Review: Geneva Lab Model L and Model XL Sound Systems
Pros: Powerful, impressively detailed speakers that deliver outstanding overall sound quality for single-enclosure units. Sold in striking, furniture-quality glossy boxes, in your choice of three colors, each featuring integrated iPod docks, CD players, FM radios, and line-input options. Both systems support Apple’s Universal Dock standard, include useful remote controls, and can be mounted on sturdy metal stands for a highly presentable, attractive look in your home.
Cons: Though stereo separation/staging is impressive given the single-enclosure design, high price tags and large physical sizes place these in the category of replacement living room/AV system speakers, which they’re not fully suited to supplant because of their lack of optical audio input ports, and inability to be centrally positioned relative to most TVs. While possibly not as stylish, most people will prefer separate floorstanding speakers given the size demands and price. Infrared remotes are acceptable, but not fantastic for systems with such power. Stands should be included for the price.
Given their sizes and prices, it should come as no surprise that Geneva Lab’s new Model L ($599) and Model XL ($1075) one-piece speaker systems blow away Apple’s similar but smaller and cheaper $349 iPod Hi-Fi (iLounge rating: B) - all things considered, they most certainly should. What caught us off-guard was the extent to which they did so: Apple promised but failed to deliver an audiophile-quality listening experience in a stylish single enclosure, but Geneva Lab under-promised and over-delivered. At this point, the biggest question in our minds is whether people will be willing to pay Geneva’s premium for a superior experience. Overall, our feeling is that if sound quality and style are really important to you, and you don’t plan to use a Geneva speaker with an equally high-end video setup, you’ll generally find it worthy of the extra expenditure.
Apple’s and Geneva’s approaches are very similar: in each case, you get a single glossy enclosure with an iPod Universal Dock and volume controls on top, measuring a little under two feet wide, and weighing enough that you probably won’t be moving it around a lot. You’ll also get a remote control, power cable, seven Dock Adapters, and the ability to pipe non-iPod audio through the speakers using separate audio cables. All of these speakers are intended to be mounted at sitting ear level - though it should have included them in the packages, Geneva sells optional mounting stands for $75 each and has you unscrew rubberized feet from the speakers before installation; Apple sells no mounting kits, and expects that you’ll put Hi-Fi on a countertop or bookshelf.
From there, the solutions differ quite a bit in the specifics. iPod Hi-Fi was designed to be vaguely portable, measuring a fairly big 17.0” (W) by 6.6” (H) by 6.9” (D) and weighing 14.5 pounds without batteries, or 16.7 with them. By comparison, the Geneva Models make no pretext of portability: L measures 17.6” (W) by 11.1” (H) by 15” (D) - roughly twice the size of iPod Hi-Fi in each dimension save their similar widths, and 33 pounds in weight - while XL measures 21.7” (W) by 23.5” (H) by 15.8” (D), and weighs a back-breaking 66 pounds. For obvious reasons, Models L and XL run only off of wall power, and are intended to be positioned in one place and left there. On their stands, they are 30.5” tall, a comfortable height for everyday use, and similar to pieces of furniture in bulk.
In our view, Geneva came closer than Apple to getting the styling “right” for such a minimalist piece: though L and XL dwarf their docked iPods to an even greater extent than iPod Hi-Fi, there are several key ways in which they look and feel superior. First, the company went with distinctive bulging metal front grilles rather than soft fabric ones, making a visual impression that we really liked. The shot below portrays Model L’s front to be more translucent than it actually is; generally, all you’ll see is the front metal. Second, three different colors are available - in addition to predictable glossy white, there’s also a grand piano-class jet black, and a striking red model that grows on even skeptical observers over time. Third, unlike the easily scratchable Hi-Fi, Models L and XL use more resistant glossy surfaces that look and feel worthy of polishing, a process aided by an included polishing cloth. Apple’s and Geneva’s systems will both stand out in a room; in our view, Geneva’s unquestionably look better doing so.
There are some other interesting differences, as well. Geneva uses wooden flaps to keep Model L’s and XL’s iPod docks covered when not in use, and also integrates a CD player and digital FM radio into both units. The CD player is slot-loading and elegant; it and the radio both worked very well in our testing. And rather than iPod Hi-Fi’s simple two-color status light, the top front right corners of the speakers feature large, five-character red LED displays to indicate on/off status, which connected device is playing through the speakers, and the current levels of various audio attributes (volume, bass, and treble). Geneva’s look is retro in a good way; it would have been nice to see LED color options on different models, but that’s a very minor point.
