While I have been a supporter of in-wall loudspeakers, my experience with in-ceiling loudspeakers was close to zero. I had heard a few in stores and in some high-end home automation systems around the country but never for an extended period of time. That's when I learned of Noble Fidelity. I had booked a Noble Fidelity review for fellow writer Jim Swantko, who received a home theater based around their L-82 in-wall loudspeaker. Jim was so pleased with the L-82's performance that he nominated them for Home Theater Review's coveted Best of Award in 2010, which they later won in the category of best in-wall loudspeaker. It was after the L-82 review that I got in contact with Noble Fidelity's Greg Ford and began discussing his in-ceiling loudspeakers, specifically the L-85 LCRS reviewed here. My biggest question, could the L-85 LCRS sound like in-walls or better yet floorstanding loudspeakers despite having to be mounted in a ceiling? Greg Ford refused to answer my question; instead he sent me seven L-85 LCRS loudspeakers so that I could judge for myself.
The L-85 LCRS is (according to Noble Fidelity) a high performance, single point, round in-ceiling loudspeaker. Retailing for $349.00 each the L-85 LCRS utilizes an eight-inch Kevlar woofer like Bowers & Wilkins with a single, one-inch soft dome tweeter resting dead center. The whole speaker, drivers and all, has a 15-degree offset or rake allowing the L-85 LCRS to direct its sound at the listener seated below. To further help with placement and/or to address boundary concerns the L-85 LCRS comes standard with midrange and high frequency acoustic compensation switches, which allow you to better "dial in" their sound to better suit your room and tastes. The L-85 LCRS is as well suited to serving as the main channels (L/C/R) in a home theater setup as it is rear channels in a non in-ceiling or in-wall theater, but more on that later.
The L-85 LCRS measure nearly 13 inches in diameter and five and three quarter inches deep but require only an 11 and a half-inch diameter cutout for mounting. The L-85 LCRS weighs a little over six pounds and is finished in a matte white, which you can paint to match your décor. The L-85 LCRS has a reported frequency response of 38Hz to 21kHz with a sensitivity of 91dB into a stable eight-Ohm load making it ideal for today's modern receivers or mid-fi separates. The L-85 LCRS is not an enclosed design meaning it has no back box shrouding its internal electronics and wiring from debris such as insulation or dust that might be found in your ceiling. Instead the L-85 LCRS comes with what Noble Fidelity calls a "Top Hat" or a thin piece of nylon that covers the speaker's 'guts' so to speak, keeping them free of unwanted particles or environmental hazards.
Speaking of the environment, Noble Fidelity is a charter member of the IPRO Manufacturers Group and the first manufacturer to be RoHS compliant recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council. I like the extra effort to be a little more green especially when installing something into my walls.
The L-85 LCRSs arrived individually packaged one to a box. The entire presentation, from the box itself to the experience of unpacking each L-85 LCRS, was decidedly Apple-esqe, so those of you who have recently purchased an iPhone or iPad know exactly what I'm on about. At one point I had to pull up Noble Fidelity's website to double check the L-85 LCRS's price for I've unboxed speakers and electronics costing four times as much packed with less pride and attention to detail.
Now, I should point out that Noble Fidelity's speakers are sold through select dealers nationwide so chances are you won't have to undergo any of the steps I'm about to describe. However if you don't have a Noble Fidelity dealer in your area you might want to take notes. Also, for those of you who opt to go it alone or DIY style please know that you're not going to be installing your speakers blind; Noble Fidelity will send you a drawing of your room and where your speakers should be mounted free of charge so as to ensure maximum performance and customer satisfaction. Noble Fidelity already had both my living room and master bedroom dimensions so when the seven L-85 LCRS speakers arrived they were accompanied by two very precise schematics detailing exactly where each speaker should be installed.
For the purposes of this review I installed two L-85 LCRSs in my reference home theater to act as rear channels to my Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers. I installed the remaining five L-85 LCRSs in my master bedroom creating a full surround sound system that I augmented with a single, GoldenEar ForceField 4 Subwoofer.
I started by measuring the center point of each of the L-85 LCRS's positions on my ceiling, which were previously determined by Noble Fidelity. Once I had the center point(s) marked I used the L-85 LCRS's included circle tool. Once I had all of the mounting holes drawn I used a very small drill bit and a stud finder to check for studs one last time and since both Noble Fidelity and I planned ahead none were present. From there I used a simple drywall saw to cut out along my pencil lines until I had five large holes in my ceiling.
With the holes cut I ran my speaker wire next, which I picked up from my local Best Buy - just be sure it's in-wall rated before you go buttoning things up. With the speaker wire in place and dangling about a foot below each hole I began the process of installing the L-85 LCRSs. I should stress that while I did the entire installation myself I don't recommend it, especially when it comes to installing the speakers in the ceiling, for an extra set of hands would've saved me and my shoulders a lot of grief. It's not that the process of installing the L-85 LCRSs is difficult; it's just hard when you need to use one hand to hold the speaker in place while the other tightens the dog-ear mounts by hand via a simple screwdriver. You can use a powered screwdriver but exercise extreme caution so not to strip the screws or over-tighten them because you can quickly crack drywall that way or worse, make it so the speaker's dog-ear brackets snap, thus failing to hold the speaker in place.
With all five speakers aimed, installed and secured I attached the L-85 LCRSs' white metal grills and began to clean up. Per Noble Fidelity's instructions all five L-85 LCRS speakers were to be pointed straight back at my rear wall, including the rears. I connected the L-85 LCRSs to my Onkyo receiver and ran through its auto setup, which included Audyssey's EQ program, before letting the whole system play for several days before sitting down for a listen. The rest of the components in my bedroom system are as follows: Apple TV, Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray player, Dish Network HD DVR, Vizio LCD HDTV with cabling by Transparent and racks and mounts from Omni Mount.
Not wanting to waste any time I began my evaluation of the L-85 LCRS with some two-channel music courtesy of The Matrix soundtrack (Maverick) and Rammstein's "Du Hast." Right off the bat the L-85 LCRS proved to be explosive, possessing lightening fast reflexes that made for a dynamic performance that came from nowhere and shook me off guard. Now, the GoldenEar ForceField 4 subwoofer did aide the L-85 LCRS's performance in this and other regards, but nevertheless, the L-85 LCRS's attack was visceral. At high volumes the L-85 LCRS's soft dome tweeter retained its composure, failing to compress or shout the way other budget dome tweeters can and often do. The L-85 LCRS's midrange was precise, articulate and a touch forward and just ever so slightly on the lean side (which may have been more the fault of the Audyssey program) that gave the music a more energetic vibe. Despite its slightly forward nature, the L-85 LCRS's overall sound was a lot closer to that of a large open baffle or, dare I say, panel speaker than a traditional cone and dome design; no boxy resonances, bloat or romanticism here.