Orb Audio 10th-Anniversary People's Choice Speaker System Reviewed

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1024B01_vB.jpgThere are upsides and downsides to engineering and selling a product with a design that is elegant simplicity incarnate, not to mention reflected in the name of the company. Such is the case with Orb Audio's gorgeous little spherical satellite speakers. For a little over a decade now, Orb Audio has made a name for itself selling American-made, three-inch, single-driver globe speakers direct to consumers. The upside to such a design? You really don't need to mess with it. The downside? There really isn't much you can do to tweak it. That's why the company's new tenth-anniversary offerings look virtually identical to the Orb Audio speakers that first hit the market back in 2003.

Of course, the new speakers - dubbed Mod1X, Mod2X, etc., to set them apart from the original Mod1, Mod2, and so forth - do feature some noteworthy under-the-hood tweaks to earn their new designation, the most significant being a newly designed aluminum "full-range" driver, which replaces the polypropylene driver that Orb Audio relied on for a decade. In most respects, though, the company's satellite speakers remain the same - which is a good thing, because I know of nothing else on the market exactly like them. What sets Orb Audio apart is that its spherical speakers are modular and upgradeable. A Mod2X is simply two Mod1X orbs bolted and wired together in a sleek K'NEX-like stand. So, if you purchase an Orb Audio home theater system built on five of the company's single-enclosure Mod1X speakers, move your system to a larger room (or save up some extra coin), and decide that your current setup isn't enough, your original investment isn't wasted. Simply buy five more orbs, bolt and wire them together, and now you have a complete Mod2X home theater system. Genius.

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Most Orb Audio customers, it seems, opt for a system that includes three double-orb speakers up front and a pair of single enclosures at the back of the room, along with one of the company's subwoofers. I auditioned the People's Choice system awhile back in its original incarnation (three Mod2s, a pair of Mod1s, and the Super Eight subwoofer); so, when Orb Audio offered to send along one of its tenth-anniversary systems for review, I opted for the same configuration. The new People's Choice system ($1,198), in addition to including Orb Audio's X-branded satellites with their new aluminum drivers, also includes the new subONE subwoofer, which features some serious upgrades of its own, despite looking quite similar to the original Super Eight. Cosmetically, the subONE is now offered in a beautiful walnut finish (for $118 more than the standard black finish), but it retains virtually the same size, shape, and down-firing tuned port as the Super Eight. Its eight-inch driver is also identical, but its internals have been tweaked to improve low-frequency performance and provide better thermal and signal overload protection.

The Hookup
ORBcopper.jpgUnfortunately, one thing that I had hoped would change about the design of the Orb Audio speakers remains the same: the connectors. The new tenth-anniversary models rely on the same spring-loaded binding posts as the old design, which makes hooking them up quite tricky if you're using speaker wire of any appreciable gauge. I swapped out the 12AWG speaker cable I normally use in my secondary home theater for some decent-quality 16AWG wires and, although I was able to thread them into the binding posts for the surround speakers after some twisting and scrunching and squinting and cursing, it wasn't quite so easy to connect the fronts. This is due to the speaker's modular design. As I said, the People's Choice system employs Mod2X speakers for the front left, right, and center channels - and a Mod2X is merely two Mod1X speakers with jumpers between their binding posts. The only way I could make the connection work was to insert my 16AWG speaker cable about halfway into the binding posts, which pushed the jumper cable about halfway out. After quite a few weeks of use, though, neither the speaker connection nor the jumper cable between enclosures has come loose. So, thankfully, this was a one-time headache.

Despite looking very similar to its predecessor, the new subONE has been simplified a bit in terms of connectivity. The former's speaker-level inputs and outputs have been removed, but a second line-level input has been added. The crossover dipswitch has been removed. To bypass the sub's internal crossover, you now simply twist the crossover knob past the 160Hz point to the LFE setting. The variable phase knob has also been replaced with a 0-/180-degree dipswitch. Finally, an input for a wireless subwoofer adapter (sold separately, $129) has been added.

I connected the system to my Anthem MRX 710 AV receiver and ran Anthem Room Correction, with the Max EQ frequency set to 300 Hz. I know the fact that I applied equalization at all will be a point of contention for some but, in this case, I felt it was the only way to fairly review the system. Here's why: Orb Audio recommends a crossover frequency between 100 and 120 Hz for the system, but in practice that leaves quite a gap between the output of the satellites and sub. Both my ears and Anthem Room Correction agree that a crossover between 150 and 160 Hz results in a better blend, a smoother handoff from sub to sat. Of course, asking any subwoofer to blend seamlessly with sats at such a high frequency without some assistance, and without becoming overly directional, is asking a lot. And I think it's safe to assume that any receiver you'll connect the Orb Audio system to will employ some sort of room correction, so I didn't hesitate to use it here. Otherwise, I might never have found a suitable location for the subwoofer.

