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Photon-8 Listening Test

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System Setup

Setup for the Photon-8 subwoofer is standard once an acoustically acceptable location has been selected, place the sub, plug it in, and adjust the controls. If the subwoofer is used for an LFE channel with processor bass management, crossover bypass can be selected by switching the appropriate toggle from the internal x-over setting to subwoofer direct setting and plugging into the left RCA input marked LFE, otherwise dial in an appropriate frequency based on the roll off point of the accompanying main channels. After setting the crossover/bypass, next, using a full range source signal, adjust the phase to the setting that produces highest bass output with the main speakers. Finally, manually adjust the volume level to balance the overall system frequency response and use the processor functions for speaker setup to tweak the final output setting if using the subwoofer on a LFE channel.

Listening Evaluation

The Photon-8 subwoofer was evaluated using my A/V setup with a Toshiba HD-A35 used as source for HD-DVD, DVD, and CD content and a Play Station 3 for Blu-ray content. Audio processing and amplification were provided for using a Rotel RSX-1067 to drive a 7 channel Infinity Beta speaker array and to provide bass management at an 80 Hz crossover point. All source material used for the review was reproduced in its native format as either multi-channel or stereo with the Rotel set to two channel mode for stereo material and the Beta 40 towers engaged for reproduction of the mid and upper frequencies.

Normally I prefer being provided two subwoofers for review as it is easier to directly minimize certain room acoustics issues but for this review, I was sent a single unit. The advantage of multiple subwoofers is that they can be used to help limit modal coupling of bass frequencies to the room through judicious placement of the subs relative to the room, each other, and the listening position. I typically run dual subwoofers and shifting to a single sub presents an extra difficulty to sort out what is really coming from the sub and not from the room acoustics, which is best avoided if possible.

Editorial Note on Multiple Subwoofers

Multiple subwoofers are a good choice to smooth frequency response by minimizing room modal behavior through cancellation. Strategic placement of the subs at opposing nodal points for frequencies that trouble the listening area can be used to nullify the worst dips and peaks from the room modes. This is a distinct advantage over equalization, which can only trim peaks but not fill dips.

My own experience with running multiple subs has been a stark improvement with smoother frequency response, improved bass detail, and increased depth at the bottom end beyond what a single well placed sub can muster.

I am including several links where this topic is discussed in greater detail and also an Excel based spread sheet that calculates modes for a rectangular room:

Harman multiple subs

Harman Room Mode Calculator

Tech Article: Room Modes and Dealing with Them

During my time listening to the Photon-8, I found it to be a highly capable subwoofer despite its small size. For a subwoofer that looks like a computer speaker system sub on steroids, it was surprisingly able to put out a satisfactory amount of low bass content at SPL levels high enough to apply some tactile excitement to my listening room.

This is not to say that the sub does not have its limits, but there certainly are larger subs available that do considerably worse, both in terms of bass extension and in terms of maximum output. Overall, the Photon-8 did an excellent impression of being a larger sub than it was, never really sounding like a small sub.

The kilowatt of amplifier output is what drives the relatively low 26 Hz –3dB roll off point from a sealed subwoofer this small, but driver and cabinet size do take its toll on maximum SPL. While the Photon-8 can generate noticeable room shaking, during the most severe LFE demands, there was a point where the sub simply did not have any more to give. To the credit of the well designed and implemented protection circuitry, this point manifested itself as an unobtrusive absence, with little to no audible distortion to draw attention to a limit that would be given away by the floundering of a lesser subwoofer. As presented through the Photon-8, one will never know of the absence without already knowing what should have been expected.

As to musicality and overall sonic character, the Photon-8 fared very well. I found the subwoofer to have a clean sonic character that was full and well balanced. Compared to the very best subwoofers available at any price, the sound quality did have a slight bit of coloration, but any apparent coloration was minimal in an absolute sense and certainly as low or lower than many other price competitive designs.

Where the Photon-8 excelled was with low level detail and subtlety of presentation. Depth and detail remained in the Photon-8’s presentation even when rendering lower level LFE signals that further enhanced the impression of musicality in this subwoofer design. The Photon-8 was also able to maintain a nuanced presentation of the bass even while being asked to pound out higher levels of LFE signal.

Another strength was in its absence. The Photon-8 exhibited an excellent level of transparency through the crossover point, integrating into the overall sound field and drawing very little sonic attention to it when speaking up. My impression was that this sub was better at disappearing than other comparably priced subwoofers when using identical placement and crossover settings.

