Out of Canada comes possibly the greatest innovation in gaming sound ever
created for arguably the best gaming system available, the Xbox 5.1 Surround
Sound System. While other gaming consoles can process Dolby Pro Logic II,
only Xbox can decode Dolby Digital 5.1, making the Xbox 5.1 a system of
choice for true gaming sound.
The Xbox 5.1 system seems to have been designed with the high-end home
theater audiophile in mind, i.e., someone who wants to bring quality high end sound to
their gaming experience. Yet the price point will allow a much broader
audience to experience true innovation in gaming sound.
Spherex has gone to
great lengths to bring a host of gaming studios and industry organizations
onboard, creating titles that utilize the full advantage of the Xbox 5.1
system, so the appeal is sure to grow.
While Spherex may appear to be a new kid on the block, they have impressive
roots. They are a subsidiary of Audio Products International, one of the
largest loudspeaker manufacturers in the world, with well established brands
such as Mirage, Energy Speaker Systems, and Athena Technologies.
The core of the system is housed in the subwoofer which has a DDX digital
amplifier rated at a total of 300 watts RMS, delivering 50 watts of power to each of the front
speakers, 25 to the rear, and 100 to the 8” sub. The DDX amplifier is
digital all the way through, except at the very end where the voltage is
supplied to the speaker driver. Analog signal
corruption is eliminated and overall efficiency of the unit is greatly
enhanced with lower power consumption and much lower heat dissipation.
The subwoofer houses all of the technology and processing, acting as the
amplifier and main processing unit. The remote control activates functions
in a small control box (photo shown below) that is connected to the sub and run via the remote.
(Photos in this review are from the Spherex website and several on-line
stores, copyright respectively.)
The speakers are basically egg shaped pods with the satellite pointing up
rather than direct at one targeted area. If this sounds familiar, it
should, as the speakers are based on the Mirage Omnisat designs. The official
name for the speaker design is Omnipolar, where the speakers disperse sound in all
directions rather than directly at one area over a small angle. This allows
small speakers that have 3-1/2” drivers with a ¾” pure metal dome tweeter to
deliver a really big sound. If the speaker grilles are removed, there is not
much to see, but the overall weight of the individual speakers lets you know
that there is a lot going on under there.
There are five audio inputs: two Toslink optical digital, one coaxial
digital, one stereo analog, and one USB 1.1 Device Port. This allows for a
wide range of components beyond your Xbox to be connected to the Spherex
system such as your television, DVD player, or even MP3 player.
The Spherex Xbox 5.1 System includes all of the cables you need
to hook up your Xbox, with a few small exceptions. In order to utilize the
digital inputs of the Spherex system, you need the Xbox A/V pack, a
small price to pay and one which many users may already have. This is
required to connect the Xbox to a high end TV as well.
The pictorial diagrams
for configuring the system are extremely easy to follow and will not present
a problem for even the most novice of users. The speaker cables are
terminated on both ends with RCA plugs, which is both good and bad. The good
is that it does not allow the user to a) screw up the positive and negative
terminal connections, and b) it ensures that the speakers are placed at
the optimal listening distance. The bad is that if you need to change
the distances to fit your room, this proves difficult.
The optional speaker stands, which look great, have pre-drilled holes for running the speaker wire through the
tubes. However, the RCA plugs do not fit through the holes and would require
a difficult drilling out to hide the cables. That said, the optional stands
are truly the way to go. They are well designed with heavy metal bases, and
fit well with the system to give it an overall look and feel of fine
furniture. The stands also allow for the Omnipolar sound to radiate from the
speakers unimpeded, which provides for better overall sound. The included remote includes more
functions than the average user would use.
To take a line from Microsoft,
this system truly is Plug and Play.
The firmware that controls the system is upgradeable using your computer and
the USB port on the back of the sub. The software upgrades are available
from the Spherex website, and you can sign up on the site so that you get an
e-mail notification when upgrades are available. One example is the
soon to be available addition of six-channel analog surround sound (EAX).
Additional upgradeability is achieved through an expansion card slot on the
back of the sub. There is talk of a card that will contain USB 2.0 and
Ethernet ports allowing the system to communicate with home PCs on a LAN.
