Bob Barrett is a versatile writer and knowledgeable hi-fi enthusiast whose work for HomeTheaterReivew.com runs the gamut from mid- to high-end home theater to audiophile components and speakers. He also specializes in high-performance and high-end headphones.
In the 12 years since being founded, Emotiva Audio has built an almost cult-like following of loyal home theater and audio enthusiasts seeking value-priced quality electronics. Recently the company added loudspeakers to its product lineup, too. While I've listened to demos of Emotiva gear at several audio shows, this is the first time I had the opportunity for an extended audition of an Emotiva product. I was curious to hear what level of performance these new speakers could deliver given their value-oriented price point.
This review primarily focuses on the new T1 tower speaker, but Emotiva actually sent a complete 5.1 home theater speaker package consisting of the Airmotiv T1 floorstanders ($699/pair), the Airmotiv C1 center ($249), the Airmotiv B1 bookshelves ($299/pair), and the BasX S12 subwoofer ($399). I suspect that most buyers of the Emotiva T1 towers will be interested in a full home theater surround setup versus just a stereo pair. Emotiva sent me the BasX S12 sub because the Airmotiv S12 sub ($699) was out of stock during the review timeframe. I suppose having trouble keeping a product in stock is a good kind of problem. Doing the math, the 5.1 system I auditioned carries a total package price of $1,646. Substituting the Airmotiv S12 sub for an all Airmotiv system increases the package price to $1,946. That's still a very reasonable sum for a 5.1-channel package.
A couple other speaker options round out the Airmotiv lineup: the Airmotiv E1 on-wall surround ($269/pair) and the smaller Airmotiv S10 subwoofer ($549). Since all of the speakers in the line are timbre-matched, you can easily mix and match them to meet your particular needs.
The Airmotiv T1 tower is a rear-ported, three-way design with a 25x32mm Airmotiv folded ribbon tweeter, a 5.25-inch woven fabric cone midrange driver with a solid phase plug versus the more typical dust cap, and two six-inch woven fiber cone bass drivers. Finding ribbon tweeters in speakers at this price range is still a rarity. The T1 loudspeaker weighs 40.1 pounds and measures 37.63 inches high by 8.38 inches wide by 11.63 inches deep. The T1 has an efficiency rating of 88 dB, a nominal impedance of four ohms, and a frequency response of 37 to 28,000 Hz (+/-3 dB).
The front baffle is machined from 25mm HDF in a distinctive faceted design similar to Emotiva's studio monitors, intended to minimize diffraction effects and room interactions. The baffle is then painted a satin black lacquer. The sides and rear of the cabinet are made of 15mm HDF covered in a textured, satin black vinyl. Around back there are two sets of multi-way speaker terminals for optional bi-amping or bi-wiring. Also included are sets of adjustable spikes and rubber footers, as well as removable, magnetic speaker grills.
The Airmotiv C1 center is also a three-way design with the same 25x32mm Airmotiv folded ribbon tweeter placed above a three-inch woven fiber cone midrange driver, flanked by two 5.25-inch woven fiber cone bass drivers and covered by a removable magnetic grill. Cabinet dimensions are 8.38 inches high by 30.5 inches wide by 8.25 inches deep with a weight of 18.6 pounds. Similar to the T1 towers, there are dual multi-way speaker terminals around back. Frequency response is rated at 50 to 28,000Hz (+/-3 dB). Sensitivity is rated at 89 dB with a nominal impedance of four ohms.
The Airmotiv B1 bookshelf is a two-way design measuring 10.75 inches tall by 7.13 inches wide by 8.25 inches deep. It features the same 25x32mm Airmotiv folded ribbon tweeter with a single 5.25-inch woven fabric cone bass driver, and it has a nominal impedance of eight ohms. The 8.8-pound speaker has a rear-facing port for extended bass response and a single set of multi-way speaker terminals. Frequency response is rated at 48 to 28,000Hz (+/-3 dB).
The BasX S12 subwoofer has a front-firing 12-inch long-throw polypropylene cone driver in a heavily braced HDF cabinet measuring 17.25 inches high by 16.75 inches wide by 18.25 inches deep. The sub weighs in at 48.5 pounds and has a slot-loaded rear port to maximize output. The BasX S12 uses a Class D amplifier rated at 300 watts RMS and a frequency response of 25 to 150 Hz (+/-3 dB). The rubber-footed cabinet is clad in the same textured black vinyl found on all the Airmotiv loudspeakers and features a removable framed black fabric grill. All connections and controls are around back, including two unbalanced line-level audio input jacks and a set of pass-through output jacks to connect a second subwoofer or a pair of full-range speakers in a second zone. There are dial controls for crossover, phase, and volume and a switch to select the power mode. The crossover consists of a 12 dB/octave low pass filter that can be set to LFE if your pre/pro or receiver has built-in bass management. The phase control can be adjusted from 0 to 180 to match the phase of your main speakers. The volume control sets the relative gain to best match the output of your main speakers. The power mode selector switch has on/auto/off settings and a LED light that changes color to indicate the selected setting. There is also a preset line voltage switch to match the voltage in your area. Finally, there is an AC power switch, IEC power receptacle, and fuse holder. There is no auto room correction software included with the BasX S12 sub; all adjustments must be made manually.
