Remember Edifier? The company that now owns Stax
? I recently covered their e10 Exclaim
desktop speakers and found them rather impressive for just $99. While making a nice budget speaker is certainly noteworthy, part of that equation involves most other speakers in that price being rather poor. Edifier is able to stand out merely by not being terrible. Doing a higher-end design is another matter altogether - in the $300-600 range, competition is fierce, and quality options are plentiful. Could Edifier climb the ladder into this hotly contested segment?
Their entry in this field is the Spinnaker, which I refer to as a "system" because of its unique traits. The thing that immediately jumps out about this system is the external design. The shape is rather.... unconventional. To say the least. Standing over 16 inches tall, each speaker has a shape I can only describe as "horn-like". There's a joke in there somewhere. Covering the majority of the enclosure is a "sock" type material in the grand tradition of speakers like Vandersteen or the classic DCM Timewindow. The enclosure itself is made from a double walled polymer, with a nice touch of metal for the stability "lip" on the lower-rear section. Take a look at the pictures: one could describe the Spinnaker as futuristic, bold, striking, adventurous. Or just plain goofy. I'm not sure I'd disagree with any of those. What I will commit to is that Edifier did not choose a boring design here. Judging by their other models this seems to be a theme of theirs.
Rather than being chosen purely for shock value, it seems the tall, tapered design actually makes sense here. As a three-way, tri-amplified design, each driver has different space and placement requirements, which the cone-like shape seems to accommodate. Occupying the bottom portion and taking up more than half the total enclosure volume, the 4 inch down-firing woofer is fed by a dedicated amp good for 25 watts RMS. Above that is a 2.75 inch midrange, and finally a 1 inch silk-dome tweeter up top, each getting 10 watts RMS from separate amplifiers. A 6-channel DSP system manages the whole operation, digital crossovers and all. It's really a surprising amount of technology in a $349 desktop speaker system.
The fun doesn't stop there, as Edifier has outfitted the Spinnaker with a fairly broad array of connectivity options. For physical connections, there's a 1/8" analog input, a Toslink digital input, and then a 1/8" output for adding an external subwoofer. The Spinnaker is also capable of accepting wireless signals via A2DP Bluetooth connection. This is a rather unique collection of choices, about which I have somewhat mixed feelings. I would have much rather seen a USB input rather than Tosklink, because computers these days seem to be moving away from built-in optical. USB is a guarantee for every PC or Mac. Also, the 1/8" jack is a bit of an odd choice. I had assumed it was meant to quickly pair with smartphones or tablets. But the location (underneath the "master" right speaker) is not at all ideal for that sort of thing - it seems Edifier may have just not had the physical space for an RCA connection. Lastly, the choice of A2DP Bluetooth rather than AirPlay actually makes a lot of sense to me, except I would have liked to see Edifier use the aptX codec for better performance. So overall it's something of a mixed bag for me.
Continuing the theme of "unique", the remote control is definitely unusual. It's a little wireless dome that sits on your desk (or wherever you want it) and communicates with the speakers via RF - no line of sight needed. The main body spins left or right for volume control, and the button on top does different things when pressed once, or held down, or used while rotating the knob. These actions result in skipping tracks, cycling inputs, muting, or even power on/off. The volume control part is pretty straight forward, with the other aspects being somewhat less intuitive. It worked fine once I got the hang of it but I did wish for a more traditional remote at times - especially when accidentally brushing up against the device, and therefore adjusting volume when I hadn't intended to. Still, I love it that Edifier tried something bold and different here - it might have been easier to do the typical credit-card-sized plastic remote, which just wouldn't fit with the character of this unique product. While I have some reservations about the concept, I must admit the execution is well done - battery life is substantial (I recharged via USB every few weeks), range is good, and the solid metal construction feels great in the hand. Overall a fine job by Edifier.
Just as the Spinnaker system looks different from any other desktop speaker I've encountered, so too does it deviate in terms of connectivity. This meant a wide array of messing about to experience what each option is capable of. Right from the start I figured I should grab a baseline by using the optical input - surely this would demonstrate the best Edifier had to offer. My desktop PC currently uses the Asus Xonar Essence STX sound card which provides a Toslink output, so with that connected I was off to the races. This type of output is not as common as it once was, so those interested in the Spinnaker should verify their system before just assuming. For example - the Macbook Pro does have it (through the headphone jack combo port) but the MacBook Air series does not. As is often the case with optical, this implementation tops out at 24-bit/ 96kHz.
Setting the Spinnakers in my usual desktop configuration - roughly 3.5 feet apart and slightly toed in - I noticed something I liked right off the bat: the height and the angle of the cabinet result in just about perfect placement. The midrange and high frequency drivers fire directly towards your ears for an ideal experience without the need of a stand. I've harped on this point in the past but it really can't be overstated, and Edifier seems to be on the same page - their $99 e10 Exclaim (link) speakers had a similar setup.
