In all my years working as a professional in this industry, I'm not sure I've ever come across a product that surprised me as much as Atlantic Technology's 3.1 HSB H-PAS TV speaker base system ($799). Quite frankly, on paper, it looks like the sort of thing that might appeal to, like, three people in the world. First of all, it's a speaker base (or sound base, or sound pedestal, or whatever nomenclature you prefer)--which, let's face it, is hardly a sexy product category. Second, it isn't even a fully powered speaker base. Although it features a power cord and 80 watts of amplification for its down-firing 6.5-inch woofer, its trio of L/C/R channels (each featuring a pair of three-inch mid-bass drivers and a 0.75-inch soft dome tweeter) is completely passive, requiring the addition of an AV receiver or some other form of external amplification.
Before you count out the 3.1 HSB, however, consider this: it is the product of Atlantic Technology, which has been doing some pretty intriguing things in the past few years with a technology known as H-PAS (Hybrid Pressure Acceleration System). H-PAS is to standard, ported bass-reflex speaker design what the Corvette C7.R is to a solid-axel gen-one convertible with a Blue Flame straight-six engine. H-PAS relies on a combination of acoustic suspension, acoustic transmission line, bass reflex, and inverse horn technologies to create pretty massive bass output from pretty tiny cabinets. The result, in part, is that the 3.1 HSB--with a cabinet measuring less than 36 inches wide, five inches tall, and 17 inches deep--boasts reported low-frequency extension down to a stunning 35 Hz, with audible sub-30-Hz bass output in my 13- by 15-foot bedroom. That's actually a good bit better than some 10-inch subwoofers I've auditioned as of late, and it's just one of the things that makes this curious speaker base more than just a mere curiosity.
As you might have gathered already, setting up the 3.1 HSB is hardly different from setting up three speakers and a subwoofer. Around back, you'll find three binding posts of the spring-loaded variety. This is normally not my favorite connection method, but in this case it definitely works--since you might find yourself stretching across the cabinet itself to make said connections, and the quicker the better. Of course, there's also an LFE input for the built-in woofer, variable controls for LFE level and low-pass (with settings from 40 Hz to 220 Hz), and dipswitches for low-pass bypass, phase inversion, and standby power (on/off/auto).
Up front you'll find (perhaps rather surprisingly) a removable cloth grille with more than enough bracing to protect the soft-dome tweeters. When inspecting the driver configuration, you will notice that the tweeter for each channel is elevated slightly as compared with its mid-bass drivers. This doesn't wholly solve every one of the dispersion problems inherent to horizontal M-T-M (mid-tweeter-mid) driver arrays, but it does seem to greatly reduce any potential lobing issues.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Before we can talk about anything performance-related, we've got some more setting up to do--because, as I said, the 3.1 HSB is, aside from its deep bass driver, a passive speaker system. Therefore, much of the setup that needs to be done has to be done within your AV receiver. In my case, I relied on an Anthem MRX 710, with its LCR and subwoofer output fed directly into the 3.1 HSB. After a good bit of listening, I added a pair of ELAC Debut B5 bookshelf speakers as surrounds. That's kinda the beauty of Atlantic Technology's intriguing speaker base: you can use it alone (well, with a receiver) or use it as the centerpiece of a complete 5.1, 7.1, or even Atmos/DTS:X object-based surround sound system, if you so choose.
You may be thinking, "Wait, why would I use such a high-performance receiver to drive a $799 speaker base?" The real answer to that question is, "Because I could." Seriously, though, using the MRX 710 and its accompanying Anthem Room Correction 2 software allowed me to take a snapshot of the speaker base's performance in my room and make more intelligent, informed decisions about bass management, room correction, and so forth.
The first thing I noticed about the 3.1 HSB's performance in-room is that its L/C/R speakers perform rather unevenly below 500 Hz, so I set my Max EQ frequency to that point (and no higher, since I didn't want to tweak the voice of the speakers themselves in the most crucial midrange and high frequencies). The second thing I noticed is that, although the LFE driver (I just can't bring myself to call it a subwoofer) does indeed deliver deep, smooth low bass, it also performs really admirably up above 200 Hz.
That gave me a good bit of wiggle room in terms of bass management. Atlantic Technology's instruction manual recommends a crossover point of 125 Hz. My measurements (and my ears) said this was far too low. In the end ARC2 suggested (and I agreed) that 160 Hz was pretty much the perfect crossover frequency for this system.
