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Emotiva Airmotiv B1 review: Audiophile sound for a popcorn price

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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 sound bar /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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