Reviews : AV8 Speaker System

"Cheap unknown brand name or an inexpensive AV system with the Whatmough heritage of quality? No contest"


‘ So many systems with very small speakers sound ‘tinny’. Not these … Musically the two tower speakers have much to recommend them aside from blending nicely with the sub. For one thing they imaged really well. Toed-in just a little toward the listening position resulted in a detailed image that you will never get from any standard theatre-in-a-box style system.’

‘… most buyers of this system (and there’s bound to be plenty) will be staggered at how much better they sound than the mini surround system they heard in the department store.’



This is the least expensive home theatre surround loudspeaker system that Australian designer and manufacturer Whatmough have ever produced. It is a crowded market out there for inexpensive surround speaker packages. Open any catalogue from the various discount retailers and you will see speaker packages well under $1,000 – sometimes even including an amplifier. They look a little dubious even from the photos and tend to sport names that no one has heard of before. I have heard a couple of these systems and was hardly impressed – even considering their very, very low price.

So what is the relevance of all this? Well, the Whatmough AV8 system – despite being its ‘budget’ system – is not targeting this overcrowded market. Delving into that market would damage Whatmough’s reputation and image quality. Instead the AV8 aims to target buyers of new flat panel plasma and LCD TVs who want a neat surround system to go with the screen but do not want too spend much. This is the market just above the discount packages.

However, those very cheap products do influence the way specialist loudspeaker manufacturers make their own ranges and the really cheap imports can easily distort any number of customers’ perceptions of what they should expect for their money. What corners have been cut to get such a system to market for $1,499 for the complete 5.1 system?

Upon first opening up one of the boxes my impressions were that in terms of aesthetics not too much penny pinching was evident. I wasn’t expecting the flawless finish of the much more expensive Synergy2 system, but the AV8 was no ugly duckling either. The system comprises two floor standing ported towers in the currently fashionable ‘extra slim’ style, a compact slim centre speaker and two small rears and a small active subwoofer.

The front pair and the centre speaker all support twin 75mm woofers flanking either side of the small tweeters in classic D’Apollito style. Both the centre and the rear speakers are sealed designs. The rear speakers housing one woofer and tweeter, while the subwoofer is a compact unit with the single downward firing 8-inch (21cm) driver in a vented enclosure. All the speakers were finished in an impressively high-grade veneer.

Our review system came in American Cherry although Black Oak is the other option. Small plinths (with spikes) to support the two tower speakers were provided as was a cradle for the centre speaker and all speakers had proper binding posts with not a single ‘spring clip’ in sight. The centre and rear speakers are easily wall mounted and come with mounting points. Not bad at all for the $1,499 asking price.

However, despite the height of the two slim tower speakers Whatmough strongly recommends that all loudspeakers be set to small in the surround receiver’s bass management settings. It even goes as far as recommending the ideal frequency setting for the roll-off to be 100Hz rather than the standard 80Hz. This means that like other systems the amplifier will send all the low frequency signals to the subwoofer.

Designing the system like this is one of the ways a manufacturer can reduce costs as they do not have to budget for large main speakers with more expensive components and elaborate cabinet bracing. The downside associated with doing this tends to be a reduction in sound quality in the upper bass and lower midrange parts of the spectrum. Such small speakers also are invariably not as efficient at producing sound as larger designs and thus don’t tend to be able to play as loud.

With ‘small’ speakers all round, the job of providing that big Hollywood sound then falls upon the subwoofer. Almost all companies choose a vented sub for this role at entry-level price points as these designs give the most ‘bang for the buck’ in the frequencies where most of that Hollywood bass resides and the Whatmough subwoofer has adopted this design. It sports a 100 watts amplifier and line-level connections.

Its specifications state it is meant to go down to around 30 Hz – an impressive feat given its diminutive size.

I hooked up the speakers (which have a nominal impedance of 4ohms) to my 300 watts per channel Parasound power amplifier and set the crossovers as recommended by the manufacturer to 100Hz and set the sub’s crossover to the manufacturer recommended level too. I then proceeded to calibrate the system with a copy of Video Essentials to find where the reference level was and balance the output of the subwoofer with the rest of the speakers in my 6 x 4m sealed room.

The first thing I found was that the small speakers were indeed a lot less sensitive than my own speakers. I had to increase the volume on my preamp by 5dB to get the same reading on my sound meter. This highlights the less efficient nature of very small speakers.

Many people assume that for small speakers all you need are small amplifiers. However, remember that a better and/or more powerful amplifier will always pay dividends so always get the best amplifier that you can afford.

After a couple of days of letting the system play music at moderate levels I started to run a few tests. The sub did blend nicely with the other speakers and the near seamless transition definitely helped in the presentation of music. So many systems with very small speakers sound ‘tinny’ and are all ‘top-end’ and a bit of bottom. Not these.

Next I put a series of test tones through the subwoofer and found a very clean performance down to around 40Hz and a gradual drop-off from there. The sub was located in the very corner of my listening room. As the frequency continued to drop the subwoofer was still making clean sounding noises but it seemed not to be producing much of the fundamental. Remember of course these results are in just one room and every room is different.

Musically the two tower speakers have much to recommend them aside from blending nicely with the sub. For one thing they imaged really well. Toed-in just a little toward the listening position resulted in a detailed image that you will never get from any standard theatre-in-a-box style system. I found treble performance to be un-fatiguing after long periods of listening – always a welcoming trait – and which many cheap systems don’t manage to achieve.

The piano is always a hard instrument to reproduce well and I was in the mood to punish the little surround system so let rip a great recording of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto. With transient attack and dynamics the Whatmough speakers did not disgrace themselves. Rock music such as Queen’s Best of (Vol. 3) had tracks like Hammer to Fall, which sounded a little congested and compressed when played at high volumes but not at more normal levels. I have no real bone to pick with the system’s performance with music in a normal sized room. The system does music very well.

Being a surround system I needed to play plenty of multi-channel mayhem. In a cautionary tale though, my first disc was the Super Audio CD of The War of the Worlds musical. I forgot the speaker limitations and ran the disc on Super Audio CD mode, which on my system means five full range channels. Even at moderate level several channels overloaded on the huge dynamics on the disc. I went back to normal film soundtracks and as per usual I took no mercy. The War of the Worlds (the 2005 movie) is a ‘sub-killer’ and I found I could get about 15db below reference level before the subwoofer started to make impolite noises. Not bad for a little sub on the most demanding woofer torture track yet devised. The sub did not reproduce some of the lowest bass in those passages but tried hard on some of the bass between 40Hz and 100Hz. In my room I could get close to reference level with Predator and Alien and most other action films – that means the AV8 could play pretty damn loud. This is a serious achievement for such an inexpensive system.

Whatmough has not cut too many corners in bringing its name to this market sector, and most buyers of this system (and there’s bound to be plenty) will be staggered at how much better they sound than the mini surround system they heard in the department store. These customers will then understand how little extra is required to get this level of quality.

Performance ****

Build Quality ****

Compatibility ****

Value for Money ****