It started as a question: how much speaker does one really need? That question spurred a challenge, which was to determine whether a two-way bookshelf speaker, retailing for less than $500 per pair, could be enough to achieve a convincing home theater experience. The parameters were simple: the speaker in question had to be a two-way design featuring a one-inch tweeter mated to a single six- (or so) inch midrange driver and retail for less than $500 per pair. The companies that were contacted and that agreed to participate (so far) in my little experiment are Aperion Audio, Paradigm and RBH. The purpose of this experiment is not to judge each speaker against the competition in order to choose a winner, as that would be foolish, for sound quality is (largely) subjective. The purpose of this experiment is to see if each speaker can effectively recreate the cinematic experience in one's own home. Obviously, because of the limitations put forth by this experiment, there is a budget aspect to this equation, as all the aforementioned brands' offerings must retail for less than $500 per pair, or no more than $1,250 for a five-speaker surround sound setup. What of the benchmark? Well, it's been set by JBL Pro's Cinema 3677 speakers. Let's begin ...
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Internet-direct retailer Aperion Audio was the first to answer my call and, as a result, sent me five Intimus 5Bs for review. The Intimus 5B is the largest bookshelf in the lauded Intimus line, as well as the most expensive, retailing for $430 per pair. At $430 per pair, the price for five matching 5Bs totals $1,075, plus applicable taxes, though shipping is free, both ways.
The 5B, like all Aperion Audio loudspeakers, comes complete with a 30-day in-home trial for you to determine firsthand if they're right for you and your setup. The 5B itself may be basic, but it is still rather handsome in its appearance. Its typical rectangular shape is given a bit of upscale flare though its use of finish, which is gloss piano black. Gloss piano black also happens to be the only finish offered on the 5B at this time, which suits my tastes and needs just fine. Still, for a two-way budget bookshelf, the 5B is rather large, measuring 12 inches tall by six-and-three-quarter inches wide and eight inches deep. It's hefty, too, tipping the scales at 12 pounds. Around back, you'll find a single pair of gold-plated five-way binding posts, which are recessed, mounted below the speaker's sole port. Between the port and the binding posts are two quarter-inch threaded inserts to help facilitate wall or ceiling-oriented speaker mounts. There is also a quarter-inch threaded insert along the bottom for stand-mounting, too, which is a very nice feature and uncommon touch.
Behind the removable grille rest two drivers, a one-inch silk dome tweeter and a five-and-a-quarter-inch woven fiberglass bass/midrange driver. The 5B's reported frequency response is 80Hz to 20kHz (+/- 3dB), with an impedance of eight ohms. Sensitivity is stated to be 87dB, which is a little on the low side for a simple two-way, though Aperion claims amplifiers (or receivers) capable of churning out 25 to 200 watts will be sufficient to satisfactorily power the 5B.
Unboxing and setting up five matching 5B speakers is an easy enough job for one person, though it's always more fun (not to mention quicker) with two - just saying. Because I'm looking for sonic uniformity across all of the five channels in a 5.1 setup, I will not be employing any special-made center-channel speakers or rear/surround channels, of which the Intimus line offers several. The reason for this is simple: I don't like center channels, as I find most sound different than their main counterparts, if for no other reason than their orientation is different. Also, there are no center-channel speakers in true cinema installations - just speakers - so it stands to reason there will be no center channels in my tests either.
I began by putting three matching 5B speaker across the front of my stage in a left/center/right configuration. I placed them directly atop my JBL Cinema 3677s, but inverted them, so that the tweeters were at the bottom, with the mid-bass driver resting above. I used a simple computer mouse pad under each to provide a small measure of isolation between the 5Bs and the JBLs, though it was largely to protect each speaker's cabinet finish. Both would never play simultaneously, which somewhat negated the need for copious amounts of isolation. This put the tweeters not only in line with the JBLs, but also in line (plus or minus an inch) with my seated ear height. Since high frequencies are far more directional than all other frequencies, this was the best setup option I had for my room. I removed the grilles, as the speakers would be firing through my 120-inch Elite Screens' AcousticPro 4K projection screen. The speakers themselves sat approximately three feet off my front wall with a good 18 inches to either side of the left and right channels. The center, obviously, was mounted dead center, which in my room placed it about six feet in from each side wall. My front wall is treated using GIK Acoustic Tri-Traps in the corners, with Monster Bass traps resting between.
