Revel Ultima Studio Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Written by Bryan Southard   
Saturday, 01 January 2000

By the strained look on the face of the delivery person as he wheeled the Revel Ultima Studio’s into my room, I could tell I was clearly in for a workout setting up these speakers. After he finished chuckling at my suggestion that he lend a hand and help me unpack and position the speakers, the delivery man was off. Before me sat two boxes that I could hardly budge. The unpacking instructions indicate that two strong people should perform the task of unpacking and set-up; ideally, these are instructions that ought to be followed.

Revel is the latest addition to the Madrigal Audio Group, owned by Harman International. Revel’s mission when founded in 1996 was to redefine the state of the art in loudspeaker design. With the resources of a NYSE-financed parent company, as well as some of the most advanced loudspeaker driver, cabinet and assembly know-how from sister companies like JBL and Infinity, Revel had a head start that no other high-end loudspeaker manufacturer has ever had. Revel hired Kevin Voecks, who was the Chief Engineer at both Mirage and Snell Acoustics, to shepherd the project with Madrigal founder Sandy Berlin. The result is the biggest success story for a high-end company in the past 10 years, not to mention some killer loudspeakers at a variety of price points ranging from $2,000 to $16,995 per pair.

The Details
The Revel Studio is the smaller sibling of the flagship Revel Salons and are priced at $9,995 per pair in matte black or $10,995 per pair in a variety of high-gloss color finishes and side panel materials. Some of the finish options include traditional black with rosewood or a more modern-looking black or red with aluminum side panels.

The Studios sit 43-7/8 inches tall, are 12-3/4 inches wide, 19-3/8 inches deep, and weigh in at a hefty 165 lbs. per speaker. My review pair were high-gloss black, with rosewood sides and dark gray grills. Revel offers a variety of base colors and sidings, including wood and aluminum. The Studios have a very different look, which I would characterize somewhere between futuristic and modern elegance. Either way, their appearance commands attention. Almost every visitor to my listening room had comments, overwhelmingly favorable, on the look of the Studios. I personally think they look quite striking, however I could see how some end users with very conservative decors could possibly find the Revel design too modern for their rooms. The best antidote for this problem is matching the most appropriate wood panels or colors to your room.

The Studios constitute a three-way floor-standing speaker system that uses two eight-inch mica/carbon-filled co-polymer dome woofers, one five-and-a-quarter-inch titanium-dome midrange driver, a one-and-one-tenth-inch front firing tweeter, and a three-quarter-inch rear firing tweeter for added high frequency energy and overall room ambience. Both the front and rear firing tweeters have attenuation adjustment to compensate for room anomalies. I found the flat settings to be the best for my set-up, although my room is acoustically treated. The Studios have a measured response of 31 Hz to 20 kHz and have a sensitivity of 87 dB SPL.

Most of Revel’s drivers are designed, tested and manufactured at the Revel facility in Northridge, California with the exception of their tweeter which was co-developed by Revel with Scan-Speak in Denmark. Among Revel’s many design goals was the creation of midrange drivers that would have the best measurable off-axis response of any drivers ever designed, thus helping to minimize problematic early reflections, and to create a driver with a true piston movement in order to minimize distortion. Although they provided me data to substantiate the achievement of these goals, as always I reserved the right to make judgment with my own ears. You can judge a speaker based on its measurements, but considerably more important is how the speaker sounds and, even more important, how it sounds in your room.

Double-Blind Listening Tests
Revel created a double-blind listening test and standard manual, both to assist in the design and to evaluate is results. This 21-page standard manual included everything from the maximum allowable noise levels to the ultra-cool automated speaker mover capable of automatically moving and positioning up to nine pairs of speakers, including room treatments. I expressed my desire to own one of these systems myself, in hopes that it might help me to better evaluate speakers, until I heard the approximate price tag of $500,000.

An intriguing aspect of the double-blind listening test is that the listeners were selected from a large pool based on their actual ability to discern sonic differences. The expert panel must achieve at least 95% in a 6dB-resonance identification test, and 85% in a 3dB test. Both tests require correct identification of the center frequency of resonance peaks and dips of added resonances that are 2.5 octaves wide. Revel found that at least 20% of willing participants with normal hearing failed to hit these marks after repeated training sessions. In addition, no listeners were selected with greater than –15dB hearing loss in any audiometric frequency. These listeners were considered to have less consistent opinions. I found this information pertinent because many speaker manufacturers claim that their speakers have been selected in blind tests, often without disclosing their criteria or foundation for the tests themselves..

The Music
I spent considerable time speaking with Kevin Voecks from Revel, analyzing my room for the best possible speaker placement, which has a very dramatic impact on speaker performance. I worked extensive hours on placement, while the speakers ran around-the-clock to expedite break-in. After a fairly lengthy break-in period (200-400 hours recommended - I found 400 to be closer to the mark), I was ready to see what these speakers were all about.

I began by using one of my favorite new performers, Shawn Mullins, from his new release, The First Ten Years (Sony Music), which has several cuts that possess wonderfully pure midrange vocals and acoustic guitar. The vocals in the song "Joshua" were out of this world. They had great detail, with a very liquid feel. Midrange is tremendously important because it is responsible for a large portion of the lower harmonics of many instruments. For midrange to be good, it must possess very low distortion and be void of any coloration whatsoever if possible.

Coloration can be caused by several factors. One of the more common sources of coloration comes from the loudspeaker cabinet. As the cabinet resonates, it will introduce a specific unnatural flavor to your music, referred to as color. Because midrange sits right in the middle of our ears’ audible range, impurities are among the most obvious and annoying flaws a speaker can have. Revel used a variety of very high-tech instruments to evaluate and eliminate cabinet resonances. It appears to have paid off aurally. The cabinets of the Studios are the most solid I have had the opportunity to wrap my knuckles against. This, along with the fact that the midrange drivers were designed from scratch and manufactured in-house, is responsible for the lack of any audible midrange distortions in the Studios.

