HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Home Theater Direct Level TWO System
The subject of this review is the Home Theater Direct (HTD) Level TWO System. This setup is a full 5.2 configuration, which consists of the Level TWO Center, a pair of Towers, two Bookshelf speakers for surrounds and dual Subwoofers.
Home Theater Direct has a number of different speaker product lines; in-wall, in-ceiling, outdoor and those like the Level TWO, which are for home theater and 2 channel music. In addition to speakers they also sell amplifiers, multi-zone control systems and accessories. Basically, HTD is a one-stop shop for virtually all of your home theater needs. Home Theater Direct has been in business for approximately 15 years, so they're one of the more seasoned companies as well.
There is something that makes this particular setup even more special though; Home Theater Shack will be giving it all away! That's right, the entire 5.2 system you see on this page will go to one lucky contest winner. But before that happens, I get to have some fun with it...
The Level TWO line is essentially the mid-tier system offered by HTD, with the Middy's below and the Level THREE above. The specifications for each individual component of this 5.2 system are:
Tweeter: 1" silk dome
Midrange: 5.25" with FCD cone (two)
Frequency Response: 52Hz - 20kHz
Dimensions: 7.1"x17"x8.5" (HWD)
Cabinet Construction: 5/8" MDF with bracing
Tweeter: 1" silk dome
Midrange: 5.25" with FCD cone (two)
Frequency Response: 40Hz - 20kHz
Dimensions: 39.25"x7.1"x8.75" (HWD, without base)
Cabinet Construction: 5/8" MDF with bracing
Tweeter: 1" silk dome
Midrange: 5.25" with FCD cone
Frequency Response: 60Hz - 20kHz
Dimensions: 11.9"x7.1"x10" (HWD)
Cabinet Construction: 5/8" MDF with bracing
Driver: 10" (2.5" voice coil)
Amplifier: 170 watts RMS, 290 watts peak
Frequency Response: 29Hz - 150Hz
Dimensions: 17.5"x14.5"x15.75" (HWD, including feet)
Cabinet Construction: 5/8" MDF with bracing
Home Theater Direct is a classic ID (Internet Direct) company that sells from their own website. Like most ID companies they offer a 30 day in-home trial. However, unlike most of their competitors HTD pays the return shipping; if you decide not to keep them you won't have to worry about shipping charges (with the exception of the Towers). For an inexpensive system that's quite a bold offer to make, but it certainly implies that HTD is confident you'll like their products. There is a 5 year warranty on everything but the subwoofer amp, which carries a 2 year warranty.
The entire Level TWO product line is reasonably priced. The Center costs a mere $129, Towers are just $399 for a pair, the Bookshelf speakers are only $199 per pair and the powered Subwoofer is $349. That brings the total cost of this 5.2 system to a wallet-friendly $1,425. As it turned out, there was a lot of value packed into this system for the price.
HTD used double boxes to ship everything; the inner ones were pretty thin, but the outer boxes were 3 layers. Everything was cradled in soft molded foam blocks which covered the entire top and bottom of the packaging. It ranged in thickness from 1.25" for the Bookshelf speakers up to an impressive 2" on the Subwoofers. Each speaker and sub was wrapped in a black cloth bag as well. Overall, the packing was very well executed for a budget oriented system.
The review units came finished with a matte black paint, which was applied smooth and even for the most part. There were a couple of spots on the bottom of the Towers that could have used some attention -- including what appeared to be a slight gap at the intersection of two panels -- but generally speaking the build quality was good.
Black paint is not the only option though; HTD offers a dark cherry veneer. They also have a light cherry veneer, but for some reason it's only available on the Towers and Subwoofers and not the Center or Bookshelf speakers. That wasn't the only aesthetic peculiarity I uncovered either. An 'HTD' emblem was attached to the lower portion of all the grills, except for the Center. Additionally, the Bookshelf and Center had an extra "layer" between the grill and front panel which wasn't part of the Subwoofer or Tower cabinets. Being the observant type I noticed the lack of uniformity in the styling, but most others who saw the Level TWO System in my house did not.
