Review: Sonawall SonaStudio 2.1 Wireless Speaker System

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AirPlay, Bluetooth ... Plus Real Stereo?

Brent Butterworth

One of the problems with all-in-one wireless speakers (which I recently reviewed en masse for The Wirecutter, with separate roundups for AirPlay and Bluetooth) is that all the speaker drivers are stuck together in a little box that can't deliver that nice, big, spacious stereo sound. Soundbars can deliver somewhat more stereo separation, but they're designed more for movies than music.

The Sonawall SonaStudio 2.1 is sort of an "everything" system, designed to fill the roles of a full stereo music system and a system to enhance TV sound. It also works as a desktop audio system.

The key is two tiny satellites, each of which houses a 2-inch full-range driver. The satellites are designed to be mounted flush on a wall, or flat on a horizontal surface if you prefer, and are supplied with adhesive-backed Velcro fasteners. Having those boundaries nearby boosts the output by roughly +6 dB if they're on a wall or desk, +12 dB if they're at the intersection of two walls, or +18 dB if they're in a corner.

That extra output lets the little drivers keep up with the powered subwoofer, which houses a 6.5-inch woofer, all of the inputs and outputs, and the amps needed to power itself and the satellites. (Total power is listed as 150 watts on the unit and 100 watts on the website.) A tiny remote controls volume and selects the input, and a little metal box with LED indicators on the front (see next panel) serves as the remote control sensor and the active input indicator.

Bluetooth wireless is built in, and there's also an included AirPlay adapter for streaming lossless (uncompressed) sound from iPhones, iPads, computers and networked hard drives. (For the details about choosing among the wireless audio standards, check out "Which Wireless Audio Technology Is Right For You?"

At $1,199, the SonaStudio 2.1 isn't cheap compared to most soundbars and small subwoofer/satellite systems. But it's only $200 more than the MartinLogan Crescendo AirPlay/Bluetooth speaker, and it does give you something no all-in-one system or soundbar can offer: true stereo sound.

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Sonawall SonaStudio 2.1: Features and Ergonomics

Brent Butterworth

• AirPlay wireless through included adapter
• Bluetooth wireless
• Toslink optical and coaxial digital inputs
• 3.5mm analog and RCA analog inputs
• Two satellite speakers with 2-inch full-range drivers
• Powered subwoofer with 6.5-inch woofer
• Class D amp for sub and satellites
• Remote control
• Level controls for subwoofer and satellites
• Subwoofer crossover frequency control 40-240 Hz
• +3 dB bass boost switch
• Dimensions, satellites: 2.5 x 2.5 x 3 in / 63 x 63 x 76 mm
• Dimensions, subwoofer: 17 x 10 x 8 in / 428 x 252 x 202 mm
• Weight, satellites: 6.2 oz / 176 g
• Weight, subwoofer: 16.4 lb / 7.4 kg

Setting up the SonaStudio 2.1 is easy for the most part. The satellites are small and fit almost anywhere. You just stick them to whatever you want to stick them to, and cables to connect them to the sub are included. (I put them in the wall corners of my listening room, about 4 feet up, and also tried putting them up in the upper left and right corners of the room.) Considering that the crossover point between the satellite and the subwoofer is high -- around 240 Hz -- you should put the sub somewhere roughly between the two satellites, on the floor. Otherwise your ears may localize the sub -- i.e., hear where its sound is coming from -- and you may hear voices coming out of it, which sounds unnatural.

Inclusion of a Toslink optical digital input makes the SonaStudio very practical to use for TV sound, because most TVs have Toslink outputs. One caveat: With TVs such as LGs that put out only Dolby Digital through Toslink, the SonaStudio's Toslink input won't work. But the TV will likely have an analog audio output you can use instead.

The one complication I encountered is setting up the AirPlay adapter, which doesn't go as smoothly as it does with most of today's AirPlay speakers. Most current AirPlay models use an app or a direct connection with an iOS device to perform the setup more or less automatically. The manual instructed me to push the WPA button on my router, but my router doesn't have one, so I had to set it up manually by going into my web browser, typing in the network address for the adapter, then accessing the adapter's web page. It took a few more minutes and more trouble, but once I got the connection going it was trouble-free.

There is one ergonomic problem with the SonaStudio, though: The only easily accessible controls are on the remote, which is tiny and easy to lose. You can still use the system if you lose the remote, by using the subwoofer and satellite level controls on the back, and cycling the main power switch on the back to turn the unit on, but it's kind of a pain.

