What makes a speaker a home theater speaker? Most of the speakers we use in our home theaters aspire to be more than just loudspeakers – they’re audio jewelry, for they’re meant to be placed in plain sight for all to admire, which, if I’m honest, is very un-theater-like. Notice I said un-theater-like, for if home theaters were truly designed to be scaled-down versions of their cinematic counterparts, then all speakers would look more like Episode’s new 900 Series of products. When you go to your local theater, the only speakers you see are often those dedicated to the side and rear channels, leaving the front speakers (left, center, right and subwoofers) behind the screen. With the front speakers resting behind the screen, they can be any size, shape, makeup or finish, for what do we care, we can’t see them. Another advantage is that the designers no longer have to account for and/or make room in their budgets to allow for furniture-grade finishes, which means more money for what actually matters – getting the speakers to sound good. Well, if sound quality is what you care about most of all and you’re looking to build a home theater inspired by your local multiplex, then keep reading, for the Episode 900s reviewed here are bound to be right up your alley.
The Episode 900 LCR retails for $799 and is a two-way monitor loudspeaker that is designed to be installed behind an acoustically transparent screen and/or into a custom home theater cabinet. The 900 can be wall-mounted via its included keyhole-style mounting brackets, it can be mounted inside a false wall, inside a cabinet or out in the open atop a dedicated stand. The last option will mean that you’ll have to endure the 900’s plain outward appearance, which is boxy, to say the least, and clad in a satin black finish. The 900 is large for a bookshelf speaker, which is why I’m labeling it as a true monitor loudspeaker, one that is a little over 12 inches wide by 18 inches tall and 13 inches deep. The 900 is also solidly built – one indication of this is the speaker’s weight, which is a stout 35 pounds.
Behind the 900’s non-magnetic grille rest two six-and-a-half-inch paper/Kevlar bass/midrange drivers, mated to a single one inch wide by four-and-a-half inches tall planar magnetic ribbon tweeter. The 900’s ribbon tweeter is adjustable, meaning it can be repositioned to fit inside the speaker’s bass port when using a 900 as a center channel, but I’ll talk more about that later. Above the tweeter rest the 900’s adjustment options, which include “screen EQ” and “boundary compensation.” Again, more on these later. The 900 has a reported frequency response of 47Hz to 20kHz, with a nominal impedance of four ohms and a sensitivity of 90dB, making the 900 an ideal mate to both AV receivers and separate amplifiers. Speaking of amplification, the 900 connects to your amplifier of choice via its dual five-way binding posts.
As I mentioned earlier, the 900 retails for $799 each and can be purchased via your local SnapAV dealer. The 900 is designed to match seamlessly with Episode’s other 900 Series speakers, which include several in-wall, on-wall and subwoofer models. Like the 900 LCR, the rest of the 900 Series line-up of products are equally focused on performance and value.
Integrating the 900s into one’s home theater is simple enough, though it’s probably best to know how one plans to integrate them before making a purchase decision. If you’re going to put them on stands, then the process is practically plug-n-play. However, if you’re installing them behind a perforated screen, then perhaps you need to consider building a false wall or some sort of structure to support them in such an installation. Obviously, your local SnapAV dealer can assist you with these questions and/or help you with construction, should you need assistance.
As for me, for the purposes of this review, I installed the 900s on 26-inch Sanus Steel Series stands, as well as mounted them (via the 900’s keyhole mounts) to my front wall at varying heights in order to test the ribbon tweeter’s off-axis response. At their maximum height, the left and right mains were mounted 36 inches (measured from the floor to bottom of the speaker) off the ground. In order to use one of the 900s as a center channel, I had to reposition the tweeter. This entailed a simple procedure, whereby the ribbon tweeter is removed, rotated and re-installed where the speaker’s bass port once sat (images at HomeTheaterEquipment.com). The process involved the unscrewing of 12 screws, six for the tweeter and six for the bass port. From there, I was able to remove the bass port, push the tweeter into the cabinet and then pull it through the vacant bass port. Using the same 12 screws, I reattached the tweeter and the bass port and, voila -instant center channel. Well not instant, the whole procedure took about 10 minutes. The center channel was then placed on the same Sanus stand, so as to keep the tweeters largely at the same level, which on 26-inch stands was ear-level in my room.
