Phase Technology CI-Series In-Wall Speaker Ensemble Reviewed

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With the ever increasing popularity of plasma and LCD, more and more audio/video-philes are turning to high fidelity in-wall solutions. While speaker sales as a total did not see much growth in 2003, in-wall sales rocketed as more and more consumers chose custom audio solutions to meet their needs.

Background
Over the past several years I have reviewed and installed enough speakers to appreciate the advancements of both the sound and installation qualities of in-wall speakers.

Before entering the publishing world, I worked as a "grunt" installer. My workdays consisted of long hours in hot attics pulling wire and, of course, fumbling with installing in-wall and in-ceiling speakers.

Back in those days, there weren't many brands to choose from. And while most speakers were full-range, there was the occasional client who chose a "high-performance" two-way speaker.

Additional Resources
• Read more in-wall speaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore subwoofer pairing options in our Subwoofer Review section.

That said, I have been pleased to see the direction of in-wall designs, over the past three years in particular. Unfortunately, the publishing business does not allow much time in the way of installing complete ensembles, nor does it allow the budget for building out a quality sound room with interchangeable in-wall baffles. Thus, you the consumer, will not see very many reviews on in-wall ensembles.

So there's the rub. How do we at Avodah Publishing, Inc. deliver real-world reviews on the number one category in speakers today--in-walls? The answer is simple and somewhat crude. Offer up our own homes and offices and allow them to go under the knife--or RotoZip in this case.

Unique Features
Where do I begin? Phase Technology is a family-established company with audiophile heritage dating back nearly 50 years. So perhaps what makes Phase Technology (as a company) unique is that their design philosophy and business model today remain unchanged from their humble beginnings. And, quite possibly, solid evidence that real "high definition" began with audio--not video.

Every driver in every Phase Technology product is designed in-house through months and even years of careful research. Once a driver meets the meticulous demands of the engineering department, the actual product will slowly come to life as the crossover network is built and an enclosure is added.

Looking at the CI-Series speakers, the most obvious visual difference is in that of the mid-range (mid-woof) driver. What appears to be a flat piston driver is actually a unique, Rigid Polymer Foam (RPF) cone, with a Kevlar composite skin that further reinforces the solidity of the driver. A foam-like material is added solely for cosmetics. The basket is simple and solid and the motor structure is well matched.

In our installation and review we chose CI-110II speakers for the Left/Center/Right, along with CI-60VIs for the rear surrounds. Each of these speakers incorporates the aforementioned mid-woof, with the CI-110II using a pair to flank the tweeter.

The soft-dome tweeter in each of the CI-Series speakers features a variable axis enclosure that allows the tweeter to be directed into the listening area for increased on-axis response. The CI-110II's tweeter is surrounded by a Unicell sound damping material. This sponge-like material isolates the tweeter.

The front baffle of the CI-110II is constructed of a one-inch solid piece of MDF. This acts to eliminate unwanted resonances--a constant battle for in-wall speakers. The crossover network on each speaker in the CI-Series is simple and the use of high quality components is apparent. This is a common shortcut for manufacturers of traditional loudspeakers and in-wall speakers alike. Ultimately, this is where average speakers get left behind. When combined with excellent drivers, like those in the PhaseTech CI lineup, the result is astonishing.

There are other features that I consider unique, but they are better discussed in the Installation section of this review.

Moving right along, we get to the in-wall subwoofers of the CI-install. A few years ago in-wall subwoofers started creeping into the in-wall scene. The problem was none of them were very good. The single biggest obstacle for all in-wall speakers comes with the speakers' interaction with the cavity (or wall) in which it is installed. Because it is impossible to predict the internal volume of a given install, an average is used. Some manufacturers even offer enclosures or self-contained designs.

The proper enclosure type and size is critical with subwoofers. And with an internal volume of over one foot needed in most cases, there are obvious boundaries created between sheetrock and stud bays.

When PhaseTech was developing their IW-200 dual eight-inch in-wall subwoofer, they tuned it to a prefabricated enclosure. The IW-EB 200 is tall and slender, designed to meet the cubic volume requirements of the dual eight-inch woofers.

The IW-200 in-wall subwoofer uses a pair of eight-inch Mica/Graphite woofers acting as one. An outboard amplifier, the P200 delivers a continuous 200 watts of power (300 watts peak) to the drivers and also provides crossover and attenuation functions for the sub.

The P200 amplifier is very slim and rather straightforward in its application. Crossover and gain (volume) functions are located on the front panel, along with phase adjustment. Around back, low level inputs and high level outputs make for simple connectivity. There is also a switch to select the amplifier Mode, sub, LFE or full-range and an attenuation of -3dB to +6dB to aid in tuning the woofer to the room.

Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
It's an uneasy feeling when you approach your spouse about cutting large holes into the walls of your new home. Add to that the request for assistance to do so combined with the inherent challenges of installing and pulling wire in an existing construction environment and you've got the makings of a stress-cake.

