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ARX A3 Review

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  • ARX A3 Review

    Also posted on the Blog.

    The ARX A3's - The Little Towers that could

    Occasionally I encounter an audio product that really excites me. Occasionally. The ARX A3 towers from The Audio Insider are one of these products.
    Through some instances of Serendipity, I came in touch with Jon Lane, of The Audio Insider. Jon has an abundance of experience in the design and manufacture of speaker drivers, crossovers, and complete speaker packages . He also has a passion for the capacity of music to create a true emotional impact like no other medium. He realizes, as do I, that sound has an amazing (and unquantifiable) ability to cause humans to feel emotion more than pictures, and more than video. Having a background in live audio myself, I quickly found a kindred spirit in Jon. After all, I've had my paycheck depended on people wanting to come watch the national, regional, and local acts for whom I mixed. Jon and I had many conversations covering the gambit of speaker design, loudspeaker philosophy, and crossover theory.

    These conversations came to a point; Jon and I began discussing a new line he had designed, ARX. After experiencing a recent " end of life" with a lesser brand tower loudspeaker (name brand with-held), I asked Jon if a bigger loudspeaker than the A3 tower was in the works. Jon said not right now. Then he said "maybe." The "maybe" will be addressed at a later date. ;)
    In the mean time, I described my 22' x 20' x 11' open-floor-plan living room where my listening/theater area resides. If you divide the room into four quadrants, and then split it horizontally with an actual partial-height divider wall, my listening area would be in the lower left quadrant, with my couch in the lower left corner of the room and my speakers facing the bottom from the interior wall. Not good. My main L+R speakers sit against the interior dividing wall that is built like, well, an interior dividing wall. I get nearly zero bass reinforcement. The position is actually very good for midrange and treble imaging, but it's an absolute nightmare for accurate bass reproduction and it desperately requires some boundary-step compensation built into the cabinet to keep from having the lower mid-bass sounding like it's being played through a bullhorn. I have a buddy who still earns his living in live and studio audio and he let me borrow his handheld RTA machine. The results were depressing and caused me to vacuum at least one bottle of Dos Equis completely empty. I can't move the wall because the other side is occupied by a fully functional fireplace. To call the position a "black hole for deep bass" would be awfully polite. From about 300hz and up, it's not too bad at all, as far as rooms go. I told Jon that it would be an up-hill battle that any speaker would have to fight in order to not sound 'undersized' in my room.

    Now for my setup. I run an Arcam AVR300 Silver, fed signal by an LG BD590 (coaxial digital). I have an Elemental Designs A7s-450 18" sealed 1300 watt RMS subwoofer that I think is fantastic. I'm sure some of you, upon hearing this, will ask me why I don't just turn the subwoofer up to compensate for the lack of adequate bass. Well, I don't like to do this because I use EQ to create a gentle roll off of the A7s above about 70hz. Above that frequency, and the sub doesn't sound as accurate and tight in my room. I also use the sub to listen to music occasionally and I find that using a crossover frequency above that causes things to get muddy for music playback. Please take note that my wife does not notice the difference....go figure. ;)

    Fast forward to Jon insisting to me that I needed to listen to the ARX A3 in order to be able to give him accurate input on the development of the A5 tower. I inform Jon that the A3's are going to be too small for my room. Jon admits I'm right and still insists that I listen to them in my room. I inform him that this may cause me to have an unflattering opinion of them. Jon says, "Okay, I still want you to hear them."

    Being surprised and taken-aback by Jon's confidence, I had him send the A3's to me. Now for the meat and potatoes.

    Upon getting the boxes in, I was pretty surprised at how heavy they were. The boxes are easily over 50 lbs each. I expected much less after viewing the pictures on the TAI website. Dense would be the word I use to describe them.

    Despite FedEx doing their best to aerate the boxes (at least two fist-sized holes in each box), the A3's arrived in pristine condition. Packed with huge corner spacers, there was between 2 and 3 inches of free airspace between the cabinet and the box.

    Getting the towers out required considerably more strength than I anticipated. Being a 230lb weight-lifting cop, I expected to have no issues with this. Instead, I had to unbox them horizontally along the floor, telescoping the speaker out of the box. It was at this point that I heard a distinct "thunk". That was the also-heavier-than-I-thought plinth baseplate hitting the carpet. The plinth alone is between 8 and 10 pounds.

