A Comparison of 13 Surround Sound Systems

Introduction

PC users who are avid gamers, collect MP3s or watch DVDs need a good sound card and an equally good sound system. The arrival of Klipsch and Videologic on the high power and sound quality scene has opened a significant breach that other more well-known manufacturers have rushed into without looking back. Let’s not forget the undeniable contribution of Creative Labs and Altec Lansing who imposed the 4.2 and 5.1 sound standards for games. And it is indeed undeniable that PC sound has made enormous progress. Nowadays, we would never consider doing without all the latest developments that immerse us into the gaming world as never before.

Selection Criteria

No benchmark could ever provide a definitive evaluation system for surround sound. So in the end it is up to your ears to be the final judge. The trouble is that the perception of sound and its quality is far too subjective to allow someone else to decide in your stead. Still, there are one or two important, standard factors that help you ascertain whether a system sounds good or not.

The quality of high, medium and low frequencies : The high frequencies must be crystal clear and, above all, not saturated, even at the highest volume. Medium frequencies must be quite discernible, not muffled, and the low ones deep and percussive. So you should avoid any subwoofers that are so muted the sound comes out as a mush, devoid of any acoustic detail. Then there’s the balance. The high frequencies shouldn’t crowd out the low ones and vice versa. To improve this, you can always use the settings provided, that is, if they are actually provided. And be careful of the power ratio between the subwoofer and the speakers, which should not be to too high or too low. A good range is from one/two to one/four.

Separation : Instruments should be well separated for music listening. You should be able to distinguish all the sounds clearly and tell the difference immediately between, say, a double bass and a viola. This is where crossover comes into its own - it is the meeting point of frequencies from the subwoofer and the speakers. If it is too low, a bass sound is likely to come out of the subwoofer and the speakers at the same time, or out of the speakers alone, which is not good for quality sound reproduction.

Power : A flood of watts is not necessarily what music lovers need most. So don’t be overwhelmed by the figures the manufacturers announce. Power should be given in RMS watts (Root Mean Square) and you have to take account of the ratio between diaphragm size and the number of watts. Generally speaking, at least for multimedia systems, the bigger the speaker, the more power it needs. This is not necessarily true for hi-fi, which sometimes uses very big, powerful drivers (at the back of the speaker), powering less than ten watts.

Connections : As with sound cards, the quality and format of a system’s inputs are decisive factors for its use and performance. A 2 or 3.1 system can be quite happy with a single mini-jack stereo input and a headphone output, whereas a 4.1 system, and even more so a 5.1, should have a range of several analog and digital connections. An AC-3 decoder for instance, must have an S/PDIF input in RCA or Toslink format. Users will obviously be very happy if there are both. Other major points are the controls, which should be as numerous and accurate as possible, element shields, overall size and ergonomics of the system and, of course, the design.

Dolby Digital Sound

In 1965, an American physicist and engineer named Ray Dolby founded the Dolby labs in London. His idea was to develop noise reduction systems to improve sound quality for professionals and the general public alike. The Dolby name is now known throughout the world, and the surround sound standards he created are used both in movie theaters and at home. Here’s a brief reminder of the two predecessors of the Dolby Digital flagship standard :

Dolby Surround : this has three channels, two for the front and one for the rear, with a bandwidth of 100 Hz to 7 kHz. Dolby Pro Logic : this is an enhancement of Dolby Surround with four channels, including a center channel and two elements sharing a channel for the rear sound.

Dolby Digital 5.1, also called AC-3 (for Audio Code-3), has six channels - two front, two rear, one center and one for the subwoofer. Unlike Dolby Surround and Prologic, the bandwidth here ranges from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The "5.1" refers to the five front and rear parts, plus the subwoofer, called LFE (for Low Frequency Effects), represented by the "1". The term AC-3 refers to a coding technology which eliminates sound data the user cannot hear and produces a Dolby Digital sound band coded on six channels. An absolute prerequisite for Dolby Digital sound is a decoder, such as the one on the Creative Labs Inspire 5700, or else a sound card like Audigy or Acoustic Edge, which decodes 5.1 sound and has the correct outputs.

There are also systems with just two speakers and a subwoofer which use Virtual Dolby Digital. These use a front channel mixing process to produce a virtual center channel ; the rear channels are emulated by a processor which "virtualizes" surround sound using the HRTF filters via the front speakers.

Dolby Digital uses a fixed sound compression method of about 1:2. In other words, however much sound there is to encode, the compression will always be the same, because the compression algorithm has a constant output. Beyond this, there is a simultaneously positive (disk space) and negative aspect - negative because sound quality decreases as volume increases. But set against this is that the less space used on a DVD, the more space is available for different languages or bonuses, and this can compensate for a loss of quality. In general, AC-3 sound is coded in 18 bits, so the standard output of an AC-3 flow is 384 kbps (6 channels x 18 x 48 kHz). On restitution, the Dolby Digital decoder transmits with a delay of one millisecond on the front channels because the listening position is usually closer to the rear speakers than the front or center ones. This optimizes simultaneous sound reception. With some decoders you can adjust this delay to get the best listening configuration.

