Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

My wife walked past the credenza in our bedroom the evening after I installed DALI’s Oberon 5.1-channel home-theater speaker package, ran her hand delicately across the Light Oak vinyl finish of the Vokal center speaker, and confidently proclaimed, “We’re keeping these.” Not a question. Not a request. A statement of fact.

I’ll let her take that up with DALI when the time comes, I suppose, or perhaps I’ll box them up in the dark of night just to be safe. But I can certainly see the appeal of these speakers for someone who normally only tolerates the black boxes cluttering our home because they keep our 85-pound American Staffordshire terrier fed and clothed.

The rest of the review system provided to me, by the way, comprises a quartet of the smallest bookshelf speakers in DALI’s Oberon line—the Oberon 1—along with the company’s compact Sub E-9 F. At $599/pair (all prices in USD) for the Oberon 1, $549 for the Vokal, and $799 for the sub, a complete 5.1 speaker package as reviewed will run you $2546, putting it on roughly equal economic footing with something like RSL’s popular CG5 5.1 speaker package. In terms of aesthetics, I would put the DALI package more on par with something like Focal’s entry-level Chora speaker system, which will cost you roughly $1500 more for a comparable bookshelf-based 5.1 system.

DALI

DALI also offers a larger bookshelf speaker with a 7″ woofer—the Oberon 3—as well as two towers, one with dual 5.25″ woofers (Oberon 5) and one with dual 7″ woofers (Oberon 7), and a compact on-wall. All of the Oberon speakers feature dense MDF cabinetry, with all but the Sub E-9 F coming in your choice of Black Ash, White, Dark Walnut, or the aforementioned Light Oak vinyl, with the darker finishes sporting Shadow Black cloth grilles and the lighter finishes complemented by a sort of classy burlap-looking Mountain Grey. You can also spring for optional Marshmallow White grilles if that better fits your aesthetic.

The Sub E-9 F, meanwhile, comes in your choice of Black Ash, Light Walnut, or White vinyl, and the grille (in Black, White, or Ice) is an optional accessory, sold separately. Again, though, I prefer the look of the sub au naturel, since I quite like the look of its 9″ long-stroke aluminum driver. With the Oberon 1 and Vokal, depriving them of their skivvies exposes the lovely oversized 1.14″ soft-dome tweeters and 5.25″ paper-pulp-and-wood-fiber woofers, the latter of which has a bowling-ball-esque vibe that I dig. My only caveat here is that the peg holes for the grilles do stand out a bit on the lighter finishes, but that’s hardly a fatal aesthetic flaw.

Peeking under the hood

Lest you think the Oberon lineup is simply an assemblage of pretty faces, there’s actually some pretty keen tech employed here to give the speakers a competitive edge in a market crowded with speakers at or near this price. Most noteworthy is that the Oberon 1 and Vokal employ DALI’s patented Soft Magnetic Compound (SMC) as a thin 10mm crown on the iron pole pieces for the woofers, as a means of reducing non-linear magnetic distortion.

DALI also touts the rigid internal bracing of the Oberon speakers, and while I cannot provide visual confirmation of such, the tried-and-true knuckle test on the sides and tops of the cabinets confirms that they are, indeed, quite inert. The company also reports judicious application of acoustical damping material along the sides, top, and bottom of the cabinets, but not the reverse side of the front baffle.

DALI

The Oberon 1 measures 10.8″H by 6.4″W and 9.2″D, and it weighs in at just 9.2 pounds. Its rear-firing bass-reflex port is tuned to a frequency of 50Hz, and just above the port you’ll find a keyhole mounting bracket, which are two great tastes that don’t taste great together. Needless to say, you’ll get much more enjoyment out of the speaker by stand- or shelf-mounting it and giving it at least 2″ of breathing room. As mentioned above, the Oberon 1 is a two-way design, with a crossover frequency of 2800Hz, and it’s recommended for use with amplifiers ranging from 25 to 100Wpc.

The Oberon Vokal is a bit bigger at 6.3″H by 17.4″W by 11.6″D, with a weight of 16.4 pounds. It too is a two-way bass-reflex design, with a crossover frequency of 2600Hz, though in this case the capsule-shaped port is tuned to 46Hz and is front-firing, situated between the dual 5.25″ woofers and beneath the tweeter, to accommodate home-theater cabinetry with a center-speaker cubby. Maximum recommended amplifier power for the Vokal is a skosh higher at 150W.

