XTZ MH800 DSP Multimedia System Review
Thanks to Audio Sanctum for the sample.
First Impressions: It would appear that I have got the black ones and they are not glossy. I don’t recall anything pointing out matte or glossy but I just assumed they would be as glossy seems to be what’s fashionable nowadays. It does of course mean these don’t pick up finger prints just by looking at them! They are also somehow bigger than I had in my head they would be. Not by a huge margin and it’s not as though I measured anything out but for a “desktop” speaker they are rather imposing. Of course they are rather smaller than what I normally use but then I dare say most people don’t use full sized stand mount speakers on their desktops. Hmm I think I’d have preferred white, these just look unexciting. (Of course when I had the white Audio Engines I immediately wished I had black, grass is always greener and whatnot.)
Acoustically my first go with them is without the Dirac DSP software installed and they sound a bit funny. Not in a bad way just peculiar and somewhat nasally. A little while later once getting the Dirac stuff installed and running. Side note, XTZ why do we have to login and register them to make the software install? I see no practical reason other than for you to be awkward. Granted it’s a minor inconvenience but one I see no need for. So, with it running I fire up the first profile, Desk. Well they are to live on a desk aren’t they? Oh god! The bass practically explodes out of them. I can feel my desk vibrating. I think Desk may not be the setting I use much on these! There are 10 I believe to choose from and they show you a frequency curve that the setting is supposed to correspond to. It strikes me that the Dirac DSP is actually nothing than a really fancy bunch of EQ presets. As someone who is not inclined to ever EQ headphones as I have many I can see more of a reason to with speakers. Unless you’re a crazy person or so wealthy you have several homes you won’t be likely to have many speaker sets. Certainly you can’t swap them over in 10 seconds so what you pick you had better be happy to use.
Oh I think this could be a long one.
Source is a Vostro 3350. The DAC and amping is all done by the A-800 otherwise known at the amp half of the bundle.
Normally now I’d launch into how the various frequency ranges are dealt with but first I think a little explanation is needed. This product is in three parts. First there are the speakers, the S-800. Then the amp side of things, the A-800 and lastly the Dirac DSP software. By the way the amp and the speakers can be bought separately if you like. In this review I will mostly treat them all as one however I will briefly comment on the amp and speakers independently too.
Having played about with the different Dirac options I settled pretty much on 2 states of operation, the off option and the preset called Bright 2. Off because it is the natural state and what you get if you don’t have the Dirac stuff installed. (Many work provided computers are locked down so you can’t install what you like.)
NB: It transpired that I didn’t, I pretty much always went back to “Bright 2” it to my ears was easily the best and most open sounding option. I tried not to; I really tried but couldn’t help myself. So if you do get to demo a pair I suggest you use that if you can.
Off however produced a wonky, off sound that seemed to lose everything down low and up top. It was dull, lifeless and unrewarding. Great though for listening to spoken words. If you a big podcast listener it may suit you very well.
Lows: Inside the speakers there is a 5 and quarter inch driver that you can’t see. Essentially it seems to act as a woofer and the end result is these can roar out bass in a way something this size should not. They can really blast out bass if you make it, for something this size it’s really impressive, very impressive. It’s a slightly warm, rich sort of bass too. It’s not so much about the impact but the more enveloping with a hint of softness to it. (If you crank the volume though impact grows exponentially.) It’s very rich and naturally doesn’t incline itself to faster, more hard hitting bass notes. Then of course that is how Sony likes to do its bass too and it manages rather well in the pop orientated arena. Personally I feel it much more suits smooth, deep lows. Giving Dido’s The Day Before The Day a blast and it sounds so smooth and enveloping. The lows are like a rich chocolate pudding, big squishy and they ooze around your ears. It’s very, very pleasant to behold. Aiming with something with more vibrancy in the low end can easily kick it up a notch in terms of power, the sheer force that a relatively small cabinet can pound out at you is deeply impressive. Its agility too is very good given the whole combo is hardly bank breaking. Owl City’s Cave in is wonderfully reproduced in the low end. The lows rhythmically jar back and forth as quick as you like.
