Emotiva Pro Airmotiv 4 Powered Studio Monitor Review
Emotiva Pro Airmotiv 4 Powered Studio Monitor Review
by Wayne Myers
When I first ran across the Emotiva Pro family of powered studio monitors, consisting of the airmotiv 4, airmotiv 5, and airmotiv 6 models, I wondered, "How can they do all that for the price they are asking?" All that included frequency response within 2 dB of flat, solid bass extension - down to 58 Hz for the tiny 4's (-2 dB), down to 52 and 43 Hz for the larger models, on-board bi-amplification, and the characteristic that kept me lingering the longest, flat off-axis frequency response. Having been on a quest for the grail of perfect imaging in recent years, the idea of well controlled off-axis response has seemed like an important quality to work with. And it all came in at retail prices of $349, $449, and $699 per pair, respectively. The airmotiv monitors quickly found their place high on my audio gear wish list.
58 Hz to 23 kHz +/- 2 dB
52 Hz to 27 kHz +0 / -6 dB
9.4" high x 6.1" wide x 7.3" deep
20.5 lbs. (9.3 kg) per pair
One 26 x 32 mm airmotiv high-frequency folded-ribbon transducer
One 115 mm (4.5 inch) airmotiv low-frequency transducer with Curv® polypropylene composite cone structure
HF gain, LF gain, and overall gain calibrated to standard within 1.0 dB
Precision multi-pole phase compensated fully active crossover
Crossover frequency: 2700 Hz
Enter the budget-conscious airmotiv 4's. Right out of the box, the 4's landed on lazy-susan turntables so their imaging qualities at different angles could be easily explored. Every bookshelf sized speaker that I have played with in this way has been found to have a distinct ideal angle requiring careful aiming for decent imaging. Not so with the airmotiv 4's. The airmotivs are targeted for near-field monitoring applications, my favored music listening mode, and expectations were set for a wide sound stage with natural depth and sharp imaging. First impressions were that the little speakers were saying, "Aw, that's easy." Those expectations were more than satisfied through an impressively broad range of angles, with only slightly noticeable shifts in the frequency response.
Believing the room to be insignificant as a factor in all this, but wanting proof, the highly-portable pair was hefted out to the back yard for a half hour of semi-anechoic listening, and the results were the same. Nice.
Business Model, Specifications, and Physical Characteristics
Emotiva's manifesto, "superior gear, unmatched prices, 30-day trial," is clearly reflected in the airmotiv line. The three current models have impressive specifications for their price points, and are backed by a 5-year transferable warranty. A careful buyer can catch one of Emotiva's frequent price reductions and end up with an impressive value. The popular factory-to-customer marketing approach allows for the expected 30-day trial.
The airmotiv 4's being reviewed feature a 4.5 inch low-frequency driver and a folded-ribbon high-frequency driver in a solidly built 9.4 x 6.1 x 7.3 inch rear-ported cabinet. Each driver is powered by an on-board 25 watt RMS power amp. The magnetically shielded cabinet has a black textured finish that appears durable and easy to keep clean. There is a volume control on front, and the rear panel contains XLR and RCA inputs, along with high-frequency tilt and low-frequency shelf controls.
Frequency response is specified at 58 Hz to 23 KHz plus/minus 2 dB. Off-axis response, while not overtly specified, is near flat and well controlled to 10 KHz, as shown in plots on the Emotiva Pro web site.
Targeted primarily at the recording studio market for near-field monitoring, there is no grill covering over the drivers. That fact had me being extra careful removing them from their shipping carton. The speaker's compact design makes it appear not much bigger than a desktop computer speaker, and although it has a solid weight with its internal electronics, it perches easily on a light-weight speaker stand. I found myself using the inward-tapered tube of the rear port, positioned high on the rear panel, as a carrying handle. Although it seemed solid enough, that was my own idea; do so at your own risk.
A session with Room EQ Wizard turned out curves pretty much like those on Emotiva Pro's web site, although rougher due to room effects. The airmotiv 4's are voiced with a bit of a bass lift peaking at 80 Hz to compensate for the rapid falloff below 60. Curves taken while exploring the off-axis response at higher frequencies showed that the response might actually be slightly smoother at about 15 degrees off-axis than straight on axis, and a note was made to explore whether that angle might optimize the imaging just a little.