Why stop at 300 Hz, though? Many of the reasons were already covered in my primer on room correction. There's also the fact that the Orb Audio speakers - new and old - feature such a distinctive voice, especially in the midrange frequencies, and to modify that in any way would do a disservice to both speaker and listener alike.

Click on over to Page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, the Comparison and Competition, and the Conclusion . . .

HTR Product Rating for Orb Audio 10th-Anniversary People's Choice Speaker System

Criteria Rating

Performance

4

Value

4

Overall

4

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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102414_2736.2.jpgPerformance
It goes without saying that "distinctive voice" and "flat frequency response" are pretty much mutually exclusive concepts, and it's true that the Orb Audio system isn't flat. Midrange frequencies, between roughly 300 Hz and 3,000 Hz, receive a nice little nudge toward the front of the mix. It's a slight nudge, and a smooth one at that, but when combined with the speakers' excellent dispersion and room-penetration capabilities, the result is a sound that is primarily defined by stunning dialogue clarity. That was also the case with the original Orb Audio speaker system, and the differences are subtle, to be sure, but the midrange delivered by the new Mod1X and Mod2X speakers is even more nuanced and detailed than their forebears in the range of frequencies encompassing the human voice.

The opening sequences of Cloud Atlas (Warner Home Video) demonstrate this best, I think. Zachry's hushed whispers, as he sits by the campfire spinning his yarn, would be difficult enough to render even if he wasn't speaking in a post-apocalyptic pidgin dialect - "Lornsome night, babbits bawlin', wind bitin' the bone ..." - but the Orb Audio system delivers every yibbering susurration with such clarity that I never found myself straining to follow the dialogue, whether the volume knob was tamed to typical TV-watching levels or turned up to reference home theater loudness.

It isn't merely vocal delivery that impresses so much with the film's opening sequence. While Zachry's voice fills the center channel, the fronts and surrounds are also busy with the ambient noises of wind whistling around him, dragging grit and dirt through the surround soundfield in a beautifully holographic way. Much of that, I think, can be chalked up to the speakers' exceptional dispersion characteristics. The front and surround soundstages are woven together beautifully, which comes into play again and again throughout the film's introduction: the way the waves crash from the front of the room to the rear in the second scene, as the camera jumps from Adam Ewing's point of view to that of Dr. Henry Goose; the way the whir of Luisa Rey's Volkswagen Beetle whips through the listening space in the scene that follows.

It's worth noting, though, that the stacking of Mod1X modules does affect the dispersion of the combined arrays. In vertically arrayed Mod2X stacks, like the main left and right speakers in the People's Choice package, the dispersion is wide enough, as I said, to really leave no seams between front and rear soundstages, but only tall enough to cover the normal range of seating positions. In horizontally configured arrays, like the Mod2X center channel, the dispersion is tall - so much so that if you stand up from a reasonable seating position, the quality and timbre of voices doesn't change much at all. However, it isn't terribly wide. Move more than thirty degrees or so off-axis, and things start to muddy up a bit. Of course, sitting so far off-axis brings with it a host of other problems for both listening and viewing enjoyment, but it's worth noting. If you do have listeners who typically sit that far off-axis, it might be worth it to pick up an extra BOSS table stand, disassemble the center channel, and re-configure it as a vertical speaker. It looks nice, in my opinion, and only adds an additional five inches or so of height to the array.

I don't mean to make a bigger deal of this "horizontal speaker channel" thing than deserves to be made, but it's also worth noting that, even when arranged side by side, the Mod2X center channel avoids the problems common to most mid-tweeter-mid center speakers. As you move back and forth in front of the center channel, as long as you stay reasonably on-axis, there is nothing in the way of lobing or combing. That is to say, it doesn't sound as if there's a picket fence between you and the speaker.

As for bass performance, I've been spending a lot of time with Alfonso Cuar�n's Gravity (Warner Home Video) recently. In fact, the subONE is the third subwoofer I've heard the film through in as many weeks. For the most part, the Orb Audio sub performs as admirably as any of them, although its limited low-frequency extension does hold it back in spots. During the scene about six minutes in, where Kowalski and Stone are working on the surface of the Hubble Space Telescope, the bass is wonderfully tactile, with every conductive surface sound punching through the mix with more strength than you'd expect from a sub of this size. Skip forward a few minutes, though, to the point where Houston announces "Mission abort," and there's this wonderful ~20Hz to 25Hz bass note in the score that the Orb Audio subONE simply ignores. In fact, the sub starts running out of steam pretty quickly between 30 and 35 Hz. Would I have noticed that had I not spent so much time listening to the film through subwoofers capable of generating sub-20Hz frequencies? Probably not. The subONE doesn't bottom out gracelessly at the lower end of its frequency range. It doesn't strain or struggle or distort heavily. And that, combined with how well the subONE handles the rest of the bass spectrum, makes its relative lack of depth easy to forgive.