Something that provided me with an endless amount of adrenaline was the Studios’ bass extension. Simply stated, their bass rocks. There is nothing more engaging in music than solid bass and the Studios have it. No hype, they provide rock-solid bottom end. Too many loudspeakers priced at more than double the Studios’ mark leave you trying to imagine how the bass would sound on your CDs in case you had any low frequency performance. Don’t get me started on all of the weakling high-end loudspeakers I heard at CES 2000 and THE Show that didn’t rock. The Revel Studios rock on a solid foundation of coherent and tight bass.

Back to a common reference of mine, Cornell Dupree’s Uncle Funky (Kokopeli): In Dupree’s rendition of the song "Signed, Sealed and Delivered," there is an electrifying drum solo that will grab you and take for a ride. The Studios created a solid and detailed drum reproduction that is as three-dimensional as any piece that I have heard. The drum transients were detailed and incredibly real-sounding. Each evening I found myself scrounging through old rock discs, enjoying what the Studios would do for them. One evening, I jammed to Van Halen from their self-titled first album (Warner Brother), which I have to admit hasn’t seen a whole lot of airplay of late due to its less than stellar recording quality, and it sounded very good. Of course, I probably wouldn’t use it to demo my system, but it had great dynamic impact. I was transported to the year 1978, when I witnessed Van Halen’s Northern California debut, a concert that also included the likes of AC/DC, Foreigner, Pat Travers and Aerosmith, a line-up a true rock fan could definitely appreciate.

Many speakers do specific things well, but it’s a credit to any speaker that will elevate all forms of music, even those recordings that would make the average high-end manufacturer shriek.

To complete the full spectrum of source material, I wanted to share one of my folk favorites, The Weavers’ Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (Analogue Productions), a fine blend of vocals and musical instruments. In this recording, I found the Revels to have excellent tonal balance. The vocals and instrumental timbre brought absolute life into this recording, reality greater than I have yet heard in a loudspeaker.

Overall, I would characterize the sound of the Revel Studios as very detailed and very fast in regard to transient information. Although the Studios can lie back nicely, I would probably not characterize them as relaxed or passive, nor overly polite. On the other hand, by no means would I classify them as anything like obtrusive or annoyingly aggressive. Let’s agree to call these dynamic loudspeakers emotionally involving.

Options for Revel Studios include their Ultima Voice center channel speaker, which sells for $4,050-$4,800 depending on finish, and $900-$1,100 for the stands in matching wood or aluminum styles. The very high-end Embrace rear loudspeakers runs $5,000 per pair in a painted finish. Revel’s Sub 15 subwoofer is priced ranging from $3,420 to $4,500 unpowered, depending on finish. The matching Revel LE1 crossover and 680 watt amp is priced at $6,000. I have not heard the 5.1 setup for the Revels in my room, but a friend of mine has listened to them. The report is that they are very well-matched in regard to timbre and integrate very nicely into modern rooms. The woofer is pretty big and provides much deeper and louder bass that you’ll get from the main loudspeakers. Note: the Revel Sub 15 will not work with other amps and or crossover other than the Revel LE-1.

The Downside
There are very few sonic downsides to the Revel Ultima Studios. From a value standpoint, the 87 dB efficiency make it a necessity to invest in a very high-output amplifier. For obvious reasons, Madrigal recommends between a No. 334, to a No. 336 at 150 and 350 watts per channel into eight ohms respectively. My Audio Research VT100 powered the Studios, but didn’t give me the rock and roll headroom I wanted. My Sonic Frontiers Power 2 at 135 watts a side into 8 ohms drove the Studios much better than the Audio Research VT 100s. However, my 400-watt-per-channel Bryston 7B-ST provided the juice needed to exercise both the optimum bass output and midrange presence I demand.

When making a buying decision, you’ll surely be comparing the Revels to contenders like Wilson WATT Puppies, Hales T8s and perhaps Martin Logan Prodigy loudspeakers. All of these are great products, with individual attributes that make each very special. Keep in mind that while the Revel Studios are less expensive than, say, the Wilsons, they do require a serious amplifier investment of $5,000-$10,000-plus in order to get the most from your speakers. If you’ve already got the big juice – no problem. If you decide the Revels are for you as I did, you might consider a Proceed HPA 2 priced at $3,250 and 250 watts per channel into 8 ohms or an Aragon 8008 to save some bucks and make great music.

Loudspeakers are the products that best define the personality of your music and theater playback system. The irony is that you would be hard-pressed to find two loudspeakers that sound anywhere near the same, yet every manufacturer claims that their speakers are correct, accurate and void of any sonic signatures or colorations. We so often read reviews where the writer has gone to great lengths to try to describe to you what some very expensive (in many cases, unaffordable to the masses) speakers do both right and wrong in audiophile jargon. Then there is the intangible factor that is so often overlooked: the amount of enjoyment that a speaker brings to you - not individual characteristics that energize you, but the feeling that you can’t wait to get home and listen, day after day. This factor isn’t about numbers or about corporate reputation; it’s about sound. The Revel Ultima Studio loudspeakers made me want to listen to the point that they were purely addictive.

I have heard some killer speakers in my life, some priced more than my body parts cut up and sold to science. In my room, fully treated and tuned, The Revel Studios are far and away the best improvement I have ever made. I won’t insult you buy saying "I highly recommend you audition the Revel Studio’s" I’ll just let you know I bought them.
Manufacturer Revel
Model Ultima Studio Loudspeakers
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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