PC Speakers & Shotgun Shells
What It Takes To Be A Quake-Meister

Francis Vale

Francis is writing this as the scary movie music of "Psycho" (by the great film composer Bernard Herrmann) is playing via a set of multimedia speakers. How appropriate. You must be nuts if you are looking for good sound from those cheesy little speakers that come with a PC. Of course, you always have the option of purchasing some after market multimedia gear; the kind promising "Super High Fidelity!" "Surround Your Body In Earth Shaking Sound!" "All for only $49!." Maybe we can get those agitated copywriters to take a nice relaxing shower at the Bates Motel. But if not, then the next best thing is to try seeking out some good PC sound, without, hopefully, having to make a Journey to Center of The Earth (score, Herrmann) to find it. So buckle in, while Francis assumes the role of your hyperkinetic Taxi Driver (ditto, Herrmann), as he makes a careening review circuit of some of the better multimedia sound systems around. And as always, his fearless wife, Gordana, will be riding review shotgun.

The music for this adventure also should have been scored by Messr. Bernard, as it had its share of audibly amazing moments. But, hell, let's forgo the suspense build-up, and cut right to this story's surprise ending: If you want the best, bar none, multimedia speaker system for your PC, then you must spring for Eminent Technology's (Tel. 904-575-5655, Tallahassee, FL) new sonic marvel, the LFT-11. This creation from the musical brow of Bruce Thigpen, like the other two systems in this review, is a three piece affair. It has two small shielded satellites that go next to the PC, and a floor standing box that does all the woofing. But unlike the other two systems, and also unlike every other multimedia speaker on the planet, the LFT-11 satellites are super thin, push-pull. magnetic planars! (LFT="linear field transducer.")

With the LFT-11, Thigpen has done "Honey, I shrunk the kids!" He has successfully created a magnetically shielded, midget version of his highly regarded, six foot, six inch tall, LFT-VI full range planar speakers. The unique design of this diminutive dipole uses a very thin sheet of aluminum, laminated onto a .5 thick Mylar sheet. Via a silk-screening/chemical etching process, a voice coil grid is etched right onto the aluminum sheet. To move the acoustical air, this LFT-11 "planar sandwich" uses magnets to propel the approx. 2 mil thick voice coil grid backwards and forwards. These magnets are first built into individual steel channels; the latter specially shaped to "focus" the magnetic flux lines, and provide maximum strength over the diaphragm/voice grid. These channels are then welded to steel frames, and finally, the complete magnet/channel assembly is bolted onto the speaker frame itself. The channels' patented design also reduces the stop-your-pacemaker stray magnetic fields so typical of magnetic planars. As a result, you can place these 9.5" tall, 6.25" wide, by just 3/4" thick panels right next to your computer monitor, and not have it go into Technicolor spasms. Floppies and hard drives are also safe from Herr Gauss' stray emanations.

The pre-attached panel speaker wires came with nicely solid banana plugs, and the system also used a very sturdy, lock-on circular fitting for coupling the amp into the sub/crossover box. The blonde-colored wooden sub matched the wood frames of the satellites, and its side panels were covered in gloss black Formica. The entire LFT-11 system, including the passive woofer box with its two 6.5" Audax conventional voice coil speakers (crossed over at 200Hz), is claimed to have a frequency response that stretches from 35Hz to 20Khz, +/- 4dB.

Usually, the LFT-11 is shipped with a Radio Shack-sourced Optimus STA-300, a 15 watt/Ch. integrated amp. But this is the high end, right? Which means we can never leave well enough alone. So, we asked Bruce to forgo the Optimus powerhouse, and instead, Francis substituted an Audio Source AMP Two. (Tel 415-348-8114) The $299 AMP Two, with its 80/watt Ch, and two nicely illuminated power output meters, is a terrific little unit for its size and price. Ordinarily, you would use a preamp with the AMP Two. But it also comes with two input signal level controls, so if you can supply the appropriate input voltage (.8V) to drive the AMP Two to its full rated power, you can do without the preamp.