The main advantage of this standard is the fact that it is the digital audio surround standard for DVD. In the rules defining the DVD standard, no other kind of digital sound band can be inserted on a DVD unless there is also a Dolby Digital-encoded sound band. So you’ll never find a DTS sound band on its own. This leads to the second advantage of the standard - it is virtually universal. The first movie with a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound band was "Batman Returns" in 1992. Since then, practically all DVDs have perpetuated the standard.

DTS Sound

DTS, for Digital Theater System, was introduced by Steven Spielberg with the release of "Jurassic Park" in 1993. So far, this standard applies more to the big screen than private homes. It, too, is 5.1, so the sound is coded over six channels as in Dolby Digital. There are now many DTS-compatible systems available. So surround systems, like sound cards, can decode the standard via software. However, while the excellent quality of DTS is undeniable, and even a bit higher than Dolby, remember that there are no movies available in DTS alone, and that Dolby is considered to be the digital sound standard and DTS is not.

The main feature of DTS is that its coding system favors sound quality over disk space. So a DTS sound band codes in 24 bits instead of the 18 bits with Dolby. Compression uses a dynamic process where the compression rate varies with the amount of sound to encode. This rate ranges from 1:1 to 1:40 and generally results in better sound quality than Dolby Digital with an average rate of 1.5 Mb/s. The main drawback is obviously that the sound band takes up much more space (about three times as much) than Dolby. So DVDs coded in DTS can only have one language and a limited number of bonuses. Because it is optional as a sound standard, there are not many DVDs with DTS on the market, though the number is growing.

THX

THX is not a sound standard like DTS and Dolby Digital. It is a certification, a quality label created by Lucasfilm, designed to distinguish certain home cinema collections. The term THX is derived from "THX 1138", the first science fiction film by George Lucas, which has now become a cult movie. It was in 1986 that the daddy of Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and, later, Jar Jar Binks, began to develop the label, mainly for the big screen. This very demanding guy had noticed that cinema sound equipment produced sound of poor quality and that it varied depending on the movie theater. George reckoned that every single moviegoer had the right to expect the same sound with the same fidelity, regardless of the theater. And so, THX certification was born. It is now found in a great many movie theaters across the world.

Promedia by Klipsch and, more recently, Z-560 by Logitech opened the way for THX certification in multimedia sound systems. Though still marginal, it should not be long before these initials become a selling point. But while THX certification is obviously a sign of quality, it does not make one system better than another. There are systems of outstanding quality that match, or even exceed, the criteria set by Lucasfilm. It’s just that their makers have not found it worthwhile, let alone necessary, to pay George Lucas to put their product on the THX test bench.

The certification involves three main criteria :

Sound quality. This is judged on the basis of bandwidth, frequency balance, consistency of front and rear speakers, sound position qualities and whether the system does actually comply with the output levels announced. Interface ergonomics. This mainly means how easy it is to install and use. Manufacturing quality. On a system with a THX certificate, the two front speakers and the center speaker are usually identical and dipolar (two diaphragms). The sound emitted should be directed towards the listener and not bounce off the floor or ceiling. The bandwidth should not be below 80 Hz, so all THX systems must have a subwoofer.

Test Configuration And Methodology

Test System
ProcessorIntel Pentium 4 at 2 GHz
Memory256 MB
Hard diskWestern Digital 40 GB
CD/DVD playersYamaha CRW3200E - Pioneer DVR-103
Sound cardCreative Labs Audigy Platinum
Video cardNvidia GeForce 2 MX400
Drivers & Software
DirectX8.1a
OSWindows XP Professional

All of the systems were tested using the same configuration and the same software. They were judged on the basis of subjective and objective tests. The objective tests looked at the way sounds ranging from 35 Hz to 15 kHz were returned to evaluate bandwidth compliance and low frequency quality. The subjective tests looked at the way the systems behaved in games, music and home video environments. The games used were Alien Vs Predator 2, Diablo II and Max Payne. The DVDs we viewed were "Saving Private Ryan," "Brotherhood of the Wolf," "Matrix," and "Doberman." The audio CDs were Mozart’s "Requiem," the original soundtrack of "Schindler’s List," "Aion" by Dead Can Dance, and "Dig Your Own Hole" by the Chemical Brothers. While some of the systems tested have power and quality similar to hi-fi, they were judged mainly by PC performance. And as their price range does not exceed $500, we are nowhere in the league of big systems like Cabasse, JBL or Mission, which you get in hi-fi and home cinema, not to mention the more advanced sound systems which, if only in terms of price, are light years ahead of the multimedia world.