Visual inconsistencies aside, the overall appearance of the Level TWO System was better than the price suggests. Things like beveled grill frames and rounded corners took the edge off the monochromatic appearance and added a slight flair. There were also invisible touches that made you realize whoever designed this system didn't think of it in terms of 'where can we cut corners?'. For example, small rubber grill peg isolators were included with each piece. These were specifically designed to make the grills fit snugly and prevent vibrations. When was the last time you saw that level (no pun intended) of detail with an inexpensive system?
An additional nice touch was the gold plated 5 way binding posts, which seemed to be of a higher quality than most companies include at this price point. Even the driver arrangement in the Center shows careful planning; instead of the typical alignment, where each driver's physical center is on the same horizontal plane, HTD instead offsets the tweeter toward the top of the cabinet, in order to minimize lobing effects. This helps insure a cleaner more natural sound, especially when it comes to vocals. In practice that seemingly minor detail proved very effective because the Level TWO Center had excellent clarity.
Each midrange driver cone is made from HTD's proprietary FCD (Fabric, Ceramic, Doping) material. HTD describes this novel approach to cone construction in the following manner:
A lightweight fabric is used to create the cone's shape. A ceramic coating is then hand applied, heated, and hardened to give the cone its stiffness. Finally, a slightly sticky polymer coating (doping) is also hand applied that helps increase bass response and add warmth to the overall tone. The ceramic and polymer coatings also serve to protect the fabric so that the speaker will last virtually forever.
It's a very unique material, unlike any other I've seen to date. Tapping on a cone with your finger reveals the fact that it is indeed extremely lightweight. The rubber surround is also thin, allowing the cone to move with exceptional ease. A potential drawback with the FCD process though is the ceramic/polymer coating; it creates a sticky film that might prove to be a dust or pet hair magnet over time.
The Subwoofer is not at all imposing for a bass reflex design, so it doesn't stand out in the room. It's perched on large, sturdy rubber feet. Bucking the conventional trend of using internal amplifiers, HTD has instead chosen to go the external route. The rationale for this choice is explained in the following manner:
Using a subwoofer amplifier not permanently installed in the back of the subwoofer cabinet (as many "old-style" subwoofers do) offers several key benefits:
- Air leaks around the built-in amp and its inputs/outputs, which can cause a buzzing or whistling noise, is a non-issue
- Internal volume of the cabinet is not reduced by the installed amplifier allowing the cabinet to be as small as possible
- You have the recommended option of placing the amplifier with your other equipment. This allows the amplifier to be connected to your LFE (subwoofer) output on your home theater receiver using only a short, inexpensive shielded cable; regular speaker cable is run from the amp to the connection point on the bottom of the subwoofer cabinet. This allows you to place the subwoofer exactly where you want without the need for running a 110V electrical cord to a nearby electrical outlet. If you can hide the speaker cable under carpet, etc., the subwoofer can literally look like it is floating in the room with no cables in view.
- You still have the option of placing the subwoofer amplifier behind or beneath the subwoofer cabinet for a more traditional installation using a long shielded cable from your home theater receiver. All of our cabinet-style subwoofers include a recessed area in the bottom of the cabinet that allows the amplifier to be hidden beneath it.
Along the bottom rear of the Subwoofer cabinet there's a slight cut-away specifically designed for the amp. There isn't any method to attach the amp directly to the cabinet, it's more like an area where you can place it out of the way (as opposed to on top or off to the side). Putting the amp back there does make it less noticeable, but there's not a great deal of space for heat to dissipate. Since the amp cools itself using nothing more than convection I did find it getting warmer than I would have liked from time to time. I suspect HTD has done ample testing, and are comfortable with long-term reliability if used in this manner, but if you have the option to place the amp somewhere else it's probably worth considering. With the amp essentially under the subwoofer it did help hide the piercing blue LED that's on the front panel, something which I found a little distracting at times. That issue would be even more pronounced if you like to watch TV with the lights dimmed.
