dARTS 535 Series Digital Theater Review
This speaker system sounds as good at home as in the lab
What is the dARTS 535 Series Digital Theater?The dARTS 535 Series Digital Theater is a 7.2-channel amplifier and speaker system from Phase Technology. dARTS or digital Audio Reference Theater System to give it its full name, is an amplifier and speaker combination where the two are calibrated and aligned in the factory, thus ensuring that the speakers themselves behave in a consistent and predictable manner.
This means that the DP4000-IA intelligent amplifier can precisely drive each speaker, which results in an optimal performance from the overall system. Every speaker driver in the system is custom tuned to match within 0.5 dB of every other one and each dARTS system can meet the THX requirement of 105 dB at any position in the room while playing normal content.
Once the dARTS system has been installed, Audyssey MultEQ room calibration is used to eliminate the specific sonic footprint of the room. The Audyssey software corrects room anomalies to achieve an ideal listening experience in any room, providing a precise acoustic performance. This can be achieved because the speakers themselves have been eliminated as a possible variable during installation and set-up.
There are two lines of dARTS speakers – the 535 Series which I'm reviewing here, and the 660 Series. The 535 Series uses a 5.25-inch woofer and is designed for rooms up to 8,000 cubic feet, while the larger 660 Series uses a 6.5-inch woofer and can handle rooms between 5,000 and 18,000 cubic feet.
The 535 Series is composed of the DP4000-IA digital amplifier, the DCB 536-L/R front left and right speakers, the DCB 535-C centre speaker, four DCB 535-SURR surround speakers, and two DCB 112-S subwoofers. The system isn't cheap, costing £24,000 as at the time of writing (July 2018) but if it's half as good as Phase Technology claim, it should be quite exceptional.
DP4000-IA AmplifierThe DP4000-IA is a programmable digital amplifier that manages the entire dARTS Theater System, delivering 16 channels of adaptive Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and amplification to the seven speakers that comprise the 535 Series.
The amplifier channels control the crossover, time alignment and EQ for the entire system, providing up to 250 watts of amplification for each driver (woofers and tweeters) in each speaker. The amplifier uses full digital control of crossover points and slopes, frequency contouring, time/phase alignment, to equalise all the drivers prior to amplification.
Audyssey MultEQ XT Pro room correction software is integrated into the DP4000-IA for precise management of each speaker, and by using parametric digital control in a bi-amp (in the case of the centre speaker) tri-amped configuration, the system can achieve previously unattainable levels of accuracy and performance.The DP4000-IA measures 432 x 432 x 143mm (WxDxH), but thanks to the use of Class D amplification it only weighs 9.5kg, which makes a nice change from the usual back-breaking AV amplifiers and receivers. The front is very simple with just an illuminated Phase Technology logo, a power button and a USB port for connecting a laptop when running Audyssey.
The amplifier has a power output of 250W into 4 Ohms and 125W into 8 Ohms. At the rear there 8 balanced XLR and 16 unbalanced RCA inputs and 16 speaker binding posts that use gold-plated screw terminals. All the inputs and binding posts are numbered, which will be important when setting up the dARTS system.
dARTS 535 Series Custom BoxThe combination of the DSP digital amplification and Audyssey room equalisation, means that the dARTS 535 Series Digital Theater can be tuned specifically to the room you put it in. The speakers cannot be used without their specific DP4000-IA amplifier because the custom calibration parameters and customised crossovers for each loudspeaker driver are loaded into the amplifier at the factory.
To accompany the amp, the speakers use an all-new design approach to their woofers and tweeters. The 535 Series uses 1" or 1.25" soft dome tweeters, combined with 5.25" woofers that are non-resonant and extremely quick, with very low energy storage. They are made of a three-layer composite woofer cone with two-layers of glass fiber surrounding an aircraft-grade honeycomb centre. The loudspeakers are crossover-less, relying on active crossovers in the amplifier.
However, thanks to an assortment of build options you can aesthetically blend the speakers into any room as well. The 535 Series Custom Box option that I reviewed is composed of custom-built dARTS Theater speakers that have painted black enclosures suitable for placement in cabinets or behind perforated projection screens. Cabinets can be built to order in the company's wood shop to match uniquely-shaped mounting locations, and the speakers are designed for “hiding” in the room without the need to cut holes in walls.
