Nothing can create a sense of place in a movie or video game like its audio track. From surround-sound to bass to soundtrack, audio can immerse you in a setting unlike any other multimedia of a Hollywood-style production. BioShock. Dead Space. Transformers. Pirates of the Caribbean. These games and movies, as entertaining as they may be, arguably wouldn’t have been as classic had they not paid such attention to immersive audio. Heck, one look at the prevalence of 7.1 surround-sound systems, DTS HD Master Audio and 5.1 Dolby Digital in-game surround sound should be evidence enough that directors and developers alike know the value of good audio tracks. Isn’t it a shame, then, when you can’t afford the hardware required to appreciate their work?
With the help of a new company called Orb Audio, all that’s about to change.
Orb Audio is hardly a household name, but the quality of its new softball-sized speakers is bound to make more than a few households happy that they heard of it. Whereas most high-end speaker systems run upwards of $2,500, Orb Audio takes a much more economical ($999) and scalable approach to home speaker systems, with speakers that don’t cost or look the part of high-end audio, but truly deliver where it counts.
When you first remove the Orb Audio speakers from the box, it’s easy to think you’ve been duped. Surely they inserted a few softballs rather than the speakers, right? In actuality, the Orb speakers have a bit of an iPod-like approach to speakers: minimalist by design, but radical in application. The Orb speakers, even with their multiple finishes and configurations, may not look all that impressive. In fact, several visitors to DailyGame actually thought the speakers looked a bit too space-age, like some miniature escape pods from a retro sci-fi movie. But when you hook them up to your audio source, they have it where it counts. They say good things come in small packages. When Orb Audio now in the picture, that saying applies to your home speakers as well.
Even without considering their size, the volume these speakers put out is remarkable, as they out-blast the Denon speakers we normally use for reviewing movies and games. However, the higher volume output doesn’t mean the Orb speakers sacrifice quality; they actually pick up more details in each channel than our current Denon setup, which really immerses you in the rich sound created back at the movie studio or game developer.
Like a “traditional” speaker setup, Orb speakers can be placed individually on each channel, and because they project audio detail with such volume, one small speaker is sufficient. However, if you’re really into having “big” speaker setups or simply can’t get your audio loud enough, Orb’s design also enables you to combine multiple speakers on a single six-inch mount. This setup essentially gives you two speakers’ output using roughly the same size as a traditional speaker, with the end result being a 10.1 or 14.1 setup rather than a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 setup (redundant speakers on each channel). Of course, the overall audio quality doesn’t change when you do this, but the increased sensation of being engulfed in audio is undeniable.
The powered “Super Eight” subwoofer that comes with the Orb system packs a punch too, and as it breaks in over a few hours and days, it actually “settles” into crisper bass. Ironically, the Super Eight seems a bit larger than the normal “theater in a box” subs we’ve seen. Fortunately, even if it’s a bit larger than expected, it’s just as stylish as the satellite speakers, with a splashed/wet texture to its black paint job that — again, like an iPod — stands out in a good/stylish way.
Setting up the Orb home theater system is quite simple, and it all starts with the speakers themselves. The connectors for the speakers couldn’t be any easier: squeeze the two cylinders (one each for the red and white wires) and a hole opens up. Insert the speaker cable into that hole and release the cylinder. Not only is this an instant connection, but it’s one that holds fast. Once your speakers are connected, you’ll have to run the auto setup option on your audio receiver to accommodate the output of each satellite speaker and subwoofer.
The biggest thing to keep in mind, other than adjusting volume settings for each speaker, is to turn off “dynamic compression,” which can sacrifice some of the output quality. Amazingly, that quality is not sacrificed when you crank the volume, as can be the case with many distortion-prone setups. The Orbs sound just as good loud as they do quiet, and again, because the audio is delivered so forcefully from these small speaker gems, you may actually find yourself turning the decibels down from your once-normal settings.
Unlike the tall speaker stands used in many home theaters, the Orb system requires little more than four-inch-tall stands that keep the speakers in place and balance them perfectly, even though the only connector is a small screw. We were unable to test the wall-mounting options, but Orb does manufacture them, so if your front, rear or center channels are placed on the wall, rest assured that Orb’s setup can immediately be plugged into your existing system. If it doesn’t work out, though, it’s not a big deal; Orb Audio offers a 30-day home trial with a “no questions asked” return policy. In this day and age, that offer is unheard of outside of infomercials. You can learn more about it — and explore pricing — at Orb’s Web site.
The term “affordable speakers” often has negative connotations, and rightfully so. Most inexpensive setups do an admirable job for people who’ve never had a surround-sound system, but those who have want a bit more oomph. Orb Audio’s speakers provide that oomph in spades, and they’re comparable in cost to lower-tier speakers while delivering quality comparable to a higher-tier system. The fact that they’re stylish — particularly the brushed nickel-looking speakers — just makes them all the more desirable. It pains me to have to return these speakers after writing this review, and once you’ve watched a Blu-ray movie or played a PS3 or Xbox 360 game on them, you’ll understand why. From fidelity to style to overall quality, these speakers are hard to beat, particularly at this price point ($239 for two speakers to $999 for the full 5.1 setup).
— Jonas Allen