Boxes this small seldom weight this much for £500. If they do, then there is probably a subwoofer inside with a heavy onboard amp to account for the weight. Opening the box, finds each speaker in it's own individual sub-box. Inside those, further protection is provided by expanded foam top and bottom caps, and finally a individual sock of foam lined polythene sheet. Taped to the sock is a bag containing the instruction manual and the crossover tuning links. The remaining items packaged with the 99.25s are bi-wire/amp jumper plates and a foam bung for the reflex port, all of which ship in situ. It will take a serious abuse to damage these speakers, which is fortunate; As a product retailed on-line only, they will only ever arrive by courier.
Nuts & Bolts
With the XTZ 99.xx Series there issues are that extends beyond simply choosing a colour which can initially make the range look confusing. There are three basic variants of the stand mount, but only two model names. All three contain the same drivers, crossovers and have approximately the same internal volume. The 99.25 (reviewed here) is in a gloss black rectangular cabinet hewn from 25mm MDF (which accounts for a lot of the weight) with very smoothly rounded corners preceded by a gentle chamfer on all faces. The 99.26 has a trapezoidal shape that again is 25mm thick, but is otherwise the same material and finish. The 99.26 Walnut and Matt Black options adopt the cross section of a truncated ellipse and are manufactured in a 20mm MDF, trading a bit of wall thickness for the extra rigidity the curved form offers. XTZ claim the 99.26 variants, with their non parallel surfaces, prevent internal standing waves and there is science as well as common sense to back this up.
Clear about the range? Well maybe not, but stare at the XTZ website for long enough and it starts to make sense. Whilst doing so, you will note that the range lacks the lighter wood finishes such as Oak, Birch or Maple, that find favour in the British market. XTZ have taken this point on board.
Close inspection of these gloss black examples shows a very tight fit and finish. So tight in fact, the tweeter would defeat the proverbial fag paper and the interference fit is tight enough that the tweeter will stay in without screws. The single port is aligned behind the tweeter and has a totally seamless flair out onto the rear of the cabinet. This positioning is fortuitous as it allows you to ‘persuade’ the tweeter out of the cabinet to change it’s orientation for horizontal placement as a centre speaker. This is necessary because unlike a dome tweeter, it has a very wide horizontal, but restricted vertical dispersion pattern due to the ribbons dimensions, so it's orientation is important.
An anodized aluminium plate for the speaker terminals sits inside it's own rebate on the rear of the cabinet and is sealed with a gasket. The four heavy binding posts can accept 4mm plugs, bare wire or 8mm spades. These plates also house the 4mm terminals for the treble level adjustment. Levels of +4dB, -2dB and -4dB can be set relative to the nominal '0dB' flat position with no links inserted. Bass tuning is provided by a single port plug.
Turning back to the business end, it's the drivers that create a lot of the interest in these speakers, because they are not the usual budget fare. The tweeter is a Fountek NeoCD3.0 ribbon tweeter with claimed output to 40kHz. Fundamentally, it the same unit used in the Monitor Audio Platinum series. The mid bass unit is an XTZ specific version of the 18cm SEAS Excel W18E, the specific differences being in a black anodizing of the magnesium cone, a silver anodizing of the copper phase plug and chamfering of the driver basket sides to fit the narrow cabinet profile. The Excel range of drivers can be found in the phenomenally expensive (as in £100k!) Steinway Lyngdorf system handling midrange duties, so there is some pedigree on offer.
Internally the cabinet is horizontally braced and a crossover containing unremarkable, but chunky components is bolted to the bottom of the speaker. Cabling is soldered to the crossover and terminal plate which is good, but press tag connected to the drivers which is more normal. The only notable issue is that the two chunky air cored inductors in the crossover share the same plane of mounting and can thus induce current in each other. I'd prefer to see them orientated ninety degrees to each other as a matter of electronic convention.
