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Product Review - Snell 5.1 Speaker System: XA60 Towers, XA55cr Center, SR30mp Surround, and PS.10mk2 Subwoofer - May, 2002 

Aaron Hodges


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Manufacturer's Specifications

XA55cr Center Channel Speaker

Frequency Response55 Hz-22 kHz (± 3 dB)
Sensitivity  88 dB (2.83 volts @ 1 Meter)
Recommended Power  50-300 Watts
Drivers  One 1" Aluminum Dome Tweeter, Two 2.5" Midrange Woofers, Two 6.5" Woofers
Average Impedance  4 Ohms
Dimensions 
9" H x 22.5" W x 11" D
Weight
  39 Pounds

MSRP
 $1,300 Each

XA60 Tower Loudspeaker

Frequency Response   36 Hz-22 kHz (± 3 dB)
Sensitivity
  89 dB (2.83 Volts @ 1 Meter)
Recommended Power
  100-300 Watts
Drivers
  One 1" Aluminum Dome Tweeter, Two 2.5" Woofers, Two 8" Woofers, One 1" Fabric Dome Rear Firing Tweeter
Average Impedance
  4 Ohms
Dimensions
  42.25" H x 9.5" W x 16.25" D
Weight
 73 Pounds Each
MSRP
 $2,800/Pair

SR 30THX Surround Loudspeaker (THX Ultra2 Certified)

Frequency Response   70 Hz-20 kHz ( ± 3 dB)
Sensitivity
  88 dB (2.83 Volts @ 1 Meter)
Recommended Power
  20 - 150 Watts
Drivers
  Three 1" Aluminum Dome Tweeters, Two 3.5" Midrange,  One 6 1/2" Woofer
Average Impedance
  4 Ohms
Dimensions
  16" H x 16.25" W x 8.25" D
Weight
 18 Pounds Each
MSRP
 $1,800/Pair

PS.10mk2 Subwoofer

Frequency Response
  32 Hz - 125 Hz (
± 3 dB) 27 Hz at -6dB
Amplifier Power
  330 Watts
Driver
  One 10"  Woofer
Dimensions
 16" H x 15.75 W x 16" D
Weight
57 Pounds
MSRP
: $1,350


Snell Acoustics, 143 Essex Street, Haverhill, MA 01832; Phone 978-373-6114; Fax 978-373-6172; E-Mail info@snellacoustics.com; Web http://www.snellacoustics.com 

Introduction

Near-perfection in audio is reached with the right combination of a set of speakers, room conditions, amplifier, CD, cables, and subwoofer.  It is a fleeting thing because the perfection you found in the conditions for one musical piece are probably not there for the next.  My best listening experiences have come from systems that I just couldn’t stand to listen to with 70% of the albums I own.  Who wants a speaker that only allows you to listen to a handful of albums?  I’ve seen it.  You buy the speakers and realize that a certain song just lights the system up.  It brings out the best of what the speaker has to offer. When you put in a bad recording, or you try to listen to it as background music from another room, or you try a different music genre, they just sound lousy.  That one good album stays in the CD player continuously.  You stop listening to the artists you liked before because they just don’t sound good in your “system”.  Then the music becomes more about the equipment than it does the art.

We’re here to talk about the equipment, so I’ll mention that I tend to believe that the equipment is art too, and it’s job is to compliment the music when done well, reproduce the music when done adequately, and butcher the music when done poorly; but it should not supercede the music.

For two years, Colin Miller has been alluding to our speaker discussions in his articles in an attempt to persuade me to review something for Secrets.  His latest attempt to incite me to digitally transport my thoughts came when he asked if I wanted to review some beautiful new speakers from Snell“They are high-performance”, he told me.  Since I jump at any opportunity I get to “kick the tires” on a surround system complete with subwoofer, I stopped by Colin’s place with great anticipation to pick up Snell’s latest home theater/two-channel audio offering.  Five boxes had arrived via freight to Secrets' home office in Redwood City, California and then Colin picked them up and brought them over to East Bay, for me to see.  With considerable effort we loaded my Land Rover.  Folding up the adjustable back seats and moving the front passenger seat up 6 inches, the two XA60 tower speakers, two SR30mp surround speakers, one XA55cr center channel, and one PS.10 mk2 powered subwoofer made the journey to my house.  My wife would make the trip home with knees against her chin, but the speakers rode comfortably.  Once home, too excited to wait for assistance from any burly person I could bribe into helping me lug the large boxes to the second floor, I sucked wind to haul the heavy beasts into my living room, one box at a time, one stair at a time.

