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Product Review - Home Theater Direct Surround Sound Speaker System, Level 3, Y Configuration - January, 2002

 
John Kotches, Editor, PC-Home Theater

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Level 3 Towers:

Frequency Response  42 Hz - 20 kHz 3 dB
Sensitivity
  91dB/1w/1m
Nominal Impedance
  8 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD)
  41 3/8" x 8 5/8" x 10 7/8"
Weight
  43 Pounds Each
MSRP
  US$429/Pair

Level 3 Center Channel:

Frequency Response
  45 Hz - 20 kHz 3 dB
Sensitivity
  91dB/1w/1m
Nominal Impedance
  8 Ohms
Dimensions
  8.3" x 22" x 9.5"
Weight
  22.3 Pounds
MSRP
  US$139/Each

Level 3 Bookshelves (Used as Surrounds):

Frequency Response  45 Hz - 20 kHz
Sensitivity
  91dB / 1w / 1m
Nominal Impedance
  8 Ohms
Dimensions
  16.5" x 8.7" x 10.8"
Weight
  17 Pounds Each
MSRP
  US$199/Pair

Level 3 Subwoofer:

Frequency Response  30 Hz - 250 Hz
Sensitivity  N/A
Nominal Impedance  N/A
Dimensions  19" x 15.75" x 15.75
Weight  49 Pounds
MSRP  US$269

Package PriceUS$979 (Includes US$57 Package Discount)

 

 

Home Theater Direct, 1327 N. Carolan Ave, Burlingame, California 94010; Phone 866-HTD-Audio (866-483-2834); E-Mail nfo@hometheaterdirect.com; Web http://www.hometheaterdirect.com

Returning from the Stratosphere

To paraphrase Henny Youngman, "Take any one of my speakers, please, take it!".  Ok, those of you behaving as Pavlov's dog would after ringing the bell, behave!  There is a particular reason I made that reference.  If you take any one of my speakers, it will cost more than the entire 5.1 setup under review from Home Theater Direct.  But, everyone, and I do mean everyone in the review business should take on a relatively inexpensive component and review them from time to time.  Remember what it's like to be working within a budget?  Most people out there have to work within a tight budget, and I decided to take a look at what's available factory direct for roughly 1 US kilobuck.

I spoke with Home Theater Direct (HTD) several months back about getting a review 5.1 setup for me.   Brian Wines from HTD and I discussed options, and I wanted a Level 3X setup, but he wanted me to have the Level 3Y setup.  The difference?  The mains are towers instead of bookshelves.  This adds about US$200 to the cost, and so I agreed.  Unfortunately, all of his shipments were sold at that time, and it took a couple of months before I was able to get a set of their speakers into my home for review.

At Secrets, we're candid about the details, so I'll tell you that during the review cycle I was supposed to be working with a new mass market receiver.  Unfortunately the receiver met with delays, but I did not want to delay our review of these speakers any longer.  As a result, I ended up reviewing this set of speakers with my big bucks processor and power amplifier. Not a big deal, but just so you know.

Are You Experienced?

My Level 3 setup arrived in five boxes. The Towers, Subwoofer, and Center Channel all arrived in individual boxes, and the petite size of the surrounds allowed them to be shipped two to a box.  If you opt for the Level 3X (smallest configuration) you'll receive just 4 boxes.  Each box had plastic strapping tape as a secondary protection, should the staples and tape not hold during its transoceanic voyage and during shipping to your home. The speakers are double boxed, and additionally wrapped in plastic.  

Some speaker companies offer you a bewildering array of finishes for your speakers including exotic (and costly) woods.  HTD does not.  There are exactly two color options: black and cherry.  These are not the highly expensive black ash (or oak) and real cherry veneer finish, but they are nicely painted versions that end up quite attractive and a better alternative to the usual vinyl clad options at or near this price point.   I opted for cherry finish on the review samples.

The speakers arrived on a relatively nice October day, so I took them outside to snap a few photographs, scattered throughout this review.

