Today we're witnessing a renaissance for budget home-theater components. Entry-level gear is explosively good these days, as evinced by great-sound-for-the-money offerings from companies like Elac America, Fluance and Emotiva.
While Elac is arguably the most consistent and definitely the most visible, we have also been impressed by the products we've seen from Emotiva. The company's Airmotiv 4 was perhaps the best near-field/desktop speaker for the money, and its electronics are top-notch too.
Now the same can be said of its T1 tower speaker. It has that big-speaker sound that kicks butt over smaller models, with a vivid, engaging presence that belies its affordable price. Yes, the Elac Uni-Fi UF5 is better still, but it is also $300 more expensive. If you want to wring the most value out of $700, then the rock'n'roll Emotiva T1s are a superlative choice.
Design and features
One thing is for certain: the Emotivas look like they mean business. With their sharp angles and "none more black" color scheme, these are the stealth fighter jets of the speaker world. You can park them in the hangar right next to your Netgear AC1900 router and Alienware Alpha PC. (If the angled industrial look is a bit much, you can soften it with the included magnetic grille.)
The towers are elongated versions of the B1/AirMotiv 5S, standing roughly 38 inches high by 8.5 inches wide and 12 inches deep. Like the more-expensive GoldenEar range, Emotiva's products use a folded ribbon tweeter -- a folded piece of metal that "squeezes" out high frequencies. The speaker adds two extra 6-inch woven fiber woofers to the B1's single 5.25-inch midrange. Be aware that the speakers are rear ported and don't come with bungs if you plan to put them close to a wall. In terms of performance stats, the speakers have a claimed frequency response of 37Hz - 28kHz, a nominal impedence of 4 ohms, and are reasonably sensitive at 88 dB.
It didn't take too long to discover the Emotiva Airmotiv T1's can-do attitude; it's an exciting, dynamically alive speaker. We had them hooked up to a Rotel RA-1592 stereo integrated amplifier and an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player for all of our listening tests. There's a big round bass port on the speaker's backside, low down near the floor, so the Airmotiv T1 will sound its best a few feet away from rear or side walls. Like nearly all tower or large bookshelf speakers, the Airmotiv T1's sound improves when placed even further out into the room.
The sound first reminded us of the SVS Prime Towers, but sadly, we no longer have them on hand for direct comparisons. We quickly discovered the Airmotiv T1 can rock out with formidable prowess, and at the same time it's refined enough to shine with Frank Sinatra fronting a big band. Our best one-word description of the Airmotiv T1 sound would be "vivid." True, it's brighter than neutral, but thanks to its folded-ribbon tweeter, it's so clean the Airmotiv T1 never added harshness to the sound of music and movies.
Then there's the big speaker advantage. The Airmotiv T1 delivers "scale"; it sounds bigger and closer to the sound of live music than most smaller speakers can muster. Reveling in the nimble bassline that propels Norah Jones' "All A Dream" from her "Little Broken Hearts" album, the Airmotiv T1s were in their element. The balance of bass oomph and leading edge definition was above par. Her vocals sound mildly processed on this album, but natural on her "Foreverly" album, and the Airmotiv T1 made the differences perfectly clear! This speaker tells it like it is.
Then we brought out the ELAC Uni-Fi UF5 tower speakers for a few rounds of comparisons. It didn't take long to hear that the Uni-Fi UF5 was a fuller, bassier speaker. The Airmotiv T1's low-end was leaner, but still satisfying. As we continued, we noted the Uni-Fi UF5's soundstage was better focused, with superior dimensionality. With Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop's gorgeous "Love Letter For Fire" album, the acoustic flavor of the tunes sounded more natural over the Uni-Fi UF5.
Still, returning to the Airmotiv T1 the sound was livelier, while the Uni-Fi UF5 tamped down dynamics. For instance, take Radiohead's "A Moon Shaped Pool" album. Its kinetic pulse kicked harder on the Airmotiv T1, the soaring background vocals on "Decks Dark" were airier, and Thom Yorke's lead vocal was more fully present over the Airmotiv T1s.
We next tested the Airmotiv T1's home-theater stamina with the "Hacksaw Ridge" Blu-ray. This World War II action flick's gruesome battles with artillery blasts, machine guns and explosions were all taken in stride, and dialogue remained clear in the midst of the mayhem. In the small CNET listening room we had plenty of low bass and didn't miss not having a subwoofer.
We liked different things about the Emotiva Airmotiv T1 and the Uni-Fi UF5. They're both excellent, but the Airmotiv T1 retails for $300 less than the Uni-Fi UF5, and that might help tilt the balance in the decision-making process. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Emotiva Airmotiv T1 is a joy to listen to, and more of a party-minded speaker than the Elac could ever be. As a result, the T1 is one of the best floorstanders in its price range and comes highly recommended.