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Discussion Starter #361
ROUGH DRAFT





It’s hard to believe an entire year has passed since Mike Edwards and I compiled HTS’s definitive 2015’s movie gift guide. But, alas, here we find ourselves staring old man winter in the face as the Holiday shopping season is about to shift into overdrive. Last year we were lucky enough to have an incredible pool of movies to pick from, ranging from hard-driving titles like Rogue Nation and John Wick to the lighthearted Inside Out and Sci-Fi adventure lands of Interstellar and Ex Machina. While those films still make excellent gift choices for your favorite movie aficionados, the past 11 months have given us loads of new Blu-ray titles to recommend. After careful deliberation, we’ve hammered-out 20 titles that are sure to please. Of course, we're fairly certain that you, friendly readers, will have a few suggestions of your own. Please take a few moments to tell us about your favorite films of the year in the comments section. We look forward to reading what’s on your mind!

Click on each film’s title (with the exception of Deadpool and Game of Thrones) for direct links to Mike Edwards’ full HTS review and Amazon purchasing. Also, some of these films have been released on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, and 4K UHD Blu-ray formats. We primarily talk in terms of Blu-ray, but don’t forget about 4K versions for systems that can handle the extra pixels.



Sci-Fi/Adventure
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Kicking off our 2016 Holiday Gift Guide is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the last decade: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens . Thankfully, The Force Awakens reboots this incredible franchise with an absolutely killer storyline and new characters, with the same captivating vibe that allowed A New Hope to forever change Hollywood in 1977. The Blu-ray release is available in several versions, including the fan-geek “Steel Book” with bonus content. The film’s audio and video qualities are the same across all releases, which is to say they all look and sound equally stellar. This release is a near flawless recommendation. Buy it.

Star Trek Beyond
Nipping on the heels of The Force Awakens is another space-themed franchise: Star Trek. This year we were given the third installment since Star Trek’s own reboot, however its new director (Justin Lin) definitely adds a distinct new flavor to the overall feel of the story. While slightly more flawed than 2009 and Into Darkness, Beyond is an incredibly fun film that’s a must own for all Trekkies. Quite simply put: it’s a blast to watch. The film’s 2.39:1 image shines superb, loaded with textures, colors, and rich amounts of detail. And the included Dolby Atmos track is nearly perfect. Much like The Force Awakens, Beyond gets our confident stamp of approval.

High-Rise
High-Rise is a unique animal that, aside from The Night Of (detailed below), is our most edgy recommendation on this year’s guide. It’s a twisted dystopian story penned by deceased British novelist J.G. Ballard, detailing the chaotic and uncontrolled life within a modern tower block. This is not light material, which might be the perfect ticket for a hardcore film fan on your shopping list. The film’s audio and video presentation are both excellent.



Frontier/Western
Hell or High Water
Here's a film that will catch you by surprise (it certainly did that to us). While it only enjoyed a short run in theaters, it's found new life on Blu-ray. Headlined by Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water is an absolutely amazing flick that follows two bank-robbing brothers on a mission to save their family farm. Audio and video are both top notch, highlighted by a magnificent 1080p encode. This is one of Lionsgate’s top movies of the year.

The Revenant
The Revenant delivered Leonardo DiCaprio his first ever Oscar (awarded this past February), while also capturing awards in the Cinematography and Directing categories. It’s a gritty story of survival, nature, pain, and pure black-hearted evil. And if you haven’t seen the film, prepare yourself for one of the most intense man-versus-animal scenes ever created. The film’s 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is flawless, as is the video image shot by Arri Alexa cameras. The word “amazing” hardly summarizes The Revenant’s intense potency. Highly recommended.



Animation
Kubo and the Two Strings
It’s no accident that HTS awarded Kubo an overall review score of “92.” This film is simply a must watch for both young and old alike. Loaded with emotion and heartstring moments, Kubo is one of 2016’s best Blu-ray releases. Presentation quality is boosted by a ridiculously good cinematic image and an amazing 5.1 DTS-HD MA track. If you’re in search of a sure-shot crowd pleaser, Kubo should be at the top of your list.

Finding Dory
Speaking of sure-shot, Pixar delivered yet another mega hit with the release of Finding Dory. No need to have "fear of sequel let down" with this film, as Finding Dory has a fantastic stride of its own. Characters are fun and lively and the storyline is heartwarming to the core. Adding to the fun is an audio and video presentation that does everything right. Much like Kubo, Finding Dory is an easy pick for a great family gift.

The Iron Giant
Rounding out our “Animated” category is the classic film The Iron Giant. Originally released during 1999, The Iron Giant has finally found its way to Blu-ray. The film’s style and substance are equally seductive and the release is loaded with extras that hardcore fans will love. Both the audio and video is top shelf, punctuated by a powerful and earthshaking 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix that will make your system sing. There’s even an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” for those of you that know an extra-juiced fan.



Horror
Green Room
Okay, we’ll admit that giving a holiday gift of horror is a bit creepy. But, if you’re hell-bent on going the horror route, then you might as well give something that’s super cool. Green Room is an off the beaten path flick that gets our mark as the “sleeper horror hit of the year.” The film documents the stress and terror experienced by an innocent punk band after witnessing a murder they weren’t supposed to see. Trapped in a remote location, the band finds itself wrapped in brutal negotiations with a bunch of really bad dudes. The release’s video and audio is top notch, guaranteed to leave your senses awash with hardcore fear.



Action/Adventure
Everest
Everest is a huge theatrical blockbuster that landed itself on Blu-ray with flawless delivery. The film’s awesome Dolby Atmos audio track is an absolute stunner, and its video is no slouch either (scoring a perfect mark in Mike Edwards’ review). If you’re looking for a fun and enthralling adrenaline ride, then this is a film to consider. It’s chock-full of intensity as the characters fight for their lives on the largest peak on Earth.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Another action film homerun is Michael Bay’s 13 Hours. Based on the horrific (and now historic) events surrounding the attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Lybia, 13 Hours is flat out intense. Bay’s toned-down approach will draw you into terrifying battle sequences and undeniable stress as a bad situation continually turns worse. The film’s Dolby Atmos audio delivers overwhelming immersiveness, and the video encode reaches rare levels of perfection. Highly recommended.



Superhero/Action
Deadpool
Deadpool is easily one of my favorite Blu-ray releases of the year. It’s an edgy mixture of adult humor and action that does so many things right, as evidenced by the fact that it captured legitimate critical acclaim (not to mention wide reaching audience approval). Unfortunately its R rating from the MPAA is spot-on, making it impossible to recommend as a gift for children or folks sensitive to material that pushes the edge of the envelope. The film’s Atmos track and 2.39:1 image attributes are both reference quality. Highly recommended.


Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War represents another solid installment in the Marvel movie universe. Loaded with fantastical characters and action, the film delivers plenty of fun. Viewers are treated to a solid 7.1 DTS-HD MA audio experience and a gorgeous 1080p digital encode. Definitely give Captain America a look if you have a hardcore superhero fan in your life!

X-Men Apocalypse
Director Bryan Singer’s fourth entry into the X-Men universe is admittedly not the franchises strongest. That's not to say it isn't a fun romp through fantasyland, though, with some new faces to boot. Audio and video are simply fantastic and the included extras are sure to please the most geeked-out of superhero fans. This is a great movie to show off an elaborate of home theater rig (plenty of demo material).



Television Series
Game of Thrones: Season Six
Truthfully, very little needs to be said about HBO’s award winning series: Game of Thrones. The show’s accolades and legions of fans around the world speaks volumes. This year we saw both Season Five and Season Six hit store shelves on Blu-ray. Mike Edwards gave Season Five a rock-solid score of 94 (which makes it an excellent gift in its own right). However, the recent November release of Season Six is oh-so shiny and new. And the good news is that it’s another stellar installment. Much like previous releases, Season Six carries a reference quality Dolby Atmos audio track, and the show’s 1.78:1 AVC encoded 1080p image is top notch. This release is practically a must buy.

Arrow: The Complete Fourth Season
Arrow is, as of now, enjoying an excellent Fifth Season, bolstering our recommendation of the Fourth Season as a must watch. This show is simply a blast, and with 24 episodes contained on the set's discs, there’s hours upon hours of entertainment. Video and Audio quality are ridiculously high for a television series, and audio fans are sure to revel in Warner Bros’ aggressive 5.1 DTS-HD MA track.

The Night Of
HBO’s creative prowess has produced lots of gems and the late 2015 release of The Night Of completely slipped under our radar last year. This release is unique enough (and good enough) to land a spot on our 2016 list. It’s an intoxicating and well-crafted crime drama that oozes intensity, emotional impact, and utter intrigue. While the release is devoid of extras and otherwise noteworthy audio and video attributes, The Night Of delivers one of the best self-contained television shows we’ve seen in years. This release is unique, making it a great gift buy.

Supergirl: The Complete First Season
Supergirl might show a few warts during its first couple of episodes, but quickly finds its grace and has proven to be a fantastic addition to the Warner Bros’ superhero lineup. Notably, the show has a certain newness that fans of DC superheroes are sure to enjoy. With a run time of 877 minutes, this release has serious legs. Mike Edwards reviewed the DVD release version and found audio and video qualities to be solid. Look for the Blu-ray version of the release for the true hardcore enthusiast.

The Flash: The Complete Second Season
Flash has the distinction of being one of Mike Edwards’ favorite television shows over the past several years (which, considering the amount of media he analyzes, is quite a statement). Season Two manages to carry Season One’s interest and intrigue, with plenty of new layers for the heroes and villain of the show to explore. Much like Arrow, the audio and video qualities of Flash are superb. Your favorite hardcore enthusiast will absolutely love the release’s robust and active 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround track. And the show’s image attributes are spot-on, despite challenging dark and shadowy scenes.

Star Wars Rebels: Season 2
Season two of the popular Star Wars Rebels is a sure-shot homerun watch for any fan of the Star Wars universe. It wasn’t long ago that the demise of The Clone Wars series left a sour taste in rabid fans’ mouths. But, Disney has proven itself worthy of carrying the torch with Rebels, having enjoyed a sensational Season One. Season Two doesn’t miss a beat and uniquely ties itself into the original Lucas Star Wars trilogy that started it all. The series’ robust video presentation is loaded with brilliantly rich colors and inky blacks; fine details are abound. While audio is slightly dinged by the exclusion of a lossless encode, the track takes full advantage of 5.1 layouts with copious surround activity and well-rounded bass.
 

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Discussion Starter #362
Google Play Announces Launch of 4K Movie Support


Google Play has announced that 4K movies are now available for purchase. This is a big movie for the streaming service, and is sure to further strengthen its growing market presence.

Just over five years ago, Google Play began offering movie rentals to U.S. based Android devices. At the time, customers only had access to content from three major studios. Much has changed (and changed quickly), with Google Play extending its availability to more than 100 countries and broadening its platform to phones, tablets, televisions, and computers. And support is no longer limited to Android, as Google has added support for iOS devices, Chromcast, Roku, and Smart TVs.