The 535 Series digital theater system is very well made and offers a choice of build options
DCB 535-L/R Front SpeakersThe 535 Series uses a pair of DCB 535-L/R for the front left and right channels. These speakers use two 5.25" woofers and a 1" tweeter. The woofers are configured next to one another with the tweeter above. The cabinet is very solid and well made and has a matte black textured finish, with a removable black cloth grille. The DCB 535-L/R measures 305 x 305 x 190mm (HxWxD), and there are gripping handles for easier installation.
At the rear are the gold-plated binding posts and there are two sets. That's because the dARTS system uses the 16-channel digital amplifier to drive the woofers and tweeters in the speakers separately. The binding posts are individually numbered and these numbers relate to the specific outputs on the DP4000-IA. There are actually four sets of 16 adhesive labels that you can use to mark the ends of each cable, thus making it easier to match the correct speaker to the correct output on the amplifier.
DCB 535-C Centre SpeakerThe DCB 535-C is the centre speaker, and also uses two 5.25" woofers and a 1" tweeter. The woofers are configured either side of the tweeter, and again the cabinet is very solid and well made. There's the same matte black textured finish, with a removable black cloth grille, the speaker measures 178 x 457 x 235mm (HxWxD), and there are also gripping handles for easier installation.
At the rear are the gold-plated binding posts, but the centre speaker has three sets rather than two because of its horizontal orientation. That means the amplifier is driving both woofers and the tweeter separately. Once again, the binding posts are individually numbered, making it easier to connect the right driver to the correct amplification.
The amplifier uses 16 x 250W digital channels to drive all the tweeters and woofers separately
DCD 535-S Surround SpeakersThe DCB 535-SURR is the surround speaker, and the dARTS 7.2 system comes with four in total – two for the side surrounds and two for the rear surrounds. These speakers use two 1" tweeters and two 5.25" woofers, in a bipole/dipole configuration. There's a small switch at the bottom left as you face the speaker, allowing you to choose between a bipole (in phase) or dipole (out of phase) set-up. There's a matte black textured finish, with a removable black cloth grille, and the speaker measures 387 x 267 x 140mm (HxWxD).
At the rear of the surround speakers there are dedicated four-pin connectors, rather than the usual binding posts. That means you need to wire the speaker cable up before attaching the connectors, but just like the DCB 535 L/R speakers, the two woofers and the two tweeters are driven by two separate digital amplifiers. There are also holes at the rear for hanging the speakers on walls using screws, and the speaker has been designed to use the wall to reinforce its bass performance.
DCB 112-S SubwooferThe system comes with two identical subwoofers, and in the case of the 535 system that I was reviewing the model used is the DCB 112-S. These two subwoofers both have one side-firing 12-inch driver with a 12-inch passive radiator on the opposite side, and a powerful 500W internal amplifier.
The subs are driven by a line level input from the DP4000-IA, but the amplifier doesn’t provide any of the power to drive the subwoofer, it provides only the processing required to integrate the subwoofer with the other dARTS loudspeakers.
Since the entire system is optimised in the factory and then fine tuned used Audyssey, there are almost no controls on the subs themselves because they aren't needed. You simply connect the line level input from the amplifier (once again the input is identified on each sub) and then set the level.
Despite its apparent complexity, the dARTS 535 is surprisingly easy to set up and run
Set-UpWhen you consider how sophisticated the dARTS digital theater system is, it's incredible how straightforward it is to set-up. Of course anyone actually buying this system will almost certainly have it installed by their dealer or a custom installer, but as long as you follow the instructions any enthusiast could have dARTS up and running in a couple of hours.
You obviously need to start by installing the speakers in their correct positions, although the system is fairly forgiving and flexible in terms of speaker placement. Once you've done that you need to connect all the speakers up, which is the time consuming part because there are seven speakers with four cables going to each (six in the case of the centre speaker), which adds up to 30 cables. Now you understand why the sticky labels are included.
Thankfully every connection on the speakers is numbered, so as long as you're careful and methodical, it's a simple task to connect output one on the amplifier to input one on the first speaker and so on. Depending on how close the seating position is to the surround speakers, you'll need to decide other to select bipole or dipole – I used bipole. Once you've connected all the speakers, you then connect the two subwoofer outputs on the amp to the two subs and you're good to go.
