I don’t really think of myself as a complicated guy. Or as a particularly sensitive fellow. I can look and drool and fantasize about cruising around in my daily-driver Aston Martin waving about fistfuls of cash just like the next fellow. I’m not that guy, but in my mind’s eye, I play him on TV. He’s a fine fellow, that version of me. Very generous. Funny. Charming. And yes, he wears a custom-made tux and wears it well. His speakers are big, his amps are ginormous, and he prefers to his screens 20 feet across or more. He has loads of cash. Obviously. Custom made suits are expensive, after all.
When I walk an audio show, especially something like CES, and I happen across a system that costs more than an oceanfront condo and would really only fit in two of them, I think of that guy. I would love to be that guy. Well, I’m pretty sure I would, and if there were ever a Brewster’s Millions kind of challenge, I’d have that shit wrapped up in one day. I’ve been planning.
Anyway, there’s a class of system — and component — that suits that kind of person. That make-believe me. I have to a assume that somewhere out there, there’s my doppelgänger, mocking me with his purchases of such fine equipment. For want of a better phrase, I tend to think of “his” class of product as Summit-Fi. Some of that shit is awesome. Some of it is SOTA. Some of it stunning and gorgeous. And some of it is just ignorant. Whatever. Put all that off to the side.
There’s another class of product. Slotted below Summit-Fi. Yes, it’s still crazy-expensive stuff. Well past the reach of most of us mortals, or at least tends to be, given our priorities. But for those folks out there, stuttering around in Washington DC traffic in their continually traded-up leased BMWs, I suspect that it wouldn’t be all that much of a stretch, assuming “audio” ever managed to reach the level of interest that “driving in traffic” did. Priorities, priorities. Anyway, this level is not Summit Fi. I put it somewhere solidly below. Somewhere where arguments happen and incredible justifications are defended, where retirement or college funds get stealthily raided.
In that space, there are a lot of players. Art Dudley once called out this segment, this $20,000 and up club, as a strange attractor of sorts. Putting aside the wildly-open question of whether this is a “good thing”, a great many new products seem to be hitting this segment with a club, as if it were somehow magic. That’s interesting.
Stepping back and to the side for a moment, let’s look at loudspeakers. Arguably, they’re the most important element in any hi-fi system. Again, arguably, it’s the job of the “everything else” to let those loudspeakers perform at their very, very best. Following this line of argument, it follows then that the loudspeaker is rightly the most expensive element in that system.
Again, taking another small step the side: I think it’s reasonable for most system-builders to consider a budget-busting reach, that is, a single purchase that blows out the not-necessarily arbitrary limit set for any given component — if and only if the expense is rewarded with a greater-than-average ROI. And yes, I’m still talking about speakers.
So, with all that said, I don’t think a $30k loudspeaker is utterly beyond the pale. It’s more than most are comfortable spending, to be sure, but if you’re gonna go there, going there for speakers makes the most sense. But only if they’re totally worth it. As, you know, end-game purchases. Speakers that do everything you’d ever want. Speakers that will live with you, pretty much forever.
This is why I think the Genesis 5.3 loudspeakers are so interesting.
What they are
I have a thing for full-range loudspeakers. Maybe you’ve noticed. Maybe you’ve noticed that I’m not the only one with a thing for full-range loudspeakers. Why all the love? Well, quite honestly, in a full-range speaker, there’s this extra thing. You know. Bass.
This is, apparently, the most difficult thing to get right in a loudspeaker. To do it means tangling with physics and that almost never ends well. The problem is air. You need to move it. To do it well, you need to move a lot of it and do that rather quickly. Not that big a deal when we’re talking about frequencies above 100Hz, but below 40Hz, things get … sloppy.
There are a variety of ways this gets addressed, and the first is fairly simple — it doesn’t. This is such a common response by loudspeaker designers that Stereophile actually has two top ratings for loudspeakers — a sort of “one with” and “one without” flavoring when it comes to deep bass.
The most common approach to dealing with the low-low-end is to start with a big box and sneak in some big drivers. Not very room friendly (and low on the whole WAF scale), but it does have it’s adherents. Especially those that live in castles. For the rest of us, there’s another very common approach — powered subwoofers.
I’m pretty sure that Sandy Gross and the Definitive Audio team were the first on the market with subwoofers actually integrated into floor-standing loudspeakers, and the benefits are fairly obvious. One, you can use a much smaller driver and enclosure. Two, you can remove all the other vagaries in the design of a speaker (and there are a few) that inhibit deep-bass performance. Three, with one sub array per cabinet, you can get true stereo bass up to and through the crossover region. Four, with two subs, neither has to work nearly as hard as one, which tends to mean that timing issues due to sub-bass performance is quite simple to address — everything is on a plane. The Genesis 5.3 follows this path.
