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Unless you have been living under a rock, you are most likely familiar with GoldenEar Technology. Industry veteran Sandy Gross started GoldenEar, and it quickly earned a reputation for producing speakers that perform well beyond their price points. Over the past few years, I've had a few opportunities to listen to GoldenEar's Triton and Aon speakers, and they lived up to that reputation. It was this reputation and my experiences with other GoldenEar speakers that made me want to review the GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array XL soundbar, despite the fact that it is a passive soundbar--a speaker category that usually does not capture my attention.
The 3D Array XL is the larger of GoldenEar's two second-generation soundbars. The 3D Array XL is designed to be mated with 65-inch-plus screens; it measures 62.13 inches wide by 4.75 high by 2.75 deep and weighs in at a solid 22 pounds. The 3D Array's aluminum cabinet holds three sets of drivers: a center channel composed of four 4.5-inch upper bass/midrange drivers (the outside two roll off above 600 Hz) surrounding a High Velocity Folded Ribbon Tweeter, along with left and right channels that look to be dual 4.5-inch drivers surrounding a High Velocity Folded Ribbon--but actually, the outer drivers are used for GoldenEar's proprietary 3D Array technology that cancels crosstalk distortion between the two channels and expands the soundstage.
While the focus of my review is the 3D Array XL, GoldenEar also sent me a pair of SuperSat 3s (with stands) and the ForceField 5 powered subwoofer. The SuperSat 3 utilizes the same drivers as the 3D Array XL. The ForceField 5 features a powered 12-inch driver, a passive 12.75- by 14.5-inch "quadratic" driver, and a 1,500-watt DSP-controlled amplifier. The price for all the speakers in the system is an extremely reasonable $3,096: $1,599 for the 3D Array XL, $249 for each SuperSat 3, and $999 for the ForceField 5.
Regular readers may recall that we reviewed the original GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array soundbar about two years ago. The current-generation 3D Array lineup adds a second, larger-sized soundbar, which is the subject of this review. The larger size option might be the most visible change, but GoldenEar has also made a significant internal change to the crossover technology utilized by the second-generation models. Speaking with GoldenEar's always-affable Sandy Gross, I learned a bit about Mag-X Coupling, for which GoldenEar has just been granted a patent. I will not pretend that I understood exactly how it works, but in reviewing my notes after our conversation I found many references to changes that were made to reduce distortion and provide a more seamless transition between the midrange drivers and tweeters. My listening of the 3D Array XL and comparing it to my recollections of listening to the first-generation 3D Array support this assertion.
I first set up the 3D Array XL in my living room below a wall-mounted plasma television, utilizing a mount supplied by GoldenEar. After casual listening to the 3D Array XL for a few weeks on a receiver-based system, I moved it to my main listening room, where I placed it on a low cabinet in front of a wall-mounted projection screen, approximately 20 inches from the front wall. The ForceField 5 was positioned just to the left and in front of the 3D Array XL, and the SuperSat 3s were placed about 18 inches from the rear wall. I used Marantz's AV8802 processor with amplification from both Marantz and Krell (not at the same time) and Kimber Cable speaker cables. Setup was a bit different in that I did not use Audyssey, as the soundbar's Interaural Crosstalk Cancellation system that uses out-of-phase signals from the outermost drivers wreaks havoc on Audyssey and similar systems. A little bit of time with a test disc and sound pressure level meter got the GoldenEar system up and running in short order.
The first thing I noticed when listening to the 3D Array XL was the size of the soundstage: it was huge. Listening to "Money for Nothing" from Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms album (SACD, Warner Brothers/Mobile Fidelity), the soundstage extended laterally well beyond the outer edges. The ribbon tweeters provided extremely good extension and detail, which no doubt helped with the expansive soundstage. One afternoon, I was listening to music being streamed from the Tidal website through the 3D Array XL (no rear channels active) and an audiophile friend of mine came by and commented about how much he liked to come over and listen to my B&W 800 Diamonds. While the B&Ws were set up in the room, all the music was coming from the 3D Array XL at the time. After we listened to a few songs, I asked him for his thoughts on the sound quality. We discussed the airy highs, clear vocals, and expansive soundstage. The only criticisms were a slightly recessed lower midrange and imperfect transition between the bass and midrange. He was flabbergasted when I told him we were listening to the GoldenEar soundbar sitting between the B&Ws.
