In-ceiling speakers have traditionally come in one of two types. The first is the generic contractor bulk-pack kind, with price and profit margin for the installer as the primary considerations. The other category mostly includes those that come from mainstream speaker manufacturers with full lines of traditional in-room (i.e., shelf and floor-standing) speakers. Unfortunately, a lot of these in-ceiling speakers were developed because one manufacturer realized that other manufacturers were selling in-ceiling speakers and the aforementioned manufacturer didn't want to lose potential sales to its competitors. Neither type of speaker was created with the quality of sound as the principal driving factor. That's not to say that none of these companies care about how their speakers sound, and I don't mean to imply that all of them sound bad. It's simply that in-ceiling speakers - architectural speakers in general, really - aren't what inspire those full-line companies.
Noble Fidelity's $899/pair L-85 mk II in-wall/-ceiling speakers have a much different pedigree than most other such speakers. That's because, in addition to making a variety of architectural in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, Noble Fidelity makes ... well, that's all Noble Fidelity makes. Rather than merely being another line item on a multi-year business plan, architectural speakers are Noble Fidelity's business plan. So, as you might expect, the company's approach to making speakers that require you (or someone you trust with a drywall knife) to cut holes in your wall is a little more attuned (yeah, pun intended) to the special nature of the custom-install world than less-specialized companies often are.
Another aspect that makes Noble Fidelity unique among speaker manufacturers is the company's dedication to being ecologically responsible. As far back as late 2006, Noble Fidelity became the first architectural speaker manufacturer in North America to be 100 percent EU RoHS-compliant. The RoHS Directive places maximum allowable levels of certain hazardous substances, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, polybrominated biphenyl, and polybrominated diphenyl ether (the last two are flame-retardants used in plastic), contained in products. This kind of "green" manufacturing from Noble Fidelity should make you feel better in two ways. First, it's nice to know your purchase isn't contributing to the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. Second, the cancers and other debilitating illnesses that will be prevented by limiting such toxic substances could be your own.
The L-85 mk II is the updated/upgraded successor to Noble Fidelity's original L-85 in-ceiling speaker and, as befits an architectural speaker company, the majority of the improvements are architectural in nature. For example, Noble Fidelity considered the original L-85 to be strictly an in-ceiling speaker. The L-85 mk II, on the other hand, ships with both round and square grilles, so it'll aesthetically look good mounted in the ceiling or in a wall. The only issue with in-wall mounting the L-85 mk II as either a main or surround speaker is enclosure volume. The L-85 mk IIs are designed for infinite baffle loading, and Noble Fidelity says they need at least 0.75 cubic feet of enclosure volume or the bass performance will begin to suffer.
The new L-85 mk II now uses a "frameless, zero bezel" grille design. Unlike the prior version, there is no frame or bezel around the grille that holds it in place. Instead, the L-85 mk II's micro-perf, magnetic, stainless steel grille is held in place by 24 beveled neodymium magnets spaced around the edge of the speaker face. Noble Fidelity isn't the only company employing magnetic, frameless grilles with its architectural speakers, but it is unusual in that the company includes both round and square-shaped frameless grilles in the box. The corners of the "square" grilles, by the way, are nicely rounded. As a result, I think they're actually more attractive than the round grilles, but that's just a personal preference. Since the grilles are magnetic, you can change them out whenever it suits your fancy (only use the round grilles on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; square grilles on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; and one of each shape on Sundays ...). Noble Fidelity also enhanced the mounting system to include square-seating Dog Ears that are capable of clamping down to 0.3125 inches, which the company says provides for a "stronger, more positive and unifying mount to substrate mounting surface/material."
Some of Noble Fidelity's unique design aspects in the L-85 have carried over into the L-85 mk II. The new version retains the Tetoron one-inch, soft-dome tweeter and eight-inch mid/woofer made from native yellow, square-woven DuPont Kevlar fiber. (I assume that means it's bulletproof, but I decided it was best not to test my theory.) The L-85 mk II's pivoting, "lens-free" tweeter is pole-mounted, which is not surprising considering Noble Fidelity's categorical abhorrence and almost uncontrollable disdain for the common alternative designs. According to Noble Fidelity, pole-mounting is much superior to mounting the tweeter on a "bridge" spanning from side to side across the front of the midbass driver, because the footprint of the tweeter/mount in front of the midbass driver is much smaller with the pole-mounted configuration. The smaller footprint minimizes diffraction and early reflections that can destroy detail and imaging.
