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Review: System Audio speakers and Primare SC15 – HiFi without wires

Review: System Audio speakers and Primare SC15 – HiFi without wires
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Thanks to WiSA technology, it is possible to transmit audio wirelessly and in the highest quality. We put it to the test by combining a set of System Audio legend Silverback 5 speakers with a Primare SC15-DAC / preamp. Or how you can enjoy music and TV sound without compromise – without a cable in sight.

HiFi quality without wires

In this review we look at something very special: a music system consisting of a pair of wireless active speakers and a DAC / pre-amplifier with a built-in wireless module. Not just comparable to wireless speakers such as the KEF LSX or a set of Sonos Play: 5s, because with products such as KEF and co everything is in the speaker itself. A better comparison point is the active speakers from Dali, such as the Callisto 2C or the brand new Rubicon 6Cs . At Dali, the wireless speakers are controlled wirelessly by a separate Sound Hub to which you can connect sources and with streaming options. That seems to be the same approach as with this Scandinavian set.

And yet the system that we are viewing today is slightly different. After all, it consists of devices from different brands – Primare from Sweden and System Audio from Denmark – that work together seamlessly. The explanation for this is a standard that is on the rise: WiSA . Thanks to this technology, devices from different brands can play high-quality audio wirelessly – and without all kinds of difficult cables. We have covered the WiSA technology itself extensively in a background article . The most important thing to remember is that WiSA only replaces the speaker cable, not the network cable. An asset is that the standard uses a wireless signal that is not disturbed by WiFi or Bluetooth. Audio is transmitted in lossless quality, up to 96 kHz / 24-bit. WiSA is also designed to enable multi-channel setups. Stereo or surround, both are possible.

Multiple combinations possible

The system that we look at in this review consists of two parts: the SC15 Prism from Primare (1,499 euros) and the legend 5 silverback speakers from System Audio (2,649 euros per pair). Both Scandinavian companies operate independently of each other, but work together informally – including WiSA technology. In the Benelux, they are distributed by the same distributor (Perfect Audio Integration or PAI). That is why you will often see the two together on our hi-fi shows in our region. Moreover, an impressive demonstration at the New Music Show in Brussels was just the reason to organize this test.

The legend 5 Silverback speakers are compact active speakers that you could use wired. You then need a pre-amplifier that you connect to the two System Audio speakers via balanced XLR cables. Add to that a power cable, one per speaker. You may not be very wireless about it.

Much more interesting is to wirelessly link the speakers to a WiSA transmitter, such as the Primare device that we find here. This SC15 is not your only option. System Audio itself has a compact Stereo Hub that can be particularly interesting in many scenarios. It is a small box that lends itself well to hiding behind a TV or in furniture. Thanks to an HDMI ARC input, this Stereo Hub integrates well with your television and there are a lot of streaming options on board, including Chromecast and Airplay. Talking about TVs: those who have a new LG TV (from model year 2019) can also directly control the System Audio speakers. We will do this usage scenario at a later stage, possibly even in a multi-channel setup.

However, we find the Primare SC15 Prisma a better choice for those who want to use external source devices. This device is actually a relatively classic DAC / preamplifier, albeit in a more compact form than an average hi-fi device. The SC15 can be used perfectly with an output stage, just like any pre-amplifier. The unique thing about this device is that it also contains a WiSA transmitter, so that you can work completely wirelessly. That is really an important step, because you not only ban the speaker cables from your living room, but also that large power amplifier. In short, you maintain hi-fi quality but you lose those annoying cables and equipment. Does that sound too good to be true?

Complete preamp

Like the EISA Award-winning i15 amplifier from Primare, the SC15 is a very slim thing that does not take up much space on a TV unit or sideboard. His small footprint is really handy, and yet this Swede retains the appearance of a more luxurious audio device. We certainly find that to be the case with the front with a silvery titanium color, but also the black, brushed edition can certainly be there.

With all its current models, Primare does something fun in design: the front plate seems to float apart from the chassis, an optical trick that transforms their devices from an ordinary box full of electronics to something a bit more upscale. The rounded corners and the metal buttons complete the picture by giving the device a certain retro feel. In short, it is an elegant appearance that you would like to place somewhere in sight.

The SC15 is handsome on the outside, but what about the inside? There you can see that Primare works carefully on all levels. Compared to an integrated amplifier, such as the i15, the SC15 has relatively much empty space under the hood. That is not surprising, because of course you do not have a hefty power supply and power amplifier. The positive thing is that it allows room to better separate the various parts from each other. The main circuit board – very carefully laid-out, by the way – takes its power from a separate power supply via a bridge. The screen is also far from the digital part, to create more distance with a potential source of interference.

Despite its small housing, this compact Swede is well equipped with connections, especially on digital flat. With three optical inputs, one coaxial and a 3.5 mm input that can be used both analog and digital, you will be able to connect a lot. A USB class B port is what you are looking for if you want to hang Primare directly on your computer, a USB class A port is what you need to play music files. Finally, there is an analogue cinch pair to connect, for example, a (reinforced) turntable. There is no dedicated phono connection.

