GoldenEar Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos System Review
Of all the Dolby Atmos speaker systems I've heard over the past year, the most interesting and unorthodox one came from GoldenEar Technologies, a company that specializes in building high-performance speakers and subwoofers. I attended a dozen Atmos demos at CEDIA 2014, and GoldenEar's Atmos demo
was among the most impressive there—topped only by a pair of six-figure super systems from JBL
and Steinway Lyngdorf
. It managed to conjure a grander sense of immersion than any comparably priced speaker systems at the show. One of the most notable qualities of that demo was the realism achieved by the in-ceiling speakers, which consisted of four Invisa HTR-7000s
GoldenEar's CEDIA demo was strikingly immersive, so I immediately asked for a system to review. Founder and chief designer Sandy Gross agreed to provide it, but there was one sizeable obstacle to overcome: I rent, so I can't cut four big holes in my ceiling, especially since there's no wiring up there to begin with. I knew I needed to hang speaker enclosures from the ceiling, but I was not enthused by the prospect of building the boxes that the HTR-7000s would require.
Sandy's solution to the enclosure problem was simple enough; he suggested I borrow the same sealed boxes used in the 2014 CEDIA demo. The enclosures are designed to take the place of tiles in a standard drop ceiling, but if I could figure out how to hang them, I was welcome to borrow the boxes—which I did. Soon enough, I had a fully functional 5.1.4 Atmos system.
I've used the four ceiling-mounted HTR-7000s in various Atmos systems over the past year—with great success—and I had planned to review a 5.1.4 all-GoldenEar system containing Triton Five
and Seven towers, a SuperCenter XL, and twin ForceField 5
Right around the same time I received the Triton Fives, Sandy called me and asked if I was willing to hang three more boxes from my ceiling in order to try something new. He went on to describe the GoldenEar Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos, which immediately got my attention because it was literally outside the box.
The radical notion here is that in addition to the Atmos in-ceiling speakers, the front left, center, and right channels can be ceiling-mounted. In the configuration I used, only the surround channels were wall-mounted. Depending on a room's size and shape, it's possible to have an Invisa-based Atmos system comprised entirely of in-ceiling speakers (HTR 7000s), including the surrounds.
Here's the proto-installation of Sandy's concept for a Invisa HTR-7000 in-ceiling system.
At first, the all in-ceiling speaker concept sounded implausible. However, Sandy assured me it would work because the ability to serve as front LCR channels is an integral part of the design of the HTR-7000s, which can project a soundstage that appears to be in front of the listener, despite coming from ceiling speakers. Sandy is an audio-industry legend—he's been in the business for many years and is a co-founder of both Polk Audio and Definitive Technologies—so I brushed aside my doubts and agreed to give the all-Invisa in-ceiling Atmos system a shot.
GoldenEar states that the Invisa HTR-7000's are designed for use as front LCR speakers and that they can "achieve open, boxless, three-dimensional imaging that appears to come from across the front wall rather than the ceiling." That's a crucial capability; without it, an in-ceiling Atmos system simply could not work. The concept requires the illusion of a front stage that appears to be near ear level, like what you hear with tower speakers or bookshelf speakers on stands.
The Invisa HTR-7000s combine a 7" woofer and a folded-ribbon tweeter in a package that handles up to 250 watts of power with 90 dB/W/m sensitivity and 8-ohm impedance. Frequency response is spec'd from 25 Hz to 35 kHz, and it requires a 9" cutout for in-ceiling installations.
A close-up of the Invisa HTR-7000.
The surrounds in this system were a pair of Invisa MPX speakers, which feature dual 4.5" woofers and a folded-ribbon tweeter. The performance specs of the MPX are identical to the HTR-7000, aside from requiring a 12-3/4" H x 6-1/4" W cutout instead of a 9" circle. Crucially, the MPX's drivers fire straight forward, instead of at an angle like the HTR-7000s. That makes the MPX a great choice for an in-wall surround speaker.
Sandy had a surprise for me in the form of new subs for the Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos System: twin SuperSub XXLs ($2000 each). These subs—which debuted at CES 2015 and will ship this month—feature dual-opposed, high-excursion 12" woofers and dual-opposed passive radiators.
Check out this image of the active and passive drivers in the SuperSub XXL.
Each SuperSub XXL has a 1600-watt class-D amplifier (originally developed for the Triton One) controlled by a low-latency 56-bit DSP with a 192 kHz sample rate. Quite literally, each SuperSub XXL is equivalent to two ForceField 5 subs in terms of capability, so the effect of the upgrade was quite noticeable—especially when I cranked the system way up. Look for my review of the SuperSub XXL, which is coming soon.
I hung all the boxes from the 9-foot ceiling in my studio using a layout that conformed to Atmos specifications for height-channel placement. The only limiting factor was the position of the studs—I didn't want the suspended boxes falling on my head, so I had to limit myself to anchor points with studs behind them. It's worth noting that Invisa speakers do not require back boxes, and their design is optimized for use without them.
One of the enclosures I used to hang the Invisa HTR-7000s.
Using Dolby's Atmos guidelines, I positioned the front heights about three feet in front of my couch, and the rear heights were about two feet behind the couch. I hung the front LCR (left, center, right) speakers near the front of the room, directly above where I'd typically place tower speakers and a center channel, which is about two feet away from the front and side walls (for the left and right channels), with the center directly between the two.
For the surrounds, I used a pair of Invisa MPX speakers ($500 each). They are wide-dispersion in-wall speakers—perfect for surround-channel duty—plus they are a great match for the HTR-7000s in terms of price, frequency response, and sensitivity. I used a pair of tall, shallow enclosures that GoldenEar had built for its CEDIA demo to mount the MPXs; these enclosures serve as a false wall of sorts. Once it was set up, I had the actual system GoldenEar will show at CEDIA 2015 in my studio.
