Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
Snell Acoustics is well known in audiophile circles for their thirty-plus years of American-made high-performance solid-value loudspeakers. While Snell's best-known speakers were the huge Type A variants, Snell's current line-up also includes speakers with a much smaller visual impact on their surroundings. Snell's latest in-wall speaker, the IW-B7, is their Signature Series response to the growing demand for in-wall speakers. As more and more high-performance systems are being installed in non-dedicated spaces where the aesthetics of large speakers are not welcome, the demand for diminutive and/or hidden speakers has grown and continues to grow. In order to accommodate these situations without compromising sonic performance, Snell has expanded their three-pronged line to the Signature Series level with the introduction of the in-cabinet and in-wall versions of their B7 tower speaker.
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Snell has acknowledged the design constraints faced by many system designers and enthusiasts by creating a triple-pronged approach to their line. With this approach, each speaker series will have an in-room, in-cabinet and an "invisible" in-wall version. These speakers will have similar capabilities and also be voiced to match each other, so that they can be mixed within a system as the room environment may dictate. The IW-B7s reviewed here were designed as the in-wall version of Snell's B7 Reference Tower. The IC-B7 is the in-cabinet version. While the $5,000 per speaker price tag may shock some, the IW-B7 is a serious, reference-grade speaker that has been engineered to work within the confines of an in-wall installation.
The IW-B7s, like the rest of the B7 line, were designed by Snell's new chief engineer, Dr. Joseph D'Appolito. Not surprisingly, all of the speakers in the line incorporate a D'Appolito array. The term "D'Appolito array" is often used to describe just about any midrange/tweeter/midrange ("MTM") array, but it is improper to do so. A true D'Appolito array, as used in the B7 line, refers not only to the MTM configuration of the drivers, but also to the spacing between the drivers and the configuration of the crossover circuits. A proper D'Appolito array will utilize in-phase crossovers and driver spacing to produce a sound wave that has carefully focused vertical dispersion characteristics to minimize problems associated with floor and ceiling reflections.
The configuration and specifications of the IW-B7 read like those of a midsized tower speaker, which is not surprising, given that this is the in-wall version of a reference tower design. The IW-B7 is a large in-wall speaker, measuring 42 inches high, 14 inches wide and three-and-a-quarter inches deep, which means that they will fit into a standard stud bay (16 on center), the standard for interior wall in residential construction in most areas. The driver configuration features an eight-inch polymer cone woofer on each end, with a four-and-a-half-inch magnesium cone, Hexadym magnet midrange drivers flanking a single one-inch Sonotex dome and a Hexadym magnet tweeter in the center. The drivers are all made by Seas to Snell's specifications. For example, the midrange has a modified voice coil to improve performance within certain parameters and the tweeter's back cavity has been modified to lower resonance. The MTM array is on its own sub baffle that can be rotated to maintain vertical alignment, even if the speaker itself is mounted horizontally. The baffle is constructed out of two quarter-inch layers of MDF that sandwich a layer of "Noisekiller," a sound-damping material sourced from Saab. The cabinet is made from heavy-gauge aircraft-grade aluminum, reinforced and damped with Dynamat and fiberglass. Small toggle switches allow for adjustment of treble level and boundary equalization. A perforated white metal grille hides the entire front panel. The grille and flange can be ordered in custom colors or painted by the installer to match the wall. Performance specifications for the IW-B7 are stated as follows: a frequency response of 63Hz to 22 kHz, sensitivity of 90dB, a nominal impedance of six ohms and maximum output of 111 dB.
Snell provided an in-wall "subwoofer," the IW-Basis300 to be used with the IW-B7 main speakers. This $1,250 speaker is a passive design with a single ten-inch woofer. The four-and-a-half-foot-tall enclosure is made out of an unspecified type of wood and is sized to fit within a standard two-by-four stud bay, which is the standard for residential construction of interior walls. After installation, and the required drywall repair for retrofit installations, all that will be visible is an approximately 14-inch-square grille that mounts flush to the wall and can be painted to match. The single ten-inch driver is a long-throw shallow cone design with a heavy cast metal basket for rigidity. The enclosure is a vented design, with two small square vents located to each side of the top portion of the driver. This location allows the vents to fire through the grille without enlarging it.