I connected the left-, center- and right-channel speakers to my Parasound 5250 v2 multi-channel amplifier via either generic in-wall speaker cable or eight-foot lengths of Transparent MusicWave speaker cables. A word to those contemplating wall-mounting their 900s: you’re going to want to run your cables either behind the drywall or use a flexible speaker cable, for the space between the wall and the 900’s cabinet is very, very tight.
The rest of my system consisted of the following: Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp, Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD universal Blu-ray player, Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 DAC, AppleTV and two JL Audio Fathom f110 subwoofers. The subwoofers were crossed over at 80Hz for most of the review and were EQed using Room EQ Wizard and a Behringer Feedback Destroyer Pro. I had two Episode subwoofers on hand during my time with the 900 Series speakers, but wanted to use the JL Audio subs in order to see how well they integrated with other speakers. This is also why I did not use Episode speakers for my rear channels, instead relying on my Noble Fidelity L-85 LCRS in-ceiling loudspeakers.
I let everything settle in and get to know each other for a few days before sitting down for any sort of critical listening.
While the 900 is clearly a home theater-oriented loudspeaker, I decided to begin my evaluation with some traditional two-channel music, courtesy of Diana Krall’s “I’m Coming Through” from her album The Girl in the Other Room (Verve). Right off the bat, what struck me most was how open and articulate the 900’s ribbon tweeter was, possessing both air and agility, yet having an almost laid-back demeanor, which hasn’t been my experience with ribbon tweeters in the past. Now, I will say this: the 900’s ribbon tweeter doesn’t have the same sparkle or shimmer that you’ll get from a metal dome tweeter, but that’s not to suggest that it’s somehow lifeless -it’s not, it’s just black coffee without any sweetener. Still, Krall’s vocals were natural and full-bodied, with a true sense of weight and presence.
Read more about the ES-HT900-LCR-6 loudspeaker’s performance on Page 2.
Krall’s vocals stood out in contrast to the other musicians, though she didn’t project beyond the speaker’s front baffle. Instead, the remaining musicians stepped back into the soundstage for a presentation that felt more third or fourth row, versus one that put you in the middle of the performance space. The 900’s midrange and mid-bass performance was smooth, with good extension and weight that were completely devoid of boxy colorations or resonances, which only added to the speaker’s sense of speed, accuracy and neutrality. At the lowest reaches of its frequency response, the 900 does seem to have an audible bass bump, which allows it to mate nicely with a subwoofer or two, but also gives it a sense of greater bass extension if a sub is not used. I found the bump to slow the 900’s otherwise lithe sound, but not so much that it ruined the experience; it’s just that instruments such as a standup bass have a bit more emphasis than perhaps they normally would. Overall, the 900 is a speaker that favors neutrality and accuracy over artificiality or false musicality through the manipulation of either the midrange or high frequencies, which is a rare find in a loudspeaker at this price point for, more often than not, affordable loudspeakers employ some sort of trick in order to overcome and/or distract you from their deficiencies. Thanks to the 900’s ribbon tweeter, its ability to reproduce the finest details and textures is nothing short of astonishing, for I was still hearing subtle cues in the music that some high-end speakers miss.
Ribbon tweeters aren’t always the best in terms of horizontal or vertical dispersion, resulting in the listener having to endure the dreaded “head in a vise” phenomenon when trying enjoy their favorite music. To test the 900’s dispersion and soundstage capabilities, I cued up two favorites of mine, first Hans Zimmer’s “Seville” off the Mission: Impossible II soundtrack (Hollywood Records) and Mike Oldfield’s “The Source of Secrets” from Tubular Bells 3 (Warner Bros. UK). In order to test the ribbon tweeter’s off-axis response, I began by mounting them on my wall a full speaker height above ear level. At this height, both tracks maintained their openness and detail. At two speaker heights above ear level, the high frequencies disappeared almost completely, which is good because, unless you’re six feet tall and listen to all your music standing up, the 900’s ribbon tweeter maintains its composure in terms of vertical dispersion. Obviously, the closer you can keep the ribbon tweeter to ear level, the better, but even slightly above didn’t seem to matter much, so those of you with risers or stadium seating in your theaters need not worry. In terms of their horizontal dispersion, the 900s are excellent, requiring zero toe-in for proper center imaging or soundstage definition. This is a good thing, since they will most assuredly be mounted straightforward on a wall or behind a screen. However, the 900s’ soundstage width appears predicated upon their ultimate distance from each other. For example, when the left and right speakers were placed roughly six-and-a-half feet apart, the width of the soundstage appeared to be only marginally wider than the speakers’ outer edges. The 900s didn’t throw as convincing a three-dimensional soundstage as, say, my Focal Electra 1038BEs or Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamonds on either of the two tracks, which is the reason I use them as demo material. The further out I spaced the left and right speakers, the broader the soundstage width became, but it never fully projected beyond the outer limits. Still, even with the left and right mains more than 12 feet apart, the 900s still maintained a focused center image. Is the 900’s slight lack of horizontal dispersion or projection a deal breaker? Not really, especially in the home theater realm, for that’s what side and rear channels are for -but I’ll talk about that in a minute. Another positive during this particular demo was the 900s’ dynamic prowess. The 900s can handle power well and respond to it with fervor, sounding at times downright explosive though never “shouty” or offensive, evident in the many dynamic swings found throughout the Tubular Bells 3 disc.
