I don't think it's any secret that I own a pair of XTZ 99.26s amongst my current speakers. Yes, believe it or not, there are gaps in a reviewers schedule that mean he has to resort to using his own speakers. Appalling, isn't it?
Their presence was as a result of a concerted search to find a speaker that ticked my own personal boxes and was before XTZ had really targeted the UK as a market. It was certainly before the marque had any sort of UK on-line buzz surrounding them, so I was taking a bit of a step into the unknown at the time. After all, it's one thing to buy something as highly room dependent as a subwoofer without demo, but speakers are a bit more of a risk as the specs don't tell the whole story and unlike subwoofers, there isn't a pantheon of objective testing to draw any pre-purchase conclusions from. To cut a long story short, they weren't perfect, but they fairly took my breath away with what they could do. Frantic auctioning of gear commenced to placate my better half when I revealed they were staying and the rest is history.
I should be able to write this review with my eyes shut, right? Well no, not quite, because these are the slightly less than trumpeted MkII version, which incorporates a number of changes to the crossover over my incumbent MkIs. Before current owners start falling on the sword of crumbling residuals, the new crossover will be offered as a retro-fit upgrade although, as I write, XTZ haven't finalized what it will cost.
** Edit 08/08/11 ** That figure is £75/loudspeaker if you DIY fit, or £150/speaker (plus shipping) should you get Audio Sanctum to do it for you **
Now, before diving into the review proper, I should clear up some of the vagaries of the XTZ range and the 99 range in particular. You can buy this particular set of drivers and crossovers in three different cabinets of identical volume. The 99.25s are the 'traditional' rectangular variant finished in a gloss black cabinet. Simple. In the same finish, the 99.26s occupy, what I shall call, a bent parallogram cabinet, but are otherwise identical. Where it gets odd is that the matt black, matt white and dark wood veneers morph into a truncated tear-drop cabinet, á la the KEF iQ, Wharfedale Diamond, or Tannoy Revolution Signature series of speakers, with a horizontal top and bottom panel. This necessitates a change in construction because, whilst the gloss cabinets are hewn from inch thick MDF, the curvy jobs are made from thinner MDF, the lost rigidity being bought back by the curved panel shape.
To further muddy the waters, the matching centre speaker is simply one of the 99.26/25s laid on it's side with the tweeter turned through ninety degrees, EXCEPT in the case of the gloss black 99.26, because it's a weird shape. In this case, you buy a single 99.25 so at least the finishes, if not the shape, match. Clear as mud? It's probably better if you just visit www.xtz.se and work it out for yourself but it's basically the 99.26s plus a single 99.25 on centre duties that I run day to day and it looks just fine.
As, sooner or later, I've heard all of the shapes in their mark one incarnations, I will say simply that all of the variants sound very, very similar. I would tip a slight nod of preference to the 99.26s (whatever the shape) over the 99.25s if only because the irregular cabinet profiles seem to be a little less busy in the midrange but this takes keen listening with music to notice. This is an oft quoted benefit of non-parallel cabinet sides but in most manufacturers ranges there isn't the opportunity to hear an identical speaker where the cabinet shape is the only difference, so you kind of have to take the manufacturers word that it is so. It is so but it's not a difference so large that you sit there listening to the rectangular 99.25 centre and find it anything other than a seamless match to the 99.26s on either side.
With the background and added confusion administered, I shall only talk about the 99.26 Pianos (for that is what the gloss black is called by XTZ) and because the potential for upgrading MkIs is there, I will comment on the changes the MkII has wrought. It's fair to say that this would have a lot in common with the other variants - but I won't have tested them - so the caveat is worth noting.
In the box
Packaging is a single skinned, albeit weighty, carton with sturdy foam top and bottom caps. I prefer foam to the disintegrating alternative that is polystyrene for exactly that reason. Not only is it better at absorbing courier administered shocks, it withstands repeated un and re-boxing. I would, as this is essentially a speaker that will only ever arrive by courier, like to see a double carton for the sake of extra protection. I've had a number of speakers turn up with shipping damage, even if they've survived the abuse the printed press can apparently hand out but I've never seen it where two skins of cardboard are used. Beyond the packaging, there are polythene bags around each speaker and an instruction book, the latter available in download form too.
