If you haven't followed the European compact home theater speaker system market closely for the past decade-and-a-half or so, the words "Sib" and "Cub" likely sound like a Kazuo Koike manga sequel of some sort. But there are some of you, I know, who see those words and instantly think of high style, great performance, and an incredible value proposition from a speaker brand not normally associated with affordability. For quite some time now, Focal's compact Sib speakers have been a popular option for those with smaller listening rooms; and, with object-based surround sound becoming more of a thing in home cinema applications of all shapes and sizes, it's no great surprise to see the line reborn with Atmos and DTS:X compatibility built in.
The new line consists of three products: the Sib Evo satellite, a compact little two-way bass reflex speaker with a five-inch woofer and 0.75-inch soft dome tweeter; the Sib Evo Dolby Atmos, which adds a four-inch up-firing driver with a rated frequency response from 90 Hz to 20 kHz; and the Cub Evo, a compact front-ported sub with a down-firing eight-inch driver and 200 watts of Class D amplification. Packages include a simple 5.1 system (five Sib Evos and a Cub Evo), a 5.1.2 system (three Sib Evos, two Sib Evo Atmos speakers, and the Cub Evo), or systems that include simply a pair of the Sib Evo or Sib Evo Dolby Atmos. The latter is particular is handy if you want to create a 7.1.4 system. Or you could buy the 5.1 system and add a pair of the Atmos speakers for 7.1.2. Any way you choose to configure them, the packages sell for $1,299 for the 5.1.2 system (reviewed here), $999 if 5.1 is more your thing, $599 for a pair of the Sib Evo Dolby Atmos speakers, and $299 for two of the Sib Evos alone. An extra Cub Evo sub will run you $379.
Am I saying it's the outright cheapest way to get into object-based audio? No. But I can't think of another speaker system this compact and this attractive that gets you into Dolby Atmos without cutting holes in your ceiling for anywhere near the price. Which would make it an attractive offering even if it didn't carry the reputation that the Focal brand brings with it.
A few things are immediately clear upon pulling the new Sib Evo and Sib Evo Dolby Atmos satellites out of the box. First, Focal didn't merely slap an Atmos module atop its popular speakers and call it a day. In both its incarnations, the Evo is a softer, more rounded design, with a simplified base that consists of a rubber stand, held in place by a locking mechanism that can be loosened to aim the speaker upward and downward to a degree, depending on the height at which they're installed or mounted. The tweeter has also been repositioned above the woofer; and, although the front grille still sports a bit of a concave curve, it's less noticeable in this new design.
The speaker cable connections have also been changed. In lieu of binding posts, the Sib Evo and Evo Dolby Atmos feature hidden recesses around back into which bare wire is inserted (no support for banana plugs, in case it wasn't obvious). The Sib Evo has a single push button beneath the pair of receptacles, which is depressed to accept the speaker wire. When released, it locks the wires in place. The Evo Dolby Atmos features two stacked buttons: one for the ear-level speaker cables and another for the connections to the upward-firing module. It's an elegant and attractive solution, to be sure, but I do have my concerns, which I'll touch on in The Downside section below.
In the 5.1.2 package, you get three of the strictly forward-firing satellites for the center and surrounds. The rubber base I mentioned before can be removed and used as a horizontal base should you choose to position the center speaker on its side, but I highly recommend that you don't do so, if you have room to leave it standing up. At a mere 9.75 inches tall, it doesn't take up that much space, and there are significant sonic benefits to leaving it in its vertical orientation. If you absolutely must place it horizontally, though, doing so takes the height down to around seven inches.
In addition to the obvious difference between the Sib Evo and Sib Evo Dolby Atmos (namely, the upward-firing driver on the latter), there are a few other noteworthy distinctions. The Sib Evo Dolby Atmos (shown right) is about 1.5 inches taller and one inch wider, and it features dual front-firing bass reflex ports down low, as opposed to the larger rear-firing port coming out near the top of the Sib Evo. That may be an important consideration if you plan on installing the speakers close to or even on a wall (using the two included mounting brackets), as the Sib Evo interacts with (and receives bass emphasis from) surfaces behind it a little differently than the Sib Evo Dolby Atmos does.
