Last fall, sort of on a lark, I decided to attend the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival with one of my long-time audio buddies. We figured we’d spend that Saturday drooling copiously to the gorgeous intonations of all the ultra-high-end audio systems on display—and boy, did we ever! There were sublime experiences to be had throughout the three or four hotel floors devoted to the festival. One speaker vendor’s latest offering was an impressive tower bedecked with at least a dozen alien-looking tweeters up and down its entire length. In another room, a pair of powerful, heavy loudspeakers huddled like organic things, screaming melodically at their captive audience of a dozen or so audiophiles. In another, larger room, my bowels nearly loosened during a demonstration of a pair of nearly ceiling-high speakers throbbing to the rich notes of Louis Armstrong on vinyl.

It was a fun, ridiculous day, during which we—for once—just ignored price tags and soaked in the high-end potential of carefully engineered speaker hardware to deliver unspeakably rich audio presentations. At home, my buddy and I have both devoted quite a bit of cash to our audio setups over the years. He’s more of a traditionalist, with his great, vintage Carver amplifiers and a couple of top-end Polks from the early 1990s, whereas I’ve more heartily embraced surround sound over the past decade, first trying out a Klipsch setup before ending up with my favorite home-theater speaker setup so far—a Denon 5800 A/V receiver married to the Atlantic Technology 350 series.

These systems have served us well. So, it was with a sense of amused detachment that we entered the festival and beheld all the dream setups. Many of these systems could only be described as preposterous. Some of the price tags would match those of sports cars or even small homes. We developed a little routine: Walk into a room, bask in the demo of a certain setup—muscular amps, elite CD players, and hulking speakers, all connected by absurdly thick, ropy cabling—and finally glance at the price sheet with a kind of glazed amazement. Several rooms were devoted to turntables that seemed as if they were trying to outdo one another in there sheer bizarreness—and, again, in the outrageousness of their price tags.

By the end of the day, our ears were nearly exhausted, our brains filled with the echoes of music samples. We agreed that we had seen everything there was to see. It was time to go home and savor the memories of perfect, ludicrous sound.

But we were drawn into one more room by the simple attraction of a comfy couch and a nice, low-key presentation. In this modest room, tucked away at the end of a corridor, we got our first taste of the most impressive speaker setup of the show. To our absolute amazement, it was also the cheapest speaker at the show. It was the Era Design 5.

The Era Design 5
I know what you’re thinking. It’s folly, you might say, to even begin to equate a relatively inexpensive bookshelf speaker with, say, that monstrous $50,000 behemoth downstairs that made Louis Armstrong sound alive and well and right beside us, singing lovingly just for the benefit of our ears. And I’ll admit that knowing the pricing structure of the Era Design 5 system influenced my judgment. How could it not? I’d spent the day in dreamland, listening to speakers that I knew I would never own or even think about owning. My day at the festival was supposed to be only a lark, a way to fantasize and, at most, check out where we were in the evolution of speaker technology. I never would have imagined that the show would feature a system that not only incorporated top-tier engineering and craftsmanship but also fit in my budget.

My buddy and I walked into the room, sat down on the lone sofa, which faced a large plasma TV, diminutive left and right speakers, a center channel, and—off to the right, nearly hidden away in a corner—a compact yet dense Sub 8 subwoofer. A small group had gathered, and shortly we were introduced to Signal Path International representatives David Solomon and John Spainhour, who led a low-key but supremely confident demonstration of the system. Needless to say, we were wowed.

The most memorable aspect of the presentation was when they finished up a gorgeous music demonstration—rich vocals, deep bass, a pleasing sense of envelopment—and plopped in a DVD of House of Flying Daggers to show off the home-theater potential of the Era system. The demo scene began quietly and grew gradually in intensity, until the room was thrumming with punchy, chest-thumping bass and crisp, accurate highs—not to mention a gigantic soundstage that completely belied the speaker system's stature. I found myself nodding and smiling at the effect. This was indeed an impressive audio experience. And then came the punch line: At the end of the demo, David looked out at his captive audience, with a certain amount of pride, and told us that everything we'd just heard issued from only the mains—no subwoofer, no center, no surrounds. The Era speakers had delivered a perfectly astounding, immersive sound field with only its right and left speakers.

It was at that moment that I knew I had to introduce these speakers to the Connected Home Media audience.

Setting 'Em Up in the Connected Home
The Era package is the ideal fit for the tech enthusiast who has a sharp ear for sound quality but couldn't imagine forking over the kinds of massive loads of cash that every other system at the audio festival was demanding. You're the type of consumer who wants to reach beyond the audio mediocrity of the Best Buy show room and bring something special to your living room or home theater, but at the same time, you don't want to break the bank.

After the show, I contacted David Solomon, and I requested that he send out a Design 5 test system for review. Solomon was most gracious, asking which color I'd prefer (the system is available in piano-gloss black, rosewood, cherry, and sycamore) before happily arranging the details. Even over the phone, I detected a note of modest, low-key pride in his company's creation, and I looked forward to the experience of listening to the system in my home's test environment. Because that's the real test, isn't it?

Actually handling the speakers for the first time, I had an instant appreciation for their build quality and finish. I had requested the rosewood finish, and even so, I was unprepared for the simple elegance of these beauties. They're dense and compact, confident in their build quality, and yet they're also sleek and smooth and curvaceous. This is a low-profile speaker system that nevertheless impresses with its beauty—all rounded corners and polished veneer.