Noble Fidelity also has no love for what it calls "the crutch of an acoustic lens." Acoustic lenses are variously-shaped discs placed in front of tweeters to redirect sound output to compensate for poor off-axis performance in what Noble Fidelity refers to as "low-cost tweeters." Instead, Noble Fidelity says it uses higher-quality tweeters with better dispersion characteristics that don't require modifications such as lenses.
An additional benefit of pole-mounting the tweeter is that Noble Fidelity can use a "far forward" midbass driver mounting design, which results in a midbass driver that is not set as far back from the face of the speaker as are the woofers in a lot of other in-ceiling speakers. Sonically, it results in less coloration in the mid- and low-frequency output. Physically, the "far forward" woofer mounting, combined with the frameless grille design, produces a speaker assembly that's quite compact (9.81 inches in diameter, with a depth of 3.94 inches).
While it's obvious that the folks at Noble Fidelity have spent some time thinking about what it takes to make a high-performance in-ceiling speaker, their attention to the installation-related details is truly impressive. The template that Noble Fidelity includes with the L-85 mk II speakers starts out as a cardboard circle that's the exact size of the speaker's frameless grille and is meant to be used as a visual aid when deciding where to place the speakers. Once you've selected the final install location, you detach the perforated template for the cutout hole from the larger template, or you can use the handy loudspeaker mounting-hole compass that Noble Fidelity includes with the speakers.
Another thing that comes with the L-85 mk II speakers is a pair of nylon insulation-isolating "Top Hats." When collapsed and folded, the Top Hats are about one-fifth their fully opened diameter and are designed to "pop up" in much the same way pop-up-style car windshield sunshades do. Unlike a sunshade, though, the Top Hats pop up into a large nylon dome, which shield and isolate the back side of the L-85 mk II from insulation material, dirt, insects, and whatever other disgusting things you might have crawling around in your ceiling or attic. The Top Hat concept is extremely clever because, when collapsed, it easily fits through the cutout hole for the L-85 mk II. Once in the ceiling, the Top Hat can be carefully expanded to form a pliable dome-like shield over the opening, which not only protects the speaker once it's installed, but also protects the installer from much of the dust and insulation that would normally drop down when installing the speaker. Noble Fidelity says that the Top Hats are acoustically "absent," as they do not restrict cone excursion.
Although installing in-walls is never fun, I will say that, when all was said and done, the L-85 mk II speakers were about the least not-fun in-ceiling speakers I've worked with, and I really appreciated the Top Hats holding back most of the carcinogen-laced insulation in my ceiling instead of having it end up in my lungs.
Each speaker includes three-position (+, 0, -) acoustic compensation switches for both midrange and high-frequency adjustments. The ability to make small changes to the acoustic output of an in-ceiling speaker is an excellent feature, since rafters, HVAC vents, ceiling fans, lights, and other things in the ceiling often necessitate mounting speakers in less-than-ideal locations. After installing the L-85 mk IIs in the ceiling in my theater room and experimenting for a while, I decided to use the "minus" setting for the midrange and leave the high-frequency switch in the middle position. Since Noble Fidelity only sent a pair of the L-85 mk IIs, I set my Sony STR-DA5800ES AVR to two-channel stereo mode (with no sub) and let loose with some music.
Read about the performance of the L-85 mkII on Page 2.
The sound quality of the Noble Fidelity L-85 mk IIs is simply marvelous - and exceptional, too, for open-back, infinite-baffle in-ceiling speakers. For starters, they're not afraid to fill a room with sound. "Go to Hell" from Black Wind Howlin' by Samantha Fish, for instance, is a hard-pounding George Thorogood-style rock/blues track, which the L-85s handled without any sense of strain or being overtaxed - even at volumes loud enough to be too loud for my 12-foot by 24-foot theater room. Sure, if you're thinking about using the L-85 mk IIs as the primary speakers in a theater room, you'll need to add a subwoofer, but that goes without saying.
