MY review, first posted here at TAI forums:
http://www.theaudioinsider.com/forum/showthread.php?1640-Arx-A5-EvaluationThe Arx A5
The Towers that almost didn't exist
By Collin Bruce, s/n BufordTJustice
I've been living with the Arx A5 tower prototypes (abbreviated to A5x) for about a year now. This really shouldn't be the case, since the A5's shouldn't exist in the first place. The only reason they exist is because I pestered Jon Lane on a consistent basis, for an extended period of time (several months). Here's how the journey started....
Once upon a time, I saw a guy named Jon Lane posting online, who also apparently owned The Audio Insider. After reading many of his posts, I determined that he spoke with a wisdom and knowledge of loudspeaker tuning that I have seen in few other places.
I saw that Jon had a loudspeaker series called Arx. It looked too good to be true. $500 for a pair of 2.5-way towers using magnetic planar tweeters and XBL2/Splitgap midwoofers? Were the cabinets and crossovers made from plastic and paper? Nobody else was putting drivers of that quality in speakers under a grand. So I played 20 questions and Jon answered every one. I asked him if he had plans for a bigger tower than the A3. He said very plainly, "Nope". Undeterred, I asked him if he would consider, even if only on paper, a bigger tower. I expressed my desire to have towers which possessed a duality of talents; they had to be strong on music, but they also would need to mesh with other cabinets for home theater. He kindly laughed and said something to the effect of, "lemme see what I can dream up in my [extremely limited] free time".
Weeks passed until I found an email in my inbox titled "A5 towers". Jon had modeled a tower with the A3's cabinet size envelope, the same XBL2/Splitgap midwoofers (except there were now three midwoofers per cabinet as compared tot he A3's two) and planar tweeters used in the rest of the Arx series, and a dedicated midrange that he had access to which he determined might work with the rest of the system. Jon mentioned that the midrange driver had a very-low-distortion motor assembly, a true [fixed] phase plug (read: not a bullet-shaped dustcap), and outstanding musicality. He told me it could be done in the same size cabinet as the A3 towers by eliminating the mass-loading chamber in the base of the cabinet in favor of increased internal volume. However, they didn't physically exist yet and Jon had no plans to fabricate them, even on a prototype basis.
After about a month of talking about boring design details, and desperately trying to convince Jon that a set of music-focused towers like that COULD sell well if they existed, Jon agreed to entertain my requests with some full modeling of the potential crossover network and he told me he would get back to me. Within a week, Jon informed me that the crossover was going to require more work than he had previously anticipated and that it may not work at all. A couple weeks after that, Jon emailed me the following: a) the A5's were possibly "doable" within a reasonable price constraint and using available drivers. I told him that if it didn't cost between $700 and $850 per PAIR that I had no interest and that several current market offerings would quickly make it an irrelevant also-ran. I did not want to give Jon the false impression that I would be paying any more than that. I felt that, surely, this would be the last nail in the coffin and that our pleasant phone chats and email exchanges had essentially come to an end. Jon ran some numbers and emailed me back the next day with a very simple message, "I think I can do $700-$800 per pair. But it will be a squeeze. Let me build some prototypes so I can know for sure the design works in the real world."
Then Jon blew me out of the water with this offer, "How about I build a mirror pair of prototypes? Would you be willing to help me tune the crossovers, acting as a second set of ears?" He advised that there were still no guarantees about production and that he would need a minimum number of people to buy a production pair for it to be feasible (a number which he had not calculated yet). He then offered to have me babysit a bruised-up demo pair of Arx A3 towers so I could be ready to supply feedback to him about the continuity of the entire Arx line's voicing and if the A5's played into that. Further, he wanted the A5's to represent a marked and distinct improvement over the A3's. He stated that he would ship to me a prototype pair of A5x's once he had them ready....and once he could master the midrange-tweeter crossover to his satisfaction. He wanted input on the A5 design as it progressed. He told me that he had a mirror pair that he would craft and he would be able to send me small parts, different port tubes, etc, that I could switch-out myself and provide feedback to him. Mind you, we still have not met in person (to this day, actually). I could be a serial killer and he wouldn't know it. Or a thief. Or a liar. Or all three.
