Listening Tests & System Setup
The XLS340's arrived by freight carrier in four boxes strapped to a wooden pallet and wrapped in plastic. The towers were in the two larger boxes and the mounting hardware and bases for floor use were in the smaller boxes. Some assembly is required. There are some foibles in the product documentation that I noted during assembly and while writing the review.
Attachment of the cabinet to the base involves the use of an unmentioned 7/16" socket wrench, only determined by trial and error, to tighten the supplied machine bolts that make the connection. While installing the base, do not follow the recommendation of placing this 69 lb speaker on top of the empty box. As a structural engineer, I cannot recommend using cardboard for support: if the side walls do not crush or buckle, or the box flaps do not cave in, eccentric placement of the speaker on the lightweight box may cause it to overturn. Find another flat, sturdy surface to use and put down some sort of blanket, cloth, or use the packing plastic to protect both the finish of the speaker and of the support surface.
I also found a number of discrepancies between the product specifications available from various sources. Specifications quoted in the product manual, included with the speakers, differed from those quoted in the product brochures available on line from McIntosh as to crossover frequencies, sensitivity, dimensions, and weight of the speaker. The specifications I have listed in the review are from the supplied manual. The manual also internally contradicts itself, suggesting in the body of the text that all the XLS models are designed for use with amplifiers up to 600 watts, while the specifications indicate 600 watts only for the XLS360, with the XLS340 and XLS350 at 400 watts and the XLS320 at 250 watts maximum power handling.
Editor's Note on Comments in Owners Manual
In the owner's manual, McIntosh makes a point of discussing that the XLS series speakers were designed for accurate home theater as well as musical reproduction. They go so far as to suggest that only dynamic range and high SPL capability is required for home theater, while music is "by definition" harmonious and requires low harmonic and intermodulation distortion. I personally disagree with both statements; I find this sort of distinction between movies and music to be irrelevant as accuracy is accuracy. While distortion in an explosion and other special effects may not be obvious, I would prefer to hear them as recorded, not what an inaccurate speaker invents. This statement also neglects the fact that most movies come with a score, often orchestral, that requires accurate music reproduction. As to music being inherently harmonious, this statement obviously discounts most of the serious work in music through the twentieth century including the rise of atonality and other modern forms, but also that the tonal relationships between the fundamental frequency of a note and its higher order harmonics become increasingly dissonant. Octaves are geometric progressions while harmonics are an arithmetic series. For example, the ninth above the fundamental frequency is only a major second from the third octave of the fundamental frequency. Chords built on intervals such as these show up in modern music including such forms as Jazz.
Perhaps some of the above items are trivial, while some are not. I personally would expect all of the i's to be dotted and all of the t's to be crossed with a product that is represented to be of this caliber. Hopefully the discrepancies can be rectified for the future.
With accurate reproduction in mind as a primary design goal, I listened in to the XLS340's using both my PS Audio amplifier and my Rotel A/V receiver in two-channel mode utilizing bass management. Noting the specified frequency response, I listened both with and without subwoofers, but the review mainly considers the sound quality of the XLS 340's without the subs to isolate their performance. In general, I consistently noticed several aspects of the sound produced by the XLS340's.
Treble was clear and detailed, and open at the top end. Individual instruments were given a sense of space with, one might use that ever-popular word: air, between them. The micro dynamic presentation was very good. The midrange was rich with a warm, full sound, but with some source material, could almost seem exaggerated. The upper mids and treble were very smooth and free of any graininess. In this register, the presentation of musical instruments sounded natural and retained their timbre.
The imaging presented by the XLS340's was distinct with a wide sound stage, but not as three dimensional as I am used to. My preamplifier has a control to bypass the active gain circuitry; this is a purist approach with the goal of minimizing signal path and thereby distortion. I typically use this mode as the sound is more natural and with a less electronic character, but the trade off is a slightly flatter sound stage which is of little consequence to my reference speakers. In this mode, the XLS340's sounded somewhat flat so I had to revert to using active circuitry to push dynamics and three dimensionality out of these speakers. I also noticed that the sound stage width seemed overly sensitive to volume with these speakers, and in general, I found that the XLS340's needed to be pushed to sound their best.
Bass output, as expected from the manufacturer's specifications, was lean but not absent from the XLS340's musical presentation. The downside to the richness in the upper mids was at the transition between upper bass and lower midrange: deep male vocals could sound somewhat chesty and the upper register of bass instruments seemed slightly exaggerated. The sound here was a little heavy, one could say, thick. Detail was not lost as a result, as often is the case, but there seemed to be too much and this was consistent through all the recordings I listened to. In that context, it could be considered a trade off in voicing, and becomes a matter of one's personal preferences. However, when I teamed the XLS340's with a subwoofer, I found that the overall sound was much more balanced; the heaviness was not as obvious as it was without the sub. With low end support, I also found the overall character more dynamic with improved presence throughout the audible range.