Revel Performa surround speaker system Page 2
Kevin Voecks, Harman Specialty Group's Director of Technology, paid me a visit to set up the Revel Performa system. In the 25 years that I've been reviewing high-end speaker systems, Kevin's approach to setup ranks as one of the most scientific I've seen. He brought a laptop computer equipped with a complete analysis system for adjusting each speaker's placement in the room, crossover settings, and individual speaker adjustments.
The most time-consuming part of the setup involved finding the best location for the Performa B15a subwoofer. We tried all the standard spots in my room, such as the corner and midway down the front wall, but they all introduced too many hills and valleys in the B15a's frequency response. Finally, we positioned the sub 2 feet behind my main listening couch—exactly where Arnie Nudell had placed one of his subs when he'd installed his Genesis 6.1 system.
Although the Revel F32 has the bass capacity to extend down to 30Hz with little rolloff, Voecks configured the system with the standard THX handoff to the subwoofer at 80Hz. He feels this delivers the smoothest frequency response, as well as the least restricted dynamic capabilities. The F32s' final positions put them slightly closer to each other but the same distance from the front wall as the main front speakers of the Genesis 6.1 system, which had preceded them in my room.
UAV's technical editor, Scott Wilkinson, asked me whether having experts such as Kevin Voecks or Arnie Nudell set up their speakers achieves results that vastly exceed what you can expect from your average installer, or even yourself. I don't think so. Sure, they can set up their own speakers much faster than I could. But in the four years I've been reviewing speakers in this room, everyone's final speaker placement, whether done by scientific calibration or subjective listening, has been within the same 1-foot radius. The primary reason I like manufacturers to set up their systems for review is to make sure their speakers are operating correctly and sound as they expect them to.
If I had to describe the Revel system in one phrase, it would be matter-of-fact. Rarely have I heard any speaker system that did less to romanticize or euphonically enhance the signal fed to it. Depending on your tastes and the other components in your system, this may or may not be a very good thing. I find it refreshing to encounter a company willing to market a speaker system that can deliver accurate sound regardless of the consequences.
The Performa system reproduced extreme high-frequency information without undue emphasis or artificial airiness. While the flutes and violins in my own live-concert recordings were present and easy to hear, I was never unduly impressed by their timbral extension. To me, this was a positive sonic attribute. Many systems try too hard to make a spectacular impression by adding extra sparkle or zip to the upper frequencies. But such sonic bling easily becomes fatiguing, limiting an owner's long-term enjoyment. Although the Revels may have sounded more sonically prosaic, they were also more harmonically correct.
The Performa system's midrange had a dry character that reminded me of good recording-studio monitor speakers. Rather than fatten the lower midrange to make the sound richer and warmer, the Performas delivered a more balanced, less euphonic sonic picture. On well-recorded material, such as the SACD of Glenn Gould's perfor-mance of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical SS 37779), this lack of harmonic editorializing produced stunning results.
On harsher recordings, such as the DVD of Can't Hardly Wait (Columbia Pictures 02714), I found my fingers itching to adjust my AV processor's tone controls to make the sound a bit more warm and friendly. I would not advise mating the Performa speakers with older or budget-priced solid-state AV receivers or separates; they'll make any shortcomings in your electronics immediately obvious.
The Performa system's upper bass and midbass continued the system's emphasis on quality over quantity. Instead of warm and fuzzy, I heard taut, lithe, remarkably fast low-frequency performance. The Revels' midbass reminded me of the sound I used to get from my Apogee full-range speakers, whose large ribbon panels could move low-frequency air with startling speed.
A great deal of the Revel system's bass adroitness was due to the B15a subwoofer, whose three EQ bands can vastly mitigate a room's worst low-frequency resonances. When properly set up (a job made much easier with Revel's LFO test-signal CD and software, which come with the sub), the B15a delivered astonishingly flat bass response down to my room's low-frequency limits. Test tones down to 26Hz were clearly discernible and unusually even throughout my room.
Establishing the harmonic balance of all five speakers is one of the more daunting aspects of assembling a superior surround-sound system. Depending on a room's acoustics and speaker placements, even buying matched speakers for all five channels won't guarantee harmonic compatibility.