The amp has a really innovative "soft" wake up feature, something that other manufacturers might want to consider implementing. Essentially what happens is when the sub wakes from standby mode there's no sound initially because the amp is gracefully 'booting up'. After perhaps 5 seconds it comes to life, but even then it's not as abrupt as most other sub amps, it just elegantly starts making sound. I wish HTD would do something with the volume knob though; there's only a tiny indentation to use as a reference to show where the dial is pointing, but it's awfully hard to see.
When I first started doing reviews it was with two ethos that I've absolutely refused to compromise on; I would always speak my mind -- in a professional manner, of course, but being completely honest nonetheless -- and that everything would be judged based upon its target audience and price point, not some mythical 'gold standard' that costs 5x more than the product I was evaluating. I have held true to those ideals and never wavered, which brings me to a confession regarding HTD. Scanning various forums highlights the fact that Home Theater Direct's reputation is almost predominantly as a maker of budget -- read: low end -- systems. Through osmosis I also looked upon them in that manner, even though I had never heard a single thing they make (hey, I'm human too you know). Turns out that impression is undeserved.
I'm not discounting the build/paint issues I mentioned earlier, which unfortunately do lend a bit of credence to the aforementioned notoriety. No, what I'm referring to is something completely different; the remarkable sound quality of this system, and how effortlessly all 7 pieces blended together. Do you expect good transient response at this price point? You really shouldn't, but with the Level TWO System you do get it. Perhaps you enjoy a neutral sound, one where the highs are not shrill and the mids are smooth? Usually you need to spend more than this system costs, yet smooth and non-fatiguing is precisely what you get. Or maybe precision is what you're after, so the individual elements of a soundtrack actually sound like individual elements? Remarkably, you get that too.
Here's the real kicker for me though; these speakers maintain surprisingly good dynamics with the volume turned down low. Perhaps the two most difficult obstacles for any speaker system to overcome are high and low volume. At high volume you get breakup, where sound quality starts to fall apart, and at low volume you lose dynamics and then resolution becomes compromised. When reviewing an entire system like this I always include a few sessions of low volume just to see if the speakers and subwoofer(s) are able to maintain any sense of imagery, and to my complete surprise the Level TWO System sounded wonderful. I listened at a low volume level on numerous occasions because I was so impressed with how composed these speakers were. For people who don't subscribe to the "how loud can it play?" school of sound you have an advocate in Home Theater Direct.
The majority of my reviews thus far have been subwoofers, so I've grown accustomed to using a few choice scenes from various blu-ray's in order to perform my version of torture testing. For the Level TWO System I eschewed that in favor of watching movies in their entirety. I wanted to understand the true essence of this system, as a whole, instead of simply trying to punish them to see how they responded. As I found with music too, the general presentation with movies was always on the subdued side, without any harshness. You can listen to the Level TWO's for hours on end and not become weary.
Since I wasn't going to follow my traditional route -- and simply use snippets from 4 different movies -- my choices needed to be more selective to include examples that contained a lot of dialog, some special effects and more than a few action sequences. Given my catalogue this proved a bit challenging, but ultimately I came up with a pair of worthy representatives that engendered precisely what I was looking for.
Black Hawk Down (blu-ray)
Although I have used scenes from this one in previous reviews it certainly fulfills all of my criteria. Besides that, I really like this movie.
Black Hawk Down is a (mostly) nonfictional account of a 1992 incursion into Mogadishu, Somalia, by an elite US military contingent consisting primarily of Rangers and Delta Force. The goal was to capture some of the top members of Mohamed Farrah Aidid's cabinet, a renegade warlord who had been committing unspeakable atrocities against innocent people. The initial objective was carried out successfully, and the primaries were taken into custody without incident, but during the pull-out a Black Hawk helicopter is shot down by Aidid's militia. It all goes horribly wrong from there, and the remainder of the operation becomes more of a rescue mission than anything else.
