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Kanto ORA Powered Desktop Speakers & sub8 Review

by February 07, 2024
Kanto ORA and sub8

Kanto ORA and sub8

  • Product Name: ORA powered desktop speakers and sub8 subwoofer
  • Manufacturer: Kanto
  • Performance Rating: StarStarStarStarStar
  • Value Rating: StarStarStarStarhalf-star
  • Review Date: February 07, 2024 00:00
  • MSRP: $ 350/pair - ORA speakers, $260 - sub8 subwoofer
  • Buy Now

ORA Loudspeakers:

  • Design: 2-way active wireless desktop speaker, bass reflex
  • Tweeter: 3/4” Fabric Dome
  • Midrange: 3" Paper Cone
  • Amplifier Power: 50 / 100 watts (RMS / Peak)
  • Frequency Response: 70Hz - 22kHz
  • Wired Connectivity: Stereo RCA, USB-C, single RCA output (Subwoofer)
  • Wireless Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
  • Dimensions: 3.9" W x 6.9" H x 5.6" D
  • Weight: 2.2 lbs. (1.0kg) each
  • Warranty: 2 years

Sub8 Subwoofer:

  • Type: Sealed
  • Amplifier: 150 watts RMS / 300 watts Peak, Class-D
  • Driver: 8” Paper Cone
  • Frequency Response: 35Hz to 175Hz
  • Connectivity: Single RCA Input
  • Low-Pass Frequency Range: 40Hz to 120Hz
  • Phase Adjustability: 0-180 Degree Phase Switch
  • Dimensions: 11” x 11” x 11.9”
  • Weight: 18.3 lbs (8.3kg)
  • Warranty: 2 years

Pros

  • Very easy to set up and use
  • Highly accurate tonality
  • Exceptional imaging
  • Small and unobtrusive
  • Good dynamic range for small system

Cons

  • ORA exterior enclosure feels a bit flimsy

 

ORA desk single2Kanto ORA Introduction

While Audioholics reviews a wide gamut of home audio loudspeakers, we haven’t done very many desktop speakers. One reason is that it is a space filled with very cheap PC speakers that are more intended for bare sound reproduction and are not designed with fidelity in mind at all. However, we have covered a few in recent years. One was the MonAcoustics SuperMon Mini, a very expensive luxury desktop speaker that prices out 99.99% of the buyers in that market. There was also the Monoprice Monolith MTM-100, which is a high performer but a good deal larger than what most desktop speaker shoppers are looking for. But going back through our archives, we don’t have much else that looks at a normal pair of desktop speakers. However, in this review, we will be evaluating a pair of traditional desktop speakers as well as the corresponding subwoofer from their product line-up in the form of the Kanto Living ORA speakers and the Kanto sub8 subwoofer. 

At $350/pair, the ORA speakers are still on the high-end of the price range of what many desktop speaker shoppers are looking at, but those who want some desktop speakers that actually sound good probably understand that they will need to spend more than the trifling cost of so many generic Chinese imports from the recesses of Amazon, Newegg, or eBay. The relatively high MSRP of such small speakers should bode well for their design and build, but, as we have seen so many times in the loudspeaker world, price does not always correlate to quality. So do buyers get their money’s worth with the ORA speakers and sub8 subwoofer? Let’s now dig in to find out…

Kanto ORA Desktop Speakers & sub8 Subwoofer Appearance

The ORA speakers look pretty typical for desktop speakers. They don’t look like luxury items, but they don’t look at all bad either. They are just small black boxes that have a satiny sheen. The housing is just plastic, but it is tastefully designed. There are no grilles to hide the drivers, but the speakers have such a uniform color and texture that shouldn’t be a problem for people who want a minimal appearance. The tweeter dome and woofer cone have the same satin black as the rest of the enclosure, and there are no visible screws that complicate their aesthetic at all. Kanto also sent some speaker stands that are optional purchases. They do look as clean as the speakers and compliment them nicely.

ORA and sub8 5 

The sub8 is also small and unremarkable in appearance, and that is what most people will want. I imagine most people will place it under their desks, so its appearance will matter much less. It uses the textured vinyl wrap of many other budget speakers. The cone is hidden by a thick perforated metal grille that is not removable. Overall, the styling of these speakers and sub is fine and will certainly not deter any would-be buyers.  

Design Analysis: Kanto ORA desktop speakers

ORA tweeter dome2A base description of the ORAs would say that they are active, two-way, vented desktop speakers intended for recreational listening as well as content creation, but how well they accomplish those missions will lay in the details. Let’s begin our dive into the design with the tweeter. The ORAs use a ¾” silk dome tweeter mounted in a shallow waveguide. Silk domes can be a very good diaphragm material, and the smaller diameter will allow it to play up to higher frequencies than typical 1” or larger tweeters. Good silk dome tweeters are not hard to come by, so a lot of the effectiveness of this tweeter will come down to the geometry of the waveguide. A good waveguide can create an even sound over a wide listening area, but optimizing waveguide shapes is not an easy task. If Kanto executed the design correctly, the width of the tweeter’s sound dispersion will have a good match to the woofer at the crossover point, and the waveguide will hold a steady dispersion out to the top of audible frequency bands.   

