PC speakers have sure gone through quite a few changes over the last decade or so. What started out as a pretty limited product category eventually exploded with the addition of bigger speakers, subwoofers and surround sound. Today, there is an expansive selection of PC speakers available, so manufacturers have to do something strikingly different In order to stand out within this now crowded product space.
Hercules has been making its efforts to get its computer and portable audio products noticed for the last few years, and judging by its growing catalog of speaker systems, seems to be doing a decent job of it. The XPS 101 2.1 speaker system, reviewed here, is certainly an attention grabber from a design perspective, so we put the system through its paces in order to determine if this is the next must-have computer audio system.
Components and setup
The XPS 101 box includes two satellite speakers, a subwoofer, wired remote control, a rather large power adapter, a microphone cable, a “line in” cable and a female stereo RCA to female 3.5mm adapter cable. The cube-shaped subwoofer measures 9.75 inches square, but stands slightly taller due to its 1-inch feet. Each circular satellite stands just shy of 6.5 inches tall and is hard wired with a 6-foot speaker cable terminated with a male RCA connector.
To set up the speaker system, all necessary wires must be routed to a connection bay located underneath the subwoofer at the back of the unit. In total, four connections are required: one for each speaker, the power adapter and remote.
Features and design
The XPS 101 system has immediate appeal coming out of the box. If the shiny, gloss-black satellites with their die-cast metal accents and Plexiglas pedestals don’t grab you, the chromed metal plate that caps the relatively hefty subwoofer probably will. The components have a solid and weighty to them that exudes quality. The system’s styling could be described as “retro meets modern” and we think it will class up just about any computer desk or small living space it resides in.
Though Hercules doesn’t appear to disclose the satellite and subwoofer’s driver sizes, our measurements indicate the satellites use 2-inch drivers, while the subwoofer uses what appears to be 6-inch drivers and passive radiators.
The amp for this system resides in the subwoofer, and according to the manufacturer, delivers 20.5 watts to each satellite and 60 watts to the subwoofer (101 watts total RMS) with a peak power output capability of 202 watts.
The subwoofer’s passive radiator design is rather unique to the world of PC speakers. Instead of using a single subwoofer driver in a ported cabinet, Hercules has opted to seal this subwoofer’s box and use a single, forward-firing active driver, with two side-firing passive radiators. Passive radiators act a lot like a port does by helping to reinforce bass output. As the built-in amplifier moves the sub’s active driver back and forth, pressure changes in the sealed box cause the passive radiators to move sympathetically. This design generally yields tighter, more even bass response and can allow the sub to play higher in the frequency range with better accuracy. In theory, this approach is ideal when paired with small satellites that don’t produce any bass or mid-bass, allowing the subwoofer to round things out.
To control the system, a desktop remote with a circular “jog wheel” is provided. On the back of the remote is a 3.5mm line-level input jack and a 3.5mm headphone jack. An additional line level input is provided on the bottom of the subwoofer along with all the other connections, but is defeated if the input on the remote is used.
The control wheel must be pressed down for a few seconds to power the system on or off. Once the system is powered up, pressing the wheel down will toggle through volume, bass and treble controls.
Generally speaking, we really liked the fit and finish of this system, but closer inspection of the satellites revealed that the plastic enclosures weren’t very rigid. Rapping on them with our knuckles revealed a very hollow sound that is undesirable for any speaker cabinet. However, since these satellites won’t be producing much below the upper midrange band, it is less likely to cause sound coloration issues.
We also wished the system’s remote offered a little more sound control. You can adjust bass and treble, but there is no balance control for the left and right speakers, nor is their balance control between the sub and satellites.
Finally, while we appreciate the simple connections, hardwiring the speaker wire to the speakers will limit placement options unless you’re up to purchasing RCA extension cables.
Since both the subwoofer and satellite cabinets in the XPS 101 system are sealed, we anticipated the rig would almost certainly need some break-in time. It turns out we correct about that. Out of the box, the system had a somewhat congested feel that dissipated considerably after about 40 hours of play time.
