Snell Acoustics XA 2900 surround speaker system Page 3
Listened to with music in 2-channel stereo, the front XA 2900s performed very well. The overall sound was detailed, clean, and dynamic. It also sounded a little more forward than more typical audiophile speakers such as the Energy Veritas v2.8 and the Revel F30, two models with which I'm very familiar. The Snells lacked a little air on the top end compared to those two designs—not for lack of resolution, but simply because the treble rarely called attention to itself.
I did all of my listening to the XA 2900s with a subwoofer; they're not intended to be used without one, and they blended well with the Revel B15 in my system. As with films, I found that the best blend on music was achieved with the bottom two Snell EQ switches in their negative positions. At Flat, the midbass was a bit too rich and slightly muddled.
I did, however, notice a little coloration on vocals. There was a trace of boxiness that was evident on some notes and not on others, a quality I hadn't noticed with soundtracks. This isn't the first set of speakers I've heard in my home theater that sounded less than their best with music, which is why, if I hear a problem, I always sample such speakers in my second, smaller listening room. The Snells sounded superb in the smaller space; the coloration was no longer a concern. I suspect this had more to do with room acoustics than with room size. Certainly the XA 2900s, given enough power, will easily play as loud as you might want in as large a home theater as you're likely to have.
Many surround speakers can sound a little colored when fed some sorts of discrete material. Sharp transients—gunshots, explosions, etc.—almost never reveal this, and it's hard to hear with ambience as well. But discrete voices and instruments in the rear can sound a little unnatural, particularly with wall-mounted dipoles. Fortunately, film soundtracks that clearly reveal the problem are rare. But those who want to use speakers for surround music might find such colorations a little harder to handle.
While I'd like to see matching onwall surrounds from Snell, including perhaps specialized XA 2900-style EQ switches to minimize wall-proximity effects, the market for such a model may well be small. While the AMC900THX provides an elegant solution to home-theater multichannel sound, it didn't entirely avoid the problems of in-wall designs. A particularly revealing test for surround colorations is to listen to well-recorded 2-channel stereo routed to the surround speakers, with the listener seated midway between them in the dipole null. Used in this way, the Snell surrounds surprised me with their good balance and relatively low level of coloration, particularly in view of the oddly configured midrange driver. But I said "relatively." I did hear boxy, cavity-like resonances on some vocals, but by no means all. And such colorations were even less audible when listening to the speakers as they'll normally be used: with multichannel material and all channels operating. I might not consider a pair of AMC900THX for my main stereo speakers (they aren't designed for that anyway), but they did a solid job in their intended surround application.
All of the sound ratings given in the article "DVD: Five Years and Still Sizzling," in our July/August 2002 issue, were arrived at by listening through the Snell XA 2900 system over a period of nearly five months. It was obvious throughout this time that the Snells refused to glamorize recordings. That doesn't always translate into the sort of head-snapping excitement that calls attention to itself in the showroom, but listen to enough different recordings and you'll begin to realize that the Snells simply reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the program material itself. Big, explosive movies like Black Hawk Down and Atlantis: The Lost Empire sounded dynamic and enveloping. Less complex but no less compelling soundtracks, such as Cast Away and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, sounded subtle and atmospheric.
If I have any reservations about the XA 2900 system, they concern its price. Compared with the Snell XA Reference at $15,000 per speaker, $7500 per XA 2900 looks like a bargain. But it's been my experience that, with loudspeakers, the law of diminishing returns kicks in far below $15,000/pair, particularly for typical domestic home theaters. For less than $10,000, for example, you can get an entire system assembled around Snell's superb XA 90ps loudspeaker, which we rate Class AA, Borderline AAA. Will you prefer the pricier XA 2900 system? Perhaps, but we wouldn't presume to guarantee it. If you're looking for state-of-the-art speakers, the Snell belongs on your list. But no one should buy any expensive audio or video product without a personal audition. This is particularly true of loudspeaker systems that, like this one, sit at the top of the price and performance food-chain.
But while we wouldn't presume to tell you if this is the right speaker package for your room, budget, and taste, what we do know is that the Snell Acoustics XA 2900 is a superb and superbly engineered system. If Snell's design team set out to build a natural-sounding system that belongs on a very short list of the best speakers designed for custom installations, they have succeeded.