Orb Audio "People's Choice" Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Thursday, 03 September 2009

I was skimming through a recent audio catalog that I receive regularly and was struck by the dichotomy of some of the listed products. There were complete turntables for less than $400, and even at the price touted to re-create music in a way that digital never can. On the digital side, there were CD players also under $400 that drew admiration from certain reviewers as absolute steals, with performance that belied the price tag. For contrast, I noticed some cables that cost upward of $9,000 and wondered who was buying them. I'm guessing that most folks – even those with income to drop nearly 10 large on a set of cables – are bargain hunters. We want value, and aren't afraid to pay for it, as long as the performance backs up the cost. One of the best ways to buy high-end audio and home theater gear is to purchase directly from the manufacturer. I love this option, as it typically sidesteps the mark-ups associated with distributors.

Orb Audio (www.orbaudio.com) has embraced this business model and made a mission of offering great-sounding home theater speakers directly to consumers. Orb's motto is, “Small speakers for smart people,” and after auditioning its People's Choice Home Theater Speaker System I can confirm these speakers are indeed smart choices. The company backs its products with a 30-day in-home trial. If you don't like what you hear, send the speakers back for a refund. I doubt, though, that Orb fields many such returns.

At the heart of all the Orb systems is the round satellite Orb speaker. This compact (4-inch) sphere can be used alone (Mod 1), in tandem (Mod 2) or quadrupled (Mod 4) to accommodate small, medium or large listening rooms. This modularity is one of the Orb's greatest strengths, and the little speakers take up little more space than a handful of baseballs. The People's Choice system comes bundled with three Mod 2 double Orbs (for front and center channels), two single Mod 1 Orbs for rear channels and the SUPER EIGHT 200 watt subwoofer. The direct price is $1,098 and covers the bases for 5.1 systems. To order additional Orbs for 6.1 or 7.1 systems, a drop-down menu on the People's Choice page makes it a cinch to tailor to your preferences.

I was a bit surprised that the system didn't include a subwoofer cable or speaker wire – both available options from the Orb Web site – so be sure to have these on hand or order along with the system. The People's Choice system is rated at more than 115 watts, and should be compatible with nearly all AV receivers.

SpeakerFirst Impressions

The Orbs may be tiny but they're of solid metal construction – no flimsy plastic here – and come dressed in either metallic black or pearl white. If you fancy a more refined look, three other but more expensive options exist: hand-polished steel, hand-antiqued copper or hand-antiqued bronze. Going with such a finish tacks on $240 to the bill. I was sent additional samples of each Orb in these finishes and can attest to the beauty of the higher-priced finishes. It's nice to have such options, particularly since most home theater systems occupy living rooms where clunky looking speakers can easily detract from a room's overall décor.

I also like the design – the Orbs look like orbs. They would be right at home in a Robert Heinlein novel, with their satellite appearance. Upon seeing them for the first time, my wife asked, “What are those space-alien-looking things?” When I played some music for her, those space-aliens brought a smile. “Wow, those sound great,” she said. “What are they again?”

Set Up

Hooking up the Orbs to a home theater receiver is straightforward. I used the three Mod 2s for front and center channels and the two Mod 1s for rear channels. I'm still using my Yamaha HTR-5850, a receiver I've had for more than five years. The 5850 is a 6.1 channel receiver, so I needed to borrow an extra Orb to employ the back channel.

The Mod 1s and 2s both feature gold-plated binding posts, but the posts aren't the easiest to work with. First, they are small and a bit awkward to work with. If you have large fingers, you'll likely struggle to depress the posts to access the openings for speaker wires. Once depressed, they must be held in place while the wire terminal is inserted. Again, a bit tricky and a job better suited for two people, with one holding the post down and other inserting the wire. It would be much easier to have some type of insert on the back of the binding instead of the side, particularly with the Mod 2s, where it's possible to knock the internal wiring out of place if you push the speaker wire too far into the post. But that's my only quibble.

I placed two Mod 2s atop my respective floor-standing speakers, the center channel Mod 2 atop my TV, the two rear channel Mod 1s approximately 10 feet away (per side) branched in a right triangle from the center speakers, and the back speaker about 5 feet directly behind my couch, in a line parallel with the TV. I'm fortunate to have a fairly regular-shaped rectangular home theater room, but the Orbs can be easily moved for any situation.

