Sound & Vision 05/2018
Just as not everyone prefers to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, there are some people who don’t like to have tower speakers standing at attention (and drawing attention) in their family’s living room. At our family’s traditional Thanksgiving chow-down (at Christmas, we have a ho-ho-hoedown), we serve baked ham as an alternative to the delicious, funny-looking bird the rest of us enjoy. (Those who don’t like either choice get bread and water.) For people who can’t or won’t have tall, floorstanding speakers in the vicinity of their TV, the acoustic equivalent of baked ham is a set of in-wall speakers. (Those who don’t like in-room or in-wall speakers get their own kind of bread and water: a cheap soundbar with no subwoofer. Only those on the naughty list must endure the speakers built into the TV.)
Although the thought that a pair of in-wall speakers could ever approach the sound quality of a really good set of in-room speakers is laughable for many people who are serious about listening to music and movies, there are a handful of speaker designers who honestly think it’s possible to engineer such a thing. In other words, these acoustic chefs believe that, with the right combination of spices, they can make ham taste—um, sound—like turkey. (But not sound like a turkey, because that would be totally plucked up.)
Sandy Gross of GoldenEar Technology is one of those pumpkin-pie-in-the-sky dreamers who say, “I want to have my ham and eat my turkey, too.” Having helped co-found not only GoldenEar but also two other speaker companies, Polk Audio and Definitive Technology, Gross is no stranger to the design pitfalls of trying to shove a speaker in a wall and make it sound like it’s out in the room. He also has a reputation for coming up with in-room speakers that sound like, well, they’re not in the room: Most recently, Gross (with his engineering partner, Don Givogue, and the design team at GoldenEar’s facility in Ottawa, Canada) introduced the company’s top-of-theline ($4,250/each) Triton Reference powered towers, the ones that turned Al Griffin into an “audio crack”–addicted “music junkie” when he reviewed them for our June 2017 issue. (Word is he still hasn’t left his listening room.)
Near the end of his review, Al asked of GoldenEar, “What to do next after creating a speaker called the Reference?” Gross’s answer is the new Invisa Signature Point Source in-wall LCR speaker. At a “mere” $1,000 each, it seems like a flea-market bargain compared with the hefty price of the Triton Reference tower—and, in a way, following up such a fantastic speaker with an in-wall model feels like a letdown. Architectural speakers are a different breed, though, and one thousand bucks for a single in-wall is definitely getting into eyebrow-raising territory. In fact, you have to do some serious searching to find an in-wall or in-ceiling speaker that costs $1K or more. They’re out there—I’ve reviewed a few of them—but there aren’t many. So, for the moment, the Invisa Signature Point Source in-wall is GoldenEar’s first attempt at creating a “reference” architectural speaker.
Turning Towers into Walls
Gross told me that the impetus behind developing the Invisa SPS was the number of customers who requested an architectural speaker with performance similar to that of the Triton series towers. Not surprisingly, the design goal was to “take as much of the technology in the Tritons as possible and put it into an in-wall speaker.”
The result is a 2½-way speaker that borrows heavily from the engineering found in the GoldenEar towers, including four 5.25-inch cast-basket bass drivers—two of these handling midrange duties and employing the company’s multi-vaned phase plugs, and all four incorporating GoldenEar’s Focused Field magnet structure. The single folded planar magnetic tweeter— a standard component of every GoldenEar speaker—is largely based on the tweeter used in the Triton Reference tower. Next to the tweeter is a three-position high-frequency adjustment switch. Gross believes that perhaps the most important element of a speaker is the crossover; he refers to it as the “conductor” that directs the performance of the “orchestra” of drivers. GoldenEar spent a significant amount of development time solely on voicing the speaker.
The SPS measures 28.5 x 8.5 inches, and at about 3.75 inches deep; it fits into standard 2 x 4 stud-constructed walls. Embedded around the outer perimeter of the speaker’s front baffle are 24 small neodymium magnets that tightly hold the off-white metal grille (with a nearly invisible flange design) to the front. Four small pads strategically located inside the grille serve to further minimize extraneous vibrations. The extremely rigid, all-in-one baffle-and-mount assembly includes a double-channel support molded into the back. It has an unusually high number (12) of dog-leg-style clamps around the edges that, combined with the rigidity of the baffle, make the wall feel like it’s made out of brick rather than wallboard once everything is installed.
GoldenEar ships each SPS configured for a straightforward, vertically oriented installation. For horizontal use, the tweeter has four very short screws that are easy to remove (and reinstall), allowing the tweeter to be rotated 90 degrees—which was how I installed the center-channel speaker in the system. If you’re doing a retrofit installation, one of the major drawbacks of any horizontally oriented in-wall center speaker measuring more than 15 inches wide is that one (or possibly more) of the studs in the wall will need to be modified in order to make room for the drivers’ baskets and magnet assemblies. Most pro integrators are prepared to handle it, though. With new construction, the walls can be framed to accommodate the speaker’s dimensions ahead of time.