Moving on to the woofer, the ORAs use a 3” paper cone. Such a small woofer size will impose considerable limits in the dynamic range at lower frequencies, but that is why the ORAs have a subwoofer output. The good news about such a small woofer is that it should be able to play up to very high frequencies without worry about break-up modes. Break-up modes are where the transducing surface begins to bend and flex when it oscillates faster than the stiffness of the material can hold a constant shape. Smaller woofers will be able to play out to higher frequencies before break-up modes become a problem. In typical full-size bookshelf speakers that have 5.25” to 6.5” woofers, these break-up modes can become a problem above 3kHz if they are not filtered out properly, but a 3” cone should be able to play out to around 5kHz with no problem. This gives Kanto a lot of flexibility in selecting the optimal crossover frequency because the dome tweeter ought to have no problems playing well below that frequency. 

ORA coneThe crossover frequency will determine a lot of the sound character of this speaker, and thankfully, Kanto has opted to use an active crossover instead of their usual passive crossovers. While their previous speakers were mostly powered, they still used passive crossover circuits, but other than the pricier TUKs, the ORAs are their first to use DSP in the crossover circuit itself. This allows for far greater flexibility and precision in the design of the crossover filters. With digital processing onboard, Kanto can customize the response to any shape they want. The ORA has no excuse not to have a good response. If it is anything other than neutral, it is because Kanto deliberately voiced it to be that way.

Connectivity is OK. Left and right RCAs comprise the analog inputs, and USB Audio comprises the digital input for the wired domain. USB audio uses a USB-C input, but Kanto does not supply a USB-C cable. It would have been nice if the ORAs came with a USB-C cable along with a USB-A adapter, but oh well. The ORAs can also connect wirelessly with Bluetooth 5.0. Aside from the wireless connectivity, this is almost the bare minimum wired connectivity needed for a system like this. Optical S/PDIF would have been a nice addition here, but the connectivity options should suit the majority of systems of those people shopping for desktop speakers. The ORAs also have a subwoofer output. When the subwoofer output is connected, the ORAs will automatically high-pass everything above 100Hz with a 24dB/octave filter, and send the filtered signal to the subwoofer. That is a great idea for a loudspeaker with a 3” woofer, and it should greatly increase the dynamic range of the system when the ORAs are relieved of low-bass duty. Users should be sure that whatever subwoofer they connect to the ORAs has an upper-frequency response that can extend to 100Hz; not every sub can do that.

ORA rear2The enclosure is made from plastic. The external panels do not feel very thick, but there does seem to be an internal structure within them. There are no feet for the cabinet. Kanto has some pretty good optional desktop speaker stands with rubber matt pads that the ORAs can rest on (The S2 and SE2). One speaker of the pair has the onboard amplifier for both units and sends the power to the other via a speaker cable. Each woofer is given 16 watts, and each tweeter is given 9 watts, for a system total of 50 watts RMS. That might not seem like a lot, but it should be plenty for a near-field setup, especially when a subwoofer is used so that much more power is reserved for higher frequency bands. 

ORA cross section

The ORAs are ported speakers, and they have a dual-flared rear-mounted slot port that takes a 90-degree bend within the enclosure.

The front panel control consists of a single knob. Pressing and holding the knob turns it on or off, and a front-mounted LED indicates the power state as well as the input that the ORAs are using at the moment. Pressing without holding changes the inputs with green indicating RCA inputs, yellow indicating USB audio input, and blue indicating Bluetooth input. Rotating the knob changes the volume, of course.

It should be mentioned here that buyers of Kanto ORA speakers receive a 60-day trial of the Qobuz streaming service. As an avid user of Qobuz myself, that is a nice bonus, and users will get access to Qobuz’s 100 million tracks and 500,000 albums, for a couple of months at least. Having tried other music streaming services, it is the one I prefer as regular readers of my reviews will attest.

Design Analysis: Kanto sub8 Subwoofer

Moving on to the Kanto sub8 subwoofer, it is a simple design that prioritizes small size. As such, it opts for a sealed enclosure. That might deprive it of some deeper bass output, but serious deep bass power was never really in the cards for such a small subwoofer anyway, so that was a smart call. It uses an 8” paper cone woofer powered by a 150-watt RMS class-D amplifier. Its connectivity is comprised of left and right RCA inputs. For controls, it has an on/off/auto switch, a volume knob, and a low-pass filter knob that ranges from 40Hz to 160Hz. If used with the ORA speakers, users should set the high-pass filter to 160Hz.  

sub8 sub8 rear

The enclosure is an approximately 11” cube that uses ½” MDF panels. The lengthwise edges are rounded. It uses a durable textured vinyl finish that we see on many other low-cost speakers. It’s not a bad finish, and it doesn’t leave fingerprints. The woofer cone is wisely covered with a non-removable metal perforated metal grille that really protects the driver. This is smart because this sub is very likely going to end up under users’ desks where feet will be swinging around. The fragile cone is well-protected against accidental strikes on the grille. The cone is also protected against curious children and pets. The feet are some rubber cones that give the sub a 1” clearance.

Internally, the driver is sectioned off from the amp by a panel that makes the sealed cavity even smaller than it looks. This is strange, but it may be that the smaller volumetric area is more optimal for this driver. Usually, bass drivers are starved for space for optimal operation, and DSP must be used to iron out their response because of the small space.

