Review: Orb Audio home theater speaker system

Tiny Orb Audio speakers promise to please (November 19th, 2011)

Home theater enthusiasts for many years have drawn a close association between speaker size and sound quality, however many companies, such as Orb Audio, have worked to prove that big does not always mean better. Electronista took the opportunity to try out Orb's modular speaker system, which features an eight-inch standalone subwoofer and an array of seemingly tiny drivers contained in four-inch spheres. In our full review, we will determine if the Orb system is worthy of its premium price tag.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Orb Audio

Price: $1098 as tested

The Good

  • Powerful sound for small speakers
  • Well balanced when combined with subwoofer
  • Unique design
  • Flexible mounting options
  • Great value for around $1000

The Bad

  • Standalone Orbs not well suited for low frequencies
  • Full sound, but less powerful than many floorstanding speakers
  • Expensive if Orbs are purchased alone

Home theater enthusiasts for many years have drawn a close association between speaker size and sound quality, however many companies, such as Orb Audio, have worked to prove that big does not always mean better. Electronista took the opportunity to try out Orb's modular speaker system, which features an eight-inch standalone subwoofer and an array of seemingly tiny drivers contained in four-inch spheres. In our full review, we will determine if the Orb system is worthy of its premium price tag.

Design

Orb Audio's speaker system is available in a wide variety of configurations, each using a different combination of 'Orbs' to achieve the desired output. Each Orb is a four-inch sealed sphere that contains a three-inch driver, without any gimmicky sound-channeling ports or other frills.

The Orbs are held approximately one inch above a circular metal plate, held by one or two braces that connect to the back of each sphere. Some configurations stack two spheres vertically or side-by-side, with the intention of enabling users to choose from one to four individual speakers per channel. The approach contrasts from most speaker systems, which move to a bigger driver for more volume on each channel.





The Orbs are available in a variety of finishes, including "hammered earth," black gloss, white gloss, polished steel, antiqued copper or antiqued bronze. All of the finishes are attractive and suitable for different tastes, though each of the color options shares a retro feel due to the spherical design.

The subwoofer does not match the aesthetics of the Orbs, instead opting for an unassuming black box that is common among most standalone subwoofers. We like the black-box appearance; subwoofers are not supposed to be a visual distraction, and we suspect a 12-inch metallic sphere might not sound as great as a well-tuned wooden cube.

Aside from the color options and visual appeal, the Orbs are manufactured with gold-plated posts, oxygen-free internal wiring and neodymium magnets. Despite their small size, each driver is rated to handle at least 110 watts. The speakers that we received appeared to be built to high standards, as expected for a high-end product manufactured in California.





Setup

The company has accommodated an extremely wide range of mounting options. For the ultimate discrete placement, users can attach each Orb directly to a wall and orient the driver as needed. The stands pictured in our review can be used on a desk or TV stand, while optional floor stands each hold two Orbs several feet above the base.

The small Orb speakers easily fit in a variety of configurations, providing much more flexibility than heavy floorstanding speakers. The ability to fine-tune placement is particularly critical in acoustic environments that excessively resonate certain frequencies based on speaker location.

Placing and tuning the subwoofer is slightly more tricky than arranging the Orbs, though this is a common difficulty with any speaker system. Orb Audio's Super Eight sub provides several tuning options to make the job easier, with a phase adjustment to compensate for placement in different regions of the listening area.

In our tests, the Orbs performed best when connected to an A/V receiver that provides crossover control and a dedicated output for the subwoofer. Center, main and surround channels should be set to "small" in the receiver settings, or at a 100hz to 120hz crossover frequency, to ensure that low frequencies are handed off to the eight-inch woofer rather than muddying the audio from the three-inch drivers.

The Super Eight control panel provides its own crossover settings for systems that lack a dedicated subwoofer output, but we experienced better results using the receiver to split the frequencies..





Performance

We were admittedly skeptical of the Orb Audio system when we were placing the tiny spheres next to our floorstanding Infinity speakers, which weigh in at 60 lbs. each. Several unimpressive experiences listening to Bose's $2000 Lifestyle system, which also utilizes an array of three-inch drivers, further contributed to our low expectation.

The focal point of the Orb system is the small speakers, so we decided to try out a single Orb for each channel in a simple stereo configuration. The sound was more robust than we expected from such a small speaker, though the two-speaker configuration is better suited to a desk setup rather than home theater.

Moving to the stacked setup, with two Orbs for each channel, we were happy to hear a fuller sound, however four of the small drivers still lacked the low-end push that we were looking for. When we moved the two-by-two setup to a desk it seemed to be a proper match, producing clean mids and highs with just enough bass when listening from two feet away from the Orbs.

After toying with the Orbs in various configurations, we decided to go back to the living room and connect the Super Eight. Obviously we expected the subwoofer to compensate on the low end, but we were surprised by how balanced the entire system became when the Orbs were blasting alongside the eight-inch subwoofer.

When we added a full complement of speakers--two for each main channel, two for the center channel and one for each rear channel--the system completely overturned our skepticism. The subwoofer's 200-watt amplifier and eight-inch driver are a perfect match for the small speakers, supplementing the high- and mid-range sound without sounding like a distinctly separate element.

We enjoy an eclectic collection of music, appreciating everything from the subtle timbre of a Steinway grand to the gnarly growl of Roland's Jupiter 8 synth. The Orb system handled the full breadth of genres surprisingly well, articulating the delicate sounds of acoustic instruments while providing the 'oomph' necessary for electronic music.



Final thoughts

The Orb system performed well beyond our expectations, producing full and rich sound that we did not think was possible from such small speakers. We liked the "People's Choice" configuration, with the Super Eight subwoofer, two speakers for each main channel, two speakers for the center channel and one speaker for each rear channel.

Although Orb Audio's package deals are an attractive option sold at a decent price, we believe the small speakers are best suited for use with dedicated subwoofers. The company sells two single Orbs bundled together for $239, but there are a number of competing desktop speakers that produce a better balance between high and low frequencies for comparable prices without a sacrifice in audio quality.

The People's Choice package ships direct from the company for $1098, a fair price for the audio quality, stylish design and installation flexibility. We believe Orb Audio's speakers outperform Bose's Lifestyle T20 home theater system, which costs nearly twice as much, as well as other speaker systems that claim to produce robust sound from small drivers.





by Justin King


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