    I followed the simple instructions from the excellent ARX manual (downloadable for free on any ARX product page). Plinth went on without a hitch. I got the cabinets upright and attached the plastic carpet spikes. Yadda, Yadda, Yadda, BAM....the speakers are in place.

    Having previously listened to some Boehlender Graebner Z-series towers, and having heard the Martin Logan Preface series on several occasions, I expected to have to undergo considerable amounts of fiddling to get the tweeters to image properly at the center of my couch. Wrong again. Even when the cabinets were visibly wonky and mis-aligned, they still sounded great. These ARX tweeters do not act exactly like soft dome tweeters, but they are MUCH more toward that end of the spectrum than any other planar tweeter/ribbon driver I've heard. Horizontal dispersion is surprisingly wide. In fact, I found myself getting lazy with regard to sitting my my sweet spot. I kept getting distracted (I had The Rolling Stones 'Forty Licks' playing....hardly reference material, but some damn good music) and sitting down and just listening forgetting that I'm trying to get the boxes perfectly aligned for my OCD.
    After getting the speakers aligned, the listening test began. I personally prefer to listen straight from the CD for critical evaluation using my LG BD590 as a digital transport. I also spend plenty of time listening to MP3s (320k) and some Apple lossless rips as well. If a speaker sounds great with the reference material, but sounds lousy on the 'cheap stuff''s of little utility (and will be of little enjoyment) in the real world. I find this even more relevant with the advent of Netflix and their 128k audio streams.

    Listening Experience

    Now for how they sound. Having a background in professional live audio, I have spent a LOT of time around real instruments (both acoustic and electric). I'm familiar with the way they sound in reality. This has given me a different way of looking at evaluating loudspeakers.

    I consider the loudspeaker to be an image that one is observing through a pair of eyeglasses. The actual item being observed, let's say a painting or other work of art as an example, speaks for itself in terms of appearance. Res Ipsa Loquitor is the latin phrase that would apply (the thing speaks for itself, loosely translated). If you want to be certain of how that item appears, simply walk up to it and take your glasses off to observe it in all its finest detail.

    Sonically, speakers are the lens in your eyeglasses. It's not the speakers job to add color, or to otherwise change the image, as that would be distortion by nature. It's the speakers' job to get out of the way and portray the music as accurately as possible. Period. If the music is of high fidelity, the speakers will project pleasing noises. If the music isn't of good quality, the speakers should portray that as well. The speakers shouldn't alter an original signal any more than they should be asked to inject additional talent into a recording.
    Alright, enough with theory. In reality, all speakers add their own 'filter' to the sound they are attempting to reproduce. I don't care if you're talking about some esoteric $80,000 a pair colors the sound...even a simple sound like a snare drum head being struck. Yadda yadda yadda, why does this matter to you?

    Well, I've listened to quite a few sets of speakers in my less-than-optimal listening room in the $1,000-and-under class, and none have provided so little coloring as the A3 towers. I went from listening to my favorite recordings, to listening INTO my favorites. I haven't had this experience before in such an inexpensive speaker. I've listened to the Martin Logan Preface series, and I can tell you that they pale in comparison to the A3's. Treble clarity, air (which is usually due to a relatively flat response above 8k), and dynamic bass were all there.
    Listening to the new Black Keys album, 'Brothers', you really get a sense of the dynamics of the kick drum. You hear the layers of sound, like the old AM radio playing in the background during the first few seconds of the 2nd track, Next Girl. This would fall into the category of 'sounds you don't normally hear revealed through a $500 pair of speakers'. Listening to the rest of the album was quite enjoyable.

    Moving on to Diana Krall's 'Live in Paris' CD, you really get a sense of the room and the front image of the instruments is very good. The soundstage is wide, but still providing good separation between the instruments, which are panned individually across the front. I heard the simple things like the gentle brush against a drum head during quiet passages and people coughing in the audience during the show. The midrange is relaxed in my view...just the thing I need in order to not have my face ripped off during extended listening sessions. With 'Deed I Do' being one of my favorite tracks, you can hear the hammers in the piano and the room. It's truly enjoyable. Revealing with no fatigue. I've never experienced this level of detail and this lack of harshness in a planar tweeter before.

