"Good value — with that seductive ribbon tone"
by Tom Jung
When it comes to audio components, more people are interested in good value these days, and the Episode line of speakers squarely addresses this “bang for the buck” issue. What really caught my eye was this new speaker system that features a 4-inch ribbon driver, which I have always been a big fan. I don’t know why more designers do not use ribbon tweeters, as they simply don’t have the peaky resonance’s found in conventional dome tweeters. I am sure cost is a factor, but in most cases more is spent on cosmetics than components.
Ever since I reviewed the SLS Ribbon Monitor speakers in 2000 for Pro Audio Review, I have been very passionate about the benefits of ribbon drivers with their smooth, linear upper midrange, low distortion and extended high frequencies. Another big advantage of ribbon drivers is their efficiency — along with very linear impedance curves. It seems like every time I review a non-ribbon based speaker system I can’t wait to get back to my ribbon-reference speakers.
Based in Charlotte, N.C. and marketed by SnapAV. the Episode speaker line has been in business since 2005. Episode sent me its flagship system: three HT650-LCR front speakers (ribbon tweeter), two HT525-SURR surround speakers (ribbon tweeter), and a pair of C5 SUB-12 subwoofers.
Episode speakers are designed in the U.S. and manufactured in China. They are sold through custom installers. The MSRP pricing is $799 each for the HT650-LCR and HT525-SURR, and $599 each for the C5-SUB12. For this price range, Episode is a great home theater value and a lot of audio bang for the buck. Designed primarily for the home theater market, I also found the HT650-LCR speakers also were good with music — exhibiting wide dynamic range and extended frequency response.
The HT650-LCR is a two-way system using a pair of 6-inch, carbon fiber woofers with a second-order crossover set at 2.5 kHz. The nominal impedance is 8 ohms with a sensitivity of 95 dB, 1 watt at 1 meter. I would have liked to see the crossover placed a bit lower; ribbon drivers are more linear and better suited to deal with the critical upper midrange, while power handling at lower frequencies should not be a problem with a ribbon this size. Another advantage of a ribbon driver is the wide horizontal and narrow vertical dispersion angles. These characteristics minimize floor/ceiling reflections while offering a wide, listening sweet spot.
The HT650-LCR is front ported and can be positioned either vertical or horizontal by exchanging the location of the front-mounted port tube with the ribbon. Overall system dimensions are 12-inches wide X 18-inches tall X 12-inches deep; they can be flush-mounted in a wall. Once set up, the system can be tweaked with Screen EQ and Boundary Compensation switches located on the front of the speaker. The Screen EQ boosts the frequencies above 3 kHz by 3 dB to help compensate for a heavily damped room or a speaker location behind a perforated film screen. The Boundary Compensation reduces LF output below 80 Hz to help decrease room-boom should that be a problem.
The HT525-SURR is a two-way system containing a pair of 5-inch carbon fiber woofers, flanked by two 2-inch ribbon drivers mounted on outward facing angles. Once again, system impedance is 8 Ohms; sensitivity is still 95 dB. A front-panel switch offers a choice of Bi-pole or Di-pole surround settings. Bi-pole is typically used for music — while Di-pole creates a less-focused, more room-filling, ambient sound field.
The HT525-SURR rear panel has a sturdy, metal keyhole slot for wall mounting which is very doable, considering the overall depth of the speaker is only seven inches with a total weight of 17 pounds.
Episode’s top-of-the-line subwoofer is the C5-SUB12, which is a front-firing 12-inch driver unit, powered by a cool-running 300-watt BASH amplifier. Audio-Sense and Trigger and Always-On modes enable operation. Stereo and LFE line level inputs are provided on RCA connectors as well as high-level inputs on 5-way binding posts, which include a fixed high-pass filter at 100 Hz. The low-pass crossover is variable between 40 Hz and 120 Hz, and a 0-degree or 180-degree phase switch also is provided. Overall sub level is controlled by a large front-mounded control, which is a nice feature. With a box size of 20-inches high X 14-inches wide X 19-inches deep (total weight 50 pounds), the C5 has no problem with solid bass down to 30 Hz.
I set up a pair of the HT650-LCRs on 22-inch tall speaker stands and listened to stereo music using the new Bel Canto S500 Dual-Mono power amplifier (a full review of this great new amp is forthcoming). To my surprise, I heard almost another octave of bass that I was not expecting. Episode specs the frequency response from 70 Hz to 20 kHz and in my room the HT650-LCRs are still going strong at 40 Hz, which makes them totally acceptable for music without a subwoofer. The bass is solid, well defined with good dynamic punch.
A slight rise in response centered around 1200 Hz does noticeably color the mid-range. I suspect this anomaly is caused by the lack of dampening material inside the cabinet, as the speaker box does tend to sing a bit due to its light weight construction. You notice the aberration more with music. Once the ribbon kicks in (about 2.5 kHz), all is well; upper-mids and highs are smooth and resonant free without any harshness or vocal sibilance. With efficiency at 95 dB, a hundred watt-per-channel receiver can put out some serious SPL.
In the surround set up, I added the Center HT650-LCR in the horizontal mode switching the ribbon tweeter and the port tube locations; this took all of 5 minutes. The two HT525-SURR surround speaker were each placed on stands approximately 135 degrees from center The horizontal dispersion is very wide due to the vertical positioning of the woofers and dual outward-facing ribbons. The design makes for a nice full surround coverage. In the Di-pole mode, an out-of-phase characteristic makes the speaker start to lose its “location,” which is a bit much for my taste. The stated-frequency response for the surround is 70 Hz to 20 kHz, but this time they mean it. Not much going on below 70 Hz, which is just fine for surrounds.
I placed the two C5-Subwoofers inside the left and right front speakers one on either side of the center speaker making up a real wall of sound. I’m a big fan of multiple subwoofers, as my normal set up uses two up front and one in the rear.
Using a 1080P Epson LCD front projector to beam its image onto a 10-foot screen, the Episode speaker system delivered a well-balanced, open sound field that complemented the large screen. The twin subs provided a solid bottom end while the ribbon tweeters were smooth and transparent, making for a complete full spectrum of sound — be it music, dialog or effects.
The Episode speaker system delivers a large sound field with that smooth, extended ribbon driver sound. The non-linearity in the midrange, due to cabinet coloration in the front speakers, is definitely noticeable — especially when compared to my reference SLS ribbon driver system. But the SLS system costs thousands of dollars more than the Episodes.
For the money, the Episodes are quite good. Think of the Episodes as a good entry point into the ribbon-driver world at a very competitive price. For more info, visit www.episodespeakers.com.
A professional audio engineer for almost 50 years (Sound 80, DMP Records), Tom Jung reviews home theater, audiophile and high-end recording gear for the Everything Audio Network, testing products from his home studio in North Carolina. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org