Klipsch Reference Premiere RP-140SA Atmos Elevation Module Review

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PRICE $499 pr

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Flexibility of stand or speaker-top use
Strongly defined height effects
Horn-loaded tweeter
Minus
Potential timbre-matching issues
Footprint too large for some speakers
Requires flat or nearly flat speaker top

THE VERDICT
If you like your Dolby Atmos and DTS:X height effects well defined, the Klipsch RP-140SA and its horn-loaded tweeter do the ceiling bounce with vivid results.

Progress is great, except when it’s not. By now, you’ve probably read a lot about Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the nextgeneration object-oriented surround standards, and pondered what they mean for your system. But maybe the news that height-enriched surround sound has finally come of age is bittersweet to you. What if you love your existing speakers and don’t want to let go of them? Which matters more: upgrading to the latest and greatest or holding onto the tried and true? You might prefer to stick with your existing 5.1- to 7.1-channel system and tell progress to take a hike.

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Brothers and sisters, we are in the same boat. I love my speakers and want to keep them. Not only do they bring me daily pleasure, but they’ve been a big part of my work as a reviewer. When I evaluate speakers, I am always tacitly comparing their voicing with that of my Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v.4 speakers, which measure fairly flat and sound neutral to my ears. Furthermore, any receiver I review has to credibly power my speakers. The Paradigms have been my reference for nine years, and changing my reference isn’t a matter I take lightly. I won’t do it until I find a worthy successor. And the search has barely begun. It may take years. I’m not sure if it will ever end.

That’s why I’ve been looking for an Atmos-enabled add-on speaker to supplement the Paradigms. For reasons to be explained, the Klipsch Reference Premiere RP-140SA is the best option I’ve heard to date.

Elevation Options
To get the most from Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, you need both a compatible receiver (or separates) and compatible speakers. If you’re adding ceiling speakers for the height channels—usually the best choice in a dedicated home theater—it’s feasible to hold onto your existing speakers, unless you’re worried about timbre matching. (I’m not; more on that later.) I can’t poke holes in the ceiling of my rental apartment, so I’m going for elevation modules, a less invasive solution that uses top-mounted drivers to bounce height effects off the ceiling. It’s the next best thing, and it’s the right thing for the way I live.

In this case (as with most similar speakers now available for purchase), the modules are “Atmos-enabled,” meaning they meet Dolby’s specification for such products and are officially sanctioned and licensed by Dolby for this purpose. Fortunately for consumers, Atmos-enabled elevation modules are known to be effective with DTS:X installations as well, though Dolby (and Klipsch) make no claim of this. Some other manufacturers, however, have begun marketing their modules as compatible with both formats.

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The simplest way to add height drivers to my system would be to replace my floor speakers with new Atmos-enabled speakers that have the upfiring elevation drivers already built in. Having rejected that option because I’m wedded to the Paradigms, I’m going for the add-ons. Two things you need to consider with add-ons: Are the top surfaces of your existing speakers large enough to fit add-ons? (To find out, compare those surfaces with the add-ons’ footprint.) And are your speaker tops flat? (Those B&W 800 Diamond speakers with separate tweeter housings might look and sound gorgeous, but they won’t accommodate an elevation module.)

My Paradigms don’t have flat tops—but their subtly curved tops mesh acceptably with the Klipsches. In the back, the add-on’s feet rest on the speaker. The front feet aren’t quite long enough, so the bottom surface of the add-on sits directly on the curved top surface of the speaker.

To cushion the front of the add-on, I applied a small mound of Silly Putty—using the full contents of one plastic egg for each speaker, flattened to less than a quarter-inch. (You might get the same result with Blu Tack poster putty, which some audiophiles use for mating speakers to stands.) This arrangement tilts up the front end slightly, but because I’m using long-wall placement and I sit fairly close to the front speakers, that might actually be an advantage.

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The RP-140SA is accompanied in Klipsch’s Reference Premiere line by the Atmos-enabled RP-280FA tower ($1,199 each). In fact, the manufacturer’s demo of the tower in Dolby’s New York offices was what convinced me that the RP-140SA might be just the height speaker I need. The way the tower handled height effects offered a ray of hope: If I could add that sound to my existing speakers, might I be able to use them for several more years?

The add-on has a wedge-shaped enclosure whose top baffle tilts forward at a 22-degree angle from the horizontal, fitting Dolby’s specification—which gives a fair amount of leeway but suggests 20 degrees as a typical solution. Klipsch says that the 22-degree angle here counters the 2-degree cant of the base on the company’s Reference Premiere loudspeakers, though it’s quite acceptable for use with other speakers. Like most other Klipsch speakers, it features a titanium dome tweeter deeply recessed into a horn—in this case, a 90 x 90-degree Hybrid Tractrix Horn to control dispersion. The prime virtue of horns, beyond controlling directivity of course, is efficiency: They can play louder with modest AVR power. This improves the overall dynamic potential of your system.

