Emotiva X-Ref XRT-5.2 loudspeaker

We've all read about how bookstores, appliance stores, and other bricks-and-mortar retailers are suffering with the increasing domination of Internet sales. That got me thinking about audio dealers. I've always believed that one can't really make an informed purchase of audiophile equipment without hearing it in a system properly set up by and at at a serious audio retailer. Here in New York City, we're blessed with six first-rate audio dealers in Manhattan alone, with more in the suburbs. I estimate that 90% of the products reviewed in Stereophile can be auditioned at a dealer or two within a two-hour drive of anywhere in the New York metropolitan area.

Not so for rural audiophiles, and that's where companies such as Emotiva come in. Dan Laufman was fed up with the rising prices of audio gear, exacerbated by the extra costs inherent in the traditional model of dealer distribution. So he founded Emotiva Audio, which manufactures and direct-ships affordable audio gear, with 30-day return privileges and free shipping within the continental US. Emotiva is unusual in not focusing on any particular link in the sound-reproduction chain, instead manufacturing a variety of digital source components (Stephen Mejias was impressed with their ERC-2 CD player, which he reviewed in December 2011), electronics, speakers, and interconnect and speaker cables. Of the four Emotiva speakers designed for two-channel use, I chose the smaller of the two floorstanding models, the X-Ref XRT 5.2, which, at the time of the review, cost $799/pair. (The price has since been reduced to $559/pair).

Though the XRT-5.2 is designed in the USA, it is manufactured in China. A slim tower, toward the top of its front baffle are mounted two 5.25" blended-cone woofers with butyl surrounds, copper-clad pole-pieces, aluminum shorting rings, and cast frames. Between them, laterally off center, is a 1" silk-dome tweeter. The front-ported cabinet is bolted to a base to which metal spikes or rubber feet can be attached (I chose the spikes). For stability, this base widens the speaker's narrow footprint from 6.5" to 8.5". The crossover include air-core inductors, precision metalized film capacitors, and oxygen-free wire. That offset tweeter means that the speakers are mirror-imaged; they can be placed so that the tweeters are more toward the inner or the outer edges of the front baffles.

At first I assumed that Emotiva had intended that the tweeters be placed toward the outer edges, to maximize soundstage width. (I thought the red dot on one speaker designated "right," which would put the tweeters in those positions.) I was therefore confused when, in the owner's manual, I saw a diagram that showed the tweeters on the inside. A call to Emotiva indicated that I should try both configurations—the resulting sounds would be a matter of personal preference. I did, and sure enough, the XRT-5.2s did throw a wider soundstage with the tweeters on the outside—but produced more convincing image focus with the tweeters on the inside. So I left the tweeters on the inner edges, but with the speakers far apart. Though the grilles made very little difference to the sound, I mostly left them off; that way, I heard a hair more detail.

Older readers may recall that, in the 1970s, two schools of speaker design reigned in the US. The West Coast was known for "rock" speakers: those that had a forward perspective and a punchy, dynamic bottom end (eg, JBL). The East Coast school was known for a more polite, reserved sound more suitable for classical and small-group jazz (eg, AR).

The first thing I noticed when I fired up the Emotiva XRT-5.2s was their forward perspective and punchy, lively, dynamic sound, especially on the bottom end—I wondered if this was a return to the "rock speaker" sound. I cued up a recently acquired reissue of the Good Rats' Rat City in Blue (CD, Good Rats GRBTA0008). During this Long Island–based band's heyday, in the 1970s, I was obsessed with them. There were several clubs on the Island where you could see this tight, creative outfit pack them in several times a month, but on the mainland they were virtually unknown, despite releasing six albums during this period, most on major labels. (Rolling Stone called the Rats "the most famous unknown band.")

At 100dB in my large listening room, the Emotivas re-created the vibe of a live Good Rats concert. Although I'd originally planned to just play a few tracks as background music while doing some work, I found myself jumping across the room, acting out on air guitar every solo of dual guitarists John Gatto and Mickey Marchello as the album played all the way to the end. I was taken by the kickass bottom end, the sense of high dynamic slam with no compression, the in-your-face presence of those electric guitars. Good Rats' leader and songwriter, Peppi Marchello, has shown himself fond of excessive equalization and digital processing in his recent remixes of his band's original albums, in an attempt to simulate the PA mix of a live rock show. However, these deviations from neutrality dovetailed perfectly with the Emotiva's persona.

That said, I knew it would take a more natural recording to reveal the true nature of the XRT-5.2's reproduction of timbres. Madeline Peyroux's voice in "Hey Sweet Man," from her Dreamland (CD, Atlantic 82946-2), was natural, silky, and involving, though it seemed a touch veiled compared with what I've heard from this track through other speakers—and Marc Ribot's resonator-guitar riffs seemed less noticeable than I'm used to hearing. The chorus of "Our Prayer," from Brian Wilson's Smile (CD, Nonesuch 79846-2), was natural but a bit forward, as was John Coltrane's tenor sax in the title track of his Stardust (CD, Prestige 7268). However, the perspective of Frank Sinatra's voice in the title track of Only the Lonely (LP, Capitol W 1053) was more midstage, with Old Blue Eyes' natural-sounding voice bathed in an excess of silky reverberation. However, the Emotivas weren't lacking in detail with well-recorded jazz. On every track of Paul Motian's Selected Recordings (CD, :rarumECM 8016), I could identify the drummer's signature delicate snare and cymbal textures as easily as I could whenever I heard the late master perform live.

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