The picture on the left shows the Level 3 Tower, with and without the black grille cloth in place.   The picture below, right is a close-up shot of the binding posts.  You'll notice these are knurled, gold plated 5-way posts, with bi-wiring capability included.  This is a very pleasant surprise for their price point, and I really like the appearance and quality of these touches.  The binding post picture also gives you a better idea of how the cherry finish looks.  I haven't included pictures of the Center Channel or Bookshelves binding posts, but they too are bi-wire capable.  In an effort to get very precise timbre matching, the same drivers are utilized in various configurations of the Level 3 speakers.   In addition, all designs are ported, exchanging higher sensitivity for a higher -3 dB point and steeper rolloff below this point.  The towers also throw in spiked feet so that you can decrease coupling to the floor.  

The towers are a D'Appolito array, with dual  woofers (with phase plugs) on either side of a 1" silk dome tweeter.   In this enclosure, the tweeter is centered. It is a ported (bass reflex) design, and the port is front firing.  The nice thing about a front port is that if necessity in your room dictates a placement up against the wall, you can do this without any serious compromises in bass performance of the tower speaker.

Next up, we have the Center Channel.  This has a modified D'Appolito array, with the tweeter offset to the top of the cabinet.  The intent here is to improve dispersion.  As mentioned earlier, this is a bi-wirable speaker, with a rear-firing port.  The same driver complement as the Level 3 Tower is included for very good timbre matching.  Because of placement differences, it will be impossible to get a perfect timbre match, even with a physically identical speaker.

The bookshelf speaker was utilized for surround duty, with a single woofer and the  tweeter.  As before, this speaker is also bi-wirable, and includes a rear-firing port.    

Finally we come to the subwoofer, king of bass.  This is a single 12" doped paper cone, and dual ports for the subwoofer.   This improves linearity of the port output and can reduce port turbulence, due to a slower exit velocity of air from each port.

Now we get to the first criticism of the speakers, the subwoofer plate amplifier.  The usual control complement is here for a subwoofer at this price point.  You get a volume level and a continuously variable crossover from 40 Hz - 160 Hz with marks for 80 Hz and 120 Hz for reference.  You also have Left and Right line level inputs and outputs should you choose to use the subwoofer's internal crossover being fed from a preamplifier, and being fed back to a power amplifier.  The phase is switchable between 0 and 180 degrees, so it is not continuously variable between the two.  The subwoofer can be either On (powered up constantly), Auto (which activates the amplifier on detection of signal), or Off.  For my review period, I used the On position as Auto was slower to respond (3-5 seconds) than I would like.  My complaint?  The speaker binding posts for speaker level crossover usage are the cheesy spring clip connectors I despise.  Given this I wouldn't recommend using the speaker-level inputs.  Hopefully they'll put out an updated subwoofer with true 5-way binding posts.  Not the end of the world, but still worth mentioning.  Also, a captive power cord is included, so no dilemma exists about the right power cord for the subwoofer!

Worlds Apart

I started off with critical listening after some serious burn-in time (5+ days totaling about 100 hours).    So, the drivers should have been well along to harmonic bliss, and in fact they were.

My initial listening was to stereo with the towers alone, and some of my best stereo material is on DVD-A discs.  Much to my surprise, the first thing I noticed wasn't the tonal differences compared to my own speakers, it was the imaging.

A good review of a component should teach you something about your own system, and less than 5 minutes into the session, I learned this:  My system's imaging needs to improve!  The HTDs quickly displayed how adept they are with imaging, and my own system was not as good.  Set-up was within a few degrees of ITU spec for front left and right speakers.  A succinct quote  is, "They image like nobody's business". 

I was rewarded time and time again with a broadened soundstage and was reveling in the qualities.  They have width well out beyond my speakers, and a superb discreteness as required.  On SACD, this was best illustrated with James Taylor's Hourglass,  track 1 "Line 'em Up".  In this disc the background singers span from mid-left / just left of center / just right of center / mid-right with JTs voice smack dab in the middle.   The one thing I didn't get was the 5th string of Jimmy Johnson's bass guitar.  

I pulled out some of my favorite imaging selections, to highlight what I was hearing, i.e., Tom Harrel's Upswing, and was rewarded with an impressively wide, wraparound sound that extended forward about 1 or 2 feet from the outside of the speakers.

The bass results were not surprising, as the towers aren't rated down into the 30 Hz territory, only to about 42 Hz.  Still, I wanted to see just how much bass I could coax out of them.  By coming in closer to the wall (about 6" away), I improved bass depth a bit, but also severely compromised the imaging.  In the end, I pulled them back out to about 14" from the wall where the imaging was best.   

