We had fun playing around with Boston Acoustics’ SoundWare XS SE speaker system last November. Even though it fell a little short on midrange presence (as expected from such a small speaker) and couldn’t quite cough up the deepest bass , it’s micro-sized, dual-driver satellite speakers sounded clean and looked appealing while the system’s inclusion of mounting hardware only served to add to its value.
As fun as the system was, we kept getting this feeling during our evaluation that Boston Acoustics was leaving a few stones of opportunity unturned. Here we had these excellent sounding satellite speakers — with a shape and size that allowed it to become all but invisible in the room — yet it was designed to be integrated into a bulky, traditional home theater system involving an A/V receiver, lots of wires and cables and some setup hassle to go with it. At the time, it seemed to us that a smaller system would be a better use of the company’s design chops and, if done right, could turn out to be a real sound-bar killer.
Apparently, we weren’t alone in thinking that. Boston Acoustics is about to unleash its new SoundWare XS Digital Cinema system. It’s a 2.1 system based around the tiny SoundWare speakers with a processor and amplifier built into its sealed 8-inch subwoofer; it even offers wireless streaming of audio via Bluetooth. But is it a solid alternative to the increasingly popular sound bar/wireless sub solution? Read on to get our take and find out how this new system from Boston Acoustics fared during our evaluation.
Out of the box
The SoundWare XS Digital Cinema box is, as we expected, smaller than the SoundWare XS SE system. It stands to reason, considering there are three fewer satellites and associated mounting hardware to pack in. However, we were surprised to see how much smaller the subwoofer in this system is. We measured the sub at 9 15/16 x 9 ½ x 11 ⅜ (H x W x D-in inches) and weighed it at just over 11 pounds.
The small satellites bear the same high-gloss black finish as the SE system we reviewed last year, but the subwoofer here has a slightly textured finish with a bit more sheen to it. This sub also seems to have a more robust cabinet — it “bit back” a lot when we gave it the old “knuckle test”.
In the box with the speakers and subwoofer we found a “control pod,” different types of mounting hardware for two speakers, two long runs of very small speaker wire, a six foot digital optical cable, one pair of RCA interconnect cables and an AC power cable.
Features and design
As is often the case with powered speaker systems involving a subwoofer, the SoundWare XS Digital Cinema’s amplifier, inputs and speaker connections are all located on the back of the subwoofer; like an all-in-one control center. Two pair of spring-loaded speaker wire posts are designed for bare wire up to a 16 AWG maximum. Anything larger is not likely to fit.
The system offers three physical inputs: one optical digital connection, one set of analog stereo RCA plugs, and a 3.5mm input jack. However, this package has a Bluetooth wireless adapter built right in, offering a fourth, flexible input method.
The SoundWare satellite speakers remain unchanged. A ½-inch tweeter is mounted over a 2 ½-inch midwoofer to make up the driver compliment. They also feature the same funky shape, which allows numerous placement options, and the same small channel for speaker wire management, though the small groove limits speaker wire upgrade options.
The sub, as mentioned before, is smaller and sports what we think is a more pleasant finish. Yet, its functional differences from previous SoundWare subs are what interests us most. First, this sub is forward firing (as opposed to down firing) and the cabinet is sealed (rather than ported). This type of design could potentially improve the sub’s upper midrange performance. If that is the case, then the critical transition point at which the satellites stop producing sound and the sub takes over could be executed much more smoothly. If things play out that way, then this system will have a distinct sonic advantage over the 5.1 system we reviewed previously.
A breakdown of the system power is not listed by Boston Acoustics; the system’s box only indicates that the total system power is 250 watts. Based on the weight of the sub and its built-in amp, however, we’re pretty certain that Class D digital amplifiers are in use, and imagine the breakdown of power being something like 150 watts to the sub and 50 watts to each satellite channel. We’ll update this portion of our review once official word comes down from the manufacturer.
Finally, this system is controlled via a “control pod” or dongle, which connects to the rear of the subwoofer. This control pod features three LED indicator lights and an IR port. The idea is that the sub can remain hidden while this control pod is placed somewhere within sight to allow changes to volume, input, sound mode, etc., via the provided remote control. It’s not the most elegant solution for those with a minimum of equipment located around the TV, but necessary considering the system’s overall design.
Once again, we see simplicity in setup take a priority in this system’s design. Much like most of the sound bars we’ve tested, only a single digital optical cable needs to be run from the TV to the subwoofer so that any sound being fed to the TV will be reproduced by the sound system. Unlike a sound bar, which usually resides directly below the TV it gets its signal from, the SoundWare XS Digital Cinema’s subwoofer should be sitting on the floor somewhere. This means that in many setups, the travel distance for the signal cable will be much longer and, in some cases, more difficult to hide. Installing system cleanly will be easier with an entertainment cabinet, or if the system’s wires are run inside the walls.
