Barring the occasional HDTV or high-end receiver, most home theater components aren’t much to look at. Especially speakers. More often than not, they’re black. They are boxy. And if you’re lucky, they may come with a nice glossy finish.
But for those who want to inject a little hi-fi sophistication into their living rooms, one company offers a unique service: an entire sound system hand-built to complement not just your flatscreen, but also your room decor or any other opulent design ideas you may have.
This white glove treatment comes courtesy of Leon, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based speaker company that’s been specializing in bespoke audio systems for the better part of 15 years. If you were at CES this year (or the get-gadget Store last year), you may have come across one of the company’s more garish creations: the Trithon Reyn TV, a 40-inch LED flatscreen tucked inside a black walnut cabinet, mounted atop an antique surveyor’s tripod, and wrapped in 13 feet of python skin. This $35,000 modern-day relic is a more extreme example of what Leon does, but you get the idea.
I recently had the chance to try out one of the company’s more down-to-earth configurations — a setup that included the new HzUT-LCR sound bar (for my front soundstage), a pair of custom Detail Series Ds114-X-A surround speakers, and an A10-UT passive subwoofer paired with the company’s L3-1K amplifier. This alphanumeric orgy is also known as Leon’s 5.1 Ultra-thin Living Space Theater system. My particular configuration ended up running approximately $6,875. Customization, it turns out, is not cheap.
The whole process began the way it would for anyone else ordering from Leon: I gave the company the make and model of my HDTV (an LG 50PK950 plasma) and some basic design guidelines. It’s worth noting that Leon is capable of matching everything from specific paint swatches to wood builds on credenzas, should you know what you want up front. I didn’t. So while I love python skin and turn-of-the-century projection devices as much as the next guy, I decided to go with a more subdued design scheme for my system. To wit: wood. As the majority of the floors in my house are covered in it, I figured crafting the speakers out of a hunk of cherry might class up the joint a bit.
Mission accomplished. When everything arrived a few weeks later, I was greeted by one of the smartest-looking compact home theater systems I’ve seen. Whether it was the amp’s tank-like enclosure, the perfectly finished speaker cabinets, or the magnetically attached grills, the build quality on everything was nothing short of exquisite. For both the A10-UT sub and my surrounds, Leon used a piece of cherry wood, but also added a nice flourish in the form of beautiful dovetail spline joints on the edges. The entire design scheme looked great against the inlaid baffle on the surrounds, and the cherry ended up being perfect complement to the sleek black aluminum baffle on the sub.
As for the 20-pound L3-1K sub amp, it was another exercise in sleek minimalism. This 1,000-watt, class A/B amp has a tabletop or rack mountable design and comes with plenty of tweaking options, including a single-band parametric EQ, continuous phase control and frequency/gain control. Its heavy-duty steel chassis and brushed aluminum faceplate weren’t anything to scoff at either.
Subs are arguably some of the least-exciting components in any home theater setup, but the A10-UT was both thin and gorgeous. At 4.5-inches deep and armed with a 10-inch aluminum cone driver, it can fit into any number of cramped situations. Even better, it can be converted into a super thin, down-firing sub for covert placement under a couch or chair. My particular version was far too pretty to hide.
Finally, as advertised, the Horizon sound bar was also a perfect fit for my flatscreen. The streamlined cabinet, which matched the exact finish of my LG, is equipped with 2.5-inch aluminum cone woofers and 22mm cloth-dome tweeters, yet is still only 1.5 inches deep and 4 inches tall. All told, the system looked like it had been made specifically for my living room–a truly impressive feat considering the vagueness of my design guidance.
For a made-to-order home theater, setting everything up also proved to be a surprisingly smooth process. As with all of Leon’s sound bars, mine came with a mounting bracket that lets you attach it directly to the top or bottom of your HDTV (including the ability to angle the bar appropriately). I ultimately chose to plop it down directly under my screen as there was plenty of room on my TV stand.
Next, the surrounds went to their usual homes on speaker stands behind the couch. I also plunked the A10 in the normal sub sweet spot along the corner wall. The only real time sink ended up being the time I spent fiddling with sub amp’s controls to suss out optimal bass response. Ultimately, I found the system ended up working ideally with a LFE crossover of 100Hz for the subwoofer. I also decided to turn off my own Marantz 1601 receiver’s Audyssey EQ room correction and found the speakers did fine without it. In total, setup took about a half hour, significantly less time than I’ve spent on other systems.
Great craftsmanship is all fine and good. But none of that would matter much if the system sounded like crap. Happily, this was not the case. Working in concert, the Leon system produced dazzling sound for such a compact system, particularly for movies.
Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting too much from the HzUT-LCR sound bar. Regardless of whatever fancy DSP they feature, sound bars have never impressed me like full sized speakers. And while the HzUT certainly isn’t going to match a pair of towers, it did perform admirably. Voices came through clear and balanced and there was adequate separation to make epics like Alien and The Dark Knight suitably immersive. While the surrounds delivered sufficient ambience, they were (not surprisingly) a bit bass-shy. The A10 more than made up for this deficiency, however, with some remarkably rich and deep bass that never sounded boomy or muddy.
Switching to music was slightly less impressive. I played through thatgamecompany’s meditative Journey on the PS3, which features a beautiful cello and string-centric score by Austin Wintory. It’s both lavish and sweeping, but the sound bar just couldn’t match the warmth or wide soundstage that a more traditional 5.1 system offers.
Nevertheless, I was again impressed with the tiny Aaros sub’s ability to produce a sharp, tight low end. For another one of my stereo music tests, I loaded up Ladytron’s Velocifero and played “Black Cat,” a song that features a sinister groove as well as a canyon-deep bass line. The A10-UT performed spectacularly. Bass was deep and distortion-free, even when I cranked the volume up to neighbor-annoying levels.
Of course, one of the ironies of these “ultra-thin living space” systems is that if you have enough money to even consider a basic home theater setup from Leon, you’re likely already living in a nicely appointed house — or at least a ritzy loft. In other words, space is probably neither a concern nor a constraint. Still, from an engineering perspective, there’s no denying Leon has managed to cram a lot of performance into a very small package. Add to that the fact that you also get a home theater system that blends seamlessly into your existing environment and the price becomes somewhat easier to digest.
In the end, Leon is not going to be the go-to choice for most people. But at a time when generic HTIBs still dominate the home theater world, it’s nice to know there’s someone out there offering systems that aren’t just beautifully crafted, but also great-sounding.