Can a passive speakerbar-based surround-sound system satisfy both cinephiles and audiophiles? Check out Mark Henninger's review.
When I first encountered GoldenEar's new speakerbar at CES 2014, its expansive soundfield got my attention. Within 60 seconds, I was convinced it sounded as good as a system with discrete, full-sized speakers. No other powered or passive speakerbar I've heard offers the fidelity of the 3D Array XL. Why did it sound so good? According to GoldenEar, it's because of something the company calls "3D image optimization." The technique uses ICC (Interaural Crosstalk Cancellation) to enhance stereo imaging, allowing the perceived soundfield to extend beyond the speaker's physical boundaries.
The $1600 SuperCinema 3D Array XL reproduces three channels, but it has no onboard amplification—it's a passive speakerbar. Each channel uses an air motion transformer (AMT) tweeter, also known as a folded ribbon. AMT tweeters look like a miniature metal accordion and work by rapidly expanding and contracting in response to an electrical signal. The center channel has four 4" mid/bass drivers, while the left and right channels each have two of the same drivers.
The dual drivers are not there just for show; they are the key component to implementing ICC. Here's how it works: When a sound emanates from either the left or right channel, it arrives at the corresponding ear first—the other ear hears the same sound moments later and at a lower level because your head is in the way. When speakers are physically close to each other, each ear hears almost the same thing, which translates to a narrow soundstage. With ICC, if you use a pair of drivers for each channel, with just the right spacing and some wizardry in the crossover, it's possible to cancel out at least some of the sound arriving at the opposing ear. This results in the illusion of a larger soundstage that extends beyond the physical dimensions of the cabinet.
The fixed distance between channels is a handicap every speakerbar designer has to contend with, but the 3D Array XL succeeds in overcoming that limitation with ICC as well as its physical size. It's 62 inches wide, which provides more physical separation between the drivers, enhancing the effect of 3D image optimization and ICC.
When the 3D Array XL 5.1 system arrived, it came with a $1000 ForceField 5 subwoofer and a $500 pair of SuperSat 3 speakers. When I first set it up, the sub impressed me so much, I decided to review it separately
. According to GoldenEar's specs, the frequency response of the speakerbar and satellites is 80 Hz and above. The company specifically states that you need a subwoofer to make the system work. With the ForceField 5 sub, measured bass response extended below 20 Hz, making it a full-range system.
The ForceField 5 sub took care of bass duties. It is an extremely good performer, especially for its size.
Thanks to a sensitivity of 91 dB/W/m and 300 watts/channel of power handling, the 3D Array XL reaches the volume levels appropriate for an immersive home-theater experience. The Pioneer Elite SC-85 receiver I used to power it outputs 135 watts/channel into 8 ohms, which was plenty for my needs. On the speakerbar's backside, there are three speaker terminals—one for each of the three front channels. I used Monoprice 12-gauge speaker cable with banana plugs to connect the AVR to the speakerbar.
The SuperSat 3s use the same type of drivers as the 3D Array XL—a folded-ribbon tweeter and a pair of 4" mid/woofers. Using the same type of drivers matches the timbre between all the speakers, which in turn facilitates a seamless, immersive surround-sound experience. I mounted the SuperSat 3s on a pair of GoldenEar SuperStand 3 speaker stands—which took mere minutes to assemble—and I placed them on the sides of my sofa. As a bonus, my wife Danya thought they looked cool and sounded very detailed. She even asked that I remove all the magnetically attached grilles because she liked the way they look without them.
Here's a SuperSat 3 with the grill off.
Setting up the 3D Array XL system is the same as it would be with discrete speakers—simply connect each channel to the corresponding speaker terminal on the AVR. Then, use the AVR to take measurements and make adjustments in a procedure that varies depending on the brand and model of AVR or pre/pro you use. Most systems have a fully automatic mode, and that's what I chose on the Elite SC-85.
The SUperCinema 3D Array XL has three pairs of binding posts, one for each channel.