We had some concerns about pairing the SoundWare XS Digital Cinema to our Bluetooth-enabled devices, but the process turned out to be remarkably easy. After pressing a Bluetooth pairing button located on the credit card-style remote, the system goes into pairing mode (as indicated by a flashing blue LED). We found the system easily on our iPad 2, iPhone 4S and laptop computer. The pairing process was amongst the fastest we’ve ever seen. Well done, Boston Acoustics!
We began our evaluation by playing some music tracks through the system using a Blu-ray disc player connected directly to the subwoofer via the provided optical digital cable.
It was immediately apparent that the sealed 8-inch subwoofer was better at doing its job than the sub we heard with Boston Acoustics’ 5.1 SoundWare system. Systems that rely heavily on the subwoofer for lower midrange production content generally suffer from a hole in the frequency range between 100Hz and 150Hz. Often, things can sound a bit lean as far up as 200Hz. The little 8-inch sub in this system, however, is well equipped to keep things linear and musical. We found bass to be fairly even, punchy and quick to respond to dynamic changes. In-room testing with frequency patterns confirmed what our ears told us: There is a small roll-off between 90Hz and 120Hz, but it is slight. There also seems to be a small bump around 60Hz, but that actually worked out for us in our particular room.
As great as the little subwoofer is, it isn’t without its shortcomings. First, as you might expect from a smaller, low-powered sub, it isn’t capable of producing extremely deep bass. We found it rolls off pretty steeply around 40Hz. It will, however, shake the walls a bit and lend that visceral, room-filling bass needed for an exciting movie-watching experience. Second, because the sub does play so high into the midrange region, some of the sounds it produces can be localized if the sub is placed too far away from its satellites. However, when the sub is placed near the satellite speakers and TV, it integrates very well and provides a nearly seamless full-range sound.
Musically speaking, this 2.1 system did very well, especially considering its size. Midrange performance remains typical of a compact speaker system, but what you get from this tiny package is quite good. It can also play louder than we expected under its own power and we found the maximum volume setting kept the system mostly distortion free.
Bluetooth performance was acceptable. We could hear the degradation of sound that came with the switch from hardwired analog and digital connections, but we think the convenience of the Bluetooth wireless capability will probably trump the small loss in fidelity via Bluetooth. The sound we got via the wireless connection wasn’t as bad as we’ve heard with some systems (which made FM radio sound good by comparison) but it did soften the edges of some high frequencies and clouded up vocal performances just a bit.
We don’t think the “Cinema” tag in the system’s nomenclature is really necessary; this speaker system does just fine playing music. However, it is likely that a system like this will see more action from movies and TV than it will other sources. Thankfully, its performance for both was excellent. The most impressive aspect of the system’s performance was its wide dispersion. Even with the satellites positioned 6 feet apart, they were able to produce a consistent image of sound between them with dialog well anchored in the center of the screen. The satellites’ slightly forward treble response did much to add zest to sound effects while the subwoofer continued to impress us with its Mighty Mouse-like performance.
Our chief complaint regards the control pod. This thing is a bit unwieldy. We had a tough time getting it to sit in such a way that we could see it without finding it distracting and we felt like the infrared remote control sensitivity was pretty poor. Though potentially more costly, an RF remote would be a smart idea here. That would allow the LED indicator lights to stand on their own as part of a more stealthy solution.
The Boston Acoustics SoundWare XS Cinema system may be billed as a home theater solution, but it is just as adept at producing great sounding music as it is pumping out thrilling, cinematic sound effects (we think it would be just as at home in a dorm or on a computer desk as it will filling the role of a home theater rig). Its sealed, forward-firing subwoofer is a notable improvement over previous SoundWare systems, and superior to most of the wireless subs we’ve recently heard with various sound bar solutions.
Since all connections are made to the back of the subwoofer, linking the system to a TV is not as streamlined a process as it is with most sound bars. A little pre-planning will be necessary to achieve the cleanest installation, but if that can be done, the system’s minimalist design is bound to find favor with those that just don’t like the way a sound bar can detract from the “floating picture” appeal of their super-thin flat-screen TVs.
While we aren’t prepared to dub the SoundWare XS Cinema system a “sound bar killer”, we do think it makes an superior sounding sound bar alternative with an ultra-small footprint.
- Very impressive sound from a compact system
- Sub is tight and musical
- Bluetooth pairing is a snap
- Music sounds as good as movies/TV
- Control pod difficult to position and unsightly
- Poor IR remote sensitivity
- Sub must stay in close proximity to its source (TV)
- Tiny speaker wire