Great for office work and road warriors, but inadequate for gamers, graphics professionals, and media center users.
It seems that Altec Lansing is finally making a comeback when it comes to desktop audio outside of the OEM sets they manufacture for Dell. Their latest product, the FX5051 boldly stands out spec and design-wise from the typical Creative and Logitech sets we're accustomed to seeing, and one-ups the whole market by being the first 5.1 channel speaker system to incorporate a USB input! On to the review...
Gone are the days of seeing boring black rectangles on your desk, as Altec Lansing has taken a more angular approach with their latest offering. While silver and black is nothing new (but I still love the color scheme), what gives the FX5051 speakers their unique look is the fact that each of the five separate speakers is shaped like an irregular pentagon with a broad face and a square base that's angled straight at you. Each unit houses a 40mm midrange driver and an 18mm high frequency tweeter, consuming a modest 12 Watts of power, except for the center channel which uses 13 Watts.
This is everything... talking about cable clutter.
The metal bases, holding the speakers up from a single stud in the rear are well designed, with four long rubber strips underneath each one to prevent slipping across the desk. Despite the stud in the rear, routing cables from the backs of the satellites is incredibly easy thanks to a groove underneath that allows the cable to get past while the base lies perfectly flat. For those with limited desk space, the bases (with a little effort), slide straight out from underneath the speakers, allowing users to wall mount them after putting in an order for the wall mounting kit (free, but $3 S&H) that Altec Lansing decided against including in the box.
The subwoofer design is also unique, not geometrically but in application. For one, it doesn't have a blow hole, but the entire top portion is surrounded by a honeycomb mesh to allow sound to propagate out. Second, unlike traditional consumer subwoofers the sub doesn't have one woofer, it has two, and they're pointed right at each other in an isobaric configuration that effectively doubles the bass without taking up additional floor space.
The rear of the subwoofer is where all cables are attached, and is also where the power cord is permanently attached (the amplifier is inside the subwoofer). There are 5 color-coded RCA plugs for the satellites, one DIN connector for the control pod, a USB port, and contrary to what we and the rest of the blogosphere posted back in September, there's also three 3.5mm audio jacks for hooking up to a traditional sound card or DVD player. A small selector switch is available for switching between 2/4 and 6-channel mode, allowing users of stereo equipment to upmix their music to quadraphonic sound. It'd be nice if this was integrated into the control pod and not on the subwoofer under the table, but I guess you can't have everything.
While I'm quite thankful for the inclusion of the 3.5mm jacks (more on that later), I'm disappointed that they're not fully color coded as well, using black to orange, black to green, and black to black cables. This becomes particularly annoying when setting up, as one must do cable tugs to see which is the cable coming from the front channels, etc. Also, for those looking to use the FX5051 with their home theater setups, know that the FX5051 doesn't do it's own decoding, and as such doesn't have an S/PDIF port for connecting to a PS2 or Xbox.
Like many other Altec Lansing systems, the FX5051 ships with an incredibly powerful digital control unit. Similar to the satellite bases, the control pod is square in shape, and pointed right at you. A standby/reset button lies towards the rear of the unit near where the cable exits, and a control wheel sits in the center surrounded by a clear ring of LEDs and buttons.
Turning the wheel will increase volume, and pressing one of the four buttons (Bass, Treble, Center, and Rear) will light up its respective LED, so that turning the wheel will modify the levels for each of those functions. As the levels are adjusted, LEDs towards the front of the ring will light up to show how high the volume or function has been set to. After three seconds of inactivity, the LEDs will decrease in brightness to avoid distracting you.
On the right front side of the unit are two convenient 3.5mm jacks, one for plugging in a Line source like an MP3 player, and one for plugging in a set of headphones to keep the peace with the neighbors at night in case turning the subwoofer off isn?t enough.
Finally, on the front of the unit where it's angled down is an infrared receiver for the wireless remote (also angled) used to control each of the aforementioned functions. Unlike the FX6021 system, the wireless remote is actually built for the size of your hand, although that means there's no storage rack to place it in when it's not being used.