Newton’s Favorite Technology
The system that GoldenEar put together for me to install and listen to included three Signature Point Source speakers (two vertically for left and right, one horizontally for the center) and two other models from the Invisa series: a pair of MPX Multipolar inwall speakers ($500 each), for the surrounds, and four HTR 7000 in-ceiling speakers ($500 each), for the front and rear Dolby Atmos height channels. From the SuperSub series came one of the company’s fairly recent small-form-factor freestanding subwoofers, the SuperSub X ($1,250). I’ve reviewed the MPX and HTR 7000 speakers as part of previous systems, so I won’t spend much time on them here, other than to say that they include driver and crossover technologies similar in concept and engineering to that of the SPS speakers—especially when it comes to the tweeter in each one.
The SuperSub X, measuring 14 inches wide x 12.75 high x 13.25 deep, is a powered subwoofer that uses GoldenEar’s patented Dual-Plane Inertially Balanced Technology. Basically, this is a configuration that pits two active and two passive drivers against each other in an attempt to cancel forces that would shake the cabinet instead of radiating all of the energy into the room—making the cabinet perform more as if it were inert. The SuperSub X is powered by a 1,400-watt-peak Class D amplifier. (The Reference towers include an 1,800-watt amp.)
I’d heard the SPS in-walls set up as part of a 7.2.4 Atmos system in GoldenEar’s CEDIA booth in September 2017, so I had a pretty good idea that they’d perform quite well in a twochannel system. (As a brief aside, I think a Dolby’s Atmos rig using Dolby Surround upmixing is fantastic with most two-channel source material. In my case, I normally listen to music with my system’s full Atmos array because I like the processing’s delicate handling and expansion of ambience cues in two-channel material. Mainly because of the Invisa series speakers’ similar voicing, the 5.1.4 configuration for this review sounded spectacular with nearly every music selection. But I digress.) If the Invisa SPS speakers were to truly live up to their Triton Reference pedigree, though, they were going to have to be damn good for listening to music—without any caveats related to theatrical performance.
Yes, my experience at CEDIA was favorable. But as I started this review—when it was just me, a pair of the SPS in-walls, and the SuperSub X in my room—I was still caught off guard by how open and revealing the SPS speakers were. I was caught doubly off guard (off-off guard?) when I listened to the “neoteric and intriguing” duo of Arianna Warsaw-Fan (violin) and Meta Weiss (cello), known as duoW, on their 2013 release, Entendre. (I listened to the 192-kilohertz/24-bit two-channel version, but the Blu-ray Audio edition includes DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 7.1 versions.) The release includes Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, and throughout all three movements, the two instruments weave in and out and talk to each other in a musical language of their own. In the classical canon, there’s not a whole lot of music written for violin-and-cello pairings, but duoW’s performance of the Kodály is an invitation for composers to write more. It’s difficult to describe the life and emotion these two women imbue their instruments with. It’s nearly as difficult to describe how incredible the SPS in-walls were at conveying that life force into the room. I always love the top end of GoldenEar’s speakers, and this variation of the tweeter in the SPS in-walls is truly worthy of its Reference badge. The violin was light and open, without any noticeable ringing or breakup. The lower voice of the cello was equally revealing, especially with the nuanced decaying resonance of the instrument’s body.
I moved on to “Lullaby of Birdland” from Heather Masse and Dick Hyman’s Lock My Heart. The opening piano notes were not only widely spaced across the front of the room, they also had the same decisive percussive nature that the cello strings had on duoW’s Entendre. In fact, the lively dynamics of the piano across its tonal range were absolutely fantastic for an in-wall speaker. Masse’s sweet and fluid vocals had none of the boxiness or constriction that is often present with in-walls, and her voice was placed solidly in the center—as well as slightly out into the room. What’s more, the entirety of the soundstage had a sense of depth that was totally unexpected from speakers on a flat wall in front of me.
On the subject of soundstage depth and width: “I Need Never Get Old,” the highly energetic opening track by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats on their self-titled 2015 debut, had both in spades—starting with a solo guitar way out to the left before it is joined by another guitar equally far to the right. The horns that follow filled in the middle along with the drum kit and were smooth yet crisp, even when the SPS speakers were pushed to high volumes. The projection of the soundstage into the room was even more noticeable here than with “Lullaby of Birdland”—almost to that magical point of breaking out and matching the depth perception generated by an in-room speaker. But even that was bested by “Pocahontas” from Neil Young’s recent Hitchhiker release (of a 1976 recording session), during which I noted, “Damn, that guitar is living in the room!”
