Pass The Chips, Dude
So I was watching Tom Cruise blasting around in the mindless splatterfest called Mission Impossible 2 when meanwhile, the frontal part of my brain was knuckling me under about sitting through this seriously trashy flick. But then another part of my brain began kicking in, the part that even likes the Spice Girls on occasion, and said, who cares, you effete snob? The surround sound effects are just so way coo-oh-ol. And you know what? This cheap perfume loving, ancient reptilian artifact living in my brain probably had it right. I mean, who could resist as MI2 Tommy tumultuously trashed and crashed his motorcycle across all five-surround channels? You could almost smell burnt rubber wafting out the rear channels.
And therein lies the true marketing power of surround sound. If the movies sound artists got it right and figured out how to make your bass bowels quiver and your butt bounce off the beanbag, then even the trashiest Hollywood extravaganza suddenly looks good -- At least if you are an alpha geek male. The more sophisticated gender will no doubt write this all off as so much mindless testosterone spraying and go watch some subtitled artiste thing in the other room. But hey, that just means you are free to crank up the volume even more, or at least until some raging neighbors Molotov your system.
So lets have a look at a cool surround audio rig that brings hefty sound as well as some really nifty electronics to the sonic fray; to wit, the Polk Audio RM Digital Solution-1 surround system. Polk (www.polkaudio.com) is a serious, well-established player in the audio business. The company makes audio gear that ranges from small, fifty-dollar PC multimedia systems to megabuck high-end behemoths that will sag your living room floor.
The RMDS-1s primary product premise is hassle-free system setup up. There is no manic hair pulling in getting the subwoofer to seamlessly mesh with the satellites and none of the rest of the meshugeh nonsense that typically comes with buying separated at birth components that must be forced to peacefully cohabit the same listening space. The RMDS-1 is an all-in-one surround solution that offers instant, pain free home theater -- just add electrical juice and go.
The product comes complete with four no bigger than Aunt Berthas Sunday meatloaf satellite speakers. The front left and right and rear channel satellites are identical in size and specifications (4"W x 6.75"H x 5"D). The center channel is somewhat larger, at 11.5"W x 4.5" H x 5.75" D. The five diminutive speakers make for easy handling and nimble chucking about, with an overall appearance thats quite unobtrusive.
Both the satellites and the center channel use sonically matched, identical drivers, comprised of a 3.25" magnetically shielded midrange driver and a .75" soft dome tweeter. This driver matching assures an evenly matched sonic blend as the sound jumps from speaker to speaker. Unlike the solo driver satellites, the center channel gets two midrange drivers with a tweeter riding between them. This central menage a trois provides a broader dispersion pattern.
The RMDS-1 subwoofer is another story. The sub is one big, heavy mother that is almost jarring in physical comparison to the dainty satellites. This 15.5"W x 18.75"H x 19.5"D black box contains not only the subwoofers 10"driver but also amplification for the five satellites and the sub. The amp section puts out 500 watts into 4 ohms and will gladly suck 800 watts from your wall socket at full system boom-boom tilt.
The subwoofer/electronics box is tethered via a 4 meter D25 cable to another RMDS-1 component, a preamp/processor that does all the stereo, Dolby ProLogic, and Dolby Digital chores. In case you didnt know, ProLogic is an older format that relies on the surround processor to decode all five channels with the very frequency limited rear surround sound channels being only in mono. In contrast, 5.1 Dolby Digital (sometimes called "AC-3") offers full-frequency, 20Hz to 20kHz playback on all five speakers and each fully discrete channel works independently of all the others. The ".1" channel is the subwoofer channel and handles not only the bass duties for the sats, but also carries the special LFE (Low Frequency Effects channel) found on Dolby Digital and DTS (a competing 5.1 channel digital format) DVDs. Unfortunately, the RMDS-1 does not support the usually superior sounding DTS format.
Still, this is one comprehensive preamp/processor, quite elegant in design, that has three digital audio inputs for DVD, laser disc (for AC-3 RF) and DSS (Digital Satellite), and also sports six analog audio inputs. The preamp can accommodate a CD player, tape in/out, DSS, LD, DVD, VCR in/rec out, and even offers multiroom output with independent volume/source selection. It also has four composite video inputs (including corresponding higher quality S-video connections) for DSS, LD, DVD, and a VCR, plus two video outputs for VCR Rec out and video out. The Polk Preamp also comes fitted with a surprisingly good AM/FM tuner. Despite all these manifold hookup options, the preamp is relatively small, measuring just 17.25" W x 4.5"H x 14" D, and is also quite lightweight.
This wide range of input/output options are easily managed by the equally well designed RMDS-1 remote control, which also handles subwoofer level duties as well as adjusts level balance for the surround channels. There is even "late night" button on the remote that will reduce the sounds overall dynamic range (the mortar explosions dont rock quite as much) and will hopefully keep the downstairs neighbors at bay during your wee hour Clint Eastwood movie marathons.