The Speakers

Creative Labs Inspire 5700

Creative Labs Inspire 5700
Number of satellites4
Speaker power7 RMS watts
Subwoofer30 RMS watts
Center channel21 watts
Bandwidth35 Hz - 20 kHz
SNR76 dB

Inspire 5700 is a 5.1 system with four 7-watt speakers, a 21-watt center channel and a subwoofer of 30 RMS watts. It has a control box for the decoder, settings and connections. It can be connected to any digital source - optical, coaxial or Digital Din (a format solely for use with Creative Labs 5.1 sound cards). When a film is played, the decoder automatically selects the detected format : Dolby Prologic, Dolby Digital or DTS. DVD video sound or music encoded in AC-3 is decoded with no trouble. Quality is good : just run "Brotherhood of the Wolf" or "Saving Private Ryan" and you will be completely bathed in surround sound. It should be said that the Inspire 5700 decoder has a specially designed decoding chip that is as good as those found on many hi-fi systems.

Creative is also clearly considerate of those who don’t have a digital output on their PC or DVD player - they integrated the CMSS mode (Creative Multi Speaker Surround). This can simulate six-channel sound by using the system’s two analog inputs, which are also used for 3D sound in games. The overall sound quality is very satisfactory. Creative has made great progress by using SLAM technology for its low frequencies, which are deep and percussive. This gives the very low frequencies much truer quality than did the old DTT3500s. The high frequencies are fairly clear and true and medium ones quite marked, even if not one hundred percent. However, with regard to mediums, there is a little regression compared to the DTT3500, which gave more percussive sound. Instrument distribution is nicely handled and the sound position well nigh perfect.

There are many settings for the available modes - digital 5.1, CMMS, 4.1 sound for games - and for sound equalizing, with a dial for each type of element. So you can set the low frequencies to your liking from the center channel or the speakers. The Inspire 5700 comes with an infrared remote control with all these settings on it, which can be very convenient in the home. Their top sound volume is fairly high and is just right for the average-sized room. So an Inspire 5700 can be used on a PC or in your living room equally well. Even if the speakers don’t look quite right for that, they are small enough for it not to matter. Final point, these speakers with DTS and Dolby Digital hardware decoding have a very good quality/price ratio.

Creative Labs FPS 1600

Creative Labs FPS 1600
Number of satellites4
Speaker power6 RMS watts
Subwoofer17 RMS watts
Center channelN/A
Bandwidth40 Hz - 20 kHz
SNR75 dB

The FPS 1600 system has four speakers of 6 RMS watts each and a subwoofer of 17 RMS watts. It comes with all the requisite connections and a small wired remote control, which is very handy for turning it on and off and changing the volume. This is actually the only setting control available on the FPS 1600, apart from low frequencies on the subwoofer. Medium and high frequencies cannot be adjusted, which is typical with entry-level systems. Still, we would have liked a few more options, if only for front-rear distribution.

These small cubic speakers do not dispense sound of amazing quality but are quite adequate for games. They are powerful, and the high frequencies, though not perfect, are quite respectable. The medium frequencies, on the other hand, lack presence and clearness. The subwoofer does its work fairly well and is powerful enough to make explosions and gunfire sound right, but don’t expect miracles. The threshold specified is 40 Hz, but this is optimistic, because no sound comes out properly below 50 Hz on an FPS 1600. When they are plugged into a 3D sound card, they distribute the sound satisfactorily over the four speakers, so you can distinguish whether the enemy is coming from the left, right or behind you ; you can detect the source of any sound in a game. The Diablo II and Alien vs Predator 2 tests gave good sound in games. Musical quality has not been neglected either, and the FPS 1600 renders it quite well, at least for the money you pay. If need be, you can use it to play MP3s or CD Audios on a PC but, there again, don’t expect miracles.

Creative Labs Inspire 5300

Creative Labs Inspire 5300
Number of satellites4
Speaker power6 RMS watts
Subwoofer18 RMS watts
Center channel6 RMS watts
Bandwidth47 Hz - 20 kHz
SNR75 dB

If you have a 3D sound card which handles 5.1 sound, and you don’t want to pay extra for an external decoder, Inspire 5300 is what you need. This is the offspring of the DTT2200, which has similar equipment. There are the four speakers and a center channel of 6 watts each, as well as an 18-watt subwoofer. The technical data for the Inspire 5300 are more like the FPS 1600 than the Inspire 5700. But appearances are not deceptive and it is plain that this system is a cut above the FPS 1600. There is a small wired remote control for adjusting the volume as well as front/rear distribution. As usual, low frequencies are adjusted at the back of the subwoofer along with the connections. These are the mandatory minimum with three mini-jack sound inputs for six channels.