In my 16x13ft living room, I settled with the 99.25s about 60cm out from the nearest side wall and with the front baffle about 65cm out from the rear wall. All three are orientated vertically and placed on identical stands that placed the tweeters at ear level. In my room, a toe in of about 10 degrees offered the best balance between first reflections from the side walls and constricting image width. The source is an Audiolab 8000CD connected to pure analogue bypass of an 8000AP processor and thence to a pair of 8000M Monoblock power amps. Cabling is Mark Grant interconnects and Van Damme Blue Series speaker cables.
Used as a stand alone stereo speaker, the 99.25s offer a sound that errs very slightly on the brighter side of neutral. In my room, plugging the rear ports resulted in the smoothest, deepest extension and removed a touch of chestiness from voice without making them sound bass light. Ports unplugged, there was subjectively more bass on offer, but longer term listening revealed them to sound a touch thicker and less tuneful. Your mileage almost certainly will vary, but the tuning option is there. The end result was a bass that followed the tune and weight of Paul Simon's 'Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes' in a very nimble fashion, with the sharp leading edge transient string plucks, backed up by decent body to the note being played. Good stuff, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. The particular strengths of this speaker lie elsewhere.
The first strength that really grabbed my attention was the sound stage width and depth, but also the precision of placement within it. A stereo sound stage is a bit of a funny thing, because few recordings are actually recorded by a single pair of microphones. Even live acoustic stuff is normally a blend of microphones placed near and far and usually adds a direct feed from the instrument itself, so the sense of acoustic and the placement within it, is probably best viewed as a result of the recording engineers art. That said, the holographic placement that can result from a really good mix (live or studio) is fantastic to listen to and a speaker that resolves and maintains the placement of individual artists and instruments, makes it easier to hear the individual musical strands, even when there is a lot going on. The mid-band openness of the 99.25s, allied to to a progressively rising, but civilized treble is very precise at maintaining this illusion with not only good image width, but excellent depth too. Drummers sound like they are behind the singer and guitarists and keyboards flank them, but don't appear anchored to the speakers on either side.
Two current favourite recordings of mine demonstrate this strength very well. Kari Bremnes 'Live' and Nils Lofgren's 'Live Acoustic' sounded as vibrant and full of that 'live' energy as I've ever heard them sound, with the two auditoriums having their distinctly different characters rendered quite clearly.
The 99.25s aren't perfection though and one must remember that these are budget speakers. Having heard them in other rooms and situations, where its not possible to dial up the volumes I normally listen at, they can sound a bit thin and bright. I have noticed in the past that metal coned drivers like to be, quite literally, warmed up and because they are efficient at dissipating heat, they take a bit more of a thrashing to warm up and wake up, at which point the sound fills out. Playing them from cold in a room where the heating has been off overnight, is not where they give of their best.
Other than that, the only real criticism is a slight hardness in the upper midrange that makes itself apparent with particularly strident recordings, or with singers with a particularly nasal tone. The aforementioned Nils Lofgren can sound a touch insistent, mainly because he's not the greatest vocalist you'll ever hear, but the XTZs let you know it. This was only really thrown into light by a pair of £1800 Dynaudios that have recently passed through my room and so I don't want to make this sound like a big negative. I would certainly live with it if the only other option was to suppress the other qualities that are present.
As noted, I am lucky enough to be able to run three identical speakers across the front of my system, all in the vertical orientation at identical heights. If you can do this, then you should be able to provide a seamless sonic match that also maintains it's character across a wide range of seating positions. The problem is finding manufacturers that can, or will sell you a third stereo speaker to run in this fashion. Manufacturers dedicated to movie/home cinema reproduction and custom installs offer this option, but otherwise it's few and far between. As alluded too earlier, the 99.25s have a tweeter that can be reorientated, allowing this, or even all three speakers mounted horizontally, should you so desire.
For movies, the speakers were set to 'Small' with an 80Hz crossover and integrated with equalized subs that were variously a BK Monolith, Aerial Acoustics SW12, or XTZ's own 99 W12 DSP. Sources are the ubiquitous PS3 for Blu-ray and a Yamaha DVD-S1700 for SD DVD viewing.