Kanto ORA Desktop Loudspeaker & sub8 Subwoofer Listening Sessions

ORA desk2 

Most of my listening with the Kanto ORA speakers and sub8 subwoofer was done in an office room with the speakers placed about three feet in front of me on an office desktop. I used the Kanto SE2 desktop speaker stands to angle the speakers to face my listening position. A desktop environment is not the ideal space for speakers, but it is an intended environment for the ORAs that many users will place them in (those who want to get the best sound out of a desktop environment should refer to our article: Audioholics Guide to Getting Good Sound Out of a Desktop Sound System). I decided to evaluate the ORAs in the conditions that they will probably be used in by most owners. The ORAs are intended to be placed near a back wall (Kanto recommends 20-25cm or approximately 8-10 inches of distance from the back wall) to properly load port output but not so close as to over-boost the bass. No equalization was used. The sub8 was placed on the floor to the side of the desk.

Music Listening

I have been on a Vaughan Williams kick lately, so for an orchestral selection for this review, I decided on a recent recording of his epic “Sea Symphony,” Williams’ first large-scale symphonic work, because I wanted to see how such small speakers could handle such a massive performance. For this recording, Dennis Russel Davis conducts the MDR Symphony Orchestra along with the MDR Rundfunkchor, a 73-member choir, in a live performance at the majestic Gewandhaus Leipzig. I streamed this album from Qobuz in hi-res, and this is almost as large-scale as classical music can get. On a proper living room stereo system, it can sound monumental, but how would it come through on some little desktop speakers?

The first thing that I noticed in kicking on this recording was the soundstage.  It was wide, and I am not sure it couldn’t be otherwise given the placement of my speakers since I had an ultrawide monitor. That being said, it still felt like I was listening through a window of the recording rather than being in the symphonic hall. It was a good presentation, but it couldn’t quite match the immersive quality of a couple of full-range speakers in my usual listening room. The acoustics of a desktop was the likely factor in holding them back, but I have to admit that my bias of the knowledge of listening to such a diminutive system could also be a factor. Nonetheless, it sounded very good for a desktop system with bass easily being better than the $2k MonAcoustic SuperMon Mini speakers that I had reviewed previously as a desktop system (of course, those didn’t come with a sub). Imaging was surprisingly sharp on a horizontal axis, and when lead singers performed, their positions were well-defined. The depth seemed relative to the size of the setup, and that may have been part of what hindered the overall soundstage; the speakers were only a few feet apart with a few feet from my listening position, not the few meters of my usual listening room. It was still more than good enough not to hinder my enjoyment. Tonally, everything sounded balanced, and nothing stood out as excessive or incomplete, at least after the sub8 levels were set up correctly. It was easy to overdo the sub levels, and to get a natural tonality, I had to dial it back multiple times, but this is a consequence of the acoustics, not the system itself. In the end, I quite liked what I heard with this recording of Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony” on the ORA speakers. They won’t replace a heavy-duty conventional sound system in a more acoustically advantageous situation, but they provided a gratifying rendition of this album that exceeded my expectations.

Vaughan Williams  Bewitched

Tonally, everything sounded right on the Kanto ORA speakers...

Scaling back the music to place more emphasis on a single voice, I listened to “Bewitched” by Icelandic singer Laufey. This is vocal jazz music with an orchestral accompaniment courtesy of the London Philharmonia. Laufey is a rising star whose fame extends outside of the jazz world thanks to some acclaimed public performances at a very young age. She isn’t just a talented performer, she is an excellent songwriter and composer too, as exhibited on this self-released album, all the more stunning considering she is only 24 years old. The production here is terrific, and if it were released by a major label, I have no doubt it would be a strong contender for a Best Vocal Jazz Grammy. I also streamed this album in hi-res through Qobuz.

I was first struck by the sharp imaging which placed Laufey dead center of the soundstage, despite the acoustically unfavorable circumstances in which I had placed the speakers. Instruments also had well-defined placement around her with acoustic guitar flanking her right side, piano slightly to her left, and percussion behind. As with the Vaughan Williams album, the ORA speakers sounded like they pulled the performance to my desktop rather than transporting me to the performance space, but tasking desktop speakers with the kind of teleportation powers that we see in much larger speakers in an optimal acoustic setting is a tall ask. I should also note that when evaluating them against other desktop speakers, they have a superb soundstage, and I am unfairly comparing them against higher-end stereo systems in a dedicated room that I normally deal with. Again, tonally, everything sounded right. Laufey’s voice was a delight and was richly depicted by the ORAs. Likewise, instruments were tonally authentic, and the bass guitar had some actual muscle thanks to the sub8. Since it is a small sub, it was easy to place out of sight and forget about, but when the music demands some actual bass, it leaps to action and surprises by seemingly bringing some real low-frequency oomph out of nowhere. This delightful album is so well-produced and performed that it should become a staple at every hi-fi dealer and hi-fi trade show going forward, and the ORAs delivered a terrific reproduction that was a pleasure to hear.

The Kanto ORAs had the dynamics and linearity to bring high-energy music to life.

Typically, long-lived bands release more self-serious music as they grow older, but that isn’t at all the case with Duran Duran, at least with their 16th studio release “Danse Macabre.” As the name denotes, this album has a slightly macabre theme and is intended to evoke the atmosphere of Halloween parties. You have to love how a major 45-year-old band decides to make an album for Halloween parties. This music is mostly covers of pop music hits such as Erasure’s “Supernature,” Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” and Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” but also has three original works by the group. Where do these sixty-something performers who have been a major pop group as long as I have been alive get the energy to make such high-energy music? “Danse Macabre” is an endlessly fun album, and I thought it would make for a good demonstration of how the Kanto ORAs sound with modern pop music. 