The rear channel 5Bs were mounted to my ceiling using Monoprice speaker mounts (MB-03), which are rated to hold up to 33 pounds. The 5Bs were mounted sideways and in line with my first row of seats, albeit eight feet in the air. In a 5.1 channel setup, the surround speakers should be aligned with your listening position, not behind, as it is sometimes mistakenly believed. Speakers should only be placed behind the listening position in seven- (or six-) channel setups.
All of the 5Bs were wired using bulk 12-gauge speaker cable from Binary, a SnapAV company. I used Emotiva's UPA-700 ($499) as my amp of choice for this test, which was connected to my reference Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp. I could've gone with Emotiva's UMC-200 ($599) or Outlaw Audio's Model 975 ($549), but didn't for reasons I'll explain later, though both are phenomenal choices for a system such as this. Source components were relegated to my trusty Dune-HD Max, as well as Oppo's new BDP-103 universal player. All of the cabling, minus speaker cables, came by way of Monoprice.
The reason I went with my Integra over another AV preamp is because it allows me the ability to run both consumer and cinema systems, albeit not simultaneously, with relative ease, since it has both balanced and unbalanced preamp outputs. This allows both my review systems to be largely the same, minus the amplifier(s) and speakers, of course. Cabling is the same throughout, as are their distances.
For the .1 of my 5.1 setup, I relied on SVS' superb SB13-Ultra subwoofer ($1,599), which was EQ'ed using Room EQ Wizard, with resulting filters being fed to a Behringer Feedback Destroyer Pro. I EQ'ed the SB13-Ultra from 10Hz to 100Hz, since not all of the speakers had the same reported frequency response. Having a linear response would allow me to set the varying crossover points inside the Integra without having to worry too much about whether or not I needed to re-EQ the SVS subwoofer.
Lastly, though it would have no bearing on the 5B's (or JBL's) sound quality, I relied on my SIM2 Nero for visuals.
Read about the performance of the Intimus 5B bookshelf speaker on Page 2.
I began my evaluation of the 5B with some two-channel music to help me quickly get a feel for their overall sound. I opened with Train's new single "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" off their album California 37 (Columbia). This fun track, with its driving rhythm and beat, was captured wonderfully by the 5B. On its own, the 5B didn't quite have the might to rock the lowest regions of the track, but when crossed over with a subwoofer (90Hz), the entire presentation gained weight and things felt right.
On its own, the 5B is a touch on the leaner side, as its mid/bass performance is a touch svelte but, again, add a subwoofer to the equation, cross it over at the right point and things will start to sound more neutral in a hurry. Regardless, the 5B's sound was one of confidence and composure through and through. The 5B's high-frequency response was smooth and grain-free, though it was just a touch dry and, when pushed, could exhibit some slight sibilance at the extreme. However, within its comfort zone, it was quite nice and resolute. Dynamically, the 5B, despite its lower efficiency, isn't sluggish by any stretch. This speed not only helped dynamic swings feel more alive, it also helped in recreating the upbeat, driving nature of the track itself. In terms of soundstage, the 5B performs very well, possessing a bit more depth than width, but more importantly it is capable of aurally disappearing from view.
