POW!! Take that Ray Kimber! SMASH!! Thought you’d get away didn’t you, George Cardas! ZONK!! You’ll be limping for a week Bill Low!
Yes folks, there is quite a brouhaha going down this month on this page (“No, not the face! Not the face!”), and the audio cable designers seem to be getting the worst of it, poor things. What is surprising is who is doing the dishing.
Dynaudio, believe it or not. Being one of the world’s best- known loudspeaker and speaker-component builders, it has depended on these cable guys, and others like them, since gourmet wire was invented. While I suppose somebody somewhere is still hooking up his speakers with lamp cord, most people are turning to some member of the wire cabal for a “proper” set of speaker cables. Yet as necessary as wire is, I’ve noticed that speaker manufacturers tend to play it cool, choosing not to recommend particular cables either by brand or type. If they discuss the subject at all, they tend to point towards the shortest lengths of the largest gauge.
And now Dynaudio with its XEO series (which includes a bookshelf XEO 3 retailing for $2300/pair) has pushed this ambivalence even further. How about no cable? Well, at least no speaker cable, for until someone comes up with a shoe-box- sized power plant that can be installed in a small speaker cabinet, power cables and nearby AC receptacles remain necessities. The XEO line is Dynaudio’s entry into the wireless-loudspeaker market. The $4500 XEO wireless-loudspeaker system comes equipped with everything you need to play music from any source including your hi-fi system, a PC, a personal audio player, and a docking station, to name a few.
But there’s a bit more to the XEO system than the missing speaker cables. Packaged in a black box only a little larger than a deck of cards is the heart of the XEO system—the Transmitter— and it is here where I feel the real advance takes place. Putting it in terms of weight, the five-ounce Transmitter, in conjunction with the source-switching and amplification within the speakers themselves, replaces almost 50 pounds of equipment from my audio shelf. No need for the NAD integrated, since the speakers have built-in amplification and the Transmitter controls source- switching. No need for my Meridian DAC because the Transmitter accepts digital sources up to 48kHz/32-bit, according to my music-player software (although Dynaudio only claims 24-bit), and mates very well with my Rotel CD drive via the supplied Toslink cable. The Hegel USB DAC also took a powder because, you guessed it, the Transmitter accepts datastreams via USB, including, of course, streaming radio (so good-bye Kenwood tuner). As an added bonus, the Transmitter is fully powered by that same USB cable and thus may be positioned at the host computer. Have an analog device? No problem here either, since the Transmitter has two RCA jacks, which also share a switchable channel with a mini-phono jack.
If you’re counting that’s four sources per transmitter, the selection of which is controlled by an exceedingly compact and lightweight remote control. Said remote also is the home of the on/off, volume, mute, and transmitter-selection buttons. Transmitters are available separately ($350), and up to three— which may be individually designated A, B, and C via a switch on the back of each unit—will answer to a single remote. The A, B, and C channels allow you to select the strongest WiFi frequency band. Although you could use separate transmitters for each pair of XEO speakers in a multi-room system, a single transmitter will control up to three pairs of XEO speakers. This flexibility underscores what the XEO system is all about.
Although even I experienced the benefits of going wireless, I’m not the sort of listener who will get the most out of what XEO can do, given that I listen to all of my media through a single pair of speakers set up in a single room. I’m also conventional in the sense that I have a main system of much higher quality than any other music systems in any other part of the house. Dynaudio’s XEO transmitters and loudspeakers smash this paradigm with the promise that up to three rooms in a home can encompass he-man system-quality for a fraction of the he-man price.
Allow me to explain. So far I’ve told you about the XEO transmitter that can “feed” up to three pairs of XEO loudspeakers within 50 meters indoors and up to 100 meters if there are no walls to penetrate. In a multi-room installation the second and third pairs of XEO loudspeakers don’t need their own transmitters, saving you $350 off the complete system’s price. This brings the cost of two additional XEO 3s without transmitters down to $1950 apiece. Theoretically that translates to three separate systems of equal quality fed from multiple sources. I’m not suggesting that this is an inexpensive proposition but the savings become big time starlets when you find you need only a single source to serve three systems. Three for the price of one!
You may be asking yourself at this point, “How do I control the volume and source-selection if the transmitter is in another room?” And this brings us to the speakers themselves, which in the case of the XEO 3 and 5, are two-way designs sharing 1.1″ soft dome tweeters and 4.75″ woofers (two in the 5 and a single one in the 3).
Both are bass-reflex designs with smoothly flared ports that can be plugged by supplied foam cylinders. I ended up preferring the XEO 5’s “unplugged,” which not only sounded more fully fleshed out but measured better too, at least in my room. On the back of the cabinets where you’d normally expect to find the binding posts is a comparative NASA mission-control- room of electronics. Well, not really, but you will encounter two slide switches, one asking you to decide whether the host speaker is going to be “left,” “Mono,” or “Right,” and the other demanding that you choose a speaker communication-frequency, which in XEO parlance means whether the speaker will live in Rooms 1, 2 or 3. The mono choice strikes me as interesting in that judging by one of the uncaptioned diagrams in the owner’s manual one possible use of the XEO system could be that of a multi-element PA system for a public space, perhaps a restaurant.