The ORAs turned my desktop into a Halloween party. They had the dynamics and linearity to bring this album to life, and I couldn’t help but tap my foot at many of these tracks. Duran Duran seemingly hasn’t aged a day from their hits from the 80s, and this is exemplified by track 2, a new recording of their classic “Love Voudou.” It sounded great on the ORAs, as did the following track, Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend,” a cover I like even more than the original. This pop music isn’t intended to sound like an acoustic performance and thus involves a lot of studio trickery, and it all sounded fabulous on the ORAs. Again, the ORAs couldn’t quite transcend their desktop milieu, but as desktop speakers, it’s hard to ask for more.

Very often small desktop speakers can’t quite make the frequency bridge to the subwoofer, which leaves a gap in the mid-bass, but I didn’t get that sense from this system. “Danse Macabre” would have had a lot of energy in the 80Hz to 150Hz range, and that was all intact as far as I could tell. I decided to check for how much low-frequency extension they had on their own, so I disconnected the sub out (connecting the sub out automatically sets a high-pass filter to 100Hz on the ORAs). While they still sounded fine, the small speaker aspect of the ORAs definitely became more prominent, but they didn’t suffer as much as I would have guessed. They still had bass without the sub8, but the bass didn’t have the authority of a sub. The music was still very enjoyable, and it didn’t get hollowed out by the absence of a sub. I checked the extension of the ORAs sans sub, and I was surprised they managed a decent response down to 50Hz in this system with usable bass a bit below that. With the sub8 in action, I found strong bass down to 40Hz - not a huge increase in extension, but the bass sounded cleaner and unstrained. Without the sub, the lower notes from the ORAs themselves sounded more constrained. Without the sub8, I would describe the ORA’s bass as ‘serviceable,’ and adding the sub elevates it to ‘very good!’

Danse Macabre  Trial and Error

To see how the Kanto ORAs and sub8 would handle some heavy musical stress, I played Jon Casey’s “Trial and Error” EP at elevated volume levels. This new drum’n’bass release from the always interesting Vision Recordings label isn’t just monotonous dance music, and there is some real compositional inventiveness here as well as an exploration of new sounds. It does not go easy on bass and uses sounds that demand loud playback levels, so it can be useful in finding the pressure points of sound systems. I don’t expect the Kanto ORAs and sub8 to be a sound system that could handle a house party, but how could they handle these wide dynamics in their role as a desktop speaker system?

I cranked the speakers and sub, and they definitely max out my tolerance for loudness, at least in this near-field setting. Listening at max levels for prolonged durations would certainly be enough to damage hearing. The tweeter certainly seems to have more dynamic range than the 3” woofer, and I did get a sense that the woofer compressed at high drive levels before the tweeter, so there was more headroom in treble than the lower midrange region. However, this happened at loudness levels that no sane human would listen to for more than a moment. I also decided to max out the sub8 to see what it could do, and in a near-field desktop environment, it could pound pretty good. It couldn’t get so loud that I wasn’t able to tolerate it, but I can’t see anyone reasonably maxing out its abilities if used properly. I felt its dynamic range was largely in line with the ORA speakers, so they matched pretty well. Bringing the subwoofer levels significantly higher than the speakers did greatly increase my ability to localize it, and I did get a sense of separation of the sub from the speakers. A way to remedy that would be to use two subs with each sub in a mirrored location from left to right with respect to the speakers. Luckily for me, the localization only occurred when I ran the sub hot, but it’s possible some users might not get so lucky, especially with a 100Hz forced crossover, so dual subs may be a necessity for users bothered by localizable bass.

But going back to the music,  “Trial and Error” sounded very good on the ORA and sub8 system. Again, this diminutive system packs quite a punch for its size. The bass was tuneful, unlike most desktop speaker systems where the sub is an awful little one-note bandpass module. The sub8 and its integration with the ORAs had a notational dexterity so that this music had a nicely linear playback instead of the exaggerated bass or treble of so many desktop systems. I didn’t get a sense of any boominess or lag from the sub either, so the bass was not sloppy. Of course, as a desktop speaker system, the ORAs and sub8 cost a lot more than most desktop speaker systems, so users should expect better sound reproduction than the norm for this segment, but it is still nice to see that they nailed it. “Trial and Error” is a killer album that deserves good sound, and thankfully the ORAs and sub8 were able to provide that.  

Movie Watching

the ORA speakers and sub8 subwoofer helped to make the viewing experience all the more engaging.

One movie I watched with the ORAs and sub8 was the 2021 actioner “The Protege.” The plot concerns a highly skilled contract killer who is driven to avenge her mentor’s murder. Not the most novel plot, but I had a passing interest in watching this movie since its release although never came around to it. However, with the ORAs and sub8 in-house, I thought it would be a good demonstration of their ability to handle action scene dynamics. This big-budget action film should have a polished sound mix that should sound good on any competent sound system.

