Most people think of headphones as an alternative to speakers. It’s true that many of us initially started using headphones because of some limitation that precluded us from using a big speaker based system. Maybe your room won’t accommodate speakers, or your budget is limited, or maybe you have roommates or neighbors who wouldn’t appreciate hearing your music all the time. Whatever the case, headphones are an excellent tool to get around these problems. But many of these things change over time: people get older and generally increase their income, moving out of their parent’s house or their dorm room in the process. At some point speakers start to become appealing again. Along with that comes the discovery that headphones and speakers need not be mutually exclusive. Many folks have multiple setups that they are very happy with, and this is possible even without an enormous budget.
If you’ve spent most of your “audiophile” time in the headphone world, the land of speakers can be pretty intimidating at first. Yes, there are some expensive headphones out there. But speakers really take it to another level. While most top level flagship headphones sell for somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500, a quick search at Audiogon.com shows me well over 200 sets of speakers selling for prices above $2,000. Keep in mind that these are used prices. It would be easy to observe the speaker landscape and get discouraged, not knowing where to begin. Is it really necessary to spend big money just to get a decent pair? Should folks on a modest budget just give up?
The answer of course is no. Despite the huge number of high end firms on the market there has always been a good number of speaker companies focusing on the other end of the spectrum. Many of these companies cater to a wide variety of budgets, offering low cost models with at least some measure of “trickle down” technology from their more expensive brethren. Additionally, we are seeing many companies of the “Internet Direct” variety. Without a dealer network needing to take their historically large percentage of the sales price, these companies can afford to sell very high quality product for generally lower prices than what you will find in your local shop.
The focus of this review is a new company called Octet Matrix Audio. Recently launched, Octet Matrix operates as an internet direct company, primarily selling speakers at this point. I discovered the company while browsing online and figured I’d give them a try; two months down the road, I’m absolutely glad I did.
Their website, http://www.octet-matrix.com, explains their name choice:
Octet Matrix: An inherently stable atomic structure that exists in nature and has been adopted for use in human creations. The presence of the octet crystalline structure in diamonds improves light refraction characteristics providing a value 200 times that of otherwise equivalent diamonds.
Their “product philosophy” page further explains:
We believe quality products that provide outstanding customer experiences are not the result of haphazardly tossing expensive components into a device, but are the result of understanding the relationship between the component and the human experience. Octet Matrix Audio uses a truly integrated technical and experiential development process that allows us to better understand the tradeoffs every development effort must make. This process allows us to put cost where it matters most to the customer, and to find robust, but less costly components where it doesn’t. This approach allows us to provide products with better performance than many competitive products costing several times that of Octet Matrix Audio products.
Can you figure out where they are going with this? Basically the idea is that by choosing the proper configuration of components and assembling them in an ideal fashion, the end result can be much more than the individual parts themselves would suggest. Experience from the headphone world confirms this notion. How many headphones use similar drivers, with nearly identical materials for the enclosure, yet sound completely different? A Denon D7000 will never be confused with an Audio Technica W5000, despite both being expensive designs with wooden housings and drivers that are just 3mm different in size. Or consider Grado headphones – using nearly identical drivers from the lowest sub-$100 model all the way up to the flagship $1700 PS1000. Or yet another example, this one being possibly the most germane to the current review: the Thunderpants TP1 headphone – an $80 model, expertly upgraded and tweaked, resulting in arguably the best sealed headphone currently available at any price. Clearly high end parts alone are not enough to guarantee spectacular results, nor are relatively modest components necessarily an indication of mediocrity.
I ended up getting the Octet Matrix DE7B speakers. The DE7 line is their monitor sized speaker, and the B stands for Black. They are also available with real wood veneers in either cherry or maple. All flavors sell for the same $349 per pair including free shipping. There is also the BA21, a matching MTM design model (they call it a “Balanced Array”, not to be confused with a line array) that goes for $259 each. This can be used as a matching center channel or else use two of them as main speakers. A 15” powered subwoofer rounds out the collection, which seems very competitively priced at $349 shipped. There is also a unique line of powered wireless monitor speakers which are based on the DE7 and BA21. These active speakers feature a lossless wireless connection, enabling you to place them in a separate location from the audio source. I almost went for these just out of sheer curiosity but I really don’t have a need for the wireless aspect, and I already had amplification. I encourage you to check out the website and see these designs; as far as I know there is nothing else quite like it on the market.
Based on the pricing and language on the website, it seems clear that Octet Matrix is focused on high performance at relatively reasonable prices, achieved through good design. This is obviously much easier said than done. Wondering what the history of the company was, I had an excellent email exchange with founder Scott Lightner. I asked him who designed the speakers, and he replied:
The DE7 and BA21 designs are mine. I have 30 years of experience in the audio industry with 22 years dedicated specifically to the loudspeaker industry.