Overall sound quality is perfectly satisfactory. Creative uses SLAM technology for the Inspire 5300, so low frequencies are deeper and more percussive. Very low sounds are better than on the earlier DTT2200, so there is progress here. The high frequencies are fairly clear and true, and the medium frequencies are quite marked, even if not one hundred percent. Here, on the other hand, it regresses compared to the DTT2200, which was a bit more percussive in the medium frequencies. Instruments are properly distributed and the sound position is almost perfect. The Inspire 5300 stands out from the rest because it is general-purpose. If plugged into a 5.1 sound card, it is as good for DVD and music as it is for gaming. Of course, music buffs will prefer to have a more neutral and faithful system like the Altec Lansing 641, but this is not in the same price range. For games, this is definitely one of the best quality/price ratios around at the moment. For DVD, obviously, software decoding by a sound card is not going to be as good as a proper external decoder, but the results are still pretty good. Sound power, while a bit less than on the Inspire 5700, gives an adequate saturation level when listening at a distance from the screen.

Cambridge SoundWorks Megaworks 510D

Cambridge SoundWorks MegaWorks 510D
Number of satellites4
Speaker power70 RMS watts
Subwoofer150 RMS watts
Center channel70 RMS watts
Bandwidth32 Hz - 18 kHz
SNR95 dB

The MegaWorks 510D by Cambridge SoundWorks, subsidiary of Creative Labs, is the most powerful sound system in this test. It has a total power of 500 RMS watts (in Burst mode), quite unheard of in multimedia sound. In fact, apart from the Klipsch Promedia 5.1, which we were sadly unable to include in this test, no system can compare in power with the MegaWorks 510D. The four speakers and the center channel each have 70 RMS watts. Add to that an impressive subwoofer of 150 watts and you’ll find yourself with a 5.1 sound system that can reach 107 dB, a fantastic sound pressure. The MegaWorks, like the Promedia 5.1, uses the BASH (Bridged Amplified / Switching Hybrid) and PDC (Primary Digital Control) technologies developed by Indigo. This involves analyzing a sound signal and sending a digital dataflow which maintains the amplified output level so that it is always above the requested level. The result is constant pressure on the amplified output, giving the sound great strength without distorting it.

But strength is not everything, and the 95 dB signal-to-noise ratio given shows that this is a higher-quality product than you usually find in multimedia sound systems. The bandwidth is pretty much the 32 Hz to 18 kHz specified, and the threshold is actually reached. There is just a slight gap in processing at 9-12 kHz, but this is not easy to hear. All the more so because the MegaWorks has a high-frequency damper function which completely does away with the problem by making a drop of 3 dB at 10 kHz. It is best to make use of this function if you use the speakers in a frontal position close to the elements. This, by the way, is one of the very few controls on the MegaWorks, which only has a wired remote control and an adjustment dial at the back of the subwoofer. As for connections, there are the mandatory three mini-jack inputs for 5.1 sound, and also a digital input in the same format. Creative provides the right cable for connecting it to an Audigy, Live ! 5.1 or Live ! 1024.

With regard to sound quality, the MegaWorks is better than the general level in this test. Especially noticeable are the very clear medium frequencies. The high ones are not quite so fantastic and do not match the outstanding level of the Altec Lansing 641, but they are still clear and true and only saturate at very high volume. The low frequencies are beyond reproach, deep and percussive and never drowning out the rest. The crossover is stated as 150 Hz, which is quite low and gives vital importance to the speakers, which happily never diminish the quality. Instrument distribution and stereo image are the same as the rest, very lifelike. The MegaWorks is also a general-purpose system that performs equally well in games, DVD and music. For classical music though, it should be said the Altec Lansing 641 gives better results because its neutrality and fidelity are more developed. As for DVDs, you need only watch the first scene of "Saving Private Ryan" to understand the power and efficiency of this system. The sound is so deep that gamers will not be disappointed either. In short, the MegaWorks 510D is without a doubt one of the best top-range 5.1 sound systems for PCs, and it also deserves a space in a living room next to the DVD player with an integrated decoder. Of course, this has its price, but, after all, the MegaWorks 510D is much more a technological showcase than a mass market product. So it is only meant for the wealthy who want one of the best systems around for their PC. For a quality approaching that of the 510D with a bit less power, those on a lower budget can turn to the Altec Lansing 641.

