Av123.com. Heard of them? Probably not. That’s okay – not many have. They are one of a seemingly rare breed: A manufacturer of mid-to-high-end speakers who sells their stuff exclusively on the internet. If you’ve not heard of AV123.com, you may soon be a minority. They have a huge following amongst audiophiles and audio enthusiasts alike (check out their forum and see for yourself). They also sell amplifiers, turntables, cables, and other esoteric components that get audiophiles salivating.
Founded and managed by Mark Schifter in 2000, Av123.com’s promise is, “above all else, to provide the customer with 3 distinct advantages; service exceeding your highest expectations, products unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before, and value beyond all else”. That’s a pretty tall order to deliver on. But visiting the community section of their site you can hear from hundreds of customers who are raving about AV123’s products. AV123 carries a broad range of home audio and home theater speakers. In fact you might become a little daunted as a newcomer to their site. But don’t worry – you can pick up the phone and give them a call. They’ve got a great group of technically savvy audio gurus who can walk you through their various offerings.
Today we are taking a look at the company’s Strata Mini Loudspeaker which use a combination of planar magnetic drivers, cone drivers as well as an integrated 8-inch subwoofer. Priced at $1995.00 USD per pair, only 50 of these speakers are being made each month.
Features and Design
The Strata Mini’s are big. If you’re into those little cube speakers, then stop reading right now and go visit your local Bose outlet, because the Strata Mini’s aren’t small. Believe it or not this is actually one of their mid-sized offerings. They have plenty of bigger speakers, and plenty of smaller ones too.
The speakers are finished in a pretty “South American Rosewood” with a satin sheen, and capped, at the top, with a glossy black “crown”. The rear portion of the speaker that houses the subwoofer and amplifier is finished in a satin black, smooth vinyl material. The variation between finishes and colors seemed a little distracting to our eyes. We could have gone with one less color/finish component.
The speaker cabinet has a slight tilt-back that phase-aligns the bass, mid, and tweeter drivers. It’s debatable how much of a difference this makes in a casual living room listening environment. But this is a feature typically only found on extremely pricey speakers so we’re not complaining. The driver array is also unique for this price point. A planar magnetic tweeter and midrange are in place to provide an airy, crisp, detailed tone that is extremely articulate at any volume level. Planar magnetic speakers are known for their high frequency output (higher than standard tweeters). But they lack low end response. So accompanying the array is a 5.25” mid-bass driver that handles the lower mid bass spectrum before the powered 8” sub takes over. The sub is powered by a built-in class A/B amp with 350 watts of power. It comes with the typical adjustment controls: Variable crossover, gain, and phase. The Strata’s stated frequency response is 27Hz to 35KHz.
Setup and Use
Setup with these speakers is a bit more complicated than most because of the built-in active sub and the way AV123 designed it. On most powered tower speaker offerings, the speaker inputs are internally bridged over to the sub amp. But on the Strata’s, that’s not the case. The sub’s amp is not directly connected to the main high level inputs on the speaker. AV123 says this gives you more freedom in that it gives you the ability to wire up your powered sub direct to your receiver or main amp, which may be preferred by some audiophiles. For those that just want the thing to work, there’s a set of “jumper cables” included with the speakers to make the connection between the main speaker input and the sub amp inputs. But figuring out how to properly connect the jumper cables was a bear. So we referred to the owner’s manual for help. Unfortunately the manual, filled with jargon and poor diagrams, didn’t clear things up for us. We’d recommend instead jumping online to the AV123 site to get the nitty gritty on setup from other folks in their online forum, or just calling up an AV123 support representative.
Besides the poor manual, another oversight (in our opinion) is that there’s no auto on/off sensor on the sub amp. So when the sub amp is turned on, it stays on, even when you’re not listening to anything. A negative point for energy conscious consumers, but not a big enough “turn off” for us considering the way these speakers sound.
The speakers were set up in a listening room that was about 10 x 15 with a 9 foot ceiling. They were powered with an Onkyo TX-SR797 receiver. Source material was played through both a Toshiba HD-A2 DVD player and Apple TV (connected to iTunes). Cobalt’s Ultimate Speaker cables were used.
