Product Review - Carver Cinema 5.1 Loudspeakers - March, 1998

By Stacey L. Spears


carver51speakers.jpg (4672 bytes) Front Left/Right
One 1" Silk Dome Tweeter
One 5 1/2" Bass/Mid-range Driver

One 2 1/2" Rear Firing Driver
Rated FR: 60 Hz - 21 kHz
Sensitivity: 88 dB/w/m (4 Ohms)
Size: 12 " H x 7 "W x 9 " D
Weight: 13 1/2 pounds each
One 1" Silk Dome Tweeter
One 5 1/2" Bass/Midrange Driver
Rated FR: 60 Hz - 21 kHz
Sensitivity: 88 dB/w/m (4 Ohms)
Size: 7" H x 17 "W x 7 " D
Weight: 17 pounds each
Rear Surrounds
Two 2 " Drivers as Dipole
One 5 " Midrange Driver
Rated FR: 80 Hz - 16 kHz
Sensitivity: 87 dB/w/m (4 Ohms)
Size: 12" H x 11 "W x 5" D
Weight: 13 pounds
One 10" Long Throw Woofer
Amplifier: 150 Watts
Rated FR: 28 Hz - 150 kHz
X-Over Slope: 12 dB @ 80 Hz
Size: 18" H x 16" W x 18" D
Weight: 49 pounds


Carver Corporation, P.O. Box 137, Woodinville, Washington 98072-0137 USA; Phone 425-482-3400; Fax 425-482-3401; Web

Every time I think about a particular component in my home theater I say to myself, "This is the most important part." I can think of a reason to make each part the most important, but what really makes something the most important? With separates, you can replace an amp here and a CD player there, but what is the biggest investment? Speakers have got to be it, because in a home theater you need 5.1 of them. You really should not just swap the center from one brand to another, but rather, they should all be matched. This could be as simple as upgrading the rear speakers from the small ones you have to the same large ones that you have in the front, or just upgrading to the same manufacturer (having different brands in front than in the rear can work if you are careful, but it is pot luck if you do it randomly).

Carver has expanded their speaker line, which up until now has consisted of their dipole ribbon speakers. This new system has dipolar speakers in the rear, and the result is a full fledged home theater package. Reviewed here is their entry-level Cinema 5.1 setup, which has an MSRP of $1,699.

The Cinema 5.1 components sport a black sock instead of a removable grille, with only the top and bottom of each speaker having wood exposed. The finish is flat black, which works nicely, especially for the center channel. A lot of manufacturers like to have their speakers with a glossy finish, but while it might look nice, the gloss can reflect light from the TV screen back into the TV, producing glare. I often use a piece of Duvateen to cut down on reflections, but this is not necessary with the 5.1's center speaker. The center channel is shielded and can be placed right on top of a direct view TV (the front left/right speakers are also shielded).

The center channel speaker, while being matched to the front left/right speakers, is not identical to them. The front left/right speakers have a small rear firing driver that I will describe later. The center is a mere 7 " tall and 7" deep. It will fit snugly on top of any TV, including the extremely narrow Toshiba TW40F80 that I have. It contains one 5.5" long excursion bass/midrange driver and one 1" silk dome tweeter. There is a single pair of 5-way binding posts on the back. The manufacturer recommends power between 50 and 350 Watts into 4 Ohms. In any home theater system, the center channel is the work horse. The majority of sounds in a movie emanate from there, so having a poorly designed center speaker shows. Conversely, an exceptional center channel really shines. The relatively small size of the Carver 5.1 Center belies its performance, and in fact, it hangs in there with the best of them. My Sony DVD, feeding the Meridian 565, in turn driving the Sunfire Cinema Grand kept the voracious appetite of these speakers rewarded. To be blunt, the Carver center channel does an absolutely beautiful job. The diva scene from "The Fifth Element" was nothing short of phenomenal (this scene is truly a test for the musicality of any system). The midrange of the 5.1 center ranks right up there at the top! The sound was very fluid, and never harsh or fatiguing.