Plug 'n Play And Configure
Naturally, as a staff member of EverythingUSB.com I'm particularly interested in the USB functionality of the speakers, as it's the first time we've seen USB implemented in a 5.1 setup. For PC users, setting up the FX5051 is as simple as plugging it in, going to your Sounds and Audio Devices properties, clicking the audio tab, pressing Advanced under the default sound playback device (which should be the FX5051 by name), and selecting "5.1 surround sound speakers" from the drop-down menu. That's all there is to it, no software to install.
For the Mac camp, Altec Lansing states in their manual, online, and on the box that the 5.1 channel functionality is only compatible with systems running Windows 98/2000/XP, and that Mac OS X users would have to suffice with 2 channel audio. Sigh. Altec Lansing, you just alienated a good percentage of Mac users (that usually don't have surround sound cards!) from buying your system, when in fact it DOES work with Mac OS X! Tested under OS X 10.4.8, I was able to hear each individual channel just fine, but like on the PC it needs to be configured first.
To do this on a Mac, open the Applications folder, then the utilities folder, and launch the Audio MIDI Setup program. Under the Audio Devices tab, select the FX5051 as the default and system output device. Then select the FX5051 next to the Properties For heading, and click the Configure Speakers button. Here, select the Multichannel tab and then select "5.1 surround" from the drop-down menu. Press Apply, then Done. Come on Altec, it's a Mac; it can't be that hard to figure out, can it?
USB vs. Analog Sound Quality
While typically I recommend USB over onboard sound as it eliminates electronic noise and hissing, I'll make an exception for the FX5051s. You see, the electronic noise I'm used to hearing from my onboard sound is barely noticeable with the FX5051s unless the volume is turned to maximum, and even then you can only hear it if you're trying to, so analog impurities don't pose any significant problems.
As far as hiss reduction, the USB connection probably does remove hiss, but it's subsequently replaced by the amplifier's own hiss that comes through all channels, which is low but quite noticeable compared to other speaker systems in a desktop environment. I remember I encountered the same hissing problem when I was playing with Altec Lansing's FX6021 stereo system last year. In any case it's not a big deal, but it peeves me during the silent parts of movies or when I don't have my iTunes running. Pressing the standby button on the control pod will eliminate the hiss.
If your PC does have a 6 or 8 channel card, either onboard or an add-on card such as Creative Labs or Turtle Beach, I'd recommend using that instead of the USB connection. Why? Because odds are your card supports Direct3D hardware, something the USB connection does not. This affects a few games like Unreal Tournament 2004 that only support 5.1 surround sound when Direct3D is available in hardware mode. However, other games and programs including Quake IV, PowerDVD, and VLC were able to properly utilize the surround channels.
Additionally, when using my onboard Realtek ALC850 card, certain applications like QuickTime, iTunes and Windows Media Player would automatically upmix to utilize the rear speakers despite the source file being stereo, something that I could not get the FX5051 to do when connected by USB. As you can see, the advantages to analog over USB when it comes to surround sound are numerous, so only use USB if you're connecting to a laptop or a computer that doesn't have surround sound capabilities. Of course, if your PC has an extra PCI slot left open, you can always spend $30 and pick up a cheap sound card that will do the trick.
So you have an impression of how I've been listening to the Altec Lansing FX5051s for the past two weeks, I've posted a photo of my budget gaming corner below. (Yes, I get quite a laugh out of it myself). Now typically the rear speakers would be either wall mounted or placed on a bookshelf behind the listener, but that wasn't an option for me so I figured I'd think outside of the box and use that instead!
Sound coming from the satellites was very broad and filled the room nicely, not suffering the need for highly accurate positioning that sounds terrible once you leave your seat. Channel separation was quite clear in both USB and analog modes, with speaker tests generating sounds to only the proper channels. In DirectSound environments, where channels are dynamically calculated through an API instead of hard coded into a video (i.e. games) separation was also evident when using the RightMark 3DSound Positioning Accuracy Test, although there was a distinct difference between using USB and my onboard sound.
