When it comes to HD, flatscreens offer better visual performance than old-style CRT displays. But they do have a generic weakness - audio performance. The feature that makes flatscreens so attractive is what impedes them when reproducing sound. Flat panels have quickly turned from luxury to commodity items.
The net effect is that an external solution, based around separate speakers, is a prerequisite if premium audio quality is important. This is the target market at which Tannoy's Arena HighLine 500 system is aimed.
An evolution of last year's highly- regarded original Arenas, this HighLine set comprises a tall, floorstanding column, and a shorter column that can be used on stands, shelves or attached to the wall, in a vertical orientation; or, in the almost identical centre version, horizontally. These models can be mixed and matched at will, and are technically closely related, with an identical drive unit configuration in each case.
The system tested here consisted of two towers and three satellites for rear- channel and centre-channel duties, plus a subwoofer, which is also unusually discreet, with a shallow front-rear depth, despite specifying large (30cm) drivers. Inventively, it has spike points on every side. This allows you to choose a placement which is most effective, musically, in your listening room.
Tannoy's subwoofer includes a 500W Bash digital amplifier featuring a switch-mode power supply and a power amplifier configuration that offers a combination of digital and analogue power amps. The input can be passed through an adjustable low-pass filter when dealing with a full bandwidth signal, or unfiltered if working with an input that's been pre-filtered, for example when connected to the LFE output of a home cinema amplifier.
The remaining 500 series satellites are far from conventional. The key drive unit in each case is a 100mm Dual Concentric, a Tannoy proprietary technology in which an ultra wide-band tweeter is buried in the mouth of the bass/midrange unit, which acts as an acoustic guide for the high-frequency output.
DCs are tricky to design and optimise, but have the benefit that all frequencies appear to come from a single point in space, which has a number of psycho-acoustic benefits. Because the bass cones are quite small, a second unit with the same cone diameter, but limited to low frequencies, supplements the output.
The super-tweeter extends high-frequency output to 54kHz. The original Arena satellites had only a Dual Concentric driver - these improved models have a DC and separate bass driver all-round.
The main structural materials used for the enclosures is 'extravagantly thick' aluminium, with extensive internal bracing, and multiple layers of electrostatically applied paint, each layer sanded and polished to give a near mirror-like deep gloss finish. The sub enclosure is made from thick MDF; finished in silver or black to match the rest of the system.
If asked to sum up in a word, the Arena HighLine 500 system would best be described as 'intelligible'. Dialogue in the centre channel was reproduced extremely clearly. The same applied to the other channels too, though. Individual instruments or sound effects were always explicit and well separated, both tonally and spatially. With this system you feel that you can hear much more clearly than usual what is going on.
In addition, the system is capable of playing loud without changing in sound as the volume is turned up - a failing I have found with even quite ambitious loudspeaker systems. As a result, the Tannoy system is easy to listen to.
The subwoofer is good, and extraordinarily versatile. It has more than adequate bass extension and is well filtered, so that it works seamlessly with the satellite speakers. Nevertheless, there is a perceptible slowness in its delivery, which is far from unpleasant, but which tends to reduce its power and impact with powerful, transient-led material.
So does this make the Arena a good music system too? Up to a point. The system sounds clean, agile and highly detailed, again with the signature explicit spatial imagery. Colouration is low too, but there was a certain lack of gravitas with the subwoofer set so that it was not intrusive, combined with a degree of upper midband forwardness.
Of speakers basically designed for flatpanel TVs, the Tannoy is much closer to being suitable for purist music applications than most, but at its core it remains a home cinema system.
The Arena HighLine 500 Wall and Tower Combination system represents a significant investment, but then it is a very significant system, one that comes close to matching the best in class, and which perhaps attains that lofty position.
It is a highly detailed, yet neutral and wide-ranging system. It is also easy to set up, not too fussy about room positioning, and can be used satisfactorily for stereo music as well as multichannel material - music as well as home cinema. Alvin Gold