HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Arx A1b and A2b Speaker Review
The subject of this review is the Arx A1b bookshelf speakers and the companion center channel, the A2b. Both speakers can be configured as either acoustic suspension or bass reflex, the former by means of a foam plug to block the reflex port. The Arx speakers are a "private label" brand offered exclusively through The Audio Insider (TAI).
The speakers are not overly tall or wide, but they are rather deep; the A1b measures in at 13.8"x7.1"x10.25" (HWD) and weighs 17 lbs while the A2b is 7.1"x19.7"x11.8" (HWD) and tips the scales at a hefty 27 lbs. The 'b' variant is a minor update that makes the cabinets a bit smaller but deeper then the original A1 and A2.
The A1b has a quoted frequency response of 52Hz-22kHz +/-3dB, with the A2b checking in at 50Hz-22kHz +/- 3dB. Interestingly, the A1b has a rather low 85dB sensitivity while the A2b is on the high side at 90dB sensitivity. They both have a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, with a 6 ohm minimum. The A1b is rated to handle 20-150 watts, while the A2b is good for up to 200 watts. The Arx speakers come with a very respectable 5 year warranty.
The Audio Insider is an Internet Direct (ID) company, so purchasing the Arx speakers is straightforward and is accomplished through TAI's website. The A1b is priced at only $299 for a pair, while the A2b is just $209. I was supplied a 3.0 system for evaluation, consisting of two A1b's and an A2b, which means the reviewed configuration would sell for a very reasonable $508. A full 5.0 system would come to $807, a veritable bargain considering the astonishing sonic capabilities the Arx speakers proved to have.
As is the case with most ID companies, TAI offers a 30 day in-home trial. If you find that the Arx speakers don't meet your needs they can be sent back for a refund.
The speakers came double boxed, which is almost a necessity it seems today. They were in mylar bags then encased in soft foam blocks that covered the entire top and bottom of the box. The packaging should virtually ensure your speakers arrive unharmed on their journey from TAI to you.
There are no options or accessories included, not even a manual or foam plugs for the ports. The manual can be downloaded from The Audio Insider, while the foam plugs were mailed to me after I had requested them. TAI's website states the plugs are supposed to be included with every speaker, but that wasn't the case with the review units. Turns out it was a packaging issue and all new Arx speakers will indeed include the plugs.
Before I divulge my impressions I want to mention something right up front; the A2b I evaluated was the only one in existence. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't consider reviewing something that may not be identical to what a customer is getting, but in this case I acquiesced after personal assurances from Jon Lane -- the owner of TAI -- that the lone prototype would not be materially different from the shipping units. I found Jon to be a straightforward person, so I feel confident the A2b I reviewed won't vary from the stock units in any appreciable way.
As previously mentioned no manual was included with the speakers, but it can be downloaded directly from TAI's website. There is some logic to that; it's in PDF format, which everyone can read these days, so no matter what type of computer you use the document is compatible. That also enables TAI to keep it up to date, so no one gets stale documents. Ironically, I found it to be less than current. There are only references in it to the A1, A2 and A3, but nothing about the A5. Furthermore, there's no mention of the 'b' variant -- A1b and A2b mostly -- so it appears the manual isn't as up to date as it perhaps should be.
What the manual might lack in timeliness was made up for in content. It goes into great detail explaining the Arx technologies, placement options and configuration using clear and precise wording. It might strike some as a bit dry and technical in nature, which I suppose it is, but the information is first rate nonetheless. Take the time to read it, thoroughly, and you'll definitely get the best from your Arx speakers.
The tweeter employed is a planar magnetic high frequency transducer with a thin-film thermoplastic diaphragm. Essentially, the Arx speakers use a ribbon tweeter. A ribbon in this price range is simply unheard of because they aren't cheap to make. I've always liked a ribbon tweeter myself, when properly implemented anyway. Hard domes tend to sound harsh or even strident to me, while soft domes often come across as overly warm and lacking in definition. Ribbons have an "airy" feeling about them, an openness that makes the upper range very crisp and clear, which I definitely relate to.
The Audio Insider lists the following benefits for their planar magnetic tweeter:
- The entire sound-producing assembly has been replaced with a simple emissive diaphragm of flat, micro-light high temperature polymer film. This diaphragm has a flat response to beyond 30kHz, a half octave beyond most dome tweeters. In an Arx tweeter, there's less to resonate, less to distort, and less to fail.
