Home Theater Direct Level THREE Tower Review - Home Theater Forum and Systems - HomeTheaterShack.com

 
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Home Theater Direct Level THREE Tower Review

Home Theater Direct Level THREE Tower Review


by Wayne Myers
AudiocRaver



Available by direct order from
Home Theater Direct.
Price: $799.00 per pair.
Thirty-day evaluation period with
no-questions-asked return for refund.




Introduction

The Home Theater Direct (HTD) Level THREE Towers were first auditioned at "The Official $1,000 Speaker Evaluation / Home Audition Event" reported on here.

Due to some technical issues at that event, it was decided that the Level THREE Towers should have their own complete review. The Towers were evaluated in Home-Theater and Two-Channel configurations. Measurement data is also included.


Description

The Level THREE Tower is a full-range passive three-way design with dual 7-inch mid/low Fabric-Ceramic-Doping (FCD) cone woofers, a two-inch dome midrange driver, and a horn-loaded Kapton® Ribbon Tweeter. Each tower has a tuned-port slot at the front base for low-frequency tuning of its internal transmission line. They are available in black or dark cherry finish and come with a black grille and a black screw-on base for each tower (three screws each).

The FCD mid/low cone woofers make use of heat-treated ceramic on a light-weight fabric base to give stiffness and strength while keeping mass to a minimum. A slightly-sticky polymer coating (doping) is hand-applied to provide protection and just enough mass to aid low-frequency response add warmth to the tone of the driver.




The Kapton® Ribbon Tweeter with its horn loading is designed for wide horizontal dispersion with controlled vertical dispersion, for smooth frequency response and, according to the HTD web site, "zero distortion." Kapton® is a material made by Dupont which is extremely thin, strong, and heat-resistant It is used to create a tweeter that is exceptionally responsive, covering the range from 2.5 KHz to 40 KHZ.




Accessories: A soft cloth protective cover comes for each speaker. Also included is a set of four isolation cones per speaker which screw into the base, each with an adjustment nut offering about one-quarter-inch height variability. Plus there is a set of one-half-inch metal disks with indentations for the sharp cones to sit on if used on a hardwood or stone floor. A set of soft washers is provided for isolation of the grill cloth if it rattles. I never witnessed this problem.

The Home Theater Direct Level THREE Towers are available only by ordering directly from HTD, and the expected thirty-day evaluation period is offered with full refund if you do not like them. The price: $799.00 per pair. The purchaser pays for shipping and, if in Texas, must pay sales tax. But if the customer is not satisfied with the speakers, HTD will pay for return shipping, refund the initial shipping, and not charge a restocking fee, so it is a true 100% refund, provided the necessary conditions are met. They are also covered by a 5-year warranty.




Specifications

Here is a link to the Level THREE product line downloadable owner's manual.

The Home Theater Direct web site is not overly blabby about specifications - a frequency response plot would be nice. Their stated specifications are as follows:
  • Max. Power Handling: 200 watts
  • Frequency Response: 30 Hz - 40 kHz
  • Impedance: 8 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 89dB
  • Voice Coil: 2" on mid-range dome; 2.5" on low-range woofers
  • Shielded Magnet: woofer: 23 + 10 OZ; mid-range dome: 4 OZ neodymium; tweeter: .7 OZ neodymium
  • Crossover: 3rd order at 725 Hz and 2.5 kHz
  • Dimensions (HxWxD without base): 41.5" x 8.625" x 11.5"
  • Dimension of Base (HxWxD): 1" x 10.75" x 12.75"
  • Weight (per piece): 51 lbs

Unboxing

Each Tower ships well protected in two heavy cardboard boxes, the outer one-eighth inch thick and the inner one-quarter inch thick. A soft-foam structure at each end of the speaker keeps it suspended two inches from the inner box on all six sides. The speaker has its protective cloth cover in place when shipped.

A third carton contains the two bases, each in a protective cloth cover, plus the hardware and accessories.

Unboxing is well thought out. With the carton right-side-up, the speaker is upside-down. You open the tops of the outer and inner boxes and remove the foam isolator to expose the bottom of the speaker, then attach the base with its three screws (do not screw in the cones yet), lay it down on the floor with the bottom flaps folded back under the box, pull the speaker out just far enough that it touches floor, stand it up still inside its box, and pull off both of the doubled boxes at once. And voilà! The Tower is set up!