While the production quality of Black Wind Howlin' is a tad one-dimensional, the same certainly can't be said of Yo Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble's A Playlist Without Borders release. At the beginning of "Atashgah, for cello, violin, viola, double bass & percussion," the L-85 mk IIs were extremely good at recreating the dynamics of plucked violin strings. The tweeters' dispersion characteristics had excellent imaging and very little fall-off, regardless of my listening position in the room. I think the moment when I was most impressed with the L-85 mk IIs was somewhere around 1:40 in "Atashgah." After being lulled by the smooth subtleties of the violin strings, the percussion and larger stringed instruments kicked in - and the L-85 mk IIs suddenly erupted with fullness and depth that were unexpectedly awesome. There was also a nice sense of width and spaciousness that came through on Speilgusher's slightly ethereal "The Threshold of Transgression" (from the group's very eclectic self-titled release).
It's always interesting to return to a piece of music that's an old favorite but has been bumped out of the normal rotation of standard demo music by newer material. That was the case with Steely Dan's "Cousin Dupree" from the Two Against Nature DVD-Audio disc, and holy Kevlar! The speakers' ability to fluidly reproduce the track's laidback nature, combined with elegant detailing and precise placement of instruments (especially the cymbals to the far right), made the Noble Fidelity LS-85 mkIIs absolutely shine.
At some level, all speakers are able to fill a room with sound. Fewer are able to disappear and let the music take over. The LS-85 mk II is one of the rarer breeds of speakers that's able to fill a room with emotion. The fact that the LS-85 mk IIs are in-ceiling speakers makes them part of an extremely exclusive club of architectural speakers that simply don't have to apologize for being mounted in a ceiling (or wall). I don't even need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of custom-installed speakers that can match the Noble Fidelity LS-85 mk II's musicality.
Since Noble Fidelity claims the L-85 mk IIs are in-wall as well as in-ceiling speakers, I mounted them in the wall in the front of my listening room and gave them a go with much the same musical selections. It's difficult to make any exact comparisons due to the completely different room placements, but I found the L-85 mk IIs to perform equally as well vertically as they did horizontally, with one exception: the depth and imaging were much better with the speakers in the wall versus the ceiling.
There's not much to be said as far as downsides go. As I just mentioned, the L-85 mk IIs won't have the same three-dimensionality of the soundstage when installed in the ceiling. When mounted in the wall, the square grilles of the L-85 mk IIs may take a while to get used to - but only because they're not the more traditional rectangular shape.
Comparison and Competition
There aren't that many other eight-inch round in-ceiling speakers to consider in the Noble Fidelity L-85 mk II's price range. Once you get to $900 or $1,000 for the pair, in-ceiling speakers tend to be square or rectangular dedicated in-ceiling models with closed backs. Both the Bowers & Wilkins CCM382 and the Episode ES-700T-IC-8 are $800 per pair and share a two-way design similar to that of the L-85 mk II, although both include bridge-mounted tweeters and narrow-bezel grilles. KEF's Ci200QR speakers are $699 per pair and incorporate KEF's well-known Uni-Q driver array. Finally, there are GoldenEar Technology's Invisa HTR 7000 in-ceiling LCR speakers that include High Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeters with woofers mounted at an angle to face forward into the listening area. While they succeed in bringing the image farther down from the ceiling, they're a larger speaker overall and will set you back $999 for a pair. For more information on in-ceiling loudspeakers, please check out Home Theater Review's in-wall and on-wall speaker page.
I was thoroughly impressed with the Noble Fidelity L-85 mk II in-ceiling speakers. They're dynamic, have excellent bass response for an in-ceiling model, and possess a very smooth mid- and high-end. Overall, they're a splendid set of speakers to hear. For serious music listening, I always recommend using in-room speakers, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have the space in their rooms for a set of speakers. In those cases - whether they're mounted in the ceiling or in the wall - the Noble Fidelity L-85 mk IIs offer a spectacular alternative that will leave you savoring the fidelity of the sound rather than simmering over what's missing.