Review: Geneva Lab Geneva Sound System Model M (2011)
If you've shopped for iPod and iPhone speakers in the past, you already know that most of them are sold for $300 or less -- mass-market pricing matching the vast majority of iPod and iPhone devices. Justifying higher price tags is challenging, but some companies have specialized in figuring out ways to make deluxe speakers with designs and performance that are worthy of their premiums. Two new high-end systems we've been testing over the past couple of weeks take very different directions: Geneva Lab aims for elegance with its 2011 version of the Geneva Sound System Model M ($650), while Pioneer has thrown in everything except the kitchen sink in its brand new Elite Music Tap ($479, aka X-SMC4-K). This review covers Model M.
In order to understand Model M, you need you look back to Geneva Lab’s Model L and XL speakers, which debuted five years ago as gargantuan audio systems with equally huge price tags. Each was a glossy-finished wooden box with a metal front grille, distinctively bulging with a circular center, and both were designed to work with metal stands—they were so big that they literally became freestanding decor pieces, and so powerful that they could fill virtually any sized room with sound. The first Model M debuted in 2007 as a tabletop system—Geneva’s first without the option of a stand—and was eventually followed by Model S, a miniature version with virtually identical styling and a largely decorative included stand. From unit to unit, the models look far more alike than not; they’re differentiated by their sizes, the components inside, and their tops.
The current generation of Model M measures 14.4” x 7.8” x 9.8” and weighs a manageable 16 pounds, less than half the Model L. As with the original Model M, the 2011 version is strictly designed to sit on top of a table without a stand of any sort; there’s no screw mount at the bottom to attach a stand if you wanted to do so. Model M comes in the same glossy black, white, and red color options as its predecessors, but there’s also a walnut cabinet that sells for a $50 premium. Impressions of the walnut version around our offices were universally positive: we’ve always loved and admired the stand-out craftsmanship of Geneva’s beautiful lacquered cabinets, but the walnut unit walks on the other side of the techno-fashion line, blending in with most existing home decor rather than popping out from it. As compared with Geneva’s larger systems, which now have walnut versions at $200-$300 price bumps over their much higher, time- and currency-inflated prices, Model M’s walnut version seems downright affordable.
Not surprisingly, Model M’s features place it halfway between the Model S and Model L, though closer to the latter than the former. Like Model L, Model M’s amplifier is a four-way, 100-Watt unit rather than the two-way, 30-Watt unit found in Model S, and it has four speakers inside versus Model S’s two. Model M has twin 1” tweeters akin to Model L’s, but drops from L’s 5.25” full-range drivers down to two 4” speakers, still with bass ports. Notably, this version of Model M loses the CD player found in the prior version and the larger units, but keeps the digital FM radio and clock that shine through the upper right side of the front grille. The FM radio offers clean tuning in 0.1 increments plus six presets, and needn’t be used if you don’t want the detachable silver telescoping antenna to jut out of Model M’s back.
One interesting change to Model M is the adoption of a TouchLight control system that’s now found inside a revised universal dock, recessed on Model M’s top below a flip-up wooden panel similar to Model L’s and XL’s. The controls are based upon the capacitive touch wheel and buttons that were hidden on the top of Model S, but improved: they’re all visible regardless of whether the unit’s on or off, with red lights peeking through the play/pause, track, menu, mode, and OK buttons. Once again, the power button is a cool-looking dimple, and you can scroll through volume or menus on your device with rotary finger motions on the wheel. Due to the new central, recessed location, we found the new controls easier to use than Model S’s, though they largely duplicate what’s already on the docked device. You can also use the track buttons or an included Infrared remote control to tune the FM radio; the remote can also turn a single included clock alarm on and off.