Pre-fitted to the speaker are a pair of crossover tuning links (more later), a pair of gold plated jumper plates to link the treble and bass bi-wire/bi-amp terminals, plus a full length foam port bung.
Starting with the cabinets as the most obvious feature, the pictures are quite literally worth a thousand words because no one plane of viewing results in an easily describable shape. Suffice it to say, the bottom panel is horizontal and flat but none of the other sides are. Even the baffle is canted back at about five degree; this serving to time align the acoustic centres of the two drivers when you have the tweeter mounted at ear height. In my room - with my sofas - this requires the 600mm high stands and XTZ offer a matching stand in the same Piano Black Finish for £100. The gloss black finish is absolutely blemish free, if not quite of the liquid pool depths a true 'Piano' multi-layer lacquer delivers. It's pretty damn good and you'll want to invest in a pair of Michael Jackson tribute white cotton gloves, if you don't want to polish the speakers after every human contact.
Fronting the cabinet is the only low point of the whole experience, which is the grill. That sounds harsh, especially as internal edges have been rounded to reduce diffraction effects, but they fix using the pin and rubber cup method. This means the rubber cups are clearly visible with the grill removed, which it should be as the 99.26s sound better with them off. Invisible magnetic fixings are increasingly the norm, even in budget end speakers. It makes no acoustic difference once the grills are removed – It would just look better and more in keeping with the overall impression of the 99.26 Pianos.
With the grills out of the way, you get to see where the real money has been spent and even though it's three years since I first clapped eyes on this driver line up, it's still a stellar pairing at this price point.
From the top, the treble unit is a Fountek NeoCD 3.0 ribbon driver. There is a lot of internet chatter about the relative merits of ribbon versus dome tweeters, mostly based on analysis of the measured data and, indeed, some of the mythical qualities attributed to ribbons are exactly that, mythical. There are definite issues with distortion at the bottom end of their range but the lightness and deftness of touch they offer higher up is quite distinct from their dome counterparts, as long as they are good ribbon that is. The Neo CD3.0 is a good ribbon and you will see it housed in such venerated speakers as the Monitor Audio Platinum Series. It is not only a good ribbon, it's an expensive driver at three to four times the cost of domes usually employed in the 99.26's price range.
Underpinning the tweeter is another driver that you simply don't see in mid-budget speakers like these. The magnesium coned SEAS Excel mid/bass unit is, again, a very high specification driver. The black anodized flared cone with aluminium phase plug extending the pole piece where a duct cap might normally be, bears close visual scrutiny. This is a high end driver with high end finish. Invisible to the eye is the copper employed in the motor to reduce distortion at higher frequencies, which mates with the class leading bass capabilities of this 150mm nominal driver. Hyperbole, indeed, but this is a serious pair of drivers worthy of emphasis. You could add a nought to the end of the RRP and still see drivers of this ilk.
Turning to the rear of the 99.26, below the nicely flared exit to the 68mm reflex port directly behind the tweeter, is the black anodized, aluminium plate that holds the connections. The binding posts are sturdy gold plated affairs that allow connection by 4mm banana plugs - spade or ring termination - or bare wires as thick as you would like. Unless you're prone to swapping out components on a regular basis, I would recommend the latter - the terminals can be tightened down very tight indeed, thus removing extra joints/material interfaces in the cable chain.
Just above the binding posts are a feature, thankfully now being seen more regularly outside of the 'pro' arena where they are considered de rigueur. There are two pairs of 4mm sockets that allow, using the supplied jumpers, four different treble tuning options. I say treble, rather than tweeter, because their effect is above the crossover point of the tweeter. No links in place is the flat/default '0dB' option, with combinations of links giving +/-4dB and -2dB.
