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Klipsch R-15PM review: Powered speakers make viable alternative to a sound bar

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When it comes to buying sound equipment, most people either buy a receiver and speakers or an integrated solution like a sound bar. But there is another. A set of powered speakers can be an inexpensive way to incorporate the benefits of both sound bars and separates.

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8.0

Klipsch R-15PM

The Good

The Klipsch R-15PM is a breeze to set up, and its abundant feature set is buoyed by feisty, solid performance. The phono input will be of interest to fans of vinyl new and old. The speakers are solidly built and attractive.

The Bad

The Klipsch R-15PM's sound veers toward the bright side of neutral. If you're using stands it will take a little more effort to hide cabling. For best results, a subwoofer will help.

The Bottom Line

The Klipsch R-15PM is a likeable powered speaker offering convenience, lively sound and an abundance of features.

The $499 Klipsch R-15PM offers the connectivity and stereo separation of a receiver-speaker combo as well as the all-in-one simplicity of a sound bar. Sound quality is neck-and-neck with competitors like the less-expensive Audioengine A5+, and the Klipsch's addition of a remote control, and a phono input helps mitigate the price difference.

The Klipsch does have its disadvantages -- for instance, dangling four different connections plus a power cable and a speaker output may get messy when these are sitting on stands, and adding a subwoofer is definitely recommended. However, for this kind of money the RP15PM makes it a refreshing and "proper" hi-fi alternative to the all-in-one sound bar systems you usually see.

Australian and UK pricing and availability are yet to be announced.

Design

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These new Klipsch R-15Ms are a pair of powered speakers you can add to your audio or home entertainment system.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Given the similarities in the model names, you could reasonably assume the RP-150M and the R-15PM are riffs on the same basic speaker: the former being passive, and the latter a powered monitor (PM). But the R-15PM is a little less than an amp shoved in the RP-150M, though it shares many of the same technologies.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The most obvious difference between the two speakers is size. The RP-150M is a medium-size bookshelf speaker (14.57 inches high by 7.67-inches wide and 10.67 inches deep), while the R-15PM shaves off a couple of inches off at 12.5 inches high and 7 inches wide.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Both speakers do employ Klipsch's 5.25-inch "Spun Copper Cerametallic Cone Woofer" and a 1-inch horn-loaded Tractrix tweeter, but the R-15PM uses the company's older, less-fancy tweeter enclosure.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Both speakers use the brushed black vinyl wrap also favored by budget speakers like the new ELAC Debut and Uni-Fi ranges. Be aware that these mark and scuff easier than traditional wood veneer/vinyl wraps.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The system comes with a credit-card-style clicker, which is fairly easy to use for basic things such as volume and changing the input.

Features

Compared against rivals like Audioengine or lesser-known folks like Emotiva, the Klipsch offers an embarrassment of features for the money. The most intriguing of these is the phono preamp, designed to coincide with the planned release of Klipsch turntables sometime in 2016.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While the Klipsch is being pitched as a hi-fi speaker, its connectivity speaks as much to a desktop model. With just a USB input and a Bluetooth receiver, it could sit right alongside the Audioengine A5+ in competing to power your desktop PC. The company also bundles in two extra analog inputs (of which the switchable phono is one) in addition to a optical input.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The R-15PM's onboard amp is rated at 50 watts per channel, and Klipsch claims the speakers reach down to 54Hz. Unlike its more expensive competitor, the Yamaha NX-N500, the Klipsch keeps things tidy by housing the amp in one speaker and connecting to the right speaker by speaker wire. In comparison the Yamaha has three cables, including a power, snaking to each speaker.

Sound quality

The Klipsch R-15PM may be a small speaker, but its sure-footed dynamic performance made itself known from the get-go. Most similarly sized speakers inhibit dynamic punch, but the R-15PM doesn't, and that makes all the difference.

Bass is reasonably full, but the lowest bass frequencies are lacking. Bassy recordings still had satisfying weight; jazz keyboard player Jamie Saft's "The New Standard" album kicked butt and his bassist Steve Swallow's definition and growl were first-rate. Hip hop producer/artist Earl Sweatshirt's "I Don't Like S**t, I Don't Go Outside" album energized the R-15PMs, and even when we pumped up the volume the speakers never cried "uncle." Switching over to a older pair of Audioengine A5 (which sound very similar to the current A5+) powered monitor speakers, the sound was more muted, dynamically compressed, and less lively overall.

The R-15PM is clearly a higher energy, more exciting speaker than the A5, but the A5's smoother sound is kinder to harsh, overcompressed music. Returning to the R-15PM the sound opened up, but along with that we heard vocal sibilance that added a small amount of harshness to the sound of vocals and acoustic guitars. We preferred vocals overall with the A5, but the A5 can't comfortably play as loud as the R-15PMs.

The "heartbeat" bassline coursing through Krafwerk's "Elektro Kardiogramm" was lumpy over the A5s, and much better defined via the R-15PMs. A pair of brand-spanking-new Yamaha NX-N500 powered speakers ($800) sounded small and dynamically constricted next to the freewheeling R-15PMs.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Since the R-15PM has the rare distinction of having a built-in phono preamp, we hooked up a U-Turn Orbit Basic turntable, and played some vinyl. The sound was pretty good overall, but markedly improved when we bypassed the R-15PM's phono preamp and utilized the Orbit Basic's built-in Pluto preamp. The R-15PM's preamp is serviceable for casual, background listening, but vinyl-philes will likely opt for something better. The speakers were a much better match with the Crosley C10 -- essentially a modified Pro-Ject Debut III -- with smoother, more bass-rich sound when using the Klipsch's onboard phono input.

The R-15PM's big sound and dynamics will come in handy when playing high-impact movies, but adding a powered subwoofer would be worthwhile for folks who crave maximum, floor-shaking impact. Or if you want a little more "funk" with your Daft Punk. We had good results with the cheap-as-chips Dayton Sub-800 -- it filled out the bottom register nicely -- and even better with the SVS SB-1000, which was like adding mortar to the cracks left by the Dayton.

Conclusion

For a small speaker, the $499 Klipsch R-15PM punches above its size and weight class. We enjoyed it most when we rocked out in the small 14-by-18-foot CNET listening room. The speaker/room match clicked, though the R-15PM would probably do even better in smaller rooms and less well in larger rooms without a sub. If you're looking for a viable alternative to a sound bar, this is a good place to start.

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8.0

Klipsch R-15PM

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Sound 7Value 8