Like a high-end iPod for your living room
Wireless is, uh, in the air these days. Audio, video, telecom, and most everything else up to and including war-making are all proceeding nicely without any lengths of braided copper trailing behind. But too much of the time, this is more about wireless-ness than about what happens when the signal gets wherever “there” is. (Unless, that is, you have the misfortune to be riding in a car in the mountains of northern Pakistan…)
Not this time. And the rather unexpected reason is a new family of wireless speakers dubbed Xeo from Dynaudio, the Danish loudspeaker (and transducer) maker that is as widely respected in the hushed confines of pro audio as in the rough-and-tumble of high-end hi-fi.
Like all Dynaudio designs, Xeo is Serious Hi-Fi. The lineup so far consists of just two models, the two-way bookshelf Xeo 3 and the floor-standing, double-woofered Xeo 5, either or both of which combine with a Larousse de Poche-size transmitter and your sources — disc player, media streamer, iPhone/Pod/Pad, laptop, desktop, or just about anything else — to form a minimalist but honestly high-end system. The system uses a dedicated 2.4-GHz link to send digital audio, so there’s no Wi-Fi network needed, no software or drivers to install, no passwords to remember, and no potential clogging of IP traffic.
Dynaudio sent us not only a pair of Xeo 5s and a transmitter, but a Xeo 3 pair as well so we could test the range’s reach and multiroom/multisource abilities. (A single Xeo transmitter can route different signals to up to three pairs of speakers, in three different locations, over a range exceeding 50 feet.)
Before we even unbox the Xeos, let’s get one thing straight: Dynaudio’s RF solution is ultimately no more wireless than the next guy’s. Each Xeo, like every other “wireless” speaker, must be plugged into a wall outlet to power its onboard amplifiers, RF receivers, and other electronics. (Fortunately, plugging in an electrical appliance is still within the core competence of many American consumers.)
In the Xeo’s case, unboxing, essentially, is setting up: You plug the speakers in to the wall, set the small slide switches labeled “Left/Mono/Right” and “Room 1/2/3” on the rear panel, and you’re done. I like that. I also like beauty (I’ve heard that it’s truth, and vice versa), and our gloss-black Xeos brought it. Satin black and white finishes are also available.
Things at the transmitter end are only slightly more complex. The little box can be powered by any USB port, if your location happens to have one — I exploited the otherwise useless example on my Comcast DVR — though a wall wart is supplied. An analog minijack and RCA pair share Input 1 (auto-precedence chooses the RCAs over the mini), with optical digital and USB ports comprising Inputs 2 and 3. You just have to plug in a source or two — in my case, an RCA cable from my preamp’s fixed-level stereo record outputs and a USB cable for an iPhone .After the usual couple of weeks of everyday burn-in use, I turned my attention to close evaluation of the Xeo 5 towers. Unsurprisingly, I found them to sound very like the Dynaudio Excite line upon which they are based (though with a difference we’ll come to) and which I reviewed some years back.
For those few readers who have not committed my entire opus to memory, that report included such adjectives as “winningly natural,” “highly articulate,” and “startling clarity,” plus a gushy bit about a soundstage that “actually extended slightly beyond the speakers and wrapped well out into the room.”
All these apply equally to the Xeo 5s, whose drivers and enclosure are virtually identical to the Excite X32 tower. (The Xeo 3 mirrors the Excite 16 bookshelf we evaluated then.) To recap, those Dynaudios met my expectations for smooth, accurate response almost perfectly, with nary a vocal coloration nor a top-octaves peak or dip, but with the extra measure of clarity and fine detail that distinguishes the loudspeaker world’s upper echelons.
And the Xeos repeated the performance, and more. While I found the passive bookshelf Excites’ bottom octaves to be controlled and accurate but finite, the Xeo 5s’ bass response, while equally smooth and tight, was substantially more extended — the miracle of active-loudspeaker digital signal processing (plus an extra woofer and a bigger box) at work. The Xeo 5 goes quite low: to rather below 40 Hz, I’d say, in my room. This is a good thing, since integrating a subwoofer into the wireless system, though not impossible, would be challenging for many folks, and would diminish the simplicity upon which Xeo is based.
As to that above-mentioned difference? It’s not the wireless-ness; it’s the powered-ness. With two 50-watt Class D channels onboard each speaker, the Xeo 5 is a fully “active” system, with all the attendant advantages. Too many to enumerate here, these include eliminating passive crossover networks, with their power- and dynamics-sucking inductors and capacitors, and introducing the freedom to DSP-tailor individual amps to individual drivers for optimal response and dynamic range. So while 2 x 50 watts per channel may not sound like all that much, active-speaker power can deliver substantially more dynamic range-per-watt than similarly rated conventional power-amp and passive-speakers pairings.
In consequence, the Xeos have the requisite dynamics and finesse to fully resolve serious music recordings, or at least more fully than many other systems. To wit, the smooth-jazz-pop of Jason Mraz on a tune like “5/6,” from an HDTracks.com high-rez download, showed impressive depth and texture: The opening vamp incorporated a very lifelike “puff” from every snare hit that didn’t modulate by even the slightest degree the deep, stringy definition of the bass. Meanwhile, the Xeos matched, or perhaps bettered, the midrange acuity of the passive Excites, so that the superbly recorded alto of Rebecca Pidgeon on “Spanish Harlem” (from Retrospective, another HDTracks download) carried a goosebump-inducing, three-dimensional body and presence.
