About a year and a half ago I reviewed a series of in-ceiling speakers for The Perfect Vision (forerunner to the modern day Playback), and one model I covered was the Noble Fidelity L-85, a 2-way in-ceiling speaker with an 8-inch Kevlar mid-bass driver and a coaxially mounted, pivoting 1-inch Teteron dome tweeter (Teteron is a fabric material that’s ideal for use in soft-dome tweeters). I thought the speaker was quite good at the time, and it went on to win a TPV award as “Best General Purpose In-Ceiling Speaker.”
But frankly, I didn’t know the half of it, in that I had not heard what the speaker could do when driven by a set of honest-to-gosh high-end power amps. But now, thanks to a special demo provided at CES 2009 by Noble Fidelity’s Greg Ford, I’ve heard the L-85 at their best, and I must say I’m impressed. The L-85’s sell for $649/pair and look deceptively modest at first glance, but—as always seems to be the case with such devices—the real genius is in the details.
The Test Rig
Basically, Greg Ford needed a way to tour the country and to demonstrate what his L-85’s can do, and so he built a demo platform that’s quite ingenious. He essentially took two halves of a flight case and built into each one a wooden mounting plate for an L-85 speaker, plus a shock-mounted rack for a NuForce Reference 9 SE v.2 monoblock power amplifier. When Greg visits dealer prospects, he flips open the case(s) with the drivers firing upward from the floor (a pretty good approximation of what you’d hear with the drivers firing downward from the ceiling). Audio is fed from a PC driving a USB DAC through a volume control, which in turn drives the NuForce amps. It’s a clever demo rig and one that proves the L-85’s can sound better than any set of affordable in-ceiling speakers has a right to.
The Noble Fidelity L-85 demo rig, complete with NuForce monoblock amps
How Does It Sound?
The simple answer is that a pair of ceiling-mounted (or, in this case floor-mounted) L-85’s sounds very much like a good pair of omni-directional floorstanding speakers. By this I mean that you’ll hear surprisingly deep, wide and spacious soundstages, and a good measure of clarity, but without the “hyper-focused” imaging that forward-firing speakers can sometimes produce. Given that the L-85 are apt to be used in open spaces with multiple seating arrangements (offices, dens, breakfast nooks, and the like), spaciousness may be the order of the day. But one further characters that really shocked me (and I think would shock most listeners) is the L-85’s remarkably smooth tonal balance, replete with voicing that offers rich tonal colors and—no, I am not making this up—REAL bass (the kind of bass that would turn most in-ceiling speakers and a fair number of bookshelf speakers green with envy).
If you’ve previous associated the term “in-ceiling speaker” with annoying compressed, tinny, and generally yucky sound, then let me predict that the L-85’s could potentially turn your head around.
What Makes ‘Em Tick?
I’m not the L-85’s designer, so I can’t say for sure. But, here are some of the finer points I observed during my past TPV review.
- The L-85 mid-bass driver is position very far forward in its frame, rather than being recessed in a deep well (as is the case with many other in-ceiling speakers). As a result, the driver almost sits flush with the mounting surface, and has a smoother, more open sound than recessed drivers do.
- The pivoting tweeter is positioned at the end of a metal stalk, and it’s pivoting mechanism is built like the proverbial “brick outhouse.” The goal was to make sure the tweeter mount never, ever develops rattles, which speakers that use cheap plastic pivoting mechanisms are apt to do.
- High quality parts throughout: everything from capacitors and resistors to printed circuit board and run-out wires is better and beefier than the norm for this class.
- The speaker measures well (38Hz – 21kHZ ± 3dB) but more importantly was subjected to real-world listening tests before its release. Not for nothing is Nobel Fidelity’s slogan “Live with music.”
The Noble Fidelity L-85 up close: note far-forward mid-bass driver placement
The bottom line, I think, is that this is an in-ceiling speaker designed by pragmatic engineers who also are blessed with audiophile sensibilities, which is good thing. For spaces where conventional high performance speaker just won’t do, the L-85’s could be a fine alternative that won’t break the bank (and they’ll sound especially if you power them with amps that can reveal their true performance capabilities).
Noble Fidelity’s Greg Ford hopes dealers and customers enjoy his demos