|Model||Gaming Audio Series SP2500|
Many adjectives describe Corsair’s entry into the audio market—surprising, unexpected, and bold, among others—but half-hearted certainly isn’t one of them. Since we reviewed the company’s first gaming headset last year, Corsair has introduced another headset and two sets of gaming speakers.
We first encountered those speakers at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. While we were intrigued, Vegas isn’t exactly the best place to sit down calmly and assess the fidelity of audio equipment. The fact that the speakers were premiered in a crowded club filled with busty waitresses and inebriated journalists didn’t help.
For the past little while, however, we’ve had a set of Gaming Audio Series SP2500 speakers all to ourselves. We’ve been listening closely and have finally been able to come up with a verdict about Corsair’s latest foray into the world of premium PC audio equipment.
Make no mistake: these are premium speakers through and through. They’ll set you back 250 bucks at Newegg, and that’s for just for a stereo set with a subwoofer. (Corsair doesn’t make surround speaker sets yet.) To give you a nice frame of reference, Newegg stocks a similar set of speakers from Bose… and those cost $26 less than the SP2500. I haven’t been too impressed with Bose products in the past, but they’re not exactly known for being affordable, either. Corsair’s pricing signals bold confidence in its first and only high-end speaker offering. We’ll soon see whether that confidence is warranted.
The SP2500 certainly looks like a premium PC speaker setup ought to look. I would go so far as to call it dashing, especially given the two satellites’ muscle-car-dashboard finish. Of course, looks alone can’t justify the kind of asking price Corsair is demanding—one also expects top-notch sound quality and the ability to crank up the volume enough to make one’s ears bleed.
At least on paper, the SP2500 seems to tick all the right boxes. It has 232W of maximum output power, and it’s supposed to let you use the entire volume range—a feat you can’t take for granted with the competition, Corsair claims. The firm tells us the two satellites feature 3″ mid-range drivers as well as “silk-domed, ferrofluid-cooled tweeter[s].” The satellites are “bi-amplified,” purportedly to prevent audio signal bleed. Meanwhile, the 120W subwoofer plays host to a “custom-designed, high-efficiency power supply unit, the two-stage amplifier for the sub itself, and the four Class D digital amplification circuits for the bi-amplified two-way satellite speakers.”
Are you blinded with science yet?
Since we’re talking about the subwoofer, I’d like to take a minute to point out just how friggin’ large it is. Seriously. I measured the thing at roughly 18″ x 10″ x 11″, which is a little over a cubic foot. If the sub were hollow, it would hold almost nine gallons (or 33 liters) of liquid. Here it is dwarfing a 2L bottle of pop:
Believe it or not, there’s a reason behind those elephantine dimensions. Here’s the relevant graphic and excerpt from the reviewer’s guide Corsair sent us:
The Corsair Gaming Audio Series SP2500 utilizes a sophisticated 4th orders band-pass subwoofer design, rather than the ported bass-reflex design that is commonly used in competing systems. In a 4th order band-pass system, the driver unit is placed in a sealed chamber. This is also known as “acoustic suspension” and allows the driver to create bass tones with very low levels of distortion.
The driver unit fires into a separate, ported chamber, which creates an acoustic filter that only passes a set range of frequencies (hence the name “band-pass”), and rejects frequencies outside this band, significantly reducing audible distortion.
In a nutshell, the sealed-chamber-firing-into-a-ported-chamber design is meant to produce higher-quality and better-defined bass tones than conventional designs. The tradeoff is all that extra volume. At least, that’s what you’ll have to tell yourself every time you stub your toe on this subwoofer.
Getting the SP2500 up and running is child’s play, since only a single cable connects each speaker to the sub. Those cables have plugs that look an awful lot like 12V ATX power-supply connectors, but hey, what else do you expect from a company that also makes PSUs?
Once the speakers are connected, you’ll want to hook up the power, the stereo audio cable (which connects to your sound card), and the remote. Corsair also includes RCA audio jacks, but there’s no digital input. The company rationalizes this omission by pointing out that a digital 5.1 audio stream would have to be mixed down to two channels anyway. A digital connection might yield higher stereo sound quality if you’re using onboard audio, but let’s face it: anyone springing for a $250 PC speaker setup really ought to shell out $30 for a good sound card.
One issue you might run into during setup is trying to position everything without running out of cable length. The power cable is only about 5′ long, and the speaker, stereo, and remote cables are all 6′ long or so. I was hoping to put the subwoofer next to my desk to avoid restricting my legroom, but the cables were simply too short for that to be possible. Next stop: stubbed toe city.
But I digress. Now that we’ve got everything set up and ready to go, let’s take these bad boys for a spin.
Some listening tests
The first thing you’ll notice after switching on the SP2500 for the first time is that the remote features a nice, bright 1.8″ color display, through which you can fine-tune volume and subwoofer controls, select equalizer settings, and choose between several signal processing modes.
