And now for something completely different: the EX-A1. At first glance, JVC's $550 desktop system definitely looks nice, but we'd hardly call it revolutionary. Peel away the unassuming speaker grilles, however, and you'll see what sets the EX-A1 apart from every other mass-produced audio system on the planet: JVC replaced the usual plastic, metal, or paper drivers with birch-wood speaker cones that are soaked in sake to increase their flexibility. From a sound-quality perspective, this unique design delivers mixed results that will likely satisfy only a select group of mature buyers--namely those who want to say, "Check out those sake-soaked wood drivers." Nevertheless, there's no denying that the classy EX-A1 reaches beyond the mundane values of typical minisystem and HTIB fare. Instead of the typical plastic or chipboard cabinets found on most minisystems, the EX-A1's speakers offer solid cherry-wood cabinets for enhanced sound quality and an elegant appearance. That's remarkable; plenty of speakers retailing for many times the price of the complete EX-A1 system aren't built this well. We also think that the birch drivers look spiffy next to the cherry wood. The speakers measure just 6.5 inches tall, 4.8 inches wide, and 9.5 inches deep and weigh 3.5 pounds each.
The EX-A1's jewel-like receiver/DVD player feels remarkably solid, thanks in part to its thick, metal chassis. Its informative display is flanked by control buttons and a cast-metal, dome-shaped volume-control knob. Measuring a scant 9.25 inches wide, 4 inches tall, and 10.5 inches deep, this compact component will fit in cramped spaces that are out of bounds for most receivers or HTIB systems.
The slender remote offers options not found on the main unit, including bass, treble, and virtual surround-sound controls. Since the EX-A1 is a two-channel rather than a multichannel stereo unit, its receiver section doesn't require any setup rituals or a perusal of the owner manual--it's a plug-and-play affair.
Considering the size of the speakers and the amplifier's limited power reserves, we'd recommend using the EX-A1 in small rooms of less than 200 square feet. The speakers sound best when situated within five to seven feet of the listener. The 3.25-inch wood cones featured in this upscale desktop music system look really cool, but the goals of Toshikatsu Kuwahata, the speakers' lead designer, were primarily performance oriented. He claims that wood provides "an ideal combination of high sound propagation speed and high internal loss, allowing the speaker to naturally reproduce a wide frequency range." I think he means they sound nice. Kuwahata experimented with many types of wood over a 20-year period, but birch wood had the best acoustic properties. To conform to the driver's complex cone shape, sheets of birch are soaked in rice wine (sake), then molded into speaker elements. The speaker cabinets are fitted with all-metal connectors that accept banana jacks, spades, or bare wire.
The EX-A1's stereo Hybrid Digital Feedback Amplifier delivers 30 watts per channel. The receiver/DVD player's format compatibility runs the gamut from DVD-Audio and video to DVD-R/-RW to CD to MP3 and JPEG (for home-burned discs). The unit includes Dolby Digital and DTS decoders, but since this is a two-channel system, you'll be limited to stereo or virtual surround modes. The minimal connectivity suite features composite, S-Video, and component-video outputs, along with a stereo audio input and an optical digital output. An RCA output is provided should you decide to add a powered subwoofer to the mix. We commenced our auditions with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? CD soundtrack. The little speakers didn't sound at all small. Male voices were deeply resonant, and acoustic basses had a rich, "woody" quality. The music's definition and texture were vividly presented. We also enjoyed acoustic jazz CDs. John Coltrane's tenor saxophone virtually materialized between the two speakers, and Wilco's simmering sound on the A Ghost is Born CD knocked us out. Jeff Tweedy's vocals and acoustic guitar sounded very natural. The sound was richly balanced and beyond the range we expect from compact systems, and we didn't mind the lack of a subwoofer.
So far so good, but Aerosmith's Honkin' on Bobo CD sounded strained. Even after we eased down the volume, the speakers' wee dimensions were all too apparent. The harsh, coarse treble on the Led Zeppelin II CD turned us off to playing other rock CDs.
DVD sound quality was also variable. The Lion King DVD was suitably royal, and the EX-A1 ably reproduced the rich intonations of James Earl Jones's sonorous pipes. The Sopranos DVDs also sounded excellent, but full-throttle action films such as 2 Fast 2 Furious lacked luster.
All in all, we learned that wood speakers are good, but they can't work miracles with more demanding material. The EX-A1's Virtual Surround mode delivered spacious sound from the stereo speakers and didn't impose any negative sonic consequences on the sound, so we always used it when watching DVDs.