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Roth OLi POWA-5 review

Andrew Williams

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  • Recommended by TR
Roth OLi POWA-5

Summary

Our Score:

9

Pros

  • Excellent, full and balanced sound
  • Superbly versatile
  • Great value for money

Cons

  • No AirPlay/Wi-Fi
  • Size may be an issue for some

Key Features

  • 5-inch Kevlar main drivers
  • 1-inch soft dome tweeters
  • Integrated amplifier
  • Dual optical inputs, dual analogue inputs
  • Bluetooth streaming
  • Manufacturer: Roth
  • Review Price: £239.99

Introduction

iPod docks have done their level best to kill bookshelf speakers in recent years, but as anyone with audiophile tendencies knows traditional bookshelf speakers are better at producing distortion-free sound than novelty speakers shaped like Angry Birds, or docks as thin as a handful of Ryvitas. This is where the Roth OLi POWA-5 wireless speakers come in – not only are they as happy to hook up to an iPod as any style-driven dock, but they also use an old-fashioned speaker shape that helps them produce superb sound at a very reasonable price.

Roth OLi POWA-5 - Design

So far we’ve painted the Roth OLi POWA-5 as a bit of a throwback – sort of like a hand-cranked Victrola that sits in the corner of the room and sounds good, but which no-one wants to play anymore. However, this speaker set is quite a bit more dynamic and up-to-date than that.

Roth OLi POWA-5 5

The Roth OLi POWA-5 is available in red and white versions.

The Roth OLi POWA-5 is a pair of semi-active speakers. Roth actually describes the set as "active" on its website, however it’s a bit more complicated than that. These aren’t full active studio monitors like, for example, the studio-staple Genelecs.

Instead, one of the POWA-5 speakers houses the amplifier, while the other is a passive “slave” speaker. Proper monitors have an amplifier section for each driver. The Roth OLi POWA-5 speakers do not – as far as we can tell they share a single amp.

However, for a pair of active studio monitors this size you could be looking at a spend of £1000. These are a quarter of that price.

In terms of dimensions, the speakers are roughly 27cm high and 20cm deep, making them a little large to dump on a bedside table. All told they are quite chunky, however they do come with the added convenience of not requiring a standalone amplifier to power them.

What really makes the Roth OLi POWA-5 package noteworthy, though, is the number of connections the amplifier speaker can take. As well as offering Bluetooth wireless streaming, you get two optical inputs, a phono pair and a 3.5mm line input. To our minds, this makes the POWA-5 a nigh-on perfect setup for a child or teenager's bedroom. It’ll take two games consoles and another audio source at once, while still letting you stream from your phone over Bluetooth.

Roth OLi POWA-5 1

What more could you possibly want? Well, the obvious omission is AirPlay, but this would undoubtedly increase the £250 price substantially and every mobile device that supports AirPlay already has Bluetooth built-in anyway. Roth has always been keen on offering top value, and leaving out AirPlay-enabling Wi-FI was more-or-less a necessity here.

Roth OLi POWA-5

There don’t seem to have been many compromises made with regards to build quiality, though. Roth uses solid, fairly heavy wooden enclosures rather than the lightweight plastic you'd see in most wireless speakers at this price. The POWA-5 speakers are finished in seamless piano black, and use eye-catching Kevlar cones. Again, it's a very traditional look, with only extra-curved edges straying from the bookshelf speaker archetype.

However, the speaker that houses the amplifier is also home to a few extra bits on its front. These include a pair of indicator lights that show which source you’re currently attached to, a receiver module for the remote control and a volume dial. This trio does spoil the look a bit.

The Roth OLi POWA-5 volume knob is the one part of the system that feels a bit cheap, which is a shame because it’s also very important. As well as altering volume, pushing the knob in changes channels – making it doubly important should you lose the remote control. The remote is a dinky little palm-sized affair that houses separate buttons for each channel, tone controls for bass/treble that you won’t find on the speakers themselves and music buttons for devices attached over Bluetooth.

Roth remote

The whole system works exceedingly well, a timely reminder that sometimes the simpler methods of wireless connection can be just as good as the trendier ones.

Roth OLi POWA-5 - Sound Quality

One potential disappointment of the Roth OLi POWA-5 is that it uses the standard SBC Bluetooth codec rather than the more advanced apt-X. It streams stereo audio at 384kbps, but it’s a far less efficient codec than something like today’s AAC, and some information is lost. Loss of higher-frequency audio information is the most serious issue, and it becomes quite obvious when listening to, for example, female voices, which can sound quite compressed.

Roth OLi POWA-5 3

However, while the Roth OLi POWA-5 offers no real solution for this problem aside from the wired connections there for you to use, the satisfying tonality of the speakers themselves more than makes up for this issue.

The (not-so) secret to the Roth OLi POWA-5’s audio success is the use of a traditional 2-way design and fairly large wooden cabinets. The much larger-than-average 5-inch Kevlar mid-range drivers and internal cabinet space helps to produce sound that’s simply much richer and fuller than just about any £200-odd iPhone dock we could name. In fact, the Roth OLi POWA-5s can comfortably compete with iPod docks costing £150 or so more.

Stereo separation seems to have dropped of many people’s radars in recent years as a priority, but this is something the Roth OLi POWA-5 speakers provide too. You can place the cabinets as far apart as you like, and the supplied speaker cable is around 3m long. It's standard copper cable, so you can easily buy a longer stretch if needed.