“The Protege” was a fun if routine actioner saved by its above-average action scenes and slick production, and the ORA speakers and sub8 subwoofer helped to make the viewing experience all the more engaging. Gunshots were supplied with a palpable thud, and explosions and crashes were given a meaty rumble. Some notable aural moments were the rumble of the motorcycles of the absurd “Hell’s Angels” style biker club (in Vietnam?!) as well as the office building shoot-out with thugs emptying magazine after magazine into the ceiling panels where our heroine is hiding. The whole affair ended in a giant explosion, as they always do, and the sound system filled my office with a roar. The music, a decent if conventional action movie score, was nicely reproduced by the ORAs and sub8, and I was surprised to learn it was created by Rupert Parkes who is better known as Photek among electronic breakbeat music enthusiasts back in the 90s (if you want to hear a prophetic sound, listen to his 1996 album “Modus Operandi”). While the ORA speakers and sub8 subwoofer weren’t able to replicate a big ‘Imax’ type of cinema sound, they absolutely did overperform as small desktop speakers, and I enjoyed watching “The Protege” using this system.

The Protege  The Spine of Night

One 2021 release that looked very interesting was “The Spine of Night,” an animated fantasy epic in the vein of some of the more adult animated fantasy movies from the 1980s such as “Fire and Ice” and “Heavy Metal.” This movie is about an avaricious scholar who acquires a magical flower and uses it to dominate the world in a reign of terror. This movie looked like a whole lot of fun with a sound mix heavy on effects, music, and terrific voice actors such as Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, and Patton Oswalt. I streamed it from the Shudder channel.

After having watched “The Spine of Night”, I found the sound mix for it to be unusual for animated movies, but then “The Spine of Night” is an unusual animated movie. If the term magical realism could be applied to animation, this movie would certainly qualify, and the sound mix isn’t as cartoony as other animated movies, even major CGI productions like Pixar’s films. This being the case, “The Spine of Night” benefits more from high-fidelity sound systems than usual animated movies, and the ORA speakers and sub8 subwoofer did a fine job in my viewing. The sound effects and dialogue sound more like a live-action movie mix, and the sound system was able to relay that effect very well. Dialogue intelligibility was never a problem, even though the speech was an old-timey English so often used in medieval fantasy settings. Action scenes were vividly reproduced, and the whooshes of casted spells and clanging of swords and spears sounded lively and convincing. “The Spine of Night” is not short on gore, and all of the stabbings, dismembering, and eviscerations were nauseatingly articulated by the speakers and sub. The orchestral score by Peter Scartabello was another highlight of the sound mix. It’s a dramatic score that beautifully communicates the primeval mystery of the setting and mythos of the movie, and it was conveyed with vibrance and lucidity with the ORAs and sub8. I really enjoyed this movie and kind of wish I had watched it in a large home theater or commercial cinema to do greater justice to its epic setting, but as desktop presentations go, the ORA speakers and sub8 subwoofer did a terrific job in bringing this dark fantasy to life.  

Gaming

I don’t normally use computer games to evaluate sound systems, but since that will be a major use of the ORAs and sub8, I decided to report what they could do by trying a slew of currently popular titles that rely heavily on sound as an aspect of gameplay.

I first started out with the horror game “The Demonologist” in which players investigate a haunted location to identify and expel a hostile ghost. This game is terrifying, and I don’t know why I bought it. I played in an abandoned house level that had creaks and moans, all of which were dramatically conveyed by the ORA speakers and sub8. I found the ghost’s location by hearing some furniture move around in an adjacent room. This game is big on jump scares, and I got a big one when it slammed a door in my face as I tried to flee the house in terror after seeing the ghost. The dynamics of the speakers and sub were key in this shock, which necessitated a pants-change afterward. Somehow I managed to survive this encounter and correctly identify the ghost type. However, it was so tense that I made no effort to accomplish any side objectives and left after only doing the bare minimum, and that was partly due to the vivid sound reproduction by the Kanto sound system.

I played a few circuits in “Assetto Corso Competizione,” an Unreal 5-based racing sim that has spectacular graphics, sound, and physics. I decided to do some practice runs at Nurburgring in a Lamborghini Huracan, and the ORAs reproduced the top end of its V10 nicely. I wanted something with a bit more lower-end grunt, so I changed cars to the Mercedes AMG GT3 with its front-engine 6.2 L twin-turbo V8. This car gave the sub8 more of a workout with its low-frequency roar. My driving skills also gave the sub8 more bass havoc to reproduce since I found the AMG to be significantly more difficult to control than the mid-engine Lamborghini and was losing the rear end and colliding with crash barriers fairly frequently. The Kanto sound system acquitted itself nicely in this game, and it gave a vigorous presentation of the shudder of the chassis, the whine of the engines at high RPM, and the skids of the tires on a sharp corner.

Game titles 

The game Black Mesa never sound better than what I heard from the Kanto ORA system.

I decided to play a few rounds in “Counter-Strike 2,” Valve Software’s surprise refresh of their enormously popular tactical shooter. The ORA and sub8 system gave the various guns a good crack upon each trigger pull. The infamous AWP sniper thundered on the sub8 subwoofer, and I managed to even get a couple of kills before dying in a hail of terrorist bullets. Grenades had a nice visceral thump that was ever so satisfying when you managed to gain a kill from it. Everything was going swimmingly until an aimbotter decided to join our match and kill my entire team two rounds in a row until he was kicked. The ORA speakers did a great job of detailing the profanity of our respective teams’ voice chat upon losing each match. The ORA speakers also communicated the location of enemy footsteps that I could use to set up ambushes, which helped prop up my otherwise shameful kill/death ratio. 