Starting today, Google Play Movies will offer more than 125 movie titles in stunning 4K resolution (including hits such as Ghostbusters and Captain Philips). Using Google’s own VP9 encoding process, Google Play Movies have the potential to be enjoyed natively on televisions made by LG, Sony, Samsung, and Panasonic. Both US and Canadian customers can purchase 4K movies on their Android devices, the web (for streaming to Chomecast Ultra), Sony Bravia Android TVs, and Xiaomi Mi Box 3s. In addition, the Google Play Movies and TV app is now available for select 2016 Samsung televisions.

This move to 4K streaming has been in the pipeline for some time, telegraphed by the release of Chromecast Ultra (this past October). Ultra is a small HDMI dongle that attaches to the back of your television. It supports up to 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range, which bodes well for the future of streaming content.

Google hasn’t released official pricing on 4K titles (prior to today’s press embargo time), but overnight changes to the Google Play Movie store indicate that users will initially have to pay $24.99 to purchase movies ($7.99 to rent). Those price points are practically double the cost of standard HD titles. The good news is that new buyers of Chomecast Ultra will be given one free 4K movie purchase.

For more information, visit Google Play on the web.

Image Credit: Google
 

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Discussion Starter #363

OPPO Digital has established itself as the premier manufacturer of universal disc players by doing business the right way; delivering well-built high performance gear paired with customer service that’s known to be excellent. And the company’s reputation isn’t limited to disc players, having successfully dipped its toes into high-end audio waters with well reviewed headphone and headphone amp offerings. Talk to just about any enthusiast and you’ll hear the same thing: OPPO delivers an overwhelming amount of performance for the price. That kind sentiment makes every new OPPO product a true curiosity, and is exactly why the company’s 2016 entry into wireless audio is exciting.

Thinking back to its birth in the early 2000s, wireless audio has transformed from a spark into a modern day four-alarm fire fueled by demands of convenience, ease of use, and quality sound reproduction. The current number of standalone Bluetooth speaker options (not to mention entire ecosystems of manufacturer specific wireless technologies) is quite staggering. OPPO’s entry (called Sonica) is a moderately priced standalone product aimed squarely at buyers that want a high quality experience across both performance and usability spectrums. At $299, its price point has plenty of competition from the usual suspects in the industry, making distinctive performance an absolute necessity for survival. Of course, that notion is almost a given, but the sheer number of available options makes it particularly poignant.

Today, we’ll take an up-close look at Sonica and put it through its paces with a sound performance test drive. Definitely read on, as Sonica has a lot to offer.



Overview
Measuring roughly 12-inches (L) by 6-in (W) by 5-in (H) and weighing a mere 5.3-pounds, Sonica is a powered portable speaker that’s easy to handle and place. Packed inside of its robust black molded cabinet is a 2.1 speaker configuration comprised of two 2.5-in wideband drivers, a single 3.5-in bass driver, and dual 3-in bass radiators. OPPO opted to use four internal amplifiers: two 15 Watt amps connected in a bridged mode drive the bass driver while two 10 Watt amps power the wideband drivers.

Sonica offers lots of standard connectivity options including Bluetooth, AirPlay, DLNA, and Wi-Fi streaming, a 3.5mm auxiliary connection, and a USB slot*. It can also play music via OPPO’s proprietary Sonica app platform (iOS and Android) that loads on a portable device and acts as a gateway to on-device content in addition to TIDAL and Spotify Connect.

Music file format support is also quite extensive. OPPO says that Sonica can accommodate AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, M4A, ALAC, MP2, OGG, and WMA. In addition, it can decode audio files up to 24-bit/192 kHz from formats such as FLAC, WAV, and Apple Lossless.

Aesthetically speaking, Sonica is super easy on the eyes with a sleek rounded body and smooth black satin finish. I placed it in several different rooms during the review period and it looked great (if not invisible) just about everywhere. It feels rock solid when handled and the knuckle wrap test reveals an inert cabinet. Fit and finish is impeccable.



Sonica has intuitive controls on its topside (top) and several backside connectivity options (bottom).


The front and sides of Sonica feature a non-removable cloth grille (I tried to gain access to the drivers for a visual inspection, but was unsuccessful). The top features easy to identify volume controls and connection indicator lights, while the front lower lip of the cabinet houses a customizable “mood light” that gently shines down on a surface. The bottom of the cabinet presents three threaded mounting points (not detailed in the User Manual) and two soft rubber “feet” strips. The backside has an Ethernet port, a USB slot, a 3.5mm jack, and the power connection.

Just a note about the power cord: it has a molded right angle design that helps to maximize how close Sonica can sit to a rear boundary. This might seem trivial, but it certainly helped me to better position the speaker in tight spots.



Unboxing and Set-Up
Sonica’s tasteful packaging is on par with other OPPO products I’ve handled, which have always exceeded expectations. In many ways, unboxing an OPPO product feels like an important event, as packing materials are both functional and well crafted. In the box, I found a power cord, a user-friendly User Manual, a Quick Start Guide, and the speaker.



Sonica's box contents include the speaker, a power cord, and two User Guides.


Aside from plugging-in the speaker, set-up involved downloading the Sonica app to my iPhone 6. Thankfully, this process was quick and painless because the app is the only pathway to pairing the speaker with a home Wi-Fi network. The app’s set up interface is well executed and my speaker was paired and fully operational within a matter of minutes.

Let’s take a few moments to review the app, since it’s functionally important to the speaker. The app is quick to load, presenting a menu of music source options. Users can select from TIDAL, Spotify, music stored on the mobile device (itself), network sharing, management of music on a USB stick, Bluetooth, and devices connected to the Auxiliary input. Along the bottom of the screen users can select favorites (songs tagged as a favorite, recently played songs, and playlists), settings, and specific Sonica speakers in the home.

The settings menu offers a range of usability options. Here, users can set a sleep timer, alter the mood light, update firmware (handled solely by controls within the app), change the app’s screen brightness for nighttime use, manage Bluetooth and Auxiliary input functionality, and directly influence sound output. The app offers five different output presets (labeled “Preset 1” through “Preset 4” and “Super Bass”). If you don’t know which to choose, there’s a “Guide Me” feature that picks an optimal sound setting based on room size, room characteristics, and bass preferences.



Screen shots from the Sonica app.


Overall, the app’s interface is easy to use and consistently delivered a great user experience (even making the speaker's firmware update simple and painless). Most will find the interface to be similar to other audio apps. I liked how each song’s file type was displayed in song lists, and a song’s playback window had familiar fixings (such as album art, artist and song name, song controls, playback time, and volume control). My only frustration came when manually fast-forwarding by dragging a song’s timeline marker. Occasionally, the app would skip to the end of the song if I let go of the marker with a minimal amount of time remaining (30 seconds, for example). It’s hard to know if this is an iPhone6 deficiency, or a quirk related to the app. It’s also worthy to note that the Sonica app is only available for portable devices (not desktop computers). However, I found AirPlay and Bluetooth functionality to adequately cover this omission.



Measured Performance
Sonica is certainly a peppy speaker, especially considering its size. I only had one Sonica on hand, but users with more than one can play them in groups or as stereo pairs. In fact, multi-speaker owners can even play different music through various groups of Sonica speakers simultaneously. This is all controlled through the app (where speakers can be selected, renamed, and grouped together for simultaneous playback).

Before we dive into my impressions of the speaker’s musical capabilities, let’s take a look at some sound sweep measurements taken by Room EQ Wizard using a UMIK-1 microphone. These measurements were taken in my family room (approximate size: 2,300 cubic feet), which is part of a semi-open concept floor plan consisting of walls and large openings leading to two other rooms. Measurements were taken in two positions: while the speaker sat on a coffee table near the middle of the room, and while the speaker was positioned on a shelf in the corner of the room.



Sonica's Preset 1 measurements from a corner room bookcase (red) and center room coffee table (gold).



Sonica measurements taken from a corner room bookcase (top) and center room coffee table (bottom).


As the graphs show, Preset 1 and Super Bass offered very similar bass performance (with Preset 1 offering a slightly more robust low end). The speaker definitely seemed to benefit from the corner shelf placement, with bass roll off occurring around 55 Hz as opposed to the coffee table’s position of roughly 64 Hz. Overall high frequency performance in both positions was fairly smooth.

The measurements also demonstrated the impact of OPPO's various Preset sound modes. Preset 1 presents more robust bass, which tapers as you move to higher Presets.

During music playback, I found I was able to elevate volume levels to the 92-95 dB region without noticeable distortion. This pushed the speaker’s volume control right to the brink of max, and was more than loud enough to be heard across the entire first floor of my home.



Music Playback
In order to evaluate Sonica’s musical capabilities, I tapped a wide range of music from sources including an iPhone6 (both stored and streamed), iTunes on an iMac and PowerBook running El Capitan, a USB stick, and TIDAL. This allowed me to listen to a variety of file types including MP3, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and AAC. Searching for songs via the Sonica app (no matter the source) was easy and painless. The following are a few notes on specific tracks I listened to during my demo sessions.



Image: Atco Records, AC/DC.


AC/DC, The Razors Edge, "Thunderstruck" (M4A, Bluetooth)
Kicking things off, I reached for a track that would challenge the fiery side of Sonica’s capabilities. What I ultimately found was a pleasantly sharp attack with smooth highs and notably deep bass. Nothing mellow to be found here. A common theme across the entirety of my demo sessions was a nice balance of bass, mids, and treble, and "Thunderstruck" certainly played to that without sounding harsh or screechy (especially considering the source).


Various Artists, Ciao My Shining Star, "All for the Best" by Thom Yorke (ACC, AirPlay)
Ciao My Shining Star is a star-studded tribute album honoring the life of Mark Mulcahy’s (Miracle Legion) late wife through covers of the band’s extensive catalog of songs. This particular track is performed by Miracle Legion fan (and band front man, himself), Thom Yorke, using a funky techno approach. Sonica played the track with a pleasing depth of sound and tonal balance. Yorke’s voice appeared appropriately crystal clear as the track pulsed and breathed to life. I found a surprising amount of spatiality, with notable height of sound. Quite frankly, I was surprised by this discovery since the speaker lacked any sort of stereo mate. Of course, it wasn’t as dramatic as imaging you might experience from a true two-channel rig, but it was impressive nonetheless.


John Mayer, Paradise Valley, "Dear Marie" (FLAC, USB)
"Dear Marie" has become one of my favorite go to demo tracks. It’s a song that presents an ultra smooth warm bass line, complimented by Mayer’s voice (which is forward and isolated). Sonica handled this song perfectly with controlled bass and snappy highs. Mayer’s voice remained clear and concise, and the song’s acoustic guitar rang beautifully. All in all, a very pleasant presentation that led me to sit and listen to the entire Paradise Valley album several times over. This particular track was Hi-Res fed via the USB input, and I was able to hear a sound quality difference between this kind of source and Bluetooth material. However, the difference was not so striking as to make Bluetooth material unlistenable.


Youssou N'Dour et Le Super Etoile de Dakar, Fatteliku/Live in Athens 1987, "Immigres" (Apple Lossless, USB)
Next, I reached for an interesting concert track performed by Youssou N'Dour et Le Super Etoile de Dakar. It carries a fantastically fun and freewheeling live vibe, bubbling with loads of drums and clean guitar lines. Sonica drove this track fairly well, leaning just a tad to the bright side of the equation. It’s a bright sounding song by nature, however, and Sonica handled it well within the realm of acceptable. The speaker certainly didn’t unnaturally tone down the song’s audio characteristics, which was a plus.


