|Model||Soundscience Rockus 3D 2.1 speaker system|
Audio seems to be the latest craze among certain PC hardware makers. How else would you explain the fact that, through some strange twist of fate, both Corsair and Antec somehow introduced their very first PC speaker setups within weeks of each other?
We’ve been tracking the two companies closely. Earlier this month, we published our review of the Gaming Audio Series SP2500, the more upscale of the two speaker setups Corsair announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Today, we’re bringing you a hands-on evaluation of the Soundscience Rockus 3D|2.1 speaker system, Antec’s first stab at the PC speaker market.
Antec, of course, is more broadly known for its cases and power supplies. While that trait is partially shared with Corsair, Antec has gone about entering the PC audio market in a notably different manner: through a wholly owned subsidiary called Soundscience. That subsidiary was founded in 2010. According to the official About Us page, Soundscience “brings Antec’s expertise and reputation in PC enclosures, cooling and power systems, to speaker systems and multimedia components.”
Antec really is serious about letting Soundscience take the spotlight here. The Antec name is almost entirely absent from the Rockus 3D set, save for a single tagline—”Designed by Antec in California”—written in small print at the back of the subwoofer.
If it weren’t for that tagline, you might never guess Antec had anything to do with the design of these speakers. The rounded, avant-garde design of the satellites and remote is pretty far removed from even Antec’s bolder PC cases. The company’s trademark emphasis on fit, finish, and build quality permeates this product, however.
Let’s start with the two satellites, which have anodized aluminum casings with chrome-plated front surfaces. Antec claims the lack of plastic components ensures “durability and audio clarity” while “minimizing the distortion caused by enclosure vibration.” The drivers are purportedly tuned to deliver simulated 3D audio, as well—we’ll get into more detail about that in a minute.
The subwoofer, meanwhile, is relatively compact (measuring about 14″ x 8″ x 11″) and features connectivity options aplenty at the back. Don’t go thinking its small size necessarily implies poor quality, though; Antec says its use of a passive radiator design “creates extended low frequency response, producing deep bass from a compact subwoofer enclosure, eliminating the need for a larger, bulkier subwoofer.” We’ll put that claim to the test on the next page, but it’s good to see at least one newcomer to the PC audio stage trying to balance audio quality and footprint.
The Rockus 3D’s subwoofer isn’t small by any means, but it doesn’t dwarf our 2L pop bottle like its Corsair rival. Antec uses cables of similar length as Corsair, so while you might have to tuck the subwoofer away under your desk, you can safely do so without subjecting yourself to stubbed toes on a regular basis.
Connectivity options are, as I said, plentiful. You have the choice of RCA, 3.5-mm, and optical inputs, and the included remote lets you toggle between optical and analog inputs easily. You can have two analog devices plugged in at the same time, but Antec says doing so will halve the volume of both sources, and you’ll be able to hear then playing simultaneously. Another caveat: Antec doesn’t supply an optical audio cable, so you may need to buy one of those separately. A six-foot Toslink cable only costs about 10 bucks, though.
Speaking of cables, Antec is—just like Corsair—guilty of not using generic cables to connect the satellites to the subwoofer. The cables supplied have an RCA plug on one end and a pair of twisted wires on the other. (The twisted wires clip into positive and negative connectors on the sub, while the RCA plug goes into the satellites.) That’s a shame, especially considering the relatively short length of those cables (about 5-6 ft), although again, the sub is small enough to tuck away in a corner under your desk.
Observant readers might have noticed the 150W maximum power consumption rating emblazoned at the rear of the subwoofer. 150W isn’t anything to write home about these days—Logitech has a 200W 2.1 speaker set selling for $129.99 at Newegg—but of course, wattage isn’t everything. You don’t want to crank these up to full blast all the time, do you? Antec claims the Rockus 3D speakers were “purposely built” for environments like “dorm rooms, bedrooms, studios, apartments or offices” with areas of around 100 sq. ft. Clearly, this speaker set is meant to provide quality sound in close quarters, not deafen guests in your living room.
Does it deliver?
The third dimension
Much like Corsair’s SP2500 set with its DSP remote, Antec’s Soundscience Rockus 3D|2.1 speakers have some special sauce that sets them apart from the crowd. The special sauce in this case puts the “3D” in “Rockus 3D,” and it has a name: 3Dsst. Here’s what the technology is all about, in Antec’s words:
3Dsst™ is a suite of DSP (digital sound processing) algorithms that create a virtual surround sound experience from 2.1 stereo speakers. The technology analyses the frequency content and pan/positioning of sounds in the incoming audio stream, and then uses certain types of filtering and phasing to widen the sound stage and create the effect of listening to a much larger surround speaker system.
No software installation is involved. You need only push the small, gray button on the front of the remote to toggle 3Dsst on and off. (In case you’re wondering, the top part of the remote serves to adjust the volume when turned, and it mutes the output when pushed down.)
Now, here’s where things get confusing. 3Dsst doesn’t map 5.1-channel source audio to the two speakers with fancy virtualization algorithms, even if you hook up the speakers with an optical link. There’s not even any support for Dolby Digital audio. Instead, Antec tells us the digital signal processor “uses an algorithm to simulate and accentuate the stereo input.”
