JTR Noesis 212HT Speaker
Hailing from late-to-the-game manufacturer JTR, the Noesis series of speakers are designed as a minimalistically styled, maximum performance speakers that deliver the absolute best sound quality for top-dollar with no frills. The 212HT is the flagship, and delivers a smooth, effortless sound that trumps some of the industry's best-known stalwarts.
Movies sound excellent on the 212HT. The Noesis hits the sweet spot in what is both the most important and most difficult, and frequently bothersome, aspect of a center channel's sound: vocals. Movie dialogue is never recessed or overshadowed, but also never overly forward or harsh, a huge accomplishment for a dynamic center channel. It is extremely dynamic, capable of portraying whispering voices at audible volumes that are nonetheless very clear, while never producing the shoutiness or midrange over-emphasis are typical of some center channels. Voices are free of grain, and always perfectly placed (so long as your speakers are).
While movies are great, music is really where the Noesis really shines. Its presentation is, again, smooth and grain-free, with absolutely zero harshness and absolute coherence that has to be heard to be believed. Their incredible dynamics stand out in placing instruments not only relative to one another, but in absolute spaces of their own, and the center channel in particular has the ability to sound simultaneously powerful and distant, to help reproduce sounds like the timpani (typically at the rear of the orchestra) with their full timbre without overshadowing others or bleeding frequencies. These speakers are truly world-class, and anyone for whom sound takes precedence over looks should seriously consider the 212HT for any home system.
KEF Reference 204/2c Center Channel Speaker
KEF's 204/2c is perhaps most notable for its pure levels of detail. While their sound reproduction is not as buttery smooth and well-rounded as the Noesis, they are incredibly precise and detailed, and lose out in levels of absolute detail only to Martin Logan's electrostats, while maintaining a much more natural, full sound. The extra warmth is appreciated when watching movies, which tend to benefit from a more enveloping presentation, and the KEF delivers on this note. It can easily help a matching system fill nearly any room with accurate, detailed sound that really does have to be heard to be believed.
While it can't quite match the smoothness of the Noesis, the KEFs do have an equally natural timbre, and can reproduce vocal dynamics in movies just as accurately, and with a slightly more precise feel; music lovers, however, will likely prefer the 212HT for its incredible smoothness and dynamic dexterity. The KEF can sound a tad harsh at times in comparison, but is also more detailed; to all but highly trained ears, this competition is probably a wash, and many people may prefer the more attractive 204/2c.
One drawback of the 204/2c is its size: not all home systems will be able to accommodate its monstrous nearly 4-foot width. However if you've got the space, this KEF is sure to please those looking for serious detail reproduction while maintaining a natural timbre.
Bowers and Wilkins HTM2 Diamond Center Channel Speaker
Bowers and Wilkins is easily the best-known name in the speaker game, and their 800D lives up to it. Anyone looking for wholly neutral, incredibly detailed sound will never be disappointed by B&W's top shelf, and their latest HTM2 center channel is no exception. Producing a clean, airy, neutral sound, the HTM2 takes detail to a new level, beating everything in this list except ML's Stage X and KEF's 204/2c. The HTM2 does suffer from some midrange shoutiness/harshness at its limits, and of course proper floor speakers and subs will be required to produce more of the sound to minimize distortion and grain from the center channel, but with its accompanying 800D setup, this is rarely a problem. B&W's house sound may be a touch bright for some; the HTM2 puts most of its power into mids, as a center channel should, but unlike most centers, it incorporates a separate tweeter for extra crispness. This extra detail is usually a welcome addition for critical listening involved in producing and mastering, which is what B&W advertises the 800D series for, but those looking for a home theater system with enveloping, smooth sound may be a little surprised by the extra treble. It certainly doesn't hinder detail or dynamics, but the sound is definitely brighter and more airy than most listeners will prefer for movies. True audiophiles and audio professionals, on the other hand, will likely be pleased with the slightly more aggressive sound, and those ready for the extra brightness will likely prefer these to other offerings in this list.
While dynamic speakers come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations, they have one common shortcoming that those with the most discerning ears will often comment upon: even the smallest, fastest dynamic speakers can be a bit slow when rendering complex music, especially orchestral passages with dozens of instruments and even more individual parts to be dissected. In the eardphone world, these ears opt for faster balanced armature earphones; the home audio world, however, draws its speed-freaks to electrostatic speakers. For these audiophiles with an absolute love of precision, Martin Logan has designed the Stage X.
Bass will never be a strength of electrostatic speakers; owners will tell you that this is what the subwoofer is for. Electrostats are capable of producing incredible image depth, detail, speed and dynamics, but they will never sound as full as dynamic speakers; the Stage X is no exception. Placement is also a very high consideration for electrostats; any home theater system should be tuned and placed by a professional or audiophile with a trained ear, but electrostatic speakers are even pickier about their space, requiring a larger room to sound their best and ample space from any potentially-interfering surfaces. Also please keep in mind that the "sweet spot," or ideal listening position, for electrostatic-based systems is typically very small, even when properly configured; sound will become unnatural to anyone not within the 2 or, at best, 3-person sitting space towards which the speakers are angled.