Daft Punk, Tron: Legacy Soundtrack, "End of Line" (MP3, AirPlay)
Finally, I called upon Daft Punk’s bass-laced Tron:Legacy Soundtrack. "End of Line" is a track that delivers a particularly hard-hitting bass experience. Considering Sonica’s size, it did an admirable job keeping up and staying smooth. While the low-end of this song digs well below Sonica’s natural capabilities, the speaker presented enough warmth and power to keep the songs weightiness intact. Even when pushed to its highest comfortable volume level (90-95 dB), Sonica maintained composure and clarity. I was certainly impressed and enjoyed the song’s smooth presentation. The Tron: Legacy album is full of challenging tracks and Sonica handled them all with grace. Two thumbs up.



Conclusion
Nearly a decade ago, I invested $200 in a small cutting-edge network music player called SoundBridge. That unit used optical and RCA outputs to integrate with a stereo receiver or powered speakers, while providing convenient cross-home wireless access to Internet radio stations and computer-stored music. Around that same time, Sonos was arriving on the wireless scene with its own vision of wire-free music playback. Both products, while different in their approach, were quickly energized by a rising swell of consumer interest in audio portability and convenience. Looking at where we started (to where we’ve arrived), companies like OPPO are peppering the wireless speaker segment with phenomenal products.

As Sonica sits, it offers a lot for a relatively modest price. Checking off a list of must-haves (small size, favorable appearance, generous playback options, link-ability, sound quality, and solid customer support) is relatively easy when it comes to this speaker. I certainly enjoyed my listening sessions and the speaker’s super smooth sound. My most noteworthy complaint is the lack of gapless playback support, which resulted in a small pause between tracks that are artistically meant to flow together. That's a small issue, however, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that OPPO addresses it with a future firmware update.

You might ask yourself, how does Sonica rank against its competition? Rather well, would be my assessment. Its primary challenger is likely the widely recognizable (and well reviewed) Sonos Play 3 speaker. While Sonos offers excellent performance, it lacks both Bluetooth and AirPlay functionality. And that leads me to give Sonica rather high marks. It’s a great sounding speaker that allows for playback from two major streaming services and a wide range of sources, in addition to handling Hi-Res audio. Nearly perfect for someone looking to enjoy simple access to good sounding digital tunes without the bulk of a large stereo system.

Highly recommended.


Notes
* The USB slot is meant to be used with memory sticks and drives loaded with music files. You can charge a phone via this slot using a USB-lightning connector, however this kind of connection will not allow you to play music direct from your phone.



Specifications
Power Supply: 100 V - 240 V ~ 50/60 Hz
Power Consumption: 35 W / 6 W (Standby)
Size (mm): 301 (L) x 147 (W) x 135 (H)
Weight: 2.4 kg (5.3 lb)
Wi-Fi Protocol: 802.11.a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth Standard: Bluetooth 4.1
AUX Max Input: 2 Vrms
Audio Formats: AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, M4A (Apple Lossless) ALAC, MP2, OGG, WAV, WMA
Drivers: 1 x 3.5” long displacement bass driver, 2 x 3” balanced bass radiators, 2 x 2.5” wideband drivers with Neodymium magnets
Operating Conditions: Temperature 5°C - 35°C, Humidity 15% - 75% (No Condensation)
Wall Mount: Optional



Image Credits: Todd Anderson (Home Theater Shack), Atco Records, AC/DC
 

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Discussion Starter #364


It’s hard to say if 2016 is gracefully sliding into home or smacking its face on the dirt – elbows and knees flying in all directions – as it desperately claws to safety. Nevertheless, here we sit, preparing to file away yet another incredible year of home theater tech. Yes, friendly readers, 2016 is preparing to exit stage left, which makes this a great time to glance back at the year that was.

By my calculations, we’ve just experienced our third consecutive year of exciting innovation and growth within the industry. Gut-wrenching tugs of upgradeitis had plenty of reason to turn downright evil over the past 12 months, torturing even the most disciplined of enthusiasts into buyers. After all, 2016 saw the continued maturation of immersive sound, a consumer-friendly reduction in 4K television pricing, OLED’s cementation as the “it” display tech, loads of 4K disc content, and so much more. This all coming on the heels of a year that was equally as exciting, but also leaving much in question. I think it’s safe to say many of those questions were answered.

On a non-tech note, we also witnessed the unfortunate and untimely departures of a shocking number of entertainment icons. Names such as Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, Florence Henderson, Gary Shandling, Alan Thicke, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher are about as iconic as they come.

Several decades ago, I stood behind David Bowie in a greeting line at the President’s home of my alma mater, one day before my college graduation. I didn’t speak with him that day, but definitely took time to study his face and demeanor, hoping to get a sense of Bowie’s realness. It’s crazy (in my mind) that I now stand at the exact age he was on that day. Looking back, I felt so young, and I’m sure he did too. Fast forward to today, and his passing has made mortality feel more real than ever (especially since those 26 years have flown by at a rockets pace).

Alas, we can all be thankful to have shared time on this planet with these talented individuals. I will forever enjoy the incredible tunes Phife Dawg created with A Tribe Called Quest, find insatiable amusement at the hands of Alan Rickman’s stellar performance in Die Hard, and relax to Glenn Frey’s free and easy vibe.

But, I digress. It’s time to get the show on the road and turn back the clock for a look at the AV tech year. So, without further ado, let’s roll back the clock, Year In Review style.


Commercial Cinema Strikes Back

As a hardcore home theater enthusiast, I’ve spent the better part of a decade telling my close friends that commercial cinema is wasted coin. Take your money, I’d say, and build a reference theater of your own. While my advice probably fell on bored and deaf ears, I’m fairly confident that most of you will probably agree that our preferred world of home theater has enjoyed a fantastic run while commercial cinema has stumbled miserably in the rearview mirror. It’s not that commercial cinema is terrible (in fact, it greatly benefits from spaciousness of sound in its large room settings), but, in general, properly tuned home theaters offer the complete package of comfort, convenience, and performance across multiple spectrums.

This year, however, commercial cinema has taken huge steps to get back in the race. It turns out that the fine folks at Dolby and AMC have hit a homerun with their creation called “Dolby Cinema at AMC.” There are currently 36 Dolby Cinemas in the U.S. (and roughly 60 world-wide), with close to a hundred planned for the coming year. All of these locations feature luxury appointments and dynamic environments designed to support cutting-edge laser projection technology and Dolby Atmos sound.

Last week I took my family to see Rogue One at the only Dolby Cinema in the Washington, DC Metro area. During a brief conversation with the ticket taker, he said: “you picked the right theater to see this movie in, you’re in for a treat.” Wow, he was right. The film actually marks one of the first times in recent memory that I was actually glad to have watched a movie outside of the home. The film’s image was fantastically vibrant and loaded with inky blacks. The sound system (despite being slightly loud) was thunderous and dialed-in. Bass performance was stellar. And the pleather multi-function recliner seats were ridiculously comfortable.

It’s great to see commercial cinema re-enter the quality conversation, and it brings great hope for the future of what we’ll eventually see possible in our own homes. After all, it takes one to push the other.


OLED Rallies

You might recall that 2015 was a year of growing pains for OLED. Every manufacturer (minus LG Electronics) was opting to deploy 4K using LCD tech. And while LG’s OLED models were showing amazing promise, they presented some troubling difficulties with extremely dark image content. Enter 2016 and LG turned the page to a new chapter with several new models devoid of 2015’s performance issues, easily solidifying 2016 as "the year of OLED." LG is simply crushing it and the competition has taken notice.

One of the bigger responses to LG’s burgeoning OLED dynasty came from Sony, which popped two big surprises on the display world during 2016. The first came mid-year with the reveal of its Z Series of TVs featuring a new backlight boosting technology called “Backlight Master Drive.” This tech is similar to full-array local dimming (FALD) which groups LED backlights into controllable zones, but ditches the zones to allow each LED to be individually controlled. In addition, Z Series panels have a dense LED structure composed of calibrated LED beams that can better focus light to reduce unwanted diffusion. Early reviews indicate Sony’s Z TVs are great performers.

Sony’s second surprise came late year, when it announced it will release several OLED television models using LG panels in 2017. Yes, this is potentially a huge move for Sony and the industry at large. This marks the first time that potential OLED buyers will have market competition on their side, and one can safely bet that competition will only grow as more manufacturers join Sony and LG. The best part of this news is that Sony’s predicted launch pricing lands close to LG’s generous end of year pricing, making 2017 a great year to plan on purchasing a new OLED TV.

All of this OLED talk isn’t meant to ignore the successes LCD manufacturers have experienced with 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR). 2016 delivered quite a few excellent LCD sets, and the technology’s incredible peak brightness levels play well in bright rooms and for enthusiasts that love gaming.


4K Continues to Elude Midrange Projectors

2016 proved to be a solid year for projectors, but those enthusiasts looking for affordable 4K HDR options were left in the cold. Yes, both Sony and JVC have released expensive 4K HDR models, but we’ll need to wait a year or two for the tech to trickle down to price points in the $2,000-$7,000 range. For now, budget capped enthusiasts will have to remain content with 1080p and 1080p e-shift options (several of which have the ability to show some decent HDR images).

JVC certainly stole the show (this year) with the announcement of its $35,000 RS4500 4K laser projector. The heart of the RS4500 is JVC’s second generation laser light technology called BLU-Escent. While this is the tech's first entrance into the home market, JVC’s first generation BLU-Escent projectors have seen commercial use in large screen applications (such as flight simulators) for a number of years. The RS-4500 uses BLU-Escent laser light in conjunction with three small 4K D-ILA devices to produce 4096 x 2160 resolution, 3,000 lumens, and color that stretches beyond the DCI color space (roughly 80-percent of BT 2020).

Last week, JVC announced that the RS4500 had received THX’s stamp of approval, making it the world’s first THX Certified 4K projector. Being an unabashed JVC fanboy, I am thrilled to see the company enter the 4K world with such a splash. Trickle down tech (preferably affordable laser performance) can’t happen fast enough!


4K Blu-ray Lands on Its Feet


Just when the physical disc appeared to be knocking on death’s door, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players arrived on the market. According to the Digital Entertainment Group, 4K disc sales have been solid. In fact, it appears healthy sales and player demands have actually surprised some manufacturers.

2016 saw the release of five 4K Blu-ray players, including Samsung’s UBD-K8500, Philips’s BPD7501, Microsoft’s Xbox One S console, Panasonic’s DMP-UB900, and OPPO’s UDP-203. We already know of at least one player slated to launch early next year (Sony’s UDP-X1000ES), and rumors say that CES 2017 will reveal at least one other new model. In the case of Sony, many were expecting to see 4K Blu-ray compatibility on its late year PS4 launch. In this case, the company completely flipped the rumor mill on its head by forgoing 4K Blu-ray on its console and showing a standalone model at CEDIA.