Whilst we're dealing with tuning options, XTZ supply a foam bung for the port to allow adjustment of bass level too. This is particularly useful for those with a a strong room mode or two contributing excessive bass and not strictly as tends to the recommendation, a way of placing the speaker up against a wall. Inserting the bung effectively removes the reflex port's contribution, allowing the speaker to run in a quasi sealed configuration where the bass rolls off from a higher frequency, but at a lower rate. This make make placing the speaker closer to a wall a touch more acceptable but the room boundary interacts with bass frequencies way above the port tune into the low midrange. Place them too close and you just will just reinforce the upper bass/lower midrange making voices chesty and indistinct. In either the case of the treble jumpers, or port plug, experiment and/or measure your in-room response to suit your your taste but bear in mind the 99.26s, like most speakers, are designed to placed clear of immediate boundaries.
However good the drivers cabinet and tuning options, it's the dark art of the crossover that makes them work or not. You can have the best tyres, the best chassis and the best engine, but if your suspension tuning guru was on a year long sabbatical, you could still end up with a car that handled like a dog. Conversely, you might have a range of cars strung together on a budget but with the right knowledge applied, where it's noticed, you end up with some blinding motors. Just ask Ford. I digress; the point that is sole difference between the 99.26 MkII and it's predecessor, is the crossover – XTZ have been tweaking the ride and handling.
And it's not just a small tweak of a crossover component value here or there - It's a total ground up rework. The number of components has jumped from ten to fifteen and, at the same time, the scale of those components has jumped up too. The capacitors have jumped from 50 to 250V items and the air cored inductors are larger, especially the bass low pass inductor which is quite literally four times the size. Okay, that's more to do with the electrical value to achieve the crossover slopes required but cost correlates closely with size and there is no doubt this is a much more expensive and exacting design. Internal wiring seems to have received a change to a slightly beefier grade of cable but, like the crossover components themselves, there are no big ticket names to get the component fetishists juices flowing.
Mounted on my modified, and heavily mass loaded, Sound Organization Z1 stands, I found the best bass balance was achieved with the ports open and 60cm of clearance to the rear wall. Distance to the side walls walls was 90cm, with only a modest amount of toe in required to bring the sound stage into focus – 5-10 degrees, or so. The supplied flat metal jumper plates were dispensed with in favour of short lengths of my speaker cable, which for those who like to know, is Chord Carnival Silver Screen. To my ears the '0dB' no links position for the tweeter was spot on and indeed measured flattest in room.
With more than an air of my usual interest, given my current speakers, I sat down to the simple matter (for once) of simply listening to a stereo speaker doing music. The shared DNA of the MkII and MkIs was immediately obvious, as indeed where the differences.
The deftness of touch and highly resolved detail of cymbal brushwork, along with a total freedom of over emphasized vocal sibilance is a trait of the tweeter. It makes listening to well recorded vocals and acoustic music a joy, whatever the listening level. There is a slight “these sound a bit dull” initial reaction, but sit back and listen and you will hear that all of the detail and information is there, it's just not rammed down your ear canals with a searing aggressive edge. It's an experience, dare I say it, that a lot of people get when listening to a high end system for the first time, simply because the layers of hash they're used to, are absent.
Where the MkIIs trump the MkIs, is when you slide down the scale toward the mid range. Where the originals maintained the level of open expressiveness, there could be the occasional note, be it sung or played, that just borderline being edgy, more so if you liked to listen loud - and I do. Mixes of a forward nature tended to show it up worst. The opening crescendo of Dire Straits 'Money For Nothing', or the climax of Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli's 'Time To Say Goodbye', could tend to sound somewhat busy and a bit 'in-yer-face'. Neither are mixes I would hold up as paragons of neutrality, but if you listen to music for musics sake, then you will end up playing a lot of less than textbook audiophile material, especially if your taste is mainly commercial fayre.
