|Revel Ultima2 Speaker System (Salon2/Gem2/Voice2)|
|Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems|
|Written by Thomas Garcia|
|Saturday, 01 December 2007|
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Set-upFor the purposes of this review, speaker placement consisted of a diagonal layout that had worked quite well in my living room. This configuration had the Salon2s placed approximately eight feet center-to-center, with the Voice2 positioned directly between the pair. The Salon2s were approximately four feet from the side walls and the Gem2s were oriented perpendicular and slightly to the rear, approximately six feet from the main listening location. My standard configuration for this room is a 5.1 system with a subwoofer positioned in the front corner. This review of the Ultima2 system excluded the use of the subwoofer.
My first impressions with this layout were extremely favorable. To be more accurate, the Salon2s operating in stereo were quite mesmerizing. Seldom do I start to take notes during a review upon my first listening session, but this is not the case with the Salon2s. Within the first hour, I found myself scribbling notes on the back pages of the owner’s manual, short blurbs and descriptions that were bursting through my head. Though I had not started to truly optimize the system yet, it was extremely clear to me that the Salon2s might possibly be the most neutral, transparent and technically correct loudspeakers that I have ever experienced. I looked forward to incorporating the Voice2 and the Gem2s to evaluate the complete Ultima2 system’s performance.
Revel recommends experimenting with the various speaker controls to optimize their performance for each environment. In my living room, which is relatively neutral between reflective and absorptive surfaces, the default positions proved to be the best choice after experimenting with the other setting options. As indicated in the manual, you can experiment with the tweeter control and low-frequency compensation switches to find out what setting works best in your listening area.
Music And Movies
As mentioned earlier, when I first started listening to the Salon2s, I was inspired to take notes and scribe descriptors that would adequately express my experience with the Ultima2 system. But it didn't take long before I got out of critical evaluation mode and drifted off into listening bliss. In a stereo configuration, the Salon2s provided an uncanny window into every genre of music I played. Absolutely coherent, the Salon2s responded more like a full-range point source transducer and then a multi-driver device. What I mean by this is that whether I was sitting down or moving around, the integration of the speakers’ drivers was seamless. Lifelike in scale, the speakers were able to reproduce the minutest nuance in each recording, providing me with a new reference of how I was connecting to music emotionally. Accuracy became my best descriptor during my listening experience. The Revels’ neutrality allowed me to more closely evaluate various recordings in their naked truth, without the additive or subtractive colorations of the reproduction transducers. Though I listened to many reference quality recordings during this evaluation, I did not find myself seeking material that would make the system sound its best. The Ultima2 system was able to coax the best out of everything I threw at it, revealing the source for what it was and extracting all that it had to offer.
When playing through a variety of New Age, rock, contemporary and classical recordings, I stumbled across the classic Stevie Wonder album Innervisions (Motown). I cued up "Living for the City" and, from the opening warbling synthesized keyboard to Stevie's introduction, the Salon2s immediately compelled me into a slow body groove. Though this cut is not of audiophile pedigree, it still displayed a huge amount of musical layering. The Salon2s faithfully reproduced the throbbing bass line with an uncanny purity, making it easy to follow all of the interplay that Wonder infused into this track. Most revealing was the articulation of the inner-city interlude, with bustling street sounds, urban living noises and random vocal cues emanating throughout the sound field. The grit and growl of Stevie's voice as the song progressed was realistically reproduced, with the appropriate weight and resonance intended to convey his emotion connected to the lyrics.
As a recent gift, I received the soundtrack from an unseen movie, A Lot Like Love (Sony), and found a couple tunes that I enjoyed. One of the tracks, “Hands of Time” by Groove Armada, is a simple chill tune featuring Richie Havens on vocals. Through the Salon2s, Havens’ voice sounded rich and resonant, completely void of any chestiness, and the accompanying drum and synthesizer were well-defined and articulate. The Revels captured the rather minimalist yet totally soulful intent of this tune.
Encapsulated by a melancholy piano, the sweet airy melody of Anna Nalick blossomed in the next test track “Breathe (2 AM).” Accompanied by rhythmic guitar, the song started off with minimal instrumentation. Piano, vocal and guitar were distinctly presented within their own acoustical space and the Salon2s amiably and accurately portrayed this intimate interpretation. The track continued on, adding a supporting baseline and soothing string section, all leading to the cut’s crescendo. Again, the Salon2s showed amazing dexterity as the track turned more complex, exhibiting its wide dynamic playback abilities.
Assessing the multi-channel audio playback capabilities of the Ultima2 system, I employed the DVD-Audio version of Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch). This distinctive blend of Cuban/Latin music features a unique compilation of vocal and instrumental works, and the multi-channel recording remained pure to the performance, avoiding excessive use of the surrounds for other than ambient purposes. With an eclectic mix of slow and fast songs, the album offered an interesting beat and rhythm, infusing a variety of guitars, congas, bongos and piano, painting a picture of Havana back in the day. “Chan Chan” offered all of the above with a little infusion from Ry Cooder on steel guitar. Through the Ultima2s, the song blossomed, commencing with a slow, rhythmic blend of guitar and percussion, adding wonderfully harmonized vocals. Toward the end of the track, a hauntingly beautiful horn solo floated out of the background, possessing richness while maintaining the appropriate bite of a brass instrument. The complex bass line was well delineated by the Ultima2s, allowing me to pick out any instrument, whether percussion or string bass, and follow its individual contribution to the song. Through the Revels, this tune was extremely vivid, crisp and lifelike, making my hair stand on end. This multi-channel DVD-Audio left me completely immersed, and the accuracy in which the Ultima2s captured the intricate instrumentals and heartfelt vocals was simply stunning.