All in all, DALI seems to provide conservative ratings for its speakers, so don’t fret too much if your amps are a little beefier than recommended. The one spec that stood out to me as ever-so-slightly eyebrow-raising was the sensitivity for the speakers, which are rated at 86dB for the Oberon 1 and 89.5dB for the Vokal.

Vokal

Why the Spock impersonation? It may seem nitpicky, but I do feel it’s worth pointing out that the sensitivity is measured at 2.83V/1m. That’s not wholly uncommon for speakers with less than 8-ohm impedance, but it could cause some confusion if sensitivity is an important consideration for you when you’re purchasing speakers and you’re trying to compare apples to apples. Given that the nominal impedance of the Oberon 1 is 6 ohms, that means its sensitivity was measured with about a watt-and-a-third of power. The 4-ohm nominal impedance of the Vokal means that it draws right at 2W at that voltage. Again, not a huge deal, but it’s worth noting.

The Sub E-9 F, meanwhile, measures pretty close to a 12″ cube, minus its tootsies, and features a down-firing port tuned to 39Hz. Given the relative compactness of the cabinet overall, its 9″ aluminum driver pretty well dominates its front face. Its frequency response is rated as 37 to 200Hz (±3dB), and the -6dB point is somewhere roundabout 34Hz.

DALI

Unboxing and installing

Among the first things to catch my eye when unboxing the Oberon 1s and Vokal were little baggies included in each package housing translucent rubber feet for each speaker. In the end, I didn’t find it necessary to use them, but they were a nice inclusion nonetheless, especially if you plan on placing the speakers on a relatively resonant surface. They might also come in handy if you’re simply running the Oberon 1s as a stereo pair, sans subwoofer, since the extra low-frequency extension could make a difference.

With the front three speakers placed directly atop my credenza, and with sub/sat crossovers set at 80Hz across the board, the cabinets proved inert enough that they didn’t transfer appreciable vibrations to the furniture beneath. Nonetheless, I did end up positioning the front stereo pair and the center on Auralex monitor isolation pads just to give them a little lean-back (4 degrees), since my credenza sits ever-so-slightly low. The Oberon 1s employed as surrounds were placed directly atop the chests of drawers flanking the rear of my room, with their tweeters roughly 20″ above ear level.

DALI

Each of the passive speakers in the system sports a pair of lovely gold-plated five-way binding posts, which can easily accommodate a bare-wire connection, spades, or my preferred banana plugs.

For the purposes of this review, I powered the speakers with Yamaha’s new RX-V6A AV receiver, which is rated to deliver 100Wpc into 8 ohms or 125Wpc into 6 ohms. I did run Yamaha’s YPAO with R.S.C. room correction on the speakers, simply so I could gauge the performance of the Sub E-9 F without standing waves getting in the way, but for most of my listening, I left the room correction off.

Sizing up the sound

The first thing I noticed about the sound of the Oberon system—while running pink noise through the speakers to double-check YPAO’s level settings with my SPL meter—is that there was a slight timbre mismatch between the Oberon 1 and Vokal center, mostly in the midrange and lower midrange frequencies. It’s honestly not as much as you might suspect given the size of the cabinets and considering that the Vokal has two woofers to the Oberon 1’s one. And at any rate, it mostly disappeared with real-world listening material.

The new UHD Blu-ray release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition, of course) provided some of the best proof of this. At the beginning of chapter 34 on the second disc—“A Journey in the Dark”—the wizard Gandalf moves from the middle of the screen toward the right as he mutters his ominous warning about “older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world,” and his voice logically follows from center speaker to front right. With just a bit of care put into the placement of the front three speakers, this transition was seamless and the sense of spatial positioning was palpable.

This scene did prompt me to fiddle with placement just a bit, though. In my initial setup, against DALI’s advice, I positioned the front left and right speakers with a slight toe-in—not directly at my primary listening position, but more toward it than straight ahead. This proved to be unnecessary thanks to the wide and even dispersion of the Oberon 1s. What’s more, with them faced straight forward, I noticed that the integration between the front and surround soundstages was even better than when the fronts were toed-in.

DALI

That’s key for a sequence such as this, where much of what’s going on in the surrounds is subtle, reverberant ambience: the echoes of breathing and footfalls and voices. It proved even more crucial a few minutes later when Gandalf faces off against the flaming Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. At this point, every speaker in the system is running like a scalded cheetah, full of roaring and rumbling and increased intensity from Howard Shore’s iconic score music.