Altec Lansing 641

Altec Lansing 641
Number of satellites4
Speaker power25 RMS watts
Subwoofer100 RMS watts
Center channeln/a
Bandwidth32 Hz - 20 kHz
SNR> 65 dB

The first thing you notice about the 641 is that it looks like a hi-fi sound system. The subwoofer is imposing and augurs sound of unusual force - in fact, it has no less than 100 RMS watts, which is more than respectable. The four speakers are not left out and are so carefully designed they could quite easily fit into a living room without spoiling the interior decoration. They have a three inch driver for medium frequencies and a one inch tweeter for the highs. They power at 25 watts each, so the sound strength is shared equally with the subwoofer. The 641 comes with a wired remote control also of very elegant design. It has three buttons to control volume, low and high frequencies and a fourth one for selecting the playback mode : Stereo, Stereo X2 and Quad. For the connections, Altec Lansing has opted for simplicity with just two mini-jack analog inputs. It’s a pity that there is no digital input in keeping with a system of this kind.

For music, the four speakers are about as true as many hi-fi systems, even better than some. The quality of the medium frequencies and the clearness of the high ones, which hardly saturate at all, is a decided asset when it comes to classical music. The subwoofer has unheard-of strength, with the deep percussive sounds needed for listening to rock and modern music. The 32 Hz threshold is maintained in practice, which is a good sign. Note too that, as is so often the case with Altec Lansing, low frequencies are given definite prominence if you use the default settings. Music lovers will of course lower them to fine-tune the balance in the 641 system. The stereo image and instrument distribution are excellent, even if they don’t reach the same level as the MegaWorks 510D from Cambridge SoundWorks.

In games, the sound is well distributed over the four speakers, and gamers will find themselves completely surrounded.. Explosions and gunfire sound real. And the 641 can be used for watching DVDs on a PC, even without a digital input for 5.1 sound. You can downmix on four speakers using a recent playback program, which doesn’t give the positioning quality of a 5.1 system but is still quite good, especially with such speakers. All the more so because the sound volume that a 641 can reach goes much higher than the usual systems for PCs, and can quite easily fill a large room.

Altec Lansing 4100

Altec Lansing 4100
Number of satellites4
Speaker power7 RMS watts
Subwoofer35 RMS watts
Center channeln/a
Bandwidth30 Hz - 20 kHz
SNR> 70 dB

The Altec Lansing 4100 looks completely different and, incidentally, quite in line with the current fashion in flat screens. Each speaker has a little rounded metallic gray foot on which is set a black shell containing the two neodynium tweeters for the high and medium frequencies. The wooden subwoofer, much bigger than on the 2100, does not clash with this sleekness, and it looks like a rectangular monolith in gray and black. It has two loudspeakers on the front for the low frequencies and all the connections at the back. There is a full set of these - two mini-jack stereo inputs, four outputs for the speakers, an auxiliary input and a connector for the wired remote control which has settings for volume, on/off and choice of mode - stereoX2 or gaming. Altec Lansing also supplies a mini-jack AACI adapter to connect a game console.

The Altec Lansing 4100 speakers are not actually flat, but rather "minimum space." Whereas proper flat speakers use a thin sheet as a membrane, these speakers use real Microdrive tweeters with 7 watts each and a quality true to their design. The high frequencies are clear and true and only saturate when the volume exceeds 75%. The medium frequencies are very discernible and percussive, maybe a bit too much, but that is probably due to the nature of the tweeters, which are more at home in the high frequencies. The 35-watt subwoofer is incredibly efficient, so if you believe in proper balance you should lower its volume in relation to the speakers. The low frequencies are deep and quite up to the standard you’d expect of such a system. The 30 Hz claimed for the threshold is a bit optimistic, and only sounds above 35 Hz come out really true. In Gaming mode, each speaker is independent and the two front and surround stereo inputs are used. In stereoX2 mode, which is designed more for music, the surround speakers combine with the front ones and return exactly the same sound. This is called stereo panning. There is a small defect in the stereoX2 mode : however the speakers are arranged, you notice the sound positioned in the center. This slightly reduces the stereo effect in the listening position. It’s not completely distracting but it does lessen the stereo image.

Logitech Z-560

Logitech Z-560
Number of satellites4
Speaker power53 RMS watts
Subwoofer188 RMS watts
Center channeln/a
Bandwidth35 Hz - 20 kHz
SNR>100 dB

The Z-560 by Logitech is a completely different system from what we are used to from this manufacturer. It is not only THX-certified but also has an overall power of 400 watts, almost as much as the powerful MegaWorks 510D by Cambridge SoundWorks. The most surprising thing is that it is "constant" and not "burst" like the MegaWorks, so we can expect unequalled power from the Z-560. And this is indeed the case, because on playback it can reach an extremely high volume and saturates a bit less than the MegaWorks. As for settings, everything is on the SoundTouch Control Center, a small box that you can stand upright or lie flat on a desk. This has the only connection available on the Z-560, a wired-in twin-cable mini-jack to link it to the sound card, plus the amplified headphone output expected of such a system. The SoundTouch Control Center is used to set volume, on/off, low frequency levels, fade and to activate the M3D mode.

