Sonance Cinema Ultra II LCR Speaker System Reviewed

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Sonance has been well known as a maker of in-wall speakers for the past 20 years. In fact, the company, which calls itself "the leader in architectural audio", was among the first to take in-wall speakers into the world of high-fidelity audio.

So when your top game is in-walls, why come out with a line of cabinet speakers? Mainly because no matter how well you design an in-wall speaker - with backboxes to account for difference among wall cavities or schemes to isolate the speaker from the wall surface - there is, so far, no perfect way to stop the wall from vibrating and muddying the sound. There's no doubt in-walls can sound great, but properly designed cabinet speakers will always do a better job.
That said, although the system designed here consisted of five Sonance Cinema Ultra II LCR cabinet speakers along with The Sub powered subwoofer, most installers would probably recommend in-wall or in-ceiling surround speakers. Sonance makes in-walls sonically matched to the LCRs.

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Unique Features
he Cinema Ultra II main speakers feature four drivers: a one-inch silk dome tweeter, two three-inch aluminum midranges and an eight-inch aluminum woofer. Even without the support of a subwoofer, the speakers can deliver solid bass - they're rated down to 70 Hz (-3 dB) and can provide usable bass below that. So while you'd miss a sub with action/adventure movie soundtracks, you'd hardly know it was missing with most real-world music.

For the most natural, realistic sound, all speakers should be oriented the same. But no one, it seems, wants a vertical center speaker on top of the TV. Sonance's elegant solution is to mount the tweeter and midrange drivers in a separate metal plate that can be rotated 90 degrees so that the sound of a horizontally-positioned speaker will be virtually identical to its vertically-positioned counterpart.

For relatively small "bookshelf" speakers, the Cinema Ultra II speakers are heavy - about 35 pounds each, though their volume is only about 1.25 cubic feet. That's because the front baffle and rear panel are made of one-inch thick medium density fiberboard (MDF), while the top, bottom and side panels are a laminate of half-inch MDF and half-inch particle board. Give these cabinets the rap test and all you'll end up with are sore knuckles.

Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
The main speakers are somewhat heavy, so you can't place them on flimsy shelves or stands. Because they're THX Ultra-certified, they have controlled vertical dispersion, so mount them at close to the same height across the front for the most natural-sounding sound field.

The Cinema Ultra II LCR main speakers have two switches on the rear panel just above the speaker terminals. The first is a woofer boundary-compensation switch to tame the bass if you place the speaker on top of a TV or in a bookcase. This allowed me to get my center speaker (on top of my rear projection television) to match my front left/right speakers, which were mounted on stands.

The second switch is a three-position tweeter level adjustment that can be set to +3 dB, -3 dB or flat. The +3 dB setting made both movies and music far too bright and harsh. For movies, I settled on the flat position - it seemed to enhance the dialogue so I never had to wonder what anyone said. For music, even the flat position was too bright. The -3 dB position worked great. For example, if I closed my eyes while listening to some old John Coltrane discs, I could easily imagine McCoy Tyner's piano in my room.
Click on Page 2 for the Sub and the Final Take.

HTR Product Rating for Sonance Cinema Ultra II LCR Speaker System

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The Sub - a THX Select-certified unit - has both line- and speaker-level inputs and outputs on its rear panel. The front baffle has crossover frequency and volume controls behind the grille along with Phase and Mode switches. The Mode switch toggles between a THX-calibrated crossover setting when used with other THX-certified equipment and Variable, which lets you set the crossover on your own. I used the Variable position since I was not using a THX receiver, and I was able to dial in a perfect blend between the sub and the main speakers almost on the first try. I set it to 70 Hz to match the mains' lower-frequency spec and only had to tweak it slightly until I was satisfied.

Final Take
I used a wide variety of material to audition the Sonance system, from jazz and rock-and-roll to classical and the blues. But where the system really came alive was with movies. Take for example U-571, a submarine drama that focuses on the efforts to retrieve the Enigma code-making machine from a German sub. I wish I hadn't missed this one in the theaters when it was released, a few years ago. But watching the widescreen DVD on my RPTV and listening to the DTS soundtrack over the Sonance system was as close a second as you could hope for.

From the creaks and groans of the sub's hull to the pings of the sonar, from the scraping of metal to the explosions of depth charges, the soundtrack of U-571 kept me glued to my seat. The Sonance system conveyed the action with a solidity that was nothing short of outstanding. And these speakers, despite their modest size, can play loudly. How Sonance is able to get so much sound out of such a small box is something of an enigma itself. I'm a little surprised that I didn't get complaints from my neighbor - or the building's super, who lives just below me.

Although I was somewhat disappointed at first by the system's performance with music discs - the limited vertical dispersion of THX speakers made much music sound edgy - I found that I could coax great sound by tweaking the settings on the main speakers. Just changing the tweeter level to -3 dB made a tremendous difference.

The Sub meshed well with the main speakers and was able to keep up with them during demanding scenes, like the depth-charge explosions. The bass was tight and real, never muddy or indistinct. The front panel volume and crossover controls made setup a breeze.

Engineering a cabinet speaker is a very different task from making an in-wall. So it's somewhat amazing that the company was able to pull off such a fine-sounding system. Sonance will never make cabinet speakers its main line of business, but there's no doubt that it could if it wanted to.

Sonance Cinema Ultra II Cabinet Speaker
Amplifier power 5 - 200 watts per channel
Frequency response 70 Hz - 20 kHz +/- 3 dB
(1) 1" silk dome, Ferrofluid-cooled tweeter
(2) 3" aluminum cone midrange drivers
(1) 8" bass driver
18 3/8"H x 10 1/8"W x 11 1/2"D
Weight - 35 lbs
MSRP - $1,000 each

Sonance The Sub Powered Subwoofer
Amplifier power 150 watts
Frequency response 35 - 250 Hz
12" front-firing dual voice coil woofer
Fixed 250-Hz or variable 45 - 150 Hz crossover
19"H x 15"W x 19"D
Weight - 60 lbs
MSRP - $799

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