If you like to flaunt your home audio system, you're probably not going to buy the Boston SoundWare XS 5.1 speaker system. That's OK; it's not made for you. But lots of people who don't make home theater their hobby still appreciate a true surround-sound experience and Boston's system delivers that at an incredible size and price.
The SoundWare XS 5.1 sounds surprisingly good, and we say surprising because its five satellite speakers feel only a little larger than a baseball in your hand. Combined with its compact 100-watt subwoofer, it's one of the most decor-friendly speaker systems we've tested. Our one nitpick, design-wise, is that the speaker connections are difficult to use, but you'll run into that problem only when you set the system up.
As good as the SoundWare XS 5.1 system is for its size, it can't defy physics. The Pioneer SP-PK21BS sounds much, much better, but it's also a much, much larger speaker system. And even if living room decor is your priority, you should seriously consider the larger (but elegant) Energy Take Classic 5.1 system, which sounds considerably better as well.
However, neither of those systems can compete if space is at a premium, and the petite SoundWare XS 5.1 ($500 street price) is an excellent, affordable option with solid sound quality.
The cube satellites are incredibly tiny, just 4.43 inches wide, 4.25 inches high and 4.43 deep. Each one weighs just one pound. The speaker's rear is faceted, so instead of being a six-sided cube, the SoundWare XS satellite is a polyhedron, so it has 10 "sides" to make it easier to squeeze the wee speakers into corners. If you place it on a shelf the speaker can be angled up or fire straight ahead. Or wall-mount the little guys with the included articulating bracket so you can angle the speakers in toward the listening area.
The push-to-open, all-metal connectors recessed into the speaker's rear-end accept only skinny bare wires (you can't use banana plugs, spades, or pins). We found the connectors extremely awkward to use; you have to push with a fair amount of pressure on the connector to open the hole, then ever so gently angle the bare wire into the hole, and then release the connector. Once the wire is in there it tends to stay put, which was not the case with the spring-clips on the Klipsch HD Theater 500's or Bose Acoustimass 6 Series III's satellite speakers.
The Boston subwoofer is a rather plainly finished dark gray box, though rounded edges soften the look. It has an 8-inch woofer and port mounted on its bottom panel. The built-in 100-watt amplifier features BassTrac circuitry that is said to reduce distortion, and the amp has just a single RCA input (there are no speaker-level inputs).
Really small speakers like these sound best with very high subwoofer-to-satellite crossover settings, so we experimented a bit with the AVR-1912's bass management system before settling on a 200Hz crossover setting.
Also, we found that keeping the subwoofer volume higher than average, relative to the satellites, really helped the overall sound balance. Of course, the exact crossover and subwoofer volume settings vary, depending on room size, acoustics, and taste. The subwoofer's volume control was very sensitive, so even very small movements made a big difference in bass volume. With speakers as small as these, setup details can make or break the sound. Also, we'd recommend placing the subwoofer within 4 or 5 feet of any of the three front speakers to help ensure the best possible sound.