The 4-inch, copper-colored, cerametallic cone woofer utilizes an anodized aluminum diaphragm with a ceramic coating on both sides. It’s a stiff, tough material. Unlike the tower, which comes in a walnut or black wood veneer, the add-on has a black brushed-polymer finish with a pleasant, subtle matte texture and a magnetically attached grille that covers top and front. Plastic-nut binding posts are in a downward-angled recess on the back. The bottom includes a keyhole mount that would allow using the RP-140SA as a downward-angled on-wall surround speaker.

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A Word About Receivers
Starting with this review, I’ve adopted a new acting reference receiver. The Denon AVR-X7200WA has nine amplifier channels, enabling me to run a 5.1.4-channel system without an additional amp. It replaces my Pioneer Elite VSX-53, a seven-channel model I used for running 5.1 (I don’t believe in back-surrounds). My review of the Denon (June 2016) complimented its “powerful, clean, well-tuned amp.” I chose it for its relative neutrality, dynamics, and ability to stream from my media PC via DLNA and Wi-Fi.

A few last words about the Pioneer: I’m replacing it only because it doesn’t have the nine amp channels and surround processing needed for Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. The Pioneer has served me well in speaker reviews and as my everyday amp. It is among the last of the Mohicans as Pioneer switches more of their line from Class AB amplification to D3, their version of Class D. The VSX-53 has been a stable reference and a fine performer, second only to the Rotel RSX-1065 and RSX-1067 it replaced. The Rotels, with their massive front-mounted heat fins, were unlike any other receivers I’ve ever used. I miss them, too.

Saying goodbye to the Pioneer was nearly as hard as saying goodbye to the Rotels. The Pioneer’s feet stuck stubbornly to my rack’s reference-receiver berth. Oh babe, I thought, I know how you feel. I packed it into a dusty carton that had grown whiskers atop a bookshelf, unearthed the manual from a filing cabinet, pilfered the AM radio antenna for my kitchen system, and sent the receiver home to meet an uncertain fate.

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For this review, the four Klipsch height speakers and the Denon receiver joined my full suite of five Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v.4 speakers, along with my Paradigm Seismic 110 sub. The floor and height speakers were balanced to the same level via SPL meter. With some other speakers, I’ve boosted the height-channel levels, but it wasn’t necessary for these to achieve the desired effects. The receiver’s Audyssey room correction was shut off. (I never use it for speaker reviews—one variable too many.) Signal sources included the Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player, Lenovo Windows 7 laptop, Moon Neo 230HAD serving as USB DAC, Micro Seiki BL-21 turntable, Shure V15VxMR/N97XE cartridge, and Denon PRA-S10 preamp serving as phono preamp. Movie demos were on Blu-ray Disc with Dolby Atmos (via TrueHD) soundtracks.

I Like My Height Bright
Unlike ceiling-mounted height speakers, which beam sound directly toward the listening position, Atmos-enabled speakers and elevation modules bounce sound off the ceiling. This indirect means of reaching the listener requires directivity control over as wide a bandwidth as possible to convincingly enable the ceiling bounce effect. Not all frequencies are going to remain intact on the round trip to the ceiling and back; that’s why I’m not as concerned about conventional timbre matching between the height section of Atmos-enabled speakers and other speakers in the system. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, just that so far it doesn’t seem to be as critical. Most likely it’s what I’d call the net timbre (the timbre after taking the ceiling’s modification of the speaker’s response into account) that we perceive and should be matched. In fact, at least in my high-ceilinged room, I prefer a brighter sound in the height channels to help bring the effects into greater relief. The RP-140SA fit my needs perfectly. I didn’t have to put an ear to each one to make sure it was operating; even low-level height effects were fairly discernible. Because the height channels have a 180-hertz lowfrequency cutoff when Atmos-enabled speakers or modules are selected during setup, limited bass from the 4-inch woofers wasn’t an issue.

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The Age of Adaline isn’t an action-packed thriller with ballistics and car demolitions. Instead, this low-key drama tells the story of a woman who unwittingly acquires immortality and then has to live with it. However, the movie’s insistent use of height effects made it a good, if subtle, demo for the Klipsches. From the opening notes of the orchestral score—a drawn-out drone that sets the mood—the add-ons palpably filled the top part of the 360-degree surround bubble. The car crash (not really a spoiler; it occurs early) was accompanied by height effects, though they were secondary to activity in the surrounds and sub. Surround 5.1.4 is, after all, a team effort among all the channels. Incidental background music also got height enrichment, including a tinkling piano in a party scene and music accompanying an intimate dinner at home. What was interesting about these two snatches of background music was that they were present only in the rear height channels. I wondered if the mixer had been trying to avoid creating distractions in the front. I was glad that the Klipsches made me aware of those two music effects; I was also glad they didn’t overdo it.

In the Heart of the Sea stars Chris Hemsworth as the first mate of a whaling ship in 1820; the epic disasters that he endures would eventually inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Compared with The Age of Adaline, this movie has a soundtrack with more dramatic highdecibel moments, but its use of Atmos is more sparing. The mixer saved it for moments when the protagonist is literally immersed, either in a squall or underwater. I appreciated the Klipsches’ explicit voicing—otherwise, I might have missed these effects. The most poignant use of height was for the aquatic moans of the whale.