Jon and I discussed extensively what the sonic character of the A5 needed to be. He and I both agreed that they would be designed and tuned with a focus toward stereo music listening, and as a secondary role filling the main L+R slots in a home theater setup. This meant careful attention paid to the horizontal soundstage, the depth of said soundstage, and the clarity of the midrange and treble sections while avoiding harshness, proper damping and impulse response, among many other issues.
Well, the A5's met my expectations. The soundstage is wide and often three dimensional (depending on the quality of the source/content, of course). The midrange clarity belies its under-$1K price. After placing them about 8.5-9ft apart and about 10 feet away from me, the image reached all the way to the outer walls of my listening room (about 3.5ft to the outside of each speaker). The midrange resolution was like turning the detail knob up to eleven. However, no harshness or fatigue resulted. The dynamic delivery of the bass, without bloat, is satisfying. The A5's reach down to the low forty's in my room with negligible roll off. Usable bass output extends to just above 30Hz in my room. Your mileage may vary
The Arx A5x's have a fundamental core of musicality; they sound detailed and revealing, but listener fatigue is kept lower than I expected. Which is to say, it is very low, indeed. I'm not interested in using esoteric terms to describe my listening experience, but I'll do my best to describe what I have heard from the A5x's. Being a huge fan of Diana Krall, I popped in her CD, "Live in Paris" and sat back. I usually demo by playing a minute or so from my favorite tracks (which is nearly all of them on this album). In this case, I lost track of time and played the entire album. The first track opens with a crescendo of audience applause. This applause was crisp and clear, and seemed to emanate from well outside of the physical confines of the boxes themselves. I was being surrounded by sound, yet with only two speakers. I was so pleased at this, I wanted to make sure it wasn't a placebo effect, so I restarted the track several times throughout my listening session. Of course, I expected that this wide soundstage would come (as it usually does) at the expense of focus (and possibly coherence) at the center of the soundstage, which it did not. I could hear the instruments from their original positions as recorded, panned across the front of the soundstage, with Diana's voice floating in the middle. The raspy character of her voice can, at times, come across as strident. This was not the case during my listening session; the A5x's allowed me to hear the texture of her voice, the subtle vibrato she uses on some words, and her delicate whispers, but it never hurt, even when being played at reference for short intervals. Brushes of the snare drum head were equally revealing.
The bass seemed much more effortless than I had anticipated. The kick drum and floor tom provided a solid foundation for the rhythm section, their dynamic nature belied the small size of the Arx midwoofers and the modest cabinet volume. The upright acoustic bass also sounded full, yet it did not sound bloated. I could hear the bassist's fingers slide along the strings and could differentiate the 'pluck' of the string from the resonance that is created in the wooden body. This clarity also carried into more complex passages. I later contacted Jon about this and he had done exactly what I had asked; he had not included any type of 'showroom' output hump in the bass region. He maintained proper damping and impulse response through the bass region instead of chasing maximum raw bass output. It is, after all, hard for a pair of decently designed speakers to sound 'bad' with Diana Krall and her band. So I raided my wife's CD collection for some known-horrible, ultra-compressed modern drivel. My friends, say hello to Nickelback. Mediocre recordings, stupefying lyrics, lackluster dithering in production, compressed harshness, and a teeny bit of digital distortion on some of the lead vocal screams. Mix this with some more compression during mastering, and extra reverb for that oh-so-popular 'cathedral effect' ....and you have Nickelback.
I don't like this music. Which makes it easy for me to be critical, both of the material itself and any system it is playing on. I am depressingly familiar with them because both my wife and my younger brother love them. This, in my mind, makes it really good evaluation material. Why listen to music that I already like? That's an easy test. This is a more difficult test for a speaker because I am (unfortunately) familiar with it and I can't stand it.