In summary, the Photon-8 can be considered a capable design by any standard and an outstanding design when taking into account its small stature.

5thelement.jpgBlu-ray: The Fifth Element

Seems that this film is a bit of a favorite among the other reviews at Audioholics, so having recently upgraded my Super Bit DVD version for the (remastered) Blu-ray version, I thought that I would also make use of it. Being well aware of the poor treatment this film received despite being an initial BD release, first impressions of the format and all being at stake, I made sure I got the version that was copyrighted 2007, and not the 2006 version which was universally panned as sucking.

A great way to launch a format, don’t you think?

While this particular soundtrack does not have an overabundance of brutal LFE, it does have its share, but the bass, as recorded, is rather deep with good detail. The Photon-8 was up to this challenge, maintaining depth and nuance throughout the film. The score itself is an eclectic mix of styles with some traditional orchestral sections, Middle Eastern influences, and even some Caribbean and Reggae flavors. Strings, electric bass, and percussion were all given good treatment by the Photon-8 remaining well separated and with detailed and musical timbral characteristics coming through the subwoofer irrespective of style.

The film immediately opens with some rumbly deep bass effects that undulates and changes as the Earth rotates in view. The Photon-8 maintained the depth while handling transients and appropriately rumbling the room. Starship engines in this particular soundtrack are not overdone, allowing for some semblance of detail to the depth of the effects, which came through the Photon-8 nicely with some rumble. LFE as the dark planet forms and percussion pulsing as the discovering Earth Federation starship prepares to fire were subtle and deep. An electric bass is used in many of the varied and colorful musical sequences that are played tautly with some slap that the Photon-8 did well with, keeping the transients and articulations detailed while maintaining sonic depth. Percussion was always rendered cleanly by the Photon-8 with a lot of timbral detail coming through in the presentation. Double bass as well as the rest of the bottom end of the orchestra also retained good timbral character through this subwoofer.

HD DVD: Children of Men

childrenofmen.jpgThis is an excellent film that lately I have been looking to watch again. While much of this film is quiet, perhaps raising some eyebrows in its selection, there are a number of instances filled with potent LFE that is surprisingly articulate rather than the more usual boomy.

Once again, the Photon-8 was up to the task of smacking out the intense output without slobbering all over the actual sound quality. And in a movie this sonically stark, when the bass kicks in, it is obvious.

For examples of depth from the Photon-8, we have the solid rumble of passing truck traffic at various points in the film. Early on, a bombed storefront retains its staccato retort when the explosion is sent through the Photon-8. Jasper’s zen music shows off the subs ability to maintain composure with a bit longer of a pounding as this piece of electronica shakes the room. Then all is quiet until…tank fire. When I first watched the film, I was impressed with the quality and potency of this sound effect, a deep and penetrating thwack that manages to capture the sonic character of the shell exiting the turret muzzle; excellent through the Photon-8. As the battle rages, explosions and tank fire echoing through partially collapsed buildings, also excellent through the Photon-8. Then silence as mother and child are allowed to leave the building. When the battle resumes as the main characters move away, the thrumming explosions become increasingly distant, echoing deeply from the Photon-8. As the battle recedes into the distance, jets roar overhead and distant explosions sound in the surrounding silence. Overall, it was quite a good presentation from such a tiny subwoofer.

CD: Porcupine Tree: Nil Recurring

porctreenil.jpgA companion release to Porcupine Tree’s latest album, Fear of a Blank Planet (FoBP), this EP consists of session material that did not make the final track sequence of the album, but does not really consist of inferior B side material. Featuring performances by Robert Fripp and heavily influenced by King Crimson in composition, I find that in some ways I prefer it to the main album release.

I found that the Photon-8 was able to provide meat to the rendering of bass guitar and percussion throughout the album and was able to put some tactile emphasis on the thumping. Drummer Gavin Harrison does his usual fine job of providing much in the way of challenging material for sub testing and the Chrysalis performed well. The Photon-8 maintained good bottom end timbral characteristics and musicality while taking the beating and yet was still able to convey subtleties like low frequency studio acoustics/ambience effects.