One of the bigger questions in the coming year involves Dolby Vision support. As of now, every player currently on the market can support HDR10, but only OPPO’s 203 carries the proper hardware for Dolby Vision (look for an early year Dolby Vision firmware update from OPPO). This is a relatively small issue at the moment, as no Dolby Vision discs have been released to date. That should change, however, sometime during the middle of 2017.


Consumer Friendly Options


One of the more interesting side stories of 2016 has been the flood of consumer-friendly AV product releases. Loads of so called “slimline” components hit the market. Products such as Marantz’s NR1607 receiver and HD-CD1 compact disc player, Onkyo’s DSX-3 receiver, and Emotiva’s BasX components all feature ultra-thin profiles. Emotiva also unveiled several modular models that allow consumers to upgrade physical components for better performance. In addition, several speaker manufactures (such as Power Sound Audio and Seaton Sound) offered upgrade packages to owners of specific subwoofers.

Fairly recent history gave us gear capable of receiving firmware updates, allowing companies to tweak products to some degree. But, the notion of offering true physical upgrades (such as Emotiva’s HDMI 2.0 kit for its XMC-1) is absolutely brilliant. I applaud any company offering consumers a pathway to upgrade gear they already own, and it will be interesting to see if other large manufacturers follow suit. Just imagine maintaining the ability to keep a receiver despite massive technology shifts. Sure would be nice...


The Wrap
Obviously, much more happened across the face of this great hobby, including exciting new speaker and subwoofer launches by companies that many of us hold in high regard. Definitely take note of the great years (and gear) delivered by our fantastic sponsors, SVS Sound, Power Sound Audio, and OPPO Digital. And also, check out our unique new sponsor, Audiolist!

On behalf of the entire HTS staff, I’d like to thank all of our great members and social media followers for continuing to spend time here at HTS. This site simply doesn’t work without each of you staying involved and active. Thank you!

With that, it’s time to look forward to what (I believe) will prove to be a huge year in many respects. Here’s wishing each and every one of you health, happiness, and AV nirvana during the coming New Year!



Image Credits: Todd Anderson/Home Theater Shack, Dolby/AMC, Robert Zohn/Value Electronics, OPPO Digital, Emotiva
 

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Discussion Starter #365
*****DRAFT***** corrections made on final post




2016 was a statement year for 4K UHD Blu-ray. Disc sales outpaced industry expectations and early adopters were showered with a handful of first-gen player options. Initially pricy and questionably incomplete, we ended the year with five official 4K UHD Blu-ray player releases (with only one – OPPO’s UDP-203 – primed to handle the coming onslaught of Dolby Vision content). Of course, reveals at CES 2017 have changed the model landscape, and the field of 4K player models is beginning to look a bit more crowded (not to mention more competent).

As last year progressed, one of the biggest questions became OPPO’s planned release date for its highly anticipated 4K player. Curiosity intensified at CEDIA 2016 as OPPO quietly revealed a prototype unit to various members of the press. Rumors on the show floor were hot and heavy, and catching a glimpse of the unit was akin to seeing Sasquatch darting through the woods. It was secretive and, quite frankly, cool.

OPPO ultimately stuck to its guns and didn’t rush its player to market. The company, you see, understands the importance of its own sterling reputation as an industry leader; damaging goodwill by taking an incomplete product to market was never an option. They did manage to officially announce the player just before the Holidays. As it sits, OPPO’s UDP-203 ($549 through OPPO.com) is the best 4K UHD Blu-ray player money can currently buy. And true to the company’s desire to manufacture enthusiast-grade gear, the 203 is more than just a video player, it also doubles as a Hi-Res audio device.



True to Its Roots

The UDP-203 (top) looks very similar to OPPO’s older BDP-93 (bottom).

The UDP-203 is practically a mirror image of previous OPPO Blu-ray players. In fact, from a distance it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the 203 and the company’s last several Blu-ray models. The 203’s exterior sports a center mounted tray and LCD display framed by a gorgeous black brushed aluminum faceplate. There’s also a cross configuration of operational controls for menu and playback functionality, in addition to a USB 2.0 port for video and audio file access.

The backside offers two USB 3.0 ports, eight stereo analog RCA outputs for users wanting to tap OPPO’s DAC, and one HDMI 2.0 input alongside two HDMI outputs (one for connection to a 4K capable receiver or display, and one dedicated for audio output to legacy receivers with HDMI 1.4). You’ll also find optical/coaxial outputs, a LAN connection, RS-232C for home automation, and 12V trigger input/output jacks. OPPO truly left no stone unturned, even including a rear-mounted infrared sensor to expedite the clean install of an IR cable.



The 203’s backside features eight multi-channel outs.


The exterior of the 203 is built to accept a rack mount kit, which can be purchased direct from OPPO ($79).



Out of the Box

Image taken during the 203’s unboxing.

OPPO always handles packaging right and the 203 proved to be no exception. Overall boxing and materials (right down to the cloth bag protecting the player) were all on par with what’s to be expected from a premier manufacturer. Owners will find a host of in-box extras, including a paper user manual (which is more like a book), a remote with batteries, one HDMI cable, and a power cord.



Set Up

The 203’s startup screen features Hi-Res images and a simple menu bar.

The UDP-203’s menu interface is simple and organized, and boot time (from Off to On) is super-fast. The player’s startup screen (via your display or projector) features a sharp Hi-Res image of deep space with a simple menu bar displayed along the bottom of the screen. Selection features include Disc, Music, Photos, Movies, Network, Setup, and Favorites. The screen changes its Hi-Res image as you scroll through the bottom menu bar, displaying stunning images like crashing waves and the moon hovering over a mountain scape.

Of course, the player’s screen saver mode (which kicks-in after several minutes of inactivity) features the name “OPPO” bouncing from edge to edge on the screen (those of you that currently own OPPO gear know this pattern well).

The remote is a familiar beast, looking identical to remotes shipped with the BDP-103/105 series of players. That is to say: it’s hefty and loaded with lots of functional buttons. Kudos to OPPO for including button backlighting, as so many manufacturers have gone cheap and stripped this feature from current releases. This particular version of OPPO’s remote activates its backlight instantly when the remote is moved (i.e., picked up for use). Prior versions required users to press a button (which has been replaced by an HDR button that toggles the player’s HDR output mode).



Menu screens are clean and easy to navigate.


Aside from connecting various cables, the set up process included linking to my home network. The UDP-203 can connect to the internet via built-in Wi-Fi or Ethernet. For this review, I chose Wi-Fi (which proved to be a quick and painless process), giving me access to stored media and potential firmware updates. Unlike players of the past, OPPO chose not to include app functionality on the 203. That means no Netflix, YouTube, or VUDU. This is less of an omission and more of a nod to the fact that most of these services are directly accessible through SmartTVs and media sticks. However, most Blu-ray players ship with this kind of functionality included, so it is a bit curious that OPPO chose to forgo adding it as part of the package.

The remainder of the 203’s settings menu provides access to a seemingly endless parade of audio and video performance adjustments. For example, owners can set a custom Output Resolution (from auto UHD right down to 480p), tweak Color Space, alter Output Volume, and select Custom Speaker Configurations. Default settings were used for purposes of this review, and, quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine that the average HDMI-bound owner would ever need to make serious alterations within the menus. If you are tweak-prone and find yourself curious about possible adjustments, head over to OPPO and browse the user manual. You'll quickly see the possibilities are intensely deep.



Format Compatibility
As stated earlier, the UDP-203 is a full-fledged universal disc player (hence, UDP) capable of handling a wide variety of media formats. Movie lovers will appreciate its ability to handle Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and DVD Video discs, in addition to 4K UHD Blu-ray playback. It can also play Blu-ray Bonus View and BD-Live content, BD-R/RE single-layer and dual-layer discs, Kodak Picture CDs, and DVD±R/RW content.

The player internally decodes Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio codecs, with bitstream output of the aforementioned in addition to Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS, DTS-HD Hi Resolution, Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X. There is no support for Auro-3D.

The 203 can playback a host of popular movie file types including MOV, MP4, and AVI. I successfully played 3GP, FLV, MP4, MKV, and a series of MOV files contained on a USB stick. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find the overall quality of the MOV files (taken from my iPhone) to be stunningly superb on my LG B6 4K display.

On the audio front, the 203 accepts DVD Audio (which can contain Hi-Res and multi-channel tracks), SACD, and standard CDs. This is complemented by support for a range of Hi-Res file formats, including AIFF, WAV, ALAC, APE, FLAC, and DSD. In addition, the player can be networked to receive audio content as a digital media player (requiring a server that supports DLNA), a digital media renderer (requiring a digital media controller), or a SMB/CIFS/NFS client.

There are a host of formats that OPPO says the UDP-203 can’t play. That list includes DVD-RAMs, HD-DVDs, the data portion of CD-Extras, Blu-ray discs with a cartridge, DVDs and Blu-rays with a region code not matching the player’s region code, some dual discs that feature audio on one side and DVD-video on the other, and some audio discs with copy protection. Owners may also find the 203 takes issue with some future 4K UHD Blu-ray discs simply because the Blu-ray disc specification is constantly evolving. OPPO, however, will address that kind of incompatibility with corrective firmware updates (as needed).



Under The Hood

A look inside the UDP-203 (photo: OPPO).

OPPO has a healthy reputation when it comes to internal components and circuitry, and the UDP-203 appears game ready. Audiophiles will appreciate the 203’s 8-channel 32-bit AKM AK4458VN DAC, a feature that’s particularly important for owners planning on using the player’s multi-channel outputs. Equally impressive is the 203’s Blu-ray decoder SoC. It’s a MediaTek quad-core OP8591 that OPPO says delivers industry-leading video processing.

As stated earlier, the 203 also ships with hardware that allows for future support of Dolby Vision. Dolby Vision offers 12-bit color depth (as compared to HDR-10’s 10-bit color), among other performance enhancements. OPPO says a 2017 firmware release will unlock Dolby Vision on the 203 (noteworthy to potential buyers because a player must have specialized Dolby Vision hardware onboard to be Dolby Vision compliant).



Loading Performance
OPPO says its disc loader is a “high-precision, well-balanced laser optical disc loader [that] ensures smooth and reliable playback of all types of disc media. An optimized laser mechanism [ensures] super-fast disc loading, strong error detection and correction.”

That’s a mouthful, but seems to translate to solid real-world performance.

The tray takes roughly 4 seconds to open when operated via remote. Once loaded, I found 4K UHD discs had variable load times, typically falling in the 25 to 35 second range (with a few reaching a “resume” screen in roughly 20 seconds). Standard Blu-ray discs and DVDs loaded slightly faster.



Video Evaluation

Image: 20th Century Fox.

Now to the nuts and bolts. OPPO’s 203 looks great on paper, so let’s find out how it performs. For the video evaluation, I paired the 203 with a 65-inch LG B6 OLED 4K TV, a JVC RS45 1080p projector, and an older Panasonic 1080p plasma. The latter two were used to evaluate the 203’s friendliness with legacy gear (especially pertinent for buyers that have yet to purchase a 4K display).