- The Arx tweeter's voice coil is an evenly distributed pattern of ultra-light foil. No other parts are needed so there's nothing more to weigh down the moving surface.
- The flat, ultra-low mass Arx tweeter diaphragm is energized by rows of powerful Neodymium magnets, ounce for ounce about five times more powerful than those in regular tweeters.
- Arx's special tweeters have more radiating area, given them a reduction in intermodulation distortion you can hear and measure - your music and soundtracks simply sound clearer, more effortless, and more transparent.
The midrange is equally impressive, using an XBL2 motor that TAI calls SplitGap. From the outside it looks like any other driver, but it's what you'll find underneath that makes the difference. XBL2 adds a second voice coil gap which is purported to significantly reduce distortion. This second gap is carefully positioned so where a conventional woofer gives up the Arx cone shifts into "acoustic overdrive" and virtually doubles the output. TAI claims 30% less distortion, while simultaneously allowing the 5.25" driver to move as much air as most 6.5" drivers. It's not really possible for me to corroborate those assertions, but I can tell you this much; finding a driver that uses an XBL2 motor in a speaker twice as much as these cost would be a rare feat, so to see TAI use them in the Arx speakers is remarkable.
The Audio Insider lists the following benefits for their XBL2 SplitGap midrange driver:
- SplitGap woofers have shorter voice coils for lower moving mass and lower inductance, giving Arx speakers excellent midrange articulation.
- Copper in the SplitGap motor reduces distortion-causing flux modulation, greatly extends speaker response, and improves thermal capacity for higher power handling.
- SplitGap motors have more uniform cone drive, lowering distortion at any point of motion.
The cabinet is a plain rectangle with a no frills appearance, made from what appears to be MDF that's a little less then .75". They're covered in a black ash PVC finish which follows the purely functional nature of the speakers themselves. I did find a couple of flaws in the finish; one of the A1b's had a few tiny bubbles between the woofer and tweeter, while the other had a corner that was starting to come undone. The A2b had ripples around some of the pin sockets that are used to attach the grill, but I wasn't terribly concerned about those because it is a prototype. The overall appearance of the speakers and center is mostly proportional, but a little on the deep side.
The grills are constructed from .5" MDF and had no flex to them. The A1b frames were finished with a glossier paint than the A2b frame, but again that was probably down to the latter being a prototype. The only way to even see that is by removing the grill and looking at the back side, probably not something too many people would even bother doing (except for a reviewer with OCD). They fit very snug on the speakers and were held in place with metal pins, not at all common in this price class. The material is very transparent and was applied perfectly. There's a slightly rounded contour on the front side of the grill frame which is rather effective in breaking up the otherwise utilitarian look.
When I grabbed my screwdriver I found that everything was cinched down perfectly, with not a single screw that wasn't already tight. You can probably wall mount them if you plug the rear port, but there's no threaded insert for mounting them anyway. These seem like true bookshelf speakers to me.
TAI didn't cheap out with the binding posts - these are a high quality 5 way design that should be able to accommodate anything you want to hook them up to. Once connected you'll have to decide whether or not to use the port plugs, but part of that decision will likely rest with one other thing; placement.
The A1b's are a little placement sensitive with regards to walls. Perhaps "sensitive" isn't the correct word, but they do have preferences; unlike most bookshelf speakers these actually like breathing room. If you're able to pull them away from all boundaries you'll be amply rewarded with one of the widest soundstages you're likely to encounter from a speaker this size. These things absolutely shine when given the appropriate space. With the rear port plugged you can place them within a foot of most boundaries, and they work brilliantly, but if you have enough space move them two feet or so from any wall and leave the port open. That lets them flaunt their prowess.
Because of how my home theater is setup I had to place them fairly close to the back wall, so the majority of the time I had the port plugged and ran acoustic suspension. Due to their versatility the Arx speakers should work beautifully in almost all circumstances. I chose an 80Hz crossover, even though you could easily use 60Hz if you wanted. Relieved of the burden to play anything below 80Hz made it such that I could crank the volume with almost total impunity and without audible distortion. Until it got really loud the Arx speakers seemed almost impervious to the deleterious effects of compression and exhibited no harshness. In essence, as you increased the volume they simply got louder. No drama, no histrionics, no loss of composure, just more sound.
My living room is 13x17x8 (1768 CF), so it's not terribly large. The main seating position is approximately 11 feet away from the front channels. Being the sole prototype, the A2b was fully broken in when I got it. The A1b's were brand new though, so I had to let them loosen up. The manual recommends up to 100 hours to break in the SplitGap midrange driver. I didn't wait quite that long before I began to do my critical listening but it had to be at least 50 hours, and they needed it too.
