Emotiva Airmotiv 3b Compact Bluetooth Speakers
- Bluetooth or wired (stereo mini-jack) connectivity
- Self-powered – 2x 30W Class-D amplifiers
- Tiny footprint
- Balanced detailed sound
- Well built, solid quality construction & parts
- Aesthetically pleasing, although other color options would be nice to see
- Decent wireless range, but not quite enough to cover the whole house
I’m a big fan of small speakers. For years, my go-to speakers for the family room have been a set of Energy Take5 satellites with various subwoofers filling in the low end. Do larger speakers usually sound better? All else being equal, yes they generally do. But with a large family and limited space for surround sound, satellites have usually been my best choice. Recently my family moved into a larger house, and I’ve not yet had a chance to wire the living room, patio, or the master bedroom for sound – something we have missed.
Ported 2-Way Self-Powered Mini-Bookshelf Speakers
Woofer – 3” Long Throw, Tweeter – ¾” Dome
2 x 30W Class-D
Bluetooth 2.0 with AptX – Stereo Mini-Jack
6.75” H x 4.13” W x 5.5” D (unboxed; each speaker x 2) – 2.25” x 4.5” x 1.38” (AC adapter)
7 Pounds/each (including AC adapter)
$159/pair USD (recently reduced from $199)
Emotiva, Compact Bluetooth Speakers, Compact Speakers, Bluetooth Speakers, Bluetooth, Speakers
So my medium-sized “living room” speakers have yet to be unboxed from the move. So when I was asked if I’d like to review Emotiva’s new Bluetooth speakers I jumped at the opportunity. A small, wireless, pair of speakers from a brand like Emotiva? This could be the solution to my “I really don’t want to run speaker wire under the house” needs. I couldn’t wait to try them out.
The Emotiva Airmotiv 3b speakers are small, 2-way, self-powered, tuned-ported speakers. They are powered by a 2 channel 30W per channel class-D amplifier, and incorporate what appear to be passive analog crossovers (visible inside the left speaker). In addition to the amplifier, the right speaker also houses a 32-bit digital signal processor which does equalization duties, as well as “dynamic processing” indicating that the signal is processed somewhat to optimize performance within the limitations of the amplifier and the drivers.
This is not uncommon in powered speakers (especially subwoofers) that due to size limitations are attempting to push the limitations that physics imposes. A bit of DSP can control undesired distortion as the drivers are pushed to their frequency and/or volume limits. Active equalization is also helpful in achieving a more-flat response.
The Airmotiv 3b speakers are the size of many satellite speakers, although I have taken to referring to them as “mini bookshelf” speakers. Primarily I did this to differentiate them from satellites, which by design require a subwoofer. While the Airmotiv 3b’s aren’t exactly full-range speakers – nor do they claim to be – they did do fine on their own for their intended purpose: convenient, small, wireless stand-alone speakers.
The Airmotiv 3b’s are constructed of MDF (medium-density-fiberboard) into what Emotive describes as a “low diffraction cabinet.” The cabinet itself is a standard rectangular box measuring 6¾” high, with a 5½” x 4⅛” base. Each speaker feels substantial for its size when I held it in my hand, and the “knock test” gave a satisfying solid sound all around the body of the speaker; no undesired resonances could be heard.
The rear panel is brushed aluminum, also black. The right speaker is significantly heftier than the left, as it houses the amp and DSP board, while the left speaker is purely a passive affair, with a single connection back to the right speaker. The only electronics inside the left speaker was the passive crossover network.
Atop the right speaker lay the control panel, with four simple rubber buttons and four LEDs. The buttons are power/standby, input select, and volume up/down; the LEDs indicate Bluetooth pairing, connectivity, power/standby, and line-in connectivity. The design and aesthetics of the panel, as with the speakers in general, definitely exuded quality. At no point did I feel like these were just any run-of-the-mill Bluetooth speakers.
Setting up the Emotiva Airmotiv 3b’s was no different than setting up almost any set of Bluetooth speakers or headphones. In other words, it was easy. Pressing the power/standby button puts the speakers into pairing mode, at which point whatever device I wanted to pair with the Airmotiv 3b’s could “see” them and pair with them. I was able to easily connect my Android phone, Windows phone, my wife’s iPhone, as well as my Microsoft SurfacePro3 tablet, my Windows 10 desktop with a Soundbot SB340 Bluetooth dongle, and my work laptop, a Dell Latitude.
Basically any Bluetooth device I tried had no trouble finding and pairing with the Airmotiv 3b’s. Beyond pairing, there really wasn’t any further setup. Just place the speakers where you want them, and start playing music. The included cable which connects the left speaker to the right speaker is about 2 meters in length, which in my view is ample separation for these speakers; any more separation and you would likely start to lose sound stage imaging.
For design and setup, the only thing that would have been nice to see was a choice of colors. Currently the Airmotiv 3b’s are available in smooth black satin finish only. They are handsome speakers – don’t get me wrong – but since these speakers are small enough to otherwise “disappear” into the décor of a room, having the option of at least a shade or two of white would have helped.
