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TechnologyTell Review: ARCHT One Wireless Audio System

Sections: Audio, Multiroom audio, Reviews, Speakers, Stereo, Streaming, Surround sound

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The ARCHT One speaker was a huge hit on Kickstarter, and they drew more attention at CES 2015 earlier this year. Units are shipping out to eager campaign backers, and the company has made this speaker openly available to order. Curious about this unique tower of sound and if it’s the right fit for you? Read on!

Design & Connectivity

Not much comes in the box with the ARCHT One wireless audio system. It’s just the speaker, a cloth bag, a power cable, and a booklet. There’s no included audio cable, so you’ll have to dig up one of your own if you’re interesting in connecting through that.

The ARCHT One looks like munition that could be dropped from an aircraft, stylized with a saucer up toward the top. Despite having lightweight plastic for an exterior, the ARCHT One has some heft to it. You can certainly feel the heavy speaker goodness on the inside. The tip of the speaker houses the full-range driver that fires down toward the touch-capacitive disc. And then the subwoofer is right underneath, firing up toward the bottom of that same disc. Rounding it all out is the passive bass radiator at the very bottom of the speaker, also firing down. The sizes for each of these parts are pretty respectable.

ARCHT One speaker pedastool

The shape is kind of nice, though the finish too shiny for my tastes.

Now that I’ve had the chance to sit and stare at the ARCHT One, I’m rather disappointed in the choice of glossy plastic for the body. This is a $600 speaker that looks half its worth all because of the way gloss successfully cheapens appearances. Don’t get me wrong – I completely understand that the bulk of the purchase cost goes toward the hardware and electronics.

But I think it’s a fair poke to the ribs, considering how the company touts the ARCHT One as “a premium audio system that revolutionizes how sound is seen and heard.” That’s quoted directly from the home page on their website. And it’s not like I’m demanding wood, leather, and brushed aluminum, although those are some pretty fine (premium) materials to use for potential future models (hint hint). But a satin finish would have gone further for appearances.

But points are given to ARCHT Audio for choosing thick, rubber feet to elevate the speaker provide it a stable base. You’ll have to deliver a serious elbow to the ARCHT One in order to topple it over. Keep it out of reach from kids; mine are curious and want to stick their fingers in the openings to touch the “guts”, which is just one ‘oops’ away from tipping a speaker over

Although the ARCHT One appears symmetrical, there is indeed a ‘front’ and ‘rear’. The ports and buttons are at the rear, as is the input select marking on the touch disc. LED indicators showing the current input are in front, at the bottom. The play/pause marking on the touch disc also faces front. If you’ve used practically any modern audio or mobile device, all of these buttons and ports should be self-explanatory. The rear buttons activate WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity (only when currently selected), and the ports are for input power (cable), USB to charge out (also audio for iOS devices), and auxiliary for a cabled audio connection. That’s four – FOUR! – ways to connect and play audio, which is very cool and useful.

ARCHT One speaker ports

Bottom rear packs buttons, ports.

I’m on the fence about how the touch-sensitive disc manages volume, track, and input control. I like the actual disc and the way it works to flow audio out. But it’s the touch-sensitive bit that loses me. You have to press each marking dead on to activate that ‘button’ (and doing it correctly also rewards with a beep). This is fantastic when there is ample light. Not so much in the dark or low-light conditions. And there’s nothing you can feel for either, no markings, and definitely nothing for blind people.

If the ARCHT One happens to lose power (e.g. accidentally unplugged, power outage, etc), you need to wait almost a minute for the touch controls to be responsive.  Not a big deal for anyone connecting to this speaker via WiFi. It’s unclear if the whole speaker needs to initialize, or just the touch-sensitive disc. Either way, you’ll have to wait for Bluetooth or auxiliary connectivity, especially since the ARCHT One doesn’t remember the last setting used.

As for reach, the Bluetooth wireless can go 11 meters when there are no obstructions. Inside the home with rooms, obstacles, and moving bodies, the effective range is reduced, naturally. But the important takeaway is that the Bluetooth is strong and meets expectations. It’s commonplace to find speakers claiming a 10-meter range when in reality they can’t flex further than 3. So long as someone isn’t passing between the speaker and my device, the Bluetooth signal maintains with no spits or lag. And zero disconnects throughout weeks of daily play.

Audio Quality

ARCHT Audio has a nifty app for iOS devices and AirPlay. Unfortunately, since I only have Android devices, I wasn’t able to check out any benefits or functionality of that. Word is that an Android companion app is in the works and should be available at some future point (mid-June 2015). There isn’t much for description of the ARCHT One app on iTunes, but the Archt Audio website mentions that the app “gives smartphone users the power to optimize ARCHT One’s sound based on the space in which it is being used.” Based on my experience, I would have loved the app’s help in tweaking the audio output for best results.