Right out of the box they sounded a little on the thin side, noticably lacking depth in the midrange, but it was the dynamics I was the least impressed with. The Arx speakers are supposed to be lively and open, but that wasn't really the case. Once broken in all that changed, and the difference was drastic. The sound from this pair of speakers is stunning, belying both their appearance and measly price tag.
After listening to several hours of continuous music one day -- which I did on a number of occasions -- my notes simply said "these are like the worlds largest set of headphones". Now I'm not talking about those garbage earbuds that came with your phone or MP3 player, I mean true audiophile grade, state-of-the-art headphones. If you've ever had the opportunity to hear a favorite song using something like that you'll know exactly what I'm referring to. They can achieve the most precise and faithful reproduction of the source material you're likely to ever hear. With the transducers aimed right at your ears small nuances and minute details spring to life and form a rich, panoramic soundfield unlike anything else. Instruments, background sounds, voices, all of it blends in a wonderfully seamless manner. The A1b's come pretty close to that level of accuracy, which wouldn't be unexpected for a $1000 pair of speakers, but for a set that costs less than a third of that? It's just not something you're likely to encounter all that often.
So impressed was I by the precision and dynamics of the A1b's that I started to dig deeper and deeper into my CD collection looking for old favorites, complex musical passages and songs with indecipherable lyrics for one simple reason; to see if I could trip up these speakers. I wasn't really able to. Regardless of what I threw at them they always put a smile on my face. There were a few instances where I was able to make a little more sense from previously incomprehensible wording (I'm looking at you Steven Tyler). It wasn't like the clouds parted and all of the sudden I could make out everything that was being mumbled -- I mean sang -- by some of these artists, but more than once I had an 'ah ha!' moment where a very familiar song finally gave up a few of its secret words. That's something that often happens with good headphones.
The soundstage is equally remarkable; stand up, sit down, move to the side, whatever, it hardly made any difference. The balance changed very little unless you got way off center. The proverbial "sweet spot" is more like a "sweet area" instead, so you aren't necessarily penalized for sitting in the 'wrong' seat with the Arx speakers.
And least you think all this goodness is reserved strictly for music I say think again. Everyday TV watching was a joy, plain and simple. No harshness, no sibilance, no unpleasantness whatsoever. I watch a lot of sports, which means long periods of nothing more than announcers talking. It was here that I came to truly appreciate the exceptional dialog quality of the A2b center. There were occasions where I heard commentators I'm very familiar with sound as though they were in my living room. OK, perhaps the A2b doesn't have quite the depth or strength to sound exactly like they're sitting 10 feet from me, but the sound came close a surprising number of times.
Blu-rays were an absolute treat as well. The dialog from the A2b impressed me as much as it did while watching TV, but it was the effects and background sounds that became the star attraction. Previously unheard little details, the kind that always seem to enhance a scene, were brought to the forefront and made evident for the first time in more than one instance. Even with movies I'm intimately familiar with the Arx speakers breathed new life into their soundtrack. Whether the background was supposed to be delicate, crisp or powerful the A1b's rendered it beautifully.
Want proof of how capable I think the Arx speakers are? I used them as mains while reviewing 3 subwoofers, each of them using a completely different design (acoustic suspension, bass reflex and "push-pull"). At no time did I have any type of integration issue; regardless of the subwoofer I was reviewing the Arx speakers were up to the task. In one instance I used these 'budget' speakers to test a pair of subwoofers that cost $2000 each! It's difficult to comprehend how $508 worth of speakers were able to compliment $4000 worth of subwoofers, yet they somehow managed to do so.
Because of the inordinate amount of time I had the Arx speakers I was able to evaluate them far longer then normal, and that allowed me to draw a very unique conclusion; they excel at doing nothing. I realize that's a strange thing to say, but hear me out...
Everyday TV viewing isn't really going to stress your speakers, certainly not like when they're being poked and prodded with specific songs and movie scenes so they can be scrutinized and picked apart for every flaw. Such are the foibles of reviewing sometimes. Watching TV, on the other hand, is just a day-to-day activity, but one often done for long periods of time. If a speaker has any traits you find annoying or grating this is often a good way to expose them. By their very nature reviews are short in duration, making it difficult to actually understand the true essence and character of the speakers. That wasn't the case here because I had them for a few months (literally).
