The way we consume our media is changing. We've obviously been on a slow burn of moving away from consistent movie theater viewing toward the comfort of our own living rooms, but the current worldwide situation is accelerating the transition. My own progression towards total home movie enjoyment started long before the pandemic and was necessitated by two facts: 1. The ticket prices in Los Angeles have been getting out of hand, and 2. As I grow older I dislike and get angry at theater crowds that talk amongst themselves or aren't paying attention to the movie and pull me out of the action.
Still, there's one part of going to the movie theater I miss: immersive object-based surround sound. A 5.1-channel system is nice and all, but it understandably can't envelop me the same way a theatrical speaker array can. And as someone who lives in a rented apartment, the idea of hanging mid-sized speakers from the living room ceiling for Atmos is daunting (needless to say, cutting holes in the ceiling for in-ceiling speakers is also right out of the question).
I've tried simulated Dolby Atmos solutions, and while they generally work well enough, the geometry of my living room (it isn't enclosed on the left side) leads to some less than desirable results and keeps bringing me back to longing for a point source Atmos system. Luckily, there is a viable, minimally intrusive, and aesthetically attractive solution: The Orb Audio Mod1 speaker.
Orb Audio is likely a familiar name to many HomeTheaterReview readers. They've been around for close to two decades. The company manufacturers their small spherical speakers in the United States and only offers them through online sales. Their offerings have been reviewed quite a few times by this publication, but for this review, Orb Audio sent along ten Mod1 speakers and a Polk PSW111 sub to be used in different configurations to comprise a Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 setup. (The Polk PSW111 is an available sub option in addition to the Orb subOne on the Orb Audio website. At the time of the review, the subOne was unavailable due to the pandemic. The review will concentrate primarily on the performance of the Orb Audio speakers.)
If you peruse the Orb Audio online store, you might notice multiple speaker options – the Mod1, Mod2, and Mod4 – that all look remarkably similar. This is for good reason. They are the same Mod1 speaker wired together to increase output. So no matter what, you get speakers that are perfectly matched sonically to one another because they are, in fact, the same speaker. It also allows you to modify the configuration down the road to suit your room. Do you have some extra savings burning a hole in your pocket or did you move into a larger home theater space? It's easy to order some more Mod1s and upgrade your center to a Mod2 or Mod4 without having to get rid of the original speakers.
The speakers themselves consist of a single three-inch full-range aluminum driver cone surrounded by Santoprene rubber. Orb lists their frequency range as 120Hz to 18kHz. Due to differences in the way the speakers are wired together to create larger models, when wired as a Mod1 or Mod4 they act as a nominal 8-ohm load, while in the Mod2 configuration the nominal impedance is 4 ohms. That lower impedance rating shouldn't concern you, though, if you're running a standard AVR as I was. The speakers play plenty loud without driving the amp too hard and it's more likely your ears will give out before your AVR does. The single driver means there's no need for an internal crossover or the unintended anomalies that might bring.
While the carbon steel shell of the Mod1 is small, with a diameter of only 4.18 inches, it is relatively light at 14 ounces and its build quality is excellent. The speakers have gold-plated spring-loaded binding posts. They can be mounted on Orb desk stands in all configurations, attached to walls and ceilings with Orb mounting hardware, or to aftermarket floor stands with the company's universal floor stand kit. There are six different finish options: gloss black, pearl white, hammered earth, hand polished steel, hand antiqued bronze, and hand antiqued copper. Due to the extra labor necessary, the hammered earth finish adds $15 to the base price of $129.50 for each Mod1. Steel, bronze, and copper add $30 to the price.
I set up the ten Mod1 speakers into Mod2 configurations across the front on my home theater credenza (the left and right were positioned vertically while the center was horizontal), two Mod1s for surround, and the remaining two Mod1s as height channels installed on the ceiling. Included were pre-stripped four-inch long speaker jumpers to connect the speakers in the Mod2 configurations together after screwing them on to the desk stands. These had black sleeves to match the gloss black finish of my front speakers, although they are available with white sleeving as well.
Assembly of the stands and speaker jumpers was easy and took a leisurely 20 minutes for the front speakers. All the speakers were connected to my Pioneer VSX-933 using Monoprice Choice Series 12AWG speaker wire. Going with the Orb Audio recommendation, the crossover was set to 150Hz.
With the Mod2s, getting the 12 gauge wire and the jumpers into the binding posts without either fraying was a small challenge. (For the best cable management, I connected the 12-gauge wires from the underside of the binding post and the jumpers from the top side so they could extend to the upper speakers.) I didn't have any 14 gauge speaker wire around, but I think it might have been a slightly more comfortable fit.
The wall- and ceiling-mount brackets attach to the surface with two screws, which was more than adequate when screwed into the studs since the speakers are light. I used two Mod1s with pearl white finish on the ceiling and they blended pretty well with the sheetrock, never visually pulling my focus.
