AVrev-CW800E In-Wall Speaker Review
November 1, 2006
There have been many challenges in rebuilding the AVRev.com reference theater (which I have previously written about and archived for Modern Home Theater how-to features, with more details to come). One of the challenges not discussed is what I was going to do with the living room where my former reference system lived. Removing the large equipment rack thankfully created more space that allowed for the sleek installation of a lightly tinted glass wall. Removal of the floor-to-ceiling, bird’s-eye maple media storage cabinet that housed my Stewart roll-down screen also opened up some serious space. The design challenge was unique, considering the entryway to the new theater, as well as the stairs leading to the new addition, is exactly where my Wilson WATT Puppy right speaker used to be placed – how could you get great sound in a room or, in this case, a series of rooms, including the living room, dining room and much-used kitchen, without placing more big high-end speakers somewhere and having to create another high-end audio system?
Roll the tape forward to the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show and a visit to Lenbrook (the parent company of NAD Electronics and PSB Speakers) at a private suite at the Hard Rock Hotel. The Lenbrook boys, led by Mark Stone, were showing an in-wall version of their top-of-the-line floor-standing speaker. The unit they demoed is the CW800E In-Wall Speaker and make no mistake – these suckers are for real. Sized at 38.5 inches tall by 14 inches wide and an amazingly shallow 3.75 inches deep, they are designed to be a high-end, audiophile-grade speaker that lives in the drywall, not on the carpet. Compounding my personal need for the speakers was the addition of a complementary in-wall subwoofer called the CWS8, which is a dual eight-inch sub that also has a waif-like depth of less than four inches and houses two eight-inch drivers. I did a demo in the suite with a pretty complex installation for a hotel room and was floored. These were not some disposable in-wall speakers that custom installers just “throw into the wall” to boost their profit margin on a sale. With 30 minutes of listening under my belt, I knew these were speakers for people who sit down and listen. I needed them.
Finishing the Room – Installation
In working with Beverly Hills-based Simply Home Entertainment for the installation, we crafted a plan that would remove the media storage and screen in a soffit on what was once the front wall of the theater, replacing it with a 50-inch Panasonic Plasma HDTV that would be recessed into a newly-framed wall. The idea was to leave enough room for the plasma to breathe, but to flush the TV to the drywall. The PSB set-up in the drywall would be for music only. This decision was made mostly because of the way we use the house. Walking in from a hard day at the office, there was to be a Crestron keypad on the wall which would control the main system’s ReQuest F Series multi-zone music server with color touch screen access. Another handheld Crestron remote would be installed to run the music and the TV duties of the system. Combining the music and the TV sound playback was possible, but we found that it was pricey. The sub amp and the amp for the CW800Es would be installed in the room that would ultimately be the gym, which is right on the other side of the wall.
The idea of comparing in-wall speakers to Wilson WATT Puppy version 7 loudspeakers is ludicrous, but the fact is, the PSB CW800Es paired with a CWS8 in-wall subwoofer can hang.
I can’t speak about the ease of installation of the speakers, since I wasn’t here when Simply Home’s Dave, Bruno and Ed were doing the job, but I can say it didn’t take them very long. They work with all sorts of in-wall speakers and commented to me later by email, as well as in person, on how thin the PSBs looked, yet how hefty they sounded. This was long before the room was finished. Another aspect of the installation that needs to be mentioned is Lenbrook’s spectacular customer service. My painter, who both Tim Duffy at Simply Home Entertainment and I use for all of our projects and homes, accidentally got paint on one of the CW800E’s grilles that didn’t come off easily. PSB, at no cost to me despite the problem being 100 percent my fault, overnighted me a new grille. When you have a crew on a job and the hours are multiplying, it is the small things like this that really add up. I was impressed with the level of customer attention and responsiveness I got from PSB.
You must keep the scope of this review in the proper context. This $2,749 (each) in-wall speaker and $799 (each) subwoofer system were given the very difficult challenge of replacing a $250,000 installed theater, led by a pair of Wilson WATT Puppy version 7 speakers powered with Mark Levinson 436 amps. In terms of price and performance, this is an unfair way to judge in-wall speakers, but I am going to do it nevertheless.
After a solid 200 hours of break-in and thankfully restoring a level of calm and lack of construction to my home, I was able to sit down with my new living room speakers and do some listening. At first it was a few half-hour sessions after work and before dinner with a glass of wine, listening to my new classical guitar playlist. Andrés Segovia has a way of taking some of the edge out of an edgy day. A nice glass of Clos Du Val Napa Valley chardonnay ($15 per bottle) serves to take some of the Diet Coke jitters out of the day’s events as well. Even at low, conversational levels, I was pulled into the music by the CW800E’s ability to resolve details. While my fiancée thinks I am insane (and who would argue with her), you could hear percussive pops on the top of Segovia’s guitar that echoed the resonance of the inside of the instrument. The air around the strings sounded like what you might expect from $10,000 per pair audiophile speakers in the room with all of the trimmings upstream.