The speakers are easy to slide or "walk" around until you screw in the isolating cones, so wait to install them until you have determined their ideal location. More on this later.


Fit and Finish

Now pull off the protective cloth cover and feast your eyes on the gorgeous finish. I have seen both the black and dark cherry finishes and think they are absolutely first-rate. Both are satin finishes on wood veneer with a liquid-smooth tone that is truly impressive. I think HTD should have better photos on their website. For the buyer who has an attractive finish as a high priority, the finishes alone almost sell these speakers.

Woodwork construction is flawless throughout. The inside of the cabinet is lined on three sides with sound-absorbing material. These speakers are HEAVY, over 50 pounds each. They are "made of quality 3/4" and 1" MDF with internal bracing," so you can see how the weight adds up. From the tweeter opening, I could neither see nor feel any bracing, but could only reach and see a few inches down and will take HTD at their word in this regard. At our $1K evaluation event they outweighed all the competition by far (except one model that was on wheels), and were the one speaker that often got double-teamed when they had to be moved. All evidence is that these speakers are solidly built.

The grille is a six-point mount design which easily pops off and on. The grilles are thin and flexible, so be careful when doing so. They felt a little flimsy, but then most grilles are pretty lightweight. The fabric fit is my one minor cosmetic complaint about the Level THREE Towers. It bunches just a tiny bit at the ends and does not quite lay flat at the logo or at the equivalent spot at the top.

If you intend to remove the grilles and leave the woofer and mid driver cones exposed, be aware that the final polymer coating added to woofer cones makes the surface a bit sticky. If you have a pet with dark hair, it will stick to the white cones and could become an eyesore. A loop of masking tape and a light touch can remove stray materials that ends up caught there.


Measurements

Measurement Graphs



The following plot is a combination of two measurements. The bass response was measured with the speaker out-of-doors with the measurement mic at a 1-meter distance on the ground so there are no reflections and cancellations to deal with. It is accurate up to 400 Hz. The response above 120 Hz was measured with the speaker elevated four feet with the mic at 1 meter on the tweeter center axis, with the ground reflection dissipated by a combination of absorptive and carefully-aimed reflective materials. The two curves join nicely along their overlapping portions with 1-oct. smoothing. The composite curve is displayed with 6th-oct. smoothing.




Here we see how well the tweeters under test are matched on-axis. Matching within +/- 1 dB is desired and is achieved with this pair of tweeters.




Polar response taken outside. The area we are concerned with is that above 725 Hz. Note that the curves are quite smooth and show little variation from curve to curve. They were taken every 15 degrees off-axis horizontally at a 1-meter distance from the tweeter at tweeter height, 15 mS window applied.




Indoor frequency response at the listening position with the final 2-channel configuration. The listener is 34 degrees off-axis.




Indoor polar response with the final 2-channel configuration. Note that the curves are quite smooth and show little variation from curve to curve. They were taken every 5 degrees off-axis horizontally from 25 degrees to 50 degrees (through the range of angles that contains the sweet spot) at a 1-meter distance from the midrange driver at midrange driver height, 3 mS window applied.




The following plots show the step response. The initial very quick rise time is due to the tweeter's excellent transient response. Resonances in the tweeter frequency range die out very quickly, after just a few cycles, again indicating very responsive tweeter performance. The overall settle time of the resonance at about 32 Hz is quite short, a result of proper damping of the woofers and enclosure, indicating tight bass performance. The only resonance that is of concern because it takes so long to die down is at about 250 Hz. That plus the peak at 200 Hz add up to give the occasional "boxy" tone from the Towers.








Kapton® Ribbon Tweeter Issues and Their Resolution

It is no secret that the HTD Kapton® Ribbon Tweeter has had some quality issues recently. We ran into a case last August during Home Theater Shack's "Official $1,000 Speaker Evaluation / Home Audition Event" where we ended up with a Level THREE Tower containing a defective tweeter. The Level THREE Tower pair being reviewed now was sent to me for a follow up review, and its tweeters were found to be poorly matched. A good pair of tweeters was sent as replacements, and the review moved forward while HTD shut down sales of all products using the Kapton® Ribbon Tweeter while they set out to resolve their quality issues.