Even by consumer electronics ease of use standards, the RMDS-1 is incredibly simple and can be quickly set up and used, despite all its operating options. The RMDS-1 is yet one more sharp stick in the eye to MS CE and all the rest of the convergence appliances that seek to make computers "naive user friendly."
Having got the basic layout set up fairly quickly, it was time to hook up the supplied "audiophile grade cables" from the sub box to the five speakers and do a quick sound check. Ahhh, no, sorry, these ears have heard too many fine audiophile grade cables in their lifetime to know that this Polk marketing moniker just didnt cut it. Zip wire is zip wire, no matter how you call this rose by any other name.
So, in went some Red Dawn cables from Nordost (www.nordost.com). Bingo, we were rewarded with smoother, more extended highs and much tighter, deeper bass. Yeah, yeah, cables are a lot of nonsense and its all rip off marketing blah, blah. Sorry to disillusion all you I-refuse-to-believe-it-folks, cables, on systems that offer high sonic definition, truly do make a difference. And its a tribute to the resolving power of the $2,699 RMDS-1 that these differences were clearly discernible with the Nordost wires in the system. (Nordost has long been a fave rave among high-end audiophiles and reviewers).
But even with the tighter bass and deeper extension, this preproduction RMDS-1 system was still too boomy and flabby in the nether regions. Even cranking the subwoofer level all the way down to its max minus position didnt completely ameliorate the problem. Moreover, the relatively short 4-meter D25 cable running from the preamp/processor to the subwoofer/electronics box made it difficult to shift the big sub around the room to find a more bass friendly locale. Polk responded by sending up a much longer D25 cable, and its good to know that these longer cables are available from the maker should you ever run into similar room positioning problems.
Unfortunately, the room positioning solution only did so much. We still had too much loose boom-boom. Clearly, it was time for some creative problem solving, which led, ultimately to Black Diamond Racing (414-747-8733, Milwaukee, WI) and its simply incredible resonance damping products. Made mostly from carbon fiber, the Black Diamond Racing cones, pucks, and equipment shelves will do things for your system that are, quite frankly, hard to believe, yet work miracles they do. Resonance seems to play a major role in affecting sound quality, and even solid state electronics benefit significantly from the Black Diamond treatment. I even know a certain previously disbelieving magazine editor who got his laptop computer to stop crashing all the time by putting some small Black Diamond pyramid cones under it. (Systems center machines going down no matter what you do, Bunky? Maybe its time to call D.J. Casser, president of Black Diamond.)
On a hunch, I put three small Black Diamond cones, which were affixed to BDR Pucks, under the RMDS-1 sub. Shazam! This big boy immediately shed his chunky monkey bass flabbiness. The RMDS-1 sub now did a low down bass salsa with all the svelte moves of a Cubano torch singer. The problem, obviously, was that this preproduction subwoofer was lacking in structural rigidity, causing it to flex and muddy the deep sonic waters. Hopefully, production variants of the RMDS-1 have got this shaky bass structure riding on a firmer foundation. Which would be excellent, because once it was all straightened out, the RMDS-1 could rock with the best of them.
Tonal balance of the system was superb, and with the sub squared away, integration with the satellites was seamless. Female vocals, always an excellent test for a system, were very good and naturally smooth. Clearly, some very big engineering went into the design of these tiny speakers. These satellites exemplify the maxim that good things do indeed come in small packages. One thing though, do not mount the speakers above ear level, as the tweeters lose something when you move too much off axis. So if go up you must, be sure to aim them down at the listening area.
As for movies, this is one of those systems that make you wonder about the laws of physics as these little puppies put out a very BIG sound. You can easily hit 105 dB without the tiny speakers screeching bloody murder. Even at ear-bleeding levels, the RMDS-1 remained relaxed, poised and confident. Of course, you can only fool Mother Nature for so long before she swats you down. Although the bass will continue to mightily pump away, the highs eventually run out of dynamic steam. For example, when the infamous T-Rex in Jurassic Park turned those Jeeps into a dino Happy Meal, the flying about metal bits didnt have that, uh-oh, better duck your head sharp object impact. But to the overall systems credit, those spit out car parts didnt sound like hollowed-out tin toys, either.
All in all, the RMDS-1 manages to create a highly credible acoustic bubble in which you can vicariously live out all sorts of movie mayhem. Even low level dialog managed to do without that, huh? What did he say/can you repeat that scene nonsense.
For $2,700 you can go out and perhaps assemble a better mix of separate components, but the effort in getting these different make parts working in happy sonic synchrony can be prodigious, and even then, good results are not assured. Once you add it all up, the aural sum of the RMDS-1 is truly greater than its individual parts. If you want angst-free, great surround sound and an equally good overall home entertainment center, plus something that will easily meet with your fussy mates aesthetic approval, then the RMDS-1 might be the only show in town. Your no-taste, awful movie loving reptilian brain will also thank you, because sometimes, really bad can be really good.
Pass the chips, dude.
Copyright 2001, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved
21st Pub date: June 2001
21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com