First, I ran the 203 through various mixed film and video edge adaptive tests found on Spears and Munsil HD Benchmark 2nd Edition Blu-ray. Both Horizontal and Vertical clips (pans of metal roofs, brick buildings, skyscrapers) were smooth and problem free. I did note mild jutter on the edges of vertically scrolling text, but nothing offensive to the eye. In all, the 203 handled the disc without difficulty.

Next, I sacrificed precious time (I jest, of course) and viewed a number of UHD Blu-ray discs. The results were stunning. Colors and specular highlights were punctuated and pleasing to the eye. The 203 delivered an incredible 4K image laced with full HDR (in this case HDR-10); image issues and artifacts were non-existent. One of the better-looking demo discs was Deadpool. The level of detail, grit, and depth shown on Deadpool’s red outfit was jaw dropping, and the film proved to be a visual delight.

I also challenged the player with a handful of Blu-ray, DVD, and DVD-R discs. Menus and playback were all fully accessible and functional on these formats. Image upconversion appeared to be spot-on and devoid of abnormalities. The 203 also played nicely with my 1080p display gear, once again showing no playback hiccups or incompatibilities.

Finally, I tested passthrough. OPPO endowed the 203 with the ability to provide audio/video processing of an external source via a single HDMI input (selectable using the player’s remote control). I tested this feature by connecting a Xfinity X1 cable box to the 203. Performance was flawless and on par with the box’s delivered image quality when connected direct to the LG B6 display. This passthrough feature is handy, as it could easily serve as an extra port for a media stick or an additional 4k/HDCP 2.2 compliant input for systems needing an extra port.



Audio Evaluation

Photo taken during CD playback (JVC RS-45 Projector).


The UDP-203 delivered fantastic (and easy to access) audio playback. I played a variety of disc media (including standard CDs, SACDs, and DVD Audio) via HDMI and multi-channel out with great results. Owners will appreciate the plethora of on-screen information displayed (see image). You can select from playback options (such as Shuffle, Random, Repeat), as well as view Artist, Disc and Song title, and Track information. Much like the 203’s Settings Menu, audio playback screens have a clean and neat appearance.

Switching between CD audio and USB audio was made possible by a few quick clicks on the remote. During USB access, the player displayed an organized menu of tracks found on the stick along with song information (similar to CDs). Hi-Res playback of several file types was flawless; owners will be happy to know that gapless playback is supported for APE, WAV, and FLAC files. Also, the 203 quickly linked to my Plex Media Server (Mac) on my home network, allowing for easy and organized navigation through music folders. Networked playback, like disc playback, was flawless and sounded great.



Conclusion
OPPO’s UDP-203 is a stellar jack of all trades that offers quite a bit of bang for the buck. While mildly expensive (at $549), the player delivers a dizzying amount of video and audio performance, which makes it the perfect media anchor for a modern 4K theater or stereo system. And based on the fact that it’s primed to offer Dolby Vision performance, buyers can rest assured that the 203 should have relative lastability.

If you’re in the market for a 4K player, you can’t go wrong with the OPPO-203.

Highly recommended.


Specifications
Disc Types: 4K UHD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, AVCHD, SACD, CD, Kodak Picture CD, CD-R/RW, DVD±R/RW, DVD±R DL, BD-R/RE
BD Profile: BD-ROM Version 3.1 Profile 6 (also compatible with BD-ROM Version 2.5 Profile 5)
Output: Analog Audio: 7.1ch, 5.1ch, stereo.
Coaxial/Optical Audio: Up to 2ch/192kHz PCM, Dolby Digital, DTS.
HDMI Audio: Up to 7.1ch/192kHz PCM, up to 5.1ch DSD, Bitstream.
HDMI Video: UHD/1080p24/1080p/1080i/720p/576p/576i/480p/480i, 3D frame-packing 720p/1080p24.
HDMI Audio: Up to 7.1ch/192kHz PCM, up to 5.1ch DSD, Bitstream.
HDMI Video: UHD/1080p24/1080p/1080i/720p/576p/576i/480p/480i, 3D frame-packing 720p/1080p24.
Audio Characteristics: Frequency: 20Hz - 48kHz (±0.2dB), 20Hz - 96kHz (-4dB ˜ +0.05dB)
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >112dB (A-weighted, Unmute)
THD+N: < 0.001% (1kHz at 0dBFS, 20kHz LPF)
Crosstalk: < -103dB (A-weighted)
Power Supply: 100V - 240V˜, 50/60Hz AC
Power Consumption: 40W (Standby: 0.5W in Energy Efficient Mode)
Dimensions: 16.9 x 12.2 x 3.1 inches (430mm x 311mm x 79mm)
Mass: 9.5lbs (4.3kg)
Operating Temperature: 41°F - 95°F, 5°C - 35°C
Operating Humidity: 15% - 75%, no condensation



Image Credits: Todd Anderson/Home Theater Shack, OPPO Digital, 20th Century Fox
 

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Discussion Starter #366


If you’ve recently purchased a new television (or are considering one soon), then you’re probably aware of a technology called high dynamic range (HDR). HDR is one of the more important video innovations in recent years, far outpacing all of those extra pixels delivered by 4K panels. In essence, HDR allows capable TVs to produce much richer content, higher levels of brightness, more vivid colors, and better detail in the brighter and darker portions of an image.

There’s currently a decent amount of streaming and disc-based HDR content available, and when HDR is done right the results are phenomenal. As proof, I offer you a little experiment I've performed over the past month, challenging eyes of the stingiest “I can’t tell the difference” non-techie friends and family members in my life. The results aren't too surprising: resounding admissions of “wow, that’s amazing!” If you've ever tried to impress a non-enthusiast only to be met with a lackluster response, then you'll recognize that the results of my informal study carry some decent weight.

HDR really is that special.

There are currently four HDR formats (HDR-10, Dolby Vision, HLG, and Advanced HDR). Up to this point, enthusiasts in the United States have primarily been exposed to HDR-10. It’s an “open” standard designed to combat Dolby’s standard, offering 10-bit color and a peak brightness of 1,000 nits. Both HLG and Advanced HDR are newer standards that are designed to work with broadcast television, and will most likely play nicely with TVs that can support HDR-10 (assuming manufacturers issue supportive firmware updates). Then there’s Dolby Vision, which is primed to be the market leader in performance capabilities.

Dolby Vision content directly competes with HDR-10, offering 12-bit color and 10,000 nit performance (color and brightness parameters that are significantly more potent). To make use of Dolby Vision, users need televisions and Blu-ray players with onboard Dolby Vision hardware. The number of TV manufacturers jumping on the Dolby Vision train is growing, and we currently have several 4K UHD Blu-ray player options (including the recently reviewed OPPO UDP-203) that ship with the appropriate onboard hardware. So, the equipment is available, now we just need content.

Last year, a few On Demand streaming services began streaming Dolby Vision laced content (currently 80 titles are available), but disc content remained non-existent.

That is about to change.

Dolby recently announced a partnership with Lionsgate, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, and Warner Bros Home Entertainment to release Dolby Vision enabled content on Ultra HD Blu-ray beginning in early 2017.

"Commitment from Lionsgate, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment for Dolby Vision Ultra HD Blu-ray content is a major milestone for expanded choice and accessibility for consumers," said Curt Behlmer, Senior Vice President, Content Solutions and Industry Relations, Dolby Laboratories. "With Ultra HD Blu-ray, we are able to scale faster to meet the growing demand for Dolby Vision content globally."

Not to knock streaming (because, frankly, the streaming 4K/HDR content I’ve seen has been exceedingly impressive), but the arrival of Dolby Vision on disc is a big deal for hardcore enthusiasts; the videophile world is about to see the best of what modern 4K HDR televisions can offer.

The first Dolby Vision disc titles are due to hit store shelves during "early" 2017.

Image Credit: Dolby
 

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Discussion Starter #367

SVS Sound refers to its Prime Elevation speaker ($199/pair) as “the world’s most versatile home theater speaker.” While that sounds like blanket marketing jargon, it may in fact be true. Elevation, you see, is a highly adaptable and well-designed dynamo that delivers big on performance and practicality. In this review, we’ll test Elevation’s mettle with two-channel stereo and Atmos duty challenges, and take an in depth look at what makes this little speaker tick. If you’re looking for an Atmos solution that doesn’t require the hassle of installing true in-ceiling speakers, then stick around because this might just be the speaker you’ve been looking for.



Decades of Quality

The name SVS needs little introduction in the audio world. The company is widely revered as one of the Internet’s premier ID speaker manufacturers, with a reputation of reasonable price points, excellent quality, and extreme performance. Add to that a super clean website experience, free in-home trials, and a no-hassle return policy, and it’s easy to see why the company is thriving. When SVS first arrived on the scene, it largely designed and manufactured subwoofers. Times have certainly changed, however, and SVS now offers two different series of highly acclaimed loudspeakers. Prime is the company’s more budget-friendly option (with Ultra laying claim to flagship status).

The Company’s Prime Series is comprised of five speaker models, including tower, bookshelf, center channel, and satellite designs. Elevation, the fifth (and newest) edition to the series, is a multifunctional hybrid speaker with a unique trapezoidal shape intended to address the needs of immersive audio users who’d like to avoid in-ceiling installations. It also can double as a surround speaker (capable of being mated for dipole duty) and can even be used to create two- or three- channel frontend configurations.



Unique Design

SVS’s proprietary mounting system allows Elevation to be mounted ultra close to a ceiling.

The name “Elevation” implies height, and that’s exactly what SVS’s design delivers. The speaker’s angled baffle and driver array, along with a slick mounting system, allows Elevation to be perched high on a wall for height-channel duty. This is particularly interesting because true Atmos channels require on-ceiling or in-ceiling installation (which can be messy, time consuming, and frustrating). The standard alternative option to ceiling channels (Atmos add-on speaker modules that bounce sound off a ceiling) offer convenience but deliver less than optimal performance. Elevation sits as a middle ground solution that eliminates the hassle of an in-ceiling installation while mimicking the physical height of an Atmos channel’s placement.

The speaker also introduces the possibility of building a combined Atmos/Auro-3D arrangement. That kind of performance configuration wasn’t specifically tested in this review, however one could easily see how using Elevation speakers could result in a compromise layout that would allow users to enjoy both audio formats (stay tuned for more in this department).

Part of Elevation’s unique utility is driven by SVS’s proprietary multifunctional wall-mount bracket. This mounting system allows for installations incredibly close to a room’s ceiling, but can also be employed to hang the speaker at angles appropriate for surround channel duty. And for those looking to use Elevation as a standalone front channel, simply flip the speaker over (or on its side), apply the included elastomer sticky feet, and place the speaker on any flat surface or stand.



Elevation’s in room measurement.


The speaker’s small size (9.25-in H x 5.44-in W x 7.88-in D) is instrumental in keeping the speaker discrete once hung on a wall (not to mention manageable while installing). It doesn’t feel unsubstantial in the hands, however. Elevation’s rock-solid and heavily braced cabinet (available in Black Ash, Piano Gloss Black, and Piano Gloss White) has a solid feel and weightiness (7.8 lbs.) that screams quality; a simple knock with the knuckles confirms those impressions. In fact, everything about the speaker looks and feels right, including quality 5-way binding posts and an attractive cloth grille with a rotating magnetic SVS badge.