I fired up some of the usual test material - Britten: War Requiem, Jazz at the Pawn Shop, Lateralus, Blue Train, and a little Norah Jones just to cover the "overplayed audiophile songstress" category. The Spinnaker system impressed right off the bat with very nice clarity and definition. The overall presentation seemed balanced, for the most part, with a bit of extra "excitement" compared to my Serene Audio Talismans http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/serene-audio-talisman-computer-speaker which
I use for a reference. Low frequency extension was pleasing, with reasonably solid depth and convincing impact considering the size of the speakers. I can imagine some people wanting a subwoofer to flesh out the lows for a true full-range experience, but for the most part I don't really find it necessary - you'd be spending at least a few hundred dollars more for a decent sub, and for that total outlay you'd have a huge number of great speakers to choose from. But that's just me... I've always preferred to spread my cash between two speakers rather than three. Still, it's nice to have the option, especially if your main interest is watching movies, where the extra sub-bass is definitely more important.
Pleased with what I had experienced thus far, I used the system for several weeks in this same configuration. Over that time I made a discovery that I had not initially noticed. Essentially, I found that I absolutely loved the Spinnaker in smaller doses. If I wanted to jam for 30 minutes, I'd be extremely satisfied. The sound was bold, engaging, and vivid, to the point where it made my Talismans seem kind of dry and uneventful. I loved the top end sparkle, and the drivers seemed very well integrated - a concern I initially had due to the three-way design.
The flip side of this energetic performance? I grew a bit tired of it in the long term. An hour of classical was usually fine, as was more laid back electro like Kraftwerk or Emancipator. But give me an hour of more aggressive jazz (The Bad Plus), prog metal (Mastodon), or electronic stuff (Crystal Castles) and I'm pretty much spent. The Spinnaker doesn't do any one thing terribly wrong; it's just that the presentation lends itself to fatigue with certain music. Focusing on the positive once more, the good thing about this dynamic sound is that it sounds great at lower levels, reducing the need to crank volume and thus more quickly kill ears.
I mentioned the superb driver integrated earlier, and I think that aspect really helps imaging. While the Spinnaker is not the most expansive sounding speaker in terms of soundstage size, what's there is nicely open and well defined. With 6 drivers, 6 channels of amplification, on-board DSP, and crossovers to tie it all together, there's a lot going on behind the scenes here; and it seems Edifier has done a great job considering the price.
I did notice what seemed to be cabinet resonance at higher volumes. These things sound great at low to mid levels, which is a good thing because I don't think they do so well when the volume is cranked. So while they do great in a near-field situation, I probably wouldn't recommend them as traditional speakers to fill a larger room with sound. They struggle with higher output, specifically in the bass region, so it's best to avoid 90+dB levels. I really think they are more appropriate to use in nearfield situations anyway, where this problem would almost become a non-issue.
I can't really think of a headphone that exactly matches the Spinnaker presentation. My Lear LCM-2b custom IEMs are probably the closest, if we remove most of the bass under 60Hz or so. But those aren't well known so the comparison doesn't help much. In terms of more commonly known headphones - I'm hearing a mix of Denon D2000 and some Grado if that makes any sense. Probably closer to the Denon but with less bass. Sorry for the imperfect comparison but there it is.
Later I switched to the analog input and was very impressed when it didn't sound much different from optical. Considering the extra analog to digital conversion taking place, this is a nice accomplishment. Yes, there's a small dip in clarity, and if you listen hard you'll probably spot it. The difference is not large though, and I'd be comfortable running it this way all the time if that's the only connection I could muster.
Unfortunately I can't say the same about the Bluetooth option. The connection was robust and never gave me trouble on a technical level (good range, too) but sound quality took a considerable dive. It sounded as if the speakers had been wrapped up in a thin blanket or something - sound came through, but it was muffled and indistinct compared to what I heard earlier. This is not surprising considering the rather pedestrian Bluetooth implementation on board... I've been impressed with aptX solutions such as the Wren Sound
speaker and Voxoa
headphones, but this is clearly not on the same level. Then again, since I don't find the Spinnaker all that suitable for 2-channel, non-desktop use, the Bluetooth thing probably doesn't matter so much anyway. Honestly, when used in a desktop scenario, Bluetooth adds very little to the equation. So for me, personally, it's not a big loss.
The Edifier Spinnaker is not a speaker I would have anticipated enjoying. Based on looks, I would have thought it was a marketing experiment gone wrong. And yet, in actual use, the darn thing is a very solid performer. Its quirky appearance actually serve a purpose, and the resulting sound is impressive - especially in smaller doses.
If Edifier could get some market saturation, get these things set up on display like Bose so often does, they'd be sure to sell loads of them. The energetic presentation grabs you from the first note and refuses to let go. A somewhat flawed analogy would be walking into Costco and seeing some huge 70+ inch high-end LCD panel on display. They have some colorful Pixar Blu-Ray showing and everything is cranked up to the max - contrast, brightness, all sorts of processing. You've seen this movie in the theater and you know it didn't quite look like this, but you still find yourself mesmerized. Would you want to see this all the time? Probably not. Is it nonetheless impressive at that moment? Sure is. The Spinnaker system doesn't take it quite that far, but the general sentiment is the same. If you can handle the unusual looks, and don't require extreme volumes, the Spinnaker should definitely be on your list of "things to try".