Recently, HTD management shared with us in great detail the steps they have gone through to resolve those issues. While it is not my place to share that level of detail with you, I can assure you - having worked in quality assurance positions in the past - that it is clear that they have left no stone unturned in their efforts to resolve those problems once and for all and get back to shipping the kind of product their customers expect and will be happy with. They are taking care of past customers, too. We know of a customer who purchased Level THREE products a year ago that never seemed right to him, and upon contacting the company recently, received the choice of a) replacement tweeters sent to him or b) paid shipping both ways to have his speakers returned to their service center for tweeter replacement.

Hick-ups like this can happen with the best of companies, with the universe we live in being all messy and complicated (and therefore interesting) the way it is. What counts is the response, and in this case it appears that HTD made sure that no one else received products with less-than-the-best tweeters, that they swiftly took proper care of past customers, and that they made the necessary changes to their processes so that only proper-sounding products are shipped going forward.

One might ask about the validity of Home Theater Shack publishing a product review using hand-picked tweeters from a company that is one of our sponsors, and that is a very good question. We feel good about working with a sponsor to help them understand and resolve a quality problem with one of their products. But untainted reviews are a basic expectation of our readers, so to put that question to rest and move forward without conflict of interest, we are being open in reporting to you exactly what has happened up until now, and we will follow up by performing a "secret-shopper" purchase of a set of Level THREE products in the coming months, evaluating them thoroughly, and reporting the findings without embellishment to our readers.

HTD is once again shipping their Level THREE products with the Kapton® Ribbon Tweeter. We hope to hear feedback from those who receive the new product and from those who go through the process of resolving past tweeter problems with HTD. We like stories that have win-win-type endings. Our fingers are crossed that this one will have HTD being successful with all customers fully delighted (at least as far as tweeters are concerned), and Home Theater Shack's readers feeling served the way they deserve to be.

IMPORTANT LESSON LEARNED: Home Theater Shack has had two of these speaker evaluation events, and the Home Theater Direct Kapton® Ribbon Tweeter issue is not the only speaker problem we have run across. We now test every pair of speakers we receive for an evaluation such as this first thing out of the box.

I wonder how many speaker buyers out there have ended up with speakers that do not work well together as a result of quality problems, shipping damage, spec issues, or any number of possible causes. Some of the problems we have seen were obvious and some were subtle, but even the subtle ones affected imaging and soundstage and the quality of the listening experience.

Anyone making a major speaker purchase should have the ability to run basic frequency response measurements with a calibrated microphone. If you are going to buy speakers, consider spending $70 for a basic calibrated measurement microphone. Along with our free Room EQ Wizard software download, they sure the speakers they receive are good ones that work well together. The only way to be sure is by measuring them.


Setup

For home theater use, the Level THREE Towers are pretty versatile. Dispersion is very wide at mid- and high-frequencies, so they can easily cover a wide seating area. The front-located bass port is a plus in that the Towers can be closer to a wall for some bass emphasis without the resonance of the port going wild. At about 12 inches from the wall, there was a fairly smooth 10 dB boost below 100 Hz. The same region was pretty flat with the Towers three feet out from the wall.

Here is a tip: Look for seating that situates the listener's ears at midrange driver height, not tweeter height. The sound is better at that height in two ways. First, the soundstage is way better at that level, especially with the right spacing and toe-in, as shown below. Also, the tweeters run pretty bright on-axis, and getting below them evens out the highs nicely. It turns out the midrange driver height is right at 35 inches with spikes installed, about where most comfortable furniture will situate your ears anyway.

For two-channel use, there is more to consider. I believe the listener's ear height is absolutely critical with these speakers for getting a great soundstage. At tweeter height, the soundstage can be a little wider than the speaker spacing, but never takes on any depth and never becomes very lifelike. At that level it remains pretty sterile and flat. And, as previously mentioned, an ear height of 40 inches off the floor is an uncomfortable seating height. At the midrange driver level, a more comfortable seating height, the soundstage can open up nicely. Here are the configurations that worked out the best:
  • Small listening room (12 x 16 x 7 high) with an RT60 of under 0.2 seconds, listener facing the long wall, speakers 80 inches apart (center-to-center of baffle planes), distance from speaker-plane (center-to-center of baffle planes) to listener is 49 inches, speakers 34 inches from the wall.
    • Two-Channel: Toed-in slightly by 6 degrees. The listener is 34 degrees off the speaker axis. The soundstage is open, very wide, deep, and lifelike with solid imaging.
    • Home-Theater: Toed-in by 40 degrees. The listener is straight on the speaker axis. The soundstage is wide but has no depth, is very flat. Imaging is very sharp and precise.
Remember the isolation spikes to be screwed onto the speaker bases? The imaging will never be at its best without them, but it is a pain moving the speakers with them on. Leave them off while you look for the sweet spot. At every trial spot, make sure the speakers are level and symmetrically oriented relative to the listener. Even small errors here make a big difference. When you have a wide, deep soundstage with good imaging - it may not be perfect, but pretty good - then add the cones (and level carefully) and watch it come alive!

