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X-Series CS loudspeakers
as reviewed by Mike Wechsberg
When I first unloaded the boxes of the AV123 X-series CS speakers I noticed the prominent printing, "handcrafted with pride and passion in Cali, Columbia." Now, with advance apologies to the people of Columbia, when I see something about that South American country I immediately think about drug trafficking. It's not my faultóblame the press, blame the U. S. Government, blame Bush, but that is the first thing that comes to mind. Was I going to find something illicit when I opened the boxes? Was it going to lead to trouble? I work for a defense contractor and I could lose my job. Worse, would some thug come to my home looking for his imported stash and pillage my glorious sound system? I tried to suppress these dark thoughts while I unpacked the speakers, but a look inside the first box revealed a white bag! Oh no! It can't be! Well, it wasn't. The white bag was just part of the very nice packaging job AV123 uses with their product. It was just the first hint of the excellent quality experience I was going to be enjoying with these speakers during several weeks of auditioning.
AV123 is a new company to me, but they have been around since 2000. They offer a broad line of speakers and other components direct sale to the public over the internet. Now it has always seemed to me that direct sale is a difficult way to sell loudspeakers, which must achieve a more personal connection to the consumer than most electronic products. The potential advantage of direct sales is the opportunity for greater value by cutting out at least one middleman and by offering additional savings in overhead expense. Success usually depends on the effectiveness of the web site and the reputation of the company. Would you take a chance buying a loudspeaker without having listened to it even in a showroom? The AV123 website (www.av123.com) holds a wealth of information for the music lover and/or home theater enthusiast, describes the products thoroughly and references dozens of reviews. It also makes the buying experience easy. As for reputation, AV123 was founded and is managed by Mark Schifter. Mark is familiar to many audiophiles as the founder of the Audio Alchemy brand in the early 1990's. I know many PFO readers used the Audio Alchemy Digital Decoding Engine to kick up the level of fidelity out of early CD players at a very low cost. Schifter's mission in that endeavor and the ones he has tackled since has been to bring quality audio to the masses by using ingenious designs and by working the manufacturing and supply chain to produce affordable products. He has legitimate audiophile ears and a brilliant mind for business. AV123 is a continuation of the Schifter legacy into the world of loudspeakers and home theater. AV123 maintains company-owned factories in Cali and in China to take advantage of the low labor cost. The X series of loudspeakers, which includes a bookshelf speaker, 2 versions of tower speakers and two types of center channel speakers, are all made in Cali. The web site notes the particular pride of workmanship that the AV123 staff there displays.
Now, I have to tell you that the AV123 X-CS speaker costs a whopping $199 each! Up until recently they were only $139 but the speaker has been upgraded with a new, more expensive tweeter, a revised crossover with improved components, and metal grills. Some of the cost increase is undoubtedly due to our plummeting dollar. The "Encore" moniker was added to the name to distinguish the new model from the old. One wouldn't expect too much from such a low price sound maker, especially one intended to serve as the center speaker in a home theater set up, but the performance of this speaker is way over top and matches lesser brands at two and three times the cost. AV123 encourages its use for stereo. Unpacking it one can see the potential for a credible stereo music maker. It looks a lot like my reference Wilson Cub speaker (about 20 times more expensive when last soldóthe Cub also started as a center channel speaker but actually saw more service in stereo systems because of its dynamic sound) in that it has the classic MTM D'Appolito layout of two woofer/mids and a center tweeter. However, the X-CS is larger than most center channel speakers at 20 inches high, 8.5 inches wide, and 15.5 inches deep, and it weighs a pretty hefty 33 lbs. The cabinet is a nicely finished, well-braced MDF design with curved edges all around and covered with a nice satin black veneer all the way around, including the back. Two other hardwood finishes are available for the same price. The cabinets alone look like they are worth the price of the total speaker. It's also worth noting that the speakers are carefully packaged, including that white bag I told you about, and a 23-page "Enjoyment Guide". A first class job all around. The speakers are sold with a no-questions-asked 30 day free return policy and a three-year limited warranty.
AV123 advises 50 hours to break in the speakers. Dave Clark, who originally received them from the manufacturer, put on about 150 hours before I got them (thanks Dave!) and I played them for 20 hours more before sitting down to listen. I connected the X-CS loudspeakers to about $8000 worth of electronics and cable, an unlikely combination given the speaker's price, but a way for me to gauge the best they are capable of for our loyal readers. I had some trouble making connections to my thick speaker cables. The X-CS loudspeakers have fairly run-of-the-mill 5-way binding posts (something to improve the next time around guys) with that annoying wide spacing required by our European friends so I couldn't use dual banana plugs. I also had to switch cables because the spade lugs on the first set wouldn't work. In tightening the spade lugs I managed to loosen one of the binding posts, but the connection remained in good shape so I was able to proceed. AV123 actually supplied us with 3 speakers (I guess so we could try them out in a home theater arrangement), but I only used two.