Setting an appropriate volume level with respect to space is key to having the best audio performance from the ARCHT One. As the volume goes up, you’ll want to be further away from the speaker itself. Stay too close with it playing too loud, and you might start to wonder why the music sounds crappy. It’s best to sit outside of the expanded bubble so everything flows as beautifully as it should.

ARCHT One speaker sound array top

A peek inside the top sound array.

The other reason to mind the volume is so distortion and unwanted effects can be kept at bay. With the ARCHT One’s volume maxed out, my smartphone needs only reach between 45 and 70 percent (depends on genre and track recording quality) before the highs and mids start to suffer.

The lows stay solid and consistent through increased volume, but it’s hard to focus on that when the rest sounds bad. Positioning and room size is equally important, since the ARCHT One’s dispersion pattern means it will interact and reflect off of everything around it. Excess volume provides more energy for those reflections to add time-delayed sound to the original music source. And that’s where distortion comes in.

The highs roll off the quickest and develop a blurring, halo effect. It doesn’t take that much excess volume to have cymbals turn brittle and sound like they’ve embarked on the S.S. Tinny, making it halfway to ‘sizzle island.’ The mids take a dip in overall clarity, also blurring and sounding a bit muddy. This is primarily heard through vocals and guitars. Vocals turn coarse and slightly veiled. Depth between instruments shrinks, which flattens the stage. And all of this is exacerbated as musical complexity increases. The Mr. Moonshine song, “Zelda”, sounds like an absolute mess during the chorus – and it’s shouldn’t – when the ARCHT One doesn’t have an optimal set up.

So be sure to watch that volume level and be mindful of speaker placement! It can be hard for those who like to crank it up, since the ARCHT One doesn’t seem to get as loud as other speakers in the same price range. This is especially so if you want to be able to hear music from the other side of the room. But overdoing the volume level merely amplifies reflections and time-delayed sound, especially in smaller spaces.

ARCHT One speaker sound array bottom

That bass radiator does serious work!

If the music still doesn’t sound as best as it should, try pulling the ARCHT One away from walls/objects into a more central area or a larger room. Along with taming the volume, doing so will minimize reflecting power and create a longer time delay, so the brain can identify the original sound from echoes. Or you can push the ARCHT One right up against a wall, shortening that time delay to practically eliminate distortion and blurring.

Also, be sure that the ARCHT One is set on solid surfaces without any loose items sharing that same surface. That passive bass radiator is powerful enough – yes, even at moderate volume levels – to vibrate other objects. Junk jumping on surfaces does nothing but add noise to the music. Yeah. I know. All of this all sounds like a pain in the rear to do, but once placement and volume has been nailed down you can kick back and take it all in. And it doesn’t matter how far or what angle you are from the ARCHT One, it maintains consistent tone and character to everything you hear (mostly).

I’m totally stuck on “Story Teller” from Armik’s album, Casa De Amor. The ARCHT One speaker exhibits extraordinary quickness and dynamic accuracy; it’s as if the team had this song in mind during the development process. Armik’s nimble fingers fly across strings, changing swiftly in both tempo and volume. Whether notes come loud, soft, hurried, leisurely, or any combination of those, the ARCHT One delivers with seemingly breathless ease. You can hear the difference between each. Tight attack and decay help maintain cleaner edges of sound.

The energy and instrumental tone makes the music palpable. If I turn my head away while listening, it’s not hard for me to imagine live instruments playing only a couple meters away.  You’ll get a lot more out of this with acoustic and/or simpler tracks, where it’s easier to focus on a particular element. Although music comes out clear with an appreciable amount of detail and texture, the ARCHT One makes instruments, vocals, and the entire stage more open and a little bigger than life. It’s a small distortion to image size, likely a byproduct of the omnidirectional design; for all intents and purposes, the ARCHT One is basically a pumped-up mono speaker.

And that’s the thing about a 360 degree spread of sound; the ARCHT One’s biggest strength is also its sacrifice. There is no ‘left’ and ‘right’ on the soundstage, leaving only a minimal sense of stage depth for vocals and instruments. Some details end up lost within songs because there is no ‘imaging’ to locate them separately from everything else. But what the ARCHT One lacks in spatial imaging and precision is made up by delivery – every spot is the sweet spot for listening. It doesn’t matter where you stand in relation to the speaker, you’re always going to hear the same, proper balance of sound. Put the ARCHT One in a central area, and everyone gets to enjoy equally.

ARCHT One speaker floor

Crude location, but sometimes simpler is better.

Highs come out sweet and lush with fantastic tone. I’ll refer to the beforementioned “Story Teller” by Armik. Stringed instruments emanating from the ARCHT One completely draw me in. I can hear the ‘pluck’ and ‘ring’ of notes, which makes for a very realistic soundscape to the ears. Again, this speaker is able to handle varying speed and delicate touch of the mandolin and hammered dulcimer by Butch Baldassari & David Schnaufer.