Near-Field Listening Test
The speakers were set up for listening in a near-field configuration. The broad triangle measured 42 inches tweeter to tweeter, and 31 inches from tweeter to center-of-head. I like them close! They were aimed directly at each respective ear, and speaker height had the midpoint between the centers of the drivers - right at the surround roll of the low-frequency driver - even with my ears.
Settling down for some serious listening, Todd Rundgren's Healer album happened to be cued up in the media server, so why not start there?
Right off, the sound stage seemed just a bit strained, and I was quickly reaching to angle them out to that 15 degree off-axis mark. A deep and relaxed sound stage resulted, with no sacrifice in imaging quality.
Todd's voice first stood out as sounding rich and somehow even more musical than I had noticed before. Many of his early recordings were mastered on the bright side, and I have often used them as a sort of harshness test for speaker voicing and equalization. The airmotiv 4's refreshingly transformed the upper mids and highs of these denser synth tracks into musical information where many speakers would have me reaching to turn down the level or make a note to tame with EQ. Even at their brightest, those passages were never harsh or annoying or indistinct.
Another attention grabber was the punchy attack of the percussive tones - the toms and xylophones and percussive synthesizer sounds were given a palpable density as every note took ownership of its point in space. Passages dense with rich harmonics remained clear. Individual notes, even when crowded together in the sonic space, had breathing room.
If anything will reveal an inability of a speaker to keep the imaging where it belongs, it is a triangle or high bell with its sharp attack and complex harmonics, and the album contained many examples throughout. There was one triangle part that did not resolve all that well - it might have been recorded with dual microphones for effect - but for all other instances of bells and triangles covering a wide tone and size range, every strike stood impressively clear and strong with no smearing.
Mindy Smith's My Holiday: As with Todd's voice, I immediately noted the musical richness of Mindy's vocal tone like I had not before. The album's first song has become one of my trusted imaging test tracks, and the airmotiv 4's presented Mindy's voice with the kind of pinpoint sourcing that gives you that eery "there is someone here in the room" feeling.
Other details stood out in a new way with the help of the airmotiv 4's: a bit of reed noise from a clarinet, the breathy quality of Mindy's voice on softer, almost-whispered passages. The 4's had a way of eagerly pressing these details forward, "Here, try some of this."
My listening station's acoustics give some natural boost to tones in the 50 to 80 Hz range without getting boomy or muddy - a minor and completely accidental miracle - but I usually keep that emphasis in line with equalization. For now the airmotiv 4's were running without equalization and benefited nicely from that boost. All those factors together resulted in solid, surprisingly tight bass. And I do mean surprising. Several times during the review process I had to pause in admiration for the pair's handling of low-frequency material.
SikTh's Bland Street Bloom track: This is a dense metal track with heavy kick drum and plenty of up-front cymbals. I wanted to know how loud the 4's could go comfortably. Listening in the low to mid 80 dB SPL range up until then, I reached for the sound level meter and the volume knob and went for a measurement hovering around 93 dB. While there was no obvious clipping or high distortion, the presentation felt strained and compressed at that point, and the cymbals lost some clarity. Pulling the level down just a few dB to the 88 to 89 range immediately restored the relaxed, natural presentation and sense of dynamics. To their credit, those little 4.5 inch drivers handled the low end with authority throughout, and the bass and kick drum notes never lost their impact even at the higher levels.
Emotiva does not specify maximum SPLs for the airmotiv models, but an email response to an inquiry about it indicated that they had measured 97 dB out of airmotiv 4's, I assume with a music source. Admitting that my volume test did not have them breaking up, I trust that the 4's could handle even higher volumes without major misbehavior, but also suspect that for discriminating listening they would not be at their musical best. For typical listening, though, they handle even passages with wide dynamic range in room-filling fashion. I measured SPLs in the mid-to-upper 80s range from 15 feet away across my well-damped listening room while hearing no sacrifice in clarity.