In terms of smarthome and integration, the SC15 is completely up to date. Apart from the built-in Chromecast function and app control (see below), you can integrate it via RS232 or control via an IR trigger. You can connect to the network via Ethernet or WiFi. Connecting the Primare preamplifier to your wireless network is very simple via the Google Home app.

Prism

The SC15 that we are viewing here officially carries the suffix “Prism”. Not just a marketing term, because Prisma is the name of the very mature streaming platform of Primare. We know it well from the i15 Prisma, which was present in our test room for a long time. That is why the operation of the SC15 comes across as familiar, because the possibilities and operation are the same for all Prisma devices.

You can control Primare's Prisma models via an app, including to transfer your own music files over the network play. The Swedes also opened the door to Chromecast and AirPlay, which makes the Prisma devices immediately compatible with just about any streaming service that supports casting and / or Airplay. In fact, everything is covered, from audiophile choices Tidal and Qobuz to Deezer and YouTube Music. Listening to Spotify is of course also possible, thanks to the Spotify Connect functionality. Simply open the Spotify app and you can select the SC15 as a speaker. Streaming over Bluetooth is also possible – although we would advise you to go for casting or Airplay because of the better, lossless quality.

The Primare app works well together. Information and music is clearly presented and it goes beyond a simple media player for your own files. Everything can be set via the app, which is much easier than via the remote and the small screen on the SC15. Small but important details have been thought of: this way you can rename each input, switch on auto sensing (so that the SC15 automatically selects the input when a signal comes in, useful for TV use) and set a gain per input. You can switch off unused inputs; practical because there are so many that you may not use them all. And yes, it is more for the form than anything else, but it is still useful that you can display the icons of your favorite streaming services or media servers in the app. If you tap an icon, you automatically go to the app of that service to choose the cast option there.

You dive into your own music collection on a NAS or a USB disk, then you discover that the SC15 can handle just about anything: PCM up to 192 kHz / 24-bit and DSD currents up to 5.6 MHz, thanks to the AKM AK4490 DA converter. We do have a weakness for this DAC chip, because the AKMs sound a lot more pleasant than the ESS chips. Exotics such as hi-res AIFF or WAVs in higher resolutions are also processed. We did experience some problems with DSD files when testing; after contacting Primare, this turned out to be a situation where a software update was needed to convert the DSD power to the PCM that the WiSA speakers could handle. That update is coming soon, also for existing SC15 owners.

Overall, you don't run into walls quickly if you want to stream music to the Primare SC15, and that is a serious asset. The Prisma platform is very flexible and offers you so many ways to listen to your music effortlessly. The presence of Airplay and Chromecast means that you can also operate the device with your voice, provided you have a suitable device with a microphone nearby. Adding a Google Home mini, for example, gives you the option of selecting music or controlling the volume. We were able to address Siri via an iPad to select music from Apple Music.

Roon users can listen to music via the cast function for now, and in time an update will be made for full Roon Ready compatibility.

Pairing with WiSA speakers

As mentioned, you can use the Primare SC15 Prisma as a preamplifier with an output stage. For our test, however, we activate the built-in WiSA module. For that you have to dive into the menu, because this function is off by default. It takes some searching, but you only do this search once. Under “General Settings” you will find “WiSA Settings” at the bottom, where you must enable “WiSA Module”. New options then appear, of which “Add WiSA Speaker” is the most important. Does it sound complicated? Don't worry: you only have to go through the pairing process between the transmitter and the speaker once, then the connection is automatically restored every time you turn on the SC15.

Pairing the System Audio speakers started our test room particularly smoothly. At the back of every legend 5 silverback you will find a series of LEDs that indicate a certain position in the room. Front right and front left are the positions that are relevant for this stereo test, but you can use these speakers in a surround setup if you wish. That is why you also see other choices, including Center, Surround Back Right, and so on. First you connect each speaker with the SC15 by pressing a Connect button for two seconds. Once the connection is established, you can quickly choose the position by pressing the same button. The only thing you have to watch out for is that there is an option to have a speaker both left and right, which of course destroys the stereo image and ensures that you cannot adjust that second speaker to the desired other stereo position. The L + R option is for situations where people want to place a single speaker, for example in a room where it is more about background music.

Once the link has been made, you can immediately go to music listen. You can adjust the volume via the remote or app of the SC15, or via the Chromecast or Airplay functionality. Something to keep in mind: if you switch on the SC15, it takes up to ten seconds for the connection to the speakers to be restored. Especially when we used the Primare-SA combination for TV sound, we had to get used to it; after all, a bit of modern TV gives a picture after only two to three seconds. So you have a short period of time with images, but no sound. That can be enough to make impatient housemates horendol.