Finally, there is an on/off rocker switch and an IEC socket for the removable power cord, which by the way is a useful eight- feet in length. The amplifiers are Class D Texas Instruments modules, based on the original TacT designs that have an all- digital signal path. The amplifier module converts a digital audio bitstream from the XEO Transmitter directly into the pulse-width modulation signal that turns the output transistors on and off. This architecture eliminates from the signal path all analog circuitry as well as the digital-to-analog converter. D-to-A conversion is performed as a natural byproduct of the switching output stage. This is the same topology found in many new “direct digital” amplifiers now coming on the market. You don’t need a separate DAC because it’s essentially built into the amplifier modules. And the A-to-D duties are handled by the Transmitter. The cool-running and hyper-efficient Texas Instruments amplifier modules do the pushing and pulling at a total of 100 watts per side, the power split 50/50 between the tweeter and the woofers. I can’t say how long it will be before you notice a reduction in the electric bill, but between the two speakers and the transmitter I never saw more than 13 watts on my Kill-A-Watt EZ power-usage meter. Woof!
So how do you control volume and sources when the Transmitter is not in the same room as the speakers? Answer: via the speakers themselves, any one of which will do as long as it is set to operate in the same room as its companion(s). On the front baffle is an IR receptor along with an LED indicator light that shines blue when operating, red when off, and flashing-blue when muted. The IR receptors work well whether the screens are on or off, and if you forget to shut the speakers down they will toggle themselves off after a few minutes.
Build-quality of the XEO is up to the usual high Dynaudio standard, and the finish on my piano-lacquer-black pair (also available in white lacquer and black- or white-satin finishes) was flawless. Nits to pick from a design standpoint were really quite minor, although there was an annoying quirk that, while ultimately rectified in my situation, may still prove to be troublesome to some.
First, the little nits. Tall and narrow tower speakers are inherently tippy, and I would have liked to have seen a wider base on the XEO; it’s just too easy to knock these puppies off their perches. I’d also become more of a rabid fan if the Transmitter- cum-preamp gave some hint as to which source was on at “go.” In addition, it is a little sobering to realize what happens if the 2″ x 4″ x 3/8″ remote gets misplaced, as there is no other way to control the system other than at the source itself. Finally I thought the lEDs were a bit bright, though those on the speaker baffles were damped down when the grilles were in place.
One of the joys of living in the era of networked WiFi Internet access is the promise of streaming music or video, whether it be from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Cloud Player, or most radio stations. But the thing I discovered very early on in auditioning the XEO system was that, when it was operating, the ability to stream music or videos from these sources went from the usual “OK” to “Not OK.” Think “excruciatingly slow”— slow, that is, if I got any signal at all. All devices in my home were affected, whether PC, laptop, iPod, iPad, or logitech squeezebox Radio. As I was to learn, the reason for this was akin to electronic warfare. As the Transmitter operates in the WiFi bandwidth, it could in certain cases, like mine, overwhelm the wireless router if operating near the latter’s frequency. The solution? Change the frequency setting at the Transmitter, which increases from setting A to C, or change the setting of the router’s frequency. I was the recipient of great adulation in my home by simply moving the switch to Channel C on the Transmitter although for those needing all three channels I should think a solution would have to be found at the router.
Because the XEO system is so much more than a pair of loudspeakers it was impossible for me to treat this as a one- for-one component comparison simply because I had no other component on hand in the XEO’s category. That said, I tested the XEO 5’s frequency response using test-tones and my Radioshack sound pressure meter, if only to get a handle on its capabilities in an absolute sense. In this I am happy to say the system performed quite well indeed. In best fighting trim (no grilles, open ports) it produced a very flat in-room response curve of 32Hz–10kHz +/-4dB, which is about as good as the recently reviewed Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand and NAD amplifier match, if a comparison must be made.
These curves are never truly flat nor do I think we really want them to be, and the wobbles here and there are where we can see some of the individual character that every speaker design possesses. In this case, the 5s have a bit of bloom in the 60–120Hz range, which, though more exaggerated when the speakers are fresh out of the box, over time only add a bit of richness while obscuring none of the rest of the sound spectrum. Do allow time for the XEO 5s to reach this fully-broken-in stage. In the meantime the foam port plugs are handy in smoothing this area.
I did not find the XEO 5’s to be particularly choosy about positioning, which is fortunate as the owner’s manual is absolutely no help in this regard. still these are good imagers and as such benefitted from being some distance from walls (at least two feet) and slightly toed-in toward the listening chair. When the speakers are set up thus, images are well delineated and unwavering across the soundstage. The attractive grilles are easily removable and I would recommend going grille-less, as there is a slight veiling to the mid-to-upper midrange when they’re in place. And aside from bright blue lEDs staring back at you, the XEO 5’s look pretty good naked.