Here is where the Level THREE Towers went from "These are probably pretty good speakers for some applications" to "I am going to spend a lot of quality time with these speakers!" status for me. Bear in mind, it took some work and dogged persistence to get there. Some speakers have easier, larger sweet spots to find even when being super picky about their nature. Here, the listening position ended up well off-axis horizontally and below the tweeter center line, a serviceable but small, out-of-the-way sweet spot, so it is to be expected that exacting setup would be required to capture it. Precise leveling and measuring were called upon to coax it into submission -- a 360-degree bubble level, three protractors, a measuring tape, a laser pointer, and a laser distance meter were involved. A sloppy setup would never have satisfied like it might have with some speakers. Only through patience and a sense of precision would the Towers offer up their finest sound.

Why not stay on the tweeter axis where matching is best? Some may choose this as the more straightforward, "intended" approach, and will find imaging to be very tight, but existing within a compressed, flat soundstage that is not at all conducive to the engaging stereo listening experience I have come to insist upon. This is not a criticism of the Level THREE Towers at all; it tends to be the case for most monopole speaker designs with cone, dome, and horn-loaded drivers. The best soundstage/imaging combination - if it exists - is almost always somewhere off-axis, you have to go questing to find it.

And at this point it is worth pointing out that the real star of the show for the Level THREE Towers just might be the midrange driver. I had already noted its wide, smooth dispersion while taking measurements, as well as its exceptionally low distortion. It integrates well with the tweeter at the 35-inch ear height and the chosen sweet-spot distance and angle - undoubtedly a key to sweet-spot success. Together, they are projecting a very nice soundstage with good imaging and smooth frequency response. The highs are still a bit forward, but with smoothness and clarity that make them easy to appreciate.


Listening Tests

Impressions

Hot and Sweet. The treble range is bright-hot, but that brightness is so sweetly smooth it is easy to listen to without fatigue. When set up for the deep soundstage I prefer for two-channel listening, with the speakers pointed well away from the listener, they sounded very nice. With the Level THREE Towers in that final configuration, I looked forward to sitting down to listen, and then did not want to get up again. That is an important likability threshold for me, and many speakers do not achieve it.

The Level THREE Tower is a versatile speaker. In the home-theater setup, same position as the two-channel setup but with the speakers turned to face the listener directly, they were loads of fun with movies, very enjoyable with lots of sparkle. I listened to some music in that configuration, too, and while the brightness level was higher than I would normally want for music, the Smoothness Factor of the high frequencies tamed that brightness enough that I was only put off by it on a few tracks.

Frequency Response, Tonality, Bass Extension

In the off-axis listening position used for two-channel listening, frequency response in my room is very close to flat. The lows are quite even from 200 Hz down to 30 Hz (Wow!), the mids from 300 Hz to 2 kHz are recessed about 4 dB, and the highs from 2 kHz to almost 10 kHz are very even with no prominent peaks - this plateau is 1 to 2 dB lower than the bass plateau. At the $1K Speaker Evaluation Event, I reported that the Towers had a "tailored voicing," something I do not hear now at all. Different room, different setup. Aside from a little 200 Hz bump that stands out on occasion, and the solid, extended high frequency range, I hear nothing unusual in the frequency response. Male and female vocals are lively, fun, and accurate.

Usually when we think of a speaker as being bright, it is because of one rounded peak in the frequency response, often at about 2 kHz, and that can tire the ears very quickly. The Level THREE Towers have a very smooth top end with no peaks. Where I thought it might grow old quickly, it actually grew on me.

Another factor that makes it work is that the listener is almost always a bit off the tweeter center line. The two-channel setup has the listener well away from that axis, and the high-frequency response ends up very flat. Even with the speakers facing the listener directly in cinema mode, the tweeters aim just over the head. In a multi-role home theater, with an elevated second row, those in the back will get more of those high frequencies, a matter to be aware of.