The front and the back of Invisa MPX speakers.
I placed the two SuperSub XXLs in the front of the room, one in each corner. They are handsome subwoofers and great performers, to boot. The SuperSub XXLs play clean, clear, tight, and loud—all the way down to the infrasonic realm. A 20 Hz tone—rendered with authority and without audible distortion—is a thing of beauty, and these subs had no problem pulling it off.
One of the mighty GoldenEar SuperSub XXL subwoofers.
I used a Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR to provide Atmos processing for the rig, and I employed Dirac Live room correction—courtesy of a miniDSP DDRC-88A processor—to deal with room modes and provide EQ for the subs. The DDRC-88A is limited to eight channels of processing, so I used it on all channels except the surrounds, which I EQ'd manually using REW (Room EQ Wizard). I used a Crestron Procise ProAmp 7x250 to power the seven Dirac-processed channels, while the SC-85 took care of amplification for the two surrounds.
I achieved excellent frequency response with the Invisa+SuperSub system.
The amazing thing about the Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos System was how well it worked right off the bat. I did not have to fiddle with it. Indeed, it sounded so impressive that I quickly realized that writing about how good it sounded was going to be a bit contentious! After all, I felt incredulous at the notion that such a system could work as well as a system with the front channels located at ear level. Nevertheless, I'm certain that anybody who hears this Invisa system will observe the same thing: a front soundstage that creates an absolutely convincing illusion that there are speakers are located right in front of you, even though your eyes confirm that there's nothing there but air.
As an experiment, I placed the Triton Fives on the floor beneath the front-LCR Invisas, and I experienced the uncanny illusion that they were responsible for what I was hearing. Meanwhile, the Atmos height speakers sound like they are above you, just as they should. The virtual front channels, combined with the MPX surrounds—which were physically located just above ear level—provided a sense of immersion that was seamless and enveloping.
At the risk of provoking incredulous responses in the comments, in my opinion, the Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos System sounded better than the vast majority of speaker systems I've heard to date. I don't have any qualifiers to add to that claim—it's that good. When playing music or movies, whether the volume was set down low, way up, or somewhere in between, the fidelity and overall effectiveness of the system repeatedly astounded me.
One of the most interesting things I noticed when experimenting with the Invisa speaker system was how Atmos significantly improved the illusion of an ear-level main front soundstage. When I turned off Atmos processing, the front soundstage seem to lift up a bit, as if I was listening to six-foot-tall speakers.
When Dolby Atmos was active, the front soundstage lowered down to ear level. To my ears, it was as good as any speaker system that relies on a center speaker positioned underneath or above a TV. With Atmos, the Invisa system provided the illusion of voices and sounds coming right out of the TV screen, just as you would experience with an acoustically transparent screen in a front-projection setup.
When I played some of Dolby's Atmos demo clips, I could scarcely believe how clear and precise the system sounded. I heard properly rendered Atmos effects, featuring both ambience and object-based specificity. I could easily visualize where each and every discrete sound object was located within 3D space, and ambient sounds created the illusion of environments larger and smaller than the actual room. It was the very definition of immersive.
I used Mad Max: Fury Road
as my reference for cinematic Atmos soundtracks. Ralph Potts says
it's the best immersive audio mix he's heard in a movie, and I agree. The climatic chase scene near the end of the movie demands a resolute system that can handle complex layering while offering excellent dynamics with deep and powerful bass. Thanks to the twin SuperSub XXLs, there was no shortage of physical impact to the presentation. Additionally, no matter how high I turned up the volume knob, the sound coming out of the Invisas remained crisp, clear, and non-fatiguing.
Dolby demo clips and movies mixed in Atmos are great for testing immersive speaker systems, but I also enjoy using the Dolby Surround upmixer to listen to music. On album after album, I could scarcely believe what I heard—music sounded real. The most profound example was how realistic live jazz recordings sound when played through the system. I'm sure you've read speaker reviews that describe a sense of musicians being right there in the room with you. Well, with the Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos System, I experienced the illusion of being in the venue with the musicians, whether it was a jazz club or a concert hall. The system's ability to re-create the ambience of other spaces is truly impressive.
I'm going through withdrawal. I'm not sure if I should thank Sandy Gross or blame him for spoiling my ears with his seemingly absurd concept for an Atmos speaker system. I only had my hands on the system for about two weeks, but that was long enough to make me miss it already. Needless to say, there's a family and pet-friendly aspect to in-ceiling speaker systems that make them appealing to non-enthusiasts, but in this case, there's nothing lost in going that route—such is the fidelity of the Invisa HTR-7000 and MPX speakers.
Based on what I heard during the time I had them, the Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos System ranks in the top tier of sound systems I've had in my studio. Certainly, any preconceived notion I held that an in-ceiling speaker system would not be able to perform as well as one based on tower speakers was shattered.
Ultimately, the GoldenEar Ultimate Invisa Lifestyle Atmos System turned out to be so awesome that I have a sneaking suspicion it's going to amaze people who hear it at CEDIA 2015—which is now just two weeks away. If you are attending CEDIA, don't miss the GoldenEar demo; you'll likely be amazed by what you hear.
Samsung BD-H6600 Blu-ray player
Amplification and Processing
Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR
Crestron Procise ProAmp 7X250 Amplifier
miniDSP DDRC-88A Dirac Live processor
Monoprice 12-gauge OFC speaker cables
Mediabridge Ultra Series HDMI cable
Monoprice RCA-to-XLR interconnects