I focus on acoustic design, mechanical design, basic electrical design, and system integration. We utilize outside resources for wireless design and any other specialized technologies.
OK, that sounds like a good starting point. Next I asked him about comparisons to other reasonably priced speakers on the market:
We use competitive comparisons during development, but do not release the brands/models or the results. Because our goal is providing reasonably priced high end speakers, we will say that our primary design goal in each category is to meet or exceed the performance of highly regarded competitor’s speakers with price points several times that of our products.
We do provide some basic performance data (on and off axis response plots) on our products because they demonstrate conformance to our belief that flat and balanced power response is, by a considerable margin, the most important characteristic of a good loudspeaker.
This was sounding more and more like statements that would come from such technically minded companies like Anedio or Violectric. If you think there is a lot of nonsense and misinformation in the headphone arena, you should see the speaker world… for every reasonable designer out there it seems that there is at least one interesting character cranking out “exotic” designs in his garage with little regard for measurements. The funny part is, these can fetch big prices, and sometimes end up evolving into very prestigious brand names. If that is something you are looking for, this review will not be helpful. That’s not to say that one can’t build a great sounding speaker on their own. Indeed, there are many DIY designs available online that have the potential to sound very good for a relatively low price. I tend to think of the better internet direct speaker companies as offering a similar experience for those of us lacking the resources to complete the build ourselves.
Getting back to the DE7, I asked Scott if they were made in the USA or overseas:
That depends on your definition of “made”. We assemble, test, and pack all loudspeaker systems in Lake Zurich, Illinois. We purchase most drivers, cabinets, baffles, crossover assemblies, printed circuit assemblies (wireless products), etc. from offshore sources.
Although not 100% “made in the USA”, this is still much closer to home than you would get with many other speakers, even some far more expensive models. To some people this matters very little but to others it might be a big deal. You’d be surprised at how many speakers are just existing models from an OEM source. They get purchased by a well known audio company, rebadged, and sold for several times what the original model had gone for in its local market. The company selling these as their own had literally zero involvement with the design or building of the speaker. I was pleased to hear that Octet Matrix is not one of those types, because it is not something you can immediately tell just from reading a website.
Another thing I really like about this company is their 30-day in home demo policy. They offer a full refund if you aren’t satisfied with the product for any reason. Since shipping was included in the original price, you would receive a full refund, and would really only be out the amount that it costs to ship it back. This has become the mark for quality internet direct speaker companies and it really speaks of the confidence Octet Matrix has in their products.
At this point in the review you might be saying to yourself “These look like interesting speakers and all, but why is he reviewing them on a headphone website?” Allow me to explain. Since I have a somewhat high profile around here due to my frequent ramblings, I tend to get a lot of private messages asking for advice. I try my best to answer each and every one of them, because I enjoy this hobby and want to help people out as much as I can. It’s time consuming but very enjoyable and I’ve had many great exchanges with people over the last few years. One topic I frequently get asked about is speaker recommendations. I was really into speakers prior to my HeadFi days so I’ve tried many different brands and types. Unfortunately my prior budget recommendations are no longer in production, and most of my other past favorites are priced a bit higher than what most people are looking for. My current main speakers are no longer in production and I was never 100% satisfied with them in some aspects, so I decided to try and find a reasonably priced replacement. If I liked them well enough I would be able to recommend them. I’m certainly glad I made the switch.
Inside view of the grill, attaches via magnets
Here is a summary of the specs from the Octet Matrix website:
- Cabinets are constructed of 3/4” MDF with internal bracing and a 1” MDF baffle to minimize audio colorations caused by sympathetic cabinet wall vibrations. Available in cherry and maple veneer and piano black lacquer finishes.
- Smooth on and off axis frequency response to maintain accurate frequency balance, even in difficult listening environments.
- Gold plated 5-way binding posts accept up to 10 AWG wire.
- Magnetically shielded to prevent video interference and magnetic media data damage.
- 5-1/4” mid bass driver with low resonance pulp cone provides detailed midrange with low distortion, while the natural rubber surround supplies a highly damped termination and evenly distributed compliance.
- 1” doped cloth, ferrofluid damped dome tweeter maintains linear response characteristics beyond ±45° off axis.
- High quality crossover components include metalized polypropylene capacitors and air core inductors. Inductor windings are placed at 90° angles to minimize mutual inductance.