The A5x's did an admirable job on Nickelback's 'Here and Now' and 'Dark Horse'. The perennial harshness that I came to associate with these discs was pleasantly almost absent. It's easily as smooth as my Grado headphones (read: tolerable). There is still plenty of sibilance and harshness on cymbal crashes and some snare hits. The annoying grunge in the guitar is still there, but somewhat more palatable than before. I no longer found myself compulsively reaching for the remote to turn the volume down. Yet, I was hearing more detail and more of the ambiance surrounding the instruments, and sometimes even the room/booth they were recorded in. This was a mighty fine balance of clarity without harshness. The best quality was that, again, the music seemed to emanate from far outside the edges of the A5x cabinets. This with no sound processing (other than the standard DAC conversion going on inside the Panasonic DMP-BDT500 courtesy of the Burr-Brown 192kHz x 32bit DAC's) and being sent to the DVD-A input on my Arcam AVR300 in PureDirect mode (where all internal DSP is fully disabled along with all non-essential video and audio circuits). So this is definitely not something that is being added to the signal. No phase manipulated 'fake surround' circuits employed here.
I told Jon from the outset that stereo listening was my primary goal, and that if the A5's could to that well, HT duties should be adequately fulfilled as well. That goal has been met.
The A5's are the kind of quality speakers that, when connected to quality equipment and fed a quality source, you just want to turn off the lights and let an album play all the way through. All I'm missing is the gentle glow of a tube amp.
The A5x's even breathe life into Pandora Internet Radio. Never have I been so impressed with the quality of sound that I got from streamed content. This is a credit both to Pandora and to the A5x's. Large soundstage, lack of sibilance, and excellent vocal qualities across all genres of music. I can honestly say that I only became a true fan of Pandora once I got the A5x's in my system. For less-than-critical listening, I can very nearly forget it's not a CD or lossless audio; perfect for chore duty or when I'm working on another bench project.
Kid Cudi: Day 'N Nite -
A strong bass line anchors the song, and an ethereal synthesizer floats over the vocals and sound effects. The bass is dynamic, and the ambient nature of the synthesizer creates a large envelope of sound. This should, and did, provide a wrap-around sound experience due to a lot of phase manipulation happening in the studio. The vocals, as with most modern music, are highly compressed. This usually creates a strident and tinny nature, even to people who have deeper voices. The A5x's excelled in revealing the texture of the vocals, without allowing them to be too shrill. (great break-in song)
Timbaland: The Way I Are -
Another song that has highly compressed vocals, an ethereal and reverberant backing track, coupled with a very loud bass line that digs quite low for mainstream musical content. Another great test of the A5x's ability to maintain composure at higher volume levels without falling apart. (and a great break-in song)
Justin Timberlake: What Goes Around -
I have grown to like Timberlake. This song is my favorite of his so far. It is easy to tell that he paid more attention to the vocal harmonies and the quality of microphone being used in the studio. The compression he uses on the vocal track on this song is lighter than usual for the hip-hop genre.
Lupe Fiasco: The Show Goes On -
The electric guitar sampling that plays throughout the song, along with the (fake) trumpets and the strong bass beat is another showcase for the A5's bringing composure and smoothness to a song that really doesn't have too much of either of those. The reverb effect applied to the guitar is conveyed with great effect, seeming to wrap around you in the beginning of the track.
Diana Krall [Live in Paris]: I Love Being Here With You & Fly Me To The Moon
Oh, Diana. Some love her, others hate her (no idea why). I find her music well recorded and well produced. Her use of live musicians on this album, along with the live audience's applause being tastefully mixed into the beginning and end of each track really helps you visualize the experience. The A5's paint a clear sonic picture of what was recorded. Again, a very wide and deep soundstage is the norm.
The Rolling Stones [Forty Licks]: Gimme Shelter
My all-time favorite Stone's song. The A5x's really allowed me to listen in on this recording; hearing the female singer's voice actually break (crack) as she belts-out her part in the latter part of the song. If you listen real close, you can hear Jagger react to it in the recording. The A5x's present tons of clarity, but also keep listener fatigue impressively low. Fatigue on midrange-heavy recordings from this era (especially ones that have been 'digitally remastered') can detract from one's listening enjoyment.
