Boston Acoustics SoundWare XS 5.1 Speaker System Page 2
I mention all of this not out of pique or obsessiveness but simply because these maneuvers might prove to be difficult for an audio newbie who’s purchased a $500 speaker package. Also, as I wasn’t able to use any of my usual cables, it affected my frame of reference as I listened to the product.
Associated gear included a Rotel RSX-1550 A/V receiver, Panasonic DMP-BD35 Blu-ray player, Luxman PD-289 turntable, Shure V97xE cartridge, and Bellari VP530 tubed phono preamp.
Spies, Thieves, and Robots
Duplicity delivers its corporate espionage scenario through two top-quality assets: Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Their interplay is both comic and exciting. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack became the subject of some brief experimentation with placement. I had the SoundWare XS satellites perched on stands intended for larger speakers, and they were a few inches lower than they ideally should have been. Therefore, I started with them tilted up, firing slightly over my head. This worked acceptably, but I found myself missing some of the softer dialogue. So I then repositioned the speakers, firing them straight ahead, which aimed them at the base of my neck. This worked better. I got the best result when I sat on the floor—you should mount these speakers at ear level. Off-axis performance was good enough to achieve decent clarity and envelopment, and coloration was usually below the threshold of awareness. They did well with Duplicity’s Latin-tinged score, although the crowd noise sounded a little canned.
The Dolby TrueHD Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves sounded a little thin. The soundtrack’s relative crudity stood in contrast to the movie’s visual production values. Pre-ballistic battle effects—whizzing arrows, whooshing catapults, roaring flames, screaming peasants—went by painlessly. I like the concept of an action movie without guns or cars. Dialogue was reasonably clear, and the only real deficiency was the movie’s laissez-faire attitude toward accents. That’s probably how Kevin Costner’s swashbuckling Robin ended up taking a backseat to Alan Rickman’s scenery-chewing Sheriff of Nottingham. Extra points to Christian Slater for at least making an attempt to fake it.
Animatrix is the final volume of The Ultimate Matrix Collection boxed set. This series of animated shorts, in Dolby TrueHD, is dominated by prequel plots that set up the action of the original movie. Visuals vary from video-game-like graphics to more traditional forms of animation. Since the Matrix series’ sound scheme has always tended to favor synthetic effects, this animated installment didn’t seem any more artificial than any of the live-action movies. As in the previous movies, dynamic range was reasonable enough to keep the most abrasive effects from sounding grating.
Cellos, Basses, and Glitter
As my music demos got underway, I began to focus more on bass. I don’t always miss it when viewing movies—in fact, getting less than the full amount of bass in an action movie soundtrack can be a relief. But when I’m listening to music, scanty bass sets off alarm bells, even in classical chamber music.
For instance, in The Piano Trios, an eight-CD set of Haydn trios by the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, it became obvious that the cello and the pianist’s left hand were both understated. I hiked the sub volume from my customary setting of 11:00 (–4 decibels in the Rotel A/V receiver) to 3:00. Suddenly the cello came to life, and the piano had more weight. The string sound in general, including the violin, was warmer and mellower than I’d expect from such a small sat/sub set. Note that this was with the center speaker 18 inches out from the wall and the front left/right speakers a couple of feet out. Some sat/sub sets are voiced to pierce through the murk of on-wall placement. This can make them shrill when placed away from the wall—say, on a table with a pedestal-supported flat-panel TV. That wasn’t a problem with these speakers.
My meditation on bass continued in Michael Manring’s debut solo album Unusual Weather, on a vintage piece of almost noiseless Windham Hill vinyl. Manring is a bassist, and the album’s most communicative moments come when the saxophonist falls silent and he plays alone or nearly alone. I backed off the sub bass control to 1:00 to obtain the ideal weight for the fretless electric bass.
Steeleye Span’s All Around My Hat, also on vinyl, has a surefire formula for turning upbeat folk-rock songs into irresistibly catchy anthems: voices and rhythm section forward in the mix, guitar and fiddle behind. This ensured the title track a number-five spot on the U.K. charts. It also exposed both the SoundWare’s midrange coloration and the midbass hole that’s inherent in miniature sat/sub sets. Still, the treatment of Maddy Prior’s toppy soprano wasn’t unpleasant, and you probably wouldn’t notice the slight discontinuity in the drums unless you’ve heard the song through a good set of full-range speakers. I’m typing this a couple of hours after the demo, and I still can’t get “Hard Times of Old England”—truly an anthem for our time—out of my head.
The Boston Acoustics SoundWare XS 5.1 is an ingeniously designed satellite/subwoofer set. I would definitely redesign the terminals to make life easier for people who aren’t handy with cables (not to mention those who are). But the system has several winning features that offset that minor design flaw. Chief among them is the unique shape, which is both aesthetically gratifying and amazingly pragmatic in terms of placement. The fact that Boston includes the mounting hardware is a plus. After all, when a product doesn’t include it, you may have to add extra-cost mounting hardware to the overall cost. Voicing is well suited for entry-level receivers and surprisingly adept with violins, toppy sopranos, and screaming peasants. At $500, these speakers have few competitors as distinctive or as versatile.