Of course, if you long for deeper frequency extension and don't necessarily care about the optional new walnut finish of the subONE, the People's Choice system (or any of Orb's other speaker systems, for that matter) can also be ordered with the company's larger Uber Ten subwoofer for an additional $299. With its larger 10-inch woofer, bigger cabinet, and extra 100 watts of power, the Uber Ten should reach quite a bit deeper than its eight-inch counterparts.

The very first scene in Gravity also spotlights the speakers' ability to play incredibly gum-flappingly loud for their size.

While Gravity does a swell job of defining the subONE's lower limits (and also the system's ability as a whole to crank out some serious SPLs), it doesn't really tell one much about the sub's upper range, nor its ability to blend with the satellites. As I said in the setup section, the optimal crossover between sub and sats, at least in my room, was 150 Hz. So I turned to Imelda May's "Johnny Got a Boom Boom" from the album Love Tattoo (Universal Music Group), which is driven by a frolicking bass line that runs the gamut from about 70 Hz up to somewhere in the 150Hz range. All in all, the People's Choice system does a pretty good job of covering the full range of frequencies in the track, but the upper bass notes - the ones approaching the hand-off point between sub and sats - do lose a bit of energy, resulting in something of a disconnect between upper bass and lower midrange. Honestly, though, I found myself focusing more on the way the Mod2X speakers deliver the track's delicious midrange snarl, and the way they really project the shaker in the right channel out into the room.

There's really no denying, though, that the People's Choice system's true strengths lie with movie soundtracks, so I popped in another disc that I've been spending a lot of time with lately, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (New Line) on Blu-ray. The odd thing about DoS is that there really isn't anything much in the way of bass below 30 Hz or so, but that does nothing to stop it from being a rip-roaring sound mix. The "Forges Relit" sequence near the end of the film is a great example of that, and the Orb Audio system delivers every nuance of the sound mix superbly. The Mod2X and Mod1X speakers do a splendid job of re-creating the stone halls of Erebor with eerie precision, while the subONE cranks out every heavy dragon footstep, every roar, every exploding flame with all of the oomph you could ever ask for.

The Downside
As I said above, my biggest beef with the newly resigned Orb Audio speaker system is that the company obviously put a good bit of effort into accentuating and improving the positives of their predecessors, but did little to rectify the weaker points of the old system: namely, their small, spring-loaded binding posts. Not only would nice five-way binding posts allow for a thicker gauge of speaker wire, it would also make connecting the speakers a good bit easier.

Also, to reiterate, these probably wouldn't be my first choice of small satellite speakers for serious music listening, except perhaps as a nearfield, desktop 2.1 system. Both the subwoofer and the satellites are a little weak in the range of frequencies surrounding their crossover point, which is significantly more noticeable with tunes than it is with movies.

Comparison and Competition
When it comes to small, reasonably affordable sub/sat speaker systems, the Orb Audio People's Choice system has no shortage of competition. Boston Acoustics' SoundWare S Home Theater system comes to mind, and at $799 it's a good bargain. But its little cube satellites might not be to all aesthetic tastes. Paradigm's Cinema 100 CT system is also another very attractive contender at $999 for a 5.1 setup. Of course, if it's the spherical aesthetic that you're drawn to, Anthony Gallo's A'Diva and Nucleus Micro speakers are Orb Audio's most obvious competitors. The former, in particular, boasts better bass extension (although its cabinet's diameter is an inch larger), and both speakers feature better binding posts. What none of these speakers offer is the modular, upgradeable design of the Orb Audio speakers or Orb Audio's Internet-direct appeal complete with killer customer service.

Conclusion
Putting aside my quibbles with the binding posts, what Orb Audio has done with its tenth-anniversary speakers is pretty impressive: They've taken a great-sounding speaker and made it sound even better, while maintaining the modular design that I loved so much about the company's 10-year-old offerings. It's true that the sound delivered by the Mod1X and Mod2X satellites isn't what you would describe as flat or neutral, but their unique voice really works to their advantage, especially with dense film soundtracks. The speakers also have the ability to play incredibly gum-flappingly loud for their size, and their ability to craft a holographic, expansive, 3D bubble of sound is downright impressive.

Granted, if you already own and love a set of Orb Audio's original speakers, you may be wondering if the tenth-anniversary redesign is worth the upgrade. Truthfully, I think the performance enhancements are subtle enough that it's really a coin-toss. There's no denying that the midrange is more detailed and the high-frequency performance is more refined, but it's not a night-and-day difference.

The new subONE subwoofer is the one thing I would probably seriously consider trading up for if there are few bucks left in your budget. Not only does it deliver more nuanced performance at the lower end of its frequency range, but the new, optional walnut finish also makes for a better aesthetic complement to the satellites. When you're talking about a speaker system with a design that is a significant chunk of its appeal, that's seriously something to consider.

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