In this review, we relied solely on the voltage output from the PC's minijack, and the review's reference system-- our ever-trusty Radio Shack 3400/transport hooked into the Enlightened Audio Design 1000 Series II DAC. To toggle between the PC, and the 3400, we bought a $10.00 ("On sale, regularly $14.99!") Radio Shack "Stereo Audio Source Selector" which provided for three switched inputs. And the PC, in this case, was a IBM Thinkpad 760ED. This Thinkpad represents a new class of full featured, laptop multimedia machines. The 760 series sports a crystal clear LCD/TFT (thin film transistor) display. With its 1024 x 768 resolution on the large, 12.1" diagonal screen (7.25"h x 9.75"w), graphics and text are bright and crystal clear. Powering the Thinkpad is a fast, 133 MHz Pentium CPU. The Thinkpad 760 series also has its own special DSP chip (the IBM Mwave) for processing audio. This feature laden laptop supports MPEG-1, and MPEG-2 HHR (half resolution); does video capture duties; supports NTSC or PAL video out, as well as S video out; and can couple into an eternal monitor, which it can drive at 1280x1024 resolution (at 256 colors).

The Thinkpad's sound processing system is very sophisticated, and via the IBM Mwave DSP system, provides Windows95 applications with wave table audio recording and playback, offers a MIDI synthesizer, has Sound Blaster support (under DOS), features a speaker phone, telephone answering machine, plus 28.8 kbs data/fax modem, and, of course, does MPEG audio. A software mixer/control panel is also provided that gives you flexible control over volume, balance, tone, and effects for all audio components and input sources, including (yeah!) games. This particular Thinkpad had 16MB of RAM (up to 104 MB of RAM can be fitted), a 2 gigabyte hard drive, and a 6X CD-ROM which had no problems driving the AMP TWO to a very loud volume. Given all these capabilities of the 760ED, plus its excellent display, there is really not much need for having a big desktop system to do effective multimedia work. The Thinkpad also has a headphone output that, via a stereo miniplug, can be jacked right into a multimedia system, like the LFT-11/AMP Two.

The LFT-11 system, when purchased with the STA-300, retails for $899. Sans Optimus, the system price is reduced to $750. Thus, the price for the LFT-11 + AMP Two setup jumped to $1,050. So, what do you get when you shell out the extra $150 for the AMP Two? A Lillilput Lollapalooza! When driven by 80 watts, you easily get "turn that damn thing down!" den/dorm filling music. And if pushed right to their rated maximum power input of 50 watts (peak power rating, 90 watts), these little panels can produce a sound pressure level of 103dB at one meter. This distance pretty much corresponds to right where your PC hunched over cabeza is, so when they go loud, they go really LOUD. On some cranked-up program material, you might be able to get the LFT-11 diaphragms to harmlessly slap against the frame backs, (as we did on once or twice on some over-zealous "Quake-ing.") The 10" deep, 15" high, by 8" wide woofer box also sonically integrated quite well with the Sats, providing them a solid low end foundation. Finally, with the pivoting LFT-11 satellites properly tilted and toed-in, the sound stage and image depth at the PC listening seat could be astonishingly good. In this regard, the LFT-11 is head and shoulders above the other speakers in this review.

Like some other (unfortunately designed) planars, the LFT-11 mids and highs are very directional, but in this case, the speaker "beaming" is an intentional part of Thigpen's design. Note also that they are very flat in their on-axis frequency response, which to some ears, might make them sound thin or bright at lower listening levels. So don't touch those tone controls. Just crank 'em up. And hey, kids! Try this at home! This system combo is also the perfect docking station for your portable CD/tape player when you come in from the outdoors. Although the LFT-11 is highly directional, as a secondary system sitting off in a desktop corner for casual listening, it is more than musically satisfying.

And when PC-perched at the solo sweet spot, the transparency and accuracy of the LFT-11 satellites, plus their 3D dipole soundstage, are exactly what you would expect from any well designed planar speaker--exceptional. This means, of course, that on vocals, the system simply shines, as well as on quintet-sized jazz ensembles; e.g., Mile Davis' soaring horn and The Train's tenor sax work on "Miles" [DCC GSZ 1100]. Surprisingly, on those get busy, big orchestral pieces, the paltry panels can also move some serious air. The opening shock of kettle drums cum brass in Herrmann's prelude from "The Man Who Knew Too Much" will get you smartly off your seat if the volume is inadvertently left too high (as Francis will attest). However, like most planars in general, the LFT-11 mini-panels are not head banger, rock the house down speakers. (If your tastes run in that direction, read on.) Regardless of what you play, though, the sonic effect of the LFT-11 is always one of ever-surprising musicality. In all of The Three Worlds of Gulliver (music, Herrmann), our peripatetic hero never encountered such an amazing thing. A musical multimedia system? Yikes! Chalk one up for the high-end, and Eminent Technology.