So how did the music sound? I have to say the 5s did justice to everything they were optimized to take. I know that this sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it really isn’t. The XEO system is about pure digital audio, and in 2013 that shouldn’t in any way be considered an insult. To the contrary, it occupies the growing universe of components that, rather than attempt to convert a digital music source to analog at the earliest stage possible with the hope that it is converted correctly (because nothing downstream is going to help if it wasn’t), live in the digital domain from source to amplification to the transduction of digital pulses into the vibration of air molecules. This is no less pure in conception than a turntable-based analog system fed a diet of original jazz recordings from the 1950s. Ask yourself: Is it really any less “wrong” to convert a DDD recording to analog simply because the amplifiers down the path don’t know what to do with the zeros and ones, than to do the converse with a vinyl record because in this case the amplifiers do?
But keep in mind that while the XEO system is democratic about accepting a very large host of upstream partners, the least “slicing ’n’ dicing” is only going to happen for digital sources, and of those only CD-quality or under. The XEO won’t play hi-res audio as such without asking that your music server do something about all that extra data first. I, of course, tried hi- res anyway, but the result was what you’d expect: not bad, now CD-quality, and now certainly not worth the money spent on the original file. The “miracle” that Ella and Louis (HDtracks) both came back from the great beyond to entertain me in my own little abode was less believable, while the fact this was only a recording (albeit a superb one) was much more apparent. In some ways, vinyl fared much better, even after having to go through a conversion step—that is, once I substituted the much quieter Parasound Zphono USB for the Bellari VP129. I lost some sparkle, but the over-all “rightness” of vinyl still came through in micro-dynamics, spatial cues, and timing. “Rikki Don’t lose that Number” from steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic [ABC Records] is full of one-bar phrases of guitar and percussion which weave in and out. The XEO 5 system, to its credit, was able to preserve much of this multi-track magic.
When fed a diet of 44.1/16 digital material, the XEO 5, I have to say, produced pretty good CD sound, and good material was well served while lesser recordings from the bad old days of the 80s were no better than they ever were. Detail was excellent, bass was tight and lively, and the overall presentation was perhaps a bit drier than I was used to but certainly not objectionable, and then only in a relative sense.
An English Lady’s Mass from Anonymous 4 [Harmonia Mundi] is a funny one because over the twenty years I’ve owned this disc I have found it to sound both exquisite and dreadful depending on the equipment used to reproduce it. For whatever reason the four ladies and their voices were well served by the XEO 5, banishing the harshness and stridency I hear in my own system. In lesser setups I could chalk this up to a low-fi editorializing, but I don’t think this is the case here, as I never wanted for detail or frequency extension.
The dual guitar interplay on Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now” from Blood on the Tracks [Columbia] was suitably attention- grabbing, the XEO 5 able to disentangle the interweaving of picked notes with ease. Also seemingly a walk in the park for the Dynaudio was capturing the wonderful Brazilian-based rhythms of Antonio Carlos Jobim on the classic Wave [A&M], as played by the man himself (along with one heck of a band) and arranged by Claus Ogerman.
And for the Wagnerians, larger symphonic works were very well served. I like Wagner, but Prokofiev is more my glass of kvass. The explosive “Montagues and Capulets” from suite II of his Romeo and Juliet as played by the seattle symphony [Delos] was, as it should be, both jarringly scary and beautiful. The pulsing brass underlaid by bass drum was rendered with realistic power, although I did sense a small loss of upper-midrange energy, as if some air had been pulled out of the room.
Impressive from the standpoint of sonics, packaging, and environmental impact, the XEO system perhaps gives a hint of what stereo rigs will look like in the future and, as Dynaudio most likely hopes, may be the kind of system a 20 or 30-something will one day settle down with.
Recommended? sure, especially for those whose primary route to music nirvana is through CDs or MP3 files. For the rest? I’d call the XEO 5 an extremely-high-quality second system or something for the vacation home. Either way, if this is where the future of digital audio is going then I’m encouraged. Very encouraged.
SPECS & PRICING
Rated power: 50W (woofers), 50W (tweeter)
Driver complement: Two 4.75″ woofers, one 1.1″ dome tweeter
Frequency response: 36Hz–22kHz
Dimensions: 6.7″ x 36.3″ x 10.2″
Weight: 37 lbs. each
Price: $4500 a pair (including transmitter and remote)
DYNAUDIO NORTH AMERICA
1140 Tower Lane
Bensenville, IL 60106
NAD C325BE and Ayon Orion II integrated amplifiers; Kenwood KT-8300 AM-FM tuner; Rotel RD-980 CD disc drive; Meridian 203 DAC; Dell Inspiron 530 PC running Windows Vista, J River Media Center 15; Hegel HD2 USB DAC; Thorens TD309 turntable; Dual CS 5000 turntable (78s Only); TP 92 tonearm; AudioTechnica AT- 95B cartridge; Ortofon OMB 78 cartridge; Bellari VP129 and Parasound Zphono USB phonostages; Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition and Snell E/ II loudspeakers; Kimber Kable PBJ interconnects; Kimber Kable KWIK-12 loudspeaker cable; Staples 5 meter USB cable; Have Canare DigiFlex Gold coaxial digital cable
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