The irony here is that although the Xeo transmitter accepts digital signals up to 48-kHz/24-bit, Xeo’s 2.4-GHz wireless link operates via CD-like, 48-kHz/16-bit digital audio, so playing high-rez files is, conceptually, a bit like de-icing your cake: Signals are reformatted to 48/16 en route. This won’t make much nevermind to most listeners, but still, when I listened to the same 96/24 files through my reference cans and headphone amp, I heard subtly greater air and “polish” when things got busy. (And yes, I agree that any observation contrasting speaker and headphone listening is dubious at best.)
I also confirmed Dynaudio’s opinion that the transmitter’s digital inputs can deliver better sonics than its analog jacks, since they format digital audio to wireless directly, without analog-digital conversion. The difference seemed marginal to me, but I consequently switched to an optical-digital input for most of my ongoing listening.
The Xeo 5s play loud enough to satisfy rational, uninebriated grown-ups, but if you want dance-floor levels it’s probably best to look elsewhere. It’s difficult to overdrive them with real-world signal levels — a fringe benefit of the closed-loop, active-speaker concept — though when fed full 2-volt preamp signals, the Dynaudios could sound crabby, and finally distorted, over the last 3 or 4 clicks of their volume range.
But — and this is precisely the point — in every other respect the Xeo 5s sounded fabulous, no matter what I played and however the system was hooked up. What this boils down to is great-sounding, full-range compact towers with unusual “dynamic integrity” or “dynamic detail,” or something. Whatever it is, I hear it from comparatively few passive layouts, including, surprisingly, many high-end ones. It’s subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but I know it when I hear it, and I heard it from the Xeos.
The Xeo transmitter, available with either speaker model, is a black box about half the size of an AppleTV. A card-style remote supplied with each speaker pair provides power, volume/mute, input-select 1-3, and access to 3 transmission channels in case of conflicts, although even with a Wi-Fi network and two different cordless phones I had none.
To test the system’s multiroom capability, I located the 3s in my kitchen, about 40 feet distant and through a couple of walls, where they had no difficulty acquiring a wireless signal or playing music glitch-free.
They sounded just great there, too, and the remote worked without issue to select inputs back at the transmitter despite the distance. (In fact, I later performed a direct comparison back in the studio, and the Xeo 3s were all but indistinguishable from the 5s, absent a half-octave or so of deep bass.)
Measurements and Extended Lab Notes
37 Hz to 20 kHz ±3.7 dB on-axis, ±5.9 dB avg 0°-30°
Bass output (CEA-2010A standard)
• Ultra-low bass (20-31.5 Hz) average: 91.7 dB
20 Hz 72.3 dB
25 Hz 84.5 dB
31.5 Hz 99.5 dB
• Low bass (40-63 Hz) average: 108.2 dB
40 Hz 106.0 dB L
50 Hz 107.6 dB L
63Hz 110.4 dB L
To measure the Xeo 5’s quasi-anechoic frequency response, I set it atop my measurement turntable and placed the microphone at a distance of 2 meters. (Quasi-anechoic measurements eliminate reflections from surrounding objects to simulate measuring in an anechoic chamber.) The microphone was placed on the same axis as the tweeter. I ran a ground-plane measurement at 1 meter to get the bass response. The curves in the graph here shows the bass response spliced at 200 Hz to the 0° on-axis measurement and the average of quasi-anechoic measurements taken at 0°, ±10°, ±20°, and ±30°. I used a Clio FW analyzer in MLS mode for the quasi-anechoic measurements and log chirp mode for ground plane, feeding test signals into the left-channel RCA input of the Xeo’s wireless interface. The quasi-anechoic measurements were smoothed to 1/12th octave. The blue trace shows the 0° on-axis response, while the green trace shows the averaged response.
The primary characteristics of the Xeo 5’s measurements are a generally flat response with a mildly downward-tilted treble response. Unusually, there’s a dip of about -4 dB in the on-axis response at 3.7 kHz, but the dip fills in almost completely as you move to 30° off-axis. Also, the tweeter’s response rolls off some above 10 kHz on-axis, but off-axis, at 20° or 30°, it drops abruptly above that frequency. The anomaly at 3.7 kHz is unlikely to be audible, but the treble roll-off almost certainly will be. I couldn’t measure sensitivity or impedance because the Xeo 5 is an internally amplified system.
CEA-2010 output measurements for the Xeo 5 were taken at 1 meter to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio of the measurements. (Normally CEA-2010A is taken at 3 meters, but that technique doesn’t work well with speakers and subs that have relatively modest output at low frequencies.) Measurements with an L next to them are those in which the maximum output was determined by the Xeo 5’s internal limiter. Averages are calculated in pascals.
I’m impressed with the bass output of the Xeo 5, especially considering its small form factor. Plus, you’ll get roughly +6 dB more output when you add a second Xeo 5. At an average of 108.2 dB from 40 to 63 Hz, output is comparable to that of a typical inexpensive 8-inch subwoofer, and unlike most 8-inch subs, the Xeo 5 actually delivers measurable response down to 20 Hz (although just barely). — Brent Butterworth
Xeo is like a high-end iPod for your living room, which doubtless was the design concept. There’s nothing not to like except the price. Dynaudio gear has always been expensive, and in that context the Xeo 5’s $4,500 price tag, while high, is not unexpected — and, of course, you must de-factor the cost of amplifier or preamp. It’s still a lot of coin, but these are not dorm-room speakers. Thank God for that: Xeo is far too good to waste on kids.
Photo by: Sound and Vision Magazine Editor
The Xeo 5 tower reviewed here (left), shown with the Xeo 3 bookshelf (right), and the Xeo transmitter and remote (center)