Very little of my music listening involves really low bass, and when I have a track that I know fits that category, I make sure the subwoofer is engaged.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Next up, I started working on the 5.1 setup, and cracked open a few selections I use to test the midrange.  I kicked off my listening to the Center Channel speaker (CC) with Alan Parson's On Air, "Oh Brother Up in Heaven".  This one has the lead vocal  predominately to center, so it's an ideal candidate for CC auditioning -- with left and right adding just a bit of width to the voice.  I listened to this one a couple of times in succession, first from the "sweet spot" to hear how well the CC and Towers blended.  This means I checked their timbre matching!  Given my rooms logistics, the CC tweeter was approximately 12" lower than the tweeter on the towers.  I expected a terrible issue because of the disparity in heights, but was pleasantly surprised.  It was apparent that the voice from the CC came from a different height than the main right and left, but it was not as disjointed as I had anticipated.  Score another one for the HTDs!  Excellent dispersion from the CC tweeter.  Then, I sat about 3' in front of the CC, to hear the lead vocals coming almost exclusively from the CC.   Here I felt the lead vocal was just a bit less pure than my own CC.

During the review cycle, my parents visited and I tortured my father by making him sit down and listen to the review speakers, and to get "non-audiophile" comments while we were watching The Fifth Element (Superbit version).   So, naturally the Aria scene was pulled out.  While an instantaneous speaker switch is not possible, I can pull off the switch in about 2-3 minutes.   Levels are pre-matched with configuration templates on the EMM Labs Switchman-2, and volume control was kept consistent at -10 dB from reference level. First the HTDs, then my speakers.  So Dad, what did you hear differently?  "The big speaker sounds clearer."  The big speaker is my CC.   Ok, maybe that wasn't such a great idea, sorry to torture you Dad!

What about movie dialogue?  I love Gross Pointe Blank, and this has some great moments of dialogue.  I usually compare the scene where Joan Cusack's character is "closing the office" as speaker setups can fall apart if things aren't just right between the CC and the mains.  Nope, no trouble here.  Even as Joan smashes the PC, you never lose track of her voice vs. the foley effects.  

Finally, we'll talk about the "kitchen test", which I first described in my review of the EMM Labs Switchman-2.  Here is where the CC let me down, finally.  I wasn't compelled to come in from the kitchen to listen to the tenor solo at the end of "West of Hollywood".  I have always felt compelled with my CC - but let's be fair, there is a substantial disparity in price as well.  [Note to self:  The Level 3 CC costs 1/5th of my own CC.]

Surround Spectacular

The bookshelf speakers of the set utilized for surrounds are rather diminutive and ship without stands.  If you are a stickler about getting the tweeters up to the same height as the towers and CC be forewarned to get some speaker stands.  I ran out to Ikea and got a US$10 / pair of stands.  Not perfect, but the angle worked well, and I was pleased with the results.

The first disc I pulled out was Steely Dan's Two Against Nature concert DVD, to check out the efficacy of the speakers.   If I didn't know better, on FM I would have sworn I had  a center surround speaker - Cornelius Bumpus' distinctive tenor was emerging from directly behind me with a solid center image.  While not a sonic match for my own surrounds, the imaging was far better.  [Note to self:  The bookshelves cost 1/8th the price of my surrounds].    I was enraptured by the sharpness of the surrounds, and it is definitely a different experience than what my dipolar ESLs produce.  The background vocalists were sharply rendered from side to side, and once again some left/right imaging was going on from my surrounds.  It got really fun hearing John Harrington's guitar solo as he imaged about midway up the left side of the room.  In short, I've got lots of tweaking to do to improve imaging with my own surrounds. 

Then to check out their timbre and ability to deliver some very difficult material, I pulled out the next challenge from my collection. This time it was DVD-Audio, and I chose a track from the AIX Records' sampler of Zephyr and "The Lark  at Heaven's Gate Sings".  This a capella choir is presented so that you're surrounded by singers with a mixture of male and female voices emerging from various points around the soundstage.  If you don't like aggressive surround mixes, I'd suggest you steer clear of this recording.  I happen to think it makes a great surround demonstration, and I was quite pleased with the presentation.  At no time did it feel like the reproduction was strained.  Because the speakers' timbres are so nicely matched, the richness of this collection of 14 voices really came through.  In addition to the usual left/right placement, with the timing cues so nicely done, I was also able to get some front/back imaging between the fronts and surrounds that I just don't get with my current setup.