Of course, multimedia systems are as much--if not more--about playing games as music. So, onto the IBM's CD-ROM drive went Quake, from ID software. This is a classic shoot 'em up, blood and guts everywhere game. It has also has a wonderful sound track, with great special effects, and lots of basso boom-booms. Playing this game on the very quick Thinkpad was a totally cool experience, and the miniature dipole planars added a darkly atmospheric, chilling depth to the on-screen action. The LFT-11 provided an eerily deep, 3D gamestage, terrific effects detail, lots of "air" around the various Quake weaponry--like the nicely rattling nailgun--and boffo bass blasts. But at desk-splitting volume levels, the panels had a tendency to whack against their backs. All things considered, the LFT-11 gets an outstanding 4.5 Quake shotgun shell rating (out of a possible five).

Herewith, let's discuss one very important matter: As with all the systems under review, the optimal positioning of the woofer box was critical to get proper musical blending. In each case, we put the respective woofer units right up against a side wall, next to a corner, and right next to our under-the-desk legs. With this wall/corner set-up augmenting the low notes, you will typically get maximum bass reinforcement. How well that max bass output blends with the rest of your system is always subject to some individual experimentation; but in our case, it worked its potent magic very time.

To sum up the LFT-11: At $1,050, this LFT-11/AMP Two set-up is by far the most expensive multimedia rig in the review. But if you want the best, this is THE system to buy. And from a typical high-end perspective, what are we really talking about here? Maybe the price of a pair of good 2 meter interconnects? (Note for non-audiophile readers: High-end Audio is a truly bizarre place, with otherwise sane people paying sometimes more than $1,000 a meter for audio component interconnect cables. You thought computer geeks were nuts? Hah! They are wimps in comparison to a true high-end freak.)

However, suppose you are busily saving your pennies for that $62,500 Ongaku tube amplifier (see prior high-end explanatory note), and now you're wondering, "Great, but are there any less costly, but still really good multimedia alternatives?" Fortunately, yes. And for you let's-see-if-we-can break-the-PC aficionados, this potent little sucker can rock the desk. Its name is the S2 HPM-4100 multimedia system, and it comes from Diamond Audio Technology. (Tel. 310-582-1121, Santa Monica, CA) In contrast to the Eminent Technology product, the S2 is a conventional pulsing pistons and dancing domes sub/satellite affair. The HMP-4100 woofer/crossover/cum built-in amplifier is also a big mother of a box. The all black MDF, 16" high, by 7.5" wide, by 17" deep, dual ported sub is larger than even some home theater jobs. This imposing device might cause some placement problems if space under or near your desk is at a premium.

Inside of the sub is a single, 8" ribbed paper cone woofer, crossed over at 130Hz. And also inside is a 100 watt amplifier that divvies up its juice between the three speaker units; with the sub getting 50 of those watts, and the Sats getting 25 each. The rear of the sub box sports connections for stereo headphones/line out; bayonet-style connect outputs for 12 gauge speaker wire; two sets of line inputs; as well as the ability to hook up a dynamic microphone. This last bit also features an adjustable mixing pot on the back of the sub unit, so you can add your karaoke voice to whatever source happens to be playing at the moment. A nice touch for amplifying your screams while playing Quake.

The Sats themselves use a 13mm Poly/Aluminum "Balanced Drive" dome tweeter, and a 4.5" treated paper cone mid/bass driver, which are both housed in a two piece, die-cast aluminum, ellipsoid structure. The two drivers sit behind a black (apparently non-removable) metal grille. The Sat units have optional mounting brackets, and the 1/4"/20 threaded brass inserts at the rear are for use on standard commercial brackets and stands. The Sats also come with a heavy rubber base that allows you to tilt them about until you find a firing pattern that suits your ears best. Francis tried the rubber bases, and also placed the Sats on top of 10" tall makeshift stands. Interestingly, the soundstage was more dimensional with the lower positioned rubber ducky stands, than with the speakers elevated to ear level. With the electronics and this speaker menage a trois yoked together, a frequency response of 50Hz to 20Khz, and a max SPL of 105dB is claimed for the HPM-4100.

