With over 120,000 units sold, it’s a wonder Ohm Acoustics is not more of a household name. Founded in 1972 and based in Brooklyn, New York (where the speakers are manufactured), Ohm Acoustics designs and manufactures speakers utilizing the technology of Lincoln Walsh’s Coherent Line Source (CLS) driver, which was patented in 1969. Since Ohm’s inception, it has endured the cycles of our economy by evolving from its roots--distributing product to many typical and a few not-so-typical retailers--to its current online, consumer-direct business model, offering a long 120-day trial period.
According to the company, CLS technology covers the extensive frequency range of a full-range speaker with one single source driver and no crossovers, while emanating sound in 360 degrees. The design has been improved over time, and the company has now added a traditional tweeter to support frequencies both within and over the range of the Walsh driver.
I was fortunate to obtain the flagship production model, the Walsh Tall 5000 ($3,300 each), which will be the main focus of this review, along with a Walsh 5000 Center Channel Speaker ($3,300) and four Walsh 1000 Sat Omni speakers ($850 each) for the surround role, to make an entire CLS seven-channel surround sound system.
The entire driver design--the CLS driver and the super tweeter, as Ohm calls it--is encapsulated in a cylindrical black, metal mesh case, which impairs any visual inspection. However, on Ohm’s website, you can see a cut-away representation of the design. As you will notice, it appears to be a traditional cone driver, mounted vertically and inverted.
The technology translates an electrical waveform into vibrations down the surface of the cone, bending and oscillating the cone, causing sound to emanate off the sides of the driver. Due to the convex shape of the CLS design and the fact that the waveform can travel faster along the cone’s surface than through the air, all sound is in alignment at the rim of the driver. As a result, a single Walsh driver can play a broad frequency range without requiring the crossovers that can plague conventional speakers, with all sound being in perfect phase alignment.
The entire CLS driver design is mounted on the Walsh Tall 5000’s ported, 13.25-inch square enclosure that stands 43 inches tall. This enclosure sits on four two-inch supports connected to a plinth, creating an air gap between the main enclosure and plinth that allows the port at the bottom to breath. A high-pass filter protects the tweeter, while the Walsh driver itself is allowed to play the full range. Given the speaker’s sensitivity of 87 dB, it is not surprising that the manufacturer requires 100 to 300 watts per channel--with special notation that there is a greater chance of damaging the speaker with less power as opposed to more.
Ohm also claims that the speaker line has the ability to create a stereo image from various locations within the room by implementing a technique called Controlled Directivity. The level of sound is decreased in the back and around the sides in various levels so that, when listening off-axis, you are hearing a lower volume of sound from the speaker closest to you and a higher volume from the speaker that’s farthest. This requires the speaker to be a matched right and left pair.
A variety of real-wood veneers (11 to be exact) are available for the speaker enclosure, and they come in a matte low-luster finish, which I prefer over common high-gloss finishes. My review samples all had the rosewood veneer option.
Worth pointing out is that the entire Ohm speaker line consists of models that are designed to deliver the same performance, with the only difference being optimization for room size. There’s no good, better, and best product choices. However, the Walsh Tall 5000 benefits from four control switches located on the rear of the CLS driver that act as a four-band equalizer. Each control switch has three settings: the middle setting is neutral, and moving the switch up or down increases/decreases amplitude accordingly. To make it simple for us consumers, Ohm has labeled the four areas of control: Room Size (80 Hz and below), Location (60 to 150 Hz), Perspective (130 to 3,000 Hz), and Treble (above 3000 Hz). This creates an assortment of combinations to accommodate not only different room sizes but also different levels of depth and detail of the higher frequencies. This could be a truly important feature, as it would allow your speaker to be used in different rooms or different homes, as your needs change.
I had a conversation with John Strohbeen, President of Ohm Acoustics, in which he emphasized room acoustics as the single most important factor in sound quality in any room, for any speaker: It all boils down to acoustics; so, if your room isn’t right, the sound won’t be either. According to Ohm, the four-band equalization control helps with this issue. The speakers come with useful instructions, with an explanation of how the controls can be used; however, while discussing the issue with John Strohbeen, he clearly directed me to experiment, since each room is so different and tastes will vary.