It’s worth noting that Model M has historically been pitched as a rival to Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin, though it’s important to understand up front how the two systems are similar and different to one another—particularly now, as the Zeppelin has been replaced at the same price level with the Zeppelin Air. Placed right next to one another, Model M obviously makes a completely different visual statement than Zeppelin Air, swapping B&W’s football-like shape and fanciful floating dock for a far more neutral, narrower enclosure. Whereas B&W places five drivers—including one dedicated to bass—in a long, straight line, Geneva Lab clusters its four drivers together in an array and then uses considerable extra depth inside the wooden box to make up some low-end resonance. Only Model M has the alarm clock and FM radio; Zeppelin is purely an audio device.
The biggest differences between the systems now are in wireless functionality and pricing. Zeppelin Air sells for $50 less than the base version of Model M, yet includes AirPlay Wi-Fi support, enabling it to stream music wirelessly from iOS devices and computers running iTunes. Because of AirPlay, it can work not only with docked iPods and iPhones, but also physically incompatible iPads. Model M costs more, lacks the wireless feature, and apart from an aux-in port on the back, offers no additional device compatibility. It would be easy to write off as somewhat outdated in these regards—and a perfect example of a system that actually would have benefitted from AirPlay support—except that AirPlay speakers have continued to experience audio drop-out issues, and still need some additional polish before they’re fully ready for mainstream consumption.
Sonically, Model M is in the same general ballpark as Zeppelin Air; each system has only small advantages relative to the other. Turn each system on and your first impression is likely to be very positive in the same way as we’ve come to expect from audiophile-grade iPod and iPhone speakers: it’s not about listening for ultra-strong bass or super-crisp treble, but rather for clean, balanced presentation of any song you throw at it. And, for systems at this price point, the expectation is that the speakers will work well at any volume level. Not surprisingly, both systems are capable of peak volume performance that we’d describe as “staggering” if it wasn’t for the comparatively insane performance of the bigger Models L and XL; Zeppelin Air and Model M can each be turned up loud enough to more than fill a medium-sized room, with consistently low-distortion performance at their peak volume levels. Model M is only a hint less loud than Zeppelin Air at their respective peaks, not enough to be noticed in any practical application.
Where the differences become obvious are in lower- and average-volume testing. Model M’s amplifier is just a little cleaner than Zeppelin Air’s, such that the same song played through the same device at the same moderate volume has zero obvious hiss in Geneva’s signal, while there’s just a tiny whisper in B&W’s. At first, Model M sounded a little anemic in the bass department, a difference that we would have ascribed to Zeppelin Air’s dedicated and large extra bass driver. But as it turned out, this was partially due to Model M’s default settings. Unlike B&W, which offers only limited bass tweaks, Geneva’s remote gives you separate +/- 6.0 controls over bass and treble, making adjustments in 0.5 increments. At 4.0 or 5.0 on the bass scale, Model M has roughly the same low-end presence as Zeppelin Air, though treble compensations are also necessary to balance it out. On the flip side, however, Zeppelin Air’s default settings provide a wider and somewhat more dynamic soundstage than Model M when it’s tuned to match; a song played through Zeppelin Air sounds more lifelike and deep, while Model M’s presentation sounds like a wall of sound—detailed and interesting, but not as varied in instrument locations.
Overall, the Geneva Sound System Model M is another good audio system from Geneva Lab, and a strong rival to other deluxe speakers we’ve seen in the $600 price range. The single biggest reason to prefer it to its competitors is aesthetic: the boxy wood cabinet design is cool when glossy and downright handsome in walnut; either version is more likely to fit physically and visually into the typical living space than the Zeppelin Air. Add Model M’s integrated FM radio tuner and clock, as well as its strong performance even at high volumes, and you have an audio system you can rely upon under virtually any circumstances. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a speaker with iPad or iTunes compatibility, Zeppelin Air and the growing collection of AirPlay-enabled wireless audio systems are moving in that direction while Model M is standing somewhat still; B&W’s system delivers equally impressive sound without the need for fine-tuning. By late 2011 standards, Model M is a solid choice; still, we’re looking forward to seeing what Geneva Lab does to move its other speakers forward into the future.