The Onkyo GXW-5.1 Digital Theater Station
Onkyo, best known for their high quality home theater and audio components, has entered the world of the gamer with a new line of multimedia products. The first in the line are two PC and Mac compatible USB Digital Audio Processors, and the product reviewed here, the GXW-5.1 Digital Theater Station. It's just the thing for the gamer who already has everything else and is looking for a good way to trick out his/her system.
This is the first time (to my knowledge) that we're reviewing a piece of non-gaming specific hardware here on Gamegrene, but I think it's well worth the time spent. After all, audio is half the experience when you're playing a game, whether it's a console or a PC game; being able to hear the footsteps of the guy sneaking up behind you is key when romping through a first-person shooter, and I'm sure the voice artists in games like Arcanum and Planescape:Torment would much rather you heard them through a decent set of speakers, instead of those tinny old things on the back of your box. Hence, we think we've found something here that gamers might very well be interested in.
The GXW-5.1 Digital Theater Station is a complete multi-purpose surround-sound system, designed for ease of use with everything from a Mac or PC system, a Playstation II or other console gaming system, or even your trusty old DVD player. This versatility is made possible via the four input jacks on the back of the main system: not only will you find optical and coaxial digital inputs for your high end systems and DVD players, but you'll also find dual line input jacks that accept standard RCA-type in/out cables. Obviously, you're going to get better quality sound using one of the digital inputs, but for those not blessed with the latest gear it's nice that there's an alternative that sounds nearly as good.
The system itself features built-in processing for Dolby Digital, DTS, and Dolby Pro Logic II, and eleven separate Listening Modes allowing you to select the option that best meets your needs, including three separate game settings for Action, Simulation and Adventure games. Outside the main box, you get five cube speakers which can be wall-mounted or merely stacked wherever you find room; with three 8 foot cables and two 26 foot cables, there's no reason not to enjoy a true surround-sound experience, especially since the main unit allows you to program in the speaker distance (from 1 to 30 feet). Each speaker is powered by a 10-watt amplifier operating above 150 Hz., the speaker cones constructed of silk/polyester Onkyo Micro Fibers (OMF), not to be confused with '90s band EMF, who is best known for their song "Unbelievable." The 25-Watt subwoofer uses an OMF driver, and features Onkyo's patent pending J-Drive vented enclosure, which pushes high-pressure air through a port on the front of the unit to produce natural sounding bass.
The system was easy to set up and use out of the box, although the sheer amount of options was a little confusing and daunting at first. Reading the manual is probably a good idea, even if you do consider yourself an electronics whiz, because there's a pretty good explanation of how to select the options that best meet your individual needs. Hardware-wise, it's a fairly straightforward process (five satellite speakers, the main unit/subwoofer, a remote control and speaker wire), and I'd estimate about 15 minutes to get everything plugged in and placed appropriately around the room; you'll definitely need a bit more time if you're wall-mounting. In either case, the black cube speakers are fairly unobtrusive (4" square) and will blend in nicely with any decor, if you're worried about that sort of thing.
In trial runs with games like Unreal Tournament, Diablo II and Half-Life, I found that it was somewhat difficult to decide which of the settings best fit the game in question, but my own digs are a little cramped so I wasn't able to take full advantage of the system's surround sound capability. There are enough options here where you'll be able to find the one that sounds best for your own purposes. In all cases, the sound was definitely crisp and clear, and superior to my iMac DV SE's built in speakers. It also sounded great when used with a PlayStation II console, my VCR, my DVD player and even my television all by its lonesome. One minor gripe is that the system's wide volume range is a little questionable; anything below 20 is difficult to pick up in a room with people talking, although after 25 or so the volume ramps up rather quickly without losing any quality along the way. There's even a mute button and a Late Night button on the remote control, in case the landlord starts banging on the door in the middle of a game.
I'm sure I could probably get a better high-quality home theater experience by spending a few thousand dollars, but at around $299-349 retail this is a much, much better option for the casual audio enthusiast or the avid gamer. You can find information on this and other Onkyo multimedia products at www.onkyomm.com, where you can even buy one online through the Onkyo store if you can't find a dealer near you.
By way of making discussion here, what's your feeling about the audio elements of role-playing games, both for PCs and consoles? Do you turn the volume off to avoid the soundtracks, or do you find yourself cranking up the speakers to listen to the water drip and the doors creak? What games do you personally feel make best use of the sense of sound? What sort of audio hardware have you purchased for your own systems, if any?