Over the past year or so, I've had the opportunity to audition many excellent speaker systems. In the process, I've noticed that I gravitate toward 2-way designs with horn-loaded compression driver tweeters. There is something about the effortless quality of a full-sized, high-efficiency speaker that is missing from low-end and midrange tower speakers designed for home use.
I was thinking about an experience I had at an AVS get-together last year, where I heard a number of different speakers. The entries ranged in price from about $1000/pair to about $10,000/pair. In the mix were several DIY speaker builds that cost less in terms of materials, and those were the speakers that inspired me to purchase a pair of the Behringer B215XLs, which are designed as PA ("public-address" or live-sound) speakers. By the way, I started a thread in the speakers forum to discuss the B215XL in depth.
The B215XLs are not the first PA speakers I've repurposed as home speakers—that honor goes to a pair of B-52 LX1515 speakers I bought about seven years ago. However, those speakers were huge, and when I moved from a loft to a Philly row house, I no longer had room for them. So I put the B-52s into storage and replaced them with a series of consumer-oriented speakers, finally winding up with a 5.1 system based on four Pioneer SP-FS52 towers and an SP-C22 center channel.
I've heard many great speakers while reporting on the New York Audio Show, CEDIA, and CES. Even so, every time I came home and played some music on my decidedly modest home theater, I found myself surprised at how well the Andrew Jones-designed Pioneers performed.
However, when I went to the AVS GTGs, I had a different reaction. After hearing a few nice 2-way speakers with compression-driver horn tweeters, I'd think to myself, "I sure do miss those B-52s." I was thinking about that last week when a light bulb lit up over my head—could a molded plastic PA speaker give me the sound I craved in a more manageable package?
The Behringer B215XL is an great example of form following function
A few days ago, I decided to find the answer. I jumped into a Zipcar and headed to my favorite music-gear shop, 8th Street Music, to grab a pair of B215XLs. While I paid for my new speakers, the store manager asked if I planned to use them for DJ gigs. I told him the plan was to use them in a multi-channel home-audio system. Almost instinctively, we fell into a discussion of speaker designs, materials, applications, and we agreed on most points: High efficiency is good, as is a non-resonant cabinet with a rounded baffle that mitigates diffraction. High power handling along with high efficiency equals extended dynamic range, which is one of the defining characteristic of great sound. The B215XLs have all those qualities, which is why it really surprised me that few people use B215XLs for home-theater applications.
The speaker itself is large only in the sense that it has to accommodate a 15-inch woofer as well as a horn tweeter. There is little in terms of wasted space in the overall design, and thanks to the molded plastic cabinet, each speaker weighs only 38 pounds. Integrated handles make it easy to move around. While handles are not exactly a necessity for home use, it's still a nice touch. Behringer makes a $50 wall-mount bracket for the B215XL. One thing to keep in mind, the B215XL has Speakon and ¼" speaker connections, which are standard for pro gear but not compatible with typical home-audio speaker-wire connectors.
Here's a look at the back panel, featuring dual Speakon and 1/4" connectors, in this picture you can also see the integrated handles
The 215XL makes it easy to get maximum performance in a home environment. The speaker's impedance rating is 8 ohms and it can handle up to 250 watts of RMS power, a great match for typical AVRs. With 96 dB sensitivity, it's easy to hit reference levels in a typical home-theater space without having to invest in additional amplification.
If there is one tradeoff for that much sensitivity in an easy-to-drive speaker, it's bass performance. The B215XL's bass response starts rolling off around 80 Hz, and the output is rather diminished at 60 Hz, which is not what you'd think seeing them in person. If you EQ the bass, the B215XL can actually play much lower, with a usable response down to about 40 Hz. Although it starts to roll off, I was messing with EQ and taking measurements. It can play quite a bit lower with a boost in the bass region, down to about 40 Hz—Boosting EQ at 32 Hz by 10 dB does the trick, but it's not something I'd recommend. The final, absolute cutoff where it stops making bass is actually near 28Hz but the maximum output is very limited there. Also, bass performance does improve slightly after a short break-in period. That's probably because the spider and the accordion-style woofer surround loosen up a bit. However, since 80Hz is the de-facto standard for a subwoofer crossover, the B215s relatively subdued deep bass response becomes an asset—the high tuning is part of the reason the speakers are so efficient. When using a crossover at 80 Hz, subwoofer integration is a piece of cake.
The B215XLs are relatively large because they feature 15-inch woofers and horn-loaded tweeters, but they fit in my current space
My previous pair of PA speakers, B-52 LX1515s, were positively gigantic—far too big for my modest home theater
One of the things I really like about PA speakers is that they use horn-loaded compression-driver tweeters. To my ears, a good horn sounds better than any dome tweeter. The horn on the B215XL is of the exponential variety, with 40x70 degree dispersion. That keeps the sound relatively focused within the listening area, minimizing room interactions. I found that dispersion was more than adequate for my home-theater setup, easily confirmed with a few measurements using the Room EQ Wizard room-acoustic analysis program for Windows. Treble response was flat out to about 16 kHz. I added a 3 dB boost at 20 kHz using EQ, and that flattened them out all the way. I can hear only up to about 17 kHz, so for all practical purposes the B215XLs measure flat for me, and from any listening position.