As I unpacked the speakers, I was surprised by the box-within-a-box method for keeping the speakers safe--seven times over, if I counted correctly. I started with a huge box and ended up with a much smaller box by the time I reached the speaker. Within the boxes, the speaker was inside a plastic bag with a drawstring. Visually, it’s not the most elegant style of protection, but it appears to be effective.
I set up shop in my living room with the 5000s as the right and left channels, along with the Ohm center/surrounds and a MartinLogan BalanceForce 210 subwoofer. I connected all speakers to an NAD M27 seven-channel amplifier, and I used the NAD M17 AV pre/pro for control. Sources included an Oppo BDP-105D Blu-ray player and a MacBook Pro for streaming audio from TIDAL.
For my first go-round, I focused on two-channel music performance to see how the speakers performed without equalization. From my main listening position, which is not a perfect dead-center location but close to it, I started with the song “Lost Stars” by Maroon 5 (V, Interscope). Imaging was good, having both width and depth, along with an exceptional smoothness from top to bottom. Usually when listening to a speaker, I can identify something that stands out, be it bad or good--but that wasn’t the case with the Ohm speakers.
Given the exceptional balance, I felt that the projected image could be even better. I decided to tweak the speakers’ locations by moving them both out from the wall little more (four inches) and moving them both in just a bit more to the center. I noticed an improvement, so I continued this trial-and-error tweaking--not only with speaker position and location, but also by taking advantage of the frequency controls I mentioned earlier. I did this over several weeks, taking my time, as I could tell I was making progress. I ended up with the Perspective and Treble controls bumped up, while Room Size and Location remained neutral. Interestingly, I disconnected the subwoofer, as I could tell that the 5000s did not need the lower-frequency assistance with music.
The end result was an astonishing image, combined with a balance of sound that comes from a single source driver design. The overall effect was awesome. Vocals were pleasantly rendered with an authenticity that really impressed me. I experienced no smearing cymbals on the upper frequencies. Overall, the best way to describe the sound was “seamless” from top to bottom. Speaking of bottom, bass was deep, with a realistic sense of weight and extension, even at lower volumes, without the support of a powered subwoofer.
I moved on to the song “Crazy” by Seal (Seal, Sire), which presented a very large and seamless image from top to bottom. Again, I noticed that, at lower levels, the soundstage did not close down; the speakers maintained a broad image, and the bass was prominent when it should be. I continued my listening with various artists over an extended period of time, with consistently satisfying results.
Even though everything sounded good, I wondered what the Ohms would do with a bit more power, especially considering their 87-dB sensitivity rating. I connected a Rotel 1590 two-channel stereo amplifier rated at 300 watts per channel and noticed slightly more control of the midrange that projected a little further into the room. Although the Rotel provided improvement, I thought it would be more dramatic, so I decided to take it up another notch by connecting a Bryston 14B3 amp rated at 600 watts per channel. Even though this level of power was twice what the manufacturer recommended, in my experience, too much power typically does not pose a problem if listening at sane levels. The 14B3 gripped the Ohms like a ragdoll, adding presence, clarity, and dimension to the whole frequency range. My takeaway here is that, although the Ohm speakers do just fine with moderate power, they benefit noticeably from more power.
Movies were up next, so I recalibrated my processor for the new speakers and MartinLogan subwoofer, running Audyssey in four positions. I started, as usual, with my reference movie soundtrack: the pod race scene from Star Wars Episode I (20th Century Fox). The center-channel intelligibility was good, along with airy rear channels that filled the room with a truly dynamic effect. The 5000s pushed the boundaries of my room, just as they had done with music and beyond what I’m used to. With seven omni-directional speakers pumping out the audio images of racing pods, the sound floated about the room with a bit more air and motion than I hear through my standard setup, making the experience truly impressive.
Next up was the movie Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Paramount Pictures). All throughout the movie, the Ohm speakers accurately reproduced the stunning sonics and effects; however, in one standout scene where the Ethan Hunt has to scale the outside of a high-rise building while combating howling wind, the Ohms created the notion of realism through balance while completely drawing me into the storyline.
