Cambridge SoundWorks' Newton Theater Series II builds on the design and performance strengths of the earlier Newton models. The improvements aren't exactly earth-shaking--revised drivers, a new crossover design, and subtle changes to the cosmetics--but there wasn't much about the first generation Newton speakers we didn't like. Series II prices range from $249 for the entry-level Newton Theater MC55 up to $1,399 for the Newton Theater T205 (they're all six-piece, 5.1-channel speaker systems, with the individual speaker components available as well). The Newton Theater MC155 (reviewed here) is priced at $799, which puts it right in the middle of the range. The MC155 package seems to get most things right: it's a compact system, but it sounds substantial and equally adept with surround-sound DVDs and stereo music. We especially liked the placement flexibility of its bipole/dipole surround speakers.
This six-piece, 5.1-channel system comes with three LCR (left, center, right) satellite speakers, a pair of half-round surround speakers, and a hefty subwoofer. The package is available in black or white; the black finish on our review samples was tasteful and understated, which is fine, but the plastic cabinets lack the sex appeal of say, the $800 Definitive Technology ProCinema 600 system. The high-gloss paint job and curvier shapes of that latter model seem more contemporary to us. That's not to say the Newton Theater MC155 satellites aren't attractive, just that they're more conservatively styled. The cabinets' curves reduce distortion-causing internal reflections.
The left and right front speakers are 11.5 inches high (the center speaker is identical, but oriented horizontally instead of vertically). They weigh 5 pounds each. The speakers can be placed directly on a shelf or used with the supplied large and small rubber feet. If the center speaker is placed on a low shelf, the large and small feet can be used to angle the speaker up toward the listening position. Or the speakers can be wall mounted with their keyhole slots. If you care to invest in mounting accessories, Cambridge offers swivel wall mount brackets (for the threaded insert on the back of each speaker) as well as silver speaker stands ($80/pair).
The matching half-round surround speakers can also be shelf, wall, or stand mounted. They're 7 inches high and weigh 5 pounds each.
For the subwoofer, the engineers opted for a more robust medium-density fiberboard cabinet. The satin finish paint job and rounded corners make for a little more stylish design than the speakers; the sub measures 13.75 inches by 12 inches by 13.5 inches, and it weighs 35 pounds.
The Newton Theater MC155's three LCR speakers are configured in the popular "MTM" (midrange-tweeter-midrange) array to produce wide-dispersion sound. The tweeter is a newly designed .75-inch aluminum dome; it's flanked by a pair of 3.5-inch drivers. The speakers have a new "phase accurate" crossover design that's said to improve their resolution over the previous generation model. (The speakers are also sold separately as the Newton Series II MC155 for $119 each.)
The heavy-duty push connectors on the LCR speakers look pretty robust, but they only accept bare wire or pin connectors. We'd prefer five-way binding posts, like the ones on the surround speakers, because those connectors also work with banana plugs.
The "MultiPole" surround speaker has a bipole/dipole switch on its bottom panel to control the speaker's radiation pattern. Bipole projects sound forward and to the sides of the surround speaker; it's best used when the surround speakers are placed slightly behind the listening position on the sidewalls. Dipole radiation projects sound to the sides and very little straight ahead; use dipole when the surround speakers are placed directly to the sides of the prime listening position (or directly behind the listeners). The speaker is a two-way, woofer/tweeter design; driver sizes aren't specified. (The surrounds are also sold separately as the Newton Series II S205s for $199 per pair).
The P205 subwoofer's 10-inch ultra-long throw polymer woofer is identical to the one used in Cambridge's best sub, the P1000 (the P1000 uses two woofers, while this sub uses one.) The woofer is powered by a 200-watt digital amplifier; connectivity runs to stereo RCA inputs and stereo speaker level inputs. The "-3 dB" button switches between "25 Hz" and "35 Hz," the lower number produces deeper bass, and the higher setting allows the sub to play louder without distorting. The sub is also available separately for $399.
Starting with the I Am Legend DVD, the Newton Theater MC155 sounded rich and beautifully balanced. Will Smith driving through deserted Manhattan streets in a red Mustang demonstrated the subwoofer's potency, and the satellites revealed the more subtle reverberations of the engine's roar bouncing off the buildings. The sounds of birds and insects buzzing over the surround channels created a sense of dread and uneasiness. The few scenes with dialogue sounded fine; the small center speaker avoided the closed-in quality we hear from many small speakers.
We used the audience ambiance sounds on the Blue Man Group's new concert DVD, How To Be A Megastar Live!, to evaluate the Newton Theater MC155's bipole/dipole surround speakers. When we switched to dipole mode when we had the surround speakers placed directly to the sides of the couch, they nearly disappeared as sound sources (that's good). The audience claps and cheers were spread across the sidewalls of the CNET listening room. To check out their sound in bipole mode we moved the surround speakers farther back into the room, but still on the sidewalls. So sure, the sound seemed to come more from the rear of the room. We liked the sound in both locations; so chances are you'll be able to get spacious surround sound in your room. That level of surround placement flexibility is rare in 5.1-speaker systems in the Newton Theater MC155's price class.
The Blue Man Group DVD also showed off the Newton Theater MC155 subwoofer's power. The little sub went plenty deep so the drums and percussion instruments, especially the big-bass drums, felt realistic.
Rock, jazz, and even classical music didn't sound like they were coming out of small speakers, and while it's not always the case with sat/sub systems, the Newton Theater MC155 worked equally well in stereo or surround. The treble might be lacking in detail for some listeners, so the speakers can seem a little "polite" on rock music. For example, the Newton Theater MC155 took the gritty edge off our old Rolling Stones CDs.
That said, that smooth quality made it easy to listen to the Newton Theater MC155 at louder volumes than we could with the Definitive Technology ProCinema 600 speaker system. That system is brighter and punchier than the Newton Theater MC155, but the Def Tech speakers might strike some listeners as too bright. As always, it's a matter of taste. The Def Tech's subwoofer was no match for the Cambridge's in terms of low bass power, but the Def Tech's bass was "faster" and more detailed. It rendered pitches of bass instruments with greater clarity.
In the final analysis, we'd give the nod to the Newton Theater MC155 for its smoother overall sound and because we felt its sats and sub were better matched to each other than the ProCinema 600's.