When connected to any audio source, the Xitel Soundaround ($100) uses SRS Labs technology to simulate surround sound through stereo speakers or headphones. The device also boosts bass output and enhances the clarity of dialogue. Like other
Measuring 1 inch high, 6 inches wide, and 4.75 inches deep, the Xitel Soundaround is slightly larger than a stack of three CD jewel cases, and it has a plastic silver casing. The front panel includes a 1/8-inch stereo headphone output, a headphone volume control, an IR remote sensor, and a series of status LEDs. Around back are a power-adapter jack; a stereo RCA audio input and output; and a switch with small, medium, and large speaker-size settings. It's a real shame that the unit has only one audio input; it would be nice if it could double as an inexpensive A/V switcher. The Soundaround's small five-button remote isn't fancy, but it gets the job done. That said, backlit keys would have made it easier to adjust the device while watching a DVD in a dark home-theater room.
The Xitel Soundaround offers three main modes: Stereo, Surround, and Bypass (which allows you to hear your audio source au naturel). Within the Stereo and Surround modes are a Clarity function, which makes dialogue easier to understand, and a Trubass function, which allows you to increase or decrease bass. During testing with DVDs and Xbox games, the Soundaround's surround-sound simulation was the least impressive aspect of its performance, but the Trubass and Clarity functions yielded surprisingly good results. When we fired up the DVD Jurassic Park and played the initial T. rex scene through a pair of Paradigm bookshelf speakers, the surround-sound simulation broadened the field of sound in a general way, making it seem more like rain was falling all around us rather than just in front. Less ambient, more localized sounds weren't as easily re-created. For instance, with a true 5.1-channel speaker set connected, when a high-tension steel wire snaps, you can hear the wire whip from the front-right speaker to the rear-right speaker with pinpoint localization. The surround-sound simulation didn't even vaguely achieve that effect. Much like a center-channel speaker would, the Clarity function did a very nice job making the dialogue stand out from the mix, and it gave the overall sound a more lively quality without imparting excessive brightness. The Trubass function definitely gave the giant dinosaur's footsteps more presence without overloading the speakers, and it also gave music more brawn in the DVD Ray.
During other listening sessions, the Xitel Soundaround pepped up our Samsung HDTV's otherwise dull-sounding built-in speakers. Contrary to what we expected, the surround-sound simulation was less effective when we listened through high-end Sony and AKG headphones. What's more, the Clarity and Trubass functions didn't yield an improvement in the sound of the headphones.
In the final analysis, the Xitel Soundaround fails to deliver a convincing surround-sound simulation, though it enhances the sound of small speakers and headphones reasonably well. That's a worthwhile service, but it's not what the Soundaround promises, nor is it worth $100 in and of itself, since entry-level all-in-one home-theater systems don't cost much more. But if you're looking to give some anemic speakers a slight boost, this product should do the trick.