Switching gears to movies (about time), I cued up Top Gun (Paramount) on Blu-ray disc. I simply let the film play, for I wanted to see if the 900s would simply recreate what I already knew of the disc or present me with something entirely new. Well, I got the latter, for as impressed as I was with their two-channel performance, the 900s are clearly tailor-made for home theater use. The opening sequence was fun, lively and rich. The entire sonic presentation was engrossing, and within it were subtle sounds that are often glossed over. When the F-14 Tomcats finally roared to life, the 900s seemed happy as a pig in -well you get the idea. The initial jet engine burst was violent and bombastic, but not offensive or fatiguing, even when hitting peaks in excess of 100dB. Even in the face of such a sonic firestorm, the tweeter was still able to resolve minute details, such as the landing gear stressing under the torque of the engine or the faint sounds of ocean waves in the distance. This gave the entire aural presentation a sense of dimension that transformed the front of my room in ways no speaker at or near the 900’s price point has managed. Ever.
I say the front of the room, because when it got to the rear channels, the seamless nature and tonal balance of the sound field collapsed. I’m not saying that my Noble Fidelity L-85 LCRS in-ceiling speakers weren’t up to the challenge, or poor in comparison, they were just clearly voiced to accompany a different kind of speaker, one that wasn’t as fast or as neutral as the 900. This leads me to believe that if one were building a home theater system around the 900s, then other speakers in the 900 Series, if not more 900 LCRs themselves, should be used as side and rear channels, for no other speaker that I had on hand mated well with them. Again, this is not a deal-breaker, just a reminder of how important it is to have speakers that are properly timbre-matched when shopping for a surround sound system.
Back to the film. Another thing that impressed me was the 900s’ natural way with dialogue. Ribbon tweeters, and most planar speakers, for that matter, are often cited as having a way with the human voice, something that proved true via the 900s. The dialogue track, regardless of what was unfolding around it, had a natural presence that was uncanny, allowing once-garbled lines to sound clearer.
I ended my evaluation of the 900s with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on Blu-ray (Paramount). I use this film a lot when demoing home theater speakers, so there isn’t much about it that I don’t know or haven’t heard. In other words it’s lost its magic, if you will. Well, I don’t want to sound clichéd (though we reviewers often are), but I ended up watching the entire film from start to finish because, from the opening scene, the 900s had me grinning from ear to ear. It’s been a long time since such an affordable speaker system has transported me in ways that the 900s did. With my 100-inch Dragonfly projection screen down and my Anthem LTX-500 D-ILA providing the visuals, the combination of audio and video proved to be a home theater home run. This led me to write a note in my journal: “Why spend more?” That really is the best way to sum up the 900s’ performance – why spend more? If you’re looking for a truly great home theater speaker or speaker system and plan on using it in conjunction with a subwoofer or two, then I do question the need for more, for the 900s are as at home in a small to medium-sized room as they are in a large one. Furthermore, they have the installation flexibility few monitor speakers can match and the ability to even be placed behind a perforated screen and/or fabric wall, thanks to their boundary compensation and screen EQ adjustments.
Honestly, if I were building a dedicated home theater space, I could think of few setups that would outperform three 900s across the front and a few 900 Series in-walls along the sides and rear, for they’re that good when it comes to home theater. When you take into consideration their asking price, the 900s become possibly unbeatable.