Electrostats are a huge pain, but Martin Logan makes the best, and anyone with the patience and ear (or money) to get the Stage X and its companions properly setup will be rewarded with unparalleled clarity and detail; just make sure you get a great woofer.
Totem Model One Center Channel Speaker
The Model One produces and excellent, neutral sound that will please nearly any listener, and is incredibly detailed and dynamic. Image depth is fantastic for the price, very nearly matching the offerings from KEF and JTR, and despite falling short of the total smoothness and refinement of the Noesis speakers, they still play in the same ballpark in terms of detail and dynamic presence. They are a bit darker than the B&Ws, so anyone looking for seriously crisp sound might want to steer clear, but the Model One easily shows up the HTM2 in terms of bass response; anyone looking for movie speakers or who just likes a little extra grip and thump should seriously consider the Totems.
Overall the Totem Model One has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, especially considering the competition here is double the price or more, and anyone looking for an attractive, truly high-end setup without spending the last few grand can rest easily with these.
The Infinity Primus falls at the top end of what are consider "budget" speakers, with an entire 7.2 setup available for around $2000 and 5.1 for under $1500. The PC351 delivers a clear midrange that rarely sounds honky, and incorporates a dome tweeter for room-filling sound that doesn't require a professional ear to place and setup. The Primus's center channel delivers crisp, clear vocals and acceptable bass response that helps create a clear 3D image that puts it clearly ahead of other centers costing under $200. Its dual 5-inch woofers produce clear, tight bass that doesn't distort until volumes necessary to fill a very large room, over 600 square feet. The Infinite Primus system has a very smooth, warm, ear-pleasing sound and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser with its easy-to-like presentation. It is very detailed for the price, and is likely to make most people looking to bring true surround sound to their home theater without breaking the bank very happy.
The Klipsch Reference RC-42 II and its associated setup, the Klipsch Reference II series, are easily some of the best speakers for the price, and deliver sound that is clearly a notch above other systems running under $1500 for a full 5.1 (closer to $2000 for 7.1). The RC-42 II, as a lower-end model in the Reference series, is a stand-out performer at its price point, delivering clear, easily intelligible vocals that won't be overshadowed by bass, and help create a 3D sonic image that is noticeably more realistic than other entry-level setups. It uses a horn speaker, which emphasizes the treble and midrange over other frequencies; some prefer this configuration as center channels are used primarily to convey speech, which is midrange-heavy, but some find it overly forward (sometimes "honky"); they might prefer the slightly smoother, more polite presentation of the Infinity. Horn speakers are more directional than domes, meaning that the optimal area for listening will be smaller, and requiring more careful placement for optimum sound However those with the patience for placement who are looking for a full-on, forward, movie-theater-esque experience will enjoy the power and immediacy of the Klipsch house sound.
Boston Acoustics' A series speakers are a well-known great value, and the 225C is the centerpiece of the setup. The design is low-key but classy and won't draw unnecessary attention to themselves. The sound is generally balanced, but doesn't have quite the same amount of bass as other centers in this review. It doesn't quite succeed in creating the same 3D realism that the more expensive sets from Infinity and Klipsch can, but it does add dimension to the sound and definitely gives dialogue and vocals extra body.
The whole A series setup does benefit from some burn in (~50-100 hours), so be sure to give the speakers some time to settle into their sound before fully judging their sound. Overall the 225C is a solid center channel with a low-key design that will please most listeners, and do justice to high-res music and DVD/BluRay soundtracks as well.
The TL3 center is integrated very well with the rest of the TL3 series speakers, and performs respectably for its price. The sound signature of the Polks is brighter than any other speaker listed here, edging out the Klipsch Reference by a small margin. This brightness helps create a noticeably wider soundstage than other setups in the same price range. Sibilance can be a problem at times, which also hurts the TL3's presentation depth a bit, but overall the sound is great and there are few other faults to be found. The design is very simple and discreet, and the system's presentation on the whole is low-key and attractive. Easily findable for under $200, the TL3 is a slightly brighter sounding center that should give listeners an exciting sound that performs especially well with movies.
Energy speakers are well-regarded in both home and car audio, and the V-Mini C delivers on their reputation for providing solid budget options. The V-Mini is exceptional for both its size and price, and is a great choice for anyone looking to create a 5.1 bookshelf setup that won't overwhelm a small room. Sporting two woofers and a tweeter, the vocals are not as clear as with some larger center channels that incorporate mids or horns, but the sound is still very pleasing to the ears, and vocals will still be very well-defined in a small room. Those with larger spaces to fill will want to look elsewhere, as a bigger room with one or two subwoofers could easily drown out the vocals produced by the V-Mini; this is definitely a center for a smaller setup if you want to be sure to avoid the recessed movie dialogue that center channels are often seen as the cure for. The V-Mini does great with music, but again won't suit larger rooms as distortion will impact this smaller speaker before reaching necessary volumes to give a full sound for anything over ~250 square feet. Overall the V-Mini will do great in a small room, but don't expect it to replace something in the same league as the other models listed here.
