. (Tube electronics—a lot of them, anyway—are kind of like tone controls with a single setting, but a great one. In this case, one labeled Golden Liquid Midrange.)
Emotiva has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the increasingly competitive field of factory-direct loudspeakers. These X-Ref speakers are an especially tremendous value, with high overall performance and more-than-decent build quality.
If I had to do it again, I’d go for a matched set of XRC-5.2s without the bipoles, but the fact that I can’t get my mind off these speakers indicates how much I enjoyed the review system just as it was. Writing about Emotiva for the first time is kind of like discovering a really great restaurant featuring obscure and exotic cuisine at amazing prices; I know I’ll be heading back soon.