If you opt for the Airmotiv S12 sub instead, it adds a balanced input option to the unbalanced inputs found on the BasX, as well as a second 12-inch driver (passive) in a similarly sized cabinet. It also has a more powerful 500-watt amp, drops the rear port, and weighs in at a heftier 66.2 pounds.
Normally, I approach the process of setting up speakers with a bit of trepidation. My dedicated media room is located on the second floor, and that usually means lugging heavy speakers and subs up the stairs (and a sore back afterwards). However, the Emotiva speakers were quite manageable, making the task so much easier. I set up the Emotiva speakers by attaching the included spikes to the towers and then making the necessary connections to my Marantz AV8801 pre/pro, Classé CP-800 preamp, and Classé CA-5300 five-channel amp. Sources included an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player and Esoteric K-03 CD/SACD player for physical discs, as well as a Mac Mini music server for streaming digital music from a Synology NAS. Connections were made using WireWorld Silver Eclipse 7 cabling.
I initially placed the Airmotiv T1 main speakers in the same location normally occupied by my reference Aerial Acoustics 7T towers (about five feet from the front wall and 7.5 feet apart. After some experimentation, I found the ribbon tweeters to be a bit low relative to the listening position for optimal results. If I scrunched down in my chair a few inches, the sound improved. So I extended the front spikes fully and shortened the rear spikes as much as possible to angle the front baffle up a little. That improved the high-octave energy a bit.
I placed the Airmotiv C1 center speaker on a Sound Anchors stand between the T1 towers, set about six inches closer to the front wall. I also angled the front baffle of the C1 center speaker up by placing a strip of half-inch maple under the front of the speaker.
I set the Airmotiv B1 bookshelf speakers on Pangea DS400 28-inch speaker stands for surround sound duty, and I placed them a couple of feet behind and angled toward the listening position.
Finally, I positioned the BasX S12 sub in the right front corner of my room in the same spot normally occupied by one of my reference JL Audio F110 subs. After connecting the sub to my Marantz pre/pro, I ran the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 auto room correction software built into the pre/pro. The first step was to adjust the sub's output from the listening position using an SPL meter. The tool I like to use is SkyPaw's Decibel 10th Pro Noise Meter app. Once the sub output was set correctly, I ran the Audyssey auto calibration on the rest of the speakers. Looking at the results for speaker size, distance, and crossover points, I wasn't optimistic about how the system would sound. Normally Audyssey does a really good job of calculating these parameters in my listening room, but in this case all of the proposed settings looked way off. I played a 5.1-channel test track from a Blu-ray disc that confirmed that I would need to make the settings manually. After measuring speaker distances to the listening position, setting speaker size and crossover points, I played the track again. The subwoofer was really overpowering the room. That rear port on the sub did not like the corner placement. I pulled the sub out from the corner by about 12 more inches and then turned down the sub's volume control until the output seamlessly blended with the rest of the speakers. The bass response was now more even, providing a more balanced overall presentation. With all of the speakers now dialed in, I let music play as much as possible over the next two weeks before doing any critical listening.
I started off my evaluation by listening to several very familiar test tracks of two-channel music with just the T1 towers in full-range mode. To evaluate how the Emotiva T1 towers reproduce a female vocal, guitar, and the acoustic space of recordings, I played the track "Estate" by Antonio Forcione and Sabina Sciubba from their album Meet Me in London (Naim Records, 192-kHz/24-bit). Through the Airmotiv T1 towers, there was a luscious amount of air and space between and around Sabina's warm vocals and Antonio's acoustic guitar playing. With all of the spatial cues evident, it was easy to believe the performers were right there in my room. That's something that doesn't happen very often, so the experience was special. As they should be, Sabina's vocals were just inside the location of the left speaker, while Antonio was playing his guitar just inside the location of the right speaker. Both the tonal quality of Sabina's voice and the attack transients of Antonio's guitar were palpable. The speakers' midrange drivers reproduced the familiar track without any noticeable coloration.
For a real test of the Airmotiv's bass and soundstaging performance, I next played "Deeper," the title track from Pete Belasco's second CD (Sheridan Square Records, 44.1 kHz/16 Bit). The Airmotiv T1s reproduced the deep bass of this slow-groove R&B-style track with accuracy, although with a bit less energy and impact than I've heard through larger (and much more expensive) speakers. A six-inch bass driver can only go so low, after all. But I didn't notice any distortion in the bass that the speaker did reproduce, which is a very positive attribute. The Airmotiv T1 not only accurately reproduced the high-frequency notes in this track, it also managed to place those notes within the soundstage space appropriately. Soundstage width and depth were not quite as impressive as through my reference speakers, but I was taken aback with the T1's performance given the ridiculously low price point in comparison.