M3D, or Matrix Surround Sound, is a system that is supposed to enable a sound card with only one stereo output to produce good quality 3D Surround sound by redirecting environment and background sound to the rear speaker. Having tested the system in 2-point mode with an Audigy, we can conclude that this objective is partially attained. Still, I’m not as enthusiastic as Logitech and Labtec (inventor and developer of M3D), who claim to provide "realistic surround sound in a 3D arrangement." In the M3D Matrix Surround Sound tests on a DVD (with "Matrix" and "Alien vs Predator 2"), at best we just got slightly muffled stereo panning on the rear speakers. In fact, this system does not seem outstandingly useful. None of the recent sound cards have only one output, and the 3D sound technologies developed by Sensaura or Creative Labs can reproduce 3D sound with just two speakers in a much more conclusive way. Furthermore, a user who has $200 to invest in a sound system should logically be able to spend about four times less on, say, a Hercules Fortissimo II sound card.

For sound quality, the Z-560 is in the same league as the Altec Lansing 641 and the MegaWorks 510D by Cambridge SoundWorks. The sound is very good and very well suited for gaming. Medium frequencies are especially percussive and clear-cut, as are the low ones, whose power and depth are felt very quickly, even at low volume. The 35 Hz threshold that is specified actually holds true in practice. The high frequencies are also clear and true, though there is a bit of coloring which differentiates them completely from the Altec Lansing 641. So, while the sound is more than adequate for hip-hop or rock music, in our view it is not the best for classical. The same applies to DVD where the percussive sound is most effective in action scenes. You can just feel those bullets flying in "Saving Private Ryan." Instrument distribution and stereo image are the same level as the MegaWorks 510D - outstanding. And the Z-560 has a decided lead on its rivals in its price. At $200, it has the best quality/price ratio in this range of sound systems.

Logitech Z-540

Logitech Z-540
Number of satellites4
Speaker power5 RMS watts
Subwoofer20 RMS watts
Center channeln/a
Bandwidth35 Hz - 20 kHz
SNR>75 dB

The Z-540 is the entry-level system in the Logitech range and in direct competition with the Creative Labs FPS 1600. Unlike its big sister Z-560, it is not THX-certified and doesn’t have outstanding strength. The four speakers have 5 RMS watts each, which is not a lot. The subwoofer has 20 RMS watts. The bandwidth is the same as the Z-560, but in practice the best sound is a bit above 40 Hz. The signal-to-noise ratio is stated as being over 75 dB, pretty good for a system in this price range. The Z-450 doesn’t have a SoundTouch Control Center ; its controls are on the right front speaker. There is a dial for volume control, the fader and activation of the M3D mode described in the Z-560 test.

The sound quality of the Z-450 is obviously much lower than the Z-560. In fact, it is much more comparable to the FPS 1600 and, in some respects, the Inspire 5300. High frequencies are good and clear, but saturate above 2/3 of the volume. Medium frequencies are a bit better and above those of the FPS 1600 for presence and quality. And they saturate much less than the high frequencies when the volume is on full. The low frequencies are better than the FPS 1600 as well, nicely deep and percussive for a system of this size. Sound distribution and stereo image are just fine. The Z-450 is a good bet for gamers who don’t want to spend more than $80.

Abit SP-60

Abit SP-60
Number of satellites4
Speaker power20 RMS watts
Subwoofer50 RMS watts
Center channel20 RMS watts
Bandwidth30 Hz - 30 kHz
SNR> 60 dB

Out of all the test candidates, the Abit SP-60 is the sound system that is the most similar to a hi-fi entry-level system. It is very smart looking, setting it apart from the usual multimedia systems. The blue textile shield and the wooden speaker housing are lovely. The speakers and the center channel power at 20 watts each and the subwoofer at 50 RMS watts, which is pretty good. The bandwidth claimed is quite surprising since it ranges from 30 Hz (which is normal) to not less than 30 kHz ! Not being equipped for reproducing such a frequency, and not having a willing bat at hand, we sadly could not verify this performance. Anyway, a sound at 15 kHz is at the limit of what you can hear, and what you can bear, with the human ear. For its settings, it is really strange that such a system does not have remote control - the SP-60 had one. The settings are on the front of the subwoofer, with volume control, mute and sound level element by element, as you’d expect of a hi-fi-like 5.1. The connections are at the back of the subwoofer, with five inputs in RCA format for the six channels, plus two more inputs for normal stereo and, of course, all the outputs for linking the elements of the system. The only digital input is in DIN G9 format, a type only found on FM-801-based Abit AU-10 cards. This is a pity because this card is not the best of its kind. A coaxial or optical digital input would have been better.

