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Emotiva Airmotiv B1 review: Audiophile sound for a popcorn price

The Emotiva Airmotiv B1 is an unusually versatile speaker that offers excellent clarity and imaging for a budget price.

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Ty Pendlebury
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Ty Pendlebury

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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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If you've been looking to dip your toe into the world of speakers and separate electronics, now is a great time to act. Never before has hi-fi, and by extension, home theater, been so competitive at the entry level.

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8.2

Emotiva Airmotiv B1

The Good

The Emotiva Airmotiv B1 is a small, affordable two-way bookshelf speaker with a folded-ribbon tweeter and a 5.25-inch mid-woofer. It offers a good deal of flexibility and can be used as in-room or nearfield stereo desktop speakers, or as front or surround speakers in home theaters.

The Bad

Utilitarian black finish. The Elac B6s offer a bigger, deeper sound for a similar price.

The Bottom Line

The Emotiva Airmotiv B1 is an unusually versatile speaker that offers excellent clarity and imaging for a budget price.

Emotiva has been delivering affordable studio gear for 10 years but has only started getting serious about consumer products in the last couple. The affordable Airmotiv B1 bookshelf and the Airmotiv T1 floorstander are the first entry-level models to appear, and by golly they're good.

The B1 is the cheapest of the two and sounds tremendous for 300 bucks, with performance that's versatile in a way few budget speakers are. Sure, it's not much of a looker, but the magnetic grille will help some.

While competitor Elac still has our hearts at this level, the Emotiva puts up a good fight. While Elac's B6 is more musical, if we wanted to "see" inside a recording, the Emotiva B1 is what we would choose.

Design and features

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Emotiva's passive Airmotiv B1 looks very similar to the powered Airmotiv 5S. Both include the same folded-ribbon Airmotiv tweeter and 5.25-inch Kevlar driver, and feature that unique industrial design. The black box is 10.75 inches high, 7.125 inches wide and 8.25 inches deep. The B1 has a foam pad on the bottom that is designed to absorb vibration, making it suitable for use on a shelf or media unit. The company says the 8-ohm speaker will reach down to 48Hz (at -3dB) and will suit 70-watt amplifiers.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The B1 is part of a series which also includes the three-way Airmotiv C1 center channel ($250), the Airmotiv E1 ($270 per pair) surround speaker with 4-inch Kevlar driver, and the Airmotiv T1 three-way tower ($700 per pair).

Performance

To get started, we placed the Airmotiv B1 speakers on 24-inch-tall metal floor stands and used a Rotel RA-1592 stereo integrated amplifier with an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player. This little speaker has a rear port, so don't plan on jamming it up against a wall; it won't sound its best that way.

With mandolinist/singer Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau's new album, the Airmotiv B1 won us over with its highly transparent sound. Thile's mandolin was particularly well served. Each strum and pluck was distinctly rendered, Mehldau's piano was just as precise, but the piano's lower registers were slightly reined in. The Airmotiv B1 is a little speaker, so that was expected to some degree.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

For comparison, we brought out the $280-a-pair ELAC Debut B6 speakers, which seemed like a fair contest in that both speakers feature 5.25 inch woofers. The Airmotiv B1 is a more compact design, however, so it was hardly a surprise that the Debut B5 was a fuller, richer-sounding speaker. We liked that, but the Airmotiv B1 aced it for clarity on Thile's mandolin. Further, Meldau's piano sounded more lifelike on the Debut B5. That's not to imply the Airmotiv B1 sounded thin, just that the Debut B5 was the richer-sounding speaker.

At that point we stopped comparing the two speakers and focused on the Airmotiv B1 with roots rockers Shovels & Rope's "O' Be Joyful" album, taken at a satisfyingly loud volume. The little guys kicked butt, but as we continued to listen, we found the Airmotiv B1s a tad brighter than neutral in their tonal balance.

To exercise the Airmotiv B1s woofers, we cued up "Air" from "The Thin Red Line" soundtrack, and this tune's massive pounding drumline set us back in our seats! The drums' weight and impact belied the Airmotiv B1's size in our small CNET listening room. We also noted the little speaker's stereo imaging was precisely focused.

We next set up the Airmotiv B1s as desktop speakers and listened from three feet away. They sounded fuller close up, and their folded-ribbon tweeter's clarity was even more impressive. Since it's a "passive" speaker, it needs to be partnered with a stereo receiver or integrated amplifier for desktop use.

We also tried them as stereo home-theater speakers and liked what we heard. Sure, the Airmotiv B1s had limitations for maximum volume, dynamics and deep bass compared with larger tower speakers, but the B1's clarity is far ahead of what you get from budget-priced sound bars. With "The Revenant" Blu-ray, we found the Airmotiv B1s very capable performers. At this point, we added Emotiva's new BASX S8 8-inch subwoofer, which supplied more muscle for home-theater antics. The Airmotiv B1/BASX S8 combination will outshine most more-expensive /sub systems for sound quality for movies, and even more so for music.

Final thoughts

The Emotiva Airmotiv B1 is an overachiever -- it will serve with distinction as stereo speakers, as well as front main and surround speakers in Emotiva home theaters. For desktop applications where the buyer already has a stereo power amp or receiver, the Airmotiv B1 deserves strong consideration. Granted, the Airmotiv B1 faces stiff competition from the Debut B5 -- a richer, bigger-sounding speaker -- but the Airmotiv B1 is clearer. If you favor precision over warmth, the Emotiva is the one to get.

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8.2

Emotiva Airmotiv B1

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 8