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5.1 Shootout: Listening Tests - Movies


lotr.jpgI make no bones about it - I love movies. While musical listening sessions allowed us to reveal the nuances of a system, home theater tests allowed us to see "what was under the hood." All systems were put through a rigorous test of theatrical scenes geared towards establishing the following qualities:

  • Low frequency extension of the subwoofer

  • Spatial coherency (being able to accurate locate objects in 3-D space within a picture, especially in the surround channels)

  • Atmosphere and soundtrack performance for film scores

I put in the second disc of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and jumped to the "Bridge of Khazad-d û m" chapter. This scene possesses some of the most fantastic sound design I have heard in a long while and is perfect for testing low-frequency extension. The area where the rock stairs are breaking apart and falling away will tax any subwoofer's ability to reproduce serious bass material and will quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Another scene I utilize quite often is the Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace pod race scene. Not only did this scene produce excellent low frequency effects - it also provided some great directional left-to-right-and front-to-rear effects pans that tested the spatial coherency of the various satellite speakers.

RBH Sound CT-5.1 System

sw.jpgThe RBH Sound system was up first and produced a powerful rendition of the Episode One pod race scene. The MS-8.1's dual firing 8" aluminum drivers were able to produce a tactile response to the demanding chapters. The MM-4's did an excellent job tracking with the endless panning and movement of the racers across the canyon track. While the MS-8.1 missed much of the ultra-low material in the LOTR disc, it demonstrated a solid performance within its capabilities, not sacrificing distortion levels for volume.

Aperion Audio Intimus 5.1 System

Putting up the Aperion Audio speakers, I wondered what these 1" thick HDF cabinets would sound like compared to the relatively pint-sized speakers we had tested to date. The system produced a very wide, very open soundstage without much effort. The often difficult front to rear panning was convincing and natural, while the subwoofer provided a noticeable amount of tactile response down to its reproducible levels. The quality of this system was acutely demonstrated during the Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace's Pod Race Scene. Whenever the pods would penetrate the threshold of the canyon walls, the entire listening room would change, mimicking the front to rear wipe of entering the new on-screen environment.

During Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Intimus Sub held its own and gave a solid performance without trying to reach further than it was designed. You can really feel this scene with the right subwoofer and it's a rough test for an 8" sub in a room over 3400 cubic feet in size!

Mordaunt Short Avant Premiere System

dragon.jpgMordaunt-Short's Avant Premiere System had the best spatial representation of front-to-back panning of all the systems we tested. When an Episode One pod racer came straight towards you, you felt it travel distinctly from in front to behind you - a feat which even larger speakers aren't always as adept at accomplishing in 5.1. This was especially impressive since we didn't set up the Avant Premiere Plus system as nearfields. We found the Mordaunt-Short surrounds performed best when they were faced straight forward, rather than toed in as the user manual graphically indicated. Your room configuration and speaker placement will determine how far you will want to toe in these units. The MS909W subwoofer's forward-firing 12" driver and dual down-firing ports produced excellent low end rumble, even on carpet. Again, we felt that there was a slight disadvantage to be had by the other contenders as the 909's 12" driver all but dwarfed the other 8" subwoofers.

Velodyne Deco System

Velodyne's Deco System was very effective at producing much of the rumble and dynamics of the scene, however the front to rear pans were not quite as convincing, even after trying multiple toe-in positions to optimize the positioning of the satellites. Aside from that, the word to describe the Velodyne's performance was immense . It produced a big and full sound, one that almost made you forget you were listening to satellite speakers. As we had an SPL-800 Series I on hand, I decided to test the statements made by Velodyne that the 600 Watt Deco subwoofer has essentially the same components as the original SPL-800 series. The subs indeed sounded almost identical, though I felt the SPL-800 had the edge on the lowest frequency material, possibly due to its cabinet construction (see inset).

Comparing the SPL-800 Series I to the Velodyne Deco Subwoofer
I couldn't help but have this mini "shootout within a shootout" since I had access to both units during this evaluation period. After numerous listening tests I determined that both subs, while similar for the most part, had some distinct differences. The SPL-800 performed with less noticeable distortion and played cleanly down to its lowest potential without losing control. It also had a smoother sound, opting for a more even frequency response and lower extension at the expense of pushing additional air and perhaps delivering more of a tactile response. The Velodyne Deco sub pushed more air (playing subjectively louder) but entered into an audible state of distortion around 30Hz (its lower limit) when playing at SPL levels at or above 85 dB from the listening position. This was quite audible in scenes such as Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace's Pod Race Scene. As the pod racers were revving up, you could hear the subwoofer lose control as it tried to reproduce the frequencies at and below its potential. Running a frequency sweep confirmed a smooth response until the unit drops to 30Hz.

What does this mean to you? The Deco subwoofer will feel louder and actually create more rumble during bass-intensive scenes and musical passages; however it does so by sacrificing lower distortion levels and "knowing when to quit." Go back to the street price for this system, however, and those few negatives become acceptable losses for the price of the system.

Wanting to continue our panning tests, we popped in Dragonheart and played the scene where Draco is flying around Dennis Quaid's character (Bowen). Of course, the way to best test the speakers in this scene was to simply close your eyes and see if it felt like the dragon was circling around the room. The RBH Sound CT-5.1 system did a good job of rendering this effect, though, as can be expected with a smaller system, some of the rear left-right panning was less detailed. The Velodyne Deco and Aperion Intimus systems did equally well, rendering a fairly realistic reproduction of the scene in all 5 speakers. Mordaunt-Short's Premiere System showed its strength during this test. It had the clearest surround definition of all the systems tested and excelled at clearly defining effects in their appropriate locations throughout the sound field.


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