Overall tonality was very even. Bass response in my room reached clear down to 30 Hz. All listening tests including movies were done without a subwoofer. The Level THREE Towers did quite well without that help. There were times I could feel the rumble of low-frequency effects in my seat.

On Feral, by Radiohead, the woofers gave the deep rhythmic pulse a sense that it had burrowed clear down into the floor. Their Give up the Ghost was one of a few tracks where a boxy tone stood out with the Towers. A rhythmic beat that sounds like it includes a knock on an acoustic guitar rings at the exact frequency of that boxiness.

Another track that I like for its depth is Beyond the Blue, by Beth Nielsen Chapman. The deep, pulsing drum resonates with the diaphragm, actually affecting one's breathing a little. Talk about feeling the beat.

With home-theater use as a high priority, a Level THREE Tower owner would almost certainly supplement the Towers with subwoofer support. For two-channel listening, the Towers provided all the depth I felt the need for.

Imaging and Soundstage

It did take awhile to find the right setup for the deep soundstage I prefer. The result was very satisfying, a soundstage that was wide and deep with very sharp, tight imaging.

On Ain't It A Shame, by The B-52's, Cindy's glossy vocals stayed tightly imaged with only an occasional bit of smearing at the highest registers. The background synths extended well beyond the locations of the speakers in the wide soundstage. The World's Green Laughter, a B-52's instrumental, is a cacophony of bird chirps, deep resonating drums, crisp snare beats, complex synthesizers, and vocalizations that challenge the critical ear to keep up with it all. Every sound has its place and the Level THREE Towers help out by placing each sound with precision.

I almost forgot a discovery we had made at the recent two-channel speaker evaluation event at Sonnie's home in Alabama. We placed a fleecy blanket, folded over several times, behind the head and shoulders on the chair back at the listening position to eliminate reflections. I remembered to do that for the final listening session with the Towers before completing this review. The difference it can make sonically will be best appreciated when one has already achieved a wide, deep soundstage with good imaging and the beginnings of a sense of depth acuity in that soundstage. Under less-critical listening conditions, a listener would probably notice greater clarity and sharper imaging with the blanket in place. With the soundstage the Towers were already delivering, begging for that final crystallization of the perception of precise depth localization (distance from the listener) of the sound sources in that soundstage, the addition of the blanket acted as a catalyst for that crystallization. Detailed depth acuity, the much-sought-after and rarely-achieved final capstone of the ideal soundstage I have grown to adore, was now in place. It is a subtle difference until you have grown attached to it; then it becomes the difference that transports a two-channel listening experience. My opinion of the Level THREE Towers moved up a full notch at that point. The performance of the Towers in this regard was not as good as I have heard in a few other cases, but it was an admirable showing. All I can say to prospective Level THREE Tower owners who might be considering them for serious two-channel application is prepare to go questing after that ideal setup; it might take awhile to find it, but the Towers are quite capable of it.

Many listeners will be perfectly happy with the Level THREE Towers facing head-on for both home-theater and two-channel purposes. In that configuration the soundstage is still very nice, although flat with no depth at all. Imaging is very sharp and stable, first-rate.

As an experiment, I listened to parts of the Dream Theater album without spikes installed on the Towers and then again later with the spikes installed. Adding the spikes improved the soundstage, making it wider and deeper and more cohesive.

Clarity, Dynamics, and Headroom

All testing was done with amplifiers rated at 100 W per channel at 8 Ohms. I have a 400 W per channel power amp that I turn to for some testing, and was prepared to use it with the Level THREE Towers, but they were able to achieve any volume I desired with no signs of compression or distortion using the smaller amp, so there was no reason to do so. The Towers were able to handle all the dynamics of music and action sequences in movies that I played through them with no trouble whatsoever. They delivered peak SPLs of over 100 dB, which was as high as I felt like listening with them. With their forwardness on the high end, that level seemed plenty loud, where I might have wanted to push a more laid-back-sounding speaker much further. Although not particularly sensitive, with their power-handling rating of 200 W they should be able to deliver peak SPLs close to 110 dB in a small room, and well over 100 dB in a larger room. I was very satisfied with their performance in this regard.