The MkII version of events, with higher quality programme, is less markedly differentiated. The same ability to open a clear and polished window on the recording and engage you with the performers expression is still there and, I might add, is presented in a fashion way above the price point the XTZ 99.26s occupy. There's a slightly less obvious emphasis of the breath sounds of female vocal in particular, which makes voices sound a little less whispy and fuller bodied. But the same attention to inflection and expression is much as before.
A few old faves – Eva Cassidy, Angelique Kidjo, Norah Jones, etc - all made their way through the system with no hidden surprises of the wrong sort. I dropped 'Never For Ever' by Kate Bush in the tray, with the sole intention of listening to 'Army Dreamers' for the sound effects in the mix and was fairly taken aback. Ms. Bush has many qualities, some of which are more manifest to men of a certain age, but she always was an extraordinary writing talent. Vocally, on the other hand, I tended to forgive her slightly girlish, squeaky voice that forty fags a day had done nothing to deepen, for the level of inventiveness she brings to the table. Through the 99.26MkIIs, she's been given a second chance. Admittedly, it's not one of my regular demo pieces – more likely a bit of background music – but for whatever reason, she really caught my attention this time. Her chipmunkesque warblings seemed to have just a shade more heart felt intention and tonal body. I was probably wrong all along on this one, it's just that the 99.26MkIIs showed me why. Amen to that, as it's reinvented three CDs in my collection, which will stave off buying the next three for a week, at least.
One thing that hasn't changed with the upgrade, is the 99.26s ability to portray a vocalists presence as a tightly focused, tangible image that is solid centre stage. It's a real reach-out-and-touch quality that is seldom heard outside of the mid to high end. What has changed, is that the new crossover has dragged this image back closer to the plane of the speakers, rather than the up front and in your lap position it previously held. It's like you've been moved back from row one to row five of a concert and so now, the central voice that dominated your attention, is now more proportionate to the rest of the performance accompanying it. Initially less impressive, it's no less cogent and it's closer to what a real, live performance sounds like.
The sound stage, in general, is expansive, deep and gives a fair impression of height. There is no sense of certain sounds being speaker bound, even with recordings that challenge this issue. The Dave Brubek Quartet's timeless 'Take Five' has a very left-of-centre cymbal that resolutely stays just inboard of the left speaker. I've heard plenty of speakers that make this sound like it is coming from the left channel alone, but is not, so it shouldn't. With well recorded acoustic material there is a fine layering of the performers front to back, with the space around the individual performers well defined. Instruments have their own discrete point in space and stay there when the composition increases in complexity.
The opening sounds of the club that provides the acoustic backdrop for Arne Domnerus' 'Jazz At The Pawn Shop' as it fades up, is like opening a window through the front wall of your room. The burble of conversation, mixed in with cutlery and chinking glasses creates a huge, but staggeringly well defined acoustic. The XTZs do all but make you smell the smoke as the very best, high end gear can. Their limit is the width of the sound stage. Plenty of these background sounds can image well outside of the speakers, whilst the XTZs keep it broadly between them, but the depth of the room and its (lack) of height are very well portrayed, if slightly smaller than the very best. To balance this, the image width is well maintained for off-axis listeners as the wide horizontal dispersion of the tweeter makes the 99.26s far from a sweet spot design. If the image isn't the widest, it at least stays consistently wide where ever you are sitting, within reason and without noticeable treble roll off.
Dropping down to consider the bottom end of reproduction and the propulsive heart of music that is the bass line, neither incarnation of the 99.26 has ever had to make any apologies. The SEAS Excel unit has long been known as an exceptional driver in terms of its ability as a two way mid/bass driver, as it is capable of delivering exceptionally deep and tuneful bass, for a driver in its class, without sacrificing mid range capability. You have to jump up to Scan Speak Revelators and the like to achieve significant hikes in performance and a pair of those would cost more than a single complete 99.26. Of course, this native ability can be stuffed up by over optimistically deep port tunings, or the reverse – a higher tune designed to peak up bass kick. XTZ has done neither and simply tuned the port to roll in under the Excel unit, to maintain a flat response, a little deeper. It's not a quality unique to XTZ, but I've noted it's one shared by all of the speakers I rate highly.
