Is this the Perfect “Friend Package”?
You and I are here because we’re different. Our parents and our friends often don’t understand our predilection for this stuff. And unfortunately, we live among people who think MP3 (or AAC) is indistinguishable from uncompressed sound, and who can’t imagine why anyone would need or want any audio system larger than a Thermos.
But every so often we meet someone--perhaps at a party, perhaps at work, perhaps in a Russian prison (long story)--who’s interested, who wants to know what’s good. They’re not quite like us, at least not yet, but they know there’s something better and they want to know what to buy.
“Hey, ah, my home-theater-in-a-box system died and I was thinking about stepping up. I mean, I’m no audiophile, and I don’t want to spend a lot of money, but what do you think a decent system would cost?”
We’ve all had these conversations, and at some point you have to talk about speakers. They want something good, but inexpensive. They’re looking for that mythical junction of value and performance that exists in a different spot for each of us. There is no one answer, but I think I may have at least the speakers in that system figured out. At just $400, the Fluance SXHTB speaker package, I believe, is an answer for many.
I know a lot of you skip to the end of reviews to cut to the chase and get the summary (okay, I do it too), so I’ll save your scrolling finger some work.
The towers (SXHTBFR) are really good for the price, though they trip on the bass line, as nearly all budget speakers do. A good subwoofer really helps by removing that responsibility. But the highs and mids are better than they have any right to be at this price point. Seriously.
The center was fine for the job and as good as most will allow for the size, and the surrounds were surprisingly effective, even by themselves. In fact, add a good 8-inch sub to them and you’d have a really good sub/sat system.
There, now you’ve got the short answer. If you’re interested in how I came to those conclusions, let’s keep going.
First impressions: towers
The entire system came in two boxes, with both towers in one box and the surrounds and center in another. Given that the towers weigh over 33 pounds apiece, that one made for a pretty hefty carton.
Fluance sent me the set in a black wood grain finish, which I think is smart at this price range. I typically find that basic black not only goes with everything, but also isn’t trying to be something it’s not. Vinyl impersonations of oak, ash, cherry, etc. always look cheap to me. I’ll refrain from saying that black is the new black. (But it is.)
As you can see, the speakers are a good size, standing 38.8 inches tall, but they’re also deep at 13 inches--always a good sign that there’s enough internal volume to provide a fuller sound.
You’ll also notice that at the bottom Fluance managed to add some visual interest with metallic feet and a platform. They’re merely attractive, not functional, but pretty elements like that are rare at this price.
Also unusual were the spikes that came with the speakers. It’s unusual that the speakers came with them, and the spikes themselves were unusual in that they were (a) gold-colored, (b) adjustable, and © ball-tipped so they wouldn’t damage a wood floor. Interesting.
Around back you’ll find a double set of gold (tone? plated?) 5-way binding posts. Odd, at this price, since I don’t think any of their target buyers will want to bi-wire or bi-amp, but a great show-off feature nonetheless.
I hooked up and played the towers first, giving them some break-in time and giving me some time to unpack the surrounds and center speaker. My first unofficial impression of the towers playing in the background was that they made the Indigo Girls sound surprisingly detailed and open. More on that in a bit.
First impressions: surrounds and center
We all want to think we’re open-minded and that we don’t prejudge, that we don’t decide who someone is until we know them. I’d like to think I do pretty well with that. Not judging speakers before I hear them? That’s tough.
The surround speakers are small. They’re less than 10 inches tall, though they feel solid. But pull off the grill and you’ll see a 4-inch midrange-woofer and what appears to be a concave Mylar tweeter. Not a great sign. Around back you’ll find pretty standard 5-way binding posts with plastic color-coded nuts and a keyhole mount that sticks out from the wall. Personally, I think these would look a little silly hanging on a wall, but they can be mounted.
The center channel speaker has the same 2-way driver compliment as the surrounds, though it has two of the 4-inch “woofers.”
I also think it’s worth pointing out that the woofers in these speakers, unlike those in the towers, have foam surrounds rather than butyl rubber. I didn’t know anyone still made those. Anyone who kept speakers from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s can tell you that foam has a tendency to biodegrade after a while, so I found this odd.
