The holy grail of the audio world has long been great equipment and sound at a bargain price. As “audiophile” gear pricing approaches stratospheric levels, making it less and less viable for the vast majority of audiophiles, it’s reassuring to find a company dedicated to quality affordable products. Emotiva’s entry-level BasX line includes the BasX TA-100 Stereo Preamp/Dac/Tuner With Integrated Amplifier, BasX S8 Subwoofer, and their Airmotiv B1 two-way bookshelf monitor loudspeaker.
We have been familiar with the name Emotiva for a while. Dan "Big Dan" Laufman, founded Jade Design, manufacturing OEM equipment for other audio companies, back in the 1995. Later he decided it was time to implement his own ideas and designs, as well as a goal of high quality audio at affordable prices, and in 2003 Emotiva was born. The creation of Emotiva also pioneered a new way to sell their wares, and they started with direct to consumer sales via the internet. We might not think of it as anything unusual, but in 2003, Internet sales was an entirely new concept. Take that Amazon! The result is not only were they able to put more value into their gear, but they built a passionate customer base, so much so that they throw what is now a legendary food, drink, and music festival at their factory each summer. The aptly named EmoFest drew over 500 people in 2017, and had food, audio, drinks, and great fun in the Tennessee sunshine. EmoFest 2019 is planned for the Memorial Day weekend, on May 25/26/27th. Can you think of any other audio company that throws a free huge bash for it's dedicated customers? We can't. What a fun way to spend the weekend!
We have heard some wonderful Emotiva systems in their suites at audio shows, but show environments are nothing like sitting at home, relaxing and listening to music to understand the perfmormance and feature set. So when Emotiva offered for us to seriously audition of their equipment on an extended basis, we jumped at the opportunity.
After discussing it with PR Ace Adam Sohmer and Emotiva founder Big Dan Laufman, we agreed on the BasX TA-100 ($399) stereo receiver, the BasX S8 Subwoofer ($299), and the Airmotiv B1 ($299 per pair) bookshelf loudspeakers. This is a very affordable 2.1 audiophile grade system. In order to keep the entire system Emotiva, we used their BTM-1 ($49.99) Bluetooth Receiver to add streaming capability, and the now discontinued Emotiva speaker cables. The total component cost at the time of this article comes to $1046.99, or $637 in 1995 dollars. So, what do you get for the money? Were they able to meet the goals they set for themselves and their customers?
The simple answer is you get a level of quality and features that go light years beyond what $637 would have purchased in 1995 when the high prices of audiophile gear spurred Laufman to found a company based on the idea of well-made, affordable audiophile level gear. Consider the feature set of the TA-100. According to the company, the TA-100 “combines the features and capabilities of an audiophile quality stereo preamplifier, a high-performance FM tuner, and a high-quality power amplifier – all in one convenient package.” That is a statement we wholeheartedly agree with. The specs and quality of the TA-100 belie its $399 price point.
Here’s how the company describes the unit: “The preamp section includes line level analog inputs for a CD player or line-level source, a built-in USB DAC with plenty of digital inputs for your computer and other digital stereo sources, a high-quality phono preamp that supports both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, and provisions for an optional high-quality AptX Bluetooth input module. The tuner offers full digital control, and 50 station presets.
The fully complementary, all discrete Class A/B amplifier section delivers plenty of clean power to drive a pair of high-quality stereo speakers to satisfying listening levels; and the TA-100 includes line level outputs for a powered subwoofer, or for connecting an external power amplifier. The TA-100 can be operated via the simple front panel controls, or by the included infrared remote control. The intuitive menu system makes the TA-100 simple to configure and operate, and the big, easy to read, VFD display on the TA-100’s front panel shows you exactly what’s going on at all times. Highly optimized circuit layout ensures the best possible sound quality, with low distortion, wide bandwidth, and a virtually silent noise floor.”
The output stage is a fully complementary, all-discrete Class A/B amplifier, and in our experience it drove the Emotiva Airmotiv B1 without neither strain or clipping, nor did we detect any harshness. And on the DAC front, the well-regarded Analog Devices AD1955 24/192 DAC provides the digital conversion on all digital inputs. The digital inputs include one 24/96k USB input, 24/192 coax, and optical S/PDIF inputs. This is where some reviewers get a bit cranky, in that the system can’t decode a 24/192 file via the USB port, which is the how the majority of audiophiles configure their systems.
