Newport 2012: Emotiva

In an ideal world, you’d be able to buy whatever it is you set your heart and mind on. You’d get the very best whateveritis and enjoy the snot out of it. The whateveritis would be very finely made, of impeccable fit and finish, and you could feel happy and secure knowing that the whateveritis was made by hand by the artisan that’s lived down the street from you your whole life.

It’s a good picture.

It’s also something of a fantasy. Not always, mind you, but most of the time. And audio’s high-end is rife with insanely priced products that offer little in the way or real value — other than possibly bragging rights, that is.

This is a serious problem for those of us looking to break into the hobby. You want great sound? Sure, who doesn’t? Great! But can you afford great sound? Define “afford”? Yeah …. Much to my everlasting shame and regret, the Lotto Fairy still hasn’t shown up with my check (that bitch!), so any plans I might have had to pick up a matched-pair of $150,000 Onedof turntables, are on an indefinite hold. In the meantime, affordable = good, which is a sentiment I think shared by quite a few of the 99%. But is affordable actually good?

I think this tension is one of the main threads that underlie the … ah … emotion … that propels some of the more trollish behaving in online forums. We all want it to be true — that we really can afford “great sound”, even if we’re not Mitt Romney. The problem is that it isn’t always so, and while quality doesn’t necessarily correlate with price — it tends to do so with far greater regularity than we’re, perhaps, comfortable admitting.

So, when CEOs of audio companies start asking questions like: “Why can’t we have amazing audio – at prices that don’t threaten our mortgage?” I think it’s time to sit up and take notice. Enter, Emotiva, stage left.

Emotiva has been around for a while, quietly building up quite a name for itself providing quality audio gear at price points that many of us, used to the raping and pillaging common in the high-end, would find shocking. The secret to their prices is a mix of good business, smart packaging, economies of scale, and savvy marketing. As is more common these days than not, all of the equipment is made in China, but as a “factory-direct”, Internet-based business, Emotiva has no brick-and-mortar overhead, so many of the traditional costs can be (and are) eliminated outright. If and when you need to talk to someone about features, ordering, or support, the folks in Franklin, Tennessee are ready to chat.

Emotiva’s business is brisk, which isn’t surprising. They make everything — from speakers and wires, all the way up the chain to the source, which means that customers can lock into the brand and remain there as they upgrade up through the models. Given this, and the fact that the room here at Newport (and the one last year at RMAF) was stupid-good for the offered price point — a lot of manufacturers really ought to consider panicking.

So, let’s talk about what they had here at Newport. First off, they had lots of blue LEDs, all over the room. This made the room terrifically striking and gave my camera headaches like you wouldn’t believe. Okay, other than that, Emotiva was showing a new stereo preamp, the XSP-1. A fully-differential unit from input to output, this preamp should list for $899 and ship sometime around September-ish.

You want a big amp? How about 500wpc into 8ohms, doubling down into 4ohms? Yes, that’s 1000wpc into your starving Magnepans. Um, hellooooo! The XPA-1 is  currently running $900 each.

The ERC-2 is a $450 fully balanced slot-loading CD player/CD-Transport. The unit has AES/EBU, coax and Toslink outputs, in addition to the XLR/RCA analog outs. Got a DAC?

No? Well, how about the soon-to-be-released XDA-2? This ~$400 DAC will sort you out. Availability will be in the September time-frame.

I enjoyed the sound in the Emotiva room, which was very much on par with the sound quality at the Newport Show — which actually happened to be, overall, very good. But was surprising, at least to me, is that this quality of sound was coming from speakers that are all of $630 for the pair. The XRT 6.2 tower loudspeakers, which are currently on sale, are 4ohm nominal, have an 88dB sensitivity and are good for 40Hz up to 22kHz. They’re also front-ported, so placement should be a bit simpler.

I have to say, blue LEDs aside, this is an equation that balances out pretty well and the value prop is hard to argue with. $3,200 get’s you a pile of audiophile-grade gear, without having to do weird compromises that require pairing low-sensitivity speakers and under-powered amps and just “hoping for the best”. There’s actually very little in the way of compromise here — the only thing I think most folks will miss is the high price. Which is a refreshing change, now that I think about it.