Emotiva Audio Pro Airmotiv 4s powered loudspeaker

"I'm intrigued how Emotiva can offer an active speaker for so little."

This was John Atkinson's response to my request to review Emotiva's Pro Airmotiv 4s ($299/pair). My colleague Steve Guttenberg had been discussing this speaker with me at a recent industry event, and I'd realized that it had been some time since I'd reviewed an entry-level loudspeaker. I'd reviewed Emotiva's X-Ref XRT-5.2 floorstanding speaker in the August 2012 issue and had been impressed with its combination of sound quality and price. I requested samples for review.

Emotiva designs and makes a wide range of audio components, and maintains a high ratio of value to price by designing in the US, manufacturing in China, and selling manufacturer direct, bypassing the dealer markup. As their products come with a 30-day back guarantee, the buyer runs little risk by trying them at home.

The Pro Airmotiv 4 is quite small at 9.5" high by 6.25" wide by 7.5" deep and only 10.8 lbs, but seems to offer a good bit of value for $299/pair. Each speaker has a 1" by 1.25" (26 by 32mm), folded-ribbon tweeter, and a 4.5" (135mm) mid/woofer with a Curv polypropylene-composite cone. The 4s is biamped: Each drive-unit is powered by its own 25W class-AB amplifier with toroidal transformers, large electrolytic power capacitors, and stacked metalized-film capacitors. The cabinet, of 18mm-thick MDF, includes a 3mm layer of acoustic damping. The Pro Airmotiv 4s also has a faceted, low-diffraction baffle and, vented to the rear, a tuned port with a linear taper.

Each 4s has balanced and single-ended inputs and a number of adjustments: a level-trim control to optimize the amplifier gain for the input source, and separate high- and low-frequency equalization adjustments for each driver.

Although the Airmotiv 4s is marketed through Emotiva's Pro division, and is intended for use in recording studios as a nearfield monitor, I listened to the speakers at home using my usual procedure. In both my large and small listening rooms, I placed them on 24"-high Celestion Si stands, 4' from the front wall. For all of my listening, I left the frequency trim switches in the neutral positions.

The Emotiva Airmotiv 4s's dead-pure midrange made it an excellent showcase for well-recorded voices. On "Highway 51," from Bob Dylan (LP, Columbia CL 8579), every subtle inflection of Dylan's phrasing was captured via the speaker's dynamic envelope. The Airmotiv showcased Cassandra Wilson's voice on her New Moon Daughter (LP, Blue Note 8 37183 1) as rich and supple as it floated holographically on a bed of air.

I'm always a bit nervous when listening to a dynamic midrange driver paired with a ribbon tweeter—I worry, especially with so inexpensive a speaker, that the midrange and high-frequency textures won't convincingly integrate. I had nothing to worry about with the Emotiva 4s—all high frequencies were reproduced with clarity, extension, and no trace of coloration, and perfectly integrated with the midrange timbres over a broad range of music. In Vivaldi's L'estro armonico, with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields (LP, Argo ZRG 733-4), the massed strings were silky but had the requisite bite, with plenty of top-octave harmonic extension and air. A good acid test for midrange/high-frequency integration is Max Bruch's Violin Concerto 2, with Itzhak Perlman and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Jesús Lopez-Cobos (LP, EMI France C 069-02284). Perlman's violin was reproduced with the requisite extended airy bite but without a trace of harshness, perfectly integrated with the midrange textures of the orchestra.

I was amazed at the quality of the Emotiva's bass reproduction and depth of its extension for so small a speaker. In "Clean Plate," from The Golden Palominos (UK LP, OAO 1001), there's some very active interplay between the bass guitars of Bill Laswell and Jamaladeen Tacuma. The Airmotiv 4ses reproduced both with pounding clarity; it was very easy to differentiate each master's individual bass lines.

The Emotiva's extraordinary resolution of detail made it a good match for well-recorded classical music. In George Crumb's Madrigals, with Elizabeth Suderburg codirecting the Contemporary Group of the University of Washington (LP, Turnabout TV-S34523), the sound of the recording venue was clearly delineated, and each instrument seemed to pop out of thin air in its appropriate place on the soundstage. The Mikaeli Chamber Choir's Kör, conducted by Anders Eby, includes sacred choral works by Hovland, Verdi, von Koch, and Hambraeus, accompanied by pipe organ (LP, Proprius PROP 7770). Through the Emotivas I was able to pick out the voice of each singer, and could almost map out the dimensions of the very reverberant recording venue, a church. And for such a small speaker, I was very surprised at how well the organ-pedal notes boomed and bloomed.

Other classical recordings showcased the Emotiva's superb ability to articulate transients. Listening to Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline Du Pré, and Daniel Barenboim's LP of Beethoven Piano Trios (EMI SLS 789-5), I was captivated by the Airmotiv 4s's ability to unravel Barenboim's piano technique in the difficult fast passages. And in Walter Leigh's Concertino for Harpischord and String Orchestra, with soloist Trevor Pinnock, and Nicholas Braithwaite conducting the London Philharmonic (LP, Lyrita SRCS 126), it was very easy to distinguish the rapid, crystal-clean harpsichord passages from the massed violins.

The Emotivas also communicated an excellent sense of high-level dynamic slam. In "Humpty Dumpty," from Chick Corea's The Mad Hatter (LP, Polydor PD-1-6130), the interaction of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd in the more frenetic passages of Corea's piano solo was reproduced with clean, punchy bass and uncompressed high-level dynamics.

