You've probably never heard of Fluance, but this little Canadian company could easily be headed for the big time. It somehow builds and sells quality speakers for a fraction of the price that its competitors charge. Fluance sells direct via the Internet, but it's also adding brick-and-mortar dealers. We tested the company's full-sized, five-speaker home-theater package, the AV-HTB, which costs a paltry $199 online. In short, we came away mightily impressed with the sound these speakers delivered for the money. Considering these rock-bottom prices, you might expect obvious cost-cutting measures or flimsily constructed satellites, but the AV-HTB avoids those pitfalls. If we didn't know the price before we examined and auditioned the system, we would have pegged it at between $400 and $500.
The 33-inch-tall, three-way tower speakers tip the scales at a hefty 27 pounds each. The 16.2-inch-wide, two-way center speaker and 9.7-inch-tall, two-way compact surround speakers are nicely finished in black ash. The 80-pound system is shipped in a single box.
Fluance doesn't currently manufacture subwoofers but plans to rectify that omission by this summer. Two models are in the works, the DB-10, a 10-inch sub, and the DB-12, the 12-inch model. Projected prices are in line with those of Fluance's high-value niche.
To get the best sound from the AV-HTB, we recommend navigating to your receiver's setup menu, then selecting Large for the towers and Small for the center and the surrounds. Remember to select Off or None for the subwoofer, unless you have one of your own. The AV-HTB's tower speaker is a three-way design with a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter, a 4-inch midrange, and a 6.5-inch woofer. The center-channel speaker boasts dual 4-inch woofers and a 0.75-inch soft-dome tweeter. Meanwhile, the surround satellites are armed with the same drivers as the center speaker but feature just a single woofer. The magnetically shielded front and center speakers won't affect picture quality when placed near a TV.
The towers sport all-metal, banana-plug-compatible connectors, while the center and spunky surround speakers make do with spring-clip connectors that accept bare wire or pin connectors. The rear speakers come equipped with keyhole wall-mounts. Each speaker is fitted with a removable black-cloth grille.
These speakers are fairly inefficient, meaning they won't perform at their best with feebly powered receivers; we used a good-quality 50-watt receiver, and they played loud enough to fill our large home theater. Still, if your receiver puts out 30 or fewer watts and you want to play music loudly, these power-hungry speakers might be a concern.
The warranty covers three years for parts and labor, which is two years shy of the average, but we're not terribly concerned about those details. We started our evaluation in stereo and were pleasantly surprised by the way the Fluance system finessed Rosanne Cash's 10 Song Demo CD. Wow, the tower speakers sounded more realistic and full-bodied than your typical entry-level, $200 satellite pair. The sound was wide open, though we noted a touch of sibilance in Cash's voice. Bass sounded full with moderate definition. The towers alone filled our large room with sound. Encouraged, we moved onto the harder stuff, Yo La Tengo's May I Sing with Me CD. The towers rocked out, but the bass got soggy, and we detected strain on this sort of dynamic music when we pushed up the volume. In more moderately sized rooms--say, less than 250 square feet--they'll do fine.
Our home-theater tryouts were even better. The big AV-HTB just about disappeared as it unfurled an enveloping sound on DVDs. The center speaker's rich midrange flatters dialogue and music; it doesn't squash the sound like most mini center speakers do. Straight dramatic fare such as the Sean Penn DVD, The Weight of Water, sounded very right.
The subwoofer-less system lacked low-end power and punch on special-effects-heavy films such as XXX and Pearl Harbor, but we're used to living with a sub. We reckon that very small home theaters won't need to add a sub (and that helps in terms of not disturbing neighbors), but most other people will.
In the end, there's much to admire about this extraordinary system, but trust us, it's nowhere close to the sound of a $1,000 Klipsch, Polk, or Infinity system. Onkyo's $299 SKS-HT500 speaker package is the AV-HTB's prime competitor. It's more expensive but includes a powered subwoofer. Unfortunately, we didn't have the Onkyo system on hand for direct comparisons, but we estimate they are comparable overall.