Like a child on Christmas morning, I tore open the biggest boxes first, tossed the packing material astray, and threw the instructions to the wind.  Banana plugs in. CD in. Position looks good. I was comfortably listening to Dianna Krall in my sweet spot in 4 minutes flat.  My anticipation did not disappoint.  I was struck by her strong, beautiful blues voice in a suspended sound stage somewhere beyond the wall in front of me, while a string bass strummed in my stomach and horns blew sweetly on my temples.  These indeed, are what audiophiles call “high end speakers.”

Next, I unpacked the center speaker, subwoofer, and surround channel speakers.  With minimal adjustment, I replaced my existing surround channels with Snell’s attention-grabbing beauties.  To start, the surround channels would need to be guiltily placed on a shelf covering one of the potential bottom cloth grilles, but we’ll get into that later.  A quick sound sweep with a meter adjusted the relative volumes, and I was ready to give these puppies a full on surround sound work out.  Like a clumsy first date, as the goodnight kiss moved off the front porch and into the foyer, I was sliding "Gladiator" into the DVD and becoming intimate with my guests before really knowing them.  I would soon find that I had done a great disservice to the speaker’s abilities, for the folks at Snell had built a speaker system that needs to become acquainted with the listener and the surroundings before it’s truly ready for the fireworks.  Each speaker has options to compensate for room deficiencies, available equipment, and personal preference. While I had some complaints early on, most were resolved once I took the time to read the instructions.

XA60 Tower Loudspeakers

The XA60 Tower Loudspeakers are just less than 4 feet tall, and weigh 73 pounds apiece.  The models shipped to Secrets were black veneered oak, but are also available in cherry and other finishes by special order.  The driver array consists of a 1" black-anodized aluminum tweeter surrounded on top and bottom by a 2 ½-inch midrange driver mounted in a separate enclosures, two 8" woofers, and one rear firing 1-inch fabric dome tweeter.  The front is protected and decorated by perforated metal grilles.  The cabinets, heavily braced and solid as a whole oak, produced a dull thud in response to my knuckles wrapping their sides, confirming what my back and legs had suggested during the trip up the stairs, that they are solidly built. 

My first impression of two-channel music listening was that the XA60s sounded a bit bright.  It should be mentioned that my listening room is lively.  I’d say unless some precautions are taken, most living rooms are lively rooms.  While I would love to hang sound-absorbing materials in strategically placed locations and move some key pieces of furniture, it doesn’t produce what my wife would consider to be an aesthetically pleasing, functional living facility.  The problem is that I prefer a metal dome tweeter for many types of music.  I find the effects of a metal dome tweeter particularly nice when listening to Afro-Cuban or jazz music where the effects produce what I feel is a more realistic tone for brass instruments and high-hat tapping.  An upfront speaker can have an unpleasant effect for some types of music listening, namely many types of popular and rock music, especially when placed in a room without regard for horizontal reflection.  However, while the Snell XA60s were a little on the bright side, they were not annoying, and I knew that was a good start. 

I started moving the speakers to find a position that would minimize the upfront tweeters.  I toed in the speakers slightly and widened the space between them.  I also arranged some pillows above the furniture on the adjacent walls halfway in between the speakers and the listening position.  While arranging the speakers, I noticed three switches on the back panels of the speakers.  Options?   In my excitement to start listening to the XA60s, I hadn’t taken the time to learn about them.  I found the manual on the floor with the packing materials and started reading.  The XA60s come with what is described as a bass loading switch, rear tweeter on/off switch, and a treble level control switch, as well as inputs available for bi-wiring or bi-amping.  The XA60s came with carpet spikes, though they were not used for this review.

The bass-loading switch has a “Normal” setting and a “Boundary” setting.  The manual indicates that the speakers should be set to “Boundary” when the speaker is within 12" of other furniture or walls.  This attenuates bass, as the nearby surfaces tend to reinforce low frequencies, created by placing the speakers flush against walls, big screen TVs, or entertainment centers. The Rear Tweeter On/Off switch sets whether the rear-firing tweeter is active or not.  The Treble level comes with a + and – setting.  The + setting is closer to anechoically flat while the – position is similar to a processor “cinema EQ” setting.  The documentation says to set the Treble level to – “if overly bright, especially in overly reflective rooms”.  Hey, that’s my room!    