Sound Pressure Level
85 dB SPL (2.83 volts, 1 meter)
Continuous Power Rating
4 kHz, 4th order acoustic slopes
Port Tuning Frequency
Frequency Response (anechoic, full space)
+ 2.6 dB, - 3.2 dB, 100 Hz - 16 kHz
Frequency Response (recommended mounting)
+ 2.1 dB, - 3.8 dB, 75 Hz - 16 kHz
The DE7 is a relatively smallish monitor speaker. Sometimes referred to as “bookshelf” speakers, I prefer the term “stand-mount monitors”. Sticking the speakers into an enclosed shelf is probably not the way to go if one plans on doing any type of critical listening. We can’t all have dedicated listening rooms with ideal speaker placement, but stand mounting should be doable in most cases. At 7.5 inches wide, 12 inches tall, and just over 11 inches deep, the DE7 is reasonably sized. It won’t dominate your room or demand industrial grade stands but it also doesn’t look puny. At 14 pounds each it is somewhat of a heavy speaker for its size and price, which is indicative of build quality. This is a rear ported design so it does require at least some spacing from the rear wall.
Although the DE7 comes in your choice of three finishes, the front baffle is always non-glossy satin black. I’ve historically appreciated that approach because it minimizes distractions and light reflections from the listener’s point of view. Personally, I like to run my speakers with the grills off, but if it has a bright colored wood or shiny piano black finish then I would rather leave them on. The black front baffle approach solves this problem. Speaking of grills, the DE7 grills are held in place with magnets. This means no pegs to break off, and a cleaner overall look to the front.
Here is the frequency response chart for the DE7:
(Click to open)
As you can see, the chart shows a nice smooth frequency response throughout the range that one would expect from a monitor of this size. Obviously we shouldn’t expect to see a totally flat full range response down to 20Hz, and the chart reflects that: these speakers start to roll off around 90Hz, are down roughly 4dB by 70Hz, and approximately 8dB by 60Hz. I suspect this measurement is done in some type of anechoic chamber since the low frequency data doesn't completely line up with my real world experience. As I’ll discuss later, they actually did surprisingly well when used on their own. Many smaller speakers claim to reach into the 50-60Hz range, and the DE7 doesn't stand out as being thinner than those models, so I suspect it is just a difference in the types of measurements being reported. But subwoofer augmentation is always nice to have (as it is with nearly all speakers of this size) to fill in the lowest regions.
Folks around here are used to looking at Tyll’s headphone measurements, but you may not be familiar with FR charts for speakers. Generally speaking you are looking for a flat response across the board. Here is a link so you can view measurements of various speakers:
Obviously these were not measured in the exact same setup as the DE7, so there will be some variability, but the general idea remains. As an example, check out the measurements for the $3k Harbeth Model 30. I’ve heard those described as having a very “British” sound, and some people love them, but it’s easy to see how they would not be an ideal match for every room. A nice flat response is going to give a more consistent performance no matter where the speakers are placed, and my use of the DE7 in several different rooms seemed to confirm that. As with headphones, a simple FR chart does not give you the whole picture, but it is a good start. Go ahead and look at other speakers from that link, and see if the $349 DE7 seems out of place with others costing 3-10 times the price (or more!).
I asked Scott for his opinions about break in, and here is his reply:
1) I’m of the “get your ears dirty and listen” school of thought when it comes to speaker break in. Most commercially available speaker systems will exhibit a small shift in driver compliance with use, but the end result in system low frequency performance is negligible. The one exception I am familiar with is in a heavily treated cloth spider (the corrugated, usually cloth impregnated suspension attached to the apex of the cone). The supplier referred to it as “Iron Cloth”, and because of the heavy amount of treatment, the compliance would break down over a longer period of time. If an Iron Cloth spider were used with a cone with a very compliant surround, the compliance shift could be significant over a longer period of time than with normal spiders. However, because the primary use of these spiders was in “subwoofers” designed for small automotive enclosures, the mass usually dominates the resonant frequency, and the end result is still small.
2) If a paper cone is not treated properly with stiffening lacquers, the pulp at the cone apex (where it is connected to the voice coil) can break down over time and damp the high frequency response of woofers and midbass drivers. I believe this to be responsible for most reports of “improved” midrange performance with break in.
1) The DE7 midbass drivers exhibit about a 5% change in compliance with extended use, which is well within the normal tolerance range for production. In the current design, this change produces less than 0.5 dB change in low frequency tuning. The compliance of the natural rubber surround of the DE7 midbass drivers does not change with time and use like many foam surrounds do, creating a smaller long term compliance shift than drivers with foam surrounds may exhibit.
2) The DE7 midbass drivers do not exhibit significant apex material breakdown when exposed to over 500 hours of moderate to high level signals. Additionally, the highly damped dust cap helps maintain control of the high frequency response of the midbass driver.
Statements like the above are evidence of his extensive background in the field. Next I asked one of my usual questions: What do you think the biggest compromises are in the DE7 speakers? Obviously it is not a "cost no object" design so cuts had to be made. Some designers are much better at making these cuts than others.
Or, to put it another way:
What would you improve in the DE7 if you could double the price? Going much farther than that and we would probably move into other territory beyond the small monitor design, so I'm not so much interested in what you would do for 4 or 6 times the price.
