Sound is an unappreciated cornerstone for many who buy a large TV for home cinema. This is often overlooked in reverence of the screen or in settling for a cheap soundbar, versus a traditional surround system that is too expensive or conventional barrier to the home theater experience. Throughout my dive into speaker reviews, I found that audio could convey more than an image can alone—an aspect that can make or break the experience once you become aware of it.
When something like the Expanse Speakers come along, there has to be something unique to lure people away from their average setup. Spearheaded by Australian company IC One Two and an Indiegogo campaign, in an attempt to fill the void in performance and aesthetics. However, can this futuristic design make you rethink the need for a regular soundbar?
As usual, we begin with the looks and our tester referred to as “The Beat” is stunning to behold. These are electrostatic speakers that incorporate a thin diaphragm placed between a conductive grid to generate an audible signal. They occupy a profile less than 0.6-inches and meant to face upright with included stand, while the body itself incorporates nothing but a frame and grille made of notched openings and transparent plastic window held in by fasteners. One immediate example would be MartinLogan and their variety of electrostatic speakers, a luxury all their own costing at least $2,499 for the cheapest ones. If you look at scale of economy with its 250Hz-20,000Hz and 98Db these are quite the bargain.
The Beat come paired with a 100W amplifier needed to connect the necessary components while offering line-in, FM radio, and Bluetooth for wireless device functionality. Much of the basic functions are controllable by the credit card remote, which has on/off (I/O), volume, playback, and quick EQ for minor audio adjustments.
“The Slam” is a dual channel/40w subwoofer that completes the system in basic form. The look will throw people off considering it doesn’t match what is expected of typical and/or compact low-effect bass components, but the 33Hz-350Hz response, 92Db pressure level, and rectangular dimensions are minimalistic to match the rest of the package.
Bases and Wires
You will probably love the Expanse Speakers at first glance but the hookup process could dampen the appeal for non-enthusiasts. It’s an unusual mix of what appears to be bulky PCI connectors re-purposed as direct links between the speaker modules to the amplifier, a coaxial link from the Slam subwoofer to amplifier, and some phono (RCA) inputs intended to bridge through a TOSLINK-equipped analog converter. Every essential piece comes with their own large unlabeled power brick or proprietary cable, and a bunch of stray cables running around as a result.
The above description doesn’t describe the tedium when you actually hook stuff up. The array of non-standard and miscellaneous cables is a bit of a mess and betray the draw of the Expanse’s airy and transparent-looking ensemble, which is less intuitive than most people would want to put up with. Red and white RCA cables can be hooked up to a television directly or the analog converter can be used as a bridge for digital sources like game consoles or computers, and feels like a convoluted add-on (why didn’t they just put all the inputs on the amplifier?). As an indie-developed product I can excuse some of the clutter, but parts of this setup feel like afterthoughts that could have been further streamlined.
Movies First, Music Afterward
The aforementioned setup is one of the few glaring criticisms I have of the Expanse Speakers, since the performance outweighs the faults. For movies in particular, the electrostatic technology does a good job of encompassing the action in a deliberate feel akin to virtualized surround. Those are traits uninitiated listeners will call astounding, and where the quality makes up the sum of its parts. Certainly over similar 2.1-channel arrangements and a few soundbars below $500.
From the airport battle in Captain America: Civil War and every explosion heard in Transformers: Age of Extinction, the Beat handled frequency and range with surprising brevity to an almost widespread scale. The general effect is cinematic and deceptively envelopes your ears the louder you turn up the volume, without noticeable distortion and associated hassle of investing in a multichannel build. The Slam subwoofer is on the other hand is more comfortable in small rooms, but will thump its heart out for medium-sized home theaters.
For music though, quality is a lesser priority but plenty good for everyday listening. You won’t get the various subtleties of studio recordings and vocal cadences in more personal albums like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, instead favoring contemporary genres from the Beastie Boys and The smashing Pumpkins. Simply put, you are not going to get reference-grade sound but acoustic separation for instrumentals come in straight and forward for clarity. At least Bluetooth pairing is there for wireless convenience.
Verdict: Cool but Scrappy
After messing around with the Expanse Speakers (Beat & Slam) I will admit being skeptical of its crowdfunded origins, but this ensemble is a genuinely unique alternative. Soundbars have edged up in price over the years and not as cheap as they used to be; so it’s reasonable that the Expanse Speakers may have the upper hand on versatility, style, and higher than equivalent audio quality.
Unfortunately, hooking everything up is cumbersome thanks to sloppy connectivity through cables and adapters. Another caveat is the Slam subwoofer which is appropriately compact but not exactly suitable for living room duty, probably to keep cost and flexibility within a fair budget. You really have go out of your way for the exotic factor here because some idea were left behind on the drawing board.
Nevertheless, the Expanse Speakers are viable and aimed right in the crosshairs of Bose and Vizio who dominate the sub-thousand dollar arena. It is still a work-in-progress but the potential could be worth it, especially if you’re more intrigued by the larger floorstanding “Kick” home theater speakers like I am.