With these options in mind, I played with the settings while listening to several styles of music, toe-in positions, and room placements.  First, I set the Treble level to – which produced a seemingly more even representation, but did not detract from the detail.  It simply removed the edge.  The speakers were separated from other major objects by at least 12", so I found it most tasteful to set the bass loading switch to “Normal”.  Although the rear-firing tweeter produced additional ambiance and a larger sound stage, I preferred the rear-firing tweeter turned off.  While it added more content to the center stage, it detracted from the detail and realism of the center image.  Since I’m sure this is a setting that is dictated primarily by personal preference, listening material, and room “obstacles”, I applaud the engineers at Snell for a utilitarian design that compensates for such variables, and gives consumers lots of choices in ways to listen to their speakers.

XA55cr Center Channel Speaker

The XA55cr Center Channel, like the XA60s, came in black oak veneer with a perforated metal grille.  The speaker includes a 1" black anodized aluminum dome tweeter surrounded on top and bottom by 2 ½" midrange drivers and surrounded on left and right by 6 ½" woofers.  The center speaker was designed with a tonal balance to mimic the XA Series Loudspeakers, and like the XA60s, the center channel comes with switches to control bass load and treble Level.  The speaker weighs 39 pounds, and like the XA60, is solidly hand crafted with a lot of care.

 I initially found the "Gladiator" soundtrack overbearing in relation to the voices.  After watching the entire movie, I was disappointed at the effort it took to make out the main character’s deep voice.  The speaker documentation suggests that if the voices sound “thin” then the “Normal” setting for bass load should be used rather than the “Boundary” setting.  However, this change alone did not resolve what was an unnatural blend.  Because of a projection screen from my ceiling to within two feet of the floor, my center channel rests on a shelf 1 foot above the carpet.  There is a coffee table between the center channel and the sweet spot.  Only after placing a one-inch wide book under the front of the speaker so that it was angled slightly towards the listening area did the voices stop competing with the soundtrack.  This brings me to a word on the XA Snell design . . . .

The XA60 Loud Speakers and XA55cr center channel feature Snell’s expanding array format (XA).  The XA design utilizes a three-element array that has theoretically little response change at ± 150 vertically, with the goal to create a significant drop in response at 300 to 450 vertically.  Hence, it reduces the amount of sound that is reflected off the floor and ceiling, producing a less cluttered image with more depth.  It also translates into a smoother transition between the front channels (LCR) of a surround system. The downside is that the speakers are more directional and sometimes harder to place in the listening room.  In my listening area, this equated to slightly angling the center channel and either craning my neck upwards or sitting on a pillow in my listening chair for for the flattest response from the XA front speakers.  Note that my favorite listening chair sits lower than the average sofa or recliner and it is doubtful that many would experience this same challenge.  It is not to say that the drop off in response was significant.  In fact, I probably would not have been less impressed with the speakers had I not sat up tall and found it sounded even better.

SR 30THX Surround Channels

Did I mention the folks at Snell have given us options?  This is most apparent in the design of the SR 30THX surround channel speakers.  It is complete with options for direct or diffuse response and options for 7.1 listening out of one speaker, all in a sexy on-wall enclosure that would make surround channels at the local cineplex jealous.  Each SR 30THX weighs 18 pounds and is 16" tall.  It is available in black or white paint.  The driver configuration includes one front firing 1" black-anodized aluminum dome tweeter, two recessed side firing 1" black-anodized aluminum dome tweeters, and two direct/diffuse configurable 3 ½" midrange drivers with copolymer cones.  With a 6 ½" woofer, the SR30mp guarantees nearly full-range output from the surround channels.  The whole package is wrapped with cloth grilles on five sides and mounted on a Masonite frame.  The front of the grille can be easily removed to give access to four speaker terminals and an option switch.

I initially placed the surround channels on shelves at roughly ear level.  They performed nicely and matched well with the front and center channels, probably due to using the same aluminum dome tweeter.  However, I later realized that the appropriate place for them was hanging on the walls.  As mentioned, the speakers mount flush against the wall and are capable of either direct or diffuse sound dispersion by merely flipping a switch.  They can also completely hide the speaker cable assuming you can run the cable through the wall to the appropriate position.  I cannot imagine a more attractive surround sound mount short of in-wall speakers, for which diffuse or direct wall dispersion options would be near impossible.  So, out came the cordless drill . . . .

Each SR 30THX conveniently comes with a paper mounting template and four self-mounting #8 screws and four #10 screws with toggle wings.  The directions include the appropriate sizes to drill for holes based on solid or dry wall placement.  The idea is to mount the supplied shaped particleboard bracket to the wall.  The SR30mp then slides snuggly onto the bracket from above.  The mounting bracket has a groove to run the speaker cable through in case it is not run behind the wall to the ideal location below the mounting bracket.  The paper-mounting template indicates the appropriate placement needed to ensure there is enough ceiling clearance to slide the speaker on from above.  This is especially useful to avoid mounting the brackets high, only to realize that the ceiling is keeping the speaker from sliding into position.  You can see the mounting bracket on the wall in the upper left corner of the photograph at the top of this page.