The driver array consists of a 1-in aluminum dome tweeter and a 4.5-in polypropylene cone woofer, managed by a two-way crossover loaded with premium-grade capacitors, air-core inductors, and a heavy-trace printed circuit board. There’s also a single rear firing port to help boost low-end output. SVS says Elevation has a rated bandwidth of 55 Hz-25 kHz (+/-3 dB), which my in-room single speaker measurements (REW, UMIK-1 microphone, 2-meters from speaker, tweeter level) showed to be reasonably accurate.



Unboxing

SVS delivered the Elevations in durable and attractive packaging that featured high quality materials. I received four speakers (shipped in pairs) for this review and each one arrived in mint condition. The included in-box goodies were a printed manual, a wall-mount template, mounting hardware (including screws and anchors), and eight elastomer feet.

Elevation’s instruction manual and thick glossy paper mounting template provided simple and straightforward installation steps that just about anyone with a drill and screwdriver can handle.

Installation proved to be super easy.


Associated Equipment
Audio equipment used in this review includes an OPPO UDP-203 4K Blu-ray player, a Yamaha RX-A3050 AVR, an Emotive XPA-5 amp, dual Power Sound Audio XS30 subwoofers, and a 7.x.4 multichannel array of Polk RTiA speakers. Dimensions of the demo room measure approximately 18-ft long x 14-ft wide x 8.5-ft tall.



Let Stereo Reign

Image: Doug MacLeod / Sledgehammer Blues

SVS’s marketing literature (and the included User Manual) tout Elevation’s ability to be used as front and side channel speakers. So, before I mounted them for height duty, I put them through a strong two-channel workout. Following a break-in period of 30 hours, I placed two speakers on stands (toed inward, set to large, no sub) to get a sense of their overall musicality, capability, and breadth of sound. The results were quite shocking, as these mighty-mites more than proved their worth as candidates for standalone speakers in a small set-up.

Here's a sample of song notes taken during a listening session:

  • Lou Reed, Walk on the Wild Side (The Best of Lou Reed, CD): This song was punctuated by a depth and warmth that didn’t feel clipped or constrained. The overall sound was neutral with a decently wide soundstage. Bass was tight and punchy, producing quite a bit of silent air movement from the ports. The song stayed composed when taken to reference levels.
  • Doug MacLeod, Bring it on Home (Come to Find, CD): The Elevations demonstrated a surprisingly open sound with quite a bit of airiness. Once again, bass did not take a back seat as the speakers delivered decent depth. MacLeod’s voice was expansive and fine details within the track were revealed.
  • Gorillaz, Tomorrow Comes Today, (Gorillaz, CD): Tomorrow Comes Today is a torture test track that I keep in my toolbox because of its rather weighty and aggressive bass. The track produced some audible port chuffing as volume was increased during playback (this is the only song that conjured port noise). The speakers performed flawlessly at a reasonably loud level (87 dB peak) once I dialed back the volume. Overall, the song sounded crisp and well rounded; imaging was quite nice.
  • Yello, The Expert (Touch, CD): The Elevations threw a huge and expansive sound stage while playing The Expert. Highs were super smooth with lots of sizzle and snap. Warmth and composure was noticeable through mid-range frequencies. Depth of bass was on full display.
As standalone speakers in a 2.0 arrangement, the Elevations showed considerable pizzazz and soundstage capability. I did find that they required a decent amount of power to achieve reference levels (Sensitivity: 87 dB), so you’ll need to have a good amp section on hand if you’re considering using them in a stereo or LCR configuration.

I added my dual XS-30 PSA subs to the mix (Crossover: 80 Hz) for the second half of my listening session, and the Elevations blended seamlessly. This 2.2 system was able to achieve significantly higher volume levels (hovering around 100 dB) while delivering pinpoint performance. I was particularly impressed with the Elevation’s controlled crispness as volume increased. The sound stage also opened up quite a bit, making a great case for the Elevations to be used in a two-channel or three-channel set-up with an integrated subwoofer. That being said, they performed admirably without the subwoofers (something to take into consideration).

Off axis performance (both horizontally and vertically) was also good, and the Elevations maintained their musicality when oriented on their sides. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to place the Elevations on a low-lying table or television cabinet for front channel duty.



Movie Time

Image: Dolby

The excellent sounds I experienced during my two-channel demo session made me eager to take the Elevations on an Atmos test drive. To begin, I affixed the speakers to SVS’s mounting brackets on front and rear wall positions at ceiling height (see image below). This kind of deployment is one of SVS’s recommended speaker configurations (the other suggests mounting the speakers at ceiling height along side wall positions, which, due to ceiling inconsistencies in my theater room, wasn’t possible).

As referenced earlier, the mounting process was straightforward and simple. The brackets provided an extremely tight fit that necessitated small amounts of jostling and wiggling during installation, but in each case the end result was a very secure fit. It’s worthy to note that wall mounting the speakers eliminates the ability to use banana plugs on the backside terminals (they stick out too much, making it impossible to attach to the mounting plate).

Aesthetically speaking, the Elevations appeared unassuming once mounted on the walls. In fact, their black ash finish blended perfectly with my theater room’s dark walls. And the speakers’ overall small size certainly helped them to disappear.



One of SVS’s suggested installation configurations.


During pre-review discussions with SVS, we talked about using this review as an opportunity to compare the Elevation’s Atmos performance (while wall mounted) to true in-ceiling speakers. My reference system, as it’s configured, has seven multi-channels (LCR, side surrounds, rear surrounds) in addition to four height channels (two top middle, two top front) and dual subwoofers. I’ve found Atmos tracks to have a delightful height to their sound, often times with front soundstage material appearing to stretch upwards into thinness, along with pinpoint sound effects that can hammer away from above.

I’m a huge fan of Atmos.

The problem with this kind of Atmos arrangement lies in its installation. I spent hours of time cutting my room’s ceiling, hacking on dust, and cramping in the shoulders while attempting to blindly fish wires, all in the name of gaining ceiling channels…something that the average consumer probably would never consider tackling. That’s what makes a solution like Elevation so interesting. It’s also intriguing because proper deployment of Elevation speakers could potentially allow a customer to install a blended Atmos/Auro-3D configuration that appeases those techs’ substantially different layout requirements (as mentioned earlier, that evaluation has a number of complexities and will have to wait for another review).

Once installed, I reoriented myself to several different Atmos movies (Gravity, John Wick, Unbroken, Insurgent, and Jupiter Ascending) and a few of the more revealing marketing clips contained on a Dolby Atmos Demo Disc (Amaze, Helicopter, Santera, and Rainstorm) using my room’s reference system. Following listening sessions and detailed note taking, I disengaged the ceiling channels, engaged the front and rear Elevation channels, recalibrated the system using YPAO and a manual SPL meter, and began the process of re-viewing each movie and demo clip.

The results?

Well, let’s just say they were exciting (especially for those of you looking to avoid an in-ceiling speaker installation). In fact, there were a few moments that the Elevations actually sounded better than my reference in-ceiling channels.

The Elevations were adept at stretching sound on an elevated horizontal plane. This played well for sounds such as a helicopter flying overhead (as heard during the Helicopter clip). In the case of Helicopter, I could hear the flying machine move from speaker to speaker with a slight sound drop (or gap) during transitions between speakers while using my reference system. Sound placement during that listening session was fairly precise; in fact it may have been too precise! The Elevations took the same demo clip and also delivered realistic overhead movement, but the gaps in sound as the helicopter moved about were non-existent. The helicopter's sound placement was stretched and more diffuse (perhaps smeared), but not to a detriment, and the result was quite pleasing.

The Elevations excelled at reproducing sounds that weren’t intended to be pinpoint. By that I mean domes of sound (such as background music, thunder claps, atmospheric wind, and other ambient factors). Again, the best description is something akin to a horizontal plane of sound hovering overhead. Its stretched diffuseness was very pleasing to the ear.

The Elevations’ were less adept at convincingly producing pinpoint overhead sounds powered by the front height channels. Plane engines, birds chirping, gunfire, and the like sounded a tad bit too forward as compared to my reference overhead channels. Sounds emanating from the rear Elevation channels (which were positioned significantly closer to my seating position) much more closely matched the performance of the in-ceiling speakers. This led me to conclude that optimal placement of the Elevations would be along a room’s side walls (closer to primary seating). This would likely minimize the distant forwardness of singular front channel activity.

Sound quality wise, the Elevations did not disappoint during Atmos playback. They projected a thick and rich sound, full of vibrancy and life (everything that you’d expect from a standard well-made bookshelf speaker used for surround duty). It’s unfortunate that the supplied multi-angle wall bracket isn’t ceiling mountable, because SVS’s Elevation would make an excellent candidate for a ceiling mounted Atmos channel in rooms with decent height.


Conclusion
SVS should be applauded for delivering such a versatile and consumer friendly speaker. Not only did Elevation impress with its musicality and high level performance characteristics, but it’s also a well-made speaker that’s attractively fashioned. Buyers in the market for non-ceiling mounted height channels or smaller system arrangements should definitely give Elevation a fair shake. After all, with SVS's generous in-home demo return policy, what do you have to lose?

Highly recommended.




Specifications
Dimensions: (H x W x D): 9.25-in x 5.4-in x 7.9-in
Weight: 7.8 lbs.
Tweeter: 1-in
Woofer: 4.5-in
Frequency response: 55 - 25Hz ± 3dB
Port: 1" wide-flared rear-firing
Rated bandwidth: 69Hz - 25kHz (±3dB)
Nominal impedance 8 ohms
Sensitivity: 87dB (2.83V @ 1 meter full-space, 300-3kHz)
Recommended amplifier power: 20 - 150 watts
Tweeter-to-woofer crossover: 2.5kHz (12dB/octave slopes)

For more information, visit SVS Sound by clicking here.



Image Credits: SVS Sound, Todd Anderson / Home Theater Shack, Doug MacLeod / Sledgehammer Blues, Dolby
 

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Discussion Starter #368


To mount above the mantel or not to mount above the mantel?

That is the question, right?

Ok, I’ll admit it isn’t a point of ultimate importance, but it is (at the very least) one fairly common question that’s haunted flat screen buyers over the last decade. Traditional rigid and tilting wall mounts have given owners decent options to proudly display their electronic darlings over a mantel, but a relatively new company called MantelMount adds a level of flexibility and functionality to the mix at price points that challenge more expensive competing products.

MantelMount’s products are designed to deliver traditional tilt and swivel functionality, in addition to the unique ability to pull a television away a wall and drop it down closer to eye level. This is the perfect solution for owners yearning to situate their fancy new flat panel over a fireplace (but worry that their neck will pay the price).

Recently, MantelMount introduced two new models to the AV world. The first (MM340) is the company’s new entry level offering, replacing the now retired TM1A. The most significant difference being an increased amount of vertical travel, with the MM340 allowing owners to lower their television a full 29-inches (versus 24-in for the TM1A). In addition, the MM340 delivers 30 degrees of horizontal swivel as opposed to the TM1A’s 20 degrees. MantelMount has also endowed the MM340 with wire management channels for a clean install.