Perhaps my favorite part of this movie with the Level TWO System was the dialog clarity; regardless of how loud or soft people were speaking the voices sounded very natural. The background sounds (which are numerous when you actually focus on them) never faltered, so every bullet casing that hit the ground was as distinct as the sound of each soldier's footstep. Overall, the bass depth was a bit lacking -- especially during the famous 'Irene' scene -- but it never came across as deficient, just not particularly guttural.
Who ever imagined Liam Neeson would be in a movie like this? Certainly not me. Taken is the story of Bryan Mills, a former CIA agent who retired in order to spend more time with his estranged daughter Kim. Now divorced, and deep in the throes of middle age, he's been reassessing his priorities and wants desperately to establish some type of relationship with Kim. Their interaction is portrayed too corny and sappy for my tastes, but mercifully that's only the focal point at the beginning of the movie; Taken soon launches into action mode, when Kim is kidnapped by Albanians while she's traveling in Paris, and it's in this realm that the movie becomes most appealing to me. Taken also spawned an oft repeated bit of dialog; "I will find you, and I will kill you". Perhaps not as noteworthy as Dirty Harry saying "go ahead, make my day" but Liam did achieve the lofty status of cult icon with this movie, partially because of that utterance.
As was the case with Black Hawk Down, the dialog was spot on. Male voices, female voices, whispers, shouting, it was all good. I grew quite fond of this L/C/R front stage. Nathaniel Méchaly's soundtrack plays an understated yet integral part of this movie, and the Level TWO System was certainly up to the task. The LFE effects -- lacking a bit in Black Hawk Down -- were much better with Taken, especially during the chaotic shootout in the quarry. With gunfire, heavy machinery and all manner of explosions the subwoofers had their work cut out, and they held up well.
After all the testing was concluded I checked the amps to see how hot they had gotten, but they were barely more than warm. If given adequate breathing room these ICEpower amps don't seem to struggle at all.
By and large I shunned my normal aggressive music for more detailed and refined selections, in order to give the entire system a thorough workout. In so doing what I found was the Level TWO's were enjoyable at both low and high volumes (especially the former). They're also pretty forgiving, so bad source material was reigned in to a large extent. Good quality content wasn't hampered though, giving you the best of both worlds. Forced to describe the Level TWO System using a single word it would most likely be "revealing", which is quite the compliment given how little they cost.
Jackson Browne - The Load Out/Stay, Live Version (Streaming)
Most people confuse this composition to be just one song, but in reality it's actually two (akin to Boston's Foreplay/Long Time, which is also frequently thought to be a single song). The Load Out is an unabashed tribute to his roadies and fans, and although I was never into Jackson Browne's music it's hard not to like this one. Every so often you get the feeling that a particular song has more meaning to the person who wrote it than some of the others they record, and to me this one has that sense; you can almost feel the sincerity coming through in his voice.
This medley opens with nothing more than Jackson singing and playing his piano in a very low key manner. Played in 2.2 mode the Level TWO Towers and Subwoofers did an excellent job of recreating his passion. The piano didn't have quite enough depth to make anyone think it was in the same room with you, but there was no lack of clarity. After a few minutes the other members of the band slowly begin to make their presence known, starting with the slide guitar. During this 8+ minute compilation virtually every instrument is brought to the forefront for short periods, including several different singers, so there's a constantly shifting focus that the Level TWO System handled adroitly; the segue's were faultless, never missing a beat.