With the onboard sound, the separation was total, so that if the source of the audio was straight far in front of me, only the front channels would playback sound, and the rear channels were silent. With the USB sound, although it was clear which direction the sound was coming from at all times, the separation was not 100%, as a sound from the far in front of me would also playback slightly in the rear speakers. Frankly I'm not sure which of the two I prefer, although I did note that it was helpful to turn up the rear channels slightly so that I could better hear them in my seating arrangement - something I'm grateful the control pod supports compared to most systems in this price range.
To test the FX5051s, I demoed several movies, games, and songs that I figured would give the system a good workout. For the movies, I picked up the extended edition of the Lord of the Rings 3 - Return of the King and played it through VLC, a free cross-platform media player that supports just about anything you throw at it. Simply put, I was blown away.
With all bass, treble and channel settings flat, I found the system to be quite adequate without need for much adjustment. Bass was present enough to give a realistic feel to the movie, and did not overpower the rest of the spectrum at all. When cranking the bass to max, the isobaric sub did a great job of providing deep clean bass for the rumbling booms of battering rams, oliphaunts and the thunder of an army's footsteps. Vocals were also very clear through the center channel, and the high frequency tweeters did an amazing job reproducing the whooshes of the arrows flying past. Also, there's nothing quite like hearing a fell beast's screech transversing the rear and front channels as it flies from behind you right into view.
I then watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a dialogue driven title with more emphasis on the midrange and bass tones. Here, to better understand the dialogue during soft parts I found it necessary to raise the treble slightly.
For gaming, I played Unreal Tournament 2004, and parts of the Doom 3 and PREY single player campaigns. Having directional audio in these games was incredibly handy for pinpointing enemy fire and getting creeped out at those ambient noises when you're expecting an enemy attack, although as mentioned previously I was only able to utilize surround sound in Unreal Tournament after hooking the system to my onboard sound. With all settings flat, I found the games quite engaging, but only after turning the bass up to the limit was I truly immersed, loving the satisfying booms as rockets exploded around me and tings as metal shards from the UT flak cannon bounced off the walls. To better visualize where my enemies were coming from, I found it necessary to slightly lower the center channel and turn up the rear channels.
For music, I listened to 4 showcase songs - one with an emphasis on bass, treble and midtones, and one with all the above. For the low end, I chose Cypress Hills' Dr. Greenthumb, known for its overemphasized bass. Here, the bass provided plenty of kick at 50%, and was beyond deep at 100%, yet still didn't suffer any problems with compression. For treble, I listened to Rage Against the Machine's Ashes in the Fall, which starts off with Tom Morello's screeching guitar riff that is quite possibly the most addicting public nuisance ever. Again, no problems, though I think my ears have been pierced for me.
For midtones, I listened to The Guess Who's No Time, a classic with catchy melodic vocals and a smooth guitar. Here, despite the recording being from the 70's it played back really smooth on the FX5051s, more alive then ever with no need for adjustment. To mix them all together, I played Daft Punk's Aerodynamic, complete with techno bass hits, trippy synthesizer chords and a frantic guitar solo. In a word, bliss.
I didn't encounter any issues with crackling, hums, or anything of that nature when listening the speakers as I normally would (loud but mostly flat), although when I did intentionally try to max out the speakers, I noticed that the satellites had issues maintaining clarity when the volume was turned well beyond painful, especially in the tweeters. Turning the volume back down and letting my ears recover for a few moments, when I resumed playback the speakers didn't appear to have any permanent damage.
Excellent sound reproduction
Powerful control pod with front inputs & outputs
Remote control bundled
USB & analog audio
PC & MacOS X compatible
Low hiss always present
USB audio doesn't support multi-channel in all games
'Free' wall mounts not included
No S/PDIF input for gaming consoles
Although at first skeptical, in the end I was quite pleased with the FX5051's performance. Clean vocals, guitar solos, and bass hits were really brought to life, and I'm amazed just how much bass Altec Lansing crammed into that small subwoofer. There wasn't any noticeable distortion until I turned the volume past painful, and no overpowering bass or treble at flat levels. The digital control pod is superb, and the infrared remote is frosting on the cake. Despite my preference for analog due to how DirectSound is handled, the 5.1 channel USB connection is a welcome addition for laptop and Mac users alike, although it won't remove any hiss. If you're in the market for medium-high end speaker systems, definitely check these out.