Switching between Model L and XL’s features is fairly easy thanks to a packed-in large silver remote control, which also features cabinet color-matched buttons. The 6” by 2” by .75” unit uses Infrared signals to provide bass, treble, and volume toggles, track forward, backward, play/pause and stop buttons, a shuffle mode, a CD eject button, and six radio presets.
Though we’ll get to the bass and treble controls below, it suffices to say that it’s great not only to have these controls on the remote, but also to have the visual benefit of seeing levels clearly indicated on both system’s LED displays.
In our testing, the remote was powerful and reliable enough not to be objectionable, but it wasn’t a superstar, either. Line of sight pointing was typically needed for the remote to work, and button presses were occasionally, but not importantly misinterpreted. It goes without saying that systems with this much power can benefit tremendously from RF-based remote technology, which provides better control from a room or floor away, or greater unobstructed distances.
The biggest question potential buyers will have about these speakers is an obvious one: how do they sound? Our answer is going to be an initially perplexing one: “in most ways, almost too great.” Put another way, what Models L and XL do well, they do superbly - arguably considerably better than what most iPod owners need. But what they lack is fairly significant, too, and may limit their appeal to audio enthusiasts who consider aesthetics unimportant by comparison with staging.
On first sight, both of the speakers look like simple monaural boxes - each grille features a single central bulge, and is not intended to be user-removable. But behind each grille are significant amplifiers and multiple audio drivers: L has a 100-watt amplifier with four drivers - two 1” tweeters and two 5.25” woofers - and two vent ports, while XL has a 600-watt amplifier with six drivers - two 1” tweeters, 5.25” woofers and 8” sub-woofers - and four vent ports. For what it’s worth, Klipsch’s $400 iFi system (iLounge rating: B+) featured a single 8” sub-woofer and delivered amazing bass; if you’ve heard that, you can probably imagine the low-end impact that two 8” drivers would have by comparison. Not surprisingly, the systems belt out clean, powerful audio at high volumes.
They also provide users with the incremental bass and treble control that Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi lacks. Apple pared down such features to two choices - “bass booster” or “treble booster” - in a menu you could only access by walking over to Hi-Fi. On Models L and XL, bass and treble levels can be independently adjusted from afar in a range from -6.0 to 6.0, in .5 increments. On their default settings, both systems begin at warm, pleasant 0.0 levels; tweaks to both settings can bring your music, particularly the sub-sonic impact of bass, to all-new levels of impressiveness. Given the iPod’s continued equalization shortcomings, we really appreciated these controls.
To get some obvious statements out of the way, both of these speakers provide surprisingly big, detailed sound that virtually anyone, us included, would love to place in the center of a living room. Critically, “big” is not synonymous with “loud.” With the right audio content, and even with the volume at a reasonable level, you can close your eyes in front of either Geneva speaker and imagine a wall-to-wall sound field in front of you. The company attributes this, and a simulated surround sound angle alternately estimated at 120 or 180 degrees, to patented sound technology from EmbracingSound. Though we don’t think the field reaches 180 degrees around a centrally situated listener, it’s certainly engrossing and impressively detailed in both Models, with a very large, detailed soundstage that will make you feel like you’re actually inside a theater with a band performing in front of you. As acceptable as it was for its size, iPod Hi-Fi can’t compare; we think Geneva’s larger, pricier approach resulted in a better product overall.
We first tested L directly against Hi-Fi with a variety of audio, and again - not surprising for the price - we couldn’t help but prefer L in pretty much every way. At Hi-Fi’s unlabeled peak volume and L at its top (100) level, the two systems are roughly the same in amplitude, and both do a very good job of maintaining sound clarity at their peaks. Model L, however, is superior, and offers superior bass extension at high volumes, which Hi-Fi does not; Hi-Fi also exhibits very noticeable amplifier noise at higher volumes - far more than L. Hi-Fi has as much amplifier noise at 85% volume as L does at 100%, and far more at its own peak.
At lower volumes, L showed greater distortion control as well: using uncompressed audio, voices set against an otherwise silent background exhibited a blooming noise on Hi-Fi as silence transitioned to voice, and voice to silence; this was not an issue on Model L. Silence was silence, voice was voice. The fact that Hi-Fi wasn’t a great near-distance listening device was one of our biggest issues with that “audiophile-quality” speaker; by contrast, Model L does equally well close up, and 10 feet away.
