I'm not a big fan of small speakers or subwoofers.
They tend to sound, well, small, and most of them squash the life out of films and music.
Thing is, people like tiny speakers and subs, so lots of speaker companies make, and sell tons of iffy-sounding 5.1 systems.
But they're not all bad, I've cherry-picked three truly exceptional alternatives from Definitive Technology, Energy Speakers, and Mirage. My complete reviews are all on CNET, but I'll run down the highlights here.
The Definitive Technology ProCinema 600 System is a six-piece package with four 7-inch tall satellite speakers, one 10.5-inch wide center speaker, and a minisubwoofer. The injection-molded mineral-filled polymer cabinets have more of a high-end feel than your typical plastic or fiberboard cabinets. Can you say "rock solid?"
The subwoofer is a conventional, matte-finished medium-density-fiberboard box. It measures 13 by 10.3 by 13 inches. Its side-mounted volume control is a convenient design touch.
The satellites are two-way designs with a 1-inch aluminum-ceramic dome tweeter and a 3.25-inch midrange driver. Ah, but the midrange driver is acoustically coupled to a 3.25-inch pressure-driven planar low-frequency radiator on the top panel (so when the midrange driver moves in, the passive radiator moves out, and vice-versa).
The passive radiator effectively doubles the bass radiating area of the tiny midrange driver. The same technique is employed on the center channel speaker; it has a pair of 3.25-inch midrange drivers flanking a 1-inch tweeter--and there's a 3.25-inch radiator on each side of the speaker.
The subwoofer's 8-inch polymer cone woofer is acoustically coupled to a bottom-mounted 8-inch passive radiator. The combined radiating area of the driver and radiator is almost equivalent to a single 12-inch woofer. This little sub kicks butt!
Starting with the "Independence Day" Blu-ray disc, the little speakers easily handled the sounds of buildings crashing down and trucks hurtling through the air and smashing into the ground--the sounds of the onscreen devastation were visceral in ways that few tiny satellite-subwoofer systems can match.
Next, I played the Blue Man Group's concert DVD, "How to Be a Megastar Live." The band's percussion instruments were incredibly dynamic, and--wow--the bass was deep and pitch perfect. I felt every drum thwack. The surround mix of the audience was well-portrayed, so I could pick out individual claps and audience cheers.
However, the ProCinema 600 doesn't sound as big as the somewhat larger Cambridge SoundWorks Newton Theater MC155 speaker system. True, it's less detailed and lively than the ProCinema 600, but it aced the review system with its warmer sound. The Newton Theater MC155 could play louder and its surround sound was even more spacious than the Definitive Technology system. They're both good, but the ProCinema 600 is more exciting to listen to.
Energy is big on small speakers, and it always has been. How small are the speakers? The RC-Micro 5.1 system's satellites measure just 4.7 inches tall by 3.5 inches wide and deep, a size that barely contains the unusually small drivers: a 0.5-inch aluminum dome tweeter and a 2.5-inch aluminum midbass driver. Each speaker weighs just 1.6 pounds.
The center speaker uses the same drivers, but they're housed in a slightly larger cabinet (3.5 tall by 5.9 wide by 3.5 inches deep) and weighs 1.9 pounds. The 240-watt ESW-CS8 subwoofer has a down-firing port and a front-mounted 8-inch injection-molded woofer.
The entire RC-Micro 5.1 system is finished in piano black, and each component has a removable black cloth grille.
I used the "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" Blu-ray to stress test the RC-Micro 5.1 system with a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. I quickly learned the wee system handled even the most torturous scenes, like the ones where Indy (Harrison Ford) and his crew go over a series of waterfalls in an amphibious vehicle. The whoosh and thunder of the falls came through loud and clear--a remarkable feat for a system as small as the RC-Micro 5.1.
The sound was so open and dynamically alive I wasn't thinking about the speakers' size. Dialog was full-bodied and articulate; again, I didn't hear the sort of cramped, cupped-hand coloration endemic to so many tiny center speakers.
Indeed, the speakers sound great, but it was the way the subwoofer so seamlessly meshed with those speakers that put the RC-Micro 5.1 at the head of the pack. With most very small systems, I zero in on their missing midbass, which tends to thin out the sound on movies and music. Not this time, though if anything, it was the opposite experience.
It's safe to say the Mirage Nanosat 5.1 Home Theater sounds unlike any other box-type satellite/subwoofer combination system on the planet. The Nanosat 5.1 system really shines with its surround-sound performance; it creates an immersive, wraparound soundstage that can't be replicated by similarly priced box speaker systems. The Nanosat 5.1 has a sweet, refined sound that's easy to listen to over extended periods of time.
The Nanosat 5.1 system comes with five satellite speakers and a subwoofer. The system doesn't include a dedicated center channel speaker; instead you get five identical satellites, which produce a better surround experience than a system with dedicated front, center, and surround speakers. Each Nanosat speaker is 5.8 inches tall and weighs 2.9 pounds.
Conventional box speakers have drivers mounted on their front baffles and project sound forward. The Nanosat's 2.75-inch titanium/polypropylene midbass driver and 0.75-inch pure titanium hybrid dome tweeter are mounted on the speaker's top-angled baffle. Specially designed deflectors project sound directly toward the listener, while creating a 360-degree radiation pattern that reflects sound off your room's walls, ceilings, and other surfaces.
I think the pod-shape Nanosat has more of an upscale look and feel than more typical black plastic satellites. Each satellite comes premounted with a metal swivel wall bracket.
The Mirage S8 subwoofer has a down-firing 8-inch woofer and built-in 75-watt (300-watt peak) amplifier. The medium-density fiberboard cabinet is rather plain, but the smoothly rounded edges and satin black-painted finish are a nice touch. The subwoofer is 11.7 inches high by 13.5 inches wide and deep, and weighs 20.1 pounds.
With the room lights turned off, the system's five satellites literally disappear as sources of sound. With conventional box speakers, you can always tell where the sound is coming from. In the midsize CNET listening room, I certainly didn't feel the need to use a 7.1 channel array to complete the front-to-back, wraparound soundstage.
That said, some listeners may find that the system's imaging lacks focus. For one, it's softer and more diffuse sounding than Definitive Technology's ProCinema 600 satellite/subwoofer system.
Watching the "From The Basement" music DVD, I found the sound to be well above average. When Sonic Youth performed a couple of tunes, I not only heard the sound of the instruments, but also the band's music filling the "basement" they were performing in. The three front channels produced remarkable soundstage depth and full-bodied dimensionality.
Action films fared well; the bellowing and car-tossing antics in "King Kong" had plenty of oomph. I attribute some of that to the Nanosat 5.1 system's spot-on satellite and subwoofer blend. Tonal balance is on the warm side of neutral, it handily avoids the thin, cool sound I've heard from most small systems.