In addition to listening to stereo music through the 3D Array XL, I watched several movies. Dialogue was always intelligible and easy to follow. More dynamic scenes, such as those from American Sniper (Blu-ray, Warner Home Video), were well handled at moderate to higher volumes; at lower volumes, it seemed that the dynamic range was somewhat diminished in a manner akin to that with "night time" modes found on many processors. As with stereo sources, the 3D Array XL continued to produce a large, deep soundstage, including the illusion of rear channels at times. During one children's movie, the parent of one of my son's friends commented that he thought the rear-channel levels were slightly low. I pretended to fiddle with my processor, not telling him that the rear channels were not engaged at the moment, and he was convinced that there was some sound coming from the rear.
High Points • The 3D Array XL reproduces a well-scaled soundstage that's competitive with high-end freestanding speakers, rather than suffering from the compressed soundstage that plagues so many soundbars. • The GoldenEar High-Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter provides a well-balanced and detailed treble. • Vocal clarity was very good with the 3D Array XL, making it easy to understand dialogue at any volume level.
Low Points • I found the lower midrange region to be slightly thin and lacking the weight of my reference speakers, which is not surprising for a soundbar. • Despite my best efforts with adjusting crossover frequencies, I could not get a completely smooth transition between the 3D Array XL and the ForceField subwoofer. The issue was subtle enough that it never distracted me from any music or movies I was enjoying, but it was noticeable if you listened for it.
Comparison and Competition While active soundbars with built-in amplification and faux surround sound processing seem to dominate the market, we have reviewed some other passive soundbars lately that deserve a look. The Sonance SB46 features an adjustable cabinet size to match your television width. The Episode 500 Series soundbar utilizes a unique raised tweeter for more uniform sound dispersion.
Conclusion I relate the stories about the phantom rear channel and confusion with the B&Ws not to imply that the 3D Array XL's performance is the equal to that of the B&Ws or that rear channels are not necessary for a convincing rear soundstage, but to demonstrate how capable the 3D Array XL is on its own. I would want to at least pair it with a small subwoofer to fill in the bottom end; but, if I had to choose between buying a lesser soundbar so that I could afford rear-channel speakers or spending a few extra dollars for the 3D Array XL, I would delay the purchase of the rear channels.
The GoldenEar 3D Array XL is the best-sounding soundbar I have heard. While I gushed about the expansive soundstage above, I also need to state that the entire presentation was quite good. The 3D Array XL did a great job with vocals; with other passive soundbars, I have often found myself cranking up the volume to make out the dialogue, which is something I never had to do with the 3D Array XL. Everything was intelligible at any volume level.
Although I normally equate soundbars with televisions and surround sound, I spent a lot of time listening to two-channel music through the 3D Array XL to see if I could live with it as my only system for both music and movies. In short, the answer is yes, I could do so...happily. The 3D Array XL was a bit more forward in the upper midrange than my reference speakers, but the excellent tweeters kept everything smooth and detailed. This slightly forward presentation may have been part of why it did a great job with strings, whether they be guitars or violins. Movies were satisfying with just the 3D Array XL and ForceField 5 and no rear speakers. Using the SuperSat 3s made for a seamless presentation.
Are there some sacrifices? Sure, but they can be minimized and are relatively minor. In comparison to GoldenEar's Triton speakers (which, in fairness, I have only listened to in other rooms), the 3D Array XL does not have the lower midrange weight or speed, nor can it image a complex soundstage with as much detail and precision. I could easily live with that, as the 3D Array XL does everything within its boundaries quite well.
This was the first GoldenEar speaker that I've actually tested in my house, but it certainly will not be the last. The 3D Array XL is highly recommended, even if you are not limited to a soundbar-type installation.