It’s safe to say Bill Gates has it all. And there probably aren’t many things that impress him. But once in a while comes a product that makes even Bill drool. Bill, meet the Xbox 5.1 Surround Sound System! And don’t worry, unlike other Microsoft products this system will never give you a “blue screen” or a “runtime error”. No, really!
Actually the Xbox 5.1 Surround Sound System isn’t made by Microsoft. It’s an officially licensed product by Spherex Inc., a subsidiary of Canadian speaker maker Audio Products International responsible for the popular Energy, Mirage and Athena Technologies brands.
The Xbox 5.1 Surround Sound System is an innovative new product taking home theater and gaming enthusiasts by storm. Over a year in the works, the system was developed by Spherex Inc. with the help from top audio technology players including Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.), Apogee Technology, MaxxBass, and Texas Instruments.
The system is made up of five OMINPOLAR satellite speakers, a powered 8″ subwoofer and a 300 watt RMS digital six channel amplifier. Built into the subwoofer box are decoders for 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS and Dolby Pro Logic II. Five independent audio inputs are on-board: three digital, 1 analog (left and right) and 1 USB 1.1. The system also comes with a headphone output, is software and hardware upgradeable for future compatibility and comes with a remote control and IR receiver. You’ll find all necessary speaker cables in the box. Even a digital fiber optic cable is included.
The five identical speakers were developed based on the magic of Mirage-exclusive OMNIPOLAR technology. OMNIPOLAR sound is created in a natural ratio of 30 percent direct to 70 percent reflected sound and dispersed in a 360 degree pattern. This exclusive technology achieves a heightened sense of realism by producing sound that is pure, natural and three-dimensional, placing the listener in the middle of the action. The unique speaker design also allows for more flexible speaker placement than conventional speakers.
The dome-shaped satellite speakers are completely black and carry a sleek futuristic look in a very compact design. Each speaker measures a mere 5-1/2″ high by 6-1/2″ long by 3-1/4″ wide. The small size allows for speaker placement in virtually any room no matter how small. The bass reflex design satellites combine a 3-1/2″ woofer with a 3/4″ metal dome tweeter in an injection molded hydrocarbon polymer (looks and feels like plastic) enclosure. Each speaker fancies a silver Xbox logo in the lower front. A single RCA input is found on the bottom of the enclosure (the plug connects horizontally). This creates a clean look for each speaker. Matching stands are sold separately at $69 for a pair.
The subwoofer comes in a black finish with a silver top-mounted handle, and sits 2 inches above the ground on four silver plastic feet with rubber pads. Driving the bass is a down-firing 8″ cellulose matrix cone woofer, with the help of two bottom ports. The enclosure is slightly larger than the average 8″ sub box measuring 16″ tall by 9-1/4″ wide by 16″ deep. It is also fairly heavy at 28 pounds, but the handle makes it really easy to move around. Both sides of the subwoofer as well as the handle sport a silver Xbox logo. The back panel of the subwoofer enclosure houses RCA-type inputs for each of the five satellites, and 5 audio inputs (2 optical, 1 coaxial, 1 analog, and 1 USB). You’ll also find a connector for the IR receiver, a headphone jack (althought it would be more convenient in the front) and a power switch in the back. To top it all off, an expansion card slot is also included for future hardware upgrades. The USB port can also be used to connect to your computer for additional functionality such as downloading new features and options from the Spherex website as they become available. The subwoofer enclosure also serves as a home to the 6-channel Apogee DDX Digital Amplifier Topography: 3 x 50 watts (for the left, center, right channels), 2 x 25 watts (for the surround channels), and 100 watts for the subwoofer. At the heart of the system lies a Texas Instruments Aureus 32-bit processor for Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic II, stereo, 5 channel stereo decoding and MaxxBass processing on all 6 channels.
Also included in the package is an attractively-styled IR receiver, a remote control, five speaker cables and an optical cable.
