Photos by Tony Cordoza
In the movie Kate & Leopold, Leopold (Hugh Jackman) finds himself vaulted from the 19th century into the early 21st century. Given the fascination this time traveler shows with new technology, the three home theater speaker systems here would certainly have raised his eyebrows. Like the four systems we looked at in the previous installment of "Thinking Outside the Box" (February/March), the Mirage Omnisat 6 ($1,700), Mission fs1 ($999), and Morel SoundSpot Applause ($2,400) all vault out of the stodgy 20th-century box into the fluidity of 21st-century design.
I chose Kate & Leopold to evaluate these stylish systems even though it features Meg Ryan (Kate) with her worst hairdo ever. The movie provides a challenging soundscape without rockets, submarines, or war. Its wide variety of everyday sounds enhanced by great Foley effects (sounds created in the studio that can sound more convincing than the real thing) and close-miked dialogue dare any speaker to earn its place in your home theater. The sound of an elevator motor in one scene, for instance, goes deeper into the bass than most rocket launches, and the frequent rain and storm scenes test a system's high frequencies as well as its surround capabilities. You'll get a good taste of the film's wide dynamic range when Leopold accidentally turns on a stereo system at full volume. And the sounds of hooves and carriage wheels on cobblestone streets, dinner plates clattering into the sink, and a slap in the face all demand accurate, rapid response to instantaneous changes in the audio signal.
My Denon AVR-2802 receiver provided the Dolby Digital decoding and the 90 watts per channel that drove these systems in my 15 x 25-foot room. I positioned the front left and right speakers in the same plane as the screen of my 42-inch widescreen Toshiba TV and about a foot to either side, and I placed the center-channel speakers atop the set. Each subwoofer was about a foot out from the left wall and about 2 feet from the corner, and the surround satellites were to the sides and slightly behind my viewing position.
With my gear all warmed up and my test discs by my side, I was ready to see if these three futuristic designs could provide decent sound in the present.
Morel SoundSpot Applause
A quintet of SA-2 satellites and the IS-9A SoundSub subwoofer make up the Morel SoundSpot Applause system. The midrange driver enclosure of the silver steel SA-2 (also available in black or white) is about the size of a large grapefruit with the front sliced off. A similarly truncated spheroid on top, about the size of a large cherry tomato, contains the tweeter. Matching gray cloth covers the front of both parts.
A gold metal post on the bottom has an adjustable tilt for mating with the supplied shelf stand/wall mount or an optional floor stand. You remove the black rubber ring around the shelf stand to use it as a wall mount.
Two color-coded multiway gold-plated binding posts protrude from the bottom rear of the larger spheroid. They're spread too far apart for dual banana plugs, but they'll accept any other kind of connection. The ample holes in the posts accommodate 12-gauge wire, and the large, knurled knobs make it easy for big, clumsy fingers to hook things up. I've rarely wired a system as quickly as I did this one.
The dark-gray IS-9A subwoofer (also available in piano black) has less elaborate binding posts with plastic knobs. It's not as flamboyant as the Morel satellites, but that doesn't mean it's the same as any old small-system sub. For one thing, it has a larger cabinet than most to accommodate its two 9-inch direct-radiating drivers. And unlike most other subs, it stands upright on its narrow end instead of lying flat. Be aware, though, that with the drivers on the front and a port in the rear, you can't position this sub as freely as one that radiates downward.
In addition to line- and speaker-level inputs and outputs, the back panel includes controls for continuous phase adjustment, setting the crossover from 40 to 160 Hz, and level adjustment. As with many subs, the crossover knob has markings only at the top and bottom of its range, so you'll probably have to experiment with different settings over time to get the best results. I set it by ear.
The system comes with a 19-page all-English instruction booklet that also serves as a catalog for all Morel home theater systems. The diagrams are good and should help most users install and connect the system correctly.
Morel claims its aluminum "external voice coil" design supports the cone or dome of the satellite's drivers, preventing flexing and buckling. This also allows them to be shallower than usual for their size, yielding better dispersion. The midrange driver combines ferrite and neodymium magnets with a damped polymer-composite cone.
The SoundSpot Applause system does not sacrifice sound for style. The satellites may be grapefruit size, but they pump out watermelon-size sound-without any seediness. Distortion remained pleasingly low as the soundtrack soared and subsided. This was one of the smoothest, most intimate-sounding small speaker systems I can recall hearing. There wasn't even a hint of discontinuity in the crossover between the sub and the satellites. And the bass sounded awesome.
My home theater is in a fairly solid room, but the low frequencies rattled anything that was even slightly loose, without impinging on the dialogue or being out of proportion to the rest of the sound. Transients were clean and immediate, as evidenced in the sounds of a knife and fork cutting meat in Kate and Leopold's first dinner scene, or that of the plates clattering into the sink following that scene, or of the triangle in the musical score. The only area that I felt needed slight improvement was articulation in the dialogue.
The SoundSpot Applause acquitted itself equally well as a stereo and 5.1-channel music system-and it's one of the few systems where you don't have to turn down the subwoofer to enjoy music. The imaging was precise and natural with stereo material. In the recording of André Previn conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Holst's The Planets, the deep but effortless and unpretentious bass coexisted beautifully with the rest of the musical spectrum. The system was very kind to Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the new Broadway-cast recording of Man of La Mancha, smoothing whatever harshness might exist in the recording without adding a hint of nasality or chestiness. Once again, a tiny bit more articulation would be nice, with a hint more ambience, but overall I could easily relish the Morel as a primary music system.