There are but a few albums that I enjoy from beginning to end, the SACD of Roxy Music's Avalon (Virgin) being one of them. Listening to the multi-channel version of this classic melted me into my chair. The diminishing distortion levels of the Ultima2 multi-channel system deciphered so much inner detail and revealed the complex intertwining of this album’s cerebral musical mix. From the hauntingly distant guitar intro of "Take a Chance With Me," to the sublime first track, “More Than This,” the Revels delivered on both an intellectual and emotional level. Technically, the Ultima2s did a fantastic job of creating a seamless surround environment, and when they were properly calibrated, I was unable to detect any timbre or amplitude variations from any of the Revel speakers. High-frequency extension was precise and pristine, which I attribute to the performance of the stellar beryllium tweeter and Revel's extensive efforts to optimize its performance in each enclosure. Midrange purity has always been one of Revel's strong points, and the Ultima2s raise the bar even higher. Bryan Ferry’s vocals, as well as the distant female singing towards the end of “Avalon,” showcased the cohesiveness of this complete system. Detaching myself from the analytical assessments, this recording immersed me into a sonic garden, with each song romancing my soul while lulling me into a blissful space.
One of the greatest advantages to come out of multi-channel systems is the ability to experience live concert recordings. The Who And Special Guests – Live at the Royal Albert Hall (Image Entertainment) was a good test for the Revel Ultima2 system. The Who’s concerts are renowned for their excessive volume, yet this DVD recording was clean, punchy and extremely dynamic and begged to be played loud. The Revels were more than obliged to play at levels that might have even Pete Townshend running for cover. The overall sound quality throughout the DVD was admirable for a rock concert, providing good spatial separation between instruments and vocals. The Ultima2s’ low distortion and high dynamic contrast brought this concert to a higher resolution at intense volume than I've ever experienced before. Throughout the concert, the Revel system fleshed out Townshend’s guitar and John Entwistle’s bass work, staying extremely transparent and providing unparalleled inter-instrumental dexterity. Entwistle's bass solo on “5:15," complete with a "bass cam," was surreal, flooding my room with clean, tight, articulate low-frequency reproduction.
The blockbuster war epic Black Hawk Down (Sony Home Entertainment) may possess one of the most consistently layered and engaging soundtracks for assessing the ultimate resolution and dynamic capabilities of a multi-channel sound system. The mix is highly aggressive, at certain times engaging all the system’s speakers at peak levels, easily driving many systems into compression. Not so with the Revel Ultima2s. As the volume was increased, the lack of compression and low distortion made each scene seem more frightening and overwhelming than I've ever experienced with this film. In various scenes where soldiers are running double-time, details such as the rustling of their uniforms and the clanking of their armaments were presented so clearly that it made you fear for their lives. This movie possesses a great deal of complex low-frequency information, such as the pulsating Black Hawk helicopter blades just before the chopper is shot down, and the Ultima2 system reproduced it effortlessly.
Dialogue continually transitioned across the entire front soundstage, and the integration between the Salon2 and the Voice2 was utterly seamless. Throughout this review, I was awestruck by the lack of localization across the front three channels. Image height and focus remained identical, regardless whether the content was in the left, center or right channel. Discrete sound effects were occurring constantly, amazingly lifelike, with seamless and transparent imaging.
The effort that Revel spent timbre-matching all of the system's loudspeakers was clearly evident throughout this DVD. With dialogue and special effects directed to every speaker, the overall balance and expansiveness of the Ultima2 system dissolved my listening room walls, and planted me squarely in the combat zone. Additionally, it was easy to assess the sonic merits of the musical score as it floated cleanly above the ambient background sounds and ferocious battle scenes.
Coming from a completely different angle, Rushmore - Criterion Collection (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) is a good example of a non-blockbuster soundtrack that stimulates the intellect in a completely different way. Though more dialogue-driven than Black Hawk Down, Rushmore was infused with a tasteful surround sound mix that drew the viewer into the atmosphere at each scene. As with many movies, the supporting musical score contributed immensely to the emotion of the movie. The Ultima2 system presented a soundstage that appeared broad at the appropriate times and was quite immersing when the soundtrack dictated. Filled with a broad range of British Invasion tunes from the ‘60s, the Ultima2 system had the film's dialogue focused up front, yet bloomed through all channels during musical performances such as Cat Stevens' upbeat “Here Comes My Baby.” Notable also was Mark Mothersbaugh's score, sprinkled with a wide array of musical tidbits and extensive use of chimes, strings and eclectic synthesized riffs. The Revels nailed the soundtrack to the movie, adding to a very entertaining experience.