For starters we wanted to hear the planar magnetic array in action, so we took a listen to Patricia Barber’s CD, Nightclub. The first track, Bye Bye Blackbird, has a dark tone with lots of space between the drums, bass, and piano. When Patricia enters with voice, we could clearly hear the off-kilter nuances she was using to create a ghostly, enchanting effect. Marc Johnson’s acoustic bass playing really popped out as well, with plenty of low, droning, tones. We could hear all the nuances of his hand on the strings. Patricia’s voice had just a bit of a dark veil over it – something in the low-midrange. It sounded pretty, but slightly artificial. We heard the same thing in the piano too. This tonal choice AV123 made warms things up nicely. But on certain notes adds a bit of shadowing.
Pleased with the vocal tones we were hearing so far, we pulled out Erykah Badu’s recording, Mama’s Gun. We also wanted to hear the powered subs in action. The track was Penitentiary Philosophy. Here there are both lead and background vocals. We were really impressed with the depth of field and separation between voices. Badu’s voice is nicely situated in the background as Stephen Marley sings his lamenting verse. As Badu’s voice comes to the front you can hear all the little intricacies in her voice. Amazing! Then as their voices come together the speakers are right there with the recording: perfect balance while maintaining the purity of each voice’s timbre. The bass was deep and powerful, and never got in the way of the midrange.
Next we wanted to listen to some good old fashioned classical music: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performing Vaughn William’s Concerto for oboe and Strings. We noticed the depth of the cello and bass strings – rich and full, well-spoken. But again, we heard a little lift in the low-midrange frequencies. This gives the speakers a welcome richness, but on the downside, it artificially pumps the recording up, giving it a lilting, operatic tenor voice, even if you’re listening to an alto.
We wanted to listen to some more modern stuff, so we picked up Wilco’s Hotel Yankee Foxtrot. A fun recording filled with all sorts of bells and whistles, literally. The opening track, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, opens with lots of electronic whiz panning back and forth across the sound stage. Some alarm clock- like glockenspiel then ensues, giving way to acoustic guitars and electric bass. There’s an incredible transient response on the acoustic guitars. What that means is that you get a very crisp, clean attack on the initial strum of the string. You can almost hear the finger on the string before it plucks it. This is due in large part to the planar magnetic tweeter. You get a very live and airy presentation, imbued with a rich (and relatively natural) midrange. The electric bass is right on. The Strata’s sub is incredible. It doesn’t have super low-end response, so for home theater you’ll want to invest in a larger powered sub. But we were very impressed with the way the 8” sub integrated seamlessly with the rest of the speaker. It provided a pleasing and deep foundation, but never got in the way or became too overbearing.
Image Courtesy of AV123
A true test for a powered sub is acoustic bass, especially of the jazzy sort. As the bass “walks” (basically plays one note per beat in a scale-like fashion), the notes bridge the point at which the subwoofer and midrange driver meet. This is a great test because it really shows how well the bass and midrange are integrated. Hopefully, if all goes well, there’s balance, or put into measurable terms, equal volume, between the low, mid-low, and mid notes. Kenny Garrett’s Black Hope is a great album, and the tune Jackie and Bean Stock is a real burner. The acoustic bass is all over the place on this recording so we knew it would be a great test of the sub. When we played the track, we were amazed at how the bass sounded real, true, articulate AND musical. This subwoofer was performing a little bit of magic. It had plenty of depth and command, but remained elegant, almost polite. Most importantly, it was enjoyable to listen to.
The Strata Mini’s are an incredible value for the price. We felt that at just under two grand, they were practically a steal. But they’re not for everyone. You certainly want to be aware of the elaborate setup process with the integrated sub. And the speakers make quite a visual statement, both in terms of the size and the fit/finish, so make sure your partner approves before having them delivered. The sound of the Strata-Mini’s was near-perfect. The planar magnetic array provided a beautiful, richly detailed character with a hint of warmth in the low-mids. The integrated sub blended perfectly and never got in the way. Overall, the Strata mini is a great speaker and highly recommended.
• Sweet highs
• Tight bass
• Overall beautiful sound
• Premium wood finish
• Big – won’t fit in many rooms
• Hard to understand owner’s manual
• Complicated setup