With break-in out of the way, we set about giving the system a thorough listen. For our testing session with the XPS 101, we used a new Dell Inspiron 15R laptop with its built in audio card and an iPhone 4 as sources. After hearing the surprisingly pitiful quality of the new laptop’s audio card, we opted to add a HeadRoom micro DAC into the mix and bypass the audio card completely. The changed marked significant improvement in system performance.
For testing media, we used a wide array of different music types, several movie clips and played a little Call of Duty: Black Ops to bring some gaming perspective to the mix.
We found the XPS 101 lent itself particularly well to gaming. Off-screen sound effects came across clearly, indicating the presence of other team members and the opposition from just outside the edge of the speakers. Gunfire sounded realistic and dynamic, while explosions were percussive and rumbling.
Our experience with the XPS 101 while watching movies was entertaining. The subwoofer provided plenty of rumble even though it couldn’t quite take on the lowest octave. The satellites did an admiral job of handling the challenging dynamics of movies like Transformers, Titan A.E. and Gladiator but we felt like dialogue came across sounding just a bit nasal.
Music, however, always ends up being our true test of any speaker system and we were anxious to hear how the XPS 101 and its passive radiator subwoofer would fare. The results were… well… complicated.
The subwoofer performed very admirably in some respects. It was capable of reaching well up into the midrange region to complete the “sonic picture,” a challenge most PC subwoofers fail miserably at. The bass response was nice and even from the top down until it hit a massive bump in the mid-bass region we like to call the “thump zone.” To be sure that our subwoofer placement wasn’t causing the thump hump, we moved the system around a bit, even placing the sub well into the middle of an open room to reduce any potential wall reinforcement effects. Still, the overly pronounced thump of the kick drum in our recordings remained. Our guess is that Hercules EQ’d the sub this way, because we didn’t note anything obvious in the subwoofer’s design that would provide an explanation.
The satellites sounded good in some respects, but we found the sound varied greatly depending on where we listened from. If we sat a good distance away from the system (greater than 8 feet) the satellites sounded pretty good. The midrange response sounded much larger than we expected from the 2-inch drivers, and the speakers were capable of reaching some very impressive volumes with minimally audible distortion. At close range, however, we felt high frequencies came across with too much bite. We dropped the treble down to its lowest possible point, but that only served to mute other high frequencies that weren’t out of control. We attempted to find a happy medium, but were never fully satisfied. We simply found the sound fatiguing. That said, we tend to prefer more laid back treble, so the more aggressive highs might find favor with some listeners, particularly gamers who enjoy brilliant-sounding effects.
Part of the reason our listening experience changed based on our listening location is that the satellites have pretty poor off-axis performance. Moving just slightly off to the side changed the sound signature pretty dramatically. This characteristic played to the systems favor in some cases, as it sounded great filling up a large room with some music but we just can’t recommend it for anyone interested in using this as a companion to a TV or gaming console in a space where users might sit well to the left or right of the speakers. Likewise, we must caution those who intend to use it as a desktop audio system that the sound is best when kept at lower volumes. Rocking out at your desk is likely to be a brief affair for anyone particularly sensitive to high frequencies.
The XPS 101 2.1 multimedia speaker system is well styled, thoughtfully designed and easy to setup and use. We think this system would be an excellent addition to a dorm room or for a young gamer’s setup. However, the system’s excessively bright highs and particularly thumpy bass are likely to turn off picky music listeners. With some EQ adjustments and perhaps the addition of a digital input, the XPS 101 could be a serious contender against even more expensive systems but, as it stands, it’s average online price tag of $250 seems a little steep.
- Excellent look and feel
- Above-average subwoofer performance
- Convenient volume, bass, treble control
- Good selection of connecting cables
- Fatiguing treble at close range
- Subwoofer EQ geared for very thumpy bass
- Tough to balance sound at differing volumes