Enough on the center. How about the front left and right? Without them, a three dimensional soundstage would not be possible. The front left and right 5.1s, which must be placed on stands, have the same 5.5" and 1" drivers on the front as the center does, but they also have a rear firing 2.5" driver for ambience. The question that comes up is, are they bipolar or dipolar? Well, actually it is neither. Instead, it is a varying phase design. What I notice happening is that the front drivers give me precise imaging, and the rear driver seems to allow for a wider image. Not sure what I mean? Well, normally a speaker will give you the best image only in the sweet spot, but with the rear driver, it allows that sweet spot to be a little wider and allow more than one person to get equal enjoyment. That is how I perceived it anyway. To test the music and movie sound imaging across the front, I always switch to Trifield mode on my surround processor (it is an excellent surround algorithm). The results showed me that the Carver 5.1s have very good L/C/R (Left/Center/Right) integration.

The L/C/Rs are not really full range loudspeakers, so the Cinema 5.1 includes a powered sub. The sub consists of a 10" driver powered by a 150-watt amp. The use of small speakers brings up an interesting issue in the world of DD and DTS. Carver addresses that issue with bass management, just in case your surround decoder does not. Carver's bass management consists of two parts. One is the usual line-in or speaker-level in, high-pass out that most subs have these days. If your decoder does not have sufficient bass management, you can run the front left and right channels out of your decoder into the sub, then out of the sub into your power amplifiers. If you have a receiver, you would use the speaker level outs into the sub, then out of the sub and directly into your speakers. The crossover is variable from 40 Hz to 150 Hz, and I generally stick to the 80 Hz used by THX. I utilized the bass management in my decoder, but would not hesitate to use the sub's bass management feature if my decoder did not have it. Secondly, the Carver sub has another knob called bass tilt, which controls the power output at different frequencies. The instruction manual says that with the knob fully counter clockwise, the power output is equal across all frequencies. But as you turn it clockwise, it changes the power output at low frequencies relative to the higher ones. I generally kept the knob fully counter clockwise, but this all depends on sub placement and crossover settings. There is also the usual sub level (volume) knob, a phase switch, and a power switch. The sub remains at standby until it senses a signal, then full power kicks in. I was easily able to integrate the Carver sub with the other speakers. Subwoofer placement is EXTREMELY important, and I recommend reading "Big Bass in Small Places - A Question of Fundamentals" by Colin Miller, to help you obtain the best results.

Room Response - Carver Cinema 5.1 Front Left/Right Loudspeaker set to 80 dB at 1 kHz -- (This is not maximum output, but rather just the response in an "average" room with the volume set to 80 dB at 1 kHz.)
1 meter, left channel, grille on 13 feet, left channel, grille on
31.5 Hz 69.9 dB 31.5 Hz 67.8 dB
40 Hz 72.9 dB 40 Hz 68.5 dB
50 Hz 83.5 dB 50 Hz 73.3 dB
63 Hz 81.2 dB 63 Hz 71.5 dB
80 Hz 82.0 dB 80 Hz 77.3 dB
100 Hz 71.1 dB 100 Hz 68.8 dB
125 Hz 74.5 dB 125 Hz 71.2 dB
160 Hz 86.4 dB 160 Hz 75.8 dB
200 Hz 79.3 dB 200 Hz 74.8 dB
500 Hz 80.2 dB 500 Hz 69.0 dB
800 Hz 82.5 dB 800 Hz 70.6 dB
1 kHz 80.6 dB 1 kHz 75.5 dB
2.5 kHz 80.5 dB 2.5 kHz 80.8 dB
5 kHz 77.5 dB 5 kHz 72.1 dB
8 kHz 77.5 dB 8 kHz 74.0 dB
10 kHz 80.6 dB 10 kHz 79.0 dB
12.5 kHz 82.7 dB 12.5 kHz 67.7 dB
15 kHz 81.1 dB 15 kHz 74.0 dB
18 kHz 78.9 dB 18 kHz 77.1 dB