Roth OLi POWA-5 4

These speakers are room-filling without having to resort to the DSP or side-firing drivers that style systems often revert to. Of course, they’re a little less lounge-friendly than a soundbar though.

Bass weight is good enough to do films justice, but for real wall-shaking action you’ll need to add a subwoofer. Unlike almost any rival iPod dock, the Roth OLi POWA-5 lets you do this. It’ll connect to just about any active subwoofer – we tried hooking the system up to a Linn sub worth a grand or so. Despite the lack of crossover options, the pairing sounded fantastic.

As you might imagine for a £250 package that includes hefty speakers, an amplifier and Bluetooth streaming, the Roth OLi POWA-5 speakers are not entirely without fault. Instrumental separation is just ok and the 1-inch soft dome tweeters don’t provide crystalline precision, although we were left far from disappointed with the level of treble presence. That’s the beauty of a 2-way bookshelf over the now more popular setup of tiny satellites and a giant subwoofer – tonal balance is much easier to achieve.

Their size may rule them out for many buyers, and they don’t even try to offer any form of surround sound. However, they’re fantastically versatile and are a much better replacement for your musty old hi-fi sonically than the tiny-driver-tiny-cabinet style streamer you have your eye on.

Verdict

Making a pretty convincing argument for the return of bookshelf speakers to the living room, the Roth OLi POWA-5 wireless speakers offer excellent sound quality for very little money. They blow most rival style-driven systems and docks out of the water, with richer, bassier sound than those without subwoofers and more even tonal balance than most of those that do. Add in Bluetooth and enough connectors to plug in your TV, a games console and another music source and you’re a looking at one of the top audio bargains of the year.

Overall Score

9

Scores In Detail

  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Sound Quality 9
  • Value 9

ajake

March 21, 2013, 10:25 am

OK - that's just too funny! A friend of mine bought *identical looking* speakers in Hong Kong but under some other random brand name. Clearly these are getting pumped out by a Chinese factory somewhere, and they are happy to stick your "brand" on it, whatever it happens to be. Seriously - these are *identical*!!! Can't remember what his ones are called, but name was different. And if I remember correctly he paid around $US150 - again, no surprise I guess. For that money these are almost worth having if what you are after is a bit of background noise.

Chinese propensity for flogging same stuff under different brands aside, these don't actually sound too bad - definitely better IMO than most dock / single speaker stuff with a couple of exceptions from B&W and B&O (no surprises). But obviously absolutely no comparison to the real deal when it comes to wireless speakers, like the Dynaudio Xeo. And I bet they would be even more unimpressive against the legent-in-the-making (ship please!) Moos Mini Aero - the sublime Scan-Speak Revelator drivers are *not* made in China, and the knock-offs just don't compare!

Dan Gleballs

March 21, 2013, 11:30 am

ajake. Note that the cross-over design and box tuning was undertaken by James Roth personally in the UK over a period of some weeks. Suggest you get your facts straight.

acake

March 21, 2013, 12:04 pm

@ajake - as funny as you may find this the whole rebranding issue you bring up it kind of gets flawed when you mention B&O...Philips rebranded ring any bells? So not a couple of exceptions really.

All around the world things are rebranded, or produced under a joint venture, go take a look at the Subaru BRZ and the Toyota GT86.

Now i cannot comment if these POWA-5 are the same as any other speaker and i don't believe you are able to either, yes they may look the same as another but are the the same technically and specification wise.

At the end of the day i cannot see anything like these for sale in the UK and for the price they look to be extremely good value, so overall well done Roth.

ajake

March 21, 2013, 12:05 pm

@Dan - All I know is the speakers look *identical* down to every last detail to ones my friend bought in Hong Kong. He has the red ones. Wouldn't be the first time a western company took a Chinese product and put their name on it.

BTW - I just checked out the Roth website. It sure looks to me like a hodge podge of stuff sourced from China. Why? Well, because there is no common "design language" across any of the Roth products - companies that design stuff themselves usually have a very distinct brand look. Roth does not. Either these guys are sourcing direct Chinese designs or they should fire their industrial designer!

Oh, and to say they did crossovers in UK is bollocks - most of the acoustic performance is in the quality of the cabinet and drive units. There is no way that Roth designed the cabinets or drivers - these are straight from a Chinese supplier that also designed them.

All that said, this stuff is cheap - at this price point everything else is also made in (and often designed) in China.

Evan

March 21, 2013, 12:28 pm

It's nigh on impossible to trademark or copyright a product in China. Ask Apple, Samsung, Nike etc. Identical looking doesn't mean the internal components are of the same quality or even that the housing being made of the same material.

ajake

March 21, 2013, 12:46 pm

Sure - this does happen. Would be interesting to hear from Roth directly on this - they should be able to tell us if they designed this speaker (or what part of it they designed), and whether they got ripped off. Seemed to me that Dan may know them as he seems to have insight into the details of work done by Roth "personally" - perhaps he can get onto Roth and ask them to clarify for us.

I admit I am still suspicious. My friend has had his speakers for some weeks. Roth is only just releasing theirs now. Have the Chinese ripped off Roth's early prototypes and started to sell them without Roth knowing? I guess it's possible in theory...

trust me

October 7, 2013, 10:29 pm

ill tell you exactly what happened. a canadian company called Kanto designed these speakers (check out the Kanto 'YUMI'), the Chinese manufacturer stole the design and sold it as their own to Roth. boom.

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