Setting up the system was a breeze. I had the entire setup up and running in less than 20 minutes. The setup is so straight-forward, even someone not familiar with audio video equipment should be able to get the Xbox 5.1 system running in about half an hour. The front left and right speakers together with the surrounds were placed on 31″ stands. The center channel was placed on the base of our Panasonic 42″ plasma (TH-42PX20), just below the screen also at a height of 31″. Finally, the subwoofer fit in a corner of the room just behind the right channel. Unlike most speakers, these Xbox 5.1 speakers don’t use conventional speaker cables. The provided speaker cables have a single RCA plug on each end. One end goes to the speaker, the other to the appropriate output on the back of the subwoofer. The five speaker outputs on the subwoofer’s rear panel are clearly labeled, and since the cables have single ends you don’t have to worry about polarity. The IR receiver was connected to the subwoofer box using the DIN connector and placed on top of the enclosure. I then connected an Xbox console to the first optical input and our Pioneer DV-563-A DVD player to the second optical input. It’s that easy!
An attractive feature of the system is that you don’t need a receiver to use it. The sound decoding and amplification is done right inside the subwoofer enclosure. In this regard, the system is somewhat of a home theater in a box (htib) hybrid (but luckily doesn’t suffer from the poor quality of many htibs). For entry-level users and those who don’t want a bulky receiver this is great. You don’t have to buy a pricey receiver and there is no complicated setup. This in turn makes the system really easy to use and means that you don’t have to purchase any additional interconnect cables.
I sat myself in a comfortable armchair in my listening spot and powered the system on. Pressing the ‘test’ button on the remote sent a static test noise to each speaker around the room and the IR receiver told me which speaker should be playing the tone. This confirmed that each speaker was connected to the proper output on the subwoofer. I then calibrated all the speakers with the ‘level +/-‘ two-way button on the remote to the same volume output with the help of a digital Radio Shack SPL meter. Of course, you don’t need an SPL meter to do this at home. The IR receiver provided a clear indication of what I was doing the entire time.
With everything calibrated, I powered on my Xbox console and inserted one of my favorite racing games, Project Gotham Racing 2. Aside from stunning graphics and incredible gameplay, the game features a well designed Dolby Digital soundtrack. Of course, most of today’s games for Xbox have Dolby Digital soundtracks. And let me tell you – once you’ve played a game in Dolby Digital, there’s no going back. The roaring sounds and revving of engines filled the room. The unique sounds of different engines were easily recognizable. The developers of this game used actual recordings of engines to make the game as realistic as possible. Background music accompanied each race well, although it was often drowned out by the sound effects. I started playing the game with the volume at 30, clearly displayed on the IR receiver, and after a few races decided to turn it up to 34. At the higher volume level, I really got myself into the game. The sounds of opponent cars on the track gave the Xbox 5.1 system a chance to do countless speaker transitions and it carried them out very smoothly. Cars passing me during the race clearly sounded like they were actually passing me. I could hear cars approaching from behind, and eventually the sound would travel from the left or right surround to the front speaker on the same side. The speakers did an absolutely amazing job of creating a 360 degree sound field around me, in turn placing me in the middle of the action. This sure beats listening to the sound of video games through your television speakers.
Next, I decided to try 007: Nightfire, one of the recent additions to the great Bond series. This game is loaded with a wide range of frequencies from subtle background noises to loud explosions. Sounds of bullets from various weapons slicing through the air and echoing in the surroundings sounded so close to me, they made me jump at times. Speaker to speaker transitions were superb. Missed enemy fire clearly missed me either on the left or right. Firing a weapon inside a building sounded distinctly different when shooting one outside. Of course, shooting metal barrels is always fun – they exploded with loud, powerful blasts accompanied by flames. The subwoofer blended seemlessly with the rest of the speakers and was well capable of pumping out some low frequencies. The high pitch sound of a bullet turned into a loud explosion very smoothly each time. Subtle sounds such as footsteps of characters in the game came through very clearly on the Xbox 5.1 system. Stepping on steel floors inside of a building echoed appropriately, while stepping on pavement outside sounded slightly grainy as if the ground were washed with sand. Yes, this game was a high-budget “Hollywood” production.