Okay, so I wasn’t impressed with what I saw, and I admit that I was already mentally writing about the importance of the ancillary speakers in a home theater system, particularly the center, which really should be able to convey the depth of . . . blah, blah, blah.
But the thing is, they sounded way better than I expected, and far better than they should have. I really can’t explain it.
The sound: towers
The first thing I do when setting up a speaker system is try to level the playing field. I unplugged my subwoofer and re-ran the Audyssey room equalization. I wanted the speakers to stand on their own as full-range towers. Fluance says they can play down to 49Hz, which is certainly plausible, though I really wish they’d provided a tolerance specification (e.g., +/-3dB).
The first thing I sat down and listened to was The Wailin’ Jennys’ 40 Days disc, which is a great demo. The speakers sounded very open and airy, with a great balance between detail and softness on the high end. The mids were clear and offered surprising presence in the room.
The reminders of their limitations came in the bass, which hit like a declawed kitten and lacked depth. There are deep bass notes in my Telarc recording of the “Back to the Future” theme and Michael Buble’s “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and both were simply MIA on these speakers. The bass that was there was a bit flabby and undefined.
I point this out because everything in audio has a trade-off. If you want to spend $300 on a pair of tower speakers, you can’t expect them to do everything well, and bass is the toughest (and most expensive) thing to get right. C’est la vie.
Still, for what they are and what they cost, these would blow your don’t-want-to-spend-a-lot-on-an-awesome-system friends and acquaintances away. They look cool and the things they don’t do well won’t bother those folks. Also, you can fix a lot of that with a good sub. Here’s why.
Add a sub to this mix and you’ll remove all the toughest bass responsibilities from the towers, letting them focus on what they do really well. You’ll also get much better bass extension, letting you hear and feel stuff you’d never get without a sub. A good sub with performance equal to the abilities of this system will likely cost about as much as the whole system but then you’re still below $800 for an entire 5.1 speaker package.
The sound: surrounds and center
I’ll say again that my expectations for these speakers were, to say the least, low. I was far less concerned with the surrounds than I was with the center, since that’s where so much of the sound in a movie comes from. All the voices, much of the music--pretty much anything happening on-screen--comes from here. It should be a really, really good speaker, and it had the makings of none of that.
But a speaker that can do all of those things really well would be enormous--far larger than most people would expect or want. It couldn’t fit in a cabinet or in front of a TV; the TV would have to sit on it. For all but the most insane and impractical (like many of us) it would be completely out of the question.
Just for fun, I connected the surrounds up front. I wanted to hear them by themselves, not as part of a system where they could hide as one in a chorus of many. I expected nothing and got . . . something.
Yes, they lacked depth, and they didn’t fill my room as well as the towers, but the highs and mids were shockingly good. Those concave tweeters should have sounded beamy and harsh. Those 4-inch woofers should have sounded comically thin and tinny. But in defiance of all expectations and reason, they didn’t.
I heard myself involuntarily say “holy crap” a few times though it would have been hard to hear over the music, which was surprisingly loud. I was honestly tempted to hook these up with my little 8-inch Energy sub, which I have connected to my TV’s variable outs, to hear what they might sound like as part of a sub/sat system. I didn’t do it, but I strongly suspect that system would sound pretty darned good.
The sound: surround system
The cohesive effect of this system is very good. I’m not a huge believer in voice-matching, which is the idea that all speakers should sound the same as the sound moves around the room. But I do think there needs to be a family resemblance, and these absolutely have that. They clearly have DNA in common.
The overall effect of the system when playing a movie was impressive. Even better, it was immersive. Pixar movies are always really good for this kind of thing, offering great dynamics and detail. I’ve mentioned in other reviews that the beginning of A Bug’s Life offers wonderful nuances, and this system did that very well.
Yes, the system needs a subwoofer, and preferably one that will do bass as well as the other speakers in the system do their jobs, which can’t be bought cheaply. But these five speakers are a wonderful foundation for a system your non-audiophile friends will love. You’ll be a hero; you’ll be the go-to guy or gal for finding great audio gear at cut-rate prices.
See above. ;-)
Price for complete system: $399.99
Absolute grade: B-
Value-adjusted grade: A-