Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Review summary Cambridge's "surround sound, simplified" system, the $1,000 SurroundWorks 200, features an A/V-receiver/DVD-player combo, a single compact speaker, and a powered subwoofer. The company isn't kidding when it calls the SoundWorks simplified--hooking up the audio portion simply requires plugging in two color-coded wires. Best of all, the 200 provides sound comparable to that of some of the best virtual-surround systems we've tested here at CNET. People buy single-speaker surround systems to save space, and the Cambridge SoundWorks SurroundWorks 200 system is commendably petite. The single speaker measures 4.5 inches tall, 15 inches wide, and 7 inches deep--about the size of a compact center speaker in a full 5.1-channel speaker system. The speaker's concave front and side panels house special drivers, so to produce surround effects, you need to leave the sides unobstructed. Rear keyhole slots allow for easy wall mounting. The matching gray subwoofer is a mere 11.2 inches high, 10 inches wide, and 13 inches deep, yet its little MDF (medium-density fiberboard) cabinet feels nice and solid.
The 200 combines a single-disc CD/DVD player, an amplifier, and a receiver into one slim component measuring 2.5 inches high, 17 inches wide, and 14.5 inches deep. Since it runs as cool as the proverbial cucumber, you can stash it inside a cabinet without fear of overheating. The remote is pretty average overall; our main gripe was that the tiny volume buttons should have been bigger and more accessible.
The SurroundWorks 200's setup chores won't intimidate even the greenest of home-theater novices. Cambridge includes two color-coded multipin cables--one wire runs between the receiver/DVD player and the subwoofer; the other runs from the sub to the speaker (each cable is 12 feet long). Once you have those two squared away, hook up the video cables to your TV, then cruise through the system's straightforward onscreen setup menu--you're done. The Cambridge SoundWorks SurroundWorks 200 uses the company's Binaura Audio Surround Processing (BASP) to synthesize a multichannel audio experience. Unlike most of the other virtual surround systems we've tested, the 200 doesn't need to bounce sound off the room's side walls to create the surround effect.
Interestingly, the 200's processor resides in the subwoofer, creating the possibility of using the system without Cambridge's receiver/DVD player. That's not possible right now, but Cambridge hints that future SurroundWorks satellite/subwoofer systems will work with other brands' receivers. A rotary switch on the speaker selects Mute, Surround, Dialogue, or Stereo, but it's currently inactive (you access those functions via the remote). It will come into play when Cambridge starts selling the speaker without the receiver/DVD player.
The subwoofer also houses three 50-watt amplifiers to power the speaker, plus a 75-watt amp to drive the sub's 6.5-inch woofer. The main speaker features three 2.8-inch drivers. The receiver/DVD player works with standard video DVDs, DVD-Audio discs, audio CDs, and most home-burned DVDs and CDs, including MP3 CDs. The SurroundWorks 200 offers the standard array of Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS surround-decoding formats.
Connectivity options are downright skimpy for a $1,000 HTIB. The 200 has three A/V inputs (including the front-panel inputs), which all include S-Video and composite connections. You also get one component input and two digital audio inputs: one optical, one coaxial. However, the receiver won't upconvert composite and S-Video sources such as VCRs and non-HD satellite/cable boxes to component video. That means you'll need to run multiple outputs to your TV and flip through video sources accordingly. The 200's outputs include exactly what you'd find on a standard DVD player: component/progressive, S-Video, and dual composite outputs as well as a single optical digital audio output. We initially put the Cambridge SoundWorks SurroundWorks 200 through its paces with the Pearl Harbor DVD. The aerial battles and the thunderous bombardments made a visceral impact, thanks in large part to the baby subwoofer's lively and dynamic sound. We had to remind ourselves that the big soundstage was coming from that one small speaker sitting atop our TV.
The Rolling Stones' concert DVD set, Four Flicks, rocked pretty hard over the SurroundWorks 200 system. That little sub again took the lion's share of the credit for the gung-ho sound. When Charlie Watts wailed on his drum kit, we felt every beat. The audience applause was mixed into the surround channels, so the single speaker pushed those sounds way out to the sides, stretching them from wall to wall in our large home theater.
The 200 produced impressive surround effects under the right circumstances, but it couldn't project sound as far out into the room as Yamaha's YSP-1 ($1,500) single-speaker surround system. Then again, we found the 200's sound quality superior to the Yamaha's; we had problems melding that speaker with any of our subwoofers. The 200's surround effect sounded best when we sat directly in line with the speaker. If we shifted to either end of our couch, the soundstage collapsed into the speaker. The YSP-1 provided more consistent surround coverage for listeners seated in different positions. That said, the YSP-1 doesn't come with a sub or a DVD player, so it can wind up costing twice as much as the SurroundWorks 200. We didn't have a Niro 1.1 Pro II single-speaker surround system ($990) on hand for a direct comparison, but we think the SurroundWorks 200 can compete with it.
As long as we played CDs in stereo, the 200 delivered rich, warm sound, though the 14-inch-wide speaker provided zero stereo separation. Switching on the A/V receiver's Dolby Pro Logic II surround processing opened things up, but the sound then took on a hollow character. The cymbals on Miles Davis's Kind of Blue CD came out a touch harsh and tizzy. John Coltrane's tenor sax sounded anemic--so while we judge CD sound acceptable, it wasn't as satisfying as DVD sound.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that our usual provisos about virtual-surround systems apply. If you crave room-filling surround sound, buy a full multichannel system with five, six, or seven real speakers. But if you'd rather not deal with surround-sound setup hassles, a rats' nest of wires, and a room full of speakers, the SurroundWorks 200 will be music to your ears.