The subwoofer immediately warmed to its placement 4 feet in from the front left corner once I hooked it up to the subwoofer/LFE (low-frequency effects) output of my preamp/processor. Usually it takes me about an hour to get a good balance between a sub and satellites, but not this time: Besides the usual crossover and level controls, and auto-on and phase switches, the sub's back panel has a variable "notch" filter. This lets you reduce output to a precise degree over a narrow (selectable) frequency band to adjust for room effects. Even better, the company provides a sound-level meter and a setup CD to help you adjust the filter and balance the satellite levels.
The meter (shown left) has LEDs marked in 2-dB increments. There are two adjustment ranges, one for setting up the satellites and the other for the sub. Dialing the sub in for good sound was easy. After listening to the test tones on the CD, I took note of which track lit up the most LEDs and adjusted the notch filter's frequency knob to the corresponding number. The next step was to tweak how much it reduced the output. That was it: bass boom was tamed.
MUSIC PERFORMANCE Tossing the sound meter aside, I put the system through its paces by first listening to some CDs. "Golden" from My Morning Jacket's It Still Moves is a reverb-drenched country ballad that sounds like it was recorded in the biggest, loneliest, emptiest saloon in the world. The Genie sub/sat combination did a fine job of reproducing the song's sense of almost infinite space, presenting a wide and reasonably deep soundstage. The plaintive vocals and acoustic instruments like guitar and drums also had a warm, natural sound that was surprisingly full for such small satellites.
Cranking things up a notch, I flipped in . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Source Tags & Codes and cued up "How Near How Far" to see how well the Genie would handle sonic punishment. Even at very loud volumes, this song's wall-of-sound production came across as solid and coherent, with little dynamic compression. Although the sub lacked serious bottom-octave oomph, it was well balanced and not at all boomy. However, I did get a sense that the 402 satellites were crispy in the highs, with cymbals and close-miked vocals occa sionally sounding a bit strident. But overall I prefer this to a sound that's mushy or dull.
MOVIE PERFORMANCE The Genie's excellent movie chops were quickly revealed by a scene from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 where Uma Thurman's character wakes up from a coma in a hospital room. The sound of a mosquito hovering around her inert body rose up from the center channel, and it traversed each speaker in turn as the insect circled the room. This buzzing arc was fluid and continuous, with no serious gaps - not too shabby for a compact system. And when the bug finally settled down to bite Uma, the puncture and slurping sounds that followed came through with crisp detail on the 404 center speaker. Dialogue also sounded clear, but slightly softer at off-center seats.
I sat on through the sequence where O-Ren-Ishii's story is told in anime. The soundtrack during the fight scenes packed an impressive wallop, and the swinging swords were vividly rendered. The swelling spaghetti-western music also came across as full and lush, delivering the sense of skewed, over-the-top drama director Quentin Tarantino was obviously going for.
BOTTOM LINE With expensive plasma HDTVs gobbling up home theater budgets, much of the activity in speaker design has focused on compact, reasonably priced rigs. There are plenty of systems costing less than a grand that sound excellent, but there's also a good case to be made for a step-up package like Mordaunt-Short's Genie. Not only does it come with a capable, full-featured subwoofer (and a sound meter!), but its looks, build quality, and performance are all first-rate. If you want a system with a bit extra, you'll find this Genie's charms hard to resist.
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