Other games, like the classic Halo, Mech Assault and Crazy Taxi also sounded spectacular on the Xbox 5.1 system. Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard a few dedicated video gaming speaker systems, but none of them could compete with this one. Most of them fall short on power output with their tiny cube speakers, and simply can’t put out the low frequencies to the right level. If you’ve been playing your Xbox games through your television speakers this system will bring your gaming to a whole new level. In fact, this system will also work just as great with your PS2 or Gamecube consoles. Sure you might have to swallow your pride if you’re a PS2 or Gamecube fan, but they just don’t have any speaker systems like this for you.
But video gaming isn’t the only strong side of this system. It’s designed for movie watching and music listening as well. To begin the moving watching session, I reached for Pearl Harbor. Selecting ‘Play’ from the main menu greeted me with the familiar THX intro. The smooth motion from the higher frequencies (played by the satellites) to the low ending of the clip (played by the subwoofer) was stunning. And the bass reached appropriate depths. I listened to the intro one more time, with the volume slightly higher. Wow – I had a hard time believing all this sound was produced by these small speakers. I jumped ahead to the scenes when the attack on Pearl Harbor begins. The scene begins with enemy planes coming from behind the screen producing a convincing experience of a flyby. Throughout this entire action sequence I truly felt surrounded by planes, gunfire and explosions. I closed my eyes for a few seconds to take in just the sound and it actually gave me the chills. Explosive sound effects were reproduced by the Xbox 5.1 system with impact and tightness. Planes and bullets flying from channel to channel created a very three-dimensional experience.
I watched several full movies on the system including Gladiator, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Resident Evil (Deluxe Edition) and THX 1138 (the recently released George Lucas director’s cut). I also watched many action sequences from my favorite movies, played more games and listened to some music. I could continue writing about my experiences for pages but I think you get the point.
During the three weeks I spent with the Xbox 5.1 Surround Sound System my initial impressions about it never changed. This is an amazing system for video gamers and movie watchers alike with a small budget for sound. It is also a system that makes perfect sense in rooms where a conventional home theater is not an option. The only thing that I didn’t like about it, is that the Xbox logo covers every component of it, which gives it the appearance of an average gaming sound system. Without a doubt, the $649 Xbox 5.1 system rises far above any system in this price range that I have ever listened to. It delivers great performance during game play, movie watching and music listening. It is a great solution for small to medium sized home theaters on a smaller budget, rooms with space restrictions, and those who would like an easy to set up and easy to use surround sound system. It carries the added advantage of doing all the sound decoding and amplification, so you don’t need to purchase a pricey receiver (that would also make the system more complicated to use). After all, how many people out there have a DVD player connected to a television without external speakers? Yes this system is also what you’ve been looking for.
But don’t just take my word for it. Listen to the system for yourself, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
MSRP: $649 (Canadian)
OMNIPOLAR Satellite Speakers:
3-1/2” woofer and 3/4” metal dome tweeter
Bass reflex design
Weight: 2-1/2 lbs / 1.1 kg
Dimensions (HxLxW): 5-1/2” x 6-1/2” x 3-1/4” (14 x 16.5 x 8.3 cm)
8” cellulose matrix cone woofer
dual vented design
Weight: 28 lbs / 12.7 kg
Dimensions (HxLxW): 16” x 9-1/4” x 16” (40.6 x 23.5 x 40.6 cm)
6 channel digital amplification
300 watts total power (RMS)
3×50 W (L,C,R) / 2×25 W (SL,SR) / 1×100 W (Subwoofer)
Apogee DDX Digital Amplifer Topography
Dobly Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic II, Stereo, 5 channel stereo
3 digital audio inputs – 2 opt. / 1 coax
1 analog input – L/R RCA
1 USB 1.1 port
5 RCA type speaker outputs
1 headphone output
1 expansion card slot
1 IR input