The net result is bass quality, that subject to your room's modal contributions and your willingness to place the 99.26MkIIs where they need to be, is certainly as good as anything I've heard for near the price and of a similar size. That's not to say that subwoofer fiends, like myself won't miss the extra depth, or that a floorstander won't delve deeper and harder. No, it means that it covers the range that it's designed to in an above average way and in a very tuneful fashion. The lowest octaves and force of a piano, or double bass, are slightly beyond reach, but I've never, ever heard a stand mount (yet – There's a lot I haven't heard) that can pull that off. Within the physical limits allowed, real bass is meaty, fibrous and tuneful. From a stand mount, you can't ask more than that, without resorting to tuning tricks that make one of those qualities suffer at the hand of another.
Pulling the impression together, you have a very well integrated speaker. We are only talking about two drivers, but they are of differing modus operandi and there are plenty of examples where two of a similar ilk haven't achieved the same synergy. The overall picture is one of refinement, natural detail and exceptional, hear through transparency. No one part of the frequency range seems to be emphasized at the expense of another, nor lagging another in quality terms. Balanced might be a shorter way of saying it.
Negatives? Well, nothing is perfect and so it would be remiss, as well as inaccurate, to claim the 99.26MkIIs have none. The most obvious is shared with all metal coned loudspeakers that I've ever heard – They like to be warm. Not just in a warm room, but rather that they seem to give of their best once warmed up with a bit of playing under their belt. Otherwise, they sound a little hard and well, cold sounding. That's true of most loudspeakers, but the metal variety seem to 'sink' heat away through their cones more effectively and so seem to take a little longer to get to this point. The corollary is that they seem happier playing at high levels for longer, so it's a quid pro quo on this issue.
The second negative is very much one of a personal preference and is explained in more technical detail by the MkI v MkII technical comparison below. Whilst I personally prefer the MkII - it preserves the qualities I felt worth shelling out for and builds on them – Some may feel it has diluted the exciting edge the MkI has. For my money, I don't think there's any doubt the MkII has improved the neutrality and refinement of the breed, but depending on your tastes, those qualities aren't necessarily the be all, end all. I have a wide ranging musical taste that moves from Heavy Metal at one end, to small scale live acoustic jazz and increasingly, piano at the other. I love the former, but won't sacrifice reproduction of the latter. For the latter, it's a no-brainer – MkII all the way, but commercial rock and pop (and I include dance, not that it's music) is not about accuracy. Its production was very much as a result of the producer/engineer/bands taste, possibly subjected to radio airplay considerations, so I see no reason why you shouldn't impose your personal preference upon its reproduction too. If you are at that end of the spectrum, then the slightly more up front, on the edge, reproduction of the MkIs may be more your bag, but it is less accurate.
Finally, the XTZ 99.26MkII is not the easiest speaker to drive. It's quoted as a 4-8Ω loudspeaker, indicating it's probably more of a 6Ω load and by implication it can drop lower than that. It's also quoted as having "88dB" efficiency (one assumes per Watt and there's no mention if that's per Watt drawn of for the standard 2.83V input), but I'd suggest that may be a touch optimistic. The 96.26, can not only handle a lot of power, but pretty much demand it and because of their revealing nature, place high demands on the quality of those Watts and the reproductive chain in general. A good fifty watter is a minimum, with 100W needed to make them comfortably fill a room, more if you can manage it.
MkI v MkII
I've already touched on some of the sonic attributes that differentiate the earlier 99.26 from the latter, but the how and why is interesting. The first thing that jumps out is that the mid range +1.5dB jump of the MkI has gone – the MkII measures as an entirely and, dare I say it, unfashionably flat on-axis response. The kick in response - or in this case, the lack of it - is a commonly used trick to project vocals and by maintaining this additional output further up the frequency range, air and sparkle (tinkle if you're a movie buff) is added.