For center channel use, the X-CS would normally be set on its long dimension, but for stereo use I placed them vertically. Initially I used the shipping boxes as speaker stands. The boxes are 26 inches high which placed the tweeter right about ear level at 36 inches above the floor. This on-axis listening height gave the smoothest sound on most material (all except sources with aggressive highs). I also toed in the speakers slightly. Since the X-CS was designed to be a center channel loudspeaker, it's logical that the best sound would be directly on axis because that is the way it would normally be set up.
Later I used the Sound Anchor stands from my Wilson Cubs (the stands cost more than twice the speakers) and noted an immediate improvement in image solidarity. However, the Sound Anchor stands are lower than the AV123 boxes by about 7 inches so I found myself slouching in my chair to get the best detail by lining up ears and tweeter. The room position I used for the speakers is one that produces a noticeable but not too prominent base hump around 80Hz. This helped to extend the low frequency response of the X-CS. I should mention that the X-CS has a rated frequency response of 65Hz to 20kHz and uses a sealed enclosure rather than a ported one. The large size of the speaker helps to extend the low frequency response with the selected drivers. Sensitivity is rated at 90.5 dB @ 1W/1m and the 2nd order crossover is set at 2100Hz. I did most of my listening with no subwoofer and was quite happy with the sound given the little bass boost from room reinforcement.
Later I did hook up my Velodyne subwoofer and I found it especially easy to balance the subwoofer with the main channel volume levels. I attribute this to the slow bass roll-off of the sealed box enclosure, which provides a larger sweet spot for the low frequency crossover compared to ported enclosures. Finally, I found it mandatory to remove the metal grills that are held on with four screws. They just took away from the already limited detail and resolution available from the speaker. The speakers look fine to me without the grills because of the nice workmanship.
The AV123 X-CS loudspeakers are not going to bowl over many of the audiophiles that read PFO, but they were a genuine pleasure to listen to if your goal is just to enjoy the music and not analyze it. They sounded especially good on voices. Again this should not be too surprising as that is the principal role of the center channel speaker in a home theater set up, to improve voice intelligibility. Female vocalists sounded sweet and clear, and male vocalists sounded strong and full. Heard directly on axis the frequency balance was reasonably flat with just a few peaky regions evident mainly on piano music. Off-axis the bandwidth of the system seemed to narrow and the sound became a bit nasal. More suitable for small jazz ensembles than large orchestras, the X-CS loudspeakers did not embarrass themselves even when playing the mightiest of symphonies. The base response was fine on most material, even loud rock recordings. The slow bass roll-off characteristic of a sealed box enclosure helped, as did the room boost. When the subwoofer was added the speakers really rocked and could play very loud with no rattles or other annoyances.
In my system the speakers sounded just a tad dark, which might be due partially to the slight bass hump. Yet the highs were quite extended and prominent but not especially delicate. I would stay away from using these speakers with cheap solid-state amplifiers as that combination might result in some grating noises. On the other hand, I think the best match for these would be a nice tube 50W integrated amplifier to sweeten the highs and fill out the midrange.
The X-CS loudspeakers are not imaging champs. Image width almost never extended past the edges of the speakers and image depth was pretty flat. The imaging did improve when the speakers were placed on solid stands and when the subwoofer was added. Soundstaging was quite stable throughout the frequency range indicating good crossover design and speaker matching. Although the speaker had a wide dynamic range it was lacking in microdynamics, transparency, and detail. I kept on straining to hear things in familiar recordings that I knew were there but just couldn't hear. There is just so much one can ask from what must be pretty inexpensive drivers. For example, playing any of the Patricia Barber recordings found her voice sounding very true to life, but the acoustics of the hall were suppressed and the nuances of the vocals and instruments that audiophiles strive for were just not to be heard.
In short, Mark Schifter has extracted the most that he could from the components selected for the X-CS. Credit should be given to the speaker designer, Danny Richie. Further, by employing a well-trained and motivated work force in a developing nation such as Columbia, and by using a direct sales approach, he has provided tremendous sound and quality value at a low price. Matched with a good integrated amplifier and a good pair of stands the X-CS would make a wonderful small to medium size room system, especially for the non-audiophile who just wants to enjoy the music. Even if you, intrepid PFO reader, don't have room for these in your life, encourage your friends or family in need of an economical sound system to Google on over to the AV123 web site and check out the X-CS. There's not much risk with the 30-day return policy and they might be surprised at what can be had at the lower fringes of audio heaven. Mike Wechsberg