American speaker manufacturer Klipsch is famed for its horn speakers, due to their clarity, power, definition and, most of all, sheer size. Its legend-model, the Klipschorn, is like a triangular sideboard. But this 5.1 set of Icon speakers is more living room-friendly, and intended to marry up to modern flatscreen TVs, so adopts a kind of horns-lite approach.
Available in two pretty but subtle veneer finishes, each of these medium-sized boxes features a cleverly-designed polymer assembly in its face that squirts the high frequency audio all around with a greater efficiency than any normal dome tweeter ever could.
Think of them as speakers for those who want sexy, top-end performance without their room dominated by massive boxes. Which is quite a lot of us, probably.
I love some bits of technology more than others. I worship the simplicity of my dishwasher and what it does so reliably, and I hate my Thomson PVR with a passion. It has so often corrupted files of programmes I enjoyed, I now fear never seeing a series all the way through.
I was therefore thrilled to get Season Two of Heroes on Blu-ray for Christmas, as I lost it part way through during its terrestrial broadcast. Of course, it is so much better on BD, with the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Bullets fly and stop, glass shatters and men streak by with a whoosh. At least they do with the Icon system.
Klipsch is speaker-biz aristocracy, masters of the dark art of the compression-driven horn. Simply put, these have megaphones of purity in front of the specially-designed tweeters. Not familiar domes but compression-driven diaphragms that work on the same sound-squeezed and-directed principle as the professional speakers used by studio and live sound engineers.
As this technology relies on the rules of physics, pertaining to the wavelengths of the sound being made, bass horns are often big enough for a small family to hide inside for weeks. What's more, tweety compression driver horns are absurdly efficient and spread the sound out like warm butter.
It means that for very few watts, these speakers, like all of their brethren, are improbably loud. In turn, this means your amp works less hard, leaving it more bass-end headroom.
8in wonder woofer
Horn speakers rock but can often be let down by weedy subwoofers. Thankfully, the woofer that came with this set, despite being the mere 8in driver version (there's a 10in, too), absolutely stonks.
The XW-300D has an insane amount of cone travel. It's a sealed box, too, so can go as low as the wobbliness of the woofer allows, rather than resonating mostly at a port-tuned frequency. It was deep, throbby, tight and melodic, and beautifully controlled by a decent amp.
Klipsch has bought into licensed BASH technology, a kind of digital hybrid bass amplification (all about the power supply switching inside) that offers more grip for the watts. It worked a treat with Heroes, as the sound mixers are always giving it some basso profundo to impress the viewer.
These Icon speakers are beautifully put together, using Allen-headed bolts to their rears around the ports – rounded-end, ovoid slots which allow a large amount of carefully-tuned air to puff in and out. These afford some real power output to the small glassfibre based cones that look like they shouldn't be able to do what they do.
Also, in the case of the bigger boxes, you get a set of well-made steel spikes to anchor them to the deck. There are rubber pads for the centre and surrounds, with the latter also getting two 'P' holes on the rear for wall-hanging.
Apart from the subwoofer, they all use magnetic attraction to hold their grilles in place with Neodymium discs embedded within the grilles and the cabinets. They stay in place well and the cabinets look far better without any ugly fixing holes.
The finish is superb but understated, and I gather takes several layers of sanded lacquer to make them look so svelte. Even the outrigger bits at the base of the towers look good. Put simply, the finish of this Klipsch set is gorgeous.
The woofer is high-tech but a doddle to setup. It has a panel control on the top to access all the stuff you need to do (volume, EQ, lowpass and phase) via up/down and left/right buttons, an 'enter' button and a backlit LCD character display. It has a sophisticated set of abilities, and you can save your own settings under 'Movie', 'Music' and 'Night' labels. There's even a 60Hz 'music' EQ setting and a 30Hz centred 'depth' EQ as well.
More than a feeling
I am an admitted lover of audio you can feel, but I do enjoy accuracy above all else. I'll forgive a small scale if it's simply related to price, like cars and top speed. And this system is like a Toyota Prius, sucking absurd amounts of go from each and every bit of fuel. That efficiency is a big part of the Klipsch story and the Icons especially.
I had some fun with Heroes' DTS-HD soundtrack, as it's amazingly crafted. I watched several discs' worth – and quite a lot at night – and found that while it couldn't begin to do the majestic might and scale of a high-end all-floorstander system and weapons'-grade sub, it was brilliant at audio placement and bizarrely good at low volumes.
Those toy-like horns actually deserve the deepest respect for sheer weasel-like cunning. Wherever you sit, you will be within the magical 80-80° spread these horns achieve, and that means that the energy in the detail-carrying high frequencies will always reach you in the right amounts, so you get the 'director intended' mix. I enjoyed them hugely, even if they were a bit less in-your-face than my taste. Anyway, that's my taste.
For normal people with rooms up to a decent size, this set is a high-quality option at a tempting price – including a five-year warranty and free shipping when ordered from Klipsch's website. It also specs a bigger array of Icons with more potent fronts and a larger woofer if you want.
And if you need to fill a real cinema, it makes plenty of speakers that size, too…
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