When listening between the sounds of the music, where you expect only open space, there was a slight sensation of some clutter, little bits of stuff that does not belong, where there should have been open clarity. But this was not anything that stood out, and was more an impression than a judgment.

The deep bass - at high volume - on the Cincinnati Pops' Also Sprach Zarathustra/Star Trek sequence drew a big smile.

Tracks played back at extremely low volumes also seemed complete, even, and natural, like nothing was missing.

Tracks by Dream Theater, detailed below, which were very cleanly recorded and definitely meant to be played loud, presented an opportunity for high-volume testing with the Level THREE Towers. Producing average SPLs in the 90 to 95 dB range was a walk in the park for the Towers. Even when pushing into the 95 to 100 dB range, the Tower seemed to be saying, "No worries." When pushing above that level, there was some bass mushiness and the beginnings of a sense of strain. At all but the highest levels, the Level THREE Towers handled these complex tracks and their dense synthesizers and guitars with a crisp clarity.

Only occasionally did I feel that the bass and mid-bass frequencies could have been a bit tighter, more concise.

Music Tracks - Two-Channel Configuration

Pump, from The B-52's Funplex album, has a full sound with some abdominal punch, yet remains crisp and tight. The bongos are localized with startling realism. More from The B-52's, Revolution Earth. I have always enjoyed the tonal quality of the bass rig used on this recording. It has a very tight, tactile sound that lets you almost feel the bass being played. That sound is delivered with tight control by the Level THREE Towers. Good Stuff, from the same album, features a walking bass line through the entire length of the song with similar tonality. The Towers "understand" that sound and feel, and portray it accurately, not just a bass line -- a bass experience! The snare drum sounds crisp, percussion is tight. On Junebug, from an earlier album, the snares on the snare drum are set looser and their buzz holds its own despite multiple tambourines ringing in the same range. The Towers are showing their resolution power on these tracks. Vision Of A Kiss contains a quick, funky bass line which is recorded with depth and crispness at the same time. A small 200 Hz peak spoils the bass tone just a little, but other than that the Level THREE Towers deliver it well. The 200 Hz peak also makes the acoustic guitar sound a bit boxy on this track. That peak seems to have a thing for acoustic guitars, but it is only an occasional distraction. On the other hand, the tambourine on this track sounds like it is made of fine crystal. We will call it a draw.

Dream Theater's new album, titled Dream Theater, is wonderfully recorded and mixed (the stereo version -- do not bother with the surround version), a good example of the kind of complex, heavy rock which contrasts subtlety and refinement with controlled chaos and raw power. I heard the album in its entirety twice, and the Towers handled all of its challenges gracefully.

John Petrucci's impeccable and much-emulated guitar tones were delivered truthfully and effortlessly by the Towers, even when doubled or tripled and played triple-time and layered with organ, synthesizer, and thick bass lines, like on the instrumental Enigma Machine. Later on, during the track's chorus with its intense reverb mode, it threatened to get too bright through the Towers, but the Smoothness Factor stepped in once again to mediate and the final decision was to let it play on unimpeded.

Buckethead's We Are One is loud and heavy, but presents no particular challenge to the Level THREE Towers until the highly-distorted, heavily-reverbed sound later on where the highs become piercing and the volume just has to come down a little. On Halo, by Porcupine Tree, the snare drum has a punch that hits right in the stomach with the volume at a good level.

Victor and Penny are an acoustical duo playing ukulele and electric jazz guitar and singing popular songs from early in the 20th century. Their infectious, foot-tapping energy and the simply-recorded tones of their instruments and voices on their Side by Side album demand neutral delivery by the Level THREE Towers.

Mellow jazz guitar tones are often a challenge in a recording like this in that they can edge into tonality regions intended for vocals or other instruments. The track Cantina Band, from Star Wars, includes a guest clarinet playing along with the jazz guitar. Even though the two instruments crowd the same position in the soundstage of this almost-mono mix, the soundstage's crisp clarity allows them to coexist without conflict. Throughout the intimate, heartfelt performances of this album, the Level THREE Towers prove their versatility by sounding as natural playing fun old songs like Slowpoke, Pork and Beans, Side by Side, and Stomp, Stomp as they do playing tracks by King Crimson, Nickel Creek, Tower of Power, Cincinnati Pops (Also Sprach Zarathustra/Star Trek), Deftones, Harptallica (that's right, Master of Puppets on a pair of concert harps), Pink Floyd, Gorillaz, Randy Travis, Deerhoof, Stevie Wonder, and Rachmaninoff.

