To cut a long story short, please refer to my blog for how interest in a pair of stand-mounts, mushroomed into the entire top end of XTZ's line up arriving at my work place, but when the shipping pallet, laden with five speakers and a sub, turned up at work, I was alarmed to see the pallet weight was 330Kg. Gulp! With careful distribution around the car, ride height was no lower than when laden from visits to the vineyards of France. What this proves, beyond my willingness to drink an a AV systems weight in wine is moot, but once home, removing the 99.36s from their individual cartons did nothing to dispel this initial impression of the solidity of the build.
Each speaker comes in single thick cardboard box, and further protection is provided by expanded foam top an bottom caps, an additional centre belt of the same material, and finally a sock of foam lined polythene sheet as the last line of defence. Taped securely to the sock, is a bag containing the detailed instruction manual, the jumpers/links for tuning the crossover, but strangely no spikes. The only speaker floor interface provided, are the four conical rubber feet pre-installed on the bottom of the speakers - superb for wood laminate floors, not so good for those of us with a carpet on a mass concrete floor. The remaining items packaged with the 99.36s are jumper plates for the three sets of binding posts on each speaker and the three foam bungs for the reflex ports, all of which come pre-installed.
Nuts & Bolts.
At this point, I shall detail an important difference that extends beyond simply choosing a colour. If you choose the walnut, or alternative matt black option, all that follows in this review holds true. If you opt for the gloss black option, it's almost an entirely different speaker, with the exception of the drivers and crossover values. Whilst the 99.36 here has the truncated teardrop cross section in 18mm (3/4" in protestant) MDF, made familiar by KEF and the like, the gloss black option is in a rectangular cabinet hewn from a thicker 1" MDF (25mm in papist) that is also 90mm taller, 45mm narrower and 35mm deeper cabinet. The thicker MDF is necessary to compensate for the loss of the natural rigidity of the curved cabinets. The gloss black offers four reflex ports, plus an additional two extra bass tuning options via the crossover. The Gloss Black is different enough that it really should be labeled a 99.37 following XTZ's nomenclature. The 99.25 and 99.26 stand-mounts differ only in cabinet shape and yet attract different model designations for instance.
Close inspection of the Walnut option shows a tight fit and finish of the MDF cabinets. The three drivers are secured by self tapping screws directly into the MDF and are neatly flush mounted. Internally, the cabinet has three horizontal braces in addition to the solid divider between the treble/mid-bass and the lower bass enclosures. The crossovers are contained in their respective cabinet halves and then wired back to the terminal plate on the rear of the speaker in the lower compartment. Crossover components seemed unremarkable, save for their chunky sizes and solid mounting. All drivers except the tweeter are connected by a reasonably sized stranded copper cable via crimped tags. Significant amounts of mastic ensure the airtight seal is maintained between the cabinet halves and all of the ports have nice flares inside the cabinet. This is all par for the course, even in speakers of significantly greater cost, so it was nice to see no evidence of internal cost cutting where you can't see it in a speaker at this price.
Now, to the drivers that are really causing the interest in the 99 Series, because there is some serious pedigree on display for the money asked.
Starting from the top, the tweeter is a Fountek NeoCD3.0 ribbon tweeter with claimed output to 40kHz. Fountek is a Chinese company started in 2003 to design and produce ribbon drivers, but have since diversified into producing traditional voice coil drivers too. The proffered advantage of such drivers, is the result of extremely low moving mass (no heavy voice coil to move) provided by the 18 milligram ribbon. Being so light to move for it's surface area, they are theoretically extremely fast and accurate and because they are so narrow (9mm in this case), have very wide off axis dispersion - they don't beam the higher frequencies in the horizontal plane, thus improving the sound experienced by people sitting off axis toward the side of the room. The eagle eyed will have spotted that, face plate aside, this is the same unit as used in the considerably more expensive and critically acclaimed Monitor Audio Platinum line which are noted, at least in part for their treble quality, so this is interesting stuff indeed.
