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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.