One of the significant factors for our low cost strategy is our direct to the consumer sales model. Without the markups from distributors and secondary dealers, we are able to keep our prices lower than competitors that do utilize the distributor/dealer sales model. More importantly, Octet Matrix Audio was founded on the concept of providing value and a lot of attention is given to the price/performance relationship during product development.
I rarely get to the point in which I have to think in terms of what “cuts” need to be made to meet a cost target. I am always conscious of cost when designing a product, and let the design goals guide the design. When I run into a conflict between cost and design goals (almost always), I try to look at different ways to meet the design goals. More often than not, this process leads to a less expensive, and better, product. I also rely heavily on the supply chain relationships that I have developed over the years to provide low cost, high quality components and to help achieve cost/performance targets. Many engineers I have worked with fail to effectively utilize supplier’s knowledge to balance cost and performance.
When I can’t find an alternative, I then have a decision to make about priority: conformance to the cost target, or conformance to the design goals. If cost is the priority, then I have to consider “cuts”. In the case of the DE7, I was able to meet the design goals within the target cost.
Here is the strategy and development process behind the DE7:
1) A bookshelf speaker is by necessity a compromise design because it must be small to meet the needs of those who seek out a bookshelf speaker. It could also be argued that some buyers of bookshelf speakers buy them solely based on price, but that is not the market we serve.
2) A bookshelf speaker is a compromise design because of the inviolable relationship between cabinet size, low frequency extension, and system efficiency. A bookshelf speaker must be small, therefore it compromises low frequency extension, system efficiency, or a little of both. In the case of the DE7, I chose a little of both because:
a. Small woofers/midbass drivers that will fit into a bookshelf speaker can’t reproduce very low frequencies because of the high excursion requirements, and
b. Most people would consider the idea of a 200 watt per channel amplifier to drive bookshelf speakers ridiculous.
3) One way to reduce the cost of a system is to use drivers that do not require complicated crossovers. Low frequency drivers that have consistent, controlled and extended high frequency response don’t cost more in the way of materials, but do usually require more time and care in design. The DE7 uses the minimum number of components to produce the desired 4th order acoustic crossover slopes (theoretically, the resistor in series with the tweeter could be eliminated, but in practice most good tweeters will have to have their level attenuated to match the levels of other system drivers). Low frequency drivers with cones that look cool, and cost more (carbon fiber, aluminum, etc.) often have significant high frequency break up resonances that require elaborate crossovers to properly control.
4) After the drivers were chosen, dozens of crossovers were computer modeled to arrive at a handful of designs that were compared against one another, against a DSP equalized DE7, and against several competitive models in controlled listening tests.
5) I believe in using high quality crossover components, but do not believe that “boutique” components provide additional benefits. No $50 capacitors here! If you use capacitors with a low dissipation factor, inductors that don’t saturate within their intended use, and resistors that are non inductive beyond 20 kHz, you’ve done what you can to eliminate problems from crossover components.
6) The final design was selected based on the belief that most bookshelf speakers will be mounted near the rear wall and will benefit from low frequency room loading. This allowed an additional 1.5 dB of midband efficiency without sounding too bass deficient when placed away from boundaries. This was the design compromise based on typical usage, not on cost.
To your second question: “What would I do to improve the DE7 if I were to double the price?”
1) I would probably use a different tweeter which would be a little smoother and allow a lower crossover point.
2) I would add a few crossover sections to smooth out a few small bumps and dips.
3) I would redesign the grille/baffle interface so that the grille is flush with the baffle. This would require expensive tooling to do correctly.
To put this in perspective, these changes would create a DE7 similar to the DE7 with DSP crossover/equalization that was used as the design reference. You can hear a small difference in a blind listening test, but most listeners would not be able to determine which was playing without a side by side comparison. This would probably increase the cost to the consumer by $50 to $75. To actually double the cost, I would probably develop an amplified version with onboard DSP crossovers and equalization.
Sorry if you were looking for unobtainium tweeter domes, lead cabinets, or wire bombarded with beta rays, but the best loudspeakers I have experienced are simply well designed with good, but not necessarily exotic components. Conversely, I have heard awful loudspeakers in which the primary goal seemed to be to toss in every expensive component the designer could find. I have always argued that great loudspeakers shouldn’t cost as much as they do, and while the DE7 does have room for improvement, I believe it to be in a price/performance class with few rivals.
Once again, the man obviously knows what he is talking about. And once again he reminds me of the folks behind some of my other favorite gear, such as James Kang of Anedio or Fried Reim of Lake People/Violectric. These are people with high levels of technical expertise to back up their products. Clearly not everyone will be enamored by this type of approach but there are at least as many who will embrace it. I certainly think there is a time and a place for more expensive speakers, even those that are considerably so, but most of the time that involves large dedicated listening rooms and/or very high listening levels. For the average sized room with imperfect acoustics (like mine), a speaker like the DE7 makes perfect sense.
