DALI might not be on the tip of the tongue for many casual American home theater enthusiasts, but the Danish speaker manufacturer (whose name stands for Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries) has made a name for itself in Europe over the past few decades. And with the Oberon line of speakers -- the company's first true entry-level speaker line -- DALI is poised to make a strong impression on budding enthusiasts here in the States. The Oberon 1, the smaller of two bookshelf speakers in the line, retails for $599 per pair, and alongside the Oberon Vokal center channel ($549), and Sub E-9 F ($799), served as the front and surround speakers in a complete bookshelf surround system for the purposes of this review.
The Oberon line includes progressively larger models (the Oberon 3 bookshelf, Oberon 5 and Oberon 7 floorstanders, and the Oberon On-wall) for additional configurations.
The Oberon speakers aren’t revolutionary in their visual design, but they are very attractive nonetheless. My review samples had a light oak finish cabinet with a white front panel and gray fabric grilles. Both my wife and I were impressed with their stylish look as soon as I lifted them from the box. Other finish options are black, white, and dark walnut (the black and dark walnut options have a black faceplate and black grilles).
Their MDF cabinets feel solidly built, are ported out the back, and have a pair of gold-plated binding posts. They measure 10.6 by 6.4by 9.2 inches (hwd) and weigh 9.2 pounds each. There’s a built-in bracket for wall mounting, but with the rear port I’d advise against it.
What promises to separate the Oberon speakers from their competitors is DALI’s focus on minimizing distortion. The newly-developed, wide-dispersal soft-dome tweeter is 1.14 inches (slightly larger than the traditional 1-inch we normally see) and lighter than those of most competitors. The slightly larger size in conjunction with the lighter weight minimizes the tweeter’s excursion and necessary voice coil motion, diminishing distortion. The larger tweeter size also adds a slightly lower frequency extension.
The 5.25-inch woofer has a wood-fiber cone and incorporates DALI’s patented SMC (soft magnetic compound) magnet -- a non-ferrous magnetic material. The technology is implemented in different ways across DALI’s speaker lines. In the Oberon line, the SMC is used in a more straightforward and simple way -- as a 10mm disk at the top of the magnet pole piece. The use of SMC in the design of the driver minimizes distortion caused by purely iron-based magnets exhibited through hysteresis (unwanted resistance in the voice coil) and eddy currents (which generate unwanted heat).
The same components and technology found in the Oberon 1 are utilized in the Oberon Vokal, although with two 5.25-inch woofers in the traditional center channel configuration. And instead of a rear port, the Vokal has a front-firing port so it isn’t firing into a possible enclosed space in a home theater cabinet.
The Sub E-9 F is one of DALI’s more compact models, with a 9-inch side-firing aluminum cone woofer powered by a 170-Watt RMS (220-Watt peak) Class D amplifier. It has a down-firing port. On the back are both LFE and stereo line-level inputs, a phase switch, power mode switch (which allows for standby), volume knob, and crossover knob ranging from 40 to 120 Hz. The enclosure is available in black, white, and light walnut laminate (unfortunately not the light oak finish available on the Oberon 1), and the front panel has a high gloss black finish.
Contrary to conventional speaker setup positioning logic, DALI speakers are designed and tuned to be positioned with no toe-in toward the listening position. The wide dispersal spread the sweet spots for listening.
Once I had the speakers installed and properly positioned, I fired up one of my favorite movie sequences: the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. As the Haradrim ride into battle on the backs of their gigantic pachydermic Mûmakil, Howard Shore’s score builds as the Rohirrim charge to meet them.
Once they engage, the music gives way to sounds of battle from all directions, with low, bellowing cries from the Haradrim accompanying their thunderous stomps on the ground (and on some horses). The DALI’s did a spectacular job -- especially considering their price -- creating a wide soundstage with pinpoint placement of sword clashes, death throes, and galloping. If anything, I missed a little bit of depth, but that might be a reach for $599 bookshelves
The timbre matching across the Oberon 1s and Vokal center was relatively seamless, except with some slight variation in the midrange, which were never enough to distract me from the action. The little extra in the Vokal midrange gives it a bit of a benefit in terms of dialogue intelligibility. Ian McKellen’s voice is forward and present without any harshness or high-end fatigue.
As enthralled as I was with the Oberon speakers, the real MVP here is the Sub E-9 F. The low-end punch put out by such a small footprint sub is impressive. It added great excitement to the battle, both with the stomps of the Mûmakil and the orchestral arrangement when it returns to heighten the intensity of the battle.
That isn’t to say the Oberon 1s can’t handle some bass in certain situations. There are, of course, limitations of physics they must contend with, being small speakers. But for some classical recordings, such as the 1982 recording of Martha Argerich playing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto (my personal favorite of the piece and the performer), the Oberons perform well as a stereo pair. The piano has excellent clarity and authenticity of sound, with Argerich’s superb finger work shining through. The pluck of double bass strings and the low brass did benefit from the Sub E-9 F when I returned it to the mix, but as a $599 pair, the Oberon 1s performed beyond their price.
There are a wide selection of bookshelf 5.1-channel systems available in the mid-$2,000 range from familiar names. The Paradigm Premier Series (reviewed here) comes to mind immediately, or you could save a few bucks and go for something like the Elac Debut or Klipsch Reference R-51M -- all great systems in their own right. The Paradigm Premiere are excellent sounding speakers and Paradigm’s build quality is generally equally excellent. But as compared with the Premiere, the DALI Oberon speakers are more solidly built.
Klipsch has a fervent fanbase, and they’ve been around more than long enough to deserve such a following. But they have a distinct coloration due to their designs, and I think the DALI cast a broader-reaching net for home theater enthusiasts. Both the Klipsch and the Elac are fine speakers for their price, but even at a higher price point the DALI far outshine the price increase.
Even though the company has been around for decades, DALI has unfortunately never been at the forefront of the American speaker market. Lucky for us, there’s a more concerted effort to become a fixture in the States and the Oberon 1s are the perfect gateway drug. They have a great soundstage, both as a stereo pair and in a 5.1 configuration with the Vokal, and the Sub E-9 F is as impressive as any small sub out there (it’s a strong contender to add to any system in need of some low end, even if you don't own DALI speakers all the way around). For anyone in need of an entry 5.1 bookshelf system, a package built on the foundation of the Oberon 1 is exceptional.
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