Pioneer HTS-GS1 Speaker System for Xbox 360
The high-definition video capabilities of the Xbox 360, like those of the imminent Sony PlayStation 3, have put a renewed emphasis on the importance of the video display. And, indeed, consumers young and old continue to bring HDTVs into their homes in record numbers. But no one was more shocked than I was to discover that there are still some gamers out there with current- and next-generation consoles in their living rooms who aren't hooked up to discrete 5.1-channel audio systems. Rather than record a Sally Struthers–style public-service announcement to elicit help for these poor, unfortunate souls, I chose to investigate the options—and I came up with Pioneer's officially licensed Xbox 360 sound solution, the HTS-GS1.
The HTS-GS1 is customized to work with games, movies, and music on the Xbox 360—and to visually complement the hardware, as well. It consists of four satellites, a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer, along with integrated processing and amplification for the entire system. Pioneer includes a preprogrammed Xbox 360 universal media remote. The Xbox 360 Guide button brings up the dashboard interface, and the Windows Media Center button provides immediate access to Media Center PC features. The DVD controls are located at the top of the remote, while the receiver, setup, and TV controls hide beneath a slide-down panel on the lower half. A rather large breakout box connects to the subwoofer via a thick, proprietary cable. This is also where the blue-LED system readout is located, along with the IR receiver for the remote, so you can tuck the sub out of sight if you desire. A big silver button powers the system on and off, and smaller stud-like buttons let you adjust the volume, input, and surround mode.
The front-ported, rear-firing sub looks like a desktop computer as much as it does a low-frequency-delivery device. It's bottom heavy, with the power amplifier inside its base. The second, smaller opening in the front panel is for air circulation over the heat sink, and a small, quiet fan at the back does its part. The four satellites are almost identical. The front left and right units have flat tops with a circular groove, versus the surrounds' stylishly sloped crowns. This gives you the option of stacking the surrounds on top of the fronts for some alternative loudspeaker configurations. Pioneer's affordable gaming sound system's most impressive feature is the Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration function (MCACC). Use this system with the included microphone to automatically tune the speakers at the touch of a single button. A series of interesting test tones bounce around to measure the speakers' individual distances and volumes, as well as the room's particular acoustics. It then self-calibrates the system and delivers sound to your ears with the appropriate time delay and volume, all the while correcting for room anomalies. I won't say that it made a night-and-day improvement, but all of my material seemed to sound more natural overall after the two-minute MCACC process.
The included 18-gauge speaker cabling has bare wire on one end, with a color-coded click-in plastic plug where it meets the amp. Curiously, although the subwoofer and amplifier reside in a single unit, you need to attach a short wire from the sub section down to the amp portion, essentially connecting the device to itself. This is also where you'll find Pioneer's SR+ terminal, which lets you more easily control the HTS-GS1 when it's hooked up to one of the company's PureVision plasmas.
The 155 total rated watts might not seem like much at first glance, but the HTS-GS1 does a fine job filling a medium-sized room. It adequately rendered the broad beats of the video games I demoed, which were typically high in bass information. It wasn't the punchiest, most precise video-game audio I've heard, though; there was no mistaking it for real life or even a film soundtrack. Next, I moved on to the more level playing field of prerecorded 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS movie audio, namely my go-to discs Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Patriot Superbit Deluxe. I noticed that, when I cranked up the volume, a resonance tainted the soundfield. I soon determined that a volume setting of 80 percent yielded a much more enjoyable balance of impact and fidelity. I was particularly impressed by how strong the center channel was without my needing to boost any of the levels. It delivered dialogue with ample presence and only modest clipping of some voices. Low frequencies continued to fall short, however, as the sloppy bass failed to convincingly underscore the onscreen action.
More to Life Than 5.1?
Musically, the HTS-GS1 performed well enough with MP3s, which is the format of choice for many of today's gamers. I would have liked a fuller midrange and enhanced detail, though. Pioneer includes Sound Retriever processing to "repair" compressed audio tracks, but it only works for two-channel sources. Music stored on a PC and streamed over a home network to the Xbox 360 is ineligible. You can connect a single stereo device to the back of the subwoofer—anything from a VCR to an iPod with the proper add-on cable.
As I mentioned earlier, you can stack the surrounds on top of the front satellites. Then you can rotate them to aim the sound by lining up the small arrows printed on the rear of their compact plastic cabinets to reflect off the walls and the ceiling. This Front Surround mode imparts a general impression of surround-channel activity far enough back so as to be more engaging than stereo alone. Dedicated virtual-surround systems like the Binaura Sound Environment (see our November 2005 issue) are designed and built for this specific purpose, delivering a convincing surround experience from only a front-channel speaker array and a subwoofer. As such, they do a more convincing job with more nuanced reproduction, but the Pioneer's Front Surround mode isn't bad. The Extra Power mode is also intriguing. It lines up the stacked speakers straight ahead, essentially doubling the output of the left and right front speakers. Clarity took a slight hit, but sometimes gamers just want to play it loud.