Photo courtesy of Octet Matrix Audio. Click to enlarge
The DE7 is a very nice looking speaker. My model, with the 6-step piano black lacquer finish, is quite eye catching. It does not show any seams anywhere and the only visible screw holes are the four in the front baffle. It makes for a sleek look overall, contrasting the more “traditional” rectangular shape. The rear panel features a single set of high quality binding posts (sorry, no bi-wiring). I had no problem using either banana plugs or spade connectors, and I’m sure bare wire would be fine as well. The DE7 is very light on logos – the front panel and grills don’t have any markings in the usual spots, and there is only a small label on the rear indicating the brand and model. I actually like this approach – why would I need to be reminded of the brand each time I see the speakers? And why, in our modern age, would I possibly need to have the frequency response and sensitivity listed on the back of every speaker? That just seems like an outdated practice.
Simply put, the DE7 looks and feels like it could be a much more expensive model. I used to have the NHT Classic 3 when those were first released; I believe I paid $900 for them, and felt that they looked very nice at that price. The DE7B, while possibly giving up some style points for being more “boxy”, looks every bit as nice in terms of build quality. Another similar model which I never technically owned but did have plenty of experience with in my home was the Onix Reference 1 MKII. At $1500 for the piano black finish, it is a great example of a “higher end” monitor speaker. Yet aside from a bit of extra heft (roughly 6 pounds heavier per speaker), you have to look extremely closely to find any advantages over the $349 DE7. Specifically, the DE7 has a very faint “orange peel” appearance to the finish, as did my Classic 3s, while the Onix speakers had a slightly more even look to them. This is really only visible if you use a brighter reflection and specifically look for it. It isn’t bad on its own; most new cars have a much more obvious orange peel look to the factory paint jobs. I tried my best to capture the finish in my pictures, so judge for yourself if you can even see it. Ultimately they are very attractive. And knocking on the sides reveals a very solid thump, so the cabinets seem just as inert as the more expensive Onix and NHT models.
I tried to capture the reflective properties of the finish.
A reflection from an overhead light, as seen in the top of the DE7
With grill on
The DE7 ships in a very well packed box. Each speaker has thick Styrofoam holding it in place and separating it from the outer walls of the box as well as from the matching speaker. Underneath, each speaker gets an extra layer of thin foam coverage to prevent any nicks or scratches to the finish. Mine arrived in flawless condition.
The only accessory included with the speakers is a CD. This CD contains some simple audio tracks used for setup, as well as all documentation – user guide, setup recommendations, warranty info, and other articles. At this price point I wouldn’t expect anything more.
Associated equipment used to evaluate the DE7 speakers:
Source: JF Digital HDM-03S audio server, Rotel RDV-1092 CD player, Grace IRDT200 media player
DACs: Violectric V800, Anedio D1
Amplification: Lead Audio LA-200 integrated, McIntosh MAC1700 integrated, Parasound 2125
Preamp: Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2
Stands: Sanus NF30
Subwoofer: Dayton Titanic MKII 10”
Other: Not that I think it matters in terms of sound quality, but I used a Panamax MAX 5400 power conditioner most of the time. Speaker cables and interconnects were Impact Acoustics SonicWave, digital cables by Ethereal.
Speakers (for direct comparison): Pinnacle BDC-1200, Insignia NS-B2111 (heavily modified)
Listening room: I moved the speakers (and various other gear) around to several different rooms in order to get a better idea of how they perform in different environments.
The first room was a small semi-dedicated listening room, roughly 12’ by 12’, with an 8’ ceiling. It is carpeted and has some bookshelves around the sides, but is essentially an untreated room. Speakers were placed about 3’ out from the wall and used both with and without a sub.
The next room is a larger living room area, which is connected to a dining room and kitchen with no walls separating any of them. It has very high angled ceilings that climb to roughly 13’ at the highest point. The room itself is roughly 12 by 20, but when the adjoining rooms are taken into account it is much larger. In this setup, the speakers were placed slightly less than 1’ from the back wall, and the sub was placed in a corner where it seems to integrate well into the room.
Lastly, I lugged the speakers and other equipment to a friend’s house to try. This was in a smaller living room roughly 10’ by 14’ with 9’ ceilings. They speakers were used without a sub and were out 2’ from the back wall.
I started out in the smaller listening room with a subwoofer. I had a hard time getting the sub dialed in, because of the small room, but eventually I was able to blend them properly to the point where the sub was not calling attention to itself. It only had to be turned to roughly 1/5th of its maximum volume.
