The loudspeaker category is without question one of the most competitive markets within the entire realm of consumer electronics. The latest company taking this challenge on is steering clear of the pure retail market and specifically targeting installers is the Needham, Mass.-based manufacturer Next Level Acoustics. Led by owner Robert Goldman, the company is aggressively developing products to meet the needs of installers that offer multichannel home theater solutions through a choice of products that include one-off custom products.
Earlier this Fall, Goldman stopped by the CE Pro office to drop off the company’s Elite Series Sonos Play:Bar enclosure, along with its Fusion LCR and Fusion SW8P powered subwoofer, to give us an opportunity to hear these products for ourselves.
Starting with the Play:Bar enclosure, I took this product home and tried it with the Sonos-powered soundbar in my Sonos system. The enclosure is designed to mount quickly with standard mounting hardware that’s available from any home improvement store.
Taking a closer look at the Elite Series, Next Level states the product features “tapered lines to perfectly compliment even the most discerning viewing environments.” Internally, the Elite Series features side reflectors to focus sound towards the seating position while improving intelligibility. Other features include size options and a magnetic mesh-weave grille that allows IR signals to pass.
Dropping the Sonos soundbar into the enclosure, I listened to a variety of content with the Play:Bar at several listening locations. I heard no difference with music or dialog with the soundbar. While I can’t say the acoustical design added focus to dialog, I can say that, more importantly, it did not detract from dialog intelligibility. This I believe may be just as important for consumers that are concerned about the industrial design element of their soundbars and TVs.
Moving on to Next Level’s Fusion LCR, with this product, like the Elite Series enclosure, dealers can order the three-channel soundbar in a choice of sizes ranging from 48 inches to 74 inches. The 90dB-efficient, 4-ohm speaker is capable of producing SPL levels as high as 103dB. It employs a left, center, right driver array of tweeter, woofer, woofer; woofer, tweeter, woofer, and woofer, woofer, tweeter.
Digging deeper, the woofers are 3.3-inch Vifa cast-frame drivers and the tweeters are a Vifa Neodymium silk-dome models. Helping the soundbar to work with just about any type of amplifier is Next Level’s Impedance Optimized Sound Bar (IOSB) technology, said to enable the Fusion LCR to minimize impedance swing variations to enable the product to play loud with minimal amounts of distortion at low power levels.
The final Next Level product I listened to was the Fusion SW8P powered subwoofer. This small footprint sub complements the Fusion LCR to provide mid-bass frequency reinforcement. The sealed-box design incorporates a Peerless SLS 8-inch woofer that is driven by a 300-watt RMS amplifier. Its rear panel controls include an line-in/line-out, speaker-level connections, volume, phase, crossover, and on/off/auto options.
Hooking the soundbar up to an Integra receiver was easy enough. I ran 16/2 Monster speaker cable to each of the soundbars binding posts and an RCA cable from the receiver’s sub out to the subwoofer’s line-in input. After dialing in the volume and phase, and setting the crossover in the receiver’s menu to the standard 80Hz, I was off and running.
Listening to mostly music, but also some video content, I was honestly surprised at some of the sonic attributes of the Fusion LCR and SW8P combination. Listening to music with the soundbar and sub configured via the Integra receiver’s processing in a 2.1 mode, I thought the combination delivered a wide airy soundstage and well-defined image. The Next Level products’ tonal balance with music appeared pretty neutral and I didn’t notice any issues with the receiver driving the speaker.
I didn’t find the integration of the sub and soundbar terribly difficult. It took a few minutes of listening, and ultimately in our CE Pro listening room I found “noon” on the volume knob to provide the best blend of loudness, “tightness” and overall audibility, without overworking the soundbar or subwoofer localization.
Transitioning to surround from stereo I felt the tonal accuracy had shifted slightly to a more pronounced mid-bass emphasis. This emphasis wasn’t chesty or muddy, and it could even be construed as beneficial to dialog, but some of what I was hearing could also be due to my listening environment’s acoustics. Nevertheless, I did find a bit of “forwardness” to the soundbar’s multichannel playback.
Realistically, the sub in our room played down to 63Hz before low frequency roll off affected its output levels. With that said, it did extend down to 40Hz. I had placed the sub towards the center of our rectangular room’s long wall. Corner placement could theoretically add some bottom end extension, but the sub could sacrifice some speed and control in this scenario.
My only apprehension with the system has nothing to do with its performance. From my perspective, the build quality of the products is good, the sound quality is good, there are plenty of dealer support incentives available through the company, but the prices of the sub and enclosure products may run on the high side in my opinion. I think dealers that are skilled at selling audio won’t have a problem with the products … and for that matter, dealers that sell with confidence.
But, there are many dealers that don’t fall into those categories, and these prices could preclude them from being successful with the product line. The speaker market is highly competitive as we’ve already noted, and in a category that got its roots in mass-market commodity stores, those price points may be tough to overcome.
With that said, Goldman and his company are enthusiastic about working with dealers and he says the company has more products on the way. For dealers looking to leverage a product line that caters to today’s era of audio that includes custom sizes, finishes, etc., Next Level Acoustics is worth a look.
CE Pro Verdict:
Pros: Elite enclosure unobtrusive when paired with Sonos Play:Bar. The Fusion LCR and SW8P work well together to throw nice image and wide soundstage.
Cons: I understand the low manufacturing volume and custom aspects associated with Next Level, but I think some consumers may balk at the price points of the Elite Series soundbar enclosure and SW8P subwoofer.
- Next Level Acoustics Elite Series soundbar enclosure MSRP ranges from $495 to $625
- Next Level Acoustics Fusion LCR MSRP ranges from $1,195 to $1,395
- Next Level Fusion SW8P powered subwoofer MSRP is $849