Pre-configured processing modes include “theater,” “concert hall,” “stadium,” and “late night,” which tones down the sub and redirects some low frequencies to the satellite speakers. (Your neighbors will thank you.) Corsair also provides special equalizer settings for classical music, jazz, pop, action films, and first-person shooters, to name a few. Incidentally, the bottom surface of the remote plays host to a 1/8″ stereo headphone port, and the top surface has a 1/8″ port for an auxiliary input—both nice touches.
After tinkering with the remote for a little while (hey, spinning that big dial is fun), I got started with some listening tests. I dug up CDs from Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Estradasphere, and The Bird And The Bee.
Okay, that last one was technically an iTunes purchase, but the limits of 256Kbps AAC audio really shouldn’t come into play with a PC speaker setup. I have a hard enough time distinguishing high-bitrate MP3s from CD audio with my fancy Sennheiser HD595 headphones. For the record, the SP2500 speakers were connected to my Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer sound card throughout the testing, as are my headphones when I’m not testing speaker setups.
- I got the ball rolling with some nice and mellow Pacific Northwest grunge: Pretty Noose from Soungarden’s album Down on the Upside. The Corsair speakers produced warm, well-defined bass lines, and the setup sounded positively deafening with the volume cranked up. However, the vocals and lead guitar were kind of mashed together, which tainted an otherwise pleasant experience.
- Next up was Just Like You Imagined, an instrumental electronic track from Nine Inch Nail’s The Fragile. I enjoyed the punchy bass, the sheer loudness, and the very crisp highs. The mid-range was too faint, however, which made me feel like I was sandwiched between highs and lows with little in between.
- After that, it was time for a blend of metal and classical music, courtesy of Outlaw Torn from Metallica’s rather extravagant S&M (performed in conjunction with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra). The experience wasn’t as enjoyable as I had hoped in this case; the bass and drums were somewhat over-emphasized at the expense of the vocals, orchestra, and guitars, which all seemed to be squished together. This track definitely sounded better on my headphones.
- I then gave Estradasphere’s Mekapses Yitonisa (from the album Quadropus) a shot, since I’m a sucker for eccentric instrumental music with unusual time signatures. The Corsair speakers performed well with this song, producing very clean and crisp sound. There was a slight metallic quality to it all, though.
- To round things out, I dug up Love Letter from Japan from The Bird And The Bee’s excellent Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future. This song, which punctuates vocals with crisp pop beats, guitars, and synths sounded very airy and well-defined on the Corsair setup. My only criticism here is that the vocals came across as metallic, which took away from the tune’s warmth.
My music listening tests over, I fired up Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 to get an idea of sound quality in two of my all-time favorite PC games. In both cases, I enjoyed the clean, crisp sound, and the fact that the speakers generated a broad soundscape that made it easy to determine the position of audible cues coming from the front. Without rear satellites or surround-sound emulation, though, figuring out whether a character or enemy was coming from behind me was a crap-shoot. I’m a little dubious about the notion that gamers would spend $250 on a set of speakers without any positional audio support, but then again, there are plenty of folks who don’t bother with multiplayer. The results of our last reader poll is clear evidence of that.
Finally, I tried out the SP2500 with a couple of movies: Avatar and Tron: Legacy. I commended Corsair’s HS1 headphones for making movies sound just like they do in the theater, and the SP2500 set is no different. Avatar was particularly immersive, with good separation between sounds and a good sense of volume, especially after switching on the “theater” digital processing mode. Tron: Legacy also sounded very crisp, with powerful bass that really made the excellent Daft Punk soundtrack pop. If you’ve got a stack of Blu-ray discs and a nice, big PC monitor, these are the speakers to get. Corsair doesn’t recommend sticking them around a TV, however; the satellites were purportedly optimized for listeners sitting within a two-meter range.
It’s undeniable that Corsair has made a rather showy entry into the PC speaker market with the Gaming Audio Series SP2500. The showiness doesn’t just stem from the $250 price tag and huge subwoofer. One can also notice it in the speakers’ ability to reach deafening volumes without noticeable distortion, not to mention the geeky remote control with its wealth of presets and configuration options.
The SP2500 is also Corsair’s first stab at a new market, and that, too, is obvious from the get-go. The subwoofer is just too large, the cables are too short, and the fact that there are only two satellites makes this setup hard to recommend to hard-core gamers, especially those who play competitively. Some sound cards and integrated audio solutions do offer support for positional audio emulation, but implementations and their accuracy vary, so that can’t necessarily be counted on.
Even from a pure sound quality standpoint, Corsair has left room for improvement. The satellites produce sound that’s a little too crisp, metallic, and flat for my liking, and the various equalizer presets don’t really solve the problem. I expressed similar concerns about Corsair’s HS1 gaming headset, so perhaps the company is shooting for a certain kind of sound profile with its audio products. I would welcome more warmth and depth to the sound, though, and I’m sure other music lovers would agree with me.