I was immediately stuck by the smoothness and neutrality of the midrange – male vocals especially sounded natural yet very distinct. I would almost call the mids “rich” sounding but I don’t want to imply that they are colored or enhanced in any way. Since smaller speakers like this can’t be expected to produce deep bass, they often compensate by having thicker mids to draw your attention. Octet Matrix doesn’t try that slight of hand trick, instead opting to pass on the mids as transparently as possible. I find that this approach might not be as striking upon initial listen, but over the long term will be a much better experience. They really delivered the unique voice of Livingston Taylor on the 24/96 release of his album “Ink”. Lesser speakers (and headphones for that matter) can gloss over the distinctions between him and his brother James. While both brothers are baritones, James’ voice is sweeter and more smooth, with added clarity up top. Livingston is warmer and a little more rough, with a “weathered” character to it that somehow makes it seem even more down to earth and relatable. I’ve heard someone describe James as “silk” and Livingston as “plush velvet”.
The DE7 was absolutely up to the task of resolving these differences. Likewise, listening to “Yo-Yo Ma plays Ennio Morricone”, I could clearly hear the “wood” tone of the instrument being played, rather than merely the string. This demonstrates the DE7s capabilities with regard to timbre and leading edges.
Highs were very impressive as well. I played one of my favorite tracks for testing highs, The All Star Percussion Ensemble playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It’s a fairly sparse arrangement for most of the song, so the triangle being played is easy to focus on. It seems like it would be simple enough but I’ve found that many systems struggle to reproduce it in a completely lifelike fashion. The reproduction chain really has to nail the attack and decay of each individual sound, and the triangle often comes up lacking. Not so with the DE7. It extended beautifully but was not overly hot, which is a delicate compromise to achieve, thereby contributing to an overall sense of realism. Another example is the excellent snare drumming on the track “Flim” by The Bad Plus. Yes, a snare drum’s fundamentals top out around 300Hz or so, but the harmonics go much higher. It’s the region around 9-10kHz that gives them a sense of “snap”. Once again, it would be easy to overdo it, resulting in a wince inducing tone, but it would also be easy to smooth it over and lose that last bit of realism. The DE7 does neither.
Lows were very satisfying considering the modest size of these speakers. On HeadFi, we are accustomed to spending a few hundred dollars on a headphone and getting solid bass extension down to at least 30Hz. It’s a very different story when you have a whole room to pressurize. The DE7 has a solid punch and heft to it though, to the point where I didn’t miss the sub much when using this smaller listening room. I was actually surprised when I tried some of my favorite reggae tracks by Matumbi, Third World, or Blackbeard. It won’t rattle your chest with bass, but it does have a fullness to it that is satisfying enough in most cases. Real kick drums don’t generally go much lower than 50-60Hz, so you are generally only missing that last bit of information by running without a sub. On “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the album Mephisto & Co. (Reference Recordings), there was a noticeable distinction between the bass drum and contra bassoon when they both played at the same time. This is the sort of minor detail that can get lost with lesser speakers. That being said, when configured sans subwoofer the DE7 is not capable of capturing the absolute full range of the contra bassoon, nor a few other instruments like tuba or pipe organ (obviously). This deficiency is certainly not limited to this particular speaker, but spending significantly more and likely getting a somewhat larger monitor speaker will generally offer an improvement in this area. Still, a properly dialed in subwoofer is really the only way to get true full range performance out of a monitor speaker, and I doubt anyone familiar with the capabilities of average sized monitor speakers will find the DE7 deficient. Or to come it from another angle: I’m assuming the Sub Octave 15 subwoofer by Octet Matrix is a reasonably high performance model. At a combined total of $700 for that sub and the DE7 monitors, is there a tower speaker out there that could match the combo as far as resolution, from the mid 20Hz region all the way up to 20kHz and beyond? I realize that pure frequency response isn’t everything, but it is a compelling argument nonetheless.
Reviewers like to wax poetic about the soundstage and imaging produced by this or that speaker. I find that somewhat misleading because what you are mostly describing is an interaction between the speakers and the room. Even the seating arrangement will be a factor. Yes, every aspect of the sound will be somewhat dependant on the room, but I find this one area to be the most variable. When you make a purchase based on a review, you are buying the same speakers, but clearly not buying the same room. So the resulting soundstage presentation might vary wildly from those experienced by the reviewer. I realize this is unavoidable but it still strikes me as awkward whenever I read a speaker review. I suppose the best we can do is attempt to find optimum placement and write about that experience, hoping that the reader will achieve some level of similarity. So having said all that, I’ll use a small disclaimer: I’m reporting on the soundstage and imaging produced in my particular rooms, under the best conditions I could figure out. Maybe this goes without saying.
In my smaller room, I found imaging to be very accurate. There was a good sense of space overall, capturing the differences between a large concert hall and a smaller venue. Many recordings don’t contain much of this information – many of my favorite rock bands certainly don’t, even the ones I consider to be “pretty good” recordings. But when it is there, the DE7 will serve it up in a convincing fashion. This is an area where a good speaker will have the advantage over a good pair of headphones. I was able to clearly hear the placement of performers in their respective locations, with an accurate impression of who was where in relation to each other.