If anything I did find most of the Dirac setting were a little too prodigious in the low end. The speaker design has a full range drive in the front and a woofer in the bottom which is by all accounts an unusual pairing. Most two ways have a full range and a tweeter. This gets a dedicated big driver to do the low end and its skills show. This was particularly noticeable when watching films, I thought seeing as it’s amulti media lets give non music a try. I opted for Jurassic Park and set Dirac to “Flat to 40Hz” and holy fcuk! Yes I know I was sitting at a desk but my word the low end was fierce. The T-Rex stomping and roaring was insane for a little desktop speaker set up. The desk itself vibrated furiously to every thudding footstep. Holy carp was this a new and thrilling dimension, terrifyingly so. If nothing else if you’re after a little bedroom or study set up so no 5.1 surrounds then this will give you a very impressive noise. Savage amounts of power and low end grunt here for something so small. Frankly its disturbing, disturbingly good.
Mids: Superb. Particularly if I may the mid to low mids too excel, fore if something with a cello (cough cough, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor) and its beautifully rendered and in a way a speaker this small should not do well. Enough of that though, moving into the mid-range properly the settings offered in the Dirac programme do alter things. The mids become rather focused and nasally with Dirac off but on my favoured Bright 2 they shone. The “full range” driver facing you clearly does mids well and being relieved of the low end stuff it has the breathing space to focus on the frequency range its more suited to. Dido sounded fab, as did pretty much any other vocalist I could think of. Strings too shone beautifully. They may not have had outstanding openness and transparency, this isn’t a speaker set up intended to be a monitor for analytical use. It’s about a smooth enveloping warm, rich soup of aural goodness. Actually it’s not unlike my often preferred sound signature. Glorious liquidy smooth mids, a smooth warm bass and highs, well we’ll get onto those in a minute.
I do feel I should point out I am using Bright 2. Yes the setting that is supposed to be flat and boosted in the highs and upper mids. I’m still calling it smooth and rich, this speaker doesn’t really quite do any semblance of open, airy or dry. In the speaker word I do believe this is somewhat of a “British” sound, those familiar with B&W will know what I mean.
Highs: Well I want to wax lyrical but the highs here are a little meh. They are not tuned to be treble monsters, they can’t. The 2 way set up focuses far more on low and mid range sounds. This is in part in sure to them being “desktop” speakers and inherently near field. So they shouldn’t sound like normal stand mounts, good, also I think its marketing. It’s easy for a small speaker to do highs in vast abundance and it’s very hard to do lows. Therefore it’s going to be the lack of lows that is the single major complaint in this size arena. These sound much larger than they are and the move much more air than this size should. They do rich and smooth wonderfully but that “fullrange” driver begins to wain as things get ever higher. It doesn’t pump out a lot of treble and if I’m honest if you ask it to it politely declines. If you insist it will do its best, it’s best you don’t do that. Highs don’t really shimmer and decay like speakers often do so well. They roll off swiftly. There is nothing wrong in that per say but I did find more than once, despite being on Bright 2, thinking “ahh if only these had a tweeter they would be amazing.” I stand by that thought.
There is enough to keep things going and its capable enough but the lows are superb and the mids, glorious. The highs boosted up as I have them are a touch brittle and scratchy. On flat they just aren’t enough for me. They just aren’t up to the other two’s standard.
Soundstage: Very good, these sound much bigger than they look. Well once you get the Dirac stuff up and running. These sound full and hearty. The imaging is less precise but the smooth welcoming nature of these means that’s not really what you’re listening out for anyway. It’s all slightly soft focus. Dirac off and they got rather more focused in the centre which worked for spoken voices but rather loss so for music.
Dynamics: These are not the most energetic speakers ever. They don’t rise and fall with any dynamic passion that can captivate the listener. These are rather staid naturally. It’s really not unlike that Sony esq sound. Warm, smooth and a bit heavy. Of course they are agile enough to get jumping if you tell them to, it’s just not where I feel they belong. More Nora Jones than Pink. Orchestral dynamics are reasonable but they do want to keep things in a happy power band that makes for sensible home use. Do you really want something exploding out of nowhere? If you do you can crank the volume and thanks to the speaker arrangement in can get seriously powerful and the bass will just keep on going.