The Sound

After programming the speaker set-up and running test tones, I was ready for action. Clean and detailed are two words that kept coming to mind as I played dozens of discs through the People's Choice system. And that detail and sparkle wasn't just from the Orbs but from the subwoofer, too. If you're used to flabby or loose bass you'll be pleasantly surprised – if not totally astonished - at the tautness and rhythmic drive of the SUPER EIGHT. This 12-inch cube contains a 200-watt BASH hybrid amplifier rated to peak at more than 400 watts, an 8-inch long throw woofer and a high-power magnet. It's an excellent mix of sass and subtle that simply delivers the goods. There's real synergy in this pairing, where the Orbs and subwoofer complement rather than clash with each other. I never felt like the sub was trying to push to the front of the stage at the expense of its smaller siblings.

orbcloseupI know home theater fans will use the system primarily to enjoy DVDs, and there's a lot to enjoy playing movies and concert films through the Orbs. But first I had to had put the Orbs through a few musical paces, grabbing a stack of SACDs and DVDs to audition.

Pink Floyd's classic Dark Side Of The Moon received a remarkable surround mix for its 30th Anniversary re-release on hybrid SACD in 2003. The detail and depth are stunning, even after listening to the disc dozens of times I'm always hearing something new with each play. And this recording came alive through the People's Choice system. The heartbeat at the album's beginning on “Speak To Me” was almost scary, sounding as if coming through my living room floor in some progressive-rock incarnation of Edgar Allen Poe's “Tell-Tale Heart.”

As well, Jeff Beck's instrumental tour de force Blow By Blow remains one of the definitive guitar records ever. Beck blows through rock, funk, fusion and jazz in his singular way. The SACD surround mix of tunes such as “Cause We've Ended As Lovers” and “Diamond Dust” capture many nuances that unfolded through the Orbs. I was constantly taken by how full the little Orbs sound and how I could be happy with that sound in place of a typical bookshelf cabinet speaker, or even a floor-stander. The dispersion, as well, was very impressive, carrying into my adjacent dining room and kitchen with enough oomph to make for enjoyable listening even so far off-plane. Give the Orbs some break-in time and they get even better.

Another favorite concert film is Nektar's Pure Live In Germany 2005, a double-DVD set where the progressive rock legends revisit 35 years of music. The 5.1 Dolby surround mix is very detailed, whether guitarist Roye Albrighton is picking a delicate arpeggio or the band is bringing the epic “A Tab In The Ocean” to its thrilling conclusion. Again, the Orbs fleshed out details with ease and made sense of each musician's place in the mix.

Iron Maiden's Live After Death DVD captures the metal legends on tour in 1984-85 in support of their Powerslave album. The band put on performances for the ages and the cameras and tape were on to preserve it all. The 5.1 Dolby mix is very good, and the Orbs provided such separation that I could watch guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith play their individual parts and follow each in its respective channel. It was like taking a visual guitar lesson. And the Orbs did a likewise amazing job  bringing to life the drum and cymbal sounds from Nicko McBrain's monster kit. The drums sounded like drums being played at a live show. Very impressive.

subWhere the sound truly shone was on DTS-formatted discs. Unfailingly, they had a presence and scope that most of my 5.1 Dolby mixes couldn't match. The Black Crowes' Freak N Roll Into The Fog features a 2005 concert recorded at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. This intimate affair bursts with energy, and the 5.1 DTS mix powerfully reproduces what was a great-sounding show. Whether it's the horns on “(Only) Halfway To Everywhere” or the stirring gospel-like backing vocals to “Remedy,” the Crowes took gorgeous flight through the Orbs.

2008's The Soloist features a soundtrack dominated by Beethoven, and the scenes of Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers conjuring the maestro's music via cello have a lovely warmth and richness. That tone is carried further by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when the orchestra tackles one of the composer's symphonies. The Orbs brought out the sweep and majesty of these great works, bringing the listener into the concert hall.

For big and bold, there are few films and soundtracks that match the Lord Of The Rings trilogy carried out by Peter Jackson with Howard Shore's evocative scores. Because there is so much action and drama, punctuated by sound, the individual movies can be almost overwhelming; after three hours or more a listener can be excused for wanting to turn down the sound. That's where another of the Orb's strengths were revealed: This setup of 4-inch rounders and sub were never shrill or fatiguing, just well-rounded performers that impressed me more and more over time. Watching and listening to The Return Of The King via the 6.1 DTS mix through the Orbs was nothing short of amazing. Epic battles, horses charging, fires being lit, horns sounding, Nazgul shrieking – the dynamic and emotional range of every scene was reproduced as closely to being in an actual movie theater as I could want. That the Orbs could wring such sound from a sextet of 4-inch satellites and a sub is a remarkable achievement. Just pass the popcorn please!

Near deadline, I received a Blu-ray disc player and hoped to incorporate my experience with this format married to the Orbs, but alas, my player hiccuped out of the box and had to be returned for replacement. The same People's Choice system I was fortunate to review is slated to go to a lucky AVRev.com reader. I hope he or she will get to experience what I did. These plucky little speakers are sure to capture your imagination and keep your home theater a happy and great-sounding one for many years. Orb does home theater – and music – right.

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