An important thing that the DE7 does very well is disperse sound in a wide pattern. Some speakers are totally lifelike when the listener is in their sweet spot, only to have the illusion collapse when the listener shifts over by a small amount. The DE7 doesn’t seem to care if you are tall, short, standing, sitting, etc. Tonal balance remains pretty much the same. Scott Lightner tells me that the DE7 response will maintain less than a 1 dB variation up to 10 degrees off axis, making toe-in a very small factor. Looking at the FR chart, you can see how there is very little deviation even at 30 degrees off axis. Move to 45 degrees off axis and things mainly change above 10kHz, giving a slight lack of shimmer. Instruments generally keep their same timbre and voices remain clear. This type of performance is hard to find even when spending significantly more money on a speaker.
I used several different configurations to test the DE7. Overall I would not classify this as a demanding speaker. With a gentle 8 ohm presentation and a sensitivity of 85 dB, most amps should be able to drive them to satisfying levels. They would not be ideal with flea-powered tube amps but everything else should be fine.
I started out with the Lead Audio LA-200 integrated. Delivering 25 watts per channel, I found that it got plenty loud for my tastes, even at roughly 60% on the volume dial. At 80% volume I consider it quite loud in this room, and any higher would be unwelcome. The only exception would be with very quiet jazz tracks, but even then I could use full volume and generally get loud enough volume levels. Loudness aside, I found this pairing to give superb performance, with resolution and detail transcending the combined $1100 price by a considerable margin.
Next I tried my classic McIntosh MAC1700 integrated. At 50 watts per channel, it has significantly more power than the Lead Audio. In this smaller listening space I found that the extra headroom didn’t do much for me. It did have a somewhat more dynamic, warm sound to it but at the expense of some detail. You’ve likely heard it said that something “sounded like a blanket was thrown over it”, meaning that there is a muffled effect, and a lack of openness. I wouldn’t go so far as all that, but there does seem to maybe be a thin film over the presentation when used with the MAC1700. It wasn’t terrible but I definitely prefer the presentation of the Lead Audio unit. Perhaps I need to have this unit serviced. I used to love using the built in (tube) FM tuner section, but these days I rarely if ever listen to analog radio.
Lastly, I borrowed a Parasound 2125 (125 watts per channel) and used my Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2 as a preamp. The fairly beefy amp combined with the delicate, emotive Svetlana 2 made a great combination. I got the dynamics of the McIntosh with most of the clarity of the Lead Audio unit. Still, I found that I didn’t really do much that the LA-200 couldn’t do in this room, and it took up much more space (and cost much more money) in the process. The Lead Audio gave a more neutral presentation and although somewhat less exciting initially, it would be more pleasing in the long run.
While far from definitive, I think this shows that the DE7 speakers are capable of pairing well with most amps out there. I briefly tried a home theater receiver (older JVC RX-D701 digital amp, 110 watts per channel in stereo mode) and it performed admirably, so everyone should be able to get good sound out of these speakers.
I later moved to my larger living room in order to test the DE7s under less than ideal conditions. This room is actually quite bad: it has a tall ceiling which makes it prone to echoes, and it doesn’t allow placement very far out from the rear wall. Its sheer cubic volume seems to beg for a large speaker, yet its setup doesn’t allow for much more than stand mounted monitors or small towers.
I didn’t have high expectations for the DE7s in this setting, but once again they ended up impressing me. What they lost due to the larger space they seemed to make up for by room loading. They almost seemed to have more authority on kick drums and other low frequency tones. But at higher volume levels I did feel that a sub would be more desirable here than it had been in the prior room. Once again it took me a bit to integrate the subwoofer to be totally transparent, but once I did it was a smooth transition between them. Maximum volume was still acceptable with the Lead Audio integrated, and more than enough with the higher power options, assuming you don’t expect ultra-high volume “wake the neighbors” type listening. The only minor downside here was that the soundstage became slightly less spacious. It remained good enough to give a convincing “out of speaker” effect with better recordings.
Lastly I used the LA-200/DE7 combination at a friend’s house, without a sub. I didn’t bother bringing the other amps with me, and frankly I don’t think they would have been necessary anyway. Music sounded great in here, with solid extension from top to bottom and a sense of ease that made me want to just keep listening. We also tried a few Blu-Ray movies, each with an entertaining soundtrack – Into the Wild, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, TRON: Legacy. My friend was blown away by how much more enjoyable these movies became when their engaging audio was played through something better than a tiny television speaker. The wide dispersion made them particularly well suited for dialogue, easily tying it to the characters on the screen no matter which chair I sat in.
Once again, this is far from being definitive, but I believe it points to the DE7 working quite well in a wide variety of listening spaces.
