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Think small
When it comes to quality speakers it used to be that size meant everything. US firm Orb Audio believes they can change that perception with their Orb speakers.

There's no shortage of literature one can ingest when it comes to making the right decision for your Hi-Fi setup. Every single component of a Hi-Fi system is up for debate with enthusiasts passionate about a particular product or technology. However there is one area where there is universal agreement, the surround-sound audio packages you find bundled in with a DVD player are worth less than the effort used to bring them home. Their performance inadequacies are borne out not only because of their diminutive dimensions but also the poor quality components that are inside. One company fighting the influx of poor quality speakers is American firm Orb Audio who claim their speakers not only provide value for money but excellent performance to boot. So what does it take to make a credible small speaker?

Speakers' Napoleonic complex

The perception of poor sonic performance was something that Founder and CEO, Ethan Seigel was aware of when he and Gary Pelled started Orb Audio back in 2002. Fearing that their small speakers would be seen negatively before a note had been reproduced, Siegel was pleasantly surprised with the actual response. "We thought this might be a barrier when we started the company, but we very quickly realized that a large group of people were waiting for a product with a 'lifestyle' look but Hi-Fi sound (not just great marketing)."

Click to enlargeAnyone associated with accurate sonic reproduction dreads the L word but being able to deliver high quality audio in a package which works with modern housing designs is major challenge and something that Seigel recognises, "the trick to replacing big box speakers is to ensure that you are making everyone in the family happy.  You can't trade size for sound or sound for size.  It doesn't work if you just make the wife happy or the husband happy." For those who live in the city or modest dwellings without the opportunity of having a cinema or listening room, seven speakers can represent a significant investment in space, a point not lost on Siegel; "a lot of people are interested in reclaiming their floor space, it's expensive and can be used for a lot more useful things than giant speakers."

Not shying away from the obvious fact, Siegel is forthright with the disadvantage of small speakers "the biggest challenge is midrange frequencies, because it takes free air space to generate these frequencies and as you make a speaker smaller, you lose this capability." Perhaps surprisingly, Siegel is open to discussing how his speakers manage to produce a very respectable frequency range given their diminutive size. "We use a very high quality neodymium magnet inside of our speaker, instead of a typical ferrite magnet. Neodymium magnets are much more powerful and only a small fraction of the size of ferrite magnets." By using smaller magnets, less of the cabinet is taken up by the magnet, leaving more space for air. The downside to Neodymium magnets are their cost, something Siegel says is offset by their direct sales strategy.

So through the use of premium magnets Orb Audio are able to maximise the volume of air in the speaker cabinet, but how do they actually manage to move it? Again Siegel is happy to divulge, "we use a very highly designed custom driver with a very large voice coil and quite a bit more excursion than a typical three inch driver. The excursion on the speaker measures how far in and out the driver can move to push air, and our driver can travel up to 12-16 times farther than a typical driver of this size." Referring back to the Neodymium magnet, Siegel admits that it is this which allows them to maintain "great control over the speaker." Clearly producing a high quality small speaker is something that requires investment in components in order to overcome the fundamental difference in size.

Putting the Orb on trial

Knowing that their audience would be skeptical about the quality that could be delivered from small speakers, perhaps it was a sign of how confident Orb were when they went with a direct sales model. The idea of purchasing speakers of significant value without auditioning them is something that any Hi-Fi enthusiasts would recommend against, so why did Orb decide to go down this route? For Siegel it was simple, "many mainstream buyers are doing research online, and we reach them there.  The typical Orb customer saves about $1,000 in markups, so many people are willing to give our business model a try." This direct sales model is something that Orb has embraced mainly due to their size and the product which doesn't lend itself to mass-market production. The "personal touch" is something that Siegel finds important and surprisingly admits not to "having huge ambitions of being on the shelves in stores in front of every mainstream buyer."

Interestingly, not being able to listen before purchase doesn't seem to be a barrier for most of their customers says Siegel. "It is not really as big of a disadvantage as you think.  First, there is a 30 day home trial period where you can return them for any reason or no reason.  So, you do get to audition them, in your home, where they will ultimately be used." Being able to listen to your speakers in the environment where they will perform is probably the most accurate way to audition anything. Siegel also points out the savings customers make which allow them to take a "leap of faith" in their products and from the 1% return rate Orb has, that leap doesn't seem to be too big.

Because Orb's products are hand-made in their Californian factory, each speaker takes around a week to complete, with some finishes unable to be mass produced. This laid back attitude to speaker manufacture has created a product and perhaps a company who is happy with their size, profit and ultimately their product. It's led to their products being sent far from the shores of America with Siegel saying Orbs have been shipped to places such as Easter Island and Antarctica. To have Orbs shipped to Blighty, Siegel says that one can typically expect a three to four day delivery time. Orb's 30 day trial applies even if you aren't located in the US. To make things easier, should you wish to return the Orbs Siegel says that return centres will be opening up in the UK very shortly.

What you quickly realise is that producing a quality small, high fidelity speaker is not just about shrinking components. Few will contest Siegel's claim that there is a considerable group of people looking for a good small speaker but the list of candidates is pretty small with FujitsuTen's Time Domain and Anthony Gallo's Nucleus Micro and A'Diva speakers the only commonly available speakers in the arena. Consumers can now add Orb Audio to that list.

Orb Audio display a refreshing attitude in an industry that is known for marketing hype and elitism over good value and performance. Their website doesn't make claims or use diagrams to promote an obscure technique which enhances their sound, instead they rely on the simple logic that if you don't like listening to them, you'll send it back. Hand produced, each speaker bears the week long toil that Orb Audio's employees put in. Through the use of premium materials and clever design, Orb has managed to mitigate the effects of having a diminutive speaker cabinet, meaning you can reclaim your living room without compromising sonic integrity.
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