With a normal speaker system, this would be less than ideal (he said, in obvious contention for Understatement of the Century). Crossing over at such a high frequency would normally lead to a serious disconnect between sub and satellites, not to mention a significant degree of subwoofer localization. However, with the 3.1 HSB, the "subwoofer" is right there, built into the speakers. As such I was able to get a good blend between then even with crossover frequency set so high.
Nothing during the setup process really prepared me for how the 3.1 HSB would sound when all was said and done, though. Apparently my internal thesaurus was stuck in alliterative mode that day because the notes from my first listening sessions are peppered with words like "rich," "robust," and "remarkable." And mind you, a good bit of that was probably based on lowered expectations, but the 3.1 HSB's performance isn't merely "good for a speaker base." It's actually quite good in a number of respects. Full stop.
I've been re-watching the first season of Daredevil (ABC Studios) recently, mostly because Netflix and Marvel haven't gotten around to making a third season yet and I needed my fix. Honestly, I could have written this entire review based on the first three minutes of the second episode, "Cut Man," as they reveal all of the 3.1 HSB's strengths (and its few significant weaknesses). Opening shot: rain-spattered asphalt. Every little drip that strikes the blacktop springs forth from the 3.1 HSB with sparkling detail. To the left: a fluorescent light with a busted ballast. It flickers in and out, not just off the edge of the screen but also off the edge of the speaker base itself. The sound crackles out from a spot where the speaker simply isn't. A young man peers into a dumpster, a look of shock on his face, and for no good reason other than to build suspense, there's a droning boom. The sort that telegraphs to the viewer that Something Bad Is Happening. If you're focused on the 3.1 HSB and not the scene itself, you almost expect its little 6.5-inch driver (or maybe the cabinet itself) to get shredded. It doesn't. There's a palpable weight in the air. A weight pouring forth from this slim little speaker cabinet. Your brain just can't even.
Opening credits: you've heard the theme song a least a couple dozen times by this point, so you notice that the keyboards and sampled strings sound a little midrangey, a little lacking in presence, but certainly not bad at all. Far more striking than that, though, is the solidity with which the heartbeat of the percussion thump-thumps into the room with wonderful punch and solidity.
As the episode progresses (and actual human beings say actual human things), it does become apparent that the midrange-forward sound and reduced presence evidenced in the opening credits does translate into somewhat reduced dialogue clarity, compared with a dedicated center channel speaker with as much internal volume as this entire 3.1-channel system. That's mostly the result of a pretty significant dip in output between roughly 2 kHz [http://onlinetonegenerator.com/?freq=2000] and 6 kHz [http://onlinetonegenerator.com/?freq=6000], which is the 3.1 HSB's only real tonal flaw, once bass management (and a bit of EQ to the deep bass) is applied.
That sonic coloration did make its presence (or, ironically, its lack of presence) more fully known with the first few musical tracks I threw at the 3.1 HSB. "Zomby Woof" by Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, from the most recent CD release of their 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation (Zappa Records), definitely rang through the speaker system with the same midrange-forward sound, which didn't throw off the balance of the dense instrumentation, but did have a significant impact on the grit of the guitars and the balance of the chorus vocals that kick in around a minute and twenty seconds into the track. Through the 3.1 HSB, Tina Turner & the Ikettes (yeah, it's totally them) simply get drowned out by the percussion, bass, and lead guitar.
But wow, the width of that soundstage! If it's enough to make me use an exclamation mark in a proper review, you know it's startling. Simply put, every element of the mix, from the guitars to the synth to the trombone, stretch way beyond the confines of the 3.1 HSB's cabinet. I currently have three different surround sound speaker systems hooked up in this room for various projects, and my brain just wouldn't let me believe that music wasn't cranking out of the ELAC F5 towers about a foot and a half to the left and right of Atlantic Technology's little speaker base. So I took them out of the room, along with the KEF Q100 bookshelf speakers sitting right next to the speaker base. Even without the visual distraction, my ears were still dead set on believing that the sound hitting them was coming from a pair of speakers at least five feet apart.
So, inspired by the 3.1 HSB's stunning width but still a little let down by its muted mid-treble frequencies, I did a bad thing. I decided to run Anthem Room Correction 2 again and set a Max EQ frequency of 5,000 Hz.