Buyers will be happy to know that MantelMount has priced the MM340 a full $100 dollars less ($299) than the older TM1A.

The second new model (MM540) costs $399. For that amount of coin owners will experience all of the MM340’s functionality, in addition to the ability to mount a sound bar and vertically tilt a television up to 8-degrees. MantleMount has also incorporated proprietary heat-sensitive positioning handles that turn red when exposed to temperatures reaching 110-degrees (thus protecting you and your hands from a potentially nasty surprise).




MantelMount offers an add-on kit that increases the MM540’s horizontal swivel by 30-degrees (to a whopping 60-degrees).

The new MM340 and MM540 mounts are capable of holding televisions that weigh between 20 and 90-pounds, with screen sizes beginning at 44-inches. Owners with televisions weighing greater than 90-pounds will need to opt for the MantelMount’s flagship model (MM770, $699). This VESA compatible model can hold televisions ranging in size from 45 to 90-in.

For more information, visit MantelMount on the web.


Image Credits: MantleMount
 

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Discussion Starter #369
Potter Primed to Magically Enter Your World in Glorious 4K


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is about to look a lot more impressive to owners of HDR capable 4K UHD TVs and UHD Blu-ray players.

Recently, Warner Bros. announced plans to release all eight Potter films on Ultra HD Blu-ray during 2017. According to Warner, each film in the franchise will be released separately, enriched with 4K resolution and bathed with eye-catching High Dynamic Range (HDR).

This marks the fourth video format for the incredibly popular film series based on J.K. Rowling’s bestselling book series, which chronicles the life of a young Wizard and his friends as they navigate their way through the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The planned 4K release and its HDR treatment will undoubtedly unlock Rowling’s world in a way never seen before. Fans should expect to experience brighter and more vivid colors, subtle details hidden among the shadows, and a visual vibrancy not capable of being delivered by DVD or standard Blu-ray. These kinds of performance factors will play well to many of the films’ low light level scenes, which are especially prevalent in the final two movies of the series.

If a visual change isn’t exciting enough, Warner Bros. is also boosting each film’s audio prowess with a DTS:X encode. DTS:X is one of three available immersive audio codecs, but has the unique claim of possessing the ability to adapt to non-specified speaker layouts. Using encoded object oriented metadata, a DTS:X processor is able to place sounds in specific areas of space, creating a sense of realism and immersion. Potter fans were treated to solid surround sound experiences on original Blu-ray releases of the series, so the addition of DTS:X and the prospects of even better sound is certainly enticing.

Each film will be released as a Blu-ray Combo Pack. That means buyers will receive both Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray disks, in addition to a Digital HD version of each feature film. Warner says the disks will contain the same special features that were included on the films’ original Blu-ray releases.

Oddly, the last four movies of the series (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2) will make their way to store shelves first (March 28). The other films will be released at a date later in the year. Fans should expect to pay up to $44.95 (SRP) for each release, which means purchasing the entire collection could cost close to $360. That's a hefty chunk of change, but these releases are must-buys for hardcore fans.


Image Credit: Amazon.com
 

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Discussion Starter #370
***DRAFT***



Monoprice has spent the last decade-plus cementing itself as the web’s ultimate budget destination for cables and audio parts. The phrase “bang for your buck” easily applies to the company’s traditional offerings, which have a reputation of being solid performers. And while good quality is certainly associated with Monoprice, notions of “high-end” or “audiophile-grade” typically don’t apply.

That, friendly reader, is about to change.

Last Fall, Monoprice invaded CEDIA 2017 with a new audio lineup (dubbed Monolith) that will forever alter how enthusiasts view the company. Monolith products are specifically designed to offer a “premium sound experience,” directly challenging competition costing two- to three-times as much. As cliché as that kind of statement reads, in this case it actually rings rather true. Loaded with robust features, high-end touches, and impressive build quality, Monoprice has rolled out several different multi-channel and headphone amps, Planar magnetic headphones, and speakers under the Monolith umbrella.

My first encounter with Monolith badged gear happened on CEDIA’s show floor, where I was lucky enough to spend some time with David LaVine (Product Manager – Pro Audio, Monoprice) looking over various models within the line. I walked away from the session impressed and fairly convinced that companies within the ID space were about to get a jolt; across the board, Monolith products are primed to disrupt the status quo. I also left knowing that a private test drive of the company’s new Monolith Air Motion Cinema speakers was a necessity. They simply looked and sounded too good to pass up.



Under the Hood

Cinema 5 speakers feature a driver array consisting of an AMT tweeter and a 5.25-inch woofer.


There are two different series of Monolith speakers: K-BAS and Air Motion Cinema. K-BAS (Kinetic Bass Amplification System) is a single model bookshelf design, while Air Motion Cinema has two models (a two-way rear-ported compact bookshelf and a three-way rear-ported center channel). For this review, Monoprice delivered a five-channel system consisting of four Air Motion Cinema 5 Bookshelf speakers ($199 each) and one Air Motion Cinema Center Channel ($299), a perfect arrangement to test both stereo and multi-channel performance.

Both Cinema 5 and Cinema Center share hardware and features that aren’t typically found in this price class, such as the use of an AMT (Air Motion Tweeter) high frequency driver. AMTs share design elements with ribbon tweeters, but utilize a diaphragm that’s folded in an accordion-like fashion to create a larger surface area for greater air movement. This kind of design is typically lauded for its ability to deliver transparent and uncolored sound, and has traditionally been pricey to implement. The latter of those facts is one facet that makes the inclusion of an AMT driver so exciting (it’s a high-end touch on a wallet friendly product).



Monoprice endowed its Cinema Center with a room-friendly driver arrangement.


The speakers also share 5.25-inch woofers constructed with New Zealand pulp paper. According to the company, this type of material contains particularly long fibers that make for a rigid and lightweight cone. Cinema 5 carries one woofer (mounted below a single AMT), while Cinema Center has two woofers (in addition to a single 3-inch midrange driver) mounted in a W-T/M-W arrangement (where the woofers flank a single AMT centered over a midrange driver). Both speakers have rear ports to help boost bass performance.

Buyers should pay particular attention to Cinema Center’s design elements, as its driver arrangement drastically improves performance across a wide seating area. According to Hobie Sechrest (Senior Product Manager – Monolith, Monoprice), it was a challenge for the design team to create a budget-minded high-performance center channel. “We knocked it out of the park on the center,” said Sechrest. “The team spent considerable time making sure it sounded right, and I really pushed the factory for a three-way design to cut out off-axis seat phase issues.”

(Spoiler alert: I’d have to agree. The Cinema Center is a homerun)

Obviously, varied driver arrangements mean the two speaker models have different passive crossover circuits. Cinema 5 uses a first order crossover for high frequencies and a third order crossover for the woofer. Cinema Center’s crossover circuit utilizes a second order Linkwitz-Riley crossover for the tweeter, a second order bandpass crossover for the mids, and a first order Butterworth crossover for bass. Prior to the review, I took a peek at the speakers’ innards and found robust internal wiring and clean solder joints linking crossover circuits to various drivers. It was nice to find quality materials and workmanship behind the scenes.



An internal look at the inside of a Cinema 5 Bookshelf speaker.


A backside look at the Monolith Cinema Series AMT driver.


The speakers’ matching cabinetry is constructed from high-density fiberboard. This material choice is immediately noticed when handling the speakers (the knuckle-wrap test produces results akin to knocking on a cinderblock). Internally, the cabinets have extensive bracing to help with rigidity, paired with copious amounts of white fluffy acoustic wadding for damping purposes.

Both speaker models offer high frequency performance that’s specified to reach 25 kHz, and bass performance dipping into the 60 Hz range (60 Hz for Cinema Center; 65 Hz for Cinema 5). My own in-room measurements (using Room EQ Wizard and a UMIK-1 microphone) found Monoprice’s frequency specs to be accurate. On the efficiency front, both speakers are rated at 87 dB (Max power input: 100 Watts; 200 Watt peak). This would suggest both speaker models are happiest with a healthy amp section powering the show, however, I was impressed with how efficient the speakers performed during listening sessions.



Out of the Box

The entire Cinema Series was delivered in quality packaging.

Much like any of my past Monoprice ordering experiences, delivery of the five-speaker arrangement was quick and timely. Each speaker shipped in its own box (double-thick corrugated cardboard), and was internally packaged in a cloth drawstring bag surrounded by an outer plastic bag and thick form-fitting foam. There were zero issues with damage, and everything appeared to be perfectly protected.

Each speaker box contained four adhesive rubber feet and a customer information card.



Easy on the Eyes

Cinema Series cabinetry is punctuated by attractively rounded surfaces and smooth lines.


Physically speaking, the Air Motion Cinema series has an attractive curb appeal headlined by handsome real wood black oak veneer exteriors. Much to my approval, Monoprice opted for a low sheen finish that’s perfect for home theaters operating in blackout conditions. The speakers felt soft to the touch (minus the subtle grooves of the wood grain, of course) and had a weighty presence when handled (14-pounds for Cinema 5; 26.5-pounds for Cinema Center).

Monoprice could have easily manufactured these speakers with cost-cutting squared-off cabinets. However, they chose to go the elegant route, giving both models subtly curved tops and side walls. It’s a touch that gives the speakers a distinguished look with an artistic flair that conveys motion. It also bolsters the cabinets’ robust physical feel.

The speakers’ black cloth grills are stretched over lightweight plastic frames that magnetically attach to the cabinets. The frames are my only design gripe, simply because they easily moved off their anchor points as the palms of my hands made contact with grill edges during installation. This, however, is a small nit-pick (most owners probably won’t spend much time moving their speakers once installed). I did appreciate that the cabinets’ magnetic anchor points are hidden beneath their wood grain veneers, so owners choosing to display their speakers without grills will be treated to a high-quality finished look.



A look at the high-quality binding posts used on the Cinema Series.


Here’s a few other notes about the cabinets:
  • Drivers and terminal plates are secured using jet-black security screws.
  • The speakers’ impressively beefy binding posts accept both twisted wire and banana plugs.
  • And the cabinets’ back side ports have smooth plastic exit areas that are firmly bonded and integrated into the cabinet.
It’s easy to give Monoprice high marks for Air Motion Cinema’s exceptional fit and finish, especially when considering price point. I inspected all five speakers closely and didn’t find any glaring issues or manufacturing defects; the speakers looked amazing and felt great to handle.



Associated Equipment
Audio equipment used during this review included an OPPO UDP-203 4K Blu-ray player, a Yamaha RX-A3050 AVR, an Emotive XPA-5 Amp (which powered both left and right channels during two-channel listening, and the front three channels during multi-channel testing), and dual Power Sound Audio XS30 subwoofers.

Dimensions of the acoustically treated demo room measure approximately 18-ft long x 14-ft wide x 8.5-ft tall. During demo sessions, the front left and right channels were placed on IsoAcoustics stands (tweeter at ear level) spaced 7-feet apart, 11-feet from the MLP, and toed-inward toward the MLP. The center channel was also placed on IsoAcoustics stands and height/distance matched to the left and right channels. Side surround channels were positioned approximately 5-feet to the side (and slightly behind) the MLP. These channels were elevated 2-feet above ear level.