In order to approximate the performance of the speakers as they would sound in a permanent installation, I spoke with Snell's Bob Graffy and Joe D'Appolito. This resulted in me placing the IW-B7s on eighteen-inch-high stands positioned on the front wall of my listening room. The speakers were set on top of the stands and leaned slightly back against the wall, with a piece of medium density foam rubber at the contact point. I then used cardboard to make improvised baffles that would simulate the speakers being installed flush with the wall surface. The speakers were placed just over eight feet apart to flank my SMX Screen's 110-inch 16:9 screen. Ideally, I would have placed them a little closer together. Speaker wire connections were made by spring-loaded connectors. Unlike the spring-loaded connectors found on the backs of lower-end receivers, these connectors were robust and kept a firm grip on my Kimber speaker cables. Lastly, small toggle switches on the front baffle provided adjustment for tweeter level and boundary compensation. The IW-Basis300 took a bit more effort to set up. The speaker wire needs to be feed through grommets in the end of the cabinet and then sealed. The actual electrical connection is made at the driver, which requires that the driver be removed. While this sounds like extra effort, I would suspect that most installers would want the driver removed from the cabinet during installation to protect it from inadvertent damage.
I used the Snells solely in my dedicated two-channel system, utilizing Logitech's Transporter and Classé CDP-202 as sources, a Conrad Johnson CT5 preamplifier and Halcro DM-38 amplifier. For this review, Snell sent me their SPA-750 subwoofer amplifier, which was connected to the second output of my Conrad Johnson preamplifier to drive the IS-Basis300. The SPA-750 is a single-channel 750-watt amplifier with crossover, phase and level controls. The SPA-750 also contains a single band parametric equalizer. All line level connections were Kimber Select and speaker cables were Kimber's 8TC for the IW-B7s and their KWIK 12, which is UL rated for in-wall use for the IW-Basis300.
I began my listening with just the IW-B7s without the IW-Basis300. I let the speakers break in for a week or so, using my Transporter playing random tracks of my music collection. I was walking past the room the speakers were in and heard Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms (Warner Brothers) playing. I went in and sat down for a closer listen, selecting the track "Money for Nothing". I ripped this album to my NAS in FLAC to maintain sound quality. Listening to the well-known guitar riff that opens this song, I quickly learned that these speakers are very dynamic with a lush, vibrant midrange. I was particularly impressed that the sound floated off of and along the width of my front wall, rather than directly from the speakers themselves. The guitars maintained an aggressive edge, with good detail throughout their range. The drums on this album have never been fantastic, but the Snells did them justice. However, as the notes dropped below the 60 Hz or so range, they gently rolled off. "Your Latest Trick" has a triangle that seemed to be a bit more piercing through the Snells, indicative of a tipped up treble. I adjusted the treble control to cut the high end a bit, which seemed to even things out. While I found the treble in the flat position to be a bit forward, my listening position was pretty much dead-on center of the vertical dispersion of the speaker. If you are sitting slightly above or below the center of the vertical axis, this may not be necessary.
Read more about the performance of the Snell in-wall speakers on Page 2.
I then listened to a more refined recording, Joe McQueen's Ten at 86 (Isomike). As a big Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn fan, I particularly enjoyed the track "Satin Doll." McQueen's saxophone struck the right balance of having a full-bodied midrange, along with the edge that gives brass instruments their unmistakable sound. The Snells did a good job getting the timbre of each instrument right and a respectable job of capturing the detail of the decaying notes. Listening to a few tracks with the treble control switch in both the flat and cut positions confirmed that the cut position worked best in my installation. In this position, the cymbals had the proper balance of energy, producing an airy, shimmering sound without any harshness.