With regard to quality, we should remember that Abit itself gives a signal-to-noise ratio of 60 dB, which is pretty low for the class that the SP-60 should aspire to. And indeed, fine feathers do not make it a fine bird. High frequencies saturate exponentially as soon as you raise the volume above 2/3, which is irritating, to say the least. Medium frequencies are a bit better but less marked than on the Inspire 5700, for instance. Low frequencies compensate somewhat for all this with their sweetness and depth, but because they are not percussive enough, they lack punch in games. On the whole, provided you don’t raise the volume too much, the sound on the SP-60 is smooth and not at all unpleasant. But when you push it to the full it soon shows its limits. Those who like strongly marked sound for music and DVD are likely to be disappointed. To conclude, the main attractions of the SP-60 are its appearance and fairly low price. A bit more quality would have been very welcome.

Hercules XPS 510

Hercules XPS 510
Number of satellites4
Speaker power8 RMS watts
Subwoofer20 RMS watts
Center channel8 RMS watts
BandwidthN/C
SNRN/C
PriceNot available in N. America

With its experience in sound cards in the Fortissimo and Muse XL range, Hercules had no option but to come up with a 5.1 system to round it all off. And so we have the XPS 510, designed first and foremost for gaming and DVD. It has a subwoofer of 20 RMS watts and four speakers, plus a center channel of 8 watts each. The speakers are encased in plastic, but heavy enough not to cause much echo. The sound card or AC-3 decoder is connected via mini-jack inputs. Settings on the subwoofer are no more than the mandatory minimum - volume and low frequencies - which is inadequate and inconvenient.

The sound at 3/4 volume is strong enough for the average-sized room and does not saturate. Melodiousness is good - the instruments are distinct and quite audible. As is so often the case with this kind of system, the medium frequencies are inadequate. This gives a rather light spectrum but on the whole, the balance is fine. Low frequencies are satisfactory and well defined, although not as efficient and percussive as on the Inspire 5300. The results in games and DVD are generally positive, especially when you think about how much an XPS 510 costs. For music, fidelity is obviously not as good as an Altec Lansing 641, but will still satisfy the majority of users.

Labtec Arena 530

Labtec Arena 530
Number of satellites4
Speaker power4 RMS watts
Subwoofer15 RMS watts
Center channeln/a
Bandwidth40 Hz to 20 kHz
SNRN/C

The Labtec company has been part of Logitech for a bit more than a year now. The brand used this as an occasion to overhaul its range of sound systems and take it into the gaming world. The Arena 530 is the result of this. The speaker design, the same for both sets, is really original. It consists of little spheres with a metallic gray grid mounted on rounded feet. The 15-watt subwoofers are also the same in both systems. They are more classical and resemble earlier Labtecs like the LCS-2514. Speaker power is fairly unassuming at 4 watts per unit. Labtec has not progressed much with regard to connections. There is the same interdependent cabling system which makes installation hard work : on both systems, all the connections go from the right front speaker to the subwoofer, sound card and left speaker.

For sound quality, the subwoofer dispenses low frequencies quite well, but not outstandingly. The speakers only have one diaphragm, so you can’t expect miracles from them. They do their job fairly with clear highs and medium frequencies marked enough for games. Instrument distribution is not wonderful so the Arena 530 cannot be recommended for music. It uses the M3D (Matrix Surround Sound) technology described in the Z-560 test. This system is not above reproach, but its price is honest enough for gamers who don’t want to face financial ruin. Although, for a similar price you can find better systems, such as the Logitech Z-540.

Philips A3600 (Available April 2002)

Philips A3600
Number of satellites4
Speaker power10 RMS watts
Subwoofer2x25 RMS watts
Center channel10 RMS watts
Bandwidth40 Hz to 20 kHz
SNRN/C

The Philips A3600 sound system is the only one in the test with flat speakers. It uses a technology developed by Philips but based on NXT. This is a good point to start with as the flat systems already tested, whether they use conventional TXT or SLAB, did not impress us unduly. The A3600 has four speakers, a center channel of 10 watts and a subwoofer of 2x25 watts, with two different loudspeakers : a conventional 5.25" and a 6" one using wOOx technology, which also belongs to Philips. This is supposed to produce very deep low frequencies using much smaller components than usual. Despite all this, the tests showed that the two combined did not reach the 40 Hz threshold claimed, but one of around 50 Hz. The A3600 settings are accessible with the infrared remote control which has all the controls required for this kind of system : mute ; stand-by ; front and rear volume ; high and low frequencies ; plus several predefined equalizing functions for Rock, Classic and Pop. It also has three playback modes : Movie, Stereo and Concert. Connections are not left out either, with two mini-jack inputs for 4.1 sound and a DIN input with a mini-jack adapter for 5.1.