What stood out to me most, I think, was the layering of the front soundstage—the beautiful spatial separation of the strings and horns. Or maybe it was the overall dynamics of the system, which struck me as a bit more than I would normally expect from speakers this small. Or maybe it was the combined musicality, ferocity, and control of the subwoofer. With the growling of the Balrog and the pounding of Shore’s score alike, the little E-9 F had an authority and intensity I wasn’t expecting from a sub of its size and with its relative lack of rated low-frequency extension.

Maybe I just thought the sub was getting a little big for its britches, but I decided to put it to the test with one of my favorite LFE torture tests: the opening scenes of Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones on UHD Blu-ray. The flyover of Senator Amidala’s gleaming starship in this sequence packs a lot of sub-30Hz (indeed, sub-20Hz) rumble, which the E-9 F cannot reproduce at any meaningful volume.

Nonetheless, I found its handling of the opening of Episode II thoroughly satisfying in practically every way. With the ship flyovers—both in space and in atmosphere—as well as with the bomb that destroys the ship soon after it lands, the E-9 F delivered weighty, authoritative, tactile low-end that never ventured anywhere near “one note” territory.

DALI

Knowing the scene as well as I do, I recognized the lack of the very lowest notes in the engine’s sound. But if this were my first time watching the movie, I wouldn’t feel I was missing anything. The roll-off on the low end was graceful and controlled, which speaks to good DSP limiter design and careful construction of both driver and cabinet alike. Across its entire range, the E-9 F delivered rich and robust bass that can slam, roar, or swing with the best of them, though its output generally sounded more like a sealed enclosure to my ears than the ported design that it is.

As for the rest of the speakers in the system, what impressed me with this movie lined up perfectly with what impressed me during Fellowship: excellent tonal balance across the board, especially in the critical midrange frequencies; exceptional dynamic punch; wonderful detail and clarity; and perhaps above all else, wonderfully wide and even dispersion, which really made the system sound like a system, not a collection of speakers.

While listening to one of Episode II’s many dialogue-heavy scenes, I did the old trick of rocking my head left and right, and then doing the same with my entire upper torso, to listen for comb filtering or lobing caused by interference between the tweeter and woofers. This problem (often referred to as the “picket fence effect” since it sounds like you’re listening to a speaker through such an obstruction) plagues many a small center speaker, but not the Vokal, likely due to its raised-tweeter design.

What’s more, when I walked toward the center speaker and slowly moved my head farther and farther off-axis, I found myself well more than 30 degrees off-center before I really noticed any changes in tonality or timbre, and I found the image coming from my TV unwatchable long before I found the sound of the Vokal in any way objectionable. If you have a small room with a wide arrangement of seating positions, this is something worth noting.

DALI

Turning my attention to stereo music, with the Yamaha set to output 2.1, I began—as I generally do—not with the most detailed or revealing recordings, but rather the ones I know best. Within seconds of cueing up “Little Martha” from The Allman Brothers Band’s Eat A Peach (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Mercury Records / Qobuz), I could tell you that if any significant tonal imbalances exist within the Oberon 1s’ output, they’re beyond my capacity to hear.

Duane Allman’s and Dickey Betts’s guitar tones in this acoustic duet are unmistakable, and the Oberon 1s’ delivery of them was unimpeachable. But more than that, what stood out to me were all the little sonic imperfections in the recording that I normally latch onto only when listening via a good pair of open-back cans: the occasional buzzing fret, the sound of one of the guitarists (I’m not sure which) inhaling sharply, the sporadic floor vibrations picked up by the microphones. These didn’t, of course, dominate the sound, but they did reveal the overall level of detail and nuance the speakers delivered.

There’s one thing in particular that I didn’t hear, though. Often, with speakers in this size range, I find the droning guitar notes (especially between, say, 1:05 and 1:10) cause audible cabinet resonances that color the music. That most certainly was not the case with the DALI speakers. Again, though, that could have something to do with the addition of the E-9 F sub to the mix and my choice of an 80Hz crossover. Without the sub, the Oberon 1s alone felt a little too lacking in bass impact to serve as anything other than nearfield desktop speakers. And that’s not a knock against the speaker; it’s merely a recognition of physics.

