Fluance is back with another surround sound speaker package that delivers a lot of sonic real estate for a comparatively affordable price. But is it the best bang for your buck?
Home theater typically offers a Sophie's Choice: discrete looks, or big sound. Not at all subtle, the Fluance XLHTB is for people whose mantra is "My system is so large you can find it on Google Maps".
Fluance is known for budget systems , but the XLHTB is the company's stab at a more expensive "flagship." This is a $799, 5.0 speaker system without a subwoofer, but Fluance makes up for the loss by including an 8-inch bass driver in each tower.
The sound is just as big as the speakers' size, particularly in the amount of bass it can deal out. We found it perfectly suited to boisterous action movies and less to romantic movies about ghosts. Unfortunately, the lack of subtlety means that music can be an uneven experience, particularly on less noisy tracks whereby the bass simply dominates everything.
The floor-standers would get a 7 out of 10 in sound quality on their own, and at $499 for the pair, they are not a bad deal for the money. But in combination with the center and satellites, a lack of cohesion and boxy sounding dialog make the sum less than its constituent parts.
Unless you own a Marshall stack it's unlikely you've ever owned speakers as tall as the Fluance XL7F floor standers. These cabinets measure almost 4 feet tall and easily dwarf the already-quite-large PSB X2T, our current reference speakers.
The floor standers feature curved sides -- ostensibly to reduce internal reflections -- and come encased in your choice of a fairly attractive cherry wrap (pictured) or dark walnut. The front of the cabinet is a gloss piano black. One 6.5-inch polymer-treated midrange driver sits above the 1-inch silk dome tweeter, with a second below. This arrangement is known as a D'appolito configuration.
Unusually, each speaker has an 8-inch subwoofer built into the bottom above a mounting plinth. Sadly these "subs" aren't able to be connected to the LFE output of your receiver, but to get around this you can route the LFE channel to your left and right speakers for bass effects (check your manual on how to do this).
But my favorite part of the XL7F design? The massive speaker binding posts on the rear of the cabinets that wouldn't look out of place on $10,000 models.
Compared to their floor-standing mates, the center speaker and surrounds are a little more plain. They still offer the curves but have smaller 5-inch drivers: a single on the surround and two on the center. They also are less substantial feeling in the hand and ring when rapped with a knuckle.
When we set up the Fluance XLHTB system and sequentially ran test tones through the speakers, we couldn't help but notice tonal balance shifts between the XL7F towers, XL7C center channel speaker, and XL7S surround speakers. Some difference is always audible with test tones running through multichannel speaker systems, but it was even more noticeable with the XLHTB speakers. Their sound together wasn't as seamless as we would have liked, but once we started listening to movies and music nothing stood out as troublesome.
The first thing you notice about the XLHTB system? It sounds big. That is, it plays loud without sounding like it's working very hard. Then there's the bass, lots and lots of it. The XLHTB may be a five-piece system, but the huge XL7F towers draw most of the attention. This system doesn't include a subwoofer, but we didn't mind, there was bass aplenty. We used a Marantz NR1605 receiver for all of our listening tests.
With the "Gravity" Blu-ray, the XLHTB system energized the compact CNET