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Sonawall SonaStudio 2.1: Performance

Brent Butterworth

After listening to a lot of all-in-one wireless speakers, it was striking to hear the huge stereo soundstage that the SonaStudio created. I was surprised at how well the stereo image centered between the two speakers, even though they were separated by the full width of the room; there was no sonic "hole in the middle." On a cut like Toto's "Rosanna" (one of my all-time-favorite test tracks), the SonaStudio really lights up the room sonically in a way no all-in-one wireless speaker or soundbar could probably ever match. It was easy to hear precise image placement all across the stereo soundfield on tough imaging-test tracks like "The Holy Men" by the World Saxophone Quartet.

The bass was very full and very precise, especially compared with the typical subwoofer that comes with a 2.1 soundbar; all the low notes in James Taylor's live version of "Shower the People" sounded even. That's in large part because I was able to put the subwoofer in my room's "subwoofer sweet spot," the place where the bass response is most even when measured from my usual listening position. Obviously, you don't have this option with all-in-one systems or 2.0-channel (subwooferless) stereo systems.

Voices in general sounded largely clean and uncolored, with no significant sibilance, bloating, chestiness or unnatural sonic artifacts. The one issue with vocal reproduction was that male vocals didn't have quite the heft I'd have liked -- probably because the output of the 2-inch full-range drivers in the satellites is relatively weak near the crossover point.

By the same token, the Cult's "King Contrary Man" sounded great, with a huge stereo soundstage, potent and punchy bass, and clean vocals -- but the grunt and power of the lower E and A strings on the guitar was muted so the tune didn't quite kick as much ass as it should.

But hey, if you want uncompromised sound, you're gonna have to get decent-sized speakers. Little satellites with full-range drivers can sound great in many ways; their dispersion is broad in the midrange and lower treble, and because they don't have a crossover as two-way speakers do, they don't have the dispersion anomalies in the crossover region that many two-way speakers do. But 2-inch drivers do have their dynamic limitations.

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Sonawall SonaStudio 2.1: Measurements

Brent Butterworth

The chart you see above shows three frequency responses: response of the SonaStudio satellite on-axis (blue trace); the average of responses at 0°, ±10°, ±20°and ±30° horizontally (green trace); and the response of the subwoofer (purple trace). Generally speaking, the flatter and more horizontal these lines look, the better.

The response of the satellite looks fairly smooth. The treble is elevated by a few dB on average above 2 kHz, which might make the system sound slightly bright. Averaged on/off-axis response is almost the same as the on-axis response -- no big surprise considering how small the satelllite's drivers are. The on-axis response of the satellite is ±3.0 dB to 10 kHz, ±4.3 dB to 20 kHz. Averaged on/off axis is ±2.9 dB to 10 kHz, ±5.1 dB to 20 kHz.

The subwoofer's ±3 dB response runs from 48 to 232 Hz, with the crossover set to the highest frequency (240 Hz). The measured -3 dB response of the satellite is 225 Hz, so the sats and sub should blend well with the sub crossover frequency set to 240 Hz. However, the dynamic capability of the driver in the satellite will be much less than the dynamic capability of the subwoofer at that frequency, so at higher listening levels you may hear a "hole" between the subwoofer and satellites. Also, the relatively high crossover point (80 to 100 Hz is the norm in large home theaters) will make the sub directional, so you may notice sounds coming from it; that's not supposed to happen with subwoofers, although it often does in systems with such small satellites.

(BTW, I measured satellite frequency response with a Clio 10 FW analyzer and MIC-01 microphone, at a distance of 1 meter atop a 2-meter stand; the measurement below 400 Hz is close-miked. The subwoofer measurement is a ground plane response at 1 meter.)

Max output when cranking the first Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart" as loud as the unit could play without annoying distortion (about halfway up on the subwoofer and satellite volume knobs) is 104 dB, measured with my trusty RadioShack SPL meter at 1 meter from the left satellite speaker. That's very loud, about as loud as the loudest all-in-one wireless speakers I've measured. Pretty impressive.

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Sonawall SonaStudio 2.1: Final Take

Brent Butterworth

Obviously, the SonaStudio's form factor won't suit everyone; a lot of people will prefer an all-in-one or a soundbar just because there are no speaker cables involved. But the SonaStudio's dramatic and realistic stereo imaging and soundstaging blows away any soundbar or all-in-one, and its bass quality and power beats probably every all-in-one I've heard and all but the most high-end soundbar subwoofers. It may seem somewhat expensive for a small 2.1 system, but for what it delivers the price is actually pretty reasonable.