The Cutting Edge

Until recently, no self-respecting home theater nut would even consider giving a permanent berth to a videogame console in his main system. But Microsoft's Xbox ($299) is suddenly finding itself cohabiting with A/V gear on component racks across the country. With graphics to die for and action that fills out even a widescreen TV, Xbox is a video tour de force - but in a new twist for gaming, it offers excellent surround sound, too. Connect it to a Dolby Digital 5.1 system, pop in a game like the sci-fi shoot-'em-up Halo, and you'll be immersed in the kind of sound field even many DVD movies fail to create.

Veteran gamer Gene Newman checked out Xbox at Sound & Vision's video testing lab using a mammoth 65-inch Sony KP-65XBR10W rear-projection HDTV monitor with a full complement of B&W speakers - Nautilus 803 towers for the front left and right channels, an HTM1 for the center channel, two Nautilus 805s for the surrounds, and the huge ASW 3000 subwoofer, with its 15-inch driver and 300-watt amplifier, for the bass. A Denon AV-4800 receiver served as a Dolby Digital decoder and preamp, feeding five hulking Krell 250M power amplifiers, rated to deliver 250 watts apiece.

Unfortunately, Xbox comes with only a lowly composite-video/stereo-audio cable that attaches to the single proprietary port on the back of the console. To step up to S-video and optical digital audio, you'll need Microsoft's Advanced AV Pack ($20). But for the best possible picture, you'll need the accessory we used - the High Definition AV Pack (also $20), which provides a component-video output as well as optical digital audio (see photo on the facing page).

The Xbox's Dashboard graphical interface - which comes up when you turn the console on and between games - makes a 16:9 widescreen option available (along with standard 4:3 and letterbox) if you've connected the High Definition AV Pack. Games supporting the 16:9 option will display a wide image without stretching.

Microsoft is playing fast and loose with that "High Definition" phrase, by the way. The highest resolution we could get using the component-video connection was 480p (progressive), which is standard definition, or less, depending on the game. Microsoft says Xbox can support higher resolutions - the video menu has settings for 720p and 1080i (interlaced) - but no games so far have taken advantage of this. - Eds.