Not surprisingly, XL is the better-sounding of the two systems. Highly similar to the L in most regards, it’s a little louder at each volume level, and fuller-bodied, particularly on the low end. Though it doesn’t do to the Model L what L does to Hi-Fi, namely make it sound like a cheap toy, there is no doubt whatsoever that if money wasn’t an object, we’d pick XL. Paired with the correct audio - lossless tracks, for example - XL’s fullness is the audio equivalent of a pillow on your favorite bed, lulling you directly into relaxation, and making you forget your surroundings. With compressed audio, however, the effect is more jarring: like iPod Hi-Fi, these speakers can reveal encoding artifacts, and ably present as flat or distorted a wall of sound as they’re fed. They’re highly dependent on quality audio to achieve effects that will impress average listeners in more than sheer amplitude.
Big Picture Conclusions
In virtually every way, we’ve praised Geneva Lab’s work on Models L and XL - speakers that we feel comfortable recommending to our readers for use in their homes. But given how much we liked their sound, you’re probably wondering how they could have missed our high recommendations. The answer boils down to two things: practicality and price.
Let’s face facts: we’ve canvassed a number of outside opinions prior to penning this review, and feel relatively convinced that almost no one is looking to buy a $600 or $1000, 2.5-foot-tall, 1.5-foot-wide speaker system solely for use with an iPod. The key word here is “solely” - at some point, a speaker becomes large enough that it’s expected to be multi-functional simply by virtue of the space it consumes. Both Models L and XL fall into this category: they’re so big that they cannot be placed on a typical bookshelf or desk; each one is supposed to sit on one side of a living room, master bedroom, or other spacious area. Most likely, if you’re considering one of these speakers, you will want to buy one of the optional stands and show it off.
On a related note, since these are speakers that literally sound good enough to make you want to re-rip your CDs at higher, perhaps lossless bitrates, you’ll want to use it with other devices, most likely a DVD player as part of a minimalist home entertainment system. Geneva’s Sound Check CD - included with every Model L or XL purchase - makes this point terribly, painfully clear. On it, you hear Hollywood-style audio effects and speech with such chilling clarity, staging, and detail that the iPod Hi-Fi, running the same test track in uncompressed WAV format, seems like a cheap toy, exhibiting noticeable amplifier noise and distortion around voices. A car crash, helicopter approach, and galloping horse are rendered almost hyper-realistic in their accuracy - you will literally imagine the visuals in front of you as they happen, and hear every event moving in 3-D space. A music sample shows how both systems stomp the reasonably warm Hi-Fi in bass, even when bass-boosted - you’ll hear and feel Geneva’s power, particularly in the XL - and that’s even before you crank L or XL up to their peak bass levels.
The Sound Check CD will blow your mind until you realize that neither Geneva system includes an optical audio input for proper connection to most of today’s quality DVD players. In other words, one of these speakers will bring Jurassic Park’s dinosaur stomps to life, but you’ll have to use lower-quality RCA cables to make the audio connection. Apple included optical input on iPod Hi-Fi, a system that needed it much less than these do.
Similarly, Models L and XL can’t be centered optimally next to, on top of, or underneath most television screens. Realistically, you’ll need to have a flat panel display hanging on a wall, and three feet up, in order to place L or XL underneath; their size, single-enclosure designs and weight preclude other centering options. Owners of most rear projectors or conventional displays will be out of luck, unless they’re willing to give up proper left-right separation of the speaker by mounting it off to the display’s side. At these prices, separate floorstanding speakers just make more sense for many other applications - if you’re trying to be practical. In sum, that’s the reason these speakers missed our A-level, high recommendation.
The odd thing about both models, and particularly XL, is that once you hear them, you may well feel that practicality isn’t quite as important as you once thought. We actually loved playing with them, and found ourselves desirous of a unit to call our own even though we initially didn’t think we’d be impressed by the sound or enamored by the design. For iPod or general music enthusiasts, they do in fact look and sound great enough to merit compromises or a bit of listener accommodation, something we didn’t think was the case with iPod Hi-Fi. For instance, if you have a listening room - in other words, a place just to listen to music without watching video - you should seriously consider putting one of these speakers, probably XL, in there. And if you don’t have such a room, but your home is large enough for one, you might just want to make it happen. Ideally, at these prices, you wouldn’t have to compromise, and could do away with the old AV system’s separate components without losing anything, but if you’re willing to do so, we’re fairly certain that you’ll be happy with your purchase.