At just under 4′ tall, the look of the cabinet is very Watt/Puppy-esque, but the top hat is integrated and permanently attached. The sub portion of the cabinet is below, and there’s a plate amp on the back. This system is capable of hitting 18Hz with power and authority, and with some time and experience tweaking the typical subwoofer settings of gain, crossover, and phase, the performance will be quite linear and powerful all the way down the line.
Which brings me to another point. The 5.3 has settings for bass, sure, because of the integral subs. But it also has adjustments for midrange (across a 1.5dB range) and treble (a 1dB range). Let me pause for a moment, and let that sink in. You like your speakers a little detail friendly? A little laid back instead? A little vocal-forward? A little bass-heavy? Got a challenging room (say, a hotel room at an audio show, maybe?) and you need a big speaker sound but can’t handle big-speaker room-loading?
You are done. Who needs “room correction” software?
The driver complement is unusual. I mean, there are a lot of ’em. Yes, it is a four-way design but even so, there there are more than you’d think. Starting at the top of each cabinet, there are two tweeters, one front-firing, one firing to the rear. Both are a circular planar ribbon with less mass than the air in front of it. Designer Gary Koh says that this lets his speakers climb all the way up to 36kHz with fidelity. They’re also wired out of phase with each other, creating something of a dipole, helping to eliminate sidewall reflections due to cancellation.
The midrange is a proprietary 4.5″ titanium driver, and the enclosure has an open back (covered by a grill cloth), also creating a dipole effect.
There are two 6.5″ mid-bass “couplers”, one front- and one rear-firing, and yes, the arrangement is another dipole.
There are three 8″ aluminum servo-driven long-throw woofers per cabinet, with two on the front, and one on the rear, wired up to a 500wpc Class D amplifier. All three are wired in-phase, creating something new to me, an omnipole. I’m pretty sure Gary made that up. But what I’m told it means is that bass is plentiful, and that is definitely something I can attest to.
Setup and matching
I drove these loudspeakers with one of two systems in front of it. The first was all Pass Labs, including the XA-100.5 mono block amplifiers and a XP-30 preamplifier. The second system was all Vitus Audio, including the Reference Line RD-100 preamplifier/DAC and the RS-100 stereo amplifier.
Of the two front-ends, I had better luck with the Pass Labs gear. The warmth and richness of the Pass gear very much complimented the neutrality and incredible linearity of the Genesis loudspeakers. Gary Koh shrugged, suggesting that the Pass Labs gear tended to make everything they’re paired with sound great, which is a fairly interesting way to look at it.
I had high hopes for the Vitus Audio gear, but there was something too lean in the pairing here that did not squarely hit my personal preference when it comes to system balance. Great gear, but with a pair of loudspeakers on “that side” of the audiophile line, it was too much of a good thing. What “side”? The “detail” vs “tone” line. Yes, this is a cruel and arbitrary kind of distinction, but it ought to be patently obvious that the audiophile landscape is not at all monochromatic. We like what we like. And since we all don’t like the same thing, there’s utility in drawing such lines.
For grins, I also ran the 5.3s with an amp from BorderPatrol. My reference amplifier, the S10, a single-ended triode stereo amp featuring a stunning 7 watts courtesy of 300b tubes, was clearly not the first choice anyone would make for this pair of loudspeakers. So, I borrowed an S20, which added a second paralleled output tube, to take the power up to 20 watts per channel. Think 20 watts per channel is too little? Not enough gumption? Not enough slam? Ha! You’d be so wrong! Remember, this pair of speakers has a pair of high-output amps built-in — bass is handled, regardless of what is used to drive the upper bits. Sure, the S10 got a bit brittle with the seriously dynamic stuff, but that was only “at volume”, where “at volume” equalled “painfully loud”. Moving to the S20 eliminated that, too. What we have here is a loudspeaker that is pretty easy to drive and seems limited, mostly, by imagination.
Now, I’m not recommending you break out your crate of vintage SET amps or anything. The dynamics that this pair of speakers is capable of hitting is nothing short of stunning, but doing that means they’ll be sucking down current like a gradeschooler hitting the soda bar during a classmate’s birthday party at a laser-tag park. When it’s hot. Which means “a lot”.
If I’d had the power to arrange it, I would dearly love to have tried out Hegel’s monster H30 on this pair of speakers. That amp is just magical and while not precisely sonically “invisible”, it does incredible things. Similarly, Plinius’s SA-Reference would have been a hoot to use, too — I had the pleasure of that amp for several years before it moved on. But both amps have a warm, inviting and altogether powerful sound — and I think the 5.3 would have lit up like a Christmas tree with either.