The documentation suggests mounting the speakers directly to the right and left of the listener and at least 12" away from the closest wall or ceiling.  For 7.1 applications, the speakers should be mounted slightly behind the listener on the right and left.  The instructions said, “The higher the mount the better.”  Unfortunately, I did not have a 7.1 receiver on hand. For the review, the speakers were mounted directly to the left and right and exactly 12" from the ceiling.  The installation involved drilling eight 9/16" holes (don’t tell the landlord) and took about one hour to complete.  The templates and directions provided greatly minimize measuring.  The only difficulty was negotiating the speaker wire into the correct enclosure while sliding on the speaker, which took more effort on the first speaker than the second.     

As mentioned, the surround channels come with a switch to listen in either direct mode or diffused mode.  The direct mode option activates the center-firing tweeter that points directly at the listening area to produce a more directional sound.  In "Gladiator", the catapults that originated to the left of the listener came from a distinct position rather than a general area and flew across the line of vision to a fiery crash in the front right corner of my room.  The use of the same aluminum dome tweeter creates a complementary balance with the XA front and center channels.  Whether the flying arrows flew from back to front, or from front to back, the sound was identically coordinated, producing a well blended, easy to follow illustration.

If you see a gun, explosion, or fist on the box cover (this is assuming that Dolby Digital or DTS is available for the movie), chances are it should be listened to in direct mode. However, in my opinion, movies that are done well enough to listen to in direct mode are rare.  For other applications where the surround channels are used for little more than enhancing the sound track or where you must listen to the movie in Dolby Pro Logic, the diffused setting is the way to go.  The diffused setting disables the front-firing tweeter and sound is produced from the side-firing tweeters.

The design is a unique form of dipole.  The area of the response null is wider than with a typical dipole speaker.  This makes room placement not quite as critical as with some dipoles.  The result is as the setting name implies, a more diffused non-direct listening locale.  The sound seems to come from an area of the room, not an exact location.  This is usually the appropriate setting for listening to multi-channel music, sporting events, or Pro Logic (which isn’t really programmed to come from a specific room location rather is computed from two-channels to produce an all around feel).  The rules for when to use direct or diffuse mode are not hard and fast and will be determined by your own experimentation and preference.  Kudos to the engineers at Snell for coming up with a practical design that meets the needs of all types of movies and music.  

A word on movie-watching and the aluminum dome tweeters used by Snell.  I previously described the speakers as bright while listening to two-channel audio until some tweaking was done.  After listening to the Snell speakers for two weeks of surround sound movie watching, I found the upfront nature provided by the aluminum tweeters to be extremely pleasant for action scenes.  Swords clashing not only sounded like metal hitting metal but felt like metal hitting metal.  The edge that was unpleasant for listening to Madonna was right at home when watching an airplane rip apart in "Fight Club". Again, the Snells have switches to turn tweeters on and off, and turn them down in volume as well. This type of design is rare.

I almost forgot, the SR 30THXs also come with the ability to listen to 7.1 from one pair of speakers in the rear instead of two.  To apply this configuration, set the speaker terminal jumpers and setting to 7.1 mode.  The front firing tweeter and woofer will act as the surround speaker while the back firing tweeter and woofer will act as the back speaker.  It is unbelievable that they could squeeze in another option for these speakers.  The obvious benefit is that you don’t need to purchase or clutter up your living room with a second pair of rear channel speakers to listen to movies that have the new 7.1 formats (Discrete ES, etc.).  This is one of the only speaker designs in the world, that I know of, which has this feature.

PS.10.mk2 Powered Subwoofer

The PS.10mk2 powered subwoofer has a healthy set of options to configure.  Would you really expect anything less from Snell?  The subwoofer has a 10" custom-built driver, top mounted with a heat sink and a 330 watt amplifier.  The unit comes in black oak veneer with black cloth grille.  It is also available in cherry.  It weighs 57 pounds and forms a moderate, approximately 16" cube.    The unit has two ports on the front of the cabinet. Having two ports doubles the surface area of the port, so that each port passes less air [Editor: I wish I could say that about myself], which means lower turbulence from each port, as well as greater linearity of the port's output. Translation?  Better dynamic performance in the tuned area than an equivalent unit with a single port of the same diameter.  There are plenty of knobs, switches, inputs, and outputs on the back to control the variable low-pass crossover frequency, auto turn-on mode, phase shift, power on/off, high-pass output, line level outputs, and speaker level inputs and outputs. 