As previously mentioned I'm a huge sports fan -- football, basketball, auto and motorcycle racing, etc. -- and that type of programming contains a lot of speech and some background noise as the only things you hear for long stretches, yet even with this simplistic source material it's surprising just how important it is for speakers to be clean, smooth and precise. If they lack definition it becomes apparent, perhaps not instantly but over the long haul you will definitely get fatigued and tire of the offensive sound. This "nothing" material proved where the real value of the Arx speakers lies.
Hour after hour, day after day, week after week I devoured all manner of sports programming (hey, it is winter after all) and the Arx speakers were an ever willing participant. Better yet, they were a wonderful contributor, not because they embellished the source material but because they didn't. I was treated to crisp and realistic voices from the A2b, regardless of who the commentators were. The background effects from the A1b's sat off to the side just as I would have hoped. The wide soundstage made for a spacious and enjoyable experience throughout, irrespective of the sport. The Arx speakers just sound "right" to me, and often completely disappeared; you find yourself no longer listening to the speakers, you're listening to the sound they produce instead. That's two totally different things, yet very few companies get the distinction. The Audio Insider nailed it.
The original Men In Black was a unique movie, and gave Tommy Lee Jones a chance to prove he could effectively do comedy. I chose this one because of all the bizarre sound effects and strange background noises throughout, assuming it would be a great test. And it proved to be, because the Arx speakers showed an extraordinary ability with the minute details. Whether it was footsteps, gunfire, aliens "speaking", background noises, or even something as simple as a car door closing, it all sounded wonderful with tremendous detail and clarity.
Tears Of The Sun (Blu-ray)
This is a Bruce Willis film about a team of Navy SEAL's that go into Nigeria to extract a US citizen from the raging civil war. Willis plays Lieutenant Waters, who leads the team. I like this film, but it does tend to drag out a bit too long in a couple of spots. In spite of that, this is another good movie to use for testing speakers because there are a lot of voices and sound effects that need to blend properly in order for it to work. Regardless if it was animals in the jungle, the sound of leaves rustling, rushing water from streams or gunshots the effects were rendered magnificently. In particular the soundtrack -- which has a varying degree of intensity -- came through cleanly, perfectly supporting the on screen action.
Reservoir Dogs (DVD)
What is a movie like Reservoir Dogs doing here? This is a typical Quentin Tarantino flick; it has no special effects, is filmed almost entirely in just a few different places, has clearly defined characters and contains nothing more than dialog for most of the movie. That's precisely why I chose it though, because this is a film stripped down to the bare essentials. The Arx speakers excel at dialog, so I went searching through my collection to find something that might put them to the test. Turns out this movie didn't present a challenge because they breezed right through it. From the opening scene in the restaurant, to the warehouse where the gang holed up after the botched jewelry story robbery, everything sounded marvelous.
I used a combination of lossy and lossless material -- MP3, WAV and CD's for the most part -- to judge how musical the Arx speakers were. All listening was done in 2 channel mode, so only the A1b's were used. Regardless of the source they proved themselves up to the task time and never faltered, regardless of the type of content being played.
Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon (CD)
Still one of my favorite albums of all time, even though it was released about 100 years ago. Alright maybe it's not quite that old, but this classic has been around for a long time. And speaking of "time"... while this entire CD was nothing short of superb it was the song Time that I wrote the most notes about, so I'll focus primarily on that one.
As it turns out, "focus" is an apt word as well; for a while I zoned in almost exclusively on the astonishing detail of all the clock mechanisms at the beginning of Time, almost to the exclusion of all else, so that when the alarms went off I was actually a little startled. Having it turned up to 0dB might have had something to do with it as well. I knew the alarms were coming of course, but I was so enthralled with how clear the individual clocks were I lost track of the time. (yea, I know, that was bad)
David Gilmor's simple yet spectacular guitar solo was mesmerizing because of the detail and clarity pouring out of the A1b's. The subtle background details of the second guitar track, along with Rick Wright's keyboards, were reproduced with amazing precision, all blending with the proper weight and definition.
Special mention goes to Clare Torry's haunting wails in The Great Gig In The Sky, which were just captivating. You could almost feel her anguish, yet all that power never drowned out the gentle piano piece that plays in the background. The dynamics were excellent throughout. While I had the Arx speakers I probably listened to this CD -- beginning to end -- at least 5 times, never once at a reasonable level I'm afraid, and it was always spectacular.