All speakers were calibrated using the RX-A3050’s YPAO room correction suite, and channel levels were manually checked/tweaked using a handheld SPL meter. For purposes of this review, all speakers were set to “Large” and operated in both 2.0 and 5.0 configurations without the inclusion of subwoofers. I did check to see how the speakers mated with my dual PSA XS30s (crossover: 80 Hz), and results were normal.

The speakers were paced through a 30-hour break-in period prior to the review.


Let the Good Tunes Roll

Image: Vertigo/Dire Straits


I found myself slipping into a physical disc mood during preparations for the two-channel portion of the review, which led me to reach for stacks of my favorite CD and SACD media. The ensuing demo sessions delivered hours of pleasure filled listening. Along the way, I tweaked positioning of the two-channel Cinema 5 arrangement, eventually concluding that the best sound resulted from a speaker toe-in aimed directly at the MLP. That kind of positioning opened up the soundstage and tightened imaging to razor sharp levels.

Overall, the Cinema 5s far exceeded my expectations in stereo duty. I was fairly convinced that (based on my exposure to the speaker at CEDIA’s less than ideal exhibition hall) I’d find Cinema 5 to be a good performer, but what I found was a speaker that I’d unquestionably invite into my home for an extended stay. Overall sound quality was punctuated by smoothness and control. Highs were crisp without any biting sharpness, falling well within a neutral sound territory that’s easy on the ears for extended listening sessions. And the low-end was rounded and controlled, striking a great balance through mid-range frequencies.

Here’s a sampling of notes taken during my listening sessions:
  • Dire Straits ( Brothers in Arms 20th Anniversary Edition , SACD): The 20th Anniversary release of Brothers in Arms is pure solid gold and an audio delight. I kicked things off with “So Far Away” and immediately noticed the crispness of the song’s cymbals, which weren’t overly bright (but delivered just enough snap to please my ear’s preference for unmuted highs). The song’s smooth keyboard notes enveloped a soundstage that was filled with precise imaging. “Money For Nothing” gave the Cinema 5s a lot to chew on, and the speakers accepted the challenge without flinching. Particularly noteworthy was the song’s opening guitar riffs, which the speakers absolutely nailed with tight control and confidence, isolating the guitars with a nakedness that punctuated their impact. Bass presentation was deep enough to complete a well-rounded package of tonal balance. Finally, “Walk of Life” allowed the Cinema 5s to show-off width of sound, with the song’s initial keyboard throwing a huge soundstage extending well beyond the speakers’ positions. The sonic subtleties of every instrument in this track (as they were introduced) were on full display; imaging was exacting.
  • Pink Floyd, (The Wall, SACD): Next, I reached for Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” on the band’s incredible multi-channel release of their award winning The Wall album. This track has a pulsating bass line that revealed Cinema 5’s warm side. The power conveyed by the song’s first sustained bass note was particularly pleasing; the speakers nailed it! While not overly deep, the life of the bassline was intact. The speakers also accurately reproduced reverberant details and subtle echoes emanating from Roger Water’s voice. Those details had an airy quality that seemed to rise upward in the soundstage. Wrapping things up, the song’s guitar solo was tight and firmly placed just right of center. Overall, very impressive.
  • Doug MacLeod, (Come to Find, CD): Come To Find is quickly becoming my favorite demo disc simply because it’s a nuanced album loaded to the brim with fine details. The Cinema 5s sounded right at home with MacLeod, revealing every whisper, echo, and subtlety contained on the recording. The album’s opening track, “Bring It On Home,” played buttery smooth and delivered spacious appeal. The song’s bassline was rounded and robust, while high frequency detail (such as squeaks and finger rubs on guitar strings) seemed to have an exacting sharpness and extension. Another notable track was “Come to Find,” which challenged the speakers’ high frequency capabilities. Every snap and pop contained in the song’s fabric was sharp. And the kick drum (roughly 1-minute 30-seconds into the track) knocked with an airy presence that extended beyond the left side of the sound stage, appearing to exist on the room’s outer wall.
  • Orbital, (Orbital 2, CD): Reaching for something slightly more aggressive in the low frequency spectrum, I opted for Orbital’s Orbital 2 which is laced with tracks that contain incredibly dynamic soundstages that expand and contract. One of my favorite songs, “Lush 3-2,” normally pounds with potent bass, and the Cinema 5s kept the low-end tight and controlled with nice extension. I did note some port noise as I took the speakers to reference levels, so I backed them off slightly (keeping room volume to an average of 92 dB). Roughly 2-minutes 12-seconds into the track, the song hammers out a techno anthem that blows the soundstage wide open and the Cinema 5s obliged. I’ve heard this portion of the song played with a larger expansion, but considering the speaker’s size and price point, the sonic results were impressive.
  • Gorillaz, (Gorillaz): Next, I reached for another torture disc (Gorillaz) and headed straight for “Tomorrow Comes Today.” This particular track has deep and aggressive bass. Similar to my Orbital experience, the Cinema 5s stayed composed without port noise to reasonably loud levels (measuring in the low 90 dBs), handling the song quite well. Particularly noteworthy was the track’s sharp drums, which were reproduced with a quick and snappy quality.
  • Natalie Merchant, (Tigerlily): Finishing off my two-channel demo session, I reached for lighter fare in the form of Natalie Merchant’s deliciously seductive Tigerlily album. The Cinema 5s were very much at home with Tigerlily’s demands, delivering a smooth flowing low-end and the subtle softness of Merchant’s voice. This isn’t an overly bright album, and the Cinema 5s kept its warm nature intact.
All-in-all, the Cinema 5 duo performed spectacularly well in a two-channel arrangement. Of particular surprise, the speakers didn’t require noticeably aggressive amounts of power to reach high volume levels (and performed well when driven hard); overall sonic presentation was ridiculously good. And while I noted some port noise during high volume playback of bass-heavy tracks, those moments were hardly a detraction to my overall experience. Keep in mind, the Air Motion Cinema 5 has a relatively small cabinet and a 5.25-inch woofer… it isn’t designed to be a party-pounder.



Lights, Camera, Action!

Image: Universal Studios


Following a revealing round of two-channel listening, I was left confident in Cinema 5’s prowess as a strong performer, and was eager to incorporate the Cinema Center Channel and side surrounds for a 5.0 multi-channel evaluation. First up to the plate was The Social Network, a movie that carries audio laced with great dialog and a sinister soundtrack composed by Nine Inch Nails. Cinema Center rose to the occasion, delivering voice clarity that was rounded and highly intelligible (off-axis performance by the speaker’s room friendly driver array was excellent). And the entire arrangement presented the soundtrack’s devilish nature with flowing bass and a pulsating confidence. Dynamic high frequency sounds within the track contained sharp precision, showing off the arrangement’s ability to maintain clarity while handling aggressively complex material. It was an auditory delight, heightened by moments punctuated by sounds swirling around the room. The speaker arrangement also appropriately handled more delicate sounds within the film (such as whispers and ambient environmental details).

Next, I reached for one of my favorite DTS-HD MA encoded Blu-rays: Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Of course, the word “favorite” is used rather loosely in this instance. The movie, itself, is terrible. The audio track, however, is devastatingly good. The opening scene of the movie begins with Paramount’s trademark stars making a lap around the screen with multi-channel sound effects to match. The Cinema speaker arrangement pulsated with a smooth sharpness during this moment. It was invigorating to say the least.

Wasting no time, I jumped straight to the film’s epic city war scene. Instantly, the rattle and pop of guns firing and the ring of shell casings hitting the ground enveloped the room with precise levels of clarity. Later, surround activity was on full display as the Marines took fire in their Osprey aircraft. The sound was fantastic! As expected, the tremendous depth of bass that subwoofers deliver during this portion of the movie was noticeably absent (the vast majority of which requires a sub capable of delivering sound deep into 20 Hz territory). That being said, the Cinema speakers never choked or chuffed as they pounded away to their low frequency capabilities. In fact, plenty of bass could be heard and felt, making instances such as the dramatic building collapse both impactful and immersive.

Having had success taking the speakers to reference levels during Dark of the Moon, there was only one logical movie left to spin: Hanna. I began watching this film by sitting off-axis in order to test Cinema Center’s performance across a wide seating area. Using my OPPO BD player’s A-B comparison feature, I replayed short clips of dialog and action sequences as I moved from seat to seat. I found that the entire front soundstage held together with reasonable composure, especially in the dialog realm. There was no bulge or hole in imaging/presentation, and dialog reproduction remained consistent across the seating area.

Hanna is loaded with insanely challenging bass and there were a few moments where port noise was audible. This was solved by slightly backing the volume away from reference levels (leaving plenty of volume for an enveloping experience). Those moments were rare, however, and the vast majority of the film was punctuated by excellent bass, clean dynamics, and articulate high frequency reproduction.


The Wrap
Monoprice’s Air Motion Cinema speakers were an absolute delight to deploy in my theater room. Considering price, it’s a series that – without question – is a major player in the $1,000 category. And if you’re looking for a 2.0 bookshelf system, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more capable for a mere $400.

The Cinema series offers an incredible package of high-end components, gorgeous cabinets, and (most importantly) killer performance. For those of you skeptical of Monoprice’s ability to deliver a true high-end experience at a moderate price, I strongly suggest you take them for a test drive of your own. You’ll be shocked at what you hear.

Highly Recommended.



Cinema Center Channel Specifications
  • Model: 16222
  • Speaker Type: 3-way center channel
  • Frequency Response: 60 Hz ~ 25 kHz ±3.2dB
  • Crossover Frequencies: 100 Hz and 3.5 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 87dB
  • Maximum Input Power (RMS): 100 Watts
  • Maximum Input Power (Peak): 200 Watts
  • Tweeter Type: Pleated polyimide diaphragm (AMT)
  • Mid-Range Type: 3-in New Zealand pulp paper cone
  • Woofer Type: 2x 5.25-in New Zealand pulp paper cone
  • Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms
  • Cabinet Material: Reinforced high-density fiberboard
  • Cabinet Finish: Real wood Black Oak veneer
  • Dimensions: 9.1-in x 18.0-in x 9.8-in (230 x 458 x 250 mm)
  • Weight: 26.5 lbs. (12 kg)

Cinema 5 Bookshelf Specifications
  • Model: 16221
  • Speaker Type: 2-way Bookshelf
  • Frequency Response: 65 Hz ~ 25 kHz ±3.2dB
  • Crossover Frequencies: 2.8 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 87dB
  • Maximum Input Power (RMS): 100 Watts
  • Maximum Input Power (Peak): 200 Watts
  • Tweeter Type: Pleated polyimide diaphragm (AMT)
  • Woofer Type: 5.25-in New Zealand pulp paper cone
  • Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms
  • Cabinet Material: Reinforced high-density fiberboard
  • Cabinet Finish: Real wood Black Oak veneer
  • Dimensions: 11.2" x 7.4" x 9.8" (285 x 188 x 250 mm)
  • Weight: 14.3 lbs. (6.5 kg)

Image Credits: Todd Anderson/Home Theater Shack, Vertigo, Universal Studios
 
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