I also tried “Black Mesa,” a ground-up remake of the classic sci-fi actioner “Half-Life” using the updated Source engine. I played up to chapter four, where Gordon must find his way out of the Anomalous Materials Laboratory after the resonance cascade unleashed a destructive alien force upon the facility. The game has so many great moments, and I love the build-up to the crisis that our mute protagonist must survive. The opening tram ride and the various scientists’ petty bickering and technobabble are always great to hear, and I don’t think I have ever heard them sound better than on the Kanto system. The explosion of the test chamber bellowed in my office room, and the ORAs and sub8 gave the catastrophe a distressing reality. I could nearly feel the rumble of the aftershocks of the resonance cascade. The ORAs gave a sickening detail to the sound of the head crabs as well as a pleasurable thump when they were whacked by the crowbar. This tale of “Half-Life” sounded great on the Kantos, and it made me wish I had time to play through the entire game.   

Kanto Living ORA Desktop Loudspeaker & sub8 Subwoofer Review Measurements

The Kanto ORA desktop speakers were measured in free air at a height of 4 feet at a 1/2-meter distance from the microphone, and the measurements were gated at a 5-millisecond delay. In this time window, some resolution is lost below 500Hz and accuracy is completely lost below 250Hz. Measurements have been smoothed at a 1/24 octave resolution.

Kanto ORA Powered Desktop Speaker Spin 

the ORAs are very tonally balanced and accurate loudspeakers.

The above graph shows the direct-axis frequency response and other curves that describe the Kanto ORA’s amplitude response in a number of ways. For more information about the meaning of these curves, please refer to our article Understanding Loudspeaker Measurements Part 1. The measured response shown here is very good. The on-axis response and the listening window adhere to a +/-2dB window out to 20kHz. Mid to upper treble seems to hang back around 2dB from the midrange and lower treble, and that might give these speakers a very slightly relaxed presentation from total neutrality. This response is so flat that room acoustics and listening position are going to make a larger difference on the tonal balance than the response of the speaker itself. The directivity indexes are extremely good, and the ORAs have a very uniform response at most angles. Automated room correction software loves directivity indexes like these, so programs like Dirac Live could really take the tonal balance to the next level on the ORAs. The response is so even on all of these curves, we can’t even tell where the crossover frequency might be. This graph tells us that the ORAs are very tonally balanced and accurate loudspeakers, MUCH better than typical desktop speakers.

 ORA 3D waterfall response

ORA 2D waterfall response 

The above graphs depict the speaker’s lateral responses out to 90 degrees in five-degree increments. More information about how to interpret these graphs can be read in this article: Understanding Loudspeaker Review Measurements Part II. Here we get a more detailed look at the exemplary horizontal response of the Kanto ORAs. As would be expected of such small loudspeakers, these have a fairly wide dispersion. They cover a wide angle with a very flat and tonally neutral response. One interesting characteristic to note is that even though the tweeter is set in a shallow waveguide, it does not start to disproportionately narrow in dispersion in upper treble as we see so often. This tells us that the waveguide is doing its job throughout the entirety of the tweeter’s bandwidth. It beautifully matches the directivity of the woofer while keeping the tweeter from collapsing its dispersion at the top. This waveguide is the result of some top-notch engineering.

ORA horizontal Polar Map 

The above polar map graphs show the same information that the preceding graphs do but depict it in a way that can offer new insight regarding these speakers’ behavior. Instead of using individual raised lines to illustrate amplitude, these polar maps use color to portray amplitude, and this allows the use of a purely angle/frequency axis perspective. The advantage of these graphs is they can let us see broader trends in the speaker’s behavior more easily. For more information about the meaning of these graphs, we again refer the reader to Understanding Loudspeaker Review Measurements Part II.

Here we get a good look at how well-controlled the ORA’s dispersion is. The tweeter’s beamwidth seems to hover around a pretty consistent 50 degrees. The woofer wants to spray acoustic energy out at a wider angle and is essentially omnidirectional below 1kHz. This is what we would expect of a 3” woofer. Again, it is impossible to tell what the crossover frequency between the woofer and tweeter is from this graph, and that is evidence is smart engineering.

ORA 3D waterfall Vertical response
 

ORA Vertical Polar Map 

The above waterfall graph polar map shows the ORA’s response behavior along its vertical axis where zero degrees is directly in front of the tweeter, negative degree values are below the tweeter, and positive degree values are above the tweeter. Here we get a look at the nature of the ORA’s crossover. It is an unusual one. It looks like there is a low-order low-pass filter on the woofer, so its effects carry on into treble and quite high frequencies. The tweeter would have a much higher-order filter, at least in some range, if only to protect the tweeter. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had changing order slopes within the filter since DSP makes such sophisticated filter types possible and easy to implement. The crossover frequency looks to be around 2.5kHz. The vertical dispersion seems to be relatively wide, so this is not a loudspeaker that you have to absolutely listen dead at tweeter height for the best response. It keeps a good response from about -15 degrees below the tweeter to +20 degrees above the tweeter. One design aspect that makes this wide vertical range possible is the distance between the tweeter and woofer is very short, so phase cancellation around the crossover frequency is mild.