I set up the Emotiva Airmotiv 3b’s for testing in a few different scenarios. I set up the Airmotiv 3b’s as my PC speakers for my main computer, a desktop in my small office room. This room measures about 6 feet by 7 feet, with an 8 feet high ceiling. The PC gets its Bluetooth connectivity via a Soundbot SB340 Bluetooth USB dongle. Since “PC speaker” is one of the uses for which these speakers are marketed, I compared them to my PC speakers, which are an older pair of Cambridge Soundworks PC speakers.
I also set them up in my family room, which is very large and open (approximately 20 ft x 20 ft). Here I compared the Airmotiv 3b’s to my Energy Take 5 satellite speakers (without sub). I then compared the Airmotiv 3b’s to a pair of Paradigm Titan v3 bookshelf speakers. Finally I played back music from several Bluetooth sources (various smartphones and the PC) to judge Bluetooth connectivity and compression effects.
When the Emotiva Airmotiv 3b speakers first arrived at my house, we just happened to be entertaining some guests in the back yard. My wife, who knew I was expecting some wireless speakers for review saw them and said, “Great! We need some music in the yard can these do that?” Yes they could. So, fresh out of the box, literally hot off the truck, I plugged in the Airmotiva 3b’s and set them on the window sill that pointed to the back yard from an upstairs bedroom.
I paired the speakers with my phone and started playing some Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing” from their Best Of album. Now, admittedly this is a terrible way to introduce myself to a pair of speakers: the environment was uncontrolled, kids were running around yelling and playing, people were talking, etc. Additionally, these are small speakers; they are hardly the kind of speaker you would use to provide outdoor sound, right?
Well, to be honest I was impressed right off the bat. First of all, as I described above they were super easy to set up. Secondly, I could be in my backyard and control the music from my phone, with no additional apps or software to install – no hassle. But most importantly, these little speakers were providing enough sound for a back yard party and sounding pretty good doing it!
Moving on to some actual critical listening, I pulled out Enya’s Shepherd Moons CD and gave it a listen at the PC setup. The highly engineered sounds of Enya’s 3rd CD provide a great example of space-filling, broad spectrum sound. The Airmotiv 3b’s provided what I can only describe as very open, clear, and balanced.
Listening in such a small room, the bass response of the Airmotiv 3b’s was ample for easy music listening. Compared to my old PC speakers everything just opened up when using the Airmotiv 3b’s: there was much more detail, and a much livelier sound stage than with my old PC speakers. This was no surprise, but it sure was a pleasant experience.
Next up for music was a repeat of “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. The opening guitar and bass riffs are well known and excellent for demoing speakers. Again the Airmotiv 3b’s did not disappoint with their clean, level, well-balanced sound. Bass was again ample, but not noteworthy.
Something about the balance of the sound from these speakers almost made me not miss the bass… almost. The great balance these speakers offered was carried into the high frequencies as well: very clear, detailed highs were present throughout, with no sibilance (apart from some artifacts I attribute to compression, more on this later.) Vocals on these speakers is very good. I’m a fairly experienced classical vocalist and so my ear is very sensitive to proper presentation of vocals. Mark Knopfler’s gravelly baritone came through clean and clear with the proper timbre.
Given the human voice rarely sings below about 70 Hz, most vocals will sound fine without a true subwoofer for that last octave. However when you do encounter very deep male vocals, or bass guitar for that matter, even if the note’s fundamental isn’t below the capabilities of the speaker, there are often harmonics that characterize the timbre, or color of the sound that could be missing. In the case of the Airmotiv 3b’s, while the sound was very well balanced, it did lack a little of the richness I’m used to with larger speakers.
Keeping with the vocal theme, I turned to Chanticleer, one of my favorite acapella choirs. Their interpretation of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria on their “Our Heart’s Joy” holiday album, is arguably the reference performance for the piece in the choral music world. Again the Emotiva Airmotiv 3b’s didn’t disappoint. Tonal quality and detail were both very good. Again the richness of Chanticleer’s bass section was somewhat thin, but this was not unexpected given the size of these speakers.
I moved on to some other rooms in the house where I compared some of the same tracks on my reference speakers. Compared to the Energy Take 5 satellites without their sub, the Emotiva Airmotiv 3b’s held their own. I don’t know what exactly the frequency response of the Airmotiv 3b’s is, but the Energy Take 5’s each have a built-in high-pass filter set at 90Hz giving a very smooth drop-off below 100Hz. Both seemed to have similar low-end extension, although the Emotiva’s maybe reached a bit lower.
Above 100Hz however, the Engery’s had a little richer sound than the Airmotiv 3b’s. The mids and highs seemed warmer and softer on the Energy Take 5’s. Imaging wise, both speakers were very similar. The Take 5’s were able to fill the room slightly better with sound. At higher volumes the Airmotiv 3b’s strained slightly to keep up with the Take 5’s. I’m talking about very small differences though, which could be attributed to the smaller power supply, and the wireless connectivity. My Energy’s were driven by a Yamaha RX-A2020 receiver, with direct 12-gauge copper wire connections between the amplifier and the speakers.