The Revel Performa system made harmonic consistency easy to obtain. For starters, while the C32, M22, and F32 have very similar timbral balances, their rear-panel controls allow users to compensate for major positioning variations and room foibles. Following Kevin Voecks' setup, I was pleasantly surprised by the nearly identical harmonic balance of the C32 center and F32 L/R speakers. Considering the differences in size and driver complement—and the C32's lack of a port—I had assumed that the speakers would sound markedly different. They did not. When I A/B'd the Lexicon MC-12B's 2-channel stereo and music surround modes, the changes in the harmonic character of the midrange were exceedingly minor. Even in very dynamic passages of my own concert recordings, such as the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, going from 2-channel to surround mode made only slightly discernible differences in the quality of the dynamics.
The M22 surrounds mated very ably with the front half of the system. On "Yesterday," from my well-worn DTS copy of Boyz II Men's II (DTS 71021528), the quality of the vocals from the M22s matched the F32s and C32 as well as I've heard from any system, regardless of price. Given their quality, the M22s could easily serve as the main speakers in a system tailored to a smaller room.
The Performa system's dynamics seemed somewhat subdued on first listen, but that initial impression was proved wrong by extended auditioning. The system's honest rendition of musical dynamics stood in contrast to many speakers' overly spectacular presentations. If you're used to more "hi-fi" re-creations of dynamics, the Performas may seem somewhat restrained with many standard commercial recordings. But with truly dynamic material played back at realistic levels, the Performas delivered a remarkably accurate and convincing dynamic picture. I was especially impressed by their ability to separate minute loudness variations at both extremes of the dynamic spectrum.
The ability to articulate subtle imaging effects differentiates a great speaker system from one that's merely very good. Once more, extensive listening nullified my initial impressions of the Performas' imaging abilities. From my first listening session, it was obvious that the Performas' lateral imaging was precise and superbly differentiated, but their rendition of depth seemed less impressive. Some audiophile speakers exaggerate depth; even if a recording has little in the way of actual depth, you'll hear a ton of space between the front and rear of the soundstage. The Performas didn't add depth where it didn't exist, but on exceptionally good recordings where real physical depth exists, they did preserve all the important spatial cues. Again, the Performas' basic honesty resulted in a presentation that refused to make sources sound any better than they were.
Although the Performa system could never be accused of being overly romantic or artificially impressive, it was nonetheless remarkably involving. Much of its seductive quality stemmed from the wealth of musical information the system passed on to me. Not only did the speakers have excellent low-level detail, they retained their articulation regardless of the source signal's harmonic complexity or dynamic demands. Even during the most punishing sections of Pearl Harbor (Touchstone 23889), subtle background sounds and dialog were never difficult to decipher. The fff passages in my own recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 remained cohesive without any of the typical homogenization heard from many other speaker systems.
Comparing the Revel Performa system to the last speakers I'd had in my listening room, the Genesis 6.1s, reminded me of trying to evaluate the differences between top-flight mandolins or guitars. At this level of performance, the concept of "best" becomes more an exercise in defining personal taste than a delineation of absolute performance parameters. The Genesis system's exceptional flexibility means that its harmonic and dynamic characters can change radically; the Revel Performas had a more fixed personality.
I had the Genesis 6.1 system configured to sound somewhat more harmonically romantic and bacchanalian than the Revels, but I could have adjusted their output to more closely parallel the Revels, had I desired. With five subwoofers compared to the Revel's single B15a, the Genesis system had more bass power and impact—but again, this was a result of my own setup tastes rather than either system's intrinsic qualities. Given the Genesis' greater physical size and fairly complex dipole dispersion, the Revels' more controlled dispersion will probably fit better in smaller, more acoustically challenging rooms. In the final analysis, both systems offered superb windows on sonic events, albeit from slightly different vantage points.
Many speaker companies offer outstanding yet expensive speakers; creating a speaker that delivers top-echelon performance for a moderate price is far more difficult. Revel's new Performa system accomplishes this goal. While I've heard and reviewed other excellent speaker systems near this system's price, few have offered the Performas' level of harmonic neutrality, low-level detail, and clean, powerful bass extension. Coupled with their compact footprint, superb construction quality, and installation flexibility, the Revel Performa F32, C32, M22, and B15a rank as a speaker system with few peers. Set up properly and coupled with top-flight electronics, they delivered sound that rivaled far more expensive speakers. In short, the Revel system makes good on all its promises.