Room Response - Carver Cinema 5.1 Subwoofer -- set to 90 dB at 25 Hz -- (This is not maximum output, but rather just the response in an "average" room with the volume set to 90 dB at 25 Hz.)
1 meter 13 feet
12.5 Hz 68.2 dB 12.5 Hz 64.8 dB
16 Hz 77.6 dB 16 Hz 73.0 dB
20 Hz 84.0 dB 20 Hz 79.2 dB
25 Hz 90.8 dB 25 Hz 87.7 dB
31.5 Hz 96.9 dB 31.5 Hz 87.9 dB
40 Hz 94.6 dB 40 Hz 84.8 dB
50 Hz 94.2 dB 50 Hz 96.2 dB
63 Hz 87.3 dB 63 Hz 93.5 dB
80 Hz 93.5 dB 80 Hz 86.3 dB
100 Hz 96.3 dB 100 Hz 85.0 dB
125 Hz 91.7 dB 125 Hz 67.0 dB
160 Hz 81.5 dB 160 Hz 72.6 dB

The tests show a relatively smooth response, which rolls off at about 63 Hz for the front left/right, and 25 Hz for the subwoofer.

Carver utilizes a dipolar design for their surround speakers. There remains an ongoing debate as to which type of surround speakers are best (monopolar, bipolar, dipolar). I have listened to all of them and could be satisfied with any of the design types. The Carver 5.1 surrounds utilize one 5.5" cone woofer on the front and two 2.5" cone drivers (one on each side in dipolar configuration). Carver recommends 25-250 watts of power into 4 Ohms.

I set up the 5.1s with the front three speakers forming an arc to ensure that the arrival times to my ears would be identical. My surround processor has the capability to handle this, but I like to use as little processing as necessary. I ended up with the sub in the right front corner of my room. I placed the surrounds to the sides of my couch slightly above the height of my head. I felt they needed to be higher, but this was the limit of my stands. The surrounds have clamps on the back to allow them to be mounted to the wall, but I have an open area behind my left surround speaker that kept me from doing that.

Once I was wired and all levels were properly calibrated with my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter, I let the speakers play at a normal volume for about four days before I paid any real attention to them. Once the time had passed, I was anxious to get my groove on. I started with some music from Enya in Ambisonic mode. This is another matrix surround format that is a "must hear". I awed one of my friends who did not realize that music was coming from all around until I switched to two-channel stereo and the room collapsed. "Wow" was all he could say! These speakers are very musical, and a downright steal at $1,699. Like I said above, the midrange is very smooth. Spun up my Sheryl Crow CD to see how they handled some rock, and they really stomped.

Alright, they are great for music, so how about the movies? I started off with "Air Force One". This film really separates the tweeters from the skeeters and the woofers from the hoofers, with thunderous bass and lots of sharp little Foley effects. All are rendered with lucid detail through the 5.1s. Depending on the size of your room, you might want an additional sub to help out with the 20 Hz region. In that case, I would suggest Carver's new Darkstar sub which has two 15"s and 1,200 watts of amplifier (!!!)  I also listened to my usual DTS LDs, which include "Jurassic Park", "The Lost World", and "Casper". The Carver 5.1 bass is not as punchy when compared to the Mirage OM-6s, but then the Mirage setup has 8 woofers pushing air around my room compared to the one sub in the 5.1s. For its size and my room, the 5.1 sub does a fine job.

If you have a larger room, you might look into the 5.2s. While I am not formally reviewing the 5.2s, I did bring a set home. They include the same surround speakers as the 5.1 set, but Carver has taken the front left and right speakers and built stands below them that house a 10" woofer in each stand. So, with the 5.2s, there are two subs instead of the one with the 5.1s, and there is no separate subwoofer enclosure. Instead, they have placed the amplifier for the subwoofers inside the center speaker, making it larger. They have also added a second 5.5" driver to the center speaker. As far as the midrange goes, the 5.2s sound the same as the 5.1s (to me). Bottom end is the big difference between the two systems. The 5.2s will run you about $700 more than the 5.1s.

So, in conclusion, I think the 5.1s are going to be a big seller for Carver. They offer big sound in a small package for a small fee. They should easily be able to handle a small to medium sized room with the single sub. While the suggested retail price is $1,699, I have already seen them at a local retail chain selling for less. If you are currently looking for a full speaker package, I highly recommend giving them a listen.

Stacey L. Spears

Copyright 1998 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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