In my setup, though, that wasn't such a significant consideration. With the front three speakers placed about 18 inches from the front wall, I found a 110-Hz crossover with the sub to be pretty much ideal. I positioned the rears about 10 inches from the sidewalls, and they were much more comfortable being crossed over at 80 Hz.
The speakers were powered by my Anthem MRX 1120 AV receiver, with EQ applied by Anthem Room Correction. Given that reflected height channels were part of the equation, I did not set a Max EQ frequency for this setup, but I was surprised by how little ARC had to do with the ear-level speakers. A few expected wiggles to deal with below 600 Hz, but that's pretty much it. The reflected height speakers needed a little taming just above 1 kHz (roughly 3 dB or so) and a bit of a boost between 1.5 kHz and 5 kHz; otherwise, they conformed reasonably well to Anthem's target curve for Atmos effects speakers.
The Cub subwoofer also behaved remarkably well in the room, needing only a bit of taming around 48 Hz and the smoothing of some minor wiggles in response from 60 Hz on up.
As is usually the case, I went through a couple of different setups with the Sib Evo 5.1.2 system, configuring it first in a simple 5.1-channel configuration to evaluate performance without the extra distraction of overhead effects. That didn't last long, though. I quickly discovered that, with pretty much any source material, this little system absolutely sang with its up-firing effects channels engaged.
There's one thing that the ARC measurements didn't tell me, although perhaps if I had paid closer attention to the individual measurements of each of the height channels, I may have caught. With a 5.1.2 system like this, there's a pretty narrow seating window if you want to get the full effect of the reflected height channels. This became immediately clear when I threw the Atmos mix for Wonder Woman at the system. In my room, I needed to sit anywhere between six and 6.5 feet from the front speakers, and no more than two feet or so off-axis of the center speaker. Luckily, given that my "seat" in this room is a king-sized Tempurpedic bed, my normal viewing/listening position was close enough to this window that I merely had to stuff a couple of extra pillows behind my back to get right into the sweet spot. There, the overhead effect was pretty much perfect--engaging and effective without being overwhelming or distracting. It seamlessly blended with the ear-level channels while still sounding distinct enough to pull the surround field convincingly upward in the z-axis and put overhead effects just in front of me.
For those of you who want to work out the geometry, I got this effect with eight-foot ceilings, with the speakers on a 38-inch-tall credenza. That resulted in the top of the speakers being pretty much exactly 48 inches from the ceiling. Factor in different ceiling heights, different surface heights, and different speaker positioning, and your sweet spot might be slightly different, but that gives you the general ballpark.
The new Wonder Woman film gave the Sib Evo Atmos 5.1.2 system numerous opportunities to shine, with one of my favorites being the early scene in which Diana stumbles upon Steve Trevor bathing in a cave. Get in the sweet spot, or close enough to it, and the Atmos effects channels do a wonderful job of painting the environment out of thin air, in three genuine dimensions.
No sequence in the film does a better job of revealing all of the system's strengths than chapter nine. The chapter starts in the film's famous gala scene (the much-discussed entrance of Diana strolling in with her sword stashed down the back of her dress), which involves quite a bit of chatting between Steve Trevor and Dr. Poison. There's so much to unpack here, despite the subtlety of the mix (at least early on). So many little details that might go unnoticed if not for the fact that the Focal system delivers it all so beautifully. The crackling fire, for instance, which permeates the scene with its tiny little pops and whizzes. It's so quiet in the mix that you might otherwise miss it, but the Sib Evos simply don't allow even the smallest sonic detail to get swallowed.
