Dolby Laboratories Inc.’s Digital 5.1 has become the de facto sound standard for home theater. While it represents the high end among sound solutions for PCs–with an appropriate sound card and speakers totaling $500 or more–the proliferation of DVD drives, MP3 music files, and games with Surround Sound have made the standard a viable choice for audiophiles. If you can justify it to your wallet, consider one of the two speaker sets we tested recently: one from Creative Labs Inc. that offers true six-channel sound, and the other from Boston Acoustics, which provides a “virtualized” sixth channel. Both pour out auditory ambrosia, but the pricier Creative speakers sound just a little bit better.
True Dolby 5.1-channel sound is piped through six separate channels: front left, front right, center, rear right, rear left, and a subwoofer (that’s the .1 in the standard’s name) for deep bass. Boston Acoustics’ $300 Digital BA7500 looks like a standard four-speaker set plus a subwoofer. However, the speakers accept digital coaxial input (one of the principal types of connections for digital components), so if you connect them to a six-channel sound card, the front two speakers will not only produce front-left and front-right channels but they’ll also produce a virtual center channel.
By comparison, Creative’s $350 Cambridge SoundWorks DTT3500 Digital comes with six physical speakers–a center speaker, four satellites, and a subwoofer–as well as a Dolby Digital decoder amplifier. The decoder component houses the audio controls, including surround level, bass output, and center-channel volume level, and it lets you easily switch between different input types. For example, you can have analog input from your PC and optical input from a DVD player, and you can switch between the two modes with the included mini remote.
They’ve Got the Look
In terms of pure aesthetics, these speaker sets are in a dead heat. The nearly 10-inch tall, flat-panel Boston Acoustics satellites would look great on any desktop, especially one with a flat-panel monitor, while the small black Creative cubes (each about 4 inches square), don’t look quite as spiffy but will complement most components. Although both sets took a while for us to put together, the Boston Acoustics speakers had the edge on setup. Their cables are color-coded, and their rear speaker stands, which support each of the two rear satellites, are easier to assemble. The Creative satellites also use stands, and they’re more adjustable, but putting the Creative pieces together took longer because of the decoder and because only stickers were used to identify the cables.
But How Do They Sound?
When we finally faced the music, we were impressed. We played a variety of Dolby Digital 5.1 clips in digital mode with both speaker sets, and we were pleased by the ability of the five BA 7500 speakers to create the full six-channel experience. Sound moved smoothly from one speaker to the next, offering a movie theater-like experience. One clip from Dolby’s Web site features a steam locomotive, which, crisp and thrilling, moved from our rear left and then seemingly went through us, finally exiting to the front right.
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