I’d like to offer a word on the simple things in life.  The Snell PS.10mk2 subwoofer has what I would prefer to see more of in a powered subwoofer, namely a volume control on the front of the subwoofer.  A subwoofer is often hidden in a corner, behind a piece of furniture or under a table.  Most likely the back of the subwoofer is against a wall.  When setting the relative volume levels on the subwoofer you typically need to back it out of the corner to make the rear panel accessible.  For the PS.10mk2, this is not necessary.  Many times when watching a movie, later than my neighbors would want to hear some low bass content, I will turn down the volume on the subwoofer, a little easier to accomplish with the volume in the front.  So simple.

There are 80 Hz high-pass crossover outputs in both line level and speaker level format and a variable low-pass filter that ranges from 50 Hz to 125 Hz.  I didn’t use any of this, as I hooked up the subwoofer to the subwoofer channel of the receiver and let it do the crossover work.

So how does it sound?  Well, as most home theater buffs know, the subwoofer is a critical part of the system.  The documentation mentions that the PS.10mk2 will go down to 32 Hz at ± 3 dB before rolling off by – 6 dB at 27 Hz.  My tests with the Avia test disc LFE low frequency pass, along with an SPL meter roughly matched these readings.  There was a small peak at 32 Hz that rolled off and stopped reading at below 25 Hz.  This isn’t too bad for the modest size of the cabinet.  I was first aware of the healthy bass output watching the movie "Time Code".  Among the other interesting aspects of the movie is that, during the course of the story, several earthquakes take place in which there is some really low content.  I’d guess 35 Hz and lower.  During the first multimedia earthquake, my wife came running out of the bedroom wanting to know what was going on as most of the pictures in the listening room were rattling.  Living in San Francisco you just never know.  To say the least, I was impressed.

Heat sinks are used to dissipate heat from electrical equipment.  You typically find them on equipment like amplifiers and computer processors that need to be kept cool under high electrical use.  Snell uses heat sinks in some interesting places.  The PS.10mk2 subwoofer has a heat sink mounted to the 10" driver.  The application of the heat sink is to keep the voice coil cool under heavy pounding.  Oh, and it looks really cool too.

The XA60 towers and XA55cr center channel also have heat sinks.  Once it occurred to me that these weren’t active speakers, I was somewhat surprised.  Crossover circuits produce heat due to continuous electrical current flowing through them.  Though it is not common for speakers to have heat sinks, it is theoretically practical since heat can change the frequency of the crossover.  The large heat sink also draws heat from the cabinet keeping the drivers cooler. As I have said a couple of times in this review, it is a rare design feature.

Conclusion

For music listening, the inherently lively, up-front treble, used carefully, can produce a euphoric sense of depth and realism for brass, instrumental, and emotional vocal material, although it may leave some music, such as particular rock and pop recordings that depend on a blurring of detail to sound acceptable, hollow and annoying.  Solution? Adjust the Snell treble control to the - position for that particular CD. A good case could be made that the listening material is just hollow and annoying, but I think there is an application for all music even if it is simply as a nostalgic catalyst.  A laid back speaker used with a laid back CD will likely give you something that is easy to listen to under all environments but outstanding in none.  Solution? Adjust the Snell treble control to the + position for that CD. I’d like to hope that a speaker exists that reaches perfection in all environments, but I’m too practical to believe that is true.  I feel a good speaker should do an outstanding job under all environments and excel at a few.  Hence, the Snell speakers have met my burden for a well designed speaker by daring to give us that edge, that for certain material, makes it as good as it could possibly be while for other material there are a number of switches to compensate.  I just can’t say enough about the care that the engineers at Snell have taken to give the finicky listener some alternatives to have so much choice in one set of speakers for preference and listening area deficiencies.  The options also guarantee that you won’t get bored listening to these speakers.  With Snell's XA series, you can try all your favorite albums and movies with the various settings until it sounds "just right."  For movie watching, my theater has never sounded better, and in certain instances, musical performances would literally shine.  I recommend you give them a listen, and like any date, put in a little effort to make the most of it before deciding on the church.

 

- Aaron Hodges -

Equipment used for comparison, reference and pleasure:

M&K V-1250 THX Powered Subwoofers
M&K LCR-750 THX Loudspeakers
M&K 550 THX Loudspeakers
Paradigm Monitor 90P Tower Loudspeakers
B&K Components TX4430 Power Amplifier
Yamaha RX-V995 Digital Receiver
Yamaha CDC-96 CD Player
Toshiba SD-2109 DVD Player

NEC LT150 DLP Projector


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