Even after extended workouts, the rear panels of the speakers were never more than warm to the touch. The top-positioned rear ports might help provide ventilation to aid heat dissipation from the internal electronics.
At this point I spent some time track hopping. Here are a few impressions from a variety of songs:
The deep, pulsing drum beat in Beth Nielsen Chapman's Beyond The Blue had strength and impact, not suffering the slightest in the absence of a sub.
I was alarmed when the guitar sounds on Buckethead's We Are One sounded muddy and messy. Then I realized that I was slumped well down in my chair. A down side of near-field listening can be the necessity of paying strict attention to the listening sweet spot. While the airmotiv 4's allow quite a bit of horizontal latitude in the listener's position, the presentation runs into trouble quickly when you move higher or lower by more than a few inches. The ideal position is right on the line midway between driver centers as one would expect. The loss of clarity during the Buckethead track made me realize that I was well below that sweet zone. Once I straightened up, the bright guitar became clear and tightly defined, to my relief.
I have noticed with other speakers that, while the toe-in angle for best imaging and sound stage can be fairly critical, once that angle is attained the width of the sweet spot can be quite broad. This held true with the airmotiv 4's. The sound stage allowed me to move around quite a bit in the horizontal plane, even in the forward direction. The height of that ideal listening area, though, did not allow much vertical flexibility for ear position.
The powerful bass while listening to the Time Warp CD, a dynamic combination of electronica and full orchestra from the Cincinnati Pops, had me checking to be sure I hadn't switched on the sub inadvertently.
Listening to favorites by the B-52's and Nickel Creek gave further confirmation that the imaging properties of the airmotivs were second to none in their near-field configuration.
More Imaging and Sound Stage Tests
Back onto the turntables, I just had to unravel the mystery of the imaging and sound stage vs. angle for the airmotiv 4's. I was rooting for their fairly-flat off-axis response to make them immune to listening angle.
So I turned them to straight on axis and decided to live with them there for awhile. And they do sound marvelous that way. Solid imaging. Respectable sound stage. But turning them off-axis 15 degrees and beyond definitely opens up the sound stage, making it wider and deeper, seeming to disconnect if from the speakers and make it more a part of the room. Hmmm, a mystery worthy of future investigation.
Attached in the spoiler pane is a set of measured frequency response curves showing off-axis response at my listening position with the airmotiv 4's.
Unequalized frequency response at 0 (magenta), 15 (blue), and 30 (green) degrees off axis at my listening station, airmotiv 4's in near-field configuration, left speaker, measurement at left ear position, half-octave smoothing, measured with Room EQ Wizard.
Adding Equalization and a Sub
Being a bit of an EQ freak, I ran through the equalization routines with Room EQ Wizard, at the same time adding a sub to fill in the low end of the spectrum. A quick check with earlier tracks indicated the frequency response was silky smooth, but not without side effects. Imaging was still tight, but the sound stage had flattened and the tight impact of the 4's presentation was markedly subdued and softened. The listening experience simply wasn't as interesting. Halfway through a track on Dysrhythmia's Psychic Maps CD, I deactivated the convolution EQ being used, leaving the sub on and untamed - although it was barely needed - and left the EQ off for good. The clarity, the deep sound stage, the tightness, the impact - and the fun were all right back again. The dense instrumental recording seemed to relax and breathe with the change. Another mystery for further investigation.
Even the stark and quirky recording style of Deerhoof's Deerhoof vs. Evil tracks had fresh details to be revealed by the airmotiv 4's, as did those from their super-compressed Breakup Songs CD. Again the 4's showed their ability to release the captive details from simple and dense recordings alike.
Home Theater Setup and Listening Test
Next it was time to move the airmotiv 4's further away to a more typical home theater far-field listening configuration. Starting out with an equilateral triangle spacing, the speakers facing the listener and the close to the wall, the airmotiv 4's sounded quite boomy. The sound stage at that spacing was flat and the presentation a bit muddled. Pulling them out about 3 feet from the wall was enough to tame the bass. Upon widening the speaker spacing about 20 percent - the broad-based triangle's proportions now 1.2:1:1 - and angling the 4's out from the listening position to that same 15 degree off-axis angle, opened up the sound stage and cleared up the mud. The lively sparkle of the overall presentation was now surprisingly close to what it had been with the near-field listening setup.