The coherence of the three 99.25s is exactly as you would expect, with absolutely seamless panning of sounds/effects across the front three. The tonal match is perfect and if you can use the centre upright, its an effect that is maintained over a very wide sweet-spot. The extremely narrow ribbon tweeter gives a very wide horizontal dispersion which results in a lack of treble roll off as you move off axis in the horizontal plane. This also means you can be a lot further from the farthest speaker before it's contribution is overshadowed by the nearer ones with comparatively higher treble output. I hadn't thought of that possibility as I don't tend to sit anywhere other than the middle of my room. Further experimentation back in two channel mode, showed this to result in a stereo music sound stage that didn't immediately collapse into the nearest speaker when moving around the seats. I don't tend to indulge in group music listening, but it's good to know that a group viewing of a movie results in everyone being equally well served.
Up to now, I haven't mentioned the treble tuning possibilities of this speaker, mainly because I found the default 0dB position to be just the right side of neutral for my taste. However, movies aren't necessarily about neutrality and have rather more to do with fun. Adding a single link into the treble's +4dB position really lifted the reproduction and gave an additional edge to sharp little movie effects. Leaves on trees rustle louder, birds twittering in the background really stand out expanding the soundscape and spent bullet casings tinkle on the floor in an overly metallic fashion. It's not accurate, because I spent a lot of my youth firing rifles and empty casings simply don't make that much sound, but as a way of teasing out extra emphasis of the effects in the mix, it's damn good fun.
The smashing glass bowl in scene two of House of Flying daggers can sound teeth janglingly sharp, but even at high volumes the 99.25s maintained the glassy edge without sounding uncomfortable and you heard every last fragment drop leaving only the faint breeze through the scene audible. Dynamically, the snap that drives music gives movie effects the incisive edge they demand. Gunshots have a real crack to them and some of the impacts in the prison break scene in my current demo favourite, Kung-fu Panda, had me pinned to the settee.
This up-front presentation, coupled with the unfatiguing nature of the tweeter enhances long term listening. At least one extended session comprising several hours of music plus three full bore action movies back to back at Dolby reference level, was only drawn to a close because the participants were the worse for alcoholic wear, not because their ears had given up.
XTZ 99.25 Loudspeaker Review
Like any £500 speaker, the 99.25s aren't perfect but what they do well, they do really well for the price. They won't flatter harsh recordings or forward sounding electronics, but partner with something neutral or warmer sounding and the levels of real mid-band and treble detail on offer are excellent. Bass depth and power is par for the course and tuneful, which is preferable to the alternative. 'Tuned' for movies and with a subwoofer in tow, they really do punch above their weight for the money, but that caveat to that is such value is achieved by cutting out traditional retailers, something that is a lot less risky with subwoofers than it is with speakers and their intensely personal nature.
So this is where you pays yer money and makes yer choice. You could be getting a speaker far better than you could have afforded, or you could be buying everything you dislike without knowing it. XTZ offer a full refund if returned within 21 days with return shipping at your own cost (currently about £70 to Sweden from the UK), so a lot of the worry is taken out of the equation. It's still not a free home demo, but then most home demos don't last three weeks. The other issue is warranty repair and here again the XTZ solution is less than normal. Due to their geographical location, they adopt the pragmatic attitude of trusting their own customers to fit any warranty replaceable parts. Depending on your aptitude with an allen key and press tag connectors, this is either a bonus or an impediment to buying. You decide.
Leaving all that aside, in raw material, performance and value terms, you get an awful lot for the money. Any speaker that adds that to the market place is very welcome indeed.Pros
- Music plus movie performance
- Fine imaging capabilities
- Class leading treble detail and refinement
- Good power handling
- Flexible bass & treble tuning to suit taste or room
- Finish of gloss models
- Value for money
- Online only purchase
- No dedicated surround wall mount and/or di/bipolar surround effects options
- Slight upper mid hardness, especially from cold
- Give of their best at moderate levels and up
- Doesn't flatter bright/harsh electronics or rooms
- Lack of light wood options
- Veneered options are vinyl wood effect
Our Review Ethos
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