The truth of the matter is that the Rockus 3D speakers don’t really have much 3D going on—they just include a toggle that attempts to create a broader sound stage out of stereo audio. I found that fact a little disappointing, especially considering the prevalence of 3D virtualization technologies like Dolby Headphone, which allow stereo headsets to emulate multiple channels when fed 5.1 audio. Even some versions of Realtek onboard audio offer proper 3D virtualization that supports both headphones and stereo speakers. Such technologies don’t always yield perfect results, but there’s at least a semblance of an effort there. I can’t help but feel like the “3D” label on these Antec speakers is a bit like a Ferrari logo superglued to a red Pontiac Solstice.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment of truth. Specifications and bullet points are one thing, but ultimately, a speaker setup’s chief task is to sound good. To check whether the Soundscience Rockus 3D|2.1 meets that criterion, I put it through the paces during a number of gaming, movie-watching, and music-listening sessions. Since the optical connection seemed to yield slightly better, more natural sound, that’s what I used throughout my testing. iTunes was used for music playback.
Much to my surprise, the Rockus setup sounded quite a bit better with 3Dsst disabled in Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2 (a game I also played to test the Corsair speakers). The game’s audio pipeline gave me a reasonably good idea of where sounds were coming from with the speakers in their default mode, but enabling 3Dsst made sound effects harder to pinpoint, and it added a boomy quality to the audio—even with the subwoofer turned down to its lowest setting.
Would 3Dsst perform better in movies? I first tried Avatar, where the 3D mode did in fact succeed in expanding the soundstage and making action scenes pop out of the screen somewhat. That said, the boominess remained, and it became distracting during dialogue-heavy scenes. In Tron Legacy, which has an audio track composed chiefly of dialogue and excellent electronic music, 3Dsst just sounded plain worse than the regular mode.
For music testing, I dug up six of my favorite tracks—four from physical CDs and two from the iTunes Store—and listened closely at a reasonable volume while taking notes. I left the 3Dsst setting disabled throughout.
- I got started with Chasing It Down from Mother Mother’s new album, Eureka. The Rockus speakers produced warm, full bass, decent mids, and vocals that were crisp… perhaps a little too crisp, because sibilants had a metallic, static-like quality. The same could be said for the hi-hats, which sounded a whole lot like white noise.
- In Pretty Noose, from Soundgarden’s Down on the Upside, the Rockus setup offered decent separation between mids and highs, although sibilants in the vocals again sounded too metallic, and the bass line was a little too loud and boomy for my liking. As I did with the Corsair speakers, I tried cranking up the volume with this particular song to get a feel for how loud the setup can get. Unfortunately, raising the volume accentuated the treble far too heavily and made the music unpleasant to my ears. If you listen to your music loud enough to cause hearing damage, you might want to shop elsewhere.
- Next up was Mekapses Yitonisa from Estradasphere’s Quadropus. This instrumental track sounded crisp and airy on the Rockus speakers, creating a broad sound stage that made me feel almost as if I were standing in front of a live band. Nothing bad to say there.
- Nine Inch Nail’s Just Like You Imagined, from the excellent double album The Fragile, is a great test for any set of speakers or headphones. It starts off with a quiet piano track that crescendos into a thunderous industrial symphony. The Rockus set made this song sound appropriately explosive, with good mids and solid dynamic range. The bass was, once again, a little too boomy, however.
- Inventions from Maserati’s Inventions for the New Season could be mistaken for electronica, but it’s meticulously recorded with repeating guitar lines—sort of like an indie Philip Glass piece. This piece has a slow crescendo that builds up to louder, more distorted guitar and more powerful bass. Unfortunately, the Rockus speakers accentuated the very high end and bass at the expense of the mids, creating a mix of boomy thumping and high-pitched static that tarnished the experience.
- Finally, Eet from Regina Spektor’s album Far filled in as our vocal-heavy track. The Rockus speakers rendered Spektor’s voice crisply, but they also muddied her piano track and over-emphasized the drums and bass, which detracted from the subtle, melancholic tone of the song.
Overall, I’d say the Soundscience Rockus 3D|2.1 speaker set produces solid mids and sufficient separation between different frequencies—unlike some competitors, like Corsair’s SP2500, which seem to squish layered songs into the high end of the spectrum. That said, Antec loses points by giving highs a somewhat metallic, static-like quality and making the bass far too prominent. I had the subwoofer set to the lowest of its three settings throughout my testing, and loud, boomy bass still posed a problem. There really ought to be at least one additional setting below that one. Even if you like your bass thumpy and over-the-top, having the option to tone it down at night will probably make your neighbors happy.
As for the 3Dsst mode, which Antec seems to think important enough to call these “3D” speakers, I’ve got one thing to say: why? Why would you create a mode to turn stereo audio into slightly different-sounding stereo audio, when surround virtualization schemes exist? The whole point of 3D audio is to provide positional cues, but these speakers offer none of that—and 3Dsst’s filtering can negatively impact audio quality to boot.
The Rockus 3D speaker set has other, albeit more minor shortcomings. I would have enjoyed a headphone port, for one. Also, after about five minutes of inactivity, the speakers go into a sort of power-saving mode… which causes an audible and somewhat disconcerting pop. Finally, seeing your distorted reflection in the chrome-plated bezel around the satellites is a bit distracting. I wish Antec had gone with a matte finish there.
All in all, Antec’s first stab at the PC speaker market is a commendable but imperfect one, much like Corsair’s SP2500. If you put a gun to my head and made me choose a daily driver out of the two, I’d probably go with the Rockus set (in its default, non-3D mode), simply because it renders most music in a more neutral way. I expect good things from both companies’ second-generation offerings, though, especially if they take negative user feedback into account.