Power: These would rather you played more gentle, acoustic sorts of music. They don’t belong on a desk blasting out pop. They will if you ask them, they will make your desk rattle and shake if you ask them too. They can become rather room filling too for something this size. If you are someone who is all about the power then I suggest these aren’t for you. While they will go mighty loud and they can roar it would feel improper to ask them to. Likewise they can offer an impressive sense of scale. These are a more mature and grown up sounding speaker and ought to be treated to beautiful sounds and not subjected to raucous abuse. They could power a party but these seem more at home at a dinner party rather than student debauchery.
Aesthetics: Not having the white I can’t comment on those but I think I would have liked them. The black ones, as I mentioned before they are matte, these are not showy speakers. They aren’t flash in any way, well apart from one. The grill on the front. The grill is very functional, protecting the main driver but that bright chrome really catches the eye on an otherwise oddly invisible product. Given the matte nature of the rest of the thing is so unusual I can’t help feeling if they had made the grill a matte black too the effect would be enhanced. In a world of glossy vulgarity, the matte has a strangely appealing look to it. It looks very mature and sophisticated in a world of “oooh shiny!” This looks much more serious, much like it sounds.
Build and Durability: Without dropping them on the ground these isn’t any way to really be sure but they look and feel very sturdy. They are heavy but not so much that suggest anything out of the ordinary. The grills on the front being metal should do an admirable job of keeping the drivers safe too.
Speakers on their own: Plugging the speakers half into the FiiO A1’s that I have sitting on my desk there is big difference. Firstly of course there is no Dirac fancy EQ thing going on so you might think that these will tend towards an unaltered, sound that I found lacking in treble. No. The FiiO is a brightish amp and the S-800 become oh so much less heavy sounding. That abundant low end becomes much tamer, mids dryer and more forthright and the treble? Well it stands up much more and takes on a new level of delicacy that I didn’t know it had in them. I am very surprised to say the least, this to me seems a much, much better combo than the amp they come with. I can only assume they had been tuned to carer to the masses and their biggest single complaint. That there is never enough bass. An understandable thing to do especially for a smallish desktop speaker. In certain songs it does become quite evident that the bass is lacking in this set up. It’s not terrible sounding but there is a lot that’s just not being done right in this set up, perhaps a more powerful amp would cure but then that somewhat defeats the point of these belonging on a desk.
Amp on its own: Plugging the A-800 into the Acoustic Energy Radiance 1’s I have and I’m instantly impressed, as a combo they go well together. The A-800 strikes me a warm and rich amp which when paired with the somewhat abundant treble of the Radiance’s it shows off them both. This I like. Okay I think it’s safe to say I like the amp more than I like the speakers from the MH-800 duo. A quick listen plugged into the Audica SC-C1’s I have nearby conforms the amp is fantastic. Rich, creamy mids abound but not too much given the nature of the speaker. I can’t help wondering why this amp sounds so very, very rich and heavy with its intended speakers? Changing back to the Radiances and I cannot help feeling the two could have been made for each other. I perfectly understand they are more rather more costly than the S-800 but the amp seems the better of the two. It does make all of the Dirac things a bit redundant but seeing as it is now refusing to load I can’t play with them, that’s my excuse anyway as I cannot see them helping and the purist in me doesn’t really like EQ’ing things. I should point out while I find the two to be a perfect combination a friend greatly preferred the A1 still, he preferred the dryer crisper sound. I really like this amp a lot with my Radiance 1’s.
Value: While I haven’t always been ecstatic over the sound these gave that you get the amp and speaker combo for the just reduced price of £340 (even at the normal £400) I’d have a hard time claiming these are anything other than a bit of a steal. With the usual caveats of course. These are not meant to fill a room, they also don’t offer the best treble around. They do of course make up for things elsewhere so you have to work out what your needs or wants are first. They do some things superbly and you do have the option to separate the two if you choose. Together they make a warm and beautiful sound.