The Dolby Atmos Blu-ray Demo Disc of 2015 gave the Klipsches many chances to shine, especially in the audio-only clips. The add-ons combined with the floor speakers and sub to convey the enormity of a 747 passing overhead and the mechanical titillation of a helicopter circling around the upper soundfield. But the intricacies of a Santeria ceremony hinted at a more fulfilling use of the medium, with the Klipsches complementing the musical adeptness of the Paradigms and the Denon to conjure hoots, calls, shaker, bongo, and chimes. It was spooky to be surrounded by all that, especially with some of it overhead. Movie clips could be as gentle as the rain that accompanies the fighting in John Wick or as forceful as the electromagnetic levitating-car scene in Transformers: Age of Extinction, a whiz-bang effects-laden sequence that remains one of the most amusing early moments of the Age of Atmos.

Setting the Expansion Modes to Music
The Dolby Atmos package includes Dolby Surround, a listening mode that converts stereo, 5.1, and 7.1 content to 5.1.4 and other height-enhanced configurations. The DTS equivalent is DTS Neural:X. Although I didn’t use DTS:X in the movie demos, I did compare Neural:X with Dolby Surround in the music demos.

The Venetian Concertos, by David Chesky, was recorded by the Orchestra of the 21st Century. The FLAC 48/24 files came courtesy of HDtracks. The music playfully combines the arpeggiated energy of the Italian Baroque with contemporary urban and Latin styles. Chesky (the label) embeds rich lodes of ambience into their recordings, and this one was never less than fulfilling in its original two channels; I was reluctant to tamper with it. But the derived-height-enhanced modes did help fill the full height, width, and depth of the room with the string-dominated score, converting the existing reverb into something approaching a wraparound concert-hall feel. (A live orchestra always sounds more like surround than stereo.) I’m referring not just to height channels, but to the whole soundfield, since the derived-height modes also extend a two-channel signal to the surround and center channels. What broke the spell was the solo flute that floats above the strings. Dolby Surround dispersed it to every channel, sounding obviously artificial. But DTS Neural:X kept it front and center, where it belonged—slightly diffused, but not fatally.

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For Pink Floyd’s The Endless River, I played the Blu-ray Disc’s uncompressed PCM 96/24 soundtrack in 5.1. The mostly instrumental album uses keyboard parts recorded by the late Richard Wright during sessions for The Division Bell, with later guitar and drum overdubs by David Gilmour and Nick Mason. Gilmour’s guitar solos, like splashes of trebly color on a canvas of amorphous keyboard texture, got a little extra air and space in the two height-enhanced listening modes. I preferred the overall texture of DTS Neural:X, as it was a little less bright than Dolby Surround (and parts of the album tend toward brightness already). But I wasn’t entirely comfortable with either listening mode, especially on the album’s final cut, “Louder Than Words,” the only track with lyrics. The unadorned 5.1 soundtrack was cleaner, more coherent, and more appropriate for the song than either of the enhanced presentations.

Nick Drake’s Pink Moon (LP) is starkly recorded voice and acoustic guitar, with a rudimentary piano solo on the title track. I wondered whether the Klipsch’s bright voicing would mar the familiar timbres of this well-loved album. It didn’t: Dolby Surround and DTS Neural:X didn’t send enough information to the height channels to interfere. But they did push the voice into the center speaker. The guitar, recorded with a wider stereo spread, appeared in all three front channels. None of this revisionism interfered with my enjoyment of the album, as heard through my system of five identical floor speakers.

When I moved on to the fuller arrangements of Drake’s Five Leaves Left, instruments mixed to hard left or hard right—like Richard Thompson’s electric guitar in “Time Has Told Me”—took up their usual positions, with Drake’s vocal and acoustic guitar still sticking to the middle. The height modes picked up certain treble-rich elements, such as Harry Robinson’s string arrangement for “River Man”; the modes lofted the serpentine orchestral lines up into the Klipsches, which offered a little more air. Overall, the modes were aesthetically neutral on this album: They didn’t make it better or worse, just different.

The Klipsch Reference Premiere RP-140SA is an elevation module that served the height-channel effects in my system quite well. Their horn-loaded tweeters provide both power efficiency and controlled directivity, which may help the perception of high-frequency sound coming from above. I can’t say with certainty how they’ll mate up with other speakers of a different sonic signature than my Paradigms, but if you love your existing speakers and want your height effects to be as explicit and discernible as possible, these Klipsches may be the ticket. For me, they’re just what the doctor ordered.

Specs
4 in cerametallic cone woofer, 1 in titanium dome horn-loaded tweeter, 6 x 7 x 11.25 in (WxHxD), 7.6 lb
Price: $499 pr

(soundandvision.com, https://goo.gl/A5G9sS)

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