Here's how I set everything up in the receiver: I used the SC-85's MCACC setup in full auto mode. That's it. I always give credit where credit is due, and this system was good to go after running Pioneer's calibration routine. When MCACC finished, I checked the channel levels with a UMIK-1 USB microphone and Room EQ Wizard software. The receiver chose a crossover of 100 Hz, which I kept. I also measured the distance from the mic's location to each speaker. Once I confirmed the receiver took accurate measurements—kudos to the SC-85 for nailing it on the first try—I began listening to music and movies.
I started the review process by listening to the 3D Array XL in stereo mode. It created a fully realized stereo image that provided an uncanny sense of width and depth. It's on par with what I'd expect to hear from a 2.1 system consisting of a pair of high-end bookshelf speakers, good amplification, and a quality sub. Amazingly, it creates that sort of soundfield while perched on top of a TV.
I played Thievery Corporation's album Culture of Fear, and I was immediately blown away by the immersive quality I heard. It's a well-worn audiophile cliché, but it sounded like the band was there in the room with me. I had a couple of guests over at the time, and I asked each of them sit in the sweet spot and listen to the album. That's when I witnessed another cliché—the dropped jaw. Everyone agreed, the 3D image optimization performed its magic, and the resulting sound was holographic.
Listening to the 3D Array XL using the SC-85's 2.1-channel stereo mode was unexpectedly captivating. However, GoldenEar sent me a 5.1 surround-sound system—after all, the whole point of buying a speakerbar is to use it with a TV. So I switched gears and started using it as part of a complete surround system. Its performance went beyond what I expected to hear from such compact components. I can't say the great performance came as a complete surprise—when I first heard a 3D Array XL at CES 2014
, it impressed me enough to ask if I could review it, and I'm glad I did.
A close view of the center channel's driver compliment on the SuperCinema 3D Array XL.
Visually and aurally, the combination of the 3D Array XL, ForceField 5, and the SuperSat 3s resulted in a tremendously high spousal acceptance factor. It impressed me by offering a level of fidelity I'd expect from a speaker system costing as much or more. Thanks to a 92 dB sensitivity rating and 200-watt power handling, the SuperSats never had a problem keeping up with the front channels. While $3100 for the entire system is not a trivial sum, it is certainly justified by the result. And it's amazing that the system performs at such a high level while taking up so little space.
Thanks to numerous demos, I've become a big fan of GoldenEar's full-sized speakers—especially the Triton One flagship
. The SuperCinema 3D Array XL 5.1 system possesses a significant measure of the qualities that define a system using those heavy-hitting towers: clear and dynamic music reproduction combined with very precise imaging.
As I mentioned earlier, the fixed distance between the left and right channels does not limit this speakerbar. Thanks to well-implemented ICC, the apparent soundstage is considerably wider than the cabinet itself. In my studio, it created the illusion of virtual speakers located where I'd normally place a pair of towers. Furthermore, the 3D Array XL created a palpable sense of depth in the soundstage—in that regard it was superior to many pairs of speakers I've heard, even at the same price point. There was nothing contrived or artificial about the soundfield, unlike numerous powered and passive speakerbar systems I've auditioned that use DSP-based algorithms to achieve the effect.
When I watched movies using the full 5.1 system, it was easy to forget I wasn't listening to optimally placed discrete speakers. The satellites and speakerbar truly disappeared, as did the room itself. I could find no real fault in the system's performance, even while watching films with complex, intense soundtracks such as Guardians of the Galaxy or Transformers: Age of Extinction. The ForceField 5 sub delivered an amazing performance with cinematic material.
Whether you use it to listen to music or movies, this SuperCinema 3D Array XL 5.1 system performs at a level that transcends the speakerbar/soundbar category. It is an audiophile-quality system that happens to fit underneath or above a TV, and it's equally adept at playing 2-channel and surround-sound content. It's the first speakerbar I've heard that I could live with as my primary sound system.
I'm not saying the 3D Array XL would be my number-one choice for a surround-sound system. The GoldenEar Atmos-capable system featuring Triton One towers I heard at CEDIA 2014
holds that distinction. Nevertheless, I'm confident that it's good enough to satisfy discerning listeners, including audiophiles who would ordinarily never consider a speakerbar-based system. More importantly, cinephiles looking for a system that makes them happy, saves space, and pleases their spouse will find a lot to love. Within that context, this SuperCinema 3D Array XL-based system earns my highest recommendation.
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