The Deep

I come now to the other weak point of this speaker system setup, the subwoofer.  I am troubled by one aspect of the physical construction of the subwoofer's plate amplifier, namely that the speaker level inputs and outputs are of the spring clip variety that don't mesh well with the lovely gold-plated 5-way binding posts on all the other speakers.   I would like to see them make the changeover, but I also realize would almost certainly raise the cost of the subwoofer.  In my opinion, this is a worthwhile modification to make. Brian Wines at HTD indicates they are considering this change for the future.

Then I reached for some of my good low frequency demo discs of the stereo and 5.1 variety.  I used an 80 Hz crossover for all speakers, which were defined as small. 

Here's the other area they fall a bit short .  If you want the last octave 16 Hz -32 Hz, this isn't the subwoofer for you.  If you want reference loudness levels, one of these subwoofers isn't enough for you.  While the bass that's delivered is good and tuneful, it isn't where I'd like to see the low end response.  I heard significant dropoff in the last octave, and my favorite pipe organ selection found the subwoofer lacking here.  Yes, this extends an octave below the rated response of the speaker, and I can tell you the -3 dB spec is appropriately estimated.   [Note to self:  This subwoofer is 1/4th the cost of my passive subwoofer, and roughly 1/7th the cost of my subwoofer with amplification]

So, after challenging the subwoofer with some very serious bass extension, I decided to break out something with a bit more typical challenge, and stuck in James Taylor's Live at the Beacon Theater concert DVD.  This one bottoms out somewhere around the 30 Hz range, with Jimmy Johnson's 5 string bass guitar.  Between this and Steve Jordan's kick drum, I should be able to approximate the experience of being there, eh?  Well for the most part, yes.  I felt that there was a bit more emphasis on the overtones of the 4th and 5th strings and not enough of the fundamental.  In short, a little bit wimpy?  Terrible?  No way.

The Long Run (a.k.a. The Conclusion)

For under one grand, you get a superb imaging, well integrated collection of speakers that are worthy of consideration, even with some of the "Super Receivers" on the marketplace.  Saving some dollars in your budget here could allow you to step up to the next level of receiver or maybe even separates and still maintain your budget.  I consider this to have been an excellent review for myself, I learned something about my system and an area where I will be improving its performance, namely that I must improve the imaging of my own system.  

The weak points are few:  A slightly constricted quality from the speakers that occurs in some amplifier/speaker combinations.   My personal reference amplifier (the Cinepro) had no such troubles, but the Sharp SM-SX1 had some issues with the towers that were not exhibited when driving my own speakers.  These are covered in my Sharp review, rather than here, as I found this was only a case with the Sharp integrated amplifier.

Rather than wax eloquent (or my version thereof) for countless hundreds of words, I will leave you with a couple of summary considerations about this package:

On the Plus Side On the Negative Side
Timbre matching very good due to identical drivers used in all speakers Subwoofer is the weakest link, and is essentially dead at 32 Hz.  I'd like to see improved extension down to 25 Hz (and then again, the whole system is less than $1,000).
Attractive finish for all speakers. Amplifier back plate needs to be upgraded to a version with 5-way binding posts for speaker level inputs/outputs.
Seriously good bang for your home theater buck Center Channel not the last word in clarity on some recordings, fine on others.
Imaging good to very good (left/right and front to back). Choose amplifier carefully, and check it out in your system.

Associated equipment used for this review:

Item Brand Model #
Power Amplifier Cinepro  3K6, Series III
Preamplifier EMM Labs Switchman-2
Preamplifier/Processor B&K Reference 30
Integrated Amplifier Sharp SM-SX1
SACD  Sharp DX-SX1
DVD-A/DVD-V Onkyo DV-S939
Bass Management Outlaw Audio ICBM-1
Interconnects Better Cables
Nordost
Homegrown Audio
Silver Serpents
SPM Reference
Silver Lace
Speaker Cables Nordost
Homegrown Audio
SPM Reference, Red Dawn Mk II
Silver Lace
Power Conditioning Balanced Power Technologies
PS Audio
BP-2
Power Plant 300


 

- John Kotches - 

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Copyright 2002 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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