ORA Low Frequency Response
 

The above graphs show the Kanto ORA’s low-frequency responses that I captured using groundplane measurements (where the speaker and microphone are on the ground in a wide-open area). As with upper-frequency ranges, this is terrifically neutral. This confirms my surprised finding in listening that the ORAs have a solid response down to 50Hz: an astonishing response considering these have a 3” woofer. Of course, they do not have much headroom at 50Hz, and I would still recommend a subwoofer, but if a sub cannot be accommodated and loud listening isn’t needed, these will actually have some reasonable bass.

Kanto sub8 Measurements

sub8 outdoor testing2 

Testing on the sub8 was conducted with the microphone facing the woofer at a 1/2-meter distance with measurements scaled back to a 2-meter distance by subtracting 12dB. The temperature was recorded at 75F degrees with 85% humidity. The subwoofer’s gain was set to maximum, phase was set to zero, and the low pass filters were set to maximum.

sub8 Frequency Response 

The above graph shows the measured frequency responses for the Kanto sub8 subwoofer. Kanto didn’t try to smooth out the response much with equalization, but that is OK since room acoustics will ruin it all anyway, especially when you consider that this sub will likely end up in smaller rooms which is especially devastating on the linearity in low frequencies. What we see is a pretty typical sealed enclosure response with perhaps some slight filtering on the low end in order to protect the woofer. In my office, not a large room at 11’ x 12’, I had strong bass down to 40Hz and usable bass down to 30Hz. That is decent for a small, sealed 8” subwoofer.

sub8 CEA 2010 table 

A sub8/ORA system is a good match.

The above CEA-2010 measurements are short-term bursts that show the subwoofer’s clean peak SPL before heavy distortion sets in. Our measurements have been referenced to 2-meter RMS, which is 9dB down from the standard requirement for the measurements to be shown at 1-meter peak. However most publicly available CEA-2010 measurements are shown at 2-meter RMS, so we followed that convention.

Audioholics SmallThe numbers posted by the sub8 aren’t gargantuan, but they are respectable for a small sub for a desktop application. It should be remembered that users are not likely to be seated more than a meter from this sub in practice, so it will normally be used in the near field. Using a sub in close proximity does a lot to boost its output at the listening position. This is also the smallest subwoofer I have measured by far. Users who want bigger output will need to make room for a much larger sub. The similarly priced Dayton Audio SUB-1500 can produce a lot more output, but it is over five times larger in size. Besides that, as a complement to the ORAs, as I said before, the sub8 seems to be a good match for their dynamic range. So yes, you could get a more powerful sub, but its output would be disproportionate relative to the ORAs (I suppose that is not a bad thing if you like really hot bass). A sub8/ORA system is a good match. This burst test data gives the Kanto sub8 an Audioholics’ Bassaholic ‘Small’ Room Rating, meaning it should be able to handle a room of 1,500 cubic feet or less. For information on how the room ratings are determined, please read our article “Bassaholic Subwoofer Room Size Rating Protocol”.

sub8 long term output

Testing for long-term output compression was done by first conducting a 20-second sweep tone where 50Hz hit 90 dB with the subwoofer 1/2 meter from the microphone (graph has been scaled to 2 meters for easy comparison with our other review measurements). We then conduct further 20-second sweeps by raising the gain by 5dB until no more output could be wrung out of the subwoofer. These tests show us the long-term continuous headroom that the subwoofer is capable of.

The sub8 exhibits a surprising amount of mid-bass in these tests and can sustain nearly 105dB at 60Hz and above. Using the sub8 with the ORAs takes a big load off of their back, and I noted a qualitative change in sound at almost all volume levels when the speakers were high-pass filtered and the sub was included. At the highest levels, compression does alter the response shape a bit, but harmonic distortion would be a much more audible artifact of pushing the sub that hard. We can see that the sub8 reverts back to a more traditional 12dB/octave roll-off as it begins to override its filters at high drive levels.

sub8 THD 

The above graphs show the corresponding total harmonic distortion to the long-term output graphs. Essentially, they depict how linear the subwoofer remains for the corresponding drive level seen in the long-term sweeps. The quantity being measured is how much of the subwoofer’s output is distortion and is shown here as a percentage.

While we can see the sub grows rather uncomfortable at high drive levels, we can also see that at nominal drive levels, it is pretty well-behaved, hovering below 10% THD down to 25Hz. In this graph, it looks like distortion increases in the low-end in the lower levels sweeps, but what is happening is that the noise floor of the testing environment is relatively high compared to the output of the sub at deep frequencies, so much of what is being reported as distortion at the 89dB and 95dB sweeps around 20Hz is just background noise. At higher drive levels, distortion from the sub starts to take off just above 60Hz, which is a relatively high frequency for that to occur, at least for the subs that we normally review. The demands of deeper bass on a sealed system dramatically increase to sustain the same output. Excursion needs to quadruple to hold the same SPL for every lower octave in a sealed system, and the sub8 isn’t using a tremendously high excursion driver, so what we are witnessing in this graph is the uphill struggle against physics. This all being said, in my normal use of the sub8 with the ORAs, I didn’t notice any significant audible distortion.

sub8 Group Delay 

The sub8’s group delay would make many higher-end home theater subwoofers jealous.

Group delay is the measurement of how much time it takes for individual frequency bands of an input signal to be produced by the speaker. It can indicate that some frequency components are developing slower than others or are taking longer to decay. It is generally thought that 1.5 sound cycles are needed for group delay to be audible at bass frequencies, although there is an argument that group delay should remain under 20ms to be completely unnoticeable, but that is likely meant for mid and upper bass frequencies.