First passive, then active

The silverback 5 legend is 19 x 32 x 26.5 cm in size, but seems even slimmer due to the convex sides. The speaker is available in two satin finishes, black or white. It is that final finish that we received for testing; also the color that makes the speakers blend into a modern interior. Because they are not that deep, you can place the System Audio speakers on a TV unit. In practice, that may not work, because they must at least remain at a distance of 20-30 cm from the wall. If you place them too close to a wall, you will notice that they quickly turn woolly and bass heavy. Put the SA speakers farther away from the wall – on a stand – then you get the best performance. And not at all bass-poor, because these little speakers are tuned to sound tough. They therefore immediately sound a lot bigger than you would expect – always a nice feature for a monitor.

The big advantage of an active speaker such as this is that the amplification in the is fully fitted to the drivers. In this case, System Audio has provided 150 Watt of amplification, spread over two amplifier modules that each control a driver, with a DSP to balance drivers and cabinet. Although we have to nuance that for a moment …

System Audio proceeded differently in the design of these speakers than most builders of active speakers. Generally, a DSP plays a key role in making an active speaker sound good (unless you're hard-learners and, like ELAC, the Navis speakers are purely for analog crossovers). There is nothing wrong with that in itself; a DSP can be a powerful tool for optimally controlling the loudspeaker. However, such a chip is sometimes used as a patch to compensate for imperfections. System Audio took a different approach to legendary speakers. It first designed passive speakers (named legend), with tweeters and long batteres that they drew themselves. The emphasis was on speed, so that details are not lost because the cone cannot follow. Only when the speakers were on the point, did the Danes continue to develop the active silverback versions. The DSP with the active version no longer has to compensate for the case defects, but is used to balance the reproduction at lower volumes (basses usually disappear with lower listening volumes) and to compensate for issues such as age and temperature – the latter factor influences sound quality. more than you would expect, especially with active speakers.

System Audio claims to be the only manufacturer to offer exactly the same speaker in a passive and active form. Even more, those who bought the passive legend 5 can later upgrade it to the active form. That costs the manufacturer an estimated 1,000 euros per pair. That is unusual.

Small but heavy

The System Audio silverback 5 legend speakers are the compact bookshelf models from the larger WiSA-compatible silverback family that also include a floorstand and a wall speaker. But it is perhaps this small speaker that best suits the target group and is looking for a better music solution that requires few cables and hassle. Is small than less potent? No, says System Audio. The 2-way design with bass reflex promises, despite the smaller size, a mature sound. Something that we indeed noticed during that first meeting in Brussels. The layer extension, but also the sharpness, were immediately noticeable.

This is no different in our test room. Via Roon opt for “The Remixes” album by the Canadian Dominique Fils-Aimé, and thus reach the “Dwell” of the Bavarian techno-minimalist Recondite via the radio function. It is a supercooled, somewhat slower techno track that the silverback 5 legend puts down for its size. The beats dive very low and fill the room, and while we are not listening so loudly – the SC15 happens to be at volume level 15. Not only the layer extension but also the relative tightness of the beats make us look up, also earlier at the Fred Everything remix of Fils-Aimes 'Free Dom' (FLAC, CD quality). We note on that track that the voice of the Canadian singer is presented very nicely, perhaps a little darkly. We also experience that enveloping, warm character that comes across very nicely when we choose the beautiful “One” from Aimee Mann (AAC, 256 kbps) from the soundtrack of the film “Magnolia” in Roon. Listening to a lossy file here is no problem. The SA speakers are not uber-critical, which is nice if you like bringing in your music via Spotify and co. That combination of surprising layer reproduction, tighter basses and easy listening quality ensure that you can really enjoy modern productions with this system. The swinging 'Supervision' from La Roux, for example, which was released during the test period, was a pleasure to listen to on the Primare-System Audio combination.

There are of course limitations on small speakers, but the silverback 5s push those limits ahead. 'Fracanapa' on the impressive 'Alessandro Quarta plays Astor Piazolla' for example, a fierce tango track that has become one of our regular favorites, the SA speakers are able to display the SA speakers dynamically and compellingly, with a contrabass tone that really dives very low – with the most small speakers are barely heard because it is in the roll-off zone. Punishment

And can you really use this system for TV sound? The advantage of the SC15 is that you can set the optical input so that the device switches on when sound comes from the TV. What we were wondering if the long chain (Samsung TV -> One Connect Box -> optical cable -> SC15 -> WiSA -> SA speakers) would not lead to lip sync problems, but in practice this is not the case

Conclusion

Marry the Primare SC15 with the System Audio silverback 5 legend speakers and you get a complete music system that performs very ear-friendly. It is extremely versatile, in particular thanks to Primare's Prisma platform, which has many streaming options. The great thing about all this is that you enjoy it without the disadvantages of many cables and complex stacks of equipment. Thanks to WiSA technology, you do not compromise on quality – and you no longer have to think about how you will conceal that speaker cable. In short, this makes this system a rock-solid entry for the 'better sound for the living room for now' championship.

Cons

  • Again not so wireless
  • SC15 is a more expensive (but versatile) WiSA transmitter [19659054] Advantages
    • Prism platform offers a lot of streaming and voice control
    • Uncompromising connection with the speakers
    • Room-filling, exciting playback
    • Many connection options
    • Also suitable for TV sound

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