I’m going to nitpick a little for, at their price point, I find the 900s difficult to fault. I’m not a fan of the 900s’ binding posts; they work great when the speakers are placed on stands, but not so well when mounted to the wall and/or in a confined space. While the posts can accommodate all types of wire, they leave little choice when wall-mounting. I found bare wire to be the optimal choice for this. On stands, the posts are a bit more manageable, but I don’t see the 900s being stand-mounted all that often, but maybe I’m wrong.
I kind of wish the 900’s finish was a matte black, or even a textured black, for its satin finish is still prone to showcase fingerprints and dust. If you’re hiding your 900s behind a screen or in a cabinet, then this is less of an issue, but for those of you (like me) who are going to be using third-party stands, they can get dirty-looking very quickly. That said, I’m happy they’re not finished in Episode’s customary high-gloss black, for that would be a nightmare.
The 900’s grille is a bit bulky and does little to help dress up the speaker, though I could see a lot of users removing the grille altogether, for that role will be filled by your perforated screen.
Lastly, the 900s truly excel as home theater speakers, for they’re largely neutral and the ribbon tweeter serves all genres of film well. However, because of their even-keel temperament, I’m sure those craving a little romance, sparkle and/or “house sound” from the speakers are going to be left wanting a little more. I wasn’t, but I could see how those who are fans of other speakers could view the 900s as analytical when it comes to music.
Competition and Comparisons
There are a number of loudspeakers that are designed to be installed behind either a perforated projection screen or inside custom cabinetry, among them one of my personal favorites – Bowers & Wilkins’ CT 700 Series. The 900s are most like the $1,500 CT7.3, since both have dual woofers mated to a single tweeter. However, the CT Series uses a more traditional dome tweeter, as opposed to the 900’s ribbon tweeter. In this instance, I believe the 900’s ribbon tweeter to be superior to that of the CT’s, which is why I would label the 900 the better value and the better speaker, despite my affinity for the CT Series.
Other possible contenders include Klipsch’s KL-650-THX, which at $1,499 each is more than double the asking price of the 900. The Klipsch uses a horn-loaded tweeter, which helps its sensitivity rating but can sound outright shrill at higher volumes, something I didn’t encounter as much with the 900’s ribbon tweeter.
I would also consider Definitive Technology’s CS-8060HD or CS-8080HD center channel speaker, which is the update to their longstanding C/L/R/ 3000 loudspeaker as a contender for, like the 900, the 8060/8080s can also be used as left and right mains. They cost more than the 900s, but they also have built-in subwoofers. Obviously, the 8060/8080HDs need to be stand-mounted in order to get the most out of their included subs. This means that placing them out of sight behind a screen or fabric wall is most likely out of the question, so they’re not as versatile as the 900.
For more on these speakers and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review’s Bookshelf Speaker Page.
So, then, what’s the verdict with respect to the ES-HT900-LCR-6 from Episode? For starters, it may be among the few home theater speakers that is unabashedly proud to be a home theater speaker. In other words, the 900 doesn’t try to play a part it was never meant to play, which is that of jewelry or furniture. It is pure function and, as a result, it sounds utterly fantastic yet doesn’t cost a king’s ransom. At $799 each, the 900s are among the best affordable loudspeakers I’ve ever encountered and, when used as part of an entire 900 Series home theater, I can think of few complete systems, at or even above their asking price, that could beat them at being home theater speakers.
The 900’s ribbon tweeter is fantastic and on par with another ribbon tweeter, which belonged to my former home theater reference speaker, Meridian’s 300 Series in-walls. The Meridians retailed for over $3,000 apiece back when they were available, which speaks volumes not only to the 900s’ performance but also their value. The 900’s dual Kevlar woofers are also quite remarkable, in that they possess all the requisite speed and confidence necessary to mate seamlessly with the ribbon tweeter, yet are guilty of virtually none of the aural offenses that plague many budget monitors and bookshelf speakers. The entire combination found within the 900 makes for a presentation that favors neutrality, seemingly the goal of every audiophile and home theater enthusiast, though all too often, we fall in love with a speaker’s voice, which is why I’m sure many will accuse the 900 of being a bit analytical for an audiophile speaker.
Still, for my tastes and needs the 900s are among the best affordable home theater loudspeakers I’ve encountered in recent memory and ones that I’ll be using as a reference point for the foreseeable future. I strongly urge anyone in the market to seek out a local SnapAV dealer and give the 900s a listen. You won’t be disappointed.