Doobie Brothers - Long Train Runnin' (Streaming)
Long Train Runnin' -- from their early 1970's album The Captain And Me -- has a lot going on, like most Doobie Brothers songs it seems. A pair of guitars are the most prominent aspect of the rhythm section, and to reinforce that they're recorded up front for most of the song (except during Tom Johnston's harmonica solo toward the middle). The Towers gave each guitar its own space, allowing them to maintain a unique identity. Vocal harmonies are also a key part of this song, all of which sounded crisp and properly weighted. Even the subtleties, like the bongos, were handled with aplomb, not subjugated into oblivion by everything else going on. There are a lot of elements that need to blend properly in order for this song to sound whole, and I have to say the Level TWO System did a yeoman's job reproducing all of them.
I used Long Train Runnin' to test this system's low-level resolution as well, and found that the dynamics didn't suffer when I turned the volume down; the Towers and Subwoofers maintained dynamics and produced a balanced and rich sound. I seriously doubt too many people would think this is a budget system once they hear it play at a low volume.
Celine Dion - My Heart Will Go On (MP3)
I actually had to buy this song, because it's definitely not in my repertoire. Sadly, the only option available was MP3, so it's not the best sounding version. What it is, though, is a song from a woman with a phenomenal voice. Precisely what I was looking for; given what I had experienced with movie dialog I wanted to see how the Level TWO System would do with a song that was biased towards vocals. Even with the cut-rate MP3 codec I liked what I heard.
My Heart Will Go On is not a complex song, in terms of the arrangement, so I was able to focus a lot of my attention on the vocals. As the song begins there's an acoustic guitar, piccolo and perhaps a harpsichord (the last two instruments I'm speculating on though, because this is not the type of music I generally listen to. Give me a fuzzed guitar, bass and drums any day!). Regardless, it all blended wonderfully, with a nice even tone. Celine's voice had tremendous impact, portraying her anguish remarkably well. Most of the "instruments" sound as though they're synthesized, but that didn't seem to faze the Level TWO System one bit.
Tony MacAlpine - 10 Seconds To Mercury (CD)
By this point I felt the need to 'cleanse my palette', as it were, of music outside my genre, so I cued up something a bit more to my liking (sorry, but I had to play at least one song from my preferred style of music). Tony is a guitar shredder, in every sense of the word. Think Yngwie Malmsteen, without the colossal ego though. MacAlpine's claim to fame -- other than his blazingly fast fingers -- are his 7 and 8 string guitars. No, that's not a misprint; this guy plays custom Ibanez guitars, utilizing either DiMarzio or EMG pickups, that have 7 or 8 strings. MacAlpine can hit notes no one else can, primarily because he has strings no one else does. The fact he can actually do this stuff live makes it all the more amazing. Did I mention that he not only plays the guitar, but also the bass and keyboards? Still not enough for you? How about the fact that this man has played with the likes of Steve Vai, Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan and other such luminaries. Tony's the real deal, for sure.
I recently picked up his latest CD called, oddly enough, Tony MacAlpine. Like a lot of MacAlpine's music this one is purely instrumental. 10 Seconds To Mercury is an odd mix of synthesizer, piano, bass, drums and, of course, guitar. Lots and lots of guitar. This song transitions from one style of music to another, in rapid succession, which is precisely why it was chosen; I wanted to see what the Level TWO System could do when confronted with a high energy, quick-change type of song. Turns out it wasn't much of a challenge; everything sounded wonderful, even Virgil Donati's insanely fast bass pedal. I cranked this one, and loved every minute of it.
Inexpensive often equates to cheap, but not in this case. The Home Theater Direct Level TWO System revealed its modest pedigree in one or two areas, but those proved to be the exception and not the rule; for the most part these speakers and subwoofers fought above their weight class (so to speak). This system proved very easy to live with on a day-to-day basis. A common saying is "champagne tastes with a beer wallet", which is a person who likes finer things but simply can't afford them. HTD has you folks covered; you won't need to spend a lot to get a lot from them. Thoughtful touches and very good sound quality make it such that Home Theater Direct should be on the 'short list' of anyone looking for a high value system.
Please use the Home Theater Direct Level TWO System Discussion Thread for questions and comments