The mid bass unit is sourced from altogether better known company, with a considerable history of top notch drivers and this one is from their top end line. The driver is an XTZ specific version of the 18cm SEAS Excel W18E, the differences being in a black anodizing of the magnesium cone, a silver anodizing of the copper phase plug and chamfering of the driver basket to fit the narrow cabinet profiles. A favourite of high end DIYers, the most expensive example of a speaker I can find the Excel W18 drivers in, is the Steinway Lyngdorf system at £100k. Not exactly beer budget unless your surname name is Gallagher.
Completing the lineup in it's own dedicated enclosure, is an 18cm SEAS CA18RNX bass driver from their one-from-the-top Prestige line. Sharing the same basket as the Excel unit, the cone is doped paper and the magnet larger (albeit less exotic) with a slightly larger travel befitting the the pure bass duties it handles. It's less capable midrange response is negated by the fact that it rolls off at 250Hz, this speaker being a 2 and a 1/2 way design.
Turning to the rear, the ports are smoothly flared again, The six serious looking binding posts can accept 4mm plugs, bare wire or 8mm spades and are soldily bolted onto a thick plate of aluminium, sealed by a gasket and clamped secured by six screws. These plates also house the 4mm terminals for the treble and bass level adjustment. Levels of +3dB, -2dB and -4dB can be set relative to the nominal '0dB' flat position with no links inserted. Beyond the bass tuning with the port plugs, there is a single +3dB setting available for the level of bass provided by the lower bass driver only. I should note again that the Gloss Black 99.36 offers different levels of treble adjustment (+4, -2 & -4dB), and extra levels of bass adjustment (+6, +3, -3 & -6dB), this last addition being particularly pertinent as you shall see. Incidentally, the 99.25 centre speaker with which both versions of the 99.36s would be matched, offers the +/-4dB range of treble adjustment too. I have no idea why the non gloss 99.36 variants should differ in this respect. Finally, the speaker binding post terminals have the usual horrible flat jumper plates, but as there are four you can separate the treble only or bass only, thus allowing mono, bi, or tri-amping depending on the depth of your pockets.
XTZ very thoughtfully threw their Room Analyzer tool into the package (see cribeiro's review here) which I had hoped to use for bass setup and analyzing the effects of both bass and treble level adjustments in room. Unfortunately, it wouldn't run stably on my poxy Vista PC, so I resorted to using my Velodyne SMS-1, which unfortunately (or not, depending on your level of interest) doesn't produce nice clear screen grabs. If the upcoming update for the RA arrives in time, I may append some graphs later.
In my decidedly average 16x13ft living room, I started with the 99.36s where virtually every other speaker has sat - about 60cm out from the nearest side wall and with the front baffle about 70cm out from the rear wall, no port plugs, levels at the default flat and toed in by about 10 degrees. The extension on offer was comfortably able to trouble the rooms main modes down in the 27-32Hz region, the result being a phenomenal power of deep bass that initially had me checking that the sub wasn't on. It wasn't and a quick look at the graphs would have cleared this up as the response dropped like a stone below 27Hz. I figure the 99.36s generate real authoritative output down into the mid 30Hz region which is pretty serious stuff. After much faffing around, I ended up with the two lower bass ports plugged, the top one open and the baffle 90cm from the front wall. This gave the flattest response as the greater extension was offset by less power low down, compensating for the rooms influence. Toe in didn't seem to affect the levels of upper-mid/treble arriving at the listening position, no doubt as a result of the tweeters very wide dispersion, but it did effect the width/depth of the soundstage. I eventually settled with them pointing pretty much straight ahead as they progressively ran in. I am one of those who feel that running in is as much about me as it is the speaker, but either way 'we' were done after what was about 20 hours of use. Treble levels were, after an extremely short period of subjective experimentation, left at flat.
The only real beef I have with the big XTZs after all of this, was the lack of the extra bass level adjustments that the Gloss versions would offer. It's my feeling that if restricted to a single level of adjustment, -3 or -6dB would be more useful that the +3dB on offer. The 99.36s are going to offer such serious bass output, even in rooms larger than mine, a bass cut would be useful to allow placement closer to a wall. This would at least make them a less imposing presence in non dedicated listening rooms like mine. So with a little more bass power than I would like and after a week of just running background music, radio and TV through them it was time to settle down to some serious listening.
