Emotiva's astonishing desktop speaker

The Emotiva Pro airmotiv 4 may be the 'baby' in the line, but it's the best sounding desktop in its price class.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

I rarely get all that excited by the sound of iPod speakers, if only because you can so easily get better sound from a good set of desktop speakers. I've cited Audioengine's terrific little speakers many times in this blog, and I still love them, but there's a new speaker from Emotiva Pro, the airmotiv 4, and it's raised the sound quality benchmark for $399 per pair speakers.

The Emotiva Pro airmotiv 4 speaker Steve Guttenberg

Look at the pictures of the airmotiv 4 and you'll see it's missing something found on most speakers: a dome tweeter. In its place you'll find a Heil air motion transformer. It looks like a ribbon or planar magnetic tweeter, but the Heil is a fundamentally different type of tweeter. Instead of pushing air to make sound, the Heil's pleated diaphragm "squeezes" air. The Heil's large radiating area requires less movement to generate a given sound pressure level, so the Heil produces lower distortion than most dome tweeters.

The airmotiv 4 also has a 4.5-inch woofer, and both drivers are made exclusively for Emotiva. The cross-braced, medium-density fiberboard cabinet feels supersolid. I like that there are no external wall warts or power supplies; each airmotiv 4 houses a hefty power transformer and two 25 watt amplifiers, one for each driver. Connectivity options include RCA and XLR inputs, and before I forget to mention it, the rear panel also has bass and treble controls. The airmotiv 4 measures 9.4 by 6.1 by 7.3 inches, weighs just over 10 pounds, and the only available finish is textured black.

I listened to the airmotiv 4 on my desktop, with my computer feeding a Schiit Audio Bifrost digital-to-analog converter (review in the works). The airmotiv 4 can also be used as a hi-fi speaker. When you hear a well-engineered speaker with a great tweeter like the airmotiv 4's you find out in a hurry what you've been missing. The new Audioengine A5+ speakers ($399/pair) can't touch the airmotiv 4's clarity. That extends to the bass--the A5+'s bass definition is softer and looser than the airmotiv 4's.

The stereo soundstage on Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald's "Summertime" was tremendous, and the lifelike presence of their vocals was the best I've heard from my desktop system. The orchestral strings on this recording sounded natural--this speaker produces bona fide high-end audio sound for just $399! Trust me on this, a $600 Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air isn't in the same league. Granted, the B & W takes up less space and looks great, but if you care more about sound than style, the airmotiv 4 would be a wise investment.

What about bass? I tested the airmotiv 4's low frequency muscle with Radiohead's "King of Limbs" album. The texture and palpability of the bass was excellent, and even when I turned the volume up nice and loud the airmotiv 4 kept its cool. Highly dynamic recordings couldn't fluster the little speaker, at least at the volume levels I can tolerate in nearfield listening. The airmotiv 4 is rated to go down to 54 Hertz, that's about as deep as you're going to get from a little desktop "subwoofer," but I can't say the airmotiv 4 will satisfy those of you craving truly deep bass. A 4.5-inch woofer in a small box can only go so deep.

It's sold direct by Emotiva Pro with a 30-day return policy, and the airmotiv 4 comes with a transferable five-year parts and labor warranty. If I didn't know how much it costs I would have guessed $600, but it's actually $399 a pair! Emotiva also offers two larger models, the airmotiv 5 ($599) and airmotiv 6 ($699/pair). A matching subwoofer will arrive early this year.