Moving on, I cued up Barenaked Ladies' live album Rock Spectacle (Reprise) and skipped ahead to the track "What a Good Boy." The ambiance of the live venue was rendered brilliantly via the 5B, as its soundstage and disappearing act within were on full display. The ensuing sound was one of more warmth than before, resulting in a more laid-back, lush portrayal that was simply pleasant. This newfound sultriness didn't come at the expense of the 5B's dynamics, nor did it become all woolly; it just sounded a touch fuller and richer. Treble performance remained (largely) the same, with the same subtle ailment present at the extreme. While the midrange felt a bit fuller, the mid/bass, sans subwoofer, was still slightly lean. Again, adding the sub back to the mix fleshed things out nicely.
I ended my two-channel evaluation of the 5B with the Michael and Janet Jackson duet "Scream" off Michael's HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (Epic). This particular track showcased even further the 5B's responsiveness to source material. While some budget speakers tend to deal more or less in broad strokes, the 5B proved a bit revealing, meaning it definitely benefited from better recordings (shocking) as well as higher-end components (which I did test briefly). With better quality at its disposal, the 5B suffered the same ailments as listed above, but their intrusion was mitigated slightly. In contrast to Rock Spectacle, "Scream" showcased the 5B's more aggressive side, which in this instance was a good thing. Another item that stood out to me was the 5B's level of detail and nuance. Both Michael and Janet's vocals rang true, possessing good scale and, when aided by a sub, also weight. The dynamics weren't neck-popping, but they weren't what I'd classify as restrained, either. Spatially, the 5Bs proved to be something of a tour de force at their price point. Throwing the decoding into PLII mode rather than straight stereo opened things up even more.
Moving on to movies, I began with the Tony Scott thriller Spy Game on Blu-ray (Universal Pictures). I chose Spy Game not for its action sequences but rather for its heavy dialog track, which may seem surprising. I use this demo a lot because half of the film takes place inside a conference room between a dozen or so men, all of different ages, statures and ethnicities. Because the actors were recorded in such tight quarters (presumably on a soundstage), the dialog track is very vivid in its rendering. Via the 5Bs, each actor's tone was captured faithfully and in clear delineation of the other voices in the space. I felt that some of the heavier-set actors could've come through with a bit more meat on their bones, but in terms of scale and focus, the 5B more than passed the test. Remember, I'm asking a smallish, two-way monitor to provide sound commensurate to a 10-foot diagonal screen. While it was easy for me to get wrapped up in all the dialog, I was equally impressed by the room's more subtle sounds, mainly the muted telephone calls, typing and other action occurring beyond the glass walls of the conference room. While all these elements were (most likely) inserted during the film's sound mix, the result was nothing if not natural to my ears, putting me right in the heart of the action, so to speak.
Moving on to a film with a bit more sonic gravitas, I cued up Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Disney). I hadn't watched this film in a while and I wanted to see if the 5Bs had what it took to present it to me anew. Simply put, they did. With the volume set just south of where I run my JBLs, the 5Bs put forth an unflappable performance, one that was grand in scale, yet delicate enough for much of the sound mix to be rendered faithfully. While sonic precision is typically a hallmark of two-way bookshelf designs, you often have to make concessions when adding budget to the equation - not so much with the 5Bs. Were they as articulate or resolved as costlier monitors, or even my 3677s, which are a also two-way design? Not exactly but they weren't "broad strokes" speakers, either. Dialog, as with Spy Game, was articulate and intelligible, regardless of the action unfolding on screen. There was still a subtle leanness throughout and a bit of top-end flattening, but nothing that was too distracting or unbecoming, not to mention unique to the 5B. Dynamically, the five matching 5Bs were simply superb and the effect of having five identical speakers cannot be overstated, as it provided for one of the more immersive surround sound experiences I've had in recent memory. I actually ended up watching a good portion of the film as a result. In truth, I would've watched the whole thing start to finish, had it not been for my wife coming home and needing help unloading the car - the 5Bs were that good at transporting me into the heart of the action unfolding onscreen. High praise, for sure.