I did have the chance to use some state-of-the-art amps from Merrill Audio, the Class D Ncore amps called Veritas. Those amps are crazy-powerful, and specs-wise, can slam more juice into a pair of speakers than anything else I’ve ever had here in the home system. Sonically, they’re dead-neutral, with insanely low levels of noise. To my ears, I think the Merrills with the Genesis speakers were very similar to the Vitus gear — too much of a good thing, though the sonic ride was exhilarating. Best detail retrieval I’ve heard at the house, and by a considerable margin. Together, these two were unstoppable, and I’m pretty sure I was pounding over 100dB on peaks. I’m not sure because my house was pulsating and I had to turn it down before the drywall came loose from the wall.
Another way of recapping these amp experiments is this: With these speakers, you are going to show off your “everything else” pretty clearly. So if you have some kind of coloration you prefer in your system’s sound, that coloration is going to have to come from somewhere else. The Genesis 5.3 is about as neutral, transparent, and linear as I’ve ever heard a pair of loudspeakers sound. If the rest of your audio chain is enjoying some kind of bottleneck in performance, you’re going to hear it.
Gary comes to town
Somewhat late in the review process, I got a Facebook message from Gary. He’s going to be in town, and wants to come by the house. You know, “to see how I’m doing with the review” and find out “if there’s anything he can help with”. I’m slow, not an idiot, and this was totally code for “stop slacking”. I checked my calendar, and sure enough, I’m way overdue on this review. [Sigh]. Another opportunity for timeliness, out the window.
When Gary showed up, he brought some muscle with him. Probably thought he was going to have to work me over, or something. Norm Steinke from Rutherford Audio, the US Importer for Genesis Audio, gave me the stink-eye a few times, but I think my boyish charm wore him down. Well, at least enough that he didn’t pummel me.
What happened next was pretty incredible: Gary tuned my speakers to the room. Saying it doesn’t make it seem like it’s “all that”, but believe me, you have no idea. Let me submit that I’m not one of those audiophiles that spends hours doing the ¼” this way, ½” that way thing with setup. I think it’s silly. I pull out the tape measure, make sure things are pretty much on a golden ratio (side wall = 3, rear wall =4, side-to-rear=5, multiply as needed), with as much space between the tweeters as my 14′ front-wall will allow. Generally, I’ll put at least 3′ between the rear of the cabinet and the front wall, and at least 2 feet from the side of the cabinet and a side wall. Depending on the driver configuration, I’ll toe in as recommended.
With the 5.3, I had them toed in to “shoot” over my shoulders, that is, somewhere off straight-on. I don’t remember the other numbers, but they made sense and sounded good. Gary promptly swamped that.
He started with, and ended with, the speakers far closer together than I would have thought wise. He also set them with zero toe-in. None. With a ribbon tweeter, that’s unusual to say the least, but that may also be part of why they were only 6′ apart. They were also not symmetrical, that is, one speaker was closer to the side wall than the other, though they were both on the same plane/distance from the front wall.
With this setup, imaging was really good. Again, I was expecting a wide soundstage with the no-toe approach, and that’s what I heard. Precision was a little diffuse, but the stage was wide and also deep. Bass was a matter of tuning, and Gary dialed it in accordingly. He did the same with the midrange and the tweeter, each time making a single change, mirroring it on the other speaker, and playing a demo track or two off of his setup disc.
And that’s when things got interesting.
The 5.3 sits on four feet, not three. This is something of a no-no for those looking to ensure levelness — three points define a plane. Four just screws everything up. Anyway, there are four spikes that can be set into your flooring to ensure stability. Or … positioning. Me, I just made sure the speakers were level and left it alone. Not Gary — after getting the speakers more-or-less where he wanted them, then came the roll, pitch and yaw adjustments. He twisted, turned, tilted and then ran a demo track.
Eventually, he nodded, got up, and requested I take a seat. I think we were listening to Shelby Lynne at this point. “Notice the singer’s position?” he asked. I nodded, wondering what he was getting at. “Is she centered?”
I frowned, focused, and shook my head. “No, she seems to be sitting just left of center.” Gary nodded, went over to the speaker, made some adjustments.
“And now?” he asked.
“Much better,” I said. And it was true, the singer was no smack-dab in the center of the sound stage.
He asked me to get up so he could do the next step. He listened for a bit, then got up. “She sounds like she’s crooked. Like she’s on a stool, leaning to one side. One moment,” he went and made some more adjustments, then asked me to sit.
I was looking askance at Norm at this point, who was all gnomic and smiling slightly, like a Buddha that’s seen this dance countless times. I sat. Listened.
