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Aspire Digital AD-1100 Plus 5.1-Channel System
Most seasoned audiophiles take great pleasure in helping friends and family choose home-entertainment systems. The process of helping to purchase and set up a stereo or surround-sound rig is a way to share your hobby, not to mention the fun that will ensue once the new owner is enjoying it. These days the average Joe -- which defines the largest segment of the market for electronics -- wants a full 5.1-channel system. Whether for music or to provide a little more excitement when watching a DVD on Saturday night, most buyers have two primary requirements: the system must have more enveloping sound than their TV -- meaning surround sound -- and it must be affordable.
When entering into the consultant role, an audiophile has to transition -- what may be affordable gear to us is typically a ridiculous proposition to others. The first step in assessing someones needs and wants when it comes to a home-entertainment system involves finding out two things: what the performance expectations are for the room where it will be placed, and of course the inevitable "budget question." Theres always the chance that youll be faced with the challenge of building a system "that sounds just like yours for $1000." Thatll be a problem when your rig costs a tidy ten times more. Nonetheless, Ive amassed a number of recommendations for all types of needs and budgets, as Im sure most of you have. For just under $1000 there are a variety of conceivable stereo systems that sound like they cost much more. The proposition gets more challenging when surround sound enters the equation but the budget stays the same.
Still, there are products that can deliver at just about any price point. Looking at the SoundStage! Networks 2004 CES coverage, youll find cool DVD players for under $100 and full 5.1-channel speaker systems for under $600 -- and these products deliver performance well beyond what you would expect at their prices. I was shocked to hear the sound that Hsu Research was producing for under a grand from their Ventriloquist 6.1-channel speaker system.
But what if a grand is still too much? What if $800 is out of the question? And what will you recommend if $600 breaks the budget? What would you do to get surround sound into someones home for under $500? And were not just talking about speakers but a DVD player and something to power it all, too. And while youre at it, include the cables and accessories. Santa Maria!
When faced with such a challenge from here on out, you can say, "No problem. I can help." And then remember you read this article.
The AD-1100 Plus
The list price of the Aspire Digital AD-1100 Plus is $399 USD. A quick search on Yahoo Shopping will turn up numerous retailers selling the system for considerably less. I'm talking just under three bills if youre careful. For that amount of money you get a lot of stuff: four shielded tower speakers each with two 2" drivers; a shielded center-channel speaker with the same driver complement as the mains and surrounds; a progressive-scan DVD player with built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoders, not to mention S-video and component outputs; and a 8" 150W powered subwoofer that also contains the rest of the systems amplification (650W total system power as rated by the manufacturer). You also get remote control of all functions, wiring to hook it all up, and some doggoned big boxes. Were not talking about a home-theater-in-the-box that you can fit under an arm while you talk on your cell phone with the other hand. This package is more substantial than youd think.
OK, I know youre waiting for the section that tells you where the compromises are. Here's the biggie: The Aspire Digital system is almost all plastic. It is colored to look like aluminum, but theres no metal in sight. The speakers cabinetry is extremely lightweight in its overall construction, although the speakers do include some heavy steel bases and surprisingly substantial floor spikes that keep them steady on carpet. Speaker connectors on the outputs and inputs are spring clips, and the speaker grilles are non-removable.
Those points of construction may not be overly crucial though -- and dwelling on them may be missing the point. Some of the same criticisms can be leveled against products costing far more than the few bills youll lay down here. I mean heck, you can go to Best Buy and spend $200 on a gaudy-looking boom box. With Aspire Digital you can get an entire surround system for just $50 more than that. Lets keep some perspective here.
Setting er up
The setup of the AD-1100 Plus couldnt be easier. A set of six-channel outputs connects the DVD player to the subwoofer/amplifier system, and all of the speakers hook into the sub via the provided speaker wire. The DVD player has an onscreen menu for programming the system, which you can accomplish in just a few moments with the remote. The only setup detail of note is that both the DVD player and the subwoofer need to be within clear shot of the viewing/listening position; each has its own remote control and remote sensor, one for DVD controls and one for all of the amplifier functions such as volume. Its a shame these couldn't be combined into one unit for greater ease of use.
Whatll you hear?
A heck of a lot more than youd expect. The subwoofer belts out some real bass compared with, say, a boom box. The low frequencies present on Pink Floyds The Dark Side of the Moon [Capital CDP 7243] fairly filled my large room in two-channel mode. Granted, the bass wasnt visceral, but it did walk a fairly tight line between augmenting the main channels and providing real sub-bass. Id estimate response down to the upper-30Hz or lower-40Hz range -- sufficient to give a firmer foundation to music than many $500 minimonitors can provide.
The upper frequencies dont sound bright or etched; rather they err on the side of caution and roll off at the very top end of the spectrum. This is welcome when listening to some film soundtracks and many older CDs. Fleetwood Macs The Dance on DVD-Video had a pleasant sound that communicated the music effectively. The overall soundstage was bigger than youd expect -- the Aspire system managed output levels that had sufficient loudness for rock, country, or jazz.
Playing around with the speaker setup did produce good imaging. I found that placing the speakers closer together than normal, just a couple of feet on either side of my monitor, yielded the best results. You wont hear as wide a stage as you would with a decent set of bookshelf speakers, but if youre looking to expand upon the sound youd hear from any TV while locking together the front stage and anchoring the fairly clear vocals dead center, youll not be disappointed. The center-channel speaker needs to be set to fire directly at the listening position. Off-axis youll lose clarity and focus, but directly on-axis, with simple vocals like those on Norah Jones Live in New Orleans, the sound can be quite satisfying.
Dont expect to shake the floorboards or hear every last molecule of air around instruments. Do expect to have much more dynamic range than you would have with any TV, a reasonably coherent 360-degree soundfield, and even a Karaoke function for those wild parties on the weekend. And dont forget that having surround sound lets you hear movies in a way that makes them much more enjoyable than with two channels of equal performance.
Wrap er up and take her home
The Aspire Digital AD-1100 Plus is not a giant killer that will compete with an amplifier, source, and speakers like the ones we usually write about on SoundStage!. But then again its not meant to, either. It does more than many of the home-theater-in-a-box systems that come in a container no larger than a couple of briefcases stacked atop each other. It also drastically improves upon the sound youd get from your TV alone. Whats not to like about a system that for less than a few hundred dollars can give your family more enjoyment from CDs and movies -- not to mention music concerts on DVD-Video? I like the fact that for the price of a few trips out to the theater (and the meal that necessarily has to accompany them), a system exists that I can recommend. And now you can, too.
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