The system that arrived included two D5 Satellites for the mains, a D5 LCR center channel, a Sub 8 subwoofer, and two D4 Satellites for the surrounds. All, of course, are timber-matched to ensure a balanced soundstage. I spent an afternoon setting up the system and arranging the speakers around my listening area just so: I positioned the front speakers at about ear level, and to suit the requirements of the room, I mounted the rear speakers at ceiling level, using the included brackets. Using my sound meter, I set the speakers to equal levels. I then began the process of breaking in the speakers, which Solomon recommended before beginning my tests. Let's just say that the speakers went through a lot of Bob Dylan, my current obsession.

One note before we go on: At the show and during the acquisition process, David noted that the Era speakers require a hefty power source to put out the kind of sound they do. As the company Web site says, "When a speaker with 'real' bass response is designed in such a small box, it requires more power than a typical speaker its size. So we suggest an amp or receiver with a good power supply with at least 75 watts or more per channel." My Denon 5800, at 170 watts per channel, more than fit the bill, but if you bring these babies into your home, you'll generally want to watch for receivers above the $800 range.

Listening to Music
One rainy Saturday morning, I began my testing in earnest. I decided to start with only the left and right mains activated. I wanted to begin with some rich vocals, so I plopped in my SACD of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me. At first, her voice flowed from the speakers sounding a bit hollow, lacking midrange. I remembered David's advice at the show to set the speakers to Large in my A/V settings, so after doing that and fiddling with the tone controls in the Denon, the sound started gaining power. I let the speakers warm up through the length of the CD, and I marveled at the resonance of the vocals—deep, with an almost fluid richness. I pumped up the bass, testing the limits of the diminutive speakers' bass extension, and discovered no breakup point. At one point, my wife wandered in from the other side of the house, bug-eyed. But once she was in the room, all she could say was, "Wow." The testing was going well so far, and I was getting that same excited feeling in my gut that I'd felt at the show.

I played a couple more selections on regular CD—Green Day's American Idiot and Beck's Sea Change. The Beck CD played beautifully, his deep-timbered vocals coming through splendidly. You might expect that a speaker of such small stature to be slight on bass, but the tight build quality and exceptional driver design of the Era speakers permits outstanding bass response, setting the package apart from competitors in the same market. (This is also the aspect of the speaker that requires more amp power than its competitors.) However, when I dropped in the Green Day CD, I began to hear some limitations in the stereo setup: Green Day's whopping drums and wall of punk sounded a bit lacking until I gave in and switched on the subwoofer. Immediately, the room became a Green Day concert, delivering a terrific sonic wallop.

At the sudden change in the power of the music, I took a few moments to admire the subwoofer. The Sub 8 is a dense, 55-pound powered block with a 300-watt amplifier. I had placed it near a wall for added bass punch. I'll admit that I'm not an expert at subwoofer phase adjustment and crossover, but after some experimentation, I found the perfect level for bass enrichment in my environment. Initially, I'd set the levels way too high, and the room rumbled fantastically—and yet, I noticed, without threatening sonic breakup. Impressive! I dialed it down, carefully monitoring for balance. As soon as American Idiot was chest-thumping me in just the right way, I'd found my sweet spot.

I listened to various recordings for a few hours, tweaking things here and there. A revelation occurred when I finally enabled the full surround setup and slipped in my SACD recording of The Police's Every Breath You Take: Classics collection. Listening to "King of Pain" and "Don't Stand So Close to Me, I experienced one of those rare moments when I realized, with a certain amount of geek joy, why I listen to music in the first place: The experience was as enveloping and realistic as I can imagine. The Police seemed to be standing around me. It was as if I was in the recording studio at the original session, and the window of the booth had slid down, like a privacy window in a limousine, letting me hear the music and vocals in all their raw glory. The soundstage is that immersive.

How About Home Theater?
Remembering the system's excellent home-theater performance from the show, I turned to my DVD collection. I decided on the airplane-rescue scene from the recent Superman Returns, for sheer, awesome audio chaos, and a couple of musical sequences from the bizarre and sadly underrated Moulin Rouge. In home-theater mode, I reset the front speakers to Small and dialed up the subwoofer a few notches.

Incredibly, my experience with the Era home-theater experience bested the music performance. I've lived for a few years with some well-equipped Atlantic Technology speakers, and frankly, these Eras blew those out of the water. Dialogue came through with more resonance and verve, and never threatened brittleness at the high end. During the Superman Returns sequence, the entire soundstage was alive with audio fireworks. The surrounds delivered their effects with clean accuracy. With the speakers I've owned before, there was always the sense that I was listening to a soundtrack in my theater. With the Era package, it was as if I was on that damn airplane, spiraling down toward earth. Talk about oomph.

Thoroughly impressed, I considered the continuing poor weather outside and just decided to make that Saturday an all-day movie extravaganza. I slipped Requiem for a Dream into the player and lost myself in the nightmare. The careful, intricate soundfield of this film took hold of me bodily and actually increased the power of the experience. The organic detail of the sound effects, the haunting music, and the aching crescendo of the third act were quite draining. The Era speakers seemed to open up the film, finding hidden complexity. After lunch, I opted for something a bit more cheerful, plopping in Amelie. Is it possible for a sound experience to inject a film with additional emotional heft? I believe that to be the case. The Paris environments seemed to become more expansive, and at the same time, the film's more localized sounds came through with awesome directionality and dimension.

Win-Win
The performance of the Era Design 5 speaker package, for both music and home-theater sound, is nothing short of astounding—particularly considering its pricing. For less than $3,000, you can add this gorgeous, carefully designed 5.1 setup to your connected home, and for that price, I promise you will have a system that's at least as capable—and probably more capable—than speakers that cost quite a bit more.

I can't tell you how impressed I am with the speaker, the company, and its philosophy. But don't just take my word for it. Get on down to your local specialty dealer and give them a listen. (You can find a listing of Era dealers at the Signal Path Web site.) My thanks to David Solomon and the good folks at Signal Path for letting me sample their outstanding system in my home environment.