Progressing into more dynamic music, I cued up some Bob Marley on my Roots Rock and Reggae playlist. “Could You Be Loved,” from the Legend album, had a beefy electric bass line with the kind of power and extension that I had never heard from in-wall speakers. Marley’s vocals were focused and lively with a bongy raspiness that you should expect to hear on his records, even the more modern recordings. The percussion expanded to widths that were far outside the physical boundaries of the speakers and the backup singers offered smooth layering to the overall mix.
My mellow jazz playlist is, to be polite, a work in progress. Just dumping every John Coltrane tune onto a list makes for some great runs of tunes, shattered by a handful of the most horrible tracks ever. I cued up “Namia” (bonus track version), ripped in a lossless format, from Giant Steps. I would play this track in my living room for anyone in the audio or recording industry, specifically the occasional speaker designers who make their way to my place. Never before in my life have I heard this kind of width and presence from an in-wall speaker. Train was beaming in ways that remind me of what I heard at Sandy Gross’ flat in Manhattan on a tricked-out system with his Mythos speakers and obscure tube amps. Please note that the Mythos were not in-wall speakers. The idea of in-wall subwoofers needs to become more popular. With less than four inches of depth, it’s shocking to hear how resonant the stand-up bass sounds with this system. Decay times on the cymbals were fully believable and the overall system seemed to perform in harmony.
In the event that you might be preparing to leave to run some errands around the neighborhood or perhaps to kick the hell out of some villains, you never know when you need some proper theme music. For this review, I went with the Academy Award-winning “Theme from Shaft” (Mobile Fidelity/Stax – SACD) by Isaac Hayes on SACD. With one of the coolest, funkiest intros in music history, the melodic elements of this song take on a three-dimensionality that you should only expect from a floor-standing speaker. That is, until now. The wah-wah guitar pops from the soundstage. The horns sound bombastic, yet not bloated. The strings are lively, yet not bright. The cymbals are bright, yet not shrill. Before you walk out the front door to conquer the world of its evils, you might just sit down and jam on a music session if you have the PSB CW800E in-walls. The vocals didn’t hold up in terms of balance the way I had heard with the Bob Marley. Perhaps this is a factor in the recording, but the most open the song sounded was in the introduction, with all of the melodic instruments working toward the first verse.
...sounded like what you might expect from $10,000 per pair audiophile speakers in the room with all of the trimmings ...
The speakers do it all sonically, except for depth behind the speaker depth. I asked a noted speaker designer if I was asking too much of an in-wall speaker to expect the creation of space behind it, the kind a high-end floor-standing speaker produces. The designer said that he has never heard an in-wall recreate believable depth in the way I was describing, so perhaps I am nitpicking a bit. It is also important to know the advantages you get when you invest in the PSB T8 floor-standing speakers, which are not built into the drywall.
The idea of comparing in-wall speakers to Wilson WATT Puppy version 7 loudspeakers is ludicrous, but the fact is, the PSB CW800Es paired with a CWS8 in-wall subwoofer can hang. While depth and ultimate tightness in the lower registers don’t hang to the ultimate standard, I can tell you that I am not even one percent tempted to go back to the way I had it. My room looks better than it ever has and I enjoy more music on my PSBs than I do on my Wilsons. The idea of high-end audio and home theater isn’t to geek out on technology so much as it is to make technology work for your life. This PSB system does just that.
I am so fond of my PSB in-wall speaker system that I have thoughts on ways to make them sound and look even better in the future. I plan on adding a very thin fabric wall to the wall where the system is installed. This will allow me to leave breathing room for the plasma, yet hide any sight of the speakers. In a modern, minimalist-designed living room like mine, this will only add to the drama of the music for me, my fiancée and our guests. Additionally, I think I might look to upgrade the amplifier when funds allow it. Take this as the compliment that it is meant to be – you would not be wasting your money putting a Krell, Linn, Classe’ or Mark Levinson amplifier on these speakers. In my case, I might be looking at a top-of-the-line NAD power amp for my PSBs. I am not sure how many dealers are showing this speaker system, installed but take it on my word, it is worth signing off on in your bid and getting into your walls. The PSB CW800E In-Wall Loudspeakers, paired with the CWS8 In-Wall Subwoofer, are fantastic.
Jerry Del Colliano
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