Definitive Technology Mythos SSA-50 Speaker System

Surround sound—friend or faux?

When Definitive Technology originally introduced its Mythos line of speakers, the slender, curved, aluminum-cabinet tower models were matched by equally svelte, under-5-inch-deep on-wall and center-channel models using the same form and style turned horizontally. A while ago, the company literally expanded the Mythos center-channel speakers by packing the front LCR speakers

into one horizontal cabinet to help appease the speaker-phobic folks in the world. Now Definitive has decided to take the next step and make a Mythos all-in-one-cabinet, five-channel surround speaker system.

Despite the fact that I do not currently own a flat-panel TV, Definitive declined my suggestion to send along a matching plasma TV so I could accurately judge the true aesthetic value of the Mythos SSA-50 speaker system hanging on the wall underneath it. It’s yet another example of a company that has little concern for the hardships that reviewers endure. Nevertheless, I slogged on.

From the front, with the grille on, the 46.25-inch-long Mythos SSA-50 retains the upscale, less-is-more physical appearance found in the rest of the Mythos line. There’s nothing to indicate whether it’s a big center channel, an LCR combo, or what it actually is, a full-blown five-channel speaker system. Even at that length, the speaker cabinet almost disappears because it’s only a little over 4 inches deep and 5 inches high, and you can mount it on the wall (under that big flat-panel TV that I didn’t get) or set it on top of a large rear-projection display or shelf.

BYOP (Bring Your Own Processor)
Unlike other all-in-one systems that include source inputs and utilize their own active amplification and Dolby Digital/DTS decoders, the Mythos SSA-50 provides none of that. Instead, it relies on your current A/V receiver for the amplification and processing for whichever format you choose—or a future A/V receiver, if you plan to upgrade. In this respect, it’s no different than having five separate speakers in your system, except for the fact that all the speaker wires run to the same place: a heavy-duty bank of binding posts on the back of the Mythos SSA-50. In a small way (again, literally), this is a tiny problem. The short height of the cabinet and the need to keep the posts near one another for wall-mounting unfortunately requires that the posts be placed very close together. This makes it a bit of a pain when you’re using anything larger than bread twist-tie wire to hook up the speakers. I’m not sure I know of a good solution to the problem, though, so it’s a good thing you only have to connect the wires once.

Another byproduct of packing so many speakers into such a small cabinet is that, short of using some sort of quantum entanglement effect, there’s no way to get the kind of bass you need for a real home theater. So, as with most of the Mythos speakers, a subwoofer is almost mandatory. For my modest-size room, Definitive sent a 300-watt 8-inch active/8-inch passive ProSub 800 ($399) which turned out to be an ideal match for the Mythos SSA-50.

Why Did the Speaker Cross the Talk?
Now we have what are essentially five bookshelf speakers jammed into one cabinet sitting in the front of the room. Although this is similar to the way most department stores demonstrate their HTIB systems, it doesn’t usually make for great surround sound. Well, while you can think of the Mythos SSA-50 as being a collection of five speakers, it’s actually loaded with drivers, twelve in all, in an unusual configuration.

To begin with, in order to shave some inches off the width of the cabinet, Definitive mounted the 1-inch aluminum-dome tweeters for the LCRs smack dab in front of three of the midbass drivers. Putting a tweeter—or anything else, for that matter—in front of another driver can easily muck up the sound, so Definitive designed a special geometry for the tweeter housing that’s meant to minimize this issue.

Of the twelve drivers, only eight of them directly reproduce the five channels. So what’s up with the other four? They’re crosstalk-canceling drivers—part of what Definitive calls Spatial Array technology—and they work in conjunction with every channel except the center. Very simply, if you’re listening to a speaker on your left, the sound it creates arrives at your left ear first and then, a tiny bit later, makes it to your right ear. This sound mix-up is called interaural crosstalk, and it does detrimental things to stereo imaging. Two of these extra drivers are dedicated to canceling out the crosstalk created between the front left and right speakers by producing an inverted audio signal. The other two provide the same service for the left and right surround drivers. This particular aspect makes the Mythos SSA-50 a great deal different than systems that rely on the listening-room walls to create the surround effect by reflecting the sound. Room layout doesn’t affect the Mythos SSA-50’s performance nearly as much as some other all-in-one speakers.

Although the surround drivers are sitting in a box in front of you, Definitive uses a technique known as head-related transfer function (HRTF) to trick you into believing that sound is coming from the back of the room. A filter on the surround drivers changes the sound’s spectral balance in a way that mimics how the shape of your ear affects sounds that originate from behind your head.

Spinning an Amazing Tale
It’s amazing how well the combination of crosstalk cancelation and HRTF works for both enhancing the separation among all the channels and wrapping the surround effects around the room. In Spider-Man 3, for example, as New Goblin chases Spider-Man for the first time, you get the very real sensation that the characters, as well as New Goblin’s flying bombs, are moving vigorously around the room. Even more impressive, though, is how well the Mythos SSA-50 transitions from the fast-paced mayhem to the more subtle, quiet city sounds after the chase is over. Later in the movie, as the soon-to-be Sandman stumbles into the middle of a particle physics test (I hate when that happens), the sound of the test apparatus spinning around the room is almost dizzying.

The bone-chase scene in Night at the Museum, when Ben Stiller first meets the flesh-challenged T. rex, the Mythos SSA-50’s ability to reproduce subtle details in music and sound effects without being harsh or overemphasizing—something that not all single-cabinet systems are adept at. Stiller’s tentative whispers clearly and cleanly echo throughout the empty museum and are soon followed by the loud shaking and rattling of the T. rex’s skeleton. In both cases, soft and loud, there was no sense of fatigue or strain in the sound, and the voice in the center channel came through very clearly. Here, as well as during Spider-Man 3, the ProSub 800 quite nicely pressurized the room. As the sports announcers say, it always stayed within itself. It blended so well with the Mythos SSA-50 that I only knew there was a subwoofer in the room because I couldn’t believe that much bass could be coming from a speaker that slim. Whereas some of the lower-priced subs tend to boom at certain frequencies, the ProSub 800 sounded consistent from 100 hertz down until it rolled off.

But I Thought It Was a Five-Channel System
At first it might seem sacrilegious or, at the very least, silly to listen to two-channel music through a single-cabinet speaker system designed to trick you into believing there are speakers all over the room. But it turns out that the Mythos SSA-50 is exceptional at reproducing music as well as movie soundtracks. I listened to several cuts by Anonymous 4, a female a cappella group that performs primarily medieval music. The distinct placement and layering of voices was quite amazing for a set of speakers packed together in such a small cabinet. Another impressive trick is how well the Mythos SSA-50 created a soundstage that was wider than I expected, considering how relatively close the left- and right-channel drivers are to each other.

Is the Mythos SSA-50 (and its partner in crime, the ProSub 800) the death knell for high-performance multi-speaker discrete home theater systems? Hardly. The technology still hasn’t been developed that can totally fool you into believing there are honest-to-goodness speakers producing sound behind you in your room. On the other hand, this is by far the best-sounding single-cabinet system I’ve heard to date, not only when it comes to watching action-packed Hollywood multichannel blockbusters, but also with more intimate two-channel music. If I can’t have the real deal, I’ll take this deal anytime.

Connections for all five speaker channels
Wall-mount bracket and top-of-TV leveling feet included
Uses your AVR’s surround processing circuitry

Definitive Technology
(410) 363-7148