I spent the first day positioning my new speakers. Because of the horns and the reduced room interaction, I was able to push the B215XLs farther back and toward the room corners versus the Pioneers they replaced. As a result, though the Behringers are quite a bit larger than the Pioneers, I gained floor space—an unexpected bonus.
Once I found a good position for my speakers, I ran Advanced MCACC room correction on my Pioneer Elite SC-55. I skipped the EQ since I prefer to do that manually, but I did let the receiver work out the standing-waves correction, reverb correction, full-spectrum phase correction, and speaker distances and levels. For my rear channels, I decided to use my Monster Clarity HD speakers instead of the second pair of Pioneers I had been using. The Monsters happen to sound a lot like the B215XLs, something I attribute to the use of plastic for the cabinets. The soundfield came together very nicely, and it quickly became apparent that the new rig outperformed the Pioneers.
To me, the best speakers are those that excel with as many musical genres as possible. As much as I love movies, I also use my system to listen to music—so it is crucial that any speakers I buy sound great across the spectrum of genres in my collection: classical, rap, dubstep, ambient, pop, rock, jazz, dub, electronic (various), and all sorts of dance music.
If there is a common thread in my music collection, it's a preference for full-range recordings where the producer didn't try to squeeze every last bit of life out of the track with heavy-handed dynamic compression. My favorite recordings require a significant boost of the volume dial, because they include so much headroom compared to a radio-ready track. Movie soundtracks share this characteristic—a wide dynamic range. Ultimately, I demand the same thing from my speakers whether I'm watching a movie or listening to music—headroom.
I was quite relieved that the 215XLs had no obvious flaws—instead, they kept pouring out sublime sound. It's almost a cliché to say this about modern speakers, but the B215XLs produced a nice stereo image that conveys the intent of the recording while seeming to disappear. When a friend commented that they "really fill the room," what he described was the speaker's ability to convey a sense of space that belied the surroundings—whether it's a concert hall, recording studio, church, or city street. The B215XLs put you right into that soundscape without calling attention to themselves.
I'm not a big fan of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, but I recognize that "Money" is one of the most over-used hi-fi demo tracks of all time, which makes it a great reference. As a result, I listen to "Money" whenever I put together a new rig. The B215XLs nailed it. Any lingering concerns about whether such inexpensive speakers can really deliver the goods melted away when the sax came in. I'm replaying the track right now as I type to make sure my memory served me well—it did; these speakers kick ass. "Money" deserves its spot at the top of the demo heap.
Contemporary electronic music steps up the demands on a stereo system—dubstep in particular requires a combination of brute power, full-range reproduction, and finesse. One of the best-produced albums out there is Meat Beat Manifesto's Answers Come in Dreams. "Zenta," the tenth track, and "Please," the eleventh track, are downtempo journeys into the depths of intense, bone-rattling bass and crispy buzzing synthesizers. The soundfields of both tracks are truly three-dimensional, and on a good system, even a single pair of stereo speakers will make it seem like sounds are coming from every direction. The B215XLs excelled at this task, which is what earned them a permanent spot in my system.
For the ultimate audio test, I turned to Infected Mushroom's "Nerds on Mushrooms," an all-out dubstep sonic assault. If a speaker has good transient response, "Nerds on Mushrooms" will literally rattle you to the core. I was already at the point where I didn't need any more convincing regarding the B215XL's capabilities, but it's really something to hear such a hard-hitting track playing full range with zero dynamic compression. It is the sort of sound that can either lead to euphoria—or eviction notices. Even with a modest peak level of 85 dB at the main listening position, the track sounded overwhelmingly powerful.
As a final test of the B215Xls versatility when it comes to music, I queued up XTC's 1986 album, Skylarking. Todd Rungren's brilliant production shone through and Andy Partridge's voice was perfectly clear—every little inflection was easy to hear. I've listened to Skylarking since it came out and the B215XLs provided me with one of the best-ever renditions of that classic album. The opening one-two punch of "Summers Cauldron" and "Grass" really put a smile on my face.
I've only had a chance to watch (and listen to) a couple of movies so far: 20 Feet from Stardom and Dallas Buyers Club. 20 Feet from Stardom is about some of the most influential backup singers in the business, and it's a real treat to hear through a good system. Dallas Buyers Club was essentially transparent-sounding—I was in the movie and never thought about the audio for one second, which is a win in my book.
Make no mistake, the B215XLs are big speakers that absolutely require a subwoofer. However, the upshot is that they truly perform above and beyond their price point. The tweeter is outstanding, and the entire package looks, feels, and performs extremely well. The bass extension is limited, but if you use a subwoofer with many premium consumer-oriented speakers with lots of bass extension, that capability goes to waste. While not as efficient as Klipsch Reference towers, the B215XLs are able to reach THX reference levels when powered by a typical AVR at a fraction of the price.
One more cliché—thanks to these new speakers, I am rediscovering my music collection. That alone is worth an occasional investment in new gear. It is also a reminder of the maxim that in home audio, speakers represent the best bang-for-the-buck upgrade.