Moving on to 5.1-channel music, I played the Imagine Dragons track "Shots" from their concert Blu-ray 'Smoke & Mirrors Live' (Eagle Rock Entertainment). The Airmotiv speakers combined with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio format to portray a palpable sense of the large acoustic space of the 15,000-seat Air Canada Centre arena in Toronto. There is a lot going on in this high-volume, high-energy introductory track to the concert, and the Airmotiv 5.1 speaker system was always in control. There is effective use of the surrounds in this concert disc without resorting to a lot of gimmickry, which results in a very natural sound experience. The mix places the listener in the center, about 10 rows back from the stage. With crowd noise surrounding the listening space, it really did feel as if you were at the show. Even playing the concert at about 85 dB, the highs of lead guitarist Wayne Sermon's electric guitar came through with great clarity and detail without ever sounding harsh. The shimmer of the cymbals could be heard with great detail even through Daniel Platzman's enthusiastic playing of the balance of the drum kit. And the timbre of lead singer Dan Reynolds's voice was spot on, or at least as I remember it when I saw the band live during their tour. Experiencing this concert through the Airmotiv speakers was just plain fun.
I next played Chapter 12 from the Blu-ray disc of the movie Passengers (Columbia Pictures) in Dolby TrueHD. In this scene, while Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) swims laps in the starship Avalon's pool, mechanical systems can be heard abruptly shutting down overhead, leading to a loss of gravity onboard. Suddenly the room is filled with the sounds of waves of water splashing up the walls and off the ceiling as Aurora struggles to escape the giant water bubble rising from the pool to get a breath. The gravity system is suddenly reinitiated, and the water thunderously splashes back to the pool and deck, with the speakers producing the appropriate bass weight to bring a great sense of realism. The high-resolution sound effects coming from the Airmotiv speakers were so realistic they had me feeling like I was in the pool, with water splashing all around and over me.
Playing chapter two from the 4K UHD Blu-ray version of the movie 3:10 to Yuma (Lionsgate), I happily discovered a new reference disc for both sound and picture. While the 4K UHD disc with HDR caused the colors of the red rock canyon in the scene to really pop, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack also provided the most realistic gunfire sounds I've ever experienced in a film. (There's also a DTS:X soundtrack option available if your system is set up for it. Mine is not yet.) In this scene, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) looks on from a ridge as his gang is about to rob an armored stagecoach carrying railroad money and guarded by Pinkertons. The Airmotiv speakers deliver the goods in terms of accurately portraying the numerous sound effects in this scene. The ambience channels are put to full use, as numerous bullets are heard ricocheting off the stagecoach armor or splintering wood. Bullets fly past the listener's head, drawing you into the middle of the action. The Airmotiv T1 bass drivers and BasX S12 subwoofer blended well to provide the audible impact from an explosion in the scene, as well as when the stagecoach overturns. I would have liked to have a bit more power from the sub bass to also "feel" more of the mayhem, as I did when viewing the same scene using my two reference subs. Perhaps the sealed Airmotiv S12 sub (or two) would be the ticket, given its bigger amp and second driver.
The Airmotiv T1 speakers require careful placement consideration for optimal high-frequency results. Likewise, the rear ports mean that the speakers will need to be at least a couple of feet from the front wall to provide clean, clear bass.
Lastly, the industrial aesthetic of the black T1 towers may not appeal to everyone. Of course, if you want slick custom paint jobs and highly polished hardware - expect to pay more than what Emotiva is asking here.
Comparison & Competition
Potential buyers of the Emotiva T1 towers will be audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts that have real-world budget constraints but are still seeking high performance ... and perhaps aren't as concerned about aesthetics. Competitors to the Airmotiv T1 speakers include the Elac Debut F5 ($560/pair), Aperion Audio's Intimus 4T ($698/pair), Polk's Signature S55 ($659.90/pair), and Fluance's Signature Series HFF Tower ($699/pair) recently reviewed by Brent Butterworth here. You may want to visit one of the growing number of regional audio shows to listen to as many of these models as possible for comparison.
The Emotiva T1 tower speakers deliver stellar performance for their price, making them not only a real value but also a real performance front-runner in affordable high-end audio. The fact that you can have this much fun with a full 5.1 Airmotiv home theater speaker system for under $2,000 would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Emotiva has been shaking up the electronics market for a while. I have a feeling they are going to do the same to the loudspeaker market based on their newest offering. Can you get noticeably better performance? Yes, but you would have to spend more ... maybe considerably more.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• Visit the Emotiva website for more product information.
• Emotiva XMC-1 7.2-Channel AV Pre/Pro Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.