Obviously you can’t compare a flat speaker system to one with conventional speakers. Whatever the manufacturers may say, flat-speaker sound is always more metallic, and both medium and high frequencies soon start to crackle when the volume is raised a bit too high. So, if highs with fidelity and clearness and nicely-marked mediums are essential for you, it’s best not to go for this kind of system. In practice, we noticed that the A3600 behaves better than the other flat systems we have tested. High frequencies are less metallic and nasal, proof of a fairly good bandwidth in high sounds. Medium frequencies are not so marked as in conventional systems but still not bad. As we already said, low frequencies are not as deep as they should be with a threshold noted at 50 Hz. Still, they are good enough for games, given the small size of the subwoofer. But if they are good enough for games, they aren’t for DVD because they lack the depth and presence needed for rendering certain background sounds. So, if it is used for what it is good at, the A3600 is a good flat-speaker system. But, compared to conventional systems in the same price range, it is not up to scratch. If design and a small size are important factors for you, you’d best go for an Altec Lansing 4100.

Videologic ZXR-500

Videologic ZXR-500
Number of satellites4
Speaker power8 RMS watts
Subwoofer25 RMS watts
Center channel8 RMS watts
Bandwidth20 Hz to 20 kHz
SNRN/C

Videologic is a maker from whom we’ve come to expect top-range and highly efficient systems like the Sirocco Crossfire or Digitheatre DTS. The ZXR-500 is more modest and comes into the $100 scale along with the Logitech Z-450 and Creative Labs FPS 1600. The ZXR-500 has four speakers and a center channel of 8 RMS watts apiece and a subwoofer of 25 watts. So total power is 65 watts, which is not at all bad. The bandwidth claimed is 20 Hz to 20 kHz, corresponding more to what is actually supported by the amplifier than by the speakers, for which Videologic gives no special figures. Our tests showed an effective threshold of around 50 Hz. For a system at this price, the ZXR-500 is not bad-looking, with the speakers mounted on tripods and a "Bose-like" subwoofer. The plastic looks a bit tacky but the speakers are actually very heavy. This is due to the Microlab drivers, which have hefty shields. All the connections are at the back of the subwoofer. There are three RCA analog inputs for 5.1 sound, but no digital input. The controls on the front are quite unusual, with four dials for center sound, low frequencies, and front and rear speakers, but not for overall volume. So if you want to turn up the volume on all the speakers, you have to do it by hand with the four dials or else via the sound card in Windows.

ZXR-500 sound is not as good as we are used to from Videologic. High frequencies are fairly true and clear up to mid volume, but they saturate soon beyond that. Mediums are not bad, so that is a point in favor of the system. The subwoofer is not especially efficient and is more like the FPS 1600, with a bit more power. Low frequencies are not very deep or percussive compared to the Logitech Z-540. But sound position and stereo image are very well rendered. In the game tests, the ZXR-500 gives good results in 4.1. For DVD, the sound is not unpleasant, but it loses power and saturates at high volume. So those used to the qualities of the Sirocco Crossfire should forget them and just remember the price of the ZXR-500. For a bit more than $100 you still get a respectable 5.1 system. Gamers will prefer the Logitech Z-540, which has stronger sound and is a bit cheaper.

Conclusion

These tests show that, on the whole, the quality of each system matches its price, so each user should make a choice based on budgetary considerations, personal requirements and the intended use of the system. 5.1 systems are supposed to be the best option for movie viewing, but sometimes it would be better to pass on the center channel and gain in quality instead. So you’d be watching your DVD with an Altec Lansing 641 rather than a Hercules XPS 510. Obviously, the absolute tops are the big 5.1 systems designed for all situations, like the MegaWorks 510D by Cambridge SoundWorks. Though it must be said that these, however good they are, cost an awful lot more than most people are prepared to invest in a PC sound system.

We can separate sound systems into two price groups. For the "entry-level" group, the choice is between the Inspire 5300, the Creative Labs FPS 1600, the Logitech Z-540 and the Videologic ZXR-500. We definitely preferred the Z-540, which has the best quality/price ratio in the test even though it is only a 4.1. As for the bigger, more expensive systems, three of them stand out : the MegaWorks 510D, the 641 and the Z-560. If money isn’t an issue, then you can go for the 510D with your eyes closed, though the other two will still give you pleasure. Of these three giants, the best quality/price ratio is the Z-560. For design and sweet sound, the winner is the Altec Lansing 641.

We would award a well-deserved medal to the Altec Lansing 4100 for its unusual innovative design that does no damage to its quality. And if you absolutely want an external AC-3 decoder, go for the Inspire 5700 which has a good quality/price ratio compared to some of the other entry-level home cinema systems.

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