A friend of mine dates women based solely on their looks. I agree that outward appearance is the first thing to spark interest, but looks aren't everything. My friend hasn't come around to that realization just yet, so my wife and I marvel at some of the nuclear scientists to whom we get introduced. Thankfully, I found a woman with beauty and brains. Hopefully my friend will take my advice and start looking for more than just a pretty face. Oddly enough, the same advice applies to loudspeakers.
As the LCD and plasma craze continues to sweep the nation, home theater speaker systems are now being selected largely for their aesthetic appeal. Thinner, smaller and less obtrusive is the new name of the game; as a result, there are many tiny, shiny speaker systems available on the market. Many of them look nice on the wall and will generate the occasional "ooh" and "ahh" from passersby.
Unfortunately, when you start listening to them, "ooh" quickly becomes "oh." The Energy act6 speaker system has uniquely attractive styling coupled with ingenious mounting hardware and surprisingly potent sound. If you're in the market for a stylish and affordable sub/sat system that can actually deliver on the promise of theater-like sound, I suggest you read on.
Hanging speakers on the wall shouldn't be a chore, but it often is thanks to poorly-designed brackets and short-range swivel mounts. The actl satellite speaker has the most ingenious mounting bracket I've ever seen. For starters, the back side of the actl speaker is curved, so its footprint is a semi-circle. Energy provides an L-shaped bracket with gear-like teeth on the speaker plate that fit into slots on the underside of the actl. This allows you to angle your speakers toward the listening area while keeping the mounting bracket flush and tight to the wall. Thanks to the large number of "teeth" on the bracket, the range of motion is a generous +/- 32 degrees. This is a fantastic design. The act1's innovative design continues when you inspect its grille. Many listeners like to remove their speaker grilles from time to time. This process usually means fighting with plastic pins and making sure they're square in their holes so they don't snap. The actl uses miniature magnets to keep the grille in place and it works great! If you're mounting the actl satellites around a flat-panel television, you may find that the tweeters are higher on the wall than you'd like; a simple solution is to invert the actl and hang them upside down. Proving they thought of everything, designers also made the "Energy" grille logo magnetic so it, too, can be inverted if you decide to hang the speakers upside down. Brilliant.
I mentioned tweeters already, but the act1's tweeter deserves some special attention. One of the great things about buying an entry-level system from a high-end speaker company is the trickle-down effect. Once only available on their higher-end models, Energy offers an individually-chambered tweeter in the act1. This 3/4" aluminum dome tweeter features a cloth suspension and it lives in its own sealed chamber. This type of quality component architecture isn't found on many sub/sat systems at this price point. The act1's woofer is a 3.5-inch mica-filled polypropylene unit with a patented Elliptical Surround. Energy claims this design increases excursion as well as driver efficiency.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
Energy carefully packs and ships the complete act6 system in one box. After unpacking everything, I used standard 12ga speaker cable to wire the actl satellites and a line-level Monster THX subwoofer cable for the sub. The actl satellites feature sturdy, spring-loaded binding posts hidden in a recess on the bottom of the speaker. Unfortunately, they don't accept banana plugs, but the spring-loaded design makes threading wire a snap. These posts are another example of the attention to detail not found on many mass-market sub/sat systems.
As luck would have it, this review coincided with my review of Yamaha's RX-V1500 AN receiver. The Yamaha has a number of advanced features including an "Auto Setup". Auto Setup uses a (supplied) microphone to measure the size, distance and volume level for each connected speaker. Auto Setup worked well for the act6, except in the crossover department. The Yamaha setup program decided that 200Hz was the ideal crossover for these "small" speakers, but that figure is just plain wrong. Based on their frequency response (90Hz-22kHz) and that of the sub (30Hz-120Hz), a crossover somewhere between 100-120Hz should be ideal.
After listening to some demo material, I settled on 120Hz for my installation. Your room's acoustic properties may vary, but if in doubt, 100Hz is a safe bet and also what Energy recommends in the Owner's Manual. After setting the Yamaha's crossover at 120Hz, I wanted to make sure the act subwoofer's crossover was at its maximum setting (hence removing the danger of cascading crossovers.) No worries there -- the act sub doesn't have a crossover adjustment. Although this might seem like a drawback, it makes sense when you consider the market segment in which this system competes. Simplicity is the goal here and the act subwoofer has been designed specifically to run alongside the acts satellites. Provided you dial in the proper crossover on your receiver, your low frequency spectrum should be fully intact.
Having had some experience with Energy speakers in the past, I knew that their drivers tend to have a somewhat lengthy break-in period. After all, speaker drivers are moving parts and they need to stretch their legs before finding their comfort zone. As the Owner's Manual recommends, I ran the system (at a conservative volume) for more than fifty hours before doing any critical listening. I should mention that my initial impressions of this system were less than stellar, but correcting several receiver parameters (equalization, room size and crossover) and giving the speakers time to loosen up greatly improved the quality of sound. While listening to The Best of Sessions at West 54th (Volume 1), I was very impressed with the way the act6 handled Suzanne Vega's "Caramel." Vocals on the 5.1 track were smooth and the guitar work came through with surprising clarity.
Switching over to Stereo mode on the Yamaha, I popped in Sarah
McLachlan's Surfacing and jumped to her slow and resonant "Angel."
Sarah's breathing on the microphone was often discernible and her many
high notes came through beautifully. The upper-mid range seemed a
little weak at times, but overall these
Energy speakers made beautiful music.
Wrapping things up, I went to the movie closet and brought back some DVDs. For testing how well a speaker handles dynamic material, there are few better tests than chapter 14 of Open Range. For anyone who hasn't seen this great little western, do yourself a favor and rent it today. Kevin Costner takes his time with his movies and the same is true here. Open Range simmers at a low boil leading up to one of the greatest gun fights to ever grace the silver screen in chapter 14.
The act6 smacked me in the face with the scene's first gun shot and the many shotgun blasts that followed had substantial depth. The act sub doesn't go as low as many subs I've heard, but the bass you get is wonderfully detailed and never muddy. The shootout in OpenRange can be a difficult scene for many speakers because there is a lot of information at the top end (pistol shots and glass breaking) and a lot of low-end grunt (shotgun and rifle blasts) but not too much in between. With the act6, the low end was solid and the upper end was crisp, but a shade on the bright side. As noted earlier in my music tests, the upper-mid range could use a bit more presence.
At the end of the day, the overall quality of sound from the act6 is far beyond what its price tag suggests. For the discerning shopper who knows that brains are just as important as beauty, the act6 is considerably more than just a pretty face.