The group delay exhibited by the sub8 is quite good. It stays below our worst-case scenario of 20ms down below 40Hz. Below that range, it is just too deep to matter, especially when we consider how rapidly output drops below that range. This is the opposite time-domain behavior that we see from typical desktop audio system subwoofers, which have very high port tuning frequencies that bring lots of delay into relevant frequency bands. It is even worse with bandpass systems that have gross amounts of latency well into mid-bass regions. The sub8’s group delay would make many higher-end home theater subwoofers jealous. With good placement, the sub8 can sound very sharp.

Kanto Living ORA Desktop Loudspeaker & sub8 Subwoofer Review Conclusion

ORA pair4Before bringing this review to a close, I will briefly go over the strengths and weaknesses of the product under review, and, as always, I will start with the weaknesses. The problem here is that I found the Kanto ORAs and sub8 to be very strong products, and they don’t leave me with much to complain about. One aspect that I might ding the ORAs for is the build quality. While they are somewhat expensive for small desktop speakers, they don’t feel like it. The exterior is a thin plastic shell, and if you were to touch its enclosure, you would wonder what justifies its $350/pair cost. I think the cost is justified, but the exterior build quality does not reflect it.

So what justifies the cost of the ORAs? That brings us to the strength of these speakers, which is the technology used not only to make them simple and user-friendly but also to have great sound quality for the class. They are easy and painless to set up, and they give you an entire self-contained audio system in a small package; you only need to add the source which for most use cases will be a PC. The control, a single front-mounted knob that does everything, couldn’t be easier. The ORAs don’t take up a lot of space, and if you don’t have space to fit a full-size speaker but want good sound nonetheless, it will be very hard to top these.

ORA desk4 

I truly do not think there is anything better on the market within it's price class than the Kanto ORAs.

The sound quality deserves special mention because these little speakers are so well dialed-in and tuned. Many far more expensive speakers do not have anywhere near the tonal accuracy of the ORAs. They are very accurate, both on and off-axis, so they will retain the same tonal accuracy over a wide angle around them. I think this is important for desktop speakers because, if you are anything like me, your position relative to the speakers can change a lot within a single sitting. If you start to lean to the side or slouch or sit upright, that greatly affects the angle at which you are positioned relative to desktop speakers, so speakers that have a very consistent sound over a wide angle ensure that you will always be hearing accurate sound no matter what your posture is like.

The Kanto sub8 is a great fit for the ORAs because of its size and ease of use. While you could use any subwoofer on the ORA’s sub-out jack, if you need a small one, the sub8 packs a nice little punch for its size. If you are looking for a small and inexpensive sub with or without the ORAs, the sub8 could be a great solution for you so long as your expectations of its output are realistic. As was said before, its output is about commensurate with the ORAs. Yes, you could add in a sub with monster output, but there is no point since the ORAs wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. That isn’t to say that the ORAs have poor dynamic range; they can get louder than I am comfortable listening to at my desktop for more than very short durations.

ORA and sub8 7 

I found the Kanto ORAs and sub8 to be a great fit for my situation since I had an ultrawide monitor with a 34” width that didn’t leave much deskspace for speakers. I would imagine that situation is becoming increasingly common as more people are going for wider monitors. Monitors with 32:9 aspect ratios are growing in popularity, and these usually have 45” to 49” widths. This makes smaller speakers such as the ORAs even more relevant, since few desks could fit an ultrawide monitor alongside some full-sized bookshelf speakers. And what is more, the ORAs have their own DAC, preamp, and amplifier built-in, so there is no need for desk space for additional gear.

The Kanto ORA powered desktop speakers and sub8 subwoofer pack a lot of performance and technology into a small package. They aren’t super-cheap like so many other desktop PC speakers, but they are light years better in performance. Within their class, I truly do not think there is anything better on the market. Were I looking to buy some small powered speakers for a desktop system, they would be my first pick.

The Score Card

The scoring below is based on each piece of equipment doing the duty it is designed for. The numbers are weighed heavily with respect to the individual cost of each unit, thus giving a rating roughly equal to:

Performance × Price Factor/Value = Rating

Audioholics.com note: The ratings indicated below are based on subjective listening and objective testing of the product in question. The rating scale is based on performance/value ratio. If you notice better performing products in future reviews that have lower numbers in certain areas, be aware that the value factor is most likely the culprit. Other Audioholics reviewers may rate products solely based on performance, and each reviewer has his/her own system for ratings.

Audioholics Rating Scale

  • StarStarStarStarStar — Excellent
  • StarStarStarStar — Very Good
  • StarStarStar — Good
  • StarStar — Fair
  • Star — Poor
MetricRating
Build QualityStarStarStar
AppearanceStarStarStarStar
Treble ExtensionStarStarStarStarStar
Treble SmoothnessStarStarStarStarStar
Midrange AccuracyStarStarStarStarStar
Bass ExtensionStarStarStarStarStar
Bass AccuracyStarStarStarStarStar
ImagingStarStarStarStar
Dynamic RangeStarStarStarStar
Fit and FinishStarStarStarStar
PerformanceStarStarStarStarStar
ValueStarStarStarStarhalf-star
About the author:
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James Larson is Audioholics' primary loudspeaker and subwoofer reviewer on account of his deep knowledge of loudspeaker functioning and performance and also his overall enthusiasm toward moving the state of audio science forward.

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