This will give you access to such things as Internet radio and MP3 files, so
you can get music off their servers directly. The card will also
enable a graphical user interface on your computer, allowing control of all
settings. (How nice would it be if they could build in wireless to
eliminate one more cabling run through your house?) There will also be a jukebox
capability that will allow the direct connection of an external hard drive
for playback of your music files without a PC. These coming features all
appear to be very exciting additions to the current system.
The control box does leave a little to be desired in terms of look and
function. There are no external buttons or knobs, and all functionality is
achieved via the remote control. The components and speakers look great and add to the
overall design appeal; however the big red LED screen on the control box
could be more attractive and easier to navigate.
The sound of the Xbox 5.1 actually takes some getting used to. The sound is
not precisely focused at one area, as we have become accustomed to with
traditional direct speakers; 70% of the sound is reflected while only 30% is
direct. The sound dispersion truly radiates into a 360 degree pattern that
engulfs and draws you into the gaming experience. The speakers utilize
natural room reflections which create a soundstage that is deep, wide, and
tall. This gives you a sweet spot
for the sound from virtually any seat in your room.
The sub is not overpowering, but it does deliver deep. Coupling the
encompassing sound with the rumble of the sub and the rattle of your Xbox
controller in your hands lets you really know when you have been hit while
gaming. The striking bass is given a big assist by
another piece of technology that the engineers over at Spherex took the
forethought to include. This is Waves Ltd. MaxxBass, a piece of
technology that uses the Phenomenon of the Missing Fundamental to increase
the perceived bass from a speaker. In layman’s terms, MaxxBass allows smaller
speakers to move less while tricking the listener's brain into thinking they
are hearing more bass. For example, it will take a speaker that can normally
play loudly down to 50 or 60 Hz, and make it sound like it is playing down to 25 Hz. MaxxBass does an excellent job of delivering the sound and the bass but you
do still miss some of the chest pounding thump that you get from a larger
speaker. In other words, you "hear" the deep bass but don't feel it as you
would with real 25 Hz signals.
I found myself seeking out new games to play just on the basis of them being
produced Dolby Digital. One game that stood out from the rest
and I can attest that the Xbox 5.1 System really did change my game playing,
was Halo2 from Bungie. The folks at Bungie made full use of the capabilities
of surround sound incorporation into Halo2, and you can hear all of the subtle
nuances of the other players in the game. No more worries wondering what is
around the next corner or if someone is sneaking up behind you. While
playing in Xbox Live I could hear an enemy approaching in a Warthog from
behind and was able to spin and launch a rocket at them before they could
run me down. Other players on my team could not believe how I always seemed
to know where everyone on the field was, if a sniper fires a shot you can
find them because you know exactly where the shot was fired from. This is
the gaming advantage of 5.1 surround sound. You hear the shot from behind
left, if that is where the shot is coming from.
Given the increasing need in gaming for precision locating of your enemies,
where the last shot came from, or what lies around the next corner, Xbox
5.1 is the obvious choice. However, you would be doing yourself a real
disservice by limiting use of the system to your Xbox games, and not putting
the system to use for other computer activities when Xbox is off. Maybe also
consider this nice system for kitchen TV use. CSI Miami is in 5.1
surround sound you know, and why not enjoy it at lunch or dinner?
Don’t let the Xbox tag fool you into thinking that the Spherex system can
only be used with the Xbox attached, because you would be limiting its versatility.
While the system I have is not leaving my game room, I am seriously
considering buying another one to bring surround sound to my bedroom purely
for home theater use. The encompassing sound, flexibility of inputs, and
small size of the speakers lends the system to a wide range of uses that
extend well beyond gaming.
With the expansion card, USB port, and plenty of optical, analog, and
coaxial inputs, the Xbox 5.1 will be around for a long time to
come. Spherex must also believe that the system will be around, because it
comes with a 10 year warranty.
The price point of the system belies its performance. You get sound,
quality, and expandability that are unprecedented. With its features, Spherex has set a new
standard of performance not just in gaming sound, but also in surround sound
systems that will be difficult to match at this price point.
Coming soon frrm Spherex is their RX2 5.1 Media Chair, a stylish piece of
furniture loaded with technology and an immersive 5.1 surround system sure
to envelope you in your gaming or movie experience. I fully expect that the
RX2 will give a new meaning to the term "rumble seat", and it is with that in mind
that I have already cleared a space in my living room!
- Scott Taillie -