If there were an objective nit to be picked with the Oberon 1s’ performance on this track, it’s that harmonics weren’t quite as penetrating as they can be on the very best speakers. I’ll take an ever-so-slightly laid-back vibe at the top end of the audible spectrum over harshness or grittiness any day of the week, though. And for what it’s worth, the DALIs lacked absolutely nothing in terms of air or spaciousness.

DALI

Those observations held true when I turned my attention to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (Steven Wilson Mix and Master, 24/96 FLAC, Parlophone UK / Qobuz). Track 1, “Really Don’t Mind / See There a Son Is Born,” is a song that I frequently fire up just to find the breaking point of bookshelf speakers. The forte drum attack at right around 3:01 often proves to be more than most small cabinets can handle, even when paired with a sub, and I’ve heard otherwise fine speakers at this level burp like over-stuffed GERD patients as a result of the sonic onslaught.

But not the DALI Oberon 1s. In fact, I gave up far before the speakers did, although I did manage to measure some 99dBA peaks on my SPL meter (from a seating distance of about 7′) before scrambling for the volume control. Even at this level, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how well the Oberon 1s maintained their composure and tonal balance. And at the risk of sounding like a clichéd hack, I also found myself double-checking the settings on the Yamaha just to make sure I hadn’t accidentally placed it into one of its surround processing modes. The depth of the soundstage coming from the Oberon 1s was simply spooky, sneaking as it did around the edges of the room to tap me playfully on the shoulders.

How does the DALI Oberon HT speaker system stack up against its competitors?

If you’re shopping around in this territory, a couple of systems come to mind that might also be on your radar. RSL’s CG5 speaker system, for example, is a hell of a good buy, and you can get a 5.1 package starting at $2499—right at $50 less than the complete DALI Oberon 1 HT package. The RSLs are an incredible value for the money and certainly punch way above their weight class. That said, they can’t quite stand up to the same sonic assault as the DALIs, especially with tunes like the Jethro Tull cut mentioned above.

On the other hand, the Speedwoofer 10S included with the RSL system plays significantly deeper than the DALI E-9 F, with low-frequency extension down to 24Hz (-3dB). It also sells for $399, whereas the DALI sub sells for $799. The E-9 F may be a bit more musical, and it’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing by anyone’s standards. But if I were putting together my own package, I might seriously consider pairing the DALI Oberon 1s and Vokal with a pair of the RSL subs for maximum impact, especially when watching movies.

As mentioned in the intro, I also think the DALI Oberon gives Focal’s Chora lineup some serious competition in terms of design, even though the Focal system is significantly more expensive. I like the Choras a lot, and I think I prefer them in terms of styling. That said, their off-axis performance and dispersion characteristics aren’t nearly as good as what you’ll get from the DALI speakers. Their sweet spot is also a bit more constrained.

TL;DR: Should you buy these speakers?

If you’re looking for a high-performance, high-value bookshelf surround-sound system that also sounds far better than it has any right to as a 2.1-channel setup, this system definitely belongs high on your audition list. The only real bummer here is that once you leave the convenience of the Internet and start looking around in meatspace, DALI dealers are relatively thin on the ground in North America, and as such the company’s speakers can be difficult to audition without a leap-of-faith purchase.

DALI

That said, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone being unhappy with these speakers. Their tonal balance combined with their spot-on dispersion characteristics, capacity for dynamic punch, and modern aesthetic add up to a system that’s hard not to love. Really, most of what you’re giving up when compared with much more expensive bookshelf speakers are things like fancier real-wood cabinetry, magnetic grilles, invisible screws, and other such nonessential niceties.

. . . Dennis Burger
dennisb@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • AV receiver: Yamaha RX-V6A
  • Sources: Roku Ultra Model 4660R streaming media player; Oppo UDP-203 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player
  • Speaker cables: Monoprice Choice Series 12AWG oxygen-free pure bare copper speaker wire with Monoprice open-screw banana plugs
  • Interconnects: Monoprice 8K Ultra High Speed HDMI cables
  • Power protection: SurgeX SX-AX15E Axess Elite power conditioner

DALI Oberon 1 / Vokal / E-9 F Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $2546 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Dali Allé 1
9610 Nørager
Denmark
Phone +45 9672 1155

Website: www.dali-speakers.com

US distributor:
Lenbrook
633 Granite Court, Pickering, Ontario
Canada, L1W 3K1
Phone: (905) 831-6333

Website: www.lenbrook.com