My impressions are based on some serious listening after a week or so of use, but upon first firing the 99.36s up a number of characteristic traits were readily apparent that remained throughout their period in situ. The most immediately noticeable was the pinpoint stereo imaging in both the width and depth planes. Sounds were spread evenly between the speakers rather simply appearing left/centre/right which made less pronounced instruments very easy to follow as they occupied their own discrete point in space. Layers of mixes are easily discerned, with good ones showing real front to back depth and poor ones simply sounding obvious. Paul Simon's 'Graceland' is a shocker in this respect; the fact that some performers aren't even recorded in the same part of the world, never mind studio, is ruthlessly revealed, so different is the signature of the sounds. Live acoustic performances really benefited from this descriptive ability. The real placement and space between performers was revealed with a natural live acoustic adding a sense of height. With what little classical I have, the orchestra seemed to extend into the back corners of the room, not simply being spread in an arc between the speakers as is more normal. I found this level of insight really quite captivating. It's not quite as holographic as a well setup electrostatic panel, but that they even put me in mind of such speakers was impressive.
These forensic qualities are all very well, but it's the ability to communicate music's expression, rhythm and drive that really keeps you listening, rather than swapping CDs to see how 'impressive' a speaker sounds. A collection of expensive drivers and for that matter any expensive components, cabinets etc, is no guarantee of a communicative listen - it parts have to gel and there are many fine examples of speakers, at all price points, that manage this trick with far more modest components to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts. Good parts simply raise expectations, and I was keen to see if the XTZs would be able to carry off the apparently tricky task of integrating a planar driver with a moving coil driver so they sounded like a cohesive whole. As someone who listens to a lot of female vocal, I would have to say the answer is a resoundingly solid yes. This is not uncommon amongst plenty of speakers with traditional dome/cone drivers, but because ribbons can have a quite distinct character, the result can sound like a collection of disparate drivers.
Not so here.
Although I did detect a slight brightness to the very top end of the range, the smoothness of the tweeter is such that is never in your face, but relies on it's natural resolution to present real detail. Vocalists breaths sound quite natural, whilst the breathing of wind instrumentalists doesn't sound overtly emphasised. This blends with a midrange that never shouts even when presented with vocals of real power and projection. Eva Cassidy (Songbird) has a voice of stunning pitch perfect expression, backed up with a real open mouthed power that ensures she will remain popular for her ability, rather than the fact her life was cut tragically short. The XTZs conveyed all of the emotion, without getting in the least bit 'shouty' or hard as she hits the highs loud and clear, adding none of the unpleasant ringing sensation less able mid/bass drivers do. Even massed choruses failed to phase them. Jennifer Warnes (Famous Blue Raincoat) has similarly expansive voice, but this resolutely mid '80s recording which for the most part is superb, with excellent dynamics, has a digital brightness common of it's time. On the wrong speakers it can simultaneously ring in your ears and strip wall paper, prompting the volume to be reduced as a matter of personal health. I have heard it done well by speakers that have real control over all of their faculties, but never in a floor-stander at this price. On this occasion, I stopped worrying about it all starting to sound edgy and falling apart and simply enjoyed listening through to Stevie Ray Vaughan's understated guitar (Track 1: First we take Manhattan). The whole song was underpinned by a tuneful bass that maintained the tracks pace and instead of jumping forward to track four (Joan of Arc) as I usually do, I continued to let it play through, remembering what is was to enjoy this CD as an album rather than a test piece.
More personal faves followed ranging from Metallica, Aerosmith, Madonna, Dire Straits, Bob Dylan, Jewel, Mika ad infinitum. Recordings balanced for radio airplay sounded decent and the really good, sounded really good. All in all it had me searching out CDs I really hadn't approached in years and I can't think of a better recommendation than that.