However, the crossover tweak extends beyond a simple tweeter level adjustment as the crossover slopes have been adjusted too. What the 99.26MkII has done is to shift from the higher crossover of the tweeter/lower crossover of the mid/bass with 12dB/octave (second order) slopes, to a more challenging point that is lower for the tweeter and higher for the mid/bass but with much steeper 24dB/octave (fourth order slopes). This pushes the drivers closer to their limits but submerges their respective issues to a lower level and faster, the nett result being a cleaner, less busy mid/low treble when the going gets loud or complex.
- Sound quality
- Fit & finish
- Component quality
- Need a good quality and powerful amp to deliver their best
- Grill fixing could be neater
XTZ 99.26 MkII Loudspeaker review
As reviewed, we're looking at a speaker of exceptional balance, refinement and capability at it's price and, indeed, a fair bit more.
It's price may be it's one draw back, perversely enough. Someone looking to drop £1k plus on a pair of speakers, may not take a £800 speaker seriously, forgetting that it's a retail model makes it very, very much comparable. It is disingenuous to suggest, that on-line products hand all of the dealer margin to the consumer, but the saving to be made is still significant and the increased profit for the manufacturer, in my experience, tends to result in a far greater degree of no quibble warranty back up, as they can now afford to. I should, by way of qualification, point out that this comment is made in the light of the product reviewed here and that judgements with respect to other on-line retail products have to be considered on their own merits.
Regardless, we have, in the case of the XTZ 99.26 MkII, a speaker that goes a long way to justifying it's makers claim of “affordable high end”. It certainly delivers a sound that, in some respects, is. The precision of it's imaging is certainly high end, if not quite the sheer scale. Compared to the best, the image is around the speakers and notably free of them, just not as wide as I have heard from much more expensive offerings.
The balance and depth of response is certainly right up there, with a very even-handed approach to all music types. Audiophile recordings shine like they should, but the less than perfect examples of the studio aren't rendered unlistenable. I know that may seem like damning with faint praise, but you buy speakers to enjoy your collection, not render half of it to the bottom shelves. I've heard some decidedly ordinary recordings on £250k systems that still sounded fantastic when I expected them to be pulled apart, so this is a definite plus in my book.
Could they do some things better? Yes, can't any speaker? A few higher end crossover components may deliver that extra 1% but, that said, I also realize that a well considered crossover (much like the speaker as a whole) is as important as the ingredients. Components with close tolerances are worth more than boutique parts for their own sake. You also have to factor in the fact that a crossover full of fashionable components can cost as much as the drivers, so whilst its easy to suggest, the price jump required to accommodate them may not be so affordable. To put it another way, I feel the MkII improvements would outstrip the original crossover, loaded with any fancy component you care to mention.
For the MkI owners wondering whether the crossover upgrade is worth it? From me, a resounding yes. It effectively cures the few things that were wrong and adds into the equation a few things that are very much more right. In this case, the upgrade is retro-fittable, which with very few exceptions is seldom the case. After all, XTZ could have tweaked the cabinet aesthetics, bigged up the improvements and sold all of the MkI owners a complete 'new' MkII. Sound familiar? It may be that in the future a quantum leap design change forces this but in the meantime, XTZ have chosen a path that not only gives current owners extra satisfaction, but it protects their residuals in a way that most upgrades don't.
To the world in general, I strongly suggest you have a look at the XTZ 99.26MkIIs. Distance selling regulations make this less of a risk, but I also feel with the benefit of extended exposure from the home demo offered, you'll find their class shines through. If you have an amp of the quality and power to step up to the plate, then you could be rewarded with reproduction I have yet to hear at this price and a fair bit more. If you don't, then it's pennies in the piggy bank to afford the amp these speakers deserve in the long run. They're a solid best buy because, in my humble opinion, you can't deliver a better blend of strengths for the price asked and, indeed, a fair bit more.
Value For Money
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