Comparing to the Paradigm Titans, the differences were further exaggerated. The Titans have a mid-bass driver nearly twice the size of the Airmotiv 3b’s, and the Titans have a much larger cabinet as well. As such the Paradigm’s were able to do a much better job filling the room with sound, and also filling out the low-end of the frequency range for the music I played.
Turning to the Bluetooth side of things, I played a couple sections of Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland, from Telarc’s Copland: The Music of America CD. I played the same track from four different Bluetooth sources: A Motorola Droid Razr MAXX HD Android (kitkat) smartphone, an Apple iPhone 6, a Nokia Lumia 929 (aka Icon) Windows Phone 8.1, and my previously described PC. I used both MP3 at 192kHz and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) versions of the same track. For each platform I placed the tracks locally on the device. I found, not surprisingly, that not all Bluetooth connections are created equal.
Emotiva advertises that the Airmotiv 3b speakers come with the Apt-x codec for optimized “near CD-quality” (Apt-X’s claim) audio over Bluetooth. Bluetooth was never intended for high fidelity music transmission, and so it has a limited bandwidth. Apt-x is basically a codec that attempts to do a better job than the standard compression for Bluetooth, called SBC (for “sub-band coding”).
If you’re listening to compressed music like MP3 via Bluetooth (and most people are, especially from their phones) then both SBC and Apt-x represent an additional level of compression encoding/decoding being placed in the digital pathway to your ears. That said, the Apt-x codec has become fairly popular and many reviews claim it does offer an improvement. Interestingly the Apple iPhone 6 was the only phone that didn’t offer the Apt-x codec. My PC’s Bluetooth dongle also did not offer it. The Nokia Windows phone and the Motorola Android phone both offered Apt-x though.
In comparing the Copland music across devices, I found almost zero audible differences when listening at moderate levels, regardless of the presence of the Apt-x codec. Granted, there’s no way to tell if the two paired devices are actually *implementing* the Apt-x codec, so I had to put my faith in technology and assume it was working. Surprisingly both the Windows phone and the iPhone had a couple of hiccups when I cranked the volume up.
After the initial booming of the timpani drums in Fanfare for the Common Man, when the orchestra comes in full force, the music from both phones crackled a bit, and the playback seemed to stutter. When doing the same thing with the Motorola, the playback was flawless. This happened regardless of whether I was listening to the FLAC version or the MP3 version of the music track. That said, the FLAC version might have sounded a little better than the MP3 version, although this could have been my own bias as I didn’t attempt to keep anything blind for these tests, I expect the FLAC version to sound better, and the differences were subtle. For the most part, all devices sounded the same, which is to say in line with all my previous comments.
I did not have access to proper test and measurement equipment for this review, but I did perform a couple qualitative tests while using the Airmotiv 3b’s with my PC. Emotiva did not publish any frequency response data, but based on listening to several albums of music with which I’m quite familiar, and compared to other speakers I own which have well documented frequency responses, I was guessing that I was hearing decent response down to about 70 Hz.
To confirm this, I downloaded some test tones from www.audiocheck.net and performed a couple low frequency sweep tests. For both a rising sweep and a descending sweep, anything below about 60 Hz was nearly inaudible while 80Hz and above sounded fairly flat, with the tone really smoothing out above 100Hz. Both sweeps were effectively inaudible below 50Hz. I didn’t bother with high frequency sweep tests, because human hearing is very subjective at higher frequencies so without a calibrated mic and analysis software a high frequency sweep is not very helpful.
THE EMOTIVA AIRMOTIV 3B Compact Bluetooth Speakers are a great buy for mini-bookshelf speakers that you can locate anywhere in the house.
- Great sound in a small package
- In-house portable (requires AC so not for travel)
- Best sound I’ve heard for small Bluetooth speakers
- Super easy setup & operation
- More “lifestyle” friendly colors (e.g. white, gray, off-white, wood) white cords.
- A slightly larger version, to improve bass response or a sub-out jack for attaching a separate subwoofer.
- A USB charging port so one’s phone battery doesn’t die during a long party.
The Emotiva Airmotiv 3b speakers are a great value for what they are: very good, very small Bluetooth speakers. In comparing and evaluating such a pair of speakers, one must keep in mind the limitations of the design, and for what and for whom the speakers are intended to be used. These may not stand up as true stand-alone audiophile speakers, but I have yet to hear a Bluetooth system that will. With its limited bandwidth and low power, Bluetooth was never intended for high-fidelity sound transmission. Software codecs like Apt-X claim to improve music transmission to “near CD quality” for Bluetooth. That claim alone tells you something about the limitations of Bluetooth. That said, within the realm of their intended use, the Emotiva Airmotiv 3b speakers are exceptional. They are super convenient, can be placed almost anywhere in the house, and are easy to use. I thoroughly enjoyed using them throughout my house, and especially as replacements for my aging PC speakers. They could use a little more bass, but otherwise the sound they produce is balanced, smooth, and detailed. Emotiva recently dropped their suggested price for a pair, from $199 USD to $159. Looking at what other comparable options there are on the market, the Airmotiv 3b Compact Bluetooth speakers are well-priced. At this price, I may just decide to keep these speakers in my home.