In the movie 3 Days to Kill, an early scene has Kevin Costner (Ethan) walking up to an exploding building as it sprays fragments of glass. The Ohms projected this effect exquisitely. Dialogue was articulate, while gunfire had an atypical realism. The background music in various scenes had a high-fidelity quality, adding to the authenticity of the experience.
The Ohm speakers required careful placement and adjustment for optimal results. It is hard, if not impossible, for anyone to be able to tweak the placement of a center or surround speaker, as those locations tend to be fixed. Additionally, the 5000 Center is intended for a cabinet-top location, as opposed to placement inside a cabinet, causing challenge for some installations. However, on Ohm’s website, you’ll find an entire line of center-channel speakers, in multiple sizes, that are designed to reside within a shelf. Even though I couldn’t optimize the location of my review speakers, my results were very good. Other people may encounter more issues.
I can’t help but think that the overall appearance of the Ohm speaker does not suit its stellar performance. While the Walsh Tall 5000 is not unattractive, competing manufacturers have modernized their designs and even turned them into attractive museum-like sculptures--so the Ohm model faces stiff competition. “Audio first” has always been my motto, but in recent years I’ve had some gorgeous speakers in my home that have earned a lot of compliments from friends and family. Not so much with the Ohm speakers, however.
One last consideration is the price point of the surround speakers. For example, the seven-channel system that Ohm loaned to me has a retail price of $9,800, with $3,200 of it coming from the cost of the surrounds. Alternatively, one could use traditional speakers for surround duty. I did like the performance of the complete CLS system, though, and I suspect that the CLS technology has a fixed cost regardless of size, causing the surrounds to be on the higher side.
Comparison and Competition
A direct competitor to the Ohm Walsh Tall 5000, in the way of technology, comes from German Physiks, which has a whole line of speakers that use a DDD driver based on the Lincoln Walsh design. The Unlimited MK II is the manufacturer’s entry-level product at a cool $13,500 per pair, which is more than twice the price of the Walsh Tall 5000. The Unlimited MK II uses a separate, powered bass driver below 190 Hz, since that is the lower limit of the DDD driver technology, whereas the 5000’s CLS driver goes all the way down to 26 Hz. This is just a notable difference; without any personal experience with the Unlimiteds, I cannot comment as to which design I prefer. I should point out that Ohm Acoustics has a beta product (the F-5015) at $11,000 per pair, which contains a 500-watt powered subwoofer in each cabinet. I had the pleasure of auditioning these, and I thought their performance was nothing short of stellar.
Of course we can also compare the Ohm speakers to conventional speakers, keeping the price point as the main criteria, and the list is vast. Two such speakers come to mind: the PSB Imagine T3 ($3,750 each) and the Bryston Middle T ($5,675 pair), which we previously reviewed. I sat through engaging demos at CES 2016 of both these speakers, and their performance made a lasting impression.
The Ohm Walsh Tall 5000 speaker possesses some very interesting technology that is not often used in the audio industry today. My experience with the Ohm speakers led me to ask the question, why? Unfortunately, I did not come up with a good answer. The best I could surmise is that it may be a difficult technology to implement with the same results that Ohm Acoustics can achieve, and at the price point Ohm can offer. Another reason could be that omni-directional speakers have been somewhat frowned upon in high-end circles. Based on my experience here, I can conclude that would be an ignorant presumption for anyone to have. The 5000s left me utterly perplexed, questioning my own initial beliefs as to what is possible in audio reproduction at the $6,600 price point. I can confidently conclude that the Ohm Walsh Tall 5000s offers up a very sophisticated technology, with solid build quality, in an array of natural wood finishes, built in the U.S. for a price that many can afford. They represent one of the audio industry’s best kept secrets and offer a level of performance that I would seriously consider for my own personal home. If you’re in the market for a new pair of speakers or a complete surround system, you should put the Ohm products to your own test … with Ohm’s 120-day in-home trial, it’s easy to do just that.