Vocals, especially female, are equally clear and rich. The ARCHT One practically disappears as you listen. Pay attention, though, so that sharp intakes of breaths and lingering lyrics aren’t mistaken for sibilant speech. Ingrid Michaelson sounds absolutely angelic, almost ethereal as her voice carries across the room. You can hear the hi-def realism at the two-minute mark of the song, “Lady in Spain”, when she buzzes her tune through pursed lips. That flesh and bone purity is delightful.

I like the ARCHT One’s mids, but I don’t love them. If I’m just passively listening to music, it all truly does sound great. Vocals are chesty and soaring, saxophones carry a burnished tone, and guitars are the powerful backbone of any good song. But if I’m focused on the music, where I just want to close my eyes, sit, and enjoy (and oftentimes sing), some things just don’t sit right with my ears (and/or gut), or they feel absent entirely. And I don’t feel the same energy from the mids as I do the highs and lows.

Dethklok. I think the problem with this and other metal music I listen to is that the complexity exceeds what the ARCHT One is capable of resolving with proper distinction. There is a lot going on when you’ve got heavy drumming and dual lead guitars wailing underneath guttural vocals. Such a song begs better imaging, which the ARCHT One can’t deliver due to it’s omnidirectional design. It sounds a bit on the messy side when the stage is packed with active and intensely-playing instruments.

ARCHT One speaker dresser

Not bad (except for glossy reflection)

Music lighter in the mids, such as Journey, fares much better than hard rock or metal. But then there is an entirely different anomaly that pops up – an unevenness in midrange delivery. It’s very subtle, and it took me awhile to figure out why one of my favorite bands sounded just slightly off.

The ARCHT One has these small peaks and dips that I can hear when voices hold, then rise/fall through octaves. There’s this flutter of intensity, almost like someone is surreptitiously fiddling up and down on a connected amplifier (or something) to disturb the smoothness. It can take the right song to really pick up on it, but then it’s always there regardless. And, again, I believe that this is due to the speaker’s design and not a fault of hardware.

The ARCHT One has some good lows that should make most all people smile. The passive bass radiator does an exceptional job at pushing that sub-bass feel, but without overdoing it. It’s got a nice, tight thump. Solid yet gentle vibrations travel through the surface the ARCHT One sits on (if you happen to be that close). Crank the volume up and that vibration feeling you get in the chest can still be felt at a distance. “Zodiaccupuncture” by Aesop Rock showcases this effect quite well.

Overall, the ARCHT One’s lows sound good without overwhelming the highs and mids. Mostly. I’m certain it’s song-dependent, but here and there the lows steal some of the spotlight. Aside from that, the size and weight of drums and bass are appropriate, and each exhibit excellent tone. Despite the lack of imaging, this speaker delivers enough tonal detail to identify separate drum kits playing simultaneously. If you have music that features big lows, such as A Tribe Called Red, the hits sound good and fun. However, they can also feel slightly unrefined, depending on how heavy the music is.

Verdict

Overall, the ARCHT One wireless audio system is a fantastic speaker with some great strengths. The ARCHT One excels with its tone and dynamics. It’s also small enough to move around easily, yet delivers a volume level larger than one would expect. The multiple options for connectivity are useful across all OS types. And under ideal circumstances, the audio output is clear, open, and vibrant no matter where the listener stands with respect to the speaker.

But there is a catch, which is inherent in the speaker’s omnidirectional design. Best results require a balance of location and volume level, which changes depending on room shape. Excess volume and/or poor positioning ends up delivering a blurry mess of music as the sound reflects off of walls. If audio quality is most important, you might find yourself putting the ARCHT One up against a wall (my preferred option). But then it’s not so much different than many other standard speakers, except that some of those others are more likely to maintain sharper edges of sound at greater volume ranges.

Placing the ARCHT One in a more central location definitely plays up to its strengths, making each spot in a room the ‘sweet spot.’ But then that leads to the conundrum of what to put the speaker on top of, and how to mitigate the power cord from being in the way (an internal battery would have been an easy solution for this). Most rooms keep the center clear for foot traffic, not shiny plastic monoliths. And then you have to make sure that said surface isn’t going to generate vibration noises from the speaker’s powerful subwoofer and bass radiator.

The ARCHT One speaker won’t be for everyone, as its strengths are also its weaknesses. But it will, however, be the best and most versatile option for those with ideal spaces. Home theater, sound bar, and bookshelf speakers may deliver audiophile quality experiences, but guess what? They’re pretty much set in fixed positions. The ARCHT One brings that audio wherever your two hands can put it. And if you want to up your ARCHT One experience, simply pair a second unit for stereo sound. The price is fair and competitive for the range – you Kickstarter backers got a super fantastic deal, especially those who pledged for more than one!

 

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