I also enjoyed cranking up the Emotivas to high volumes for rock. In "Spider in My Web," from Ten Years After's Undead (LP, Deram DES 18016), Alvin Lee's guitar was rich and ringing in its upper register—and I couldn't keep my body still during the Emotivas' coherent reproduction of the churning, pounding rhythms in Talking Heads' Fear of Music (LP, Sire SRK 7076).

I compared the Emotiva Airmotiv 4s ($299/pair) with the Audioengine 2 active speakers (original version, $199/pair), as well as with Pioneer's SP-BS22-LR passive model ($160/pair) driven by my usual amplification (see sidebar).

The Audioengine 2 had a natural-sounding midrange, with highs a bit more polite than the Emotiva's but with less midrange detail. The Audioengine's midbass was clean and rich, but didn't go as deep as the Airmotiv's, and its high-level dynamics weren't as wide. Transients through the Audioengine were good, but not as articulate as the Emotiva's.

The Pioneer SP-BS22-LR had the deepest bass of the three, but the Airmotiv 4s's low end was cleaner. Highs through the Pioneer were natural, but the Emotiva's highs were clearer. The Pioneer's resolution of inner detail was superior to the Audioengine's, but not as good as the Emotiva's. In addition, the Airmotiv 4s's high- and low-level dynamics were superior to the Pioneer's.

Emotiva Audio's Pro Airmotiv 4s is a superb performer for the price, with strengths unheard of for $299/pair, and with negligible shortcomings. In fact, I was sufficiently impressed that I'm buying the review samples for use in the engineering and mixing of an upcoming home studio recording of my jazz quartet, Attention Screen. Like JA, I'm amazed at how Emotiva can offer so much active speaker for so little.

Emotiva Audio Corporation
135 SE Parkway Court
Franklin, TN 37064
(877) 366-8324

drblank's picture

because they have no dealer network, which marks up the product. So, they are the low cost leader by selling direct. I think they are also made in China. At least that's what I've read about all of their other products.

To me the name kind of sounds like those cheap stereos people would sell out of the trunk of their car or out of a van near a gas station, even though they aren't. :-)

I personally just can't get past the name. :-)

tonykaz's picture

They have a wonderful little desktop volume control for $50 and a nice DAC for around $500.

You discovered a secret.

Start using Actives like this and you may not be able to return to Passive Speakers (starting at $2,000) & proper Amps (starting up round $1,500+).

All these little Actives are category crushers when it comes to performance and price.

So, why would someone buy a Magico? if they had one listen to any of the Professional Nearfield of Midfield Monitors from : Emotiva, Focal or Genelec?

Tony in Michigan

ps. of course this stuff is Professional Grade, not pretty enough to show off, maybe.

ps.2 Nice to see Stereophile doing a reality check like this.

la musique's picture

I agree with the show off.
It looks to me that the real' Hi Fi/musique lovers 'entousiast don't care about gliter etc...
What counts is the sound experience.

tnargs's picture

Nice enough but nothing that a Behringer can't do for a bit less, and certainly not delivering what the JBL LSR305 does. There's your category leader. Street price $240 a pair too.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Nice to see increasing coverage of active monitors. I'd love to see a review of Emotiva's top active monitor, Stealth 8 ($749). Or a review of their top mono block power amp, XPR-1 ($1699). Neither are audio jewelry, but are reputed to be category crushers and highest value/$. Such reviews may not sit well with main stream manufacturers and advertisers, or with people who suffer from upgradeitis.

Sister site Audiostream's Michael Lavorgna loves studio grade Adam and Focal active monitors. I remember Paradigm's Reference Active 40 got rave reviews as a category crusher years ago.

Perhaps active monitors will become more popular as people demand better desktop performance and then experiment with them in their main audio systems. Makes sense in terms of value/$, amp/speaker optimization, fewer cables and less space.

Mike Rubin's picture

I still have a pair of NHT M-00 actives that I purchased after reading a Stereophile review in which Wes Phillips, I believe, declared them to be the best small speakers you could buy. This must have been around 2005 or so. I believe I paid about $400 or so for the pair.

ashutoshp's picture

Would having amplifiers built in to the speaker cabinet improve damping of resonances?
I am currently the proud owner of a pair of Emotiva's Stealth 6s (with 200 watt amps)....ruggedly handsome at a staggering 26 lbs. My wife's frequent banishing has fewer consequences because I can now simply carry my stereo to the time-out room. I have them mated to their DC-1 DAC/preamp and the combo is just fantastic... very balanced and smooth. Thankfully, 1 less component to match!
The downside to Emotiva's speakers is the rear port but compared to the Airmotiv's, the Stealth's give you an extra option (bass roll-off) for accommodating room accosutics. It appears subtle at first but fiddling with the controls REALLY helps with the bass response.
I should also add that the price-to-performance ratio is very linear when it comes to powered monitors. And unlike years past, there is a good market for re-selling so even those with upgradeitis can apply ;) The Stereophile crew should look at more powered monitors/speakers and if they want high end, in addition to the usual suspects from the likes of Focal, Genelec and Adam, I think the Event Opals at <$3000 a pair are a proper bargain. I have heard a lot of awesome speakers but nothing quite like the Opals.