Downsides? Well, yes there are some. The very deepest bass was a touch loose resulting in a very slightly thicker kick drum sound than I like. Now, this could be down to my rooms known contribution deep down stringing deeper notes out; These are the first non subwoofer I've had that can plumb those depths with enough power for it to be an issue. It could also be down to a less than solid mounting (the speakers were essentially flat on the carpet) which could not achieved without spikes. I did investigate whether the feet could be unscrewed and replaced, but was unwilling to force them to find out. Either way, as a result I felt that the impressively deep bass slightly lacked the tactile precision to match all that is very good from the mid bass up. Again, I emphasize the rooms contribution in all of this and certainly feel it would be ameliorated by a larger room, or one with a more absorbing structure than my solid concrete block walls. It didn't make real music drag its feet or affect the bass tunefulness, whereas electronica with unnaturally deep notes could sound frightening. I am very critical here, as I do like a bass sound that tends toward 'dry' which is easily achieved when running an EQ'd sub. That I'm even talking about bass this deep, with this much enthusiasm, from a comparatively compact floor-stander is still surprise to me though.
The only other note concerns the treble and even then only right at the high frequency extreme. The ribbon is claimed to produce frequencies right out to 40kHz. This is of course of great use if you have a bat that regularly listens to SACDs, but for all it's prowess with the clean reproduction of voice, I felt there was a slight additional zing to cymbals and high hats that was only very slightly OTT, like there was a slightly rising trend to the treble response. To be honest, it would be churlish to dwell on this as it's only really noticeable against such a refined treble performance in general and I wouldn't trade one at the expense of the other. If I hadn't been exposed to a friends Dynaudio Focus 220s (£2k, give or take), I probably wouldn't even have noticed it.
Less of a problem and more of a factor to consider is driving them. Although their large volume and driver area makes them reasonably efficient, I would state that they really do like an amp with some real grip and decent current reserves to pin them down. XTZ label them as a 4 - 8 Ohm speaker which offers a hint. I used my Audiolab 8000P most of the time, but did briefly try them bi-amped using four of my Rotels five channels. If the bass was occasionally borderline before, with the Rotel it was all over the shop. That was before I noticed a clouding of the mid range and a previously absent coarseness from the treble, all of which were the amps fault. Given the improvement the Rotel brought over the power-amps in £1000 Denon receiver with my less demanding PMCs, I would suggest that receiver owners consider carefully, even if the price tag makes them look seriously tempting.
I have focused upon music in particular mainly because I'm one of those who doesn't really buy the 'there's music or movies speakers' idea. In my humble opinion, accurate is accurate, regardless of source material and if you get music right, then movies will follow. My reasoning is that for the most part, I feel the extra detail and dynamics that ‘movie' speakers are often attributed as possessing, is little more than an elevated treble output that gives en extra searing edge to dynamic effects. That said, I do enjoy the presentation and resulting edge of the seat fun that well set up movie speakers can provide, even though it's not a compromise I'd make. Plenty will disagree and that's fine with me; I'm not about to change my mind on what I like from my system, but I may have found a compromise that will allow me to have my cake, plus a bit of everybody else's though. Mmmm - double cake. Nom, nom, nom. More in a minute.
Throughout their time in my room, the 99.36s have been partnered by an XTZ 99.25 centre speaker. In fact there's another two 99.25s around that will be the subject of a more movie focused write up using three monitors across the front, although there's going to be some inevitable crossover. I have a bit of a (apparently personal) issue with the tonal matching provided by the alleged matching centre speakers of some packages (see my blog) and to be honest, I was expecting no more than an average performance here - matching drive units don't count for much if they're in a completely different shape, size and orientation of cabinet, they'll sound noticeably different.
I was rather pleasantly surprised by what was happening beneath my screen in this case though. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been too surprised if only I'd engaged my brain a bit earlier. The 99.36 is the 99.25 stand-mount, with an extra bass driver in a separate cabinet beneath them. There's not quite the totally seamless triple act of the three 99.25s (or any other package that shares identical speakers across the front a la M&K), but for those who want to keep floor-standers in the equation for music, it's very, very close. Hell, I nearly enjoyed multichannel music DVDs, without down-mixing to 2.1. The match across the front was far less of a compromise than I have experienced in my room recently.
So, this part of the process took on a new enjoyment and I spent more time with it than I had intended. I leave specific comment on the centre for later, but the bigguns were an abject lesson in the real dynamics that only bigger drivers can offer. Explosive dynamic effects were delivered with a midrange kick that adds a brutal edge even a big sub can't deliver on it's own. This is partnered with a sense of easy headroom that makes drum strikes feel real and listening at high levels in general an unfatiguing experience.