The Civil Wars' recent Barton Hollow CD was now cracked open to be heard for the first time on the airmotiv 4's. I started out a bit concerned that the vocal duo's intimate style would not be as engaging with the speakers at that distance. No worries, with a twist of the volume knob the 4's pushed the voices front and center and handled the dynamic recording with ease. The larger space configuration seemed to present no difficulties for the speakers, even though designed primarily for near-field monitoring. As with earlier vocal tracks in the near-field setup, the rich vocal tones had a reach-out-and-grab quality that was instantly pleasing.
Another new acquisition made its debut on the airmotiv 4's, still in the home theater arrangement, the Who's Feeling Young Now? album by the Punch Brothers. The progressive bluegrass recording borrows from heavier rock recording techniques, a surprising mix of clean and heavier sounding acoustic instruments plus hard-sung vocals - a lot of musical information for any speaker to resolve. I had to settle into the style for a few tracks before getting critical with the airmotiv 4's. I finally concluded that any occasional edge of harshness was in the recording and that the 4's were presenting it with faithfulness and clarity. Once I decided to listen to the music as rock instead of bluegrass, the experience was quite delightful. The bright impact-filled presentation of the big-little speakers was leaving out nothing: "Hey, man, you chose the CD, I'm just giving it to you the way it was meant to be heard." Another win for the 4's.
Then I went back to the Time Warp album for an electro-orchestral finish. The airmotivs handled the dynamic recording sounding much bigger and fuller than their size, resolving the nuances clearly at all levels, with the same percussive punch that had impressed me in the near-field setup. I was left looking forward to exploring more of my music library with the speakers set up in this wider spacing, which I simply have not used much in recent years, just to hear how they will sound.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The motto on Emotiva Pro's web site is, "Changing the world one engineer at a time." They pulled off a win with this reviewer. My only conundrum is, do I set them up in my project studio as I originally planned to, or keep them where they are in front of the comfy listening chair? Looks like I am going to have to start saving for a pair of 5's or 6's so I can enjoy airmotiv performance at both locations.
Solid imaging and broad, deep sound stage
Excellent clarity at volume levels below 90 dB SPL, higher useful volumes available
Great value overall
Good placement flexibility
Try it for 30 days policy
Generous transferable warranty
No grill, exposed drivers
No available decorative wood finishes
Each of the models in the airmotiv line of powered speakers represents outstanding value in a compact package for its level of performance. They have a simple, elegant, form-follows-function technical appearance that looks sharp to me, but might not suit you if an elegant wood finish or imposing stature is important to you. The exposed driver cones might also be a concern in some home settings.
Emotiva Pro's airmotiv 4's are an easy recommendation for me for near-field use, either in a smaller studio or for near-field pleasure listening. For a home theater setup in a smaller apartment or den, they perform surprisingly well if listening SPLs in the 90s and above are not a priority. The support of a sub would be wise for home theater listening, and for the pickier music listener, but you might be surprised how well they handle bass on their own as the core of a music listening station. They would also shine as sides/rears in a surround setup, but remember they need AC power available. As their off-axis frequency response specifications suggest, there is quite a bit of flexibility in listening position and angle, but they do tend to perform best in a wider stance and at that off-axis "sweet" angle.
A larger control room or mixing station - I could even see them becoming a favorite in mastering rooms - would probably want the bass extension and higher SPLs offered by the airmotiv 5's or 6's with their larger drivers and power amps. The specs for the 6's make them a pretty good bet for main fronts in a larger home theater room, probably still with a sub to handle deep sound effects.
And the economical airmotiv 4's ability to image with sharp clarity, along with their ease in resolving detail through the mid and upper frequencies at moderate levels, makes them a great choice for the small-room home theater setup that doubles as a serious music listening station.
Emotiva Pro has made a fan of this reviewer. If you are looking for speakers to serve in any of these applications, I highly recommend that you give them your consideration.