So onto the Rat Shack 3400 went Robin Trower's "Bridges & Sighs" [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 684], and up came "Day of the Eagle." Well folks, at the 11:00 position on the S2's volume knob, Francis 's ears decided that if he wanted to stay in the reviewing biz, that was it. The HPM-4100 doesn't give you the LFT-11's 3D soundstage and planar accuracy, but what you get in S2 trade is some rock and roll pisto-domes. (The chairman and founder of Diamond Audio, Rikki Farr, is also a rock and roll road show producer--e.g., Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart--so this keep on rockin' aspect of the HPM-4100 is not too surprising.) The S2 Sats are also a reasonably accurate system, and overall, the HPM-4100 has an infectious, tap your fingers musical bounce to it. With the sub in the review position noted above, the bass integrated quite well with the Sats' mid and upper frequencies, and was definitely the best of the three systems (as befitting this big, heavy motha'.)

Even on over the top movie scores, like Herrman's "Mysterious Island" [Mobile Fidelity, UDCD 692], it could produce a nice jelly-belly message. And for a little extra bass blast when playing Quake, try removing the subwoofer's cloth grille. With Quake, the S2 HPM-4100 had almost, but not quite, as much detail and transparency as the LFT-11, and, naturally, the forward firing S2's didn't have the spaciousness of those little dipole planars. However, unlike the LFT-11 panels, the S2 could also rock out the grenade blasts at truly ear splitting levels. For its sonic valor, the HPM-4100 earned a very strong, four Quake shotgun shell rating from Francis . But in this one instance, his mate Gordana strongly disagreed, and gave the HMP-4100 a 4.5 shell tie position with the LFT-11, primarily on the strength of the S2 bass rockets rockin' the room.

Some words here about the S2's nicely thought out control box:. This unit is the same dimensions as a half-height 5.25" disc drive. In addition to the volume control, there are three smaller knobs for bass, treble, and balance. There are also four buttons for muting, A/B source select, loudness, and adding "3DSP." The 3D button does what you would expect: adds lots of reverb (which is very recording dependent), provides spaciousness, but at the loss of imaging, etc. For music, you will probably want to forget about it. But for PC games, it might be cool. The control unit is attached to the sub enclosure via a conveniently long, standard 9-pin D-sub (serial) computer cable.

To sum up: At $599, the S2 HPM-4100 is a clear contender for your musical multimedia dollars. It doesn't have the same high degree of musicality and refinement as the $1,050 LFT-11/AMP Two system, nor that planar system's effortless transparency. But for $450 less, the S2 offers other rewards, especially for head bangers. Moreover, in some limited listening comparisons, the S2 easily surpassed the Bose Acoustimass system, which also costs $599. So see, you can have some nice PC music, and still buy that Ongaku.

Last up, we have the Altec Lansing ACS500 multimedia system. (Tel. 800-648-6663, Milford, PA) This is a different breed of musical cat altogether. If the LFT-11's and S2's strengths and idiosyncrasies reflect their audio-crazy founders, then the Altec is, befitting its commercial business roots, a pure consumer play. The ACS500 is an outstanding industrial design, all done in de rigeur, PC putty beige, high impact plastic. Its design is also wildly unlike the other two systems. The most striking aspect of the ACS500 is its two tall, 6" wide, 5" deep satellite speakers. These Sat skyscrapers top out at 18", and inside each of them are two 3" mid/bass drivers, one 1.25" x 2.5" full range driver, and a .5" dome tweeter. But these drive units aren't simply stuck in some prosaic, up and down, shoot straight at your face row. Rather, one 3" unit is angled outwards from the user; the elliptical full range unit is canted inwards towards you; and the other 3" driver, and dome tweeter fire right at your seat.

All these architectural angles and planes of the ACS500 make it kind of look like I.M. Pei took up speaker design. Each tower also has its own individual amp, and puts out 22.5 watts (7.5 watts/per driver). Finally, there is the 6.25" deep, 13.5" wide, by 10" high Sub unit, featuring a single 6.5" driver, and powered by its own 40 watt amp. The sub is the smallest of the system trio, and kinda looks like a retro desk top radio cum plastic space heater. According to Altec, the towers can soar from 32Hz to 20kHz, and the sub supposedly woofs from 250Hz down to 35Hz.

But pourquoi this towering complexity?