That breaks every rule I have about room correction, and I still feel dirty for admitting it, but letting ARC2 do its thing up to 5 kHz had a pretty dramatic effect on the sound of the 3.1 HSB. Cueing up "Zomby Woof" again, I couldn't help but immediately notice the increased attack of the guitars. And when Tina and the girls joined in, they didn't get pushed to the background. They leapt right out of the mix, as they should. Thankfully, none of this had any detrimental effect on the 3.1 HSB's sumptuous soundstage width, nor its silky-smooth midrange or high-end sparkle.
It also made for a much better blend between the 3.1 HSB and the ELAC bookshelf speakers I used as surrounds for the last phase of my testing. After applying the additional room correction, I popped in my Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney Home Video) Blu-ray disc for the second time in a week, not really intending to use it as reference material but more because that's just how frequently I watch the film. It was shockingly apparent just how much the extra equalization not only made dialogue more lifelike and intelligible, but also how much better the front and surround soundstages worked in concert. In chapter 35, "Resistance Base," the X-Wing Fighters and assorted transports that whoosh by the screen on their way to D'Qar legitimately whoosh, rather than leaping from the rear of the room to the front.
The Force Awakens does reveal one aspect of the 3.1 HSB's performance that can't be tweaked or EQd away, though. Simply put, sometimes it puts out more bass than it can handle. Or, more accurately, than the furniture on which it sits can handle. Skipping forward to chapter 35, "Rey Imprisoned," there's this low, deep, guttural rumble that accompanies Kylo Ren's interrogation of Rey. When it kicked in at full force...well, there's really no other way to put it: it shook the living crap out of my solid oak dresser. Like, if it had teeth, a trip to the dentist would've been in order.
This would probably be worse if I had a TV perched on top of the 3.1 HSB, but the UN65JS9500FXZA in my main home theater wouldn't sit on it comfortably due to its wide stance (its feet hung off the edge just enough to send visions of tumbling 4K TVs through my head), and the plasma in my bedroom is wall-mounted. (The 3.1 HSB is designed to accommodate TVs up to 60 inches and 100 pounds.)
As I said, that's normally not an issue. Even when the bass pounds hard, the cabinet seems inert enough to take it. But low, deep, long, rumbling bass effects are just more than it can handle without a whole lotta shakin' going on, so take that into consideration. For what it's worth, I was able to tame the rattling a bit by turning down the bass a bit, but this left me without the satisfying weight and oomph that impressed me so much.
Comparison and Competition
If I could get away with deleting this section of the review, I totally would. Because, quite frankly, there really isn't much to compare Atlantic Technology's 3.1 HSB to. Every other speaker base (or sound pedestal or sound-whatever) that I've reviewed has been completely active, with two or three amplified channels, built-in processing, some manner of faux surround DSP, etc. So, yes, I could make comparisons with ZVOX's SoundBase.670 ($499), but it's a bit like apples and kumquats, isn't it? Yamaha's $500 SRT-1000 TV Surround Sound System is another similar product that springs to mind, but again it's only superficially similar. Because when you get right down to it, none of these products delivers the flexibility, upgradeability, and sheer performance capabilities that you'll get from even a low-budget AV receiver.
A more apt comparison could be made with passive soundbars like the GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array (which, by the way, is awesome), but even there, you still have to bring your own subwoofer to the equation.
Simply put, if you're looking for an integrated L/C/R solution whose sound you can tweak (not to mention upgrade) that doesn't require the addition of a standalone sub, the Atlantic Technology 3.1 HSB pretty much dances to the beat of its own drummer.
Here's the long and short of it: if you've read this far, you're already hip to the fact that the Atlantic Technology 3.1 HSB H-PAS TV Speaker Base isn't perfect. It requires the use of your own AV receiver, it needs a bit of room correction in the lower treble to perform at its best, bass management can be a little tricky, and its deep bass performance can actually be a little too good at times.
I freely acknowledge all of that. Here's the thing, though: it's kind of the perfect L/C/R speaker system for my bedroom. It removes most of the clutter from atop my dresser; and, due to its built-in "subwoofer," it opens up a lot of floor space (and gives me one less thing to split my pinky toe wide open on when I get up to powder my nose in the middle of the night). I adore the fact that it supports whatever sound format I want to feed it. Plus, with the right amount of tweaking, it sounds fabulous.
Simply put, it's not the right sound solution for everyone, but it fills a niche that I didn't even realize needed filling.
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