The company’s stance is basically, hey, this is a $400 integrated amp, with great electronics, build quality and feature set. Most people who live with high-res files from a company such as HD Tracks wouldn’t be using this system; those folks would upscale a level or two in the Emotiva line. Fair enough, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. College students who bought into the Pono system for example, often have large collections of high-res audio, and the Emotiva TA-100 is an ideal system for the college student, recent graduate, or anyone seeking great sound on a budget.
Having lots of high-res files, it was a bit of a hassle for us to play them on the TA-100, we either had to downsample using our player software of choice, (Amarra 4 Luxe), or only play files with lower sampling rates, neither of which was a real problem. But Emotiva's point of view is understandable. And with high-quality USB DACs starting at under $100, it’s easy enough to use the excellent analog input stage. Ultimately, we don’t see this as affecting that many people, and there are workarounds, so Big Dan is probably right. No matter the sampling rate or bit-depth, Amarra 4 Luxe is one of the best sounding, most flexible player software applications on the market. We found Amarra 4 Luxe to be a great match to the TA-100 on our MacBook Pro.
Emotiva did its homework in thinking through the needs for someone serious about music but on a tight budget. We drove the unit to high listening levels with no trace of harshness, and the fit and finish of the unit was superior, especially at this price. One accessory that we highly recommend is the BTM-1, as we found it absolutely necessary to have the option of Bluetooth, since just about everyone is streaming music from phones or computers. It would be great to have Bluetooth built-in, but that would probably drive the price up, and for the audio purist, even with AptX, Bluetooth might not be necessary.
At $49.99 the BTM-1 adapter is affordable and in our tests, it worked perfectly. A side note is that Mac users should make an effort to find a small application from Apple called Bluetooth Explorer. Without the application it’s often difficult if not impossible to enable the AptX codec on the Mac, and since the BTM-1 has native AptX hardware, not enabling it dramatically reduces the audio quality. If you think that Apple should have the capability to force the use of AptX built into the OS, we agree with you! Until that occurs, search the web to find the Bluetooth Explorer app. You can get it from Apple in the Developers site, but it’s a tiny part of a larger install, so better to just find the app itself.
On the handheld side, our Android Samsung phones instantly connected to the BT-1 and enabled the AptX codec, with the icon appearing in the menu bar. Too bad the Mac OS isn’t as easy to use. In our view, adding Bluetooth capability is critical. College students and other modern listeners often rely 100% on streaming services, and wireless connectivity is second nature. The one feature we haven’t had a chance to test was the phono pre-amp, since our test setup didn’t have a turntable, but we plan on testing that function in Part Two of this article in the near future. It’s nice to see both Moving Magnet and Moving Coil capability. With the revival of vinyl, especially on college campuses, the Emotiva TA-100 is the perfect solution to make that dorm room or apartment come alive.
There are some things on our wish list for the next version of the unit, such as HD Radio capability, built-in Bluetooth, and a higher sampling rate for USB, but none of those are critical. This is at its heart, an analog component. It’s not a 5.1 home theater system, nor is it a set of monoblocks. The TA-100 is a straightforward, serious stereo receiver, with a fully discrete output stage and a toroidal power supply. In short, the TA-100 has a full-on audiophile design and execution, at big box store prices. Setup was a breeze for playing through USB and CD, but using the Tuner was a different matter for us.
Despite carefully reading the manual, we found it difficult to get the Tuner setup down. In the bid for minimalism, Emotiva kept the remote very simple, as they did the three front panel controls. This minimalism means that those few buttons have a multitude of functions; the key is decoding them in the proper sequence. And here is the one area that needs attention: the manual is text driven with graphics of the unit, but there isn’t a step-by-step illustration. And a sequence step-by-step is what’s needed. Other manufacturers such as Pioneer have built iOS and Android Apps that interact with their AVRs allowing users to control the unit, as well as other features. While this is a far simpler unit, we feel that updating the manual with a foolproof step-by-step guide, for example, how to run the tuner’s Autotune feature, or programming Presets, would be very helpful.
That said, once we ran Autotune, the quality of the FM signal was clean, musical, and stable, and we found that it locked on to signals weak and strong. Physically, it’s beautifully made, solid, carefully finished, and with a 12MM billet aluminum faceplate, once again, you would never guess its low price. If one piece of equipment represents just how much more you get now versus 1995 at the equivalent 2018 price, the TA-100 simply blows away what even many of the best products at that time represents.