The title track, an instrumental featuring Fripp, starts with a solid thump of bass drum that came through solidly on the Photon-8 while a somewhat more delicate bass guitar line moves in the background that was kept clean and separated by the sub. About a minute and a half in, the song picks up at least 3-4 dB of intensity, a transition that the sub conveyed cleanly. Towards the middle, the arrangement quiets and pars down to bass and percussion that retained texture and solidity with the Photon-8’s presentation despite the loss of driving volume levels. Even the finger work on the bass guitar strings stayed audible using the Photon-8. A number of other demanding tempo and rhythmic changes were also cleanly passed through the Photon-8 with the piece ending in a bit of thrashing that was well handled by the sub. Normal is a mirror to Sentimental from FoBP, its lyrical opposite if you will that shares the same choirs. It opens with an intricate acoustic guitar line that suddenly transitions to a thrashing, no problems with the Photon-8 taking it and staying clean. I find the verse musically somewhat reminiscent of Prince Rupert Awakes from King Crimson’s Lizard with Jon Anderson on guest vocals. During the verse, a coarse, highly textured synthesizer part is rendered with considerable detail by the Photon-8. At the choirs, the Photon-8 backs the bass guitar and drums with a solidity and then holds up well through some more trashing later when the second half of the bridge kicks in. A vocal fugue passage follows, quieting down, where the Photon-8 shows off musical chops handling timbre for low percussion well. Cheating the Polygraph opens with exposed percussion that come through the Photon-8 tight and clean with good timbral character and providing meat and substance to the bass guitar when it is added. The song changes gears at the choirs to heavy syncopated percussion and the Photon-8 handles the change staying clean and tight. The solo quiets down exposing the bass guitar and synthesizers. Using the photon-8, the bass was satisfyingly meaty while allowing detailed bass synthesizer detail to come through. The final track, What Happens Now?, is somewhat lighter. Here the Photon-8 supports the musicality at the bottom nicely. Bass guitar comes through delicately and the drums are nicely detailed on the bottom. The bridge picks up tempo, and the sub keeps pace with rapid, syncopated bass drumming and culminating in a retardando into an epic closing with swells of bass guitar while the drums pound away, all kept cleanly separated by the Photon-8.

CD: Peter Murphy: Unshattered

unshattered.jpgPeter Murphy’s most recent effort, Unshattered, features some nice fretless bass work and intricate synthesizer programming that strays frequently into the depths. Interestingly, composer Harry Gregson-Williams makes an appearance with songwriter, musician, and producer credits on the opening track. Gregson-Williams résumé includes the score of several of the most recent installments of Metal Gear Solid video game franchise and numerous film scores including Kingdom of Heaven.

The Photon-8 provided a solid support for the album at the bottom end. The sonic spectrum that the subwoofer provided the bass output was balanced with full and realistic instrument timbres as well as excellent transparency through the crossover point. Acoustic control of the bottom end was also good through the Photon-8, which did a fine job of presenting the inner detail of bass instruments and providing crisp transient response. When asked to speak up, that control was well maintained while the sub provided the requisite room rumble.

Idle Flow opens the album with a tight, dynamic synthesized bass line that the Photon-8 followed along with no trouble with bass that was solid and transients that were crisp. Details inside the synthesized bass line were clear and the timbral characteristics of drums at the bottom end came through the subwoofer. On Piece of You, low synthesized rumble gives way to tightly rendered fretless bass that had good control, depth, and timbre through Photon-8. Here, the listener was clearly able to hear the musicians control and articulation of the strings of the bass guitar on the subwoofer. Slapped bass harmonics during one section came through clean and transparently through crossover point with the subwoofer. During Emergency Unit, the Photon-8 conveyed depth of the synthesized bass and provided clean transients. The bass part is flavored with augmented chord structures that showed off the subwoofer’s ability to convey sonic complexities well. As the song ends, the sub rumbles away. Deep drum ambience present in Thelma Sings to Little Nell was exposed by the Photon-8’s presentation. The drums, which image hard right, localizing almost behind my listening position, suffered no interference form the sub that again displayed excellent transparency. As the tortured Blinded Like Saul grinds away, the bass line the came through the Photon-8 with solidity and intact detail. The Photon-8 also conveyed the recorded bass drum ambience, keeping tight control that was well separated from the bass guitar. Breaking No One’s Heaven opens with coarse synthesized bass pulsating in the background. Here the Photon-8 displayed good separation and control while providing the necessary potency. Bass guitar was also suitably solid through the Photon-8 with clean transients at the chorus. The recording distorts as the song closes with deep transient components present, sliding around the bottom, that the Photon-8 handled well.

 

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