McGary Audio

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Home Cinema Review!
Episode ES-HT900-LCR-6
Two-Way Planar Ribbon Speaker

Price: $799 each
Likes: Audiophile-quality sound
Dislikes: Quirky left-channel orientation
More info: Episode ES-HT900-LCR-6

by John Gatski

Everything Audio has reviewed several Snap-AV-manufactured Episode speakers in the two years. With each model, we have been impressed with the accuracy and build quality. And it does not hurt that these speakers are priced well below their competitors.
So it comes as no surprise that the ES-HT900-LCR-6 speaker, priced at $799 each through designated installers, reviewed here re-affirms our positive opinion of the Episode speaker line. In fact, this is my favorite Episode speaker.

The Episode HT900-LCR-6 features a 4.5-inch planar ribbon and two 6.5-inch woofers, housed in a compact, front-ported enclosure that is designed for cabinet, behind-a-screen or stand mounting. Factory frequency response is listed at 47 Hz to 20 kHz, plus or minus 6 dB. Crossover frequency is 2.6 kHz. Rated sensitivity is 90 dB, 1-watt/1 meter.
The HT900 has two front-mounted, passive tone contour switches: Screen EQ and Boundary Compensation. The Screen EQ is designed to boost frequencies above 3 kHz to compensate for high-frequency roll-off when placing the speaker behind a movie screen or other acoustically absorbent material. The engaged Boundary Compensation circuit rolls off bass frequencies below 80 Hz to allow for placement closer to side or rear walls without unbalancing the bass.
As with other Episode speakers I have tested, the HT900’s MDF cabinet is well-braced and does not add any unwanted flavor to the sound. Dimensions are 18.3-inches tall, 12.3 inches wide and 13 inches deep. Weight is 36 pounds each.
The HT900 can be oriented in a vertical or horizontal configuration. The speakers come with drivers placed for vertical placement — with the ribbon oriented vertically toward the edge of the cabinet, and the slotted bass port between the two woofers. The horizontal option places the ribbon between the two woofers and the port is moved to the bottom. The driver and port switching is accomplished through removal of the drivers and switching them out to their respective locations. The tone control can be rotated to where the legend is correct for the horizontal placement as well.
It should be noted that the vertically-placed speaker option requires some reconfiguration for the speakers to be matched. As shipped every speaker is set up for right channel use; the tweeter is on the outside right of the cabinet and the tone contour control panel is located at the top right.
To use the speaker as a left channel, however, it must be turned upside down to get the tweeter on the outside left of the cabinet — in order to provide optimum matching with the right speaker. This puts the tone control panel on the bottom and upside down. A slight visual mismatch if you don’t use the grills.
To correct part of this visual non-symmetry, you can unscrew the tone control panel and rotate it so that legend is right side up. However, the control is still located at the bottom left versus the right channel’s top right position. Episode says the speakers is commonly used in a custom cabinet or acoustically transparent screen where the speaker is hidden. That may be true, but there are those who like these speakers for stand use. Those folks, like me, can use the grills to correct that visual asymetry.

For $799 each, the Episode ES-HT900-LCR-6 is an outstanding speaker for home cinema surround or stereo listening. The classic ribbon sound offers a smooth, yet ample top-end with a tight, just enough bass to make high-quality music listening complete.

On the rear panel, the HT-900 is equipped with five-way binding posts to allow for easy connection to various cable styles; I hooked up banana plug home cinema and audiophile spade cables.
The speaker is designed for L-C-R in a surround setup for those who want the Episode sound mounted on stands. Or you can use them for music, which I did with great success. Episode also sells a version that mounts in-wall for permanent home cinema installations.
As noted in previous reviews, Snap-AV only sells products through designated installers, so potential buyers must locate an installer/dealer who handles the speakers. Anyone can peruse the web site to look at Episode speakers (or any other products), but prices are only available through the installers.
The speakers are designed in the US, and manufactured in China. Hence the great pricing. Quality is first rate. Even the shipping cartons are done right.

