This review consisted of a couple of firsts for me: my first experience with the Episode line and my first experience with in-wall speakers. If you're not familiar with the Episode name, it's probably because they're only available through custom installation channels. Their design team consists of engineers who have worked with many well known speaker manufacturers.
• Read more in-wall speaker reviews from Home Theater Reivew's staff.
• Search for an AV receiver or amplifier to pair with this speaker system.
Episode makes four lines of in-wall speakers: the 300, 500, 700 and 900 series, and each line is timbre matched for installation flexibility. For example, Episode had originally wanted to send me their in-wall surround speakers for the purpose of this review, but my listening room won't accommodate rear in-walls, so they substituted their timbre matched 700 Series in-ceiling speakers. This is a major deal for professional installers as each home theater setup is completely unique, not to mention customer demands, which are often driven by aesthetics and room configurations. Further catering to the installer, and ultimately the consumer as well, each of the speakers in this line is built in a sealed enclosure, which greatly simplifies installation. Many other in-wall speakers on the market are designed to use the wall as the speaker enclosure, which has the potential to create major headaches for the installer. Since I installed the speakers myself (my friend and handyman, Chris, might have played a small part), I was thankful for this design element.
The speakers in this review consist of the ES-HT700-IWLCR-6 left, center and right speakers ($799 each), the ES-700-ICSURR-6 in-ceiling surround speakers ($699 pair), two ES-SUB-IW-DUAL8 subwoofers ($599 each) and one 500 Watt EA-AMP-SUB-1D-500 subwoofer amplifier ($999); for a total system price of $5,293. Although if you're not a bass junkie and/or you have a smaller room, you can get that just under $4,700 if you only use one sub. Episode sent me two of the Dual8 subwoofers, which have two eight inch drivers each, and their sub amp is designed to handle one or two of them.
The ES-HT700 front left/right and center channel speaker measures 22.3 inches high by 10.9 inches wide by four inches deep and it weighs a stout 16.5 pounds. They feature dual six and a half inch paper and Kevlar woofers and one titanium catenary dome, neo-magnet tweeter. The ES-700-ICSURR-6 in-ceiling surround speakers, when finished and mounted, are just under nine inches in diameter with a depth of just under four inches. The surrounds are dipole/bipole switchable, feature dual three quarter inch titanium dome tweeters and six and a half inch paper and Kevlar woofers. The ES-SUB-IW-DUAL8 in-wall subwoofer measures 23.7 inches high by 13.7 inches wide by four and a quarter inches deep. It features two, eight inch woven fiberglass sandwich cone woofers, which have been engineered for taut, deep bass response and the frequency response is 30 Hz to 200 Hz. Each DUAL8 sub also includes an EQ, which connects between your processor/receiver and the sub amp. The subwoofer amplifier is a single channel, 500 Watt beast that easily drives two of the in-wall subs. It's rack mountable (1U) and features music and movie EQ modes, which I found very useful, especially with the included remote control. It includes standard crossover and phase control, as well as what Episode refers to as a Boundary EQ, which minimizes boominess when the subwoofer is placed near a corner.
I found the Episodes to be packaged very sturdily and intuitively, which is certainly not the case with every manufacturer. The build quality is top-notch and it's noticeable right away as you pull them out of the box. They're also great looking speakers, so it's almost a shame when you have to put the grilles on, but hey, they are removable, paintable and also aesthetically pleasing in their own right. As I mentioned earlier, each speaker is housed in its own sealed enclosure, greatly simplifying in-wall installation, especially for a newbie. I won't go into too much detail on my particular install as each home is going to be vastly different, but I'll try give you a sense of it. The only tools necessary are a drywall saw, a Phillips head screwdriver and a reciprocating saw, or sawzall, in case you need to remove studs and/or firebreaks. Episode packages each in-wall speaker with a handy cut-out template, so after some quick measurements, I threw the template up on the wall, drew an outline and started cutting. My wall turned out to be a bit of a hodgepodge in terms of firebreaks and various support studs; this was the only rub in an otherwise hassle-free install.
Once the holes had been made, I set about placing each speaker in the wall. Once in the wall, I simply tightened each of the six Philips screws, which extended the attached dog legs out to clamp to the drywall. One note of caution - if you do this yourself, be sure to keep the RPMs down on your cordless screwdriver, as you don't want to over-tighten the screws. As you tighten each screw, the dog legs swing out from the speaker enclosure and anchor to the wall, an ingenious design. If you run into a stud on one or more sides of the speaker, the bezel of the speaker has pre-drilled holes so you can secure the speaker using screws. In my particular install there were studs bordering three of the speakers and using screws on that side of the speaker proved to be a simple (and secure) solution. The founder of Episode, Jay Faison, comes from the custom installation business, and that's evident in the design and build of their speakers. As such, I can honestly say that I had fun installing these speakers, though that enjoyment did not extend to cutting the firebreaks out of the wall. I installed the front left and right speakers on either side of my projection screen and placed the center channel just below it. Per Episode's recommendation in the subwoofer manual, I placed each subwoofer on the front wall, below the left and right speakers. For the in-ceiling surrounds, I repeated the process and placed them just behind and to the outside of my listening position.
Lastly, I connected everything to my reference system, which consists of an Arcam AVR500 receiver, an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, a Cambridge Audio DACMagic DAC, an Apple TV and Mac Mini. For cabling, I used both analog and digital audio connects from WireWorld. The speakers feature innovative binding posts that you push down to expose the hole, and then feed your speaker wire through and release; why doesn't every manufacturer make it this simple? Probably to save a buck, right?
Each of the front left/right, center and surround speakers feature treble and mid-bass switches that allow you to adjust the output by 3db, to compensate for varying room acoustics. In my case, I tried it both ways and ended up leaving both switches in the positive position on all five speakers. That said, if your room has a quite a bit of reflective material, you might benefit from the minus position. Another nice touch on both the front and surround speakers is a pivoting tweeter, which allows you to "direct" the sound to your listening position, which I did with some degree of subtlety. While I left the grilles off for critical listening, I was impressed with the strong magnets that come on each of them, especially those for the subwoofers.
After burning in all of the speakers for roughly 20 hours, it was time for some critical listening. I typically begin a speaker review with two-channel listening, but I was too anxious to wait and immediately popped the Blu-ray of Avatar (20th Century Fox) into the Oppo. I flipped the switch on the surrounds into dipole mode (recommended for movies) and sunk into one of my home theater chairs for the full lossless experience in DTS-HD Master Audio. The first word that comes to mind is Wow, and that word was repeated multiple times as I made my way through the film. As such, I kept forgetting to take listening notes as I was too caught up in the experience. Conventional home theater wisdom dictates that your surround speakers should be mounted just above ear level on either side of the listener, pointing directly at them. This is my standard setup, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed the effect of having in-ceiling surround speakers, especially when watching movies. In terms of music, I'd lean more toward the traditional setup.
Read more about performance of the Episode 700 series in-wall system on Page 2.