Merde Alors! This ACS500 is also a Dolby Surround system! That's right, Dolby Pro-logic is built right in. Now this strange design begins to make some (albeit, cockeyed) sense. The topmost, and outwards firing 3" mids handle the L+R "rear" surround, and the inwards looking oval units do center channel duty. Moreover, on the back of the "control tower," a Dolby Pro Logic output is provided, as well as outputs for connecting additional L/R channel speakers, a center channel, and another sub. Thus, you can use the ACS500 as a Dolby Decoder, driving external amplifiers and surround speakers. Normally, the systems internal amplifiers are disabled when configured this way. However, you have yet another jack, "SURROUT," that uses the built-in amps, so you can drive some external speakers directly. For Dolby channel calibration, the ACS500 has a button that will send test pink noise through the various speakers. Finally, the Altec accepts two (unswitched) line inputs, so you can overlay music from a CD player on top of boring CD-ROM material--or plug in a microphone that has its own volume control, and scream your lungs out during game play. Gads! All this gadgetry for only $399! Maybe it's time for some of those over the top copywriters to check out of the Bates Motel. If you are a committed gizmo freak, the search probably stops here.

Naturally, your CD or CD-ROM must have the appropriate Dolby encoding to make these twin towers shake. Dolby-ized CDs are certainly out there, but Dolby-encoded CD-ROMs are rarer than a 20,000 hour MTBF power tube. If you have a Dolby disc, you simply press in the ST/PRO switch, and away you go, Ordinarily, the master volume knob sets the levels for all the channels, but separate controls for center and surrounds are included, and can be used to override the master volume's "suggested" levels. All of these controls are conveniently located on the right tower's bottom front panel.

The subwoofer also two level controls; one on the tower for Dolby/normal playback, and a master control on the sub unit itself. You can play around with both controls to get maximum bass output. Unfortunately, the Altec's woof is mostly no bark and very little bite, as its sub had the weakest output of all three systems. If you are a rocker, not so cool. Gamesplay-doomsday-ka-booms are also wimpy in comparison to the LFT-11, and S2 HMP-4100. But explosive bang-bangs aside, the Altec's sonics overall seemed to enjoy a nicely flat frequency response, and made for a pleasant listening experience, if not a soul stirring one. Bottom line, the ACS500 is not in the same "musical" league as either the LFT-11 or the S2 HPM-4100.

As for the Quake test, the ACS500 had nowhere near the detailed, chaotic clarity of either the LFT-11 or S2 systems. And the Altec's bass output was "game over" in comparison. However, in no small compensation, those multi-arrayed speaker towers added a surprising spaciousness and gloom-filled depth to the game play; so much so that Francis fiddled with the surround knobs to see if a Dolby ringer hadn't somehow sneaked in. Of course, Quake doesn't do Dolby, but these startling Altec atmospherics added a deliciously anxious quality to the game. So, a still substantial, three Quake shotgun shell rating goes to the ACS500.

With those comparative criticisms having been said, is the Altec story all over? Not! For the fact of the matter is, the ACS500 still towers over the regular buzz and honk crap that passes for most PC multimedia systems. And if you happen to have some Dolby-encoded material around, what fun! Case in point: Bernard Herrmann's film scores as set forth by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Salonen conducting [Sony, ASK 62700]. Feeling a little paranoid lately? Well, that "Psycho" track mentioned at the beginning of this review is on this CD, and in the ACS500's Dolby mode, it will happily envelope your feelings of imminent danger, as the ersatz surrounds add a good dimensional touch. In fact, go for the Librium, and crank up the surround and center channels to max. The surround effects added a wonderful creepiness to the film score. Sure, sure, the towers' surround speakers aren't going to fool you into thinking that there are two channels suddenly sitting behind you. But unlike the S2's "3DSP" mode, this unit's Dolby implementation worked surprisingly well on most music. If you have a bunch of Dolby-ized material, you will probably want to give this Altec system a listen.

However, even if your CD collection is not overrun by a Dolby-dominatrix, each of these three products still offers good sonic returns on your multimedia money. Rather unbelievably, the three systems' respective price points accurately reflect the value received. Spend a little more, like from $399 to $599, and you get some more. Spend a lot more, like $1,050, and you well and truly get a lot more. There are no rip-offs here.

In the general high-end audio scheme of things, this "what you pay for is what you get" is a surprisingly novel experience. Maybe the PC industry has a thing or two to teach the high-enders. Actually, that rude lesson may happen sooner than the high-end realizes. Do you think they know that Microsoft is busily creating some new standards for multimedia digital sound? And that given this company's tremendous marketing clout, these new standards will probably have a big influence on audio in general? But that, as they say, is another story.

In the meanwhile, if you want to become a true Quake-Meister, then get ready to ante up.

Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved


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