    My biggest reservation, if I could name one, was that the planar magnetic tweeters would sound just as harsh as so many had before. I envisioned having to accept some level of grittiness and harshness in order to get the detail I was searching for. This turned out to be a non-issue. These tweeters are the real deal and they sound amazing. They have all the positive properties of the best aluminum dome 25mm tweeters with none of the harshness (sometimes politely called "sizzle"). I expected the tweeters to be the weakpoint regarding output, but I never heard them breakup even at uncomfortable listening levels. An interesting side note is that, after extended listening sessions at higher volumes, I could feel the faceplate of the tweeters being warm to the touch. This is encouraging, since thermal damage is the biggest long-term enemy of any tweeter driver. Pulling that heat away from the innards of the driver assembly and out to the ambient air is simply good engineering.

    Now for the big question in my mind; how is the bass in my room? I mean, the A3's are admittedly undersized and are not in the optimal location for adequate bass reproduction. So I played some pretty juvenile music on them. The Black Eyed Peas. Metallica. Jack Johnson. Various rap artists. I played them at both low and high volume levels and they shocked me. After a relatively short break-in period, the bass really filled out (I'd estimate the 15-20 hour mark). The bass was so incredible for four 5.25" drivers, I wanted to see what they were capable of. So, with Jon's blessing, I basically tortured them.

    (See the end of the review for embeds of the videos from Vimeo)

    I settled on the Kanye West song "Stronger" because it hit at and just below the tuning frequency of the drivers. The cabinets got loud at an even rate without the midwoofers outrunning the tweeters or vice versa. They just got louder and ore dynamic. I played a lot of bass heavy R&B from Pandora for well over an hour. I played "Stronger" at well over 100dbA a couple times. I never actually reached the excursion limits of the midwoofers. I know I got close (because there are laws of physics in play), but I stopped short because I was afraid of frying the crossovers. I was amazed at the lack of power compression...and it unnerved me a little. Normally speakers that are driven hard exhibit some 'bad behavior' before they fail. Hearing little (if any) audible distortion, I was worried that I would be unable to identify a problem with the speaker in time to prevent permanent damage at these volume levels...there was no onset of discoloration...just more volume. Well, no damage and the A3's just keep on truckin'. These midwoofers appear to have around 8-10mm of clean one-way excursion. This is no doubt due to their beefy magnets structures and XBL2 motors. Just Google "XBL2" for more info on the licensed technology. I dare you to find another $500 pair of tower speakers employing anything even remotely as advanced or refined as XBL2 motor designs or true planar tweeters in their setups. won't. Not for $500.

    To say that I'm impressed with the refinement that the A3's put forth is an understatement. I'm very impressed. I mean, try and find a tower pair for $500 with properly implemented boundary-step compensation. You won't. Try and find one with low loss inductors, high quality polypropylene capacitors, and an 'organically designed' (i.e. not fighting the natural frequency responses of the drivers), tuned-by-ear crossover network that is different for every model. Most ARX models only have about 6 crossover components. Fewer filters in the network = more undistorted signal getting to your ears.

    As for integrating with my eD A7s-450, I found that using the A3's without their port plugs worked best for me. I had little difficulty in finding an acceptable crossover frequency for the two as partners. In fact, I found that a relatively wide range of frequencies sounded very good. If you are limited in placement for the A3's, you can alter the bass rolloff by inserting the foam plugs to give them more of a sealed-alignment's sound. It's easy to fiddle with and you'll know pretty quick which setup you prefer.

    With a simple and smooth 8-ohm nominal impedance rating (and little deviation from that figure), these speakers are an easy load to drive for just about any receiver or amplifier. As with most speakers, they respond very favorably to high current amplification. The bass gets deeper, more controlled, and the midrange and treble see added clarity from high current amplifiers.

    The cabinets are much more sturdy than they appear. I promise this will strike you when you take them out of the box. We're talking the opposite of cheap; these cabinets are solid, properly braced, and adequately damped. Are they plain looking? Absolutely. Are they ugly? Not to me. The cabinets are finished in a simple but well-executed black ash PVC laminate. After hearing them, I found it difficult to focus on how they looked. It's a non issue. If you want to buy furniture-grade cabinets, you're looking at the wrong line of speakers.

    To conclude, I'm amazed at how well these A3's handled my room. Shocked. I'm pretty confident that anybody shopping for a pair of refined towers for $900 per pair should definitely consider these. I haven't heard from Jon of one customer who has gotten the A3's in their home and still taken advantage of the 30-day in home satisfaction guarantee. And I'm not surprised one bit.


    I've included below embeds of my two ARX A3 excursion demonstration videos:

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