Conclusion: I like these, then I think they are great, then I think I don’t like them. These suit particular songs well, superbly well, insanely well. Then others they just don’t. The mid range is very good and the lows are likewise fantastic. The trouble is the top end isn’t. It isn’t bad, but it is behind the other two aspects and at times it’s really quite noticeably so. They have been sensible and on either of the two “flat” settings the treble really doesn’t stand out at all. But there should be more, I can’t comment on what their acoustic measurements gave but those familiar with my musings will know it’s not often I say something doesn’t have enough treble. I found that the best sound, by far, setting was “Bright 2” I found the balance to be very good but it does in treble heavy stuff show of how much it lacks. Again not that it’s terrible; it’s just not near as good as the bass and mids. Now if you never listen to anything with a lot of crispy treble then your fine. Lots and lots of music I was very happy with, lots of slow, smooth acoustic stuff and vocals. These work fanatically well but as soon as you go to some bouncy pop things became less good. The bass for one I found for a desktop system a bit much, I don’t like my desk vibrating, vocals stayed good but the trouble really is up top. The use of a 3 inch “full range” driver as a tweeter shows up what it can’t do.
My ears are used to picking out detail and I couldn’t stop, it swiftly began to annoy me. Quantity wise it still wasn’t vast, the friend I mentioned before, he normally used a pair of ER4’s with a bass boosting amp and he found them to be rather lacking. By rather I mean a lot, he was not impressed at all. I don’t normally like abundant treble so these were more to my natural tastes than his. The treble here just isn’t all that it should be and it’s a massive shame given how good the mid range is. Vocals are just outstandingly good, the “full range” driver not having to deal with the production of the lows as would be in most 2 way set ups means they aren’t trying to move a shed load of air. They can focus on the frequency band they are clearly better at dealing with. The lows too are vastly better than what you’d expect from something this size. The quality is very good, if a hint towards rich rather than punchy, unless you play with the Dirac settings that is. The bass on these can punch you in the face and turn your desk into a vibrating massage table if you want it to. Other than being too happy to become too abundant there isn’t much I can fault the low end for. The mid range I don’t think I can fault period.
There isn’t a great deal I feel a can say about the lows and mids without sounding like a broken record, they are both superb. What I really wish is for XTZ to make version two and add in one of their ribbon tweeters. I know it would them make it a 3 way but they are nailed the mids and lows here. I really do so very much like them both that I want to love the MH-800, I so want to love it, I really, really do. But….. that treble, I just cant. I do realise that I may be looking at this from a perspective that its intended consumer may well not. Most normal people are happy with low bit rate mp3’s in which case you wouldn’t likely know what it was your supposed to be hearing. You may prefer it, there is some consensus that people prefer the scratchy broken highs that mp3’s offer as that’s what they are used to. In which case these will easily be good enough. But…(I seem to be saying but a lot) catering to the audiophile crowd and I just can’t get over that issue.
As with many things it will come down to you, what do you want these for, what sound signature do you like, what music do you listen to most? With particular subsets of these then you could be supremely happy with these. They can do some things wonderfully well. As I sit at this moment with Dido playing and I cannot help but be impressed. These sound smooth and enveloping, they have scale and fluidity that just rises and swirls around your ears. It is beautiful, she sounds beautiful, everything sounds beautiful. These just have a particular flavour that’s all. It’s also quite the opposite issue that would normally be found on this type of set up. Normally in a smallish desktop set up the biggest complaint would be from most the lack of a low end, no one can accuse these of that.
So while I don’t believe I’d buy a set, though I would consider the A-800, however I can see why many would and would very much like these. They offer a talent in the low end that isn’t commonly found in this product type and especially in this size. It’s just such an unusual way of doing things. So much so that I’d suggest if you live near Nottingham (Audio Sanctum are in Manesfield apparently some town near Nottingham) then see if you can go have a listen. They just do not sound like typical desktop speakers and I can’t think of a single other 2 way speaker that does a woofer and then a mid/high driver. It’s not uncommon in the word of IEM’s and multi BA drivers and here it produces something not too dissimilar. It’s very interesting and if you get the chance have a listen. If your parting with cash then be sure you’re happy with the treble and the tuning choices made there.