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ups: Great sound at a great price; handy for a variety of applications; supports multiple stereo/surround modes.
downs: Subwoofer isn't shielded; cords could be longer; no wall mounts for satellites; no LR balance.

Altec Lansing 5100 Series Speakers Review
four star
posted by: Aaron Stanton
date posted: 09:10 AM Tue Sep 10th, 2002

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I spent most of my childhood searching garage sales and Goodwill stores ferreting out the gems of my future sound systems: speakers. They were big; they were ugly; they were pre-historic, but they could be repaired and combined into an unmatched generator of noise (as long as you didn't play it very loud). I woke every morning to a 19-inch mid-range I'd salvaged from the closet of the nearby movie theater, rigged via a little experimentation to the sound output of my five-dollar alarm clock (I just wasn't waking up anymore ? I needed something with a volume control). It was the next logical step after I'd modified my speakerphone for surround sound and a headset. By the time I graduated high school, I had three separate amplifiers driving independent systems for my TV, CD Player, and telephone. By the time I hit university, there were five different locations in my room you could sit for perfect surround sound. I had them all measured and marked.

It seems natural to me, then, that when Altec Lansing sent us their high-end 5100 series six-piece speaker system, I'd get a chance to take a gander at it. \"Just listen to this!\" it declares on the side of the box, and I was all too happy to unplug my existing system to do just that. My verdict? Sometimes, no matter what the tinkering, a second hand sound system just can't match ears with a first-rate purchased sound machine. When doing what it's designed to do, Altec Lansing's 5100 Gaming Theater produces a sound that is clear and ambient, and will leave you wondering how you got by without a six-piece system in the past. Being able to tell the location of your enemies from their footsteps alone takes the gaming experience to an entirely new level, sort of the difference between going out to the movies or watching a video on your thirteen inch TV.

In fact, my complaints with the system (there are a few) have nothing to do with the sound the system produces, which is really very good. Instead, my complaints fall in the physical setup category. Audio wise, the 100-watt system produces a strong well-balanced mix of music. Designed for the close range often required for good sound for one or two users in front of a computer, the five satellite speakers (including the center channel) are all well balanced with the bass. The remote control, one of the more classy features of the system, looks and feels high quality; allowing you to adjust such things as bass (this baby can pump out bass, believe me), treble, system volume, and center and back volume all from the comfort of your reclining chair. The amplifier, built into the bass speaker, is designed to be able to accept independent channels for the front, back, and center speakers, allowing for true directional surround sound. Not to fear for those of us without surround sound outputs on our computers and TVs, the 5100 series can be set for three different modes to accommodate various input channels (Stereo 2X, 4.1 Gaming, 5.1 surround). Everything you need to set up the system, whether you're using it for console gaming or computer driven audio, comes in the box. I was really rather impressed at how thoroughly they'd prepared the system for a wide variety of uses. I never found myself hunting down additional wiring for my initial setup.

Most of my difficulties with the setup come from rather minor, common sense complaints. For example, the bass speaker isn't shielded ? it states in the manual that it should be kept a minimum of two feet from all monitors and digital media storage like disk drives ? or distortion occurs (the colors on the monitor tend to separate, and data tends to disappear). In a lot of ways, this sort of eliminates the place Lansing recommends it be placed, which is under your computer desk (which happens to be where I store things like... well, my computer and media). Who would have thought? No problem. The best location for a bass speaker is directly behind where you're sitting anyway, with the satellite speakers just at or above ear level. I moved it there. This presented a problem. The powered amp is located in the bass speaker, which means all your inputs have to run from the back of your computer to the bass, and then from the bass to the rest of the speakers. This virtually guarantees that the sound source, generally in front of you, is always going to be the farthest piece of equipment from where it needs to reach, the bass speaker, which is ideally behind you. It then takes another wire to run from the bass back to the center speaker, which will be positioned on top of the computer monitor (or there about) once again in front of you. Is this a minor complaint? Yes. In fact, I may be the only one who would ever complain about it, since I tend to take pride in building a system that produces really good sound, but is virtually invisible to the naked eye. On the highest end system, I want everything flawless. People who want OK sound don't buy top of the line equipment. It gives me a right to be picky.

Probably a bigger complaint is the noticeable lack of a left/right balance. Admittedly, most computers will be able to adjust this, but if used with a DVD player or a console gaming system (which the box claims the system can be used for) a left/right balance might not be available. This limits the flexibility of the system. In an ideal world, all sound rooms would be rectangle, and set up for perfect speaker placement. In reality, my living room is too long, and too narrow. My couch is in the wrong place, and these speakers ? while mounted on nice, solid feeling metal bases ? are not designed to be mounted on the wall. By matter of circumstances, my left front and back speakers are farther from where I sit than my right front and back speakers. The result is that I always develop a headache on the right side of my head before my left. Normally, the left/right balance could be used to level out my headache placement. As it is, my artistic right brain ends up feeling tired and worn out before my logistic left has had a good enough gaming dose. It's a horrible, horrible thing. More importantly, it represents a flaw in my perfect audio system, and after paying nearly two hundred dollars I'd be rather frustrated by that.

But that's it. Aside from those complaints, which amount to having to run additional wire, the lack of a left/right balance, and my inability to mount the satellites on the wall, Altec Lansing has done an extraordinary job with the 5100 series. For shear sound quality, there are few systems that can compete with Lansing. They simply know how to produce a good sound in a tiny speaker. For basic, out of the box sound, quick setup, and ease of use, the 5100 is really quite superb ? I am in no way disappointed in the sound quality produced by the system. I'm thrilled in fact. My movies have never sounded so good, my games never so immersive. If you're a true gamer, a true movie enthusiast, you need a good sound system, and after you get the 5100 set up just right you'll never want to go back to another brand. The auxiliary input allows you to use the system for other purposes as well. Plug in your iPod or CD player and you'll quickly find yourself in a room full of rich, ambient music -- one of my passions in life. Now excuse me, I think I hear my sound system calling me. I have to go spend some quality time with it.

My motto: See the explosion. Hear the rumble. Feel the experience.

Note: A common problem in this sort of system is a slight buzz that emits from the speakers when nothing is playing, but an audio source (such as a turned off Xbox or VCR) is connected. This often happens when the amp is plugged into a different power socket than the audio source. The grounds between two electrical sockets can have slightly different charges, and this translates into a buzz on the sound system. If you hear a slight buzz when the system is powered but not playing music, check to make sure that all the system is plugged into the same outlet (with a bass amp located several feet away from your source, this is actually quite likely).