I liked the 5B a lot, though there are a few matters worth noting. For starters, the 5B is a speaker, even when listening in stereo, which benefits greatly from having a subwoofer nearby. Its mid/bass performance isn't too weighty on its own, which results in a slightly lean demeanor. You can skew it more neutral with a sub, but be ready to experiment with crossover point, as the customary 80Hz (THX) might not be the magic point in your room. Because the 5B requires a subwoofer (in my opinion), it does drive its true cost of ownership up a bit, though you don't necessarily need a sub as powerful or even as robust as the SB13-Ultra; you could easily mate the 5B to one of Aperion Audio's subwoofers, such as the Bravus 8A ($349). Also, by employing a sub, you can potentially eliminate the slight port noise that occurs when listening at higher volumes.
Speaking of higher volumes, the 5B's tweeter is very good for what it is, though if you drive it too hard, it can exhibit some harshness by way of spatial flattening and sibilance at the extremes. I was able to comfortably listen well into the 80dB range, with peaks coming in at around 90-93dB without issue. Much beyond that and you might run into some issues, depending on your setup.
Lastly, and this may be purely my own issue, but since I had to mount the surround channels horizontally, I wish the Aperion logo was located on the grille rather than on the bottom of the speaker, as it would've allowed me to rotate it to be parallel with the ground. A minor quibble and one that is purely cosmetic, but alas, it was something I noted.
Competition and Comparison
There is no shortage of two-way bookshelf speakers out there. However, sticking within the confines of the 5B's performance envelope and budget, we're able to whittle down the options quite a bit. The first speaker worth noting would be Paradigm's Atom Monitor at $199 each or $398 per pair. The Atoms have a similar aesthetic and build, though admittedly they're offered in an additional finish, Heritage Cherry. In terms of specifications (and arguably performance), the two are pretty evenly matched, making one's decision to purchase one over the other entirely a matter of preference.
Another notable option would have to include HSU Research's HB-1 MK2 horn bookshelf speaker at $149 each or $298 per pair (plus shipping). The HB-1 MK2 is a horn loaded design, meaning it uses a horn wave guide for its tweeter, which some folks like and other abhor. It boasts a better frequency response (reportedly) than either the 5B or the Atom, making its reliance upon a subwoofer more of a choice than a mandate. It's also slightly more efficient, meaning it will utilize the power from a lower-powered amp or AV receiver more effectively than either the 5B or the Atom. Did I mention it's horn loaded?
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There is an awful lot to like about Aperion Audio's Intimus 5B bookshelf loudspeaker, especially at $430 per pair. The build quality is superb, as is the attention to detail, such as threaded mounting points both top and back. The drivers are of high quality and the resulting sound is one that is easy to love and listen to for hours on end. While it does require a subwoofer to round out the low-frequency performance, as well as suffering a bit of sibilance up top when pushed, these are not traits unique or even exclusive to the 5B.
In terms of matching the cinematic standard when using five matching 5Bs in unison, the resulting performance is nothing if not wholly enjoyable. Due to their less than efficient nature, they don't quite pack the same dynamics (even scaled down) as true cinema speakers, nor do they possess the mid/bass weight needed to ground every performer firmly. Still, for what they are, I was able to enjoy movie after movie without fail and never did I feel as if I was left wanting for more. If an appropriately scaled version of the cinematic experience is your goal, then the 5B does a better than average job of providing it. When you factor in their price, and the fact that they sound good on everything from entry-level equipment on up, their stock only rises. I could easily piece together a 5.1 system based solely on the 5Bs and perhaps a Bravus subwoofer (also from Aperion) and either a budget pair of separates or even an AV receiver for less than $3,000 total (with the Marantz SR-5007) and be totally satisfied long term - that's how good the 5B is.
Read more bookshelf speaker reviews written by Home Theater Review's staff.
Explore more reviews in our Subwoofer Review section.
See still more reviews in our AV Receiver Review section.