The first comparison was with my modified pair of Insignia NS-B2111s. I built the new crossovers designed by Dannie Richie of GR Research, and upgraded the enclosure with “No Rez” and additional bracing. The end result is a surprisingly good sounding speaker, comparable to various models I’ve heard in the $300-600 range. In comparison, the DE7 is significantly more detailed, especially in the upper mids. I got a much more clear sense of the pronunciation on the lips of vocalists. High hats had more distinction. Cymbals had more bite. I don’t want to imply that the DE7 is comparatively bright though – both models had roughly the same quantity there, but the quality was different. The Insignias had an inviting midrange, with a sort of LS3/5A bloom to them, but at the same time they seemed a little muffled. They were capable of higher volumes than the DE7 but that advantage was nullified by their tendency to break up a bit during complex passages. Despite being a fun project and a nice sounding speaker, the modified Insignias were simply outclassed by the Octet Matrix DE7s.
Next I used my current “main” speakers, the Pinnacle Black Diamond BDC-1200. These are slim towers using a quad array of 4” drivers along with a 1” silk dome tweeter. I’ve owned them for about 5 years now and have been fairly satisfied with them, but never completely blown away. I paid $1100 for them. My biggest gripe has always been their tonal balance, being somewhat on the bright side. But I stuck with them due to the almost holographic way they imaged, presenting sound as floating in mid air in front of the speakers. What’s more, they cared little if I sat in the sweet spot or off to the side a bit. No other reasonably priced speaker I’ve encountered has been able to do this as well as the Pinnacles. They actually remind me of the Sennheiser HD800 – they make me wish for a bit more bass, and at times the highs can become grating, but nothing else can quite match their spaciousness. The DE7s did not quite match them in this area but brought me most of the way there. In addition, they did not suffer from the same need to tone down the highs via EQ. And the DE7 had better mids – I had not noticed any deficiency in the Pinnacles until I did a head to head comparison, but they sounded a little congested compared to the DE7, which is more able to handle anything you throw at them. Both speakers did quite well with very high quality material, but the Pinnacles stumbled more with mediocre recordings. All of these little things added up to make the DE7 the more enjoyable speaker.
Octet Matrix Audio, as a brand new company on the market, has really hit one out of the park with their DE7 monitor speakers. I had reasonably high expectation for them but they have far surpassed what I thought could be achieved for $349.
On looks: my wife asked how much they sell for, and I told her $349. She remarked that they looked very nice for a $700 pair of speakers, not realizing of course that I meant “per pair” rather than “each”. This sounds like reviewer cliché but it is absolutely true, and my wife has seen more speakers than most people I know.
On build quality: there is nothing here that gives the DE7 away as costing any less than $700-$1000, minimum. I can’t speak for the wood veneer options, but the piano black lacquer finish is very well executed. The highly inert cabinet also screams quality.
On ease of use: they seem to work equally well in a wide variety of rooms, and should be satisfied when paired with just about any halfway decent amplifier. They also don’t mind being positioned fairly close to a rear wall. Dispersion is very wide, so listening significantly outside of the sweet spot is not detrimental.
Finally, on sonics: the highly detailed sound retains a smooth, even tone that works well with most any genre of music, producing a level of organic realism that is frankly unheard of in this price range. I have heard other budget speakers with strengths in certain areas, but never anything that performed so well across the board for so little money.
The real indicator of how much enjoyment one gets from a set of speakers comes down to one thing: how often do they get used? I’ve had the Octet Matrix DE7s in my house for roughly 2 months now, and I’ve listened to them nearly every single day for at least some length of time. Some days it was intense scrutiny using my best hi-resolution material from Reference Recordings, 2L Records, etc, played back over a high end signal chain. Other times it was as simple as streaming Pandora or 320K internet radio stations over my Grace Digital Tuner while I did chores around the house. My kids have become used to it and will literally demand music if I don’t turn it on early enough for them. All of this is a departure from my previous speakers, which probably got used 2-3 days per week at the most. Despite costing 3 times what the DE7s cost, I ended up giving those speakers away to a friend.
This is certainly not the first time a lower priced speaker has been able to successfully compete on a higher level. The PSB Alpha B1 has caused many folks to wonder why they would ever need to spend more. The NHT Classic 3 has been called the best speaker under $1000, despite costing several hundred dollars less than that. And the Onix Reference 1 was considered by some to be on par with competition in the several thousand dollar price range. I’ve spent time with all of those models, and I would absolutely choose the Octet Matrix DE7 over any one of them. It offers a rare blend of competent all-around performance that is truly spectacular for any speaker, much less a pair selling for $349 shipped.
I highly recommend that anyone in the market for a small to mid-sized monitor speaker give them a try. The 30-day in home trial is in place in case you end up disagreeing with me… but I have a hard time believing that anyone would end up needing to use it.
Edited by project86 - 10/15/11 at 3:06pm