Working with renowned jazz bassist and Owlsong recording artist Alan Lewine, we thought it would be cool to set the system up at his home, surrounded by instruments. As a musician, in the midst of recording, producing, and mixing a new album, Alan was curious how this small system, with two bookshelf speakers and a small subwoofer would sound. He utilized the Bluetooth capability on a daily basis, and would come home to listen to the day’s mixes on the system.
This author’s son and a contributor to Mac Edition Radio, Thomas Fogel, is also a bass player, and that has had a profound effect on what I thought was faithful audio recording and reproduction. The result is that to hear a bass in your home, either stand-up or electric, is far removed from hearing one on recordings. So, if anyone could comment on the musicality of the speakers and the TA-100s, it would be Alan. We auditioned a variety of music, from high-res to MP3, using phones and computers as our source, along with external DAC’s. In part two of this article, Alan will provide further comment on the system as a whole.
Our speakers were the Emotiva Airmotiv B1 two-way bookshelf speakers. One standout feature for the B1 is their use of the 25×32 mm Airmotiv folded ribbon tweeter. The low frequency driver is a 5-1/4” woven fiber cone with SBR surround. They are rated at 70W continuous / 150W peak into 8 ohms, and Emotiva recommends amplifier power in the range of 50W – 250W / channel.
One characteristic that defines ribbon tweeters is that they are light, thin, with little mass, and as such they able to reproduce transients quickly and without undue coloration. Dome tweeters are certainly great – they’re the industry standard – however, if properly designed and produced, ribbons can offer less mass and therefore better response time so that high frequencies have a sense of air around them. Cymbals tend to reveal the high frequency response of a tweeter. The entry-level BasX speaker line features dome tweeters, which sound very good indeed and represent a good bargain. But we found that all of us preferred the ribbons, which produced an open and often invisible sound field, for a precise soundstage and instrument placement. Like all bookshelf speakers, they sound best not on a bookshelf, but on stands, which transform them with a strong sense of how musical and clean and uncolored they are, on a variety of musical genres. Placing them are properly located stands also represents what an extraordinary bargain they are. The Airmotiv B1 are rear ported, so placement is a bit critical for proper bass and mid-range response.
Our test system included the BasX S8 Subwoofer. We view the Airmotiv line as a serious choice for home theater, where subwoofers are standard. Did we need the Subwoofer? Fair enough question, especially since we were using the entry-level BasX model subwoofer, not the Airmotiv line. Key differences between the BasX and the Airmotiv subwoofers include a 150W Class D amplifier in the BasX, while the Airmotiv S10 had a larger 10-inch driver, and a 350-watt RMS Class A/B amplifier, with a passive driver in addition to the active unit.
The S8 driver specs are: “Advanced long throw 8” bass driver, with a mineral-filled injection molded polypropylene cone, large rubber roll surround, forced air cooling, and an all-copper voice coil with a solid aluminum former.”
This system was designed for small- to medium-sized room, and we found the BasX S8 Subwoofer was clean, rich, with little distortion, and able to shake the walls if asked. Overall, the bass was reasonable without the sub, but using the sub revealed a deeper, fatter, more accurate bottom end, and what felt like a bit more roundness and warmth. Could you start out with just the speakers? Absolutely. But, if you want a rich solid bass that you can feel as well as hear, then we would recommend the sub. In his listening tests, Alan tested a slew of settings, placement, and adjustments, and came to view that no matter the content or volume, he preferred the system with the sub in place. In Part Two of this review, Alan will offer his experience with the system. A future review will compare the bookshelf models to the Airmotiv Tower speakers, which offer a far more substantial bass. Whether those will benefit from the sub is yet to be seen, but presumably they won’t be as needy for additional bass support.
One last thought. Emotiva manufactures many of their products in the U.S. and are in the process of migrating the products made in China to the U.S., so if you are a fan of American companies, creating and manufacturing products in the U.S., Emotiva gets it.
We recommend the Emotiva TA-100 Stereo Preamp/Dac/Tuner With Integrated Amplifier, Airmotiv B1 two-way bookshelf speakers, and BasX S8 Subwoofer, without reservation. The Emotiva gear we tested were all superior products -- solid, well built, with a believable and rich musical sound signature, at extraordinary prices.
Part 1 of a 2 Part Article
Harris Fogel, with Nancy Burlan and Alan Lewine, Posted 5/29/2018
For more information on the Emotiva line visit: www.emotiva.com
For more information on Amarra 4 Luxe visit: www.sonicstudio.com