Although I’d already noticed how well the SuperSub X blended with the Invisa SPS speakers, along with how musical it was (especially with the cello on Entendre), I auditioned a perennial favorite of mine: Linkin Park’s “When They Come for Me” (A Thousand Suns). The transition at 80 hertz was imperceptible, and both the tautness and the depth of the drumbeats were amazing—even more amazing when you consider that the SuperSub X is basically a cube that’s less than 14 inches in any dimension.
Wonderfully Wide Wilderness
If ever there was a movie epitomizing the fact that sound is 50 percent of the overall movie experience, Walking Out is it. Set in the remote mountains of western Montana, it follows David, an urban teenager who lives with his mother in Texas, and his nearly off-the-grid father, Cal, who lives on sprawling acreage in those mountains, as they go (reluctantly, in the case of David) on the boy’s first moose hunt. Of course, the movie is more about the attempt of the two to emotionally reconnect than it is about moose hunting. It’s a traditional drama, one in which you’d expect the background music and dialogue to be the only important parts of the soundtrack. But here, while it’s true that there are few “surprise” surround effects (one of the most notable being a number of startled grouse that fly out of the grass directly behind the viewer), the subtle soundtrack is actually one of the main characters.
For a movie like Walking Out, it’s vitally important that the speakers in your system perform as a seamlessly integrated single component—and this is exactly what the Invisa system became. For starters, although I was initially a little concerned about how the SPS speaker mounted horizontally for the center channel would perform, it turned out that the LCR trio was spectacular at smoothly handling sound that panned across the front. Just as important, the horizontal SPS didn’t have any of the boxy, constricted character that you can often get with in-wall center-channel speakers—an attribute I highly appreciated with the dialogue-heavy Walking Out. The full-throated, open character of the horizontal SPS allowed the emotional nuances in the actors’ voices to stand out, since there was nothing extraneous to mask them. This also gave extra emphasis to the sometimes heart-wrenching sound of the violin in the soundtrack.
The entire GoldenEar system was absolutely stunning during the outdoor scenes, both in the open fields and in the densely forested mountains, as it re-created a completely seamless audio envelope, bringing the sounds of the wind, animals, and flowing water into the room. A large part of this was obviously due to the wonderfully matched timbre of the speakers. I really can’t say enough about the artistry of the movie’s soundtrack—and the way in which the speaker system reproduced it. Awards should be given to both the movie and the speaker system.
It feels awkward going from the sublimity of Walking Out to the rambunctiousness of Atomic Blonde, but the contrasting styles of the two movies’ soundtracks helped to show that the Invisa system was totally capable of handling shock and awe, too. I’m not sure I can give a good synopsis of this movie, but I can tell you that from nearly its very beginning, this was obviously going to be a thrill ride. Here again, the matching of the MPX surround speakers (and the four HTR 7000s in the ceiling for the height channels) with the front SPS speakers was marvelous. This was clearly demonstrated in a scene where a stolen Stasi car, its trunk in flames, flies overhead from the rear to the front, where it slams into the Berlin Wall and explodes. Later, when MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is having a conversation in a local bar, initially with a male and then a female Stasi agent, the horizontal center speaker’s openness and extremely close match to the vertical left and right speakers maintained intelligibility of the dialogue regardless of its position across the front. Meanwhile, the ’80s music playing in the background politely filled the remainder of the room, creating a wonderful sense of space behind the close conversation in the front. While I was watching the movie, I wrote in my notes, “One of the best LCR matchups with in-walls that I’ve heard in a long while. Seamlessness defined!”
In-wall and in-ceiling speakers get a bad rap—and for good reason. Most are designed with a low price point as the goal, and they merely provide background-music quality. But that doesn’t always have to be the case. GoldenEar Technology’s new Invisa Signature Point Source speakers are proof that you can build an attractive, non-intrusive in-wall loudspeaker offering performance that rivals (and, in some cases, surpasses) that of an equivalently priced in-room speaker.
It’s often said that GoldenEar’s speakers sound as good as other companies’ speakers costing many times more. Architectural speakers are harder to compare using such a blanket statement because installation, size, form factor, and other things need to be considered as well as sound quality. That said, on price alone, I’m not sure you can find another speaker at the $1K price point that sounds anywhere near as fantastic as the Invisa SPS in-wall does—whether it’s for a two-channel or multichannel system. Once again, GoldenEar has set a new high for the performance-to-cost ratio. More important, they’ve done something extremely rare: They’ve created an in-wall loudspeaker that just might convince a die-hard in-room speaker fan.