Pearl Jam - 10 (CD)
There's no mistaking Eddie Vedder's voice for anyone else; as soon as he opens his mouth and starts to sing you know exactly who it is, which is precisely why I chose something from Pearl Jam. Alive was specifically selected because it starts out slow, with Eddie's vocals and Stone Gossard's guitar the main focus. I figured that would be a good workout for the speakers. There is a thick rhythm -- like most Pearl Jam songs -- but guitar and vocal are the highlight, at least at the beginning. Eddie's voice was rendered beautifully, and sounded just like he does live. Gossard bounces back and forth between having his guitar fuzzed and not, which the A1b's kept up with perfectly. His solo at the end was crisp and precise.
Jonny Lang - Lie to Me (CD)
Something from Lie To Me? Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you? This CD works equally well as a test for speakers and subwoofers, or maybe it's just because I like it so much, but either way you're stuck hearing about it again. So what song did I choose? Well, I listened to pretty much the entire CD, but I'll focus on the eponymous title track.
Lie To Me starts with that bizarre sound from Bruce McCabe's clavinet. I restarted this song about 3 or 4 times because the A1b's brought that rarely used instrument to life. The sizzle from Rob Stupka's cymbals, and the snap from his snare drum, sounded very crisp too. Jonny Lang -- who was only 16 when this album was released! -- sounded just like he does in concert. His guitar solo, which dominates the latter part of this song, came across with a tremendous amount of detail. The 2nd time I listened to it I had the volume up to -10dB, yet the Arx speakers never lost their composure.
Joe Bonamassa - Black Rock (CD)
This has become one of my new favorites, not only for testing but for music in general. I find myself using something from this CD in virtually all of my reviews of late.
Bird On A Wire starts out with a haunting wind instrument that has a bit of middle eastern flare to it. That's followed by a short interlude that actually has some mandolin. Interesting way to start out a blues song, wouldn't you say? From there things get back to normal though, and Joe does what he does best; play his guitar. Even with the less customary instruments used in this song the A1b's were never confused, producing each with it's own unique characteristics and sound. Everything had the correct weight and remained distinct and separate from all the other elements, yet it all somehow blended perfectly. As you've probably already surmised I played it loud, and more than once.
Dire Straits - Money For Nothing (CD)
I'm not a huge Dire Straits fan, but this is a really good song to test speakers with. Why is that? Well, you have Mark Knopfler's vocal track recorded artificially high, as is his guitar. You have Terry William's drums recorded on the hot side as well. Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck are the only guitar players I know of that don't use a pick, which means they have a different sound then everyone else. Plus, I know this song like the back of my hand because of how overplayed it was on the radio during the mid 80's. Add all that up and I had some very compelling reasons to use the song as a speaker test. I'm glad I did too, because the Arx speakers simply ate it up.
Knopfler's voice was as smooth as I've ever heard it, while his guitar was sharp and clearly define. Every time Terry William's hit that snare there was a nice smack, replete with a delightful crispness. The A1b's actually made a song I'm a bit tired of hearing no longer seem annoying.
It's difficult to gauge the type of support TAI provides because I always dealt directly with Jon Lane, who is not only the owner of The Audio Insider but the designer of the Arx speakers as well. I did find him to be extremely intelligent and very articulate, and he loves to talk about speakers. We also had several email exchanges about myriad other topics, not simply audio, so his passions lie in a number of different areas. Based upon our interactions I suspect the level of support a person can expect to receive from TAI would be quite high. Nothing about this company makes me feel you won't obtain quality care.
Don't tell anyone at The Audio Insider that I held on to the Arx speakers a lot longer than I needed in order to do this review. There were some extenuating circumstances -- thank you "super" storm Sandy -- but in reality there's a very simple reason for why I had them so long; I fell in love with their sound and was loath to give them up. I pine for speakers that have detail, clarity and a wide soundstage. Dynamics must be spot on, there can't be any harshness or audible compression until the volume gets painfully loud, and every nuance has to be clear and precise. Oh yea, they also must be dirt cheap. That, in a nutshell, describes the Arx speakers. Another way to describe them would be Value, with a capital V. I'm not sure how (or more accurately, why) TAI is selling them this cheap, but if you're in the market for a home theater or stereo system comprised of speakers with exceptional qualities make sure you don't plunk your money down on anything until you give the Arx a try. If you are the type of person who loves to hear others say in total disbelief "you only paid how much for those?!" then Arx needs to be on your short list. Their appearance might not win any prizes, but the extraordinary sound they create certainly could.