Then there's the dialogue. A bit hushed. A little muted. Delivered mostly in forced whispers and surrounded by the background chatter of hundreds of other voices, not to mention atmospheric music. Frankly, the dialogue has every right to be a little indiscernible here, but the little Sib Evo delivers it with the utmost clarity--at virtually any volume between drop-of-a-pin and drop-of-a-bomb.
You can chalk that up to the smooth frequency response of the Evo Sib, as well as the vertical orientation of the center speaker in my installation. Moving my head back and forth from side to side, I heard none of the combing artifacts (the dreaded picket fence effect) that I often hear with smaller, horizontally configured center speakers. Off-axis response was smooth and even. Pretty much no matter where I positioned my head (even outside of the Atmos sweet spot), dialogue clarity was downright unimpeachable.
Scan forward in chapter nine a bit, and we come to the brawl between Wonder Woman and General Ludendorff, which gives the Sib Evo Atmos 5.1.2 system a chance to flex its muscles in other ways. Quite frankly, I went into this review thinking the speakers would be a perfect match for my room in terms of output. Truth be told, the system proved itself capable of playing way too loudly in my 13- by 15-foot space. Dangerously loudly. I say "dangerously" because I picked up on practically none of the cues that would normally let me know it's time to turn the volume down a little. None of the edginess. None of the compression or other distortion. If anything, I heard just the tiniest amount of resonance from the center channel that my wife claims is entirely my imagination--since she couldn't hear it. (It wasn't. It's there. But it's that minor even at ear-bleeding listening levels.)
If not for the limitations on seating locations imposed by the angle of the upward-firing Atmos drivers, this little system could easily rock out in a much larger room. In this room, though, the speakers cranked out 107-dB dynamic peaks without even trying.
Granted, native Atmos or DTS:X discs represent the tiniest fraction of my movie collection, so I quickly turned my attention to standard 5.1 and 7.1 mixes. I know, evaluating their performance with the Sib Evo 5.1.2 system is as much an evaluation of Dolby and DTS's upmixing capabilities, but so be it. After wallowing in the object-based surround sound glory of Wonder Woman for a few hours, I popped in an old favorite: the Bootleg Cut of Almost Famous on Blu-ray. Unsurprisingly, the Stillwater concert scenes gave the speakers their most vigorous workout. The screams and cheers and pulsating drumbeat at the beginning of chapter seven, for example, seemed to lift my ceiling by hundreds of feet, transforming my relatively small listening space into a full-blown stadium. The echoes and reverberations all combined in three-dimensional space to create a height-enhanced surround experience. The experience was perhaps not as forceful and direct as Atmos systems I've set up with speakers actually mounted to the ceiling, but it was better integrated and more holistic, with smoother transitions between ear-level audio and overhead effects.
My favorite scene in the film is in chapter 17. You know the one--the "Tiny Dancer" scene. There isn't much in the way of overhead ambiance to show off here, but what the scene does well is demonstrate just how musical this little speaker system is, thanks not only to its smooth frequency response but also its good dispersion and exceptional capacity for dynamic punch. Any fears that the smaller Sib Evo might be outmatched by its larger Atmos-enabled sibling--in terms of timbre or sheer output--are positively laid to rest here. The front soundstage was virtually seamless in every respect of the word.
That tempted me to load up some two-channel music via CD, process it via Dolby Surround, and see how the system held up ... It held up well. It held up very well.
"Keep Yourself Alive" from Queen's eponymous first album (Elektra) proved to be one of my favorites in the bunch. The way the front speakers delivered hard-left-panned guitar to full-blown wall-to-wall fury in the opening riffs spoke again to the seamlessness of the front soundstage. Here, too, the overhead channels had a chance to shine, making Brian May's guitar stack seem eight miles high without futzing with the rock-solid and centered focus of the vocals. "Subtle" isn't a word I would apply to the effects here, but perhaps tasteful is closer to the mark. Despite the sounds coming undeniably from overhead, I never really felt them to be a separate thing from the ear-level channels, which hasn't always been my experience with object-based surround in this room. Simply put, listening to the first Queen album in Atmos via the Sib Evo system is just a hell of a lot of fun. True to Mike Stone's original mix of the track? Heck no. But if being wrong sounds this good, I don't want to be right.