The setup
I tested the HT900 speakers in my home cinema room and in my audiophile room. Since they are stand speakers and not too large, the speakers are fairly versatile in their placement.
First up was the home cinema rig. I placed two of the speakers on Apollo speaker stands next to my Sony XBR LCD, and the third was placed on my center channel stand just behind the TV. I oriented the ribbon driver so the center speaker could be placed horizontal. Being that ribbons can be beamy in their vertical coverage, I added some wedge under the center speaker so it would have more direct radiation to the listening position. I added a little bit of tow-in on the L and R speakers as well.
I drove the speakers with my USA-made Carver amps, linked by banana-plug terminated MIT cables. Sources included Oppo BDP-95 universal player, and Sony BDP-550 BD player; my AudioControl Maestro 3 handled the preamp/processor duties. All components were plugged into Essential Sound Products Essence Reference power strip.
Since the speakers were brand spanking new, I let them run a few days at moderate levels with general cable audio to break them in. After the break-in period, I operated the speakers full range in their 5.1 configuration to rate their low bass capability, though the sub-60 hertz bass was routed to a Paradigm Pro 15 subwoofer for LFE duty.

The audition
As normal for my home cinema evaluations, I sampled the Blu-ray cartoon feature, Bolt. This movie’s first ten minutes has a busy, yet dynamic soundtrack that features numerous effects, panning, solid dialogue and aggressive music.
The Episodes impressively rendered this soundtrack with accurate transients, nice tight bass and excellent vocal performance from the dialogue. And it did all this with that classic ribbon smoothness. As long as I sat in the listener position, the tweeters dispersion was very good, even slightly off axis, it still held up. When I stood up, I could hear a reduction in level as my head moved from the ribbon’s sweet spot, but the listening position was no problem.

The Episodes impressively rendered this soundtrack with accurate transients, nice tight bass and excellent vocal performance from the dialogue. And it did all this with that classic ribbon smoothness.

The HT900s matched pretty well with my NHT One surrounds, which have soft dome tweeters. I find that soft dome surround channel speakers match well with different designs used in the front (ribbons, metal dome, etc.).
Next up was the Who - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 Blu-ray. This 24/96 kHz DTS Master HD surround soundtrack of the Who in their prime was outstanding through the HT-900s. The bass was tight and forceful, Pete Townsend’s Gibson SG and Hi-Watts amps oozed from the speakers without any exaggeration or extra harshness, and Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming translated to accurate cymbals and killer kick drums sonics. I was amazed at how good these speakers handled the hi-res rock and roll.
Ten Blu-rays later and I was convinced that the Episodes could handle any soundtrack. Dialogue-heavy dramas, hyper action sequences or the music: it all sounded good. Also, it should be noted that the ribbon’s smoothness quotient makes droning, hyper-treble enhanced music soundtracks less fatiguing.
Although Episode directs this speaker toward the home cinema, I could not resist trying it out in my audiophile room. After all, the BD soundtrack music sounded pretty darn good. So I connected it to my Pass Labs X350.5 (an $11,000 amp), a Pass Labs XP10 preamp, and sampled numerous high-res PCM and SACD music. And wow! Do this speakers sound good.
Listening to the Grant Green - Green Street SACD was impressive through the Episodes. As a big fan of straight ahead jazz guitar, the HT900s sucked me right in — with the smooth mellow guitar sound of the 1960s (tube amps and Gibson arch tops). Those ribbons really nailed the mellow guitar tone, while also presenting the drum cymbals in their airy accuracy. Excellent stereo separation.
I really liked the bass performance of the speaker. It’s not that they go really deep — about 48 Hz on stands in the middle of my room — but it is a tight, quick bass with nary any mid-bass rise. Give me tight and accurate any day.
Now since this is a ribbon, there is some vertical dispersion loss as you get above the sweet spot. If you stay planted, however, with the tweeter at ear height, the reward is a realistic sonic portrait that does not get muddied up by upper-end reflections — especially in rooms with hard surfaces.

The verdict
For $799 each, the Episode ES-HT900-LCR-6 is an outstanding speaker for home cinema surround or stereo listening. The classic ribbon sound offers a smooth, yet ample top-end with a tight, just enough bass to make high-quality music listening complete. The folks at Episodes have perfected the art of making a quality, mass-produced speaker that sounds terrific at a reasonable price. I heartily recommend the speaker for an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award, and plan on buying a couple for reference listening comparisons.

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