If you’ve never heard speakers nailed in before, you really ought to invest in the time to get it right. The sound stage set in front of me was enormous, room-filling, and completely three-dimensional. Detail, ever-present, filled in all those delicious audiophile cues — glass tinkling, mouths parting, breaths taken, chairs moved, fingers sliding on strings. Eerie stuff. And it totally worked. Wow.
Not that I’m recommending every Genesis Audio owner invite Gary Koh to your home, but if you do choose to invest in the brand, I’d ask. I’d totally ask. And then I’d probably bolt the speakers in place and have done. Ska-doosh.
I’ve already given quite a bit of listening impressions already, so let me garnish the plate a bit more for you.
First up, let’s talk about the bass performance.
As I mentioned earlier, incorporating a subwoofer into the tower of a traditional left/right channel tower speaker has something of a history. Definitive Audio and GoldenEar both leverages that thinking and many others have followed suit, too. Zu Audio uses integrated subs in their big Definition loudspeakers, for example. So, seeing integrated subs here in the Genesis loudspeakers wasn’t unfamiliar to me. I just haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing the value of such a choice, however, until this review. And I’ll offer this — it’s a total cheat. In the best possible way.
Here, in this setup, I was able to generate enough bass response in my very long room (45′ from front wall to rear) to stun small animals and errant children. In fact, this is the first pair of hi-fi loudspeakers I’ve used that would actually work as home theater speakers — no sub necessary. So, I did. My Mac Mini has an HDMI output, so I plopped a 21″ monitor on top of the rack, started up iTunes, and started watching Season 9 of Supernatural. Which was terrible, by the way, but not because of my system — the writers really seem to have taken a vacation on this show, which is just too bad. Anyway, the season finale, where there’s tons of death, mayhem and ominous thunder, was crystal clear and articulate. Who needs a center channel? Moving over to movies, I cued up on of my favorites, the crash scene from Pitch Black. A spaceship coming apart on reentry is nothing I ever want to experience in person, but holy cow, was that my sidewalls flexing? I’m pretty sure drywall is not supposed to do that.
Okay, so on sheer output, the Genesis 5.3 is cleared for duty, whether that’s Call of Duty, or Armaggeddon or name-your-favorite EDM, you’re covered.
From a speed and precision thing, the group-delay was completely unnoticeable and bass was fast, articulate and hit-your-chest solid. Addicting, actually. Morcheeba’s Blood Like Lemonade has some deliciously deep pulse-pounders, and I particularly liked what the Genesis was doing there.
Elsewhere in the frequency lineup, everything was all in its place. Vocals from Shelby Lynne and Natalie Merchant were intricate, intimate, and of-a-piece. Male vocals, like Greg Brown’s Honey in the Lion’s Head were rumbly and richly textured, with no chestiness or atypical coloration. Strings on 11:11 from Rodrigo y Gabriella showed tons of color and harmonic richness, and piano strikes on the K2HD mastering of We Get Requests were precise with what I believe to be timbre-appropriate for the deeply percussive instrument, though I’m pretty sure Oscar Peterson was not jamming on an upright like the one I have in my living room.
I think it’s pretty clear that I’m a fan of Gary Koh and his Genesis brand, and if it’s not, let me pause and say that I’m a fan of Gary Koh and his Genesis brand. From the first time I stumbled across these 5.3 floor standing wonders, I’ve been smitten. The opportunity to spend so much time with them has been nothing short of wondrous. Many thanks to Gary and the Rutherford Audio team for letting me do this.
So, to sum up. The 5.3 is not an inexpensive speaker. I think the current retail price is uncomfortably close to $30,000/pair, and that’s some seriously no-joke kind of cash. Unfortunately for Genesis, the $30k price point is a crowded one in audio’s high-end, with truly excellent offerings such as the Rockport Avior, Joseph Audio Pearl 3, Magico S5, and others. Any of which would be stunningly-awesome game-ender loudspeakers. To compete here, you have to be truly special. The Genesis Audio 5.3? It competes. Fully.
The trick may well be in the “infinite flexibility” I’ve talked about. You got room issues, the 5.3 may be the only one of the bunch that can be made to work. With Gary’s unusual placement recommendations, you don’t need a giant room, though if you have one, the 5.3 will fill it. Having a pair of subs, with their own integrated amplifiers, is pretty much a Godsend if you’re a bass freak. But that’s really just the start. With the ability to dial in both the midrange and the top-end, you can customize the sound to your particular taste. I don’t know of any other speaker in this class that let’s you do that. Finally, with the adjustment options Gary has with these speakers, you can not only dial the sound stage in, but nail it, and that’s incredible.
Audiophiles wax poetic about neutrality, about transparency, about tactility. But this is the closest I’ve gotten. An incredible achievement. I only wish it was less expensive. Clearly, I’m going to have to sell the car.