Moving to the other end of the audio spectrum, I listened to the Black Eyed Peas' latest album, The E.N.D. (Interscope). The opening track, "Boom Boom Pow," features a strong synthesized bass line. The IW-B7s did not bottom out on this track, but simply did not go down low enough to do the bass line any justice. I then played the track again with the IW-Basis300 in the system. Better, at least up to moderate volumes, but the IW-Basis300 would bottom out at higher volumes. While technically a subwoofer, Snell is smart to recommend that this unit be used as a "bass module" to accompany the IW-B7s in the main channels, rather than as a LFE channel subwoofer. Listening to the "Boom Boom Pow" bass line at moderate volume and with some tweaking of the SPA 750 controls, I was able to get moderate bass extension that bordered on visceral. The bass that was there was tight and tuneful, without any bloating or undue overhang. In my twelve-by-seventeen-foot room, I would use at least two of the IW-Basis300s, which should increase their headroom before bottoming out. As a side note, Snell will soon release their bigger in-wall subwoofer, the IW-Basis550, for those needing increased output.
Staying with bass performance, I moved to a piece with more delicate and detailed bass, Holly Cole's "Train Song" from her album It Happened One Night (Blue Note Records). I listened to this cut several times, both with and without the subwoofer. Quite honestly, I thought the IW-B7s were fine without the subwoofer. Yes, the bass lines were light, but the texture and detail were quite good. The speakers did a good job of capturing Cole's voice and positioning the instruments appropriately across the soundstage. With this album, like the rest of my listening, I found the soundstage to be on the shallow side. This is something that I have noticed with every in-wall or on-wall system I have had in my house. Adding the IW-Basis300 as a bass module provided noticeable extension of the IW-B7s' bottom end. The combination allowed me to play this track without any loss of weight throughout the range of this song. The flexibility of the SPA 750 allowed me to achieve good integration between the IW-B7s and the IW-Basis300. However, in my limited time with the complete system, I could not get 100 percent seamless integration, as it always seemed that the bass module was just a bit slower than the IW-B7s.
The IW-B7 is a very competent speaker and one of the better in-wall speakers that I have had the pleasure of hearing. That said, no speaker is perfect. I found when seated directly on the vertical axis of the speaker that they were on the bright side. Thankfully, the speaker included a treble gain switch that brought the level down. On the other end of the spectrum, the bass of the IW-B7 was as good as far as it went, but it is definitely not full-range and will need some help for music with deep, powerful bass. The IW-Basis300 was okay as a bass module, but its definition could not match that of the IW-B7s. Anyone considering the IW-B7s who enjoys deep and powerful bass should consider multiple IW-Basis300s or another, more powerful subwoofer.
Lastly, the soundstage was very good laterally, but was shallow from front to rear. While I feel that I need to note this, I am not particularly critical of the IW-B7s for the lack of soundstage depth, as I have only heard one in-wall speaker system with greater image depth and that was the much more expensive Wisdom Audio system.
The Snell IW-B7s provide the performance of an audiophile-quality small tower speaker, but with zero footprint. The Snell's midrange was always a pleasure; it reminded me of a good tube preamplifier with its lush midrange. It lacks the ultimate in resolution and inner detail, but never left me feeling disconnected from the music - quite the opposite. The Snells were highly musical and involving.
The D'Appolito configuration of the speakers provided increased intelligibility by reducing floor and ceiling reflections, something especially important for center channel speakers that may be mounted close to these boundaries to fit around a wall-mounted television. If your room is one of the very few that has multiple risers, the narrow vertical dispersion pattern may cause some issues with uneven response across the seating positions.
The IW-Basis300 did in fact extend the lower end of the IW-B7s' usable frequency range, but a single unit in my room did not make this a full-range system. If a full-range system is needed, I would recommend consulting with your installer to determine how many bass modules are needed.
Overall, the Snell IW-B7 and IW-Basis300 make for an impressive speaker system. The fact that this system can be hidden within your walls makes it that much more impressive.