Revel C12 Center Channel Speaker
The Revel Concerta series excels in two areas that put it above the competition, and they are the two aspects of a speaker system that are most coveted by true speaker aficionados: soundstage and neutrality. Speakers of this price will exhibit excellent detail retrieval, as one might hope, but the realism conveyed by the C12's combination of a wide open sonic image and tonal accuracy is hard to contest. Though it perhaps isn't as immediately impressive as the familiar warm, bassy sound that has been popularized by Klipsch, or as sharp and exciting as the bright, hyper-analytical approach taken by Bowers & Wilkins, the impressive naturalness of the sound of Harman's pet speaker brand is something that will be appreciated by anyone who has spent serious time with a system that is as colored as some of the other options in this list. While audiophiles and music lovers will often prefer a more colored sound to lend excitement to music, the Revel C12 delivers a level of realism and accuracy that is at its best accompanied by a large 1080p screen and BluRay disk to create a truly realistic home theater experience, and for this purpose, it has no peer in its price range.
The Monitor series is a very neutral, detailed setup that is voiced for both professional and home use, and it genuinely excels at both. Like the Revel C12, the Center 3 (not to be confused with Paradigm's Signature C3, which is substantially more expensive) has both the soundstage and neutrality to make it exceedingly versatile, ideal for any reference system and easily usable for music, movies, and studio production to boot. While not quite as detailed and effortless as the C12, the Center 3 showcases an equally impressive soundscape and a similar neutrality, with a bit of extra sparkle that can sound very exciting with the right music, but isn't quite as close to true neutrality as the C12. It manages to do this without very much sibilance, an impressive feat, especially when compared to Bowers and Wilkin's popular HTM61, which sports a similar brightness, yet tends to be more revealing of sibilance, especially in poor recordings. The Center 3 is a great alternative to the HTM61, and can be found for substantially less to boot.
Klipsch's house sound is consistent across all ranges and models: they bring the bass. The RC-62 II is no exception, providing a well-measured punch that may even fill smaller rooms without the need for a subwoofer of any kind; larger setups will, of course, require some extra kick to fill the larger headroom, but anyone living in an apartment may want to take heed: neighbors are apt to complain about wall-shaking grounded subs, but the free-standing RC62-II provides ample bass without turning smaller rooms into LF echo chambers. Like all Klipsch centers, the RC-62 II utilizes a horn loaded tweeter, which some may find overly forward or too "loud-sounding;" this is great for low volume listening, or anyone looking for a truly explosive sound, but those looking for a more polite signature for natural full-volume listening may want to look elsewhere. The Reference series is the way to go if you really just want to make your home theater sound as much like a full-sized movie theater as possible.
Bower & Wilkins HTM61 Center Channel Speaker
B&W's HTM61 is the larger (and more expensive) of the two 600 series center channels, and earns its place over the HTM62 by presenting clearer highs, noticeably fuller bass, and a wider sonic landscape that can easily fill all but the largest rooms. The HTM61 is notably picky about placement in a system, and the "sweet spot" for truly accurate 3D imaging is somewhat small, but easily outshines nearly all competitors in terms of tonal balance, detail retrieval, and effortlessness of sound once that sweet spot has been properly isolated. The B&W house sound is a bit on the bright side, due in part to their propriety tube loaded Nautilus tweeters, which amplify high frequencies, setting them as the focus of the sound. This approach works extremely well for acoustic, classical, and electronic music, all of which also benefit from the HTM61's tight, punchy bass that never overshadows the midrange or darkens the exciting, twangy tone. There are better options for movies, given the HTM61's notably small sweet spot and occasionally overbearing treble response, but if music is the top priority for your home system, the 600 series, and by proxy the HTM61, deserve your attention.
The OSC3-CC packs impressive sound into a small package, and manages to do so without the usual caveats of a shouty midrange or distorted, overblown bass. Anyone familiar with 5.1 setups from Bose or other high-cost low-value brands will likely remember the bass that neighbors complained about even when it was all the way down, and the shouty vocals that sounded like they came from between cupped hands. Mirage's OS3-CC delivers the goods without any of these flaws, and with as little as 2 bookshelf speakers or satellites, it can easily provide an immersive audio experience for any small room; expanding to floor speakers and a subwoofer reveals that the OS3-CC can project vocals into larger spaces as well, though not with quite the same fullness and authority of larger, higher-priced center channels. It exceeds its size again by keeping distortion to an impressive minimum, even at high volume, and has the kind of three-dimensional presentation that helps pull you into a movie experience, or feel one step closer to a live performance. It is not ideal for the largest of rooms, but the OS3-CC is a good choice for anyone looking to spend a bit extra on a home system without getting in too deep.