The cake bit of this, comes down to the treble tuning options that I disguarded for music very early on and it's one aspect of the XTZs that got me interested in the first place. Having done the usual selection of familiar DVD and Blu-ray excerpts, I reinserted the links to increase the treble by the preset +3dB on offer and spun up the opening scene of Casino Royalle again. I didn't listen to the other clips, because I ended up watching the whole film, pausing merely for natural breaks and grape based sustenance. I was transfixed.
The extra brightness gave the tinkle of spent bullet casings a crystal ring that whilst I'm not convinced it is natural, is certainly damn good fun. Screeching tyres, gun shots and punches took on a visceral clarity, that was helped by the tweeters refined nature staying my hand from reaching for the volume control when the going got busy. The glass dish that smashes in scene two of House of Flying Daggers can send many a tweeter into hysterics, making the effect sound too glassy for comfort, but here it was spot on. Dialogue was clear and free of chestiness that obscures muttered lines, although I would say that was true without the extra treble also - it was more as a result of the bass port plugging that tamed any un-natural lower mid bass bloom from being close to a wall.
In the run up to the XTZs arriving, I've been playing swapsies with family members and a mate. As my cherished PMC GB1s have done the rounds, they've been replaced by a pair of JM Lab 716s and very briefly by a pair of Monitor Audio RS6s. Each had it's balance of strengths, but I would have been pretty confident in picking a price order based on the combination of sound and fit/finish. Much as I've enjoyed the time with each, I'd heard nothing that would ultimately convince me the PMCs time was done and I was looking forward to getting them back. I had expected bigger bass to arrive with the 99.36s as even a transmission line can't totally make up for considerably less cabinet volume and driver area. I'd expected sweeter treble (subject to suiting my slightly hard room) from that tweeter as the Vifa unit in the PMC is detailed, but easily provoked. What I hadn't expected was them to be so completely shown the door in the midrange. I'm impressed.
You can justify basic finish and a few cut corners when delivering a performance package well below the market rate. Okay, this equation is helped by the manufacturer direct marketing model, but I've looked hard (even pulled them apart) and I can't see anything that's being done differently to the high street norm, lack of spikes excepted. Tight veneer, thick cabinets with no cheap-skating on bracing or cabinet damping materials. Even the binding posts and their mounting is far from the plastic parts bin stuff you can find on some very serious speakers. You are not being asked to accept a quality compromise with these speakers and that's the veneered option. The Gloss black of the 99.25s puts you in mortal fear of dust.
They're not without compromise. Unless bass quantity is more important than bass quality; they need a big room AND space away from walls to work at their best. I would also like to see a plinth to widen the footprint to aid stability - there are a lot of heavy drivers mounted high up, but that's more of a kiddy proofing feature to add to a very small wish list of eight points. That's eight metal points. AV Receiver owners had better think carefully too. I would debate whether all but the best will have the transparency necessary to do the XTZs justice, but in power terms anything much below the likes of a Denon 4308 or Onkyo 905 is going to get eaten for breakfast. I'm not talking about sheer wattage, but the need for a healthy current supply if it isn't all going to go south at anything other than moderate volumes. Otherwise, the stand-mount 99.25s and a good active sub may be a more sensible alternative.
In the end, you have to weigh up what's on offer against the alternatives and factor in the pros and cons of the buying method. XTZ's 3 week 'buy and try' seems a reasonably risk free (shipment costs excepted) proposition. At £680-720 delivered to your door they're up against favourites such as MA RS6s, Quad 22Ls & B&W 684s. Even then, some of those only get down to those prices if purchased on line, so if that's the market you're in, seriously consider giving the 99.36s a go. In fact do so, even if your budget stretches higher. They are a truly excellent music speaker with a mature presentation (read non-AV) that happens have the bonus of coming with a movie 'switch' and I honestly think they would come out extremely well against company with a considerably higher sticker price.
If you're happy that my small list of caveats aren't a problem, there's only one problem left to consider - That's how much more expensive the next upgrade will be to seriously improve upon them.