Pretty much any and all concerns I have with the system's performance begin and end with the Cub Evo subwoofer: it does an amazing job of integrating with the speakers and performs well across its entire output range, but quite frankly it drops off a cliff past the 35-Hz point. It's hard to complain, given the price of the system (and the subwoofer by itself), but I did find myself missing some of the ultra-low-frequency rumble in movies like The Incredible Hulk.
My only other beef with the Sib Evo Atmos 5.1.2 system is its speaker wire connections. I spoke quite extensively about how lovely and elegant these connections are in the Hookup section, so be sure to read that if you skipped ahead a bit. The problem, though, is that the receptacles into which you push the speaker cable could stand to be a bit bigger. Don't even entertain the notion of using anything other than freshly stripped cables here. Even in doing so, though, I found that getting 12-gauge wire into the connections was a bit like trying to get a Chow Chow into a bathtub. Even the bit of 14-gauge wire I had lying around for purposes unknown proved to be a tight fit. Had I to do it over again, I would probably just go ahead and terminate my speaker wires with pin plugs, but doing so would disrupt the delightful aesthetic effect of having the cables disappear into the cabinets.
Comparison and Competition
The Atmos element of this system makes comparisons between other systems a little more difficult. Simply put, the Sib Evo Atmos 5.1.2's direct competition is pretty much slim to none.
There are similar ways to achieve the same effect for about the same amount of money, though. ELAC's Debut Series speakers come immediately to mind. You could easily build a system around four Debut B5 bookshelves, the C5 center, and A4 Atmos add-on modules. You wouldn't achieve the same clean look, and by the time you factored in the sub you'd be spending a few hundred more bucks; however, the satellites do play a bit deeper, allowing for a lower crossover point, which might be a consideration if you don't have much flexibility in terms of subwoofer placement.
If you're even more concerned about aesthetics and less averse to cutting holes in your ceiling, Focal also offers the much more compact Dôme Flax 5.1.2 system that we previously reviewed, which comes with a slim sub and two in-ceiling speakers. At $2,499, though, it certainly doesn't represent the same value, and I honestly think the Sib Evo system sounds better--more neutral and dynamic, at the very least.
If you're going to go the in-ceiling route anyway, you have far more options for your 5.1 system, of course. Paradigm's Cinema 100 CT ($999) is one such system that deserves serious consideration. If we open ourselves up to compact 5.1 speaker systems, though, this list could go on forever.
When you get right down to it, Focal is offering something truly unique here--at least for the time being. I'm sure we'll see other speaker companies start to offer satellite speaker systems with built-in up-firing drivers in greater frequency in the reasonably near future. But even in a crowded field of lookalikes (should such a market arise), I have a feeling that the Sib Evo Atmos 5.1.2 system will still stand out. For its size, the system is remarkably dynamic, powerful, neutral, and detailed. Substitute "price" for "size" in the previous sentence, and it's doubly true.
At this point, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around how many shoppers are really interested in Atmos and DTS:X. Is it 10 percent? More? Less? I honestly have no idea. But I do know this: I have all the means I need to convert my secondary home theater system into an object-based surround system permanently, and I've yet to do so. Every time I get a new x.x.whatever receiver in for review, I hang speakers from the ceiling and string wires to them temporarily. The Sib Evo Atmos 5.1.2 system is the first time I've really stepped back and said to myself, "Self, I'd be more than happy to live with this on a permanent basis." And it's not just that the system is less obtrusive and requires less sawing of drywall. It's simply that I actually kinda find myself preferring this approach--the upward-firing speaker modules--over a dedicated in-ceiling Atmos/DTS:X setup. Or, to be more precise, I prefer Focal's implementation of this approach more than any dedicated in- or on-ceiling setup I've attempted on my own to date.