For most of my adult life, I've never had the privilege of living in a space large enough to truly accommodate floorstanding speakers without them seeming at least a little oppressive, but I have lived with some NHT Classic Fours, which – while certainly not the biggest that have occupied that space – are a decent size for apartment living in LA. Still, I've grown accustomed to the space they inhabit, so it was a bit of a surprise how open my room felt when the Orb took their place. It felt like I could finally exhale. The size of the Orbs is far better suited to an apartment than a large tower.
It was the end of the day when I finished installing the entire system. (I replaced my old speaker wire with the Monoprice so the Atmos and rear speaker runs would all fit in my cable troughs, which took a while.) Critical listening was put off until the next day so I could relax and the speakers could break in a bit, if need be.
But even when I sat back to relax with Westworld on HBO, I was immediately struck by the clarity of the dialogue. Dolores' intense, resonant voice cuts through with ease without being too fatiguing or forward. It was also evident that the Orb speakers have a wide dispersion. At the end of the day, I've been known to lounge out on either end of the couch and there wasn't a large variation in sonic impression when I lounged off-axis.
It's rare for me to get through a speaker review without watching at least one movie featuring lightsabers. Space battles are great fodder for Atmos mixing, and the beginning of The Last Jedi includes spectacular moments of Poe's X-wing being chased by TIE Fighters as he attacks the Dreadnought starship. The Orbs have a distinct advantage over a system made up of different speakers, as they sonically sound the same, since they are the same speaker. This allows ships to fly by or blaster fire to pass across the soundfield seamlessly without any distinct changes in coloration.
The wide dispersion of the speakers aided the blend from front to height to surround. There was some oomph missing down towards the crossover point to the Polk sub, which was most apparent in the all-important low brass instruments of Williams' fantastic score. Trombones, tubas, and some low percussion were missing the depth and punch I'm used to hearing. But given the size of the Mod1 and the relatively high crossover frequency, this is to be expected.
While my wife and I watched some of our regular television fare like Expedition Unknown through Sling TV, an upper frequency bump somewhere around 10 kHz caused some metallic distortion to poke through in the surrounds. At times it was distracting. Mind you, Sling doesn't have what I would call stellar audio quality and this is likely a compression artifact, so this is more of an unfortunate confluence of Sling problems being exacerbated by the high frequency peak of the Orbs. I didn't hear this through other streaming services or on any discs.
Comparison and Competition
To add in the necessary height speakers for a point-source Dolby Atmos system, you can either use specialized up-firing Dolby Atmos module speakers that sit on your front tower and rely on bouncing the audio off a tall and smooth ceiling, or speakers physically installed on or in your ceiling. The majority of ceiling speakers marketed for Atmos are in-ceiling speakers, and for those of us that rent our abodes, this is a non-starter. So we're left with mounting on the ceiling. Any speaker can be mounted on the ceiling and be used as an Atmos speaker, so it comes down with how comfortable you are with the mounting solution.
There are plenty of bookshelf speakers that could be used as height speakers, such as SVS Prime Elevation Speakers, Klipsch Synergy B-100s, or Q Acoustics 3010is. But they're still all-black (or maybe white or wood finish) boxes that don't blend very well into a ceiling, and they all weigh at least six times as much as the Mod1. And then there's the issue of timbre matching to your front soundstage. Any ceiling-mounted Atmos speaker needs to be unobtrusive, both aesthetically and sonically. If it catches your eye or ear while you're in the middle of a movie, it's not the right speaker for your space or system. I find the Orb Mod1 far more aesthetically pleasing and unobtrusive than a traditional box speaker.
The other way to go is by using an Atmos soundbar, such as the Vizio SB46514-F6. What the Atmos soundbars achieve without the use of point-source speakers is remarkable, but it still doesn't compare to the specificity of a full Atmos speaker system. The Orb Audio Mod1s have more clarity. The soundbars also won't work well for all spaces because, like the Atmos module speakers, they rely on properly bouncing sound off of walls and ceilings. Anything in the way, such as bookshelves, artwork, or a textured ceiling, will affect the accuracy of the sound.
Timbre matching goes a long way to creating a cohesive and engaging Dolby Atmos speaker setup, and using the same speakers in all install positions is about as cohesive as you can get. The wide dispersion of the Orb Audio Mod1 really ties the soundfield together and allows sounds to travel without focus being pulled to individual speakers. Their size makes them ideal for apartment dwellers who want a unique look without sacrificing sound quality. And their modular design means you can start with a smaller system and upgrade as your space or wallet allow. If I wanted to get a matched system, or even just a couple speakers to upgrade my current one to Atmos, my first look would be to Orb Audio and the Mod1.
• Visit the Orb Audio website for more product information.
• Orb Audio 10th-Anniversary People's Choice Speaker System Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com
• Check out our Bookshelf Speaker category page to read reviews of similar products.