More than once while listening to a familiar track I found myself wondering if there was something wrong with the high end. I realized that I was simply hearing levels of detail that other speakers avoided trying to play back as forthrightly as the Level THREE Towers do. The Towers are not bashful about showing off their ability to play the stratospheric content of a recording with uncanny smoothness for their price point. If that kind of delivery is not your thing, look elsewhere.

Movie Scenes - Home-Theater Configuration

Reference level was set to 75 dB SPL.

The Fifth Element. Volume level 0 dB. One of my favorite movie sound effects comes during the early scene were Ultimate Evil is expanding toward the battleship as a sheet of lightning with a "boom-crunch-crackle-sizzle" that covers the entire audio spectrum. I played it back at reference level and at lower volumes several times to be sure that it stayed completely clean and precise, and it did. Of course I had to play the later battle scenes at Phloston Paradise. Peak SPL levels topped 100 dB and all of the dialogue, music strikes and beats, explosions, gunshots, splats, squirkles (reaching into the Diva for the four Element stones), socks, kicks, crunches, booms, of course Ruby Rhod's glorious screams, all stayed clean, clear, and pristine throughout. The tinkling of shattered glass when Leeloo breaks out of the cellular replication chamber gives the tweeters a chance to show off a bit.

Blade Runner. Volume level 0 dB. This soundtrack is unique with its seamless integration of sound effects, ambient effects, and music. Deep rumbles and subtle high bells and chimes coincide in the opening scenes at Tyrone Industries. The even tonality and the emphasized high frequencies from the Level THREE Towers gave all these complexities a first-rate showing. The 30 Hz low-frequency extension supports the lowest rumbles very well.

Collateral - Club Fever. Volume level +10 dB for full impact. All the complex crowd noises, the dance beat, the bumps and thumps, and the gunshots stand out in this scene. Precise directionality of each is preserved by the excellent soundstage. But the tinkling of broken glass and the crunching of broken bones is what really got my attention with the Level THREE Towers. Peak SPLs reached 102 dB at one point and the Level THREE Towers never hinted at being strained.

Overall Listening Experience

To be honest, my overall opinion of the Level THREE Towers started out lukewarm, mainly because of the time it was taking to find a placement that would give the two-channel soundstage and imaging I was hoping to achieve. Having finally achieved it with honors, I was left no choice but to hear them out in the same context as other serious two-channel speakers I have auditioned recently, and I am glad that I did. At the close of this almost-four-month evaluation, I am very pleased with the final result, and glad that I did not give up too soon.

I quite enjoyed the Level THREE Towers while completing this review. As said, reaching that threshold where I looked forward to listening and did not want to get up is an important sign for me, and speakers far more expensive than the Level THREE Towers have not achieved it. I had a lot of fun with them in cinema mode, more than I expected.

The high frequencies seem to be the most noteworthy aspect of the Level THREE Towers, I would guess by design, and that sparkle ended up working for me in almost every case. A listener who is overly sensitive to high frequencies might want to consider carefully what is being offered here. But then I sometimes think of myself in that category, and I ended up liking the Towers for their smoothness through that range. So do not automatically discount the Towers for that hot high end. Consider giving them a listen and finding out for yourself. You might be surprised.


Conclusions

The majority of the work on this review had been completed when priorities diverted my attention to other projects for almost two months. Those projects included evaluating numerous speakers, most priced much higher than the Level THREE Towers, some in the crazy-expensive range. I then returned to this project a little apprehensive of what my impressions would be in contrast to those other speakers.

About ten seconds into the first track after cranking them up from two months of silence, I knew the answer: TWO THUMBS UP! I reviewed a number of standard test tracks in their two-channel setup, then turned them on-axis for the movies and a few music tracks, and throughout this last session with the Level THREE Towers it became clear that, if anything, my impressions of them were more positive than before. The Level THREE Towers are a solid value; they are versatile, they are quite neutral, they can play loud, they stay clean, they do not need huge amounts of power, they are beautiful, they are well-built, they can stand up to the demands of a home-theater system, they can satisfy a fairly discriminating two-channel listener, and their somewhat-forward high end is so smooth you might wonder why I even bothered to bring it up. They are nice speakers, and I recommend them for your consideration.


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