The reason that you can only use the dARTS speakers with the DP4000-IA amplifier, and the reason that you need to connect everything up in a specific order, is because each speaker has been calibrated in the factory and the amplifier is using DSP to control the phase and frequency response of each speaker individually, along with using a separate amplifier for each driver and using active crossovers. If you connect the wrong speaker to the wrong output on the amp, it will be applying the wrong DSP filters.
However, thanks to this approach the system is already perfectly balanced, at least in the factory, which immediately eliminates a number of variables that might affect performance and there's no need to correct for the speakers themselves. However as anyone who knows anything about acoustics will tell you, there's still the impact of the room itself to consider. If you were building a room from scratch you could address a lot of the room characteristics at the start, such as dimensions, materials, acoustic treatments etc., and thus eliminate most problems.
However, every room will impact on the sound quality of a system to some degree and that's why, along with seven speakers, two subs, an amplifier, cables and speakers stands, I was also sent an Audyssey MultEQ XT Pro kit to fine tune the set-up. The process involved loading a custom version of the Audyssey software developed specifically for dARTS, and a USB driver for the amplifier. I then connected the calibrated microphone to the mini XLR jack at the back of the amp and my laptop to the USB port at the front. The kit also includes a stand for the microphone, ensuring you can set it to the correct height and location, while also keep the mic free of any interference.
After that it was a case of selecting the DP4000-IA and the microphone in the software, choosing a 7.1 configuration, and setting the subwoofer levels to 75dB using the level controls on the back of the two subs. After that I ran the automated measurement process from the sweet spot to set the distances and levels at ear height when sat down. I then ran eight more measurements at different positions and heights, to obtain as much information about the acoustical properties of the room. I then ran the EQ calculations and loaded the results into the amplifier, set the crossover to 80Hz, which is optimal for the dARTS system, and selected the appropriate filter (usually High Frequency Roll Off 1).
I connected an Acurus ACT 4 AV processor, which in this case I was simply using as a pre amp, to the DP4000-IA using XLR cables and then I connected my sources to the ACT 4. At which point I was ready to start testing. I should just point out that if you wanted to run a Dolby Atmos system you could, dARTS offer the option to buy a second DP4000-IA amplifier with matching in-ceiling speakers.
PerformanceI should start by pointing out that the DP4000-IA is cooled using a forced-air system, which meant that during very quiet scenes in movies I could hear the fan. In my dedicated home cinema the equipment rack is located fairly close to my main listening position, just behind me on the rear wall. As a result the amp is probably nearer me that it would be in a dedicated set-up, but I need easy access to swap equipment around all the time. I suspect that in most dARTS installations the amp will be in an equipment cabinet or even a separate room, so I doubt the fan will bother anyone.
So how did the dARTS system actually sound, once I'd got everything set-up and calibrated? In a word... incredible! This is easily the best speaker and amplifier combination I've ever heard in my room, and I've tested some seriously good kit over the years. Phase Technology's attention to every conceivable detail during the development of dARTS has paid dividends, with a system that has balance, power and precision that is second to none. I set the ACT 4 to output both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in 7.1 channels and then made my way through a number of my favourite test discs.
The ACT 4 is a superb AV processor, so I knew the system was being fed a properly decoded 7.1-channel signal regardless of which soundtrack I chose, but the dARTS system just took that feed to another level. I frequently use Baby Driver for testing because it has a great soundtrack that seamlessly combines music and sound effects, often in a synchronised fashion. The dARTS system delivered it perfectly, with a lovely sense of musicality that complimented the carefully selected songs. The effects were moved around the room in a seamless fashion, while the bass was delivered with a pleasing precision, underscoring every note and gunshot.
The cohesion of the dARTS system is quite exceptional and because each speaker is perfectly tonally balanced, the steering of effects is utterly realistic. The speakers simply disappeared, as did the room itself, delivering the soundstage with utter transparency. The soundtrack to Gravity provides an ideal test to a system's ability to seamlessly steer effects and voices around the room, and the dARTS system was flawless. There was a wonderful tonal balance and cohesion to the voices as the drifted around in three-dimensional space. In addition the centre speaker delivered all the dialogue with a focused accuracy, even within a busy and chaotic soundtrack like Transformers: The Last Knight.