John Mayer: Heartbreak Warfare
John seems to be experimenting with more ambiance in his recordings. This first track sounds less intimate, but shows off the wide soundstage that the A5x's reveal.
Tom Petty: You Don't Know How it Feels
If a speaker is harsh in the midrange, the Harmonica (especially in the beginning) will be grating. Now, Harmonicas are naturally shrill instruments, but they don't have to be punishment. On this track, clear-yet-smooth is what you want, and the A5x's deliver. You can hear the texture of the diaphragms as they vibrate inside the harmonica and Tom's gritty road-beaten voice.
I sampled Star Wars Episode III on BD and Episode 4, also on BD. These movies are a favorite of mine, the latter since my childhood. I ended up purchasing an Arx A2 center from Jon during the above evaluation to complete my front three for movie viewing. To the A5x's credit, they still meshed seamlessly with the A2 to create a cohesive front soundstage. Pans across the front sounded pleasingly natural and I was unable to differentiate where one speaker ended and the other began after getting them level-matched.
Using my Panasonic DMP-BDT500, I have discovered the world of FLAC and lossless audio (also, Dolby True HD, DTS HD MA, LPCM, etc.).....and there's no going back to the lossy stuff. Whether playing 44.1k CD rips or 96/24 files from HD Tracks-dot-com via my USB thumb drive, it is vibrant, clear, and enveloping. Despite extensive comparisons between the actual CDs and the FLAC files, I was not able to determine the difference between the two on my system. Do yourself a favor and taste the FLAC kool-aid.
It took about 25 hours for a break-in. The A5x's produced noticeably more effortless bass after the first 25 listening hours. I don't think that the way the break-in is conducted has any effect on how the speaker sounds after break-in as long as they aren't being abused. But speakers are mechanical devices and I would imagine that the spiders and surrounds of the midwoofers gained some additional compliance after several hours of listening as opposed to when they were brand new. No Voodoo here.
For my friends who have seen the A5x's in action, they were always amazed at how little the midwoofers moved during loud bass passages relative to their amount of output. If anybody has seen my A3 excursion video on Vimeo, forget about that with the A5's. I was afraid of frying the crossover in an effort to get the midwoofers to move like I had seen in the A3 towers. I never once saw the midwoofers fully unload, even when feeding them signals that were well below the port tuning frequency (signals in the high 20Hz range). It was comforting. So, to this day, I have NEVER bottomed the midwoofers in the A5x, even when playing Star Wars Episode III above reference for some friends. The only listener fatigue I heard I can associate with my Arcam AVR300 almost running out of gas.
My wife was also impressed and surprised by their dynamic qualities. They scared her on several occasions. Which made them even MORE valuable to me. Horror movies like Insidious made the wifey jump over and over again. She actually stopped the movie to check the front door at one point. She was convinced that a knocking was coming from within our house, but from another room. Wrong-O! Boy, was it fun watching her investigate. Since she will likely read this, I'm not going to elaborate any more on that.
The A5's are 6 ohm speakers. I don't say this meaning that they are AVERAGED to 6 ohms with an impedance plot that looks like the rocky mountains. I mean that when you look at the impedance plot, there are no nasty surprises that so many other designs include. No mystery overheating problems like other "6 ohm nominal" speakers that have 3 ohm dips in critical bands of the frequency spectrum can create. They are conservatively rated at about 90.5dB at 1w/1m.
Jon and I agreed on two modifications; one to the crossover and one to the port setup. Using a slightly different crossover component, Jon increased the tweeter level by about .5dB (maybe less than that) and he made a port adjustment by changing the length (moving the tuning freq up by about 1 or 2 Hz). Small stuff that I advised was probably not required. However, Jon wouldn't relent...stating that he wanted to get the bass impulse response "just right".
Continued in the next post