Nevertheless, I began bringing in my old trade tools to get the job done. While in the end I will tell you that this installation was relatively straightforward, I strongly recommend consulting a professional installer for the job.

The first step in the installation of the CI-Series ensemble was to determine speaker placement. There are a number of factors to consider here. The size and type of display, along with where it would be placed in the room was critical. Then came determining the primary listening positions and lastly, locating the stud-bays. Each factor required a bit of give and take. We knew that while we wanted the IW-200 on the front wall, we wanted it away from the corner of the room to prevent loading of low frequencies.

Using my trusty stud-finder and pencil, I went to work mapping out the skeleton of the room. Another potential obstacle was that the main wall, or front of the room, is an exterior wall. This gives six inches of depth rather than the four-inch standard of an interior wall, and added issues of insulation and reinforcements.

The last obstacle was in the installation of the CI-110II in a horizontal position to act as the center. This required notching the studs, as the width of the speaker was greater than the 14-inch stud-bay we were working in.

Once the cuts were made for the CI-Series speakers, pulling the wire to each location was relatively simple. We cut one large opening for the IW-EB 200 subwoofer enclosure, then simply attached the drywall section to the enclosure once it was in the wall and cut a second opening for the actual IW-200 woofer.

We applied mud to the seams to fill the gaps and sanded it several times until it blended with the wall. (We actually wound up repeating this process when we decided to add a second IW-200 subwoofer.)

We wired the walls with Monster Cable 12-gauge shielded speaker wire. An overkill to be certain--but way necessary for maximum cool factor.

Getting to the actual installation of the CI-Series was a pleasure. The CI-110II speakers are relatively large and heavy speakers by themselves. My concern from the get-go was that there would be considerable internal loss due to the massive power I was planning to put to them by way of my Parasound HALO amplifier.

This concern was quickly solved with the PhaseTech patented Vertical Clamping System. This system is simply a clamp that installs into the opening and grips the drywall with authority. While the application seems rather simple, the design is nothing short of brilliant. Once the bracket it installed and level, connect the speaker wire to the Molex-type plug on the crossover and install the speaker into the bracket using the six supplied bolts. The process of installing the speaker into the bracket takes all of 30 seconds.

The mechanics of the CI-brackets clamping action make for an extremely rigid and solid mount for the speaker, effectively reinforcing the drywall--outstanding. The IW-200 subwoofer uses the same bracket as the CI-110II.

The CI-60VI speakers require a less rigid mount than that of the CI-110IIs. While the bracket is quality, it is still average in application. However, the attachment of the CI-60VI speaker to the bracket is quite ingenious.

Once the speakers were installed, we toed the variable axis tweeters into the listening area to create a large sweet spot. Then we installed the metal grilles onto the speakers and began to tune the system.

Dialing in the IW-200 subs took some time. We wound up installing an additional IW-200 subwoofer to account for the massive volume of our listening room. We placed the second woofer on the wall in the rear of the room and thus there were some phasing issues easily overcome through the P200 amplifier.

Final Take
It isn't often that I have the pleasure of writing a review with a smile on my face. In fact, I don't think I ever have. After cutting the first opening in the wall of our living room a thought raced through my mind repeatedly, "these better be good."

After the installation process was completed and the speakers were calibrated, I popped in a Steely Dan DVD-Audio disc to begin the burn-in process. Immediately I was captivated by the brilliant audiophile quality of the CI-Series speakers.

Now I know what you're thinking. "He just installed these speakers in his house. What's he going to say, they suck?" And that's fair. However, those who have followed my reviews over the years know I am quite particular.

I selected the CI-Series in-walls with a bit of a safety net underneath me--I went with a company who I've come to know over the years as dedicated to high fidelity. At the end of the day, if we all used this as a foundation for choosing our speakers, we would all be quite happy.

After 30 hours of run-in time, I began the first in a series of listening evaluations. While I was quite pleased with the music and DVD-Audio performance, I felt that the bass fell shy of the same excellence during cinema playback.

I consulted Ken Hecht of PhaseTech and we determined that the volume of my room was pushing the 4,000 cubic-foot volume boundary of the single IW-200. So he sent another for us to install.

Let's start with DVD-Audio playback. Because it is here that I believe the PhaseTech CI-Series ensemble absolutely shines. Keeping in mind that the total package price of this ensemble is somewhere under the $5,000 range, I find myself fumbling for words to describe the depth of the listening experience.

The CI-Series is powered by my Parasound HALO amplifier using an Integra RDC-7 pre/pro and an Integra 8.3 DPS universal DVD player. Components are connected via Wireworld balanced cables between the amp and pre/pro, and Tributaries interconnects for the DVD-Audio and digital connections, along with Monster Cable speaker wire and using a Monster Cable HTPS-7000 line conditioner.

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HTR Product Rating for Phase Technology CI-Series In-Wall Speaker Ensemble

Criteria Rating

Performance

3.5

Value

3.5

Overall

3.5

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


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