What was particularly impressive was how loud the system could go, without ever sounding compressed or clipped. The reference volume was simply too loud for me to comfortably listen to in my room, but if you have a large enough space dARTS can easily fill it with 105 dB. There was also plenty of head room, and as such the dynamic range of the system had to be heard to be believed.
A Quiet Place is my new favourite test disc, and the 7.channel Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is a masterclass in modern audio design. While the film is ostensibly about not making any noise, you realise that even in the quietest scenes there are always sounds. Whether it's the wind blowing through the tress or a child's breathing or leaves rustling along a street or footsteps on sand, the soundtrack is full of subtle audio cues; and the dARTS system picked all of them up, delivering a visceral and immersive surround experience.
However, where A Quiet Place really stands out is in terms of its dynamic range. There are scenes in the film that are from the perspective of a deaf character, and for these the sound designers cut out all the sound. It's actually quite weird to hear complete silence coming from your speakers, but when the sound returns the responsiveness of the dARTS system is incredible.
Once a character accidentally makes a loud noise, or one of the monsters attacks, the sound designers deliberately boost all the sounds. It's this sudden jump in dynamic range that the dARTS system handled particularly well, with clear and perfectly defined transients. The lower frequencies are also used very effectively, and once again the system handled these bass moments with control and precision.
I slipped on Blade Runner 2049, and the system handled the bass-heavy soundtrack with great authority, reproducing the opening low-end notes with room-shaking depth. The subs could go very low, although not as low as some the bigger subwoofers I've reviewed like the SVS PB-4000. However they were perfectly integrated into the overall system, so the end result was a bass experience that was both controlled, responsive and visceral, even if you weren't getting every decibel below 25Hz.
The subs really came into their own with music, and the combination of the ACT 4 and dARTS resulted in a fantastically musical performance with two-channel audio. The songs I listened to had a staggering level of clarity, no doubt thanks to the active crossovers, and the ability of the speakers to localise instruments was genuinely impressive.
The higher frequencies were rendered beautifully, giving new life to This Woman's Work by Kate Bush, whilst the more up-tempo tracks on the Manic Street Preachers album Resistance is Futile were delivered with an urgency and a real sense of enjoyment.
The more complex the mix, the more capable the system seemed to be at unpicking it and revealing all the details. The clocks at the start of Time by Pink Floyd had never sounded more realistic, not just on the multichannel SACD but also on the regular CD in stereo.
The dARTS Digital Theater System is a genuinely remarkable achievement, one that is able to deliver every aspect of a modern movie soundtrack, while also managing that very rare feat of sounding amazing with music as well.
The performance was exceptional, with an incredibly dynamic and transparent soundstage
- Exceptional sound quality
- Flexible installation
- Easy set-up and calibration
- Great build quality
dARTS 535 Series Digital Theater ReviewThe dARTS Digital Theatre from Phase Technology takes a revolutionary approach to delivering multichannel audio in the home. The speakers in the 7.2-channel system have been specifically designed to work with the amplification, which drives all the tweeters and woofers separately using active crossovers. They have also been individually precision tuned in the factory for phase and frequency response and the amplifier uses DSP filters to ensure the optimal performance from all the speakers and the two subwoofers.
This does mean that the dARTS system has to be set up in a very specific way, but it also means that any variables relating to the speakers have been removed. So all you need to do is EQ for the effect of the room using Audyssey MultEQ XT Pro and you've got the best sounding amplifier and speaker combination that I've ever heard. The performance is utterly transparent, delivering every tiny detail in soundtracks and music with perfection. The steering is completely seamless, the bass beautifully integrated, the dynamics incredible, and the overall soundstage is exceptional.
There are times when mere words aren't enough, and you really need to hear a system to fully understand how good it is. The way that the dARTS system simply fills a room with sound without any colouration or anomalies from either the speakers, amplification or the room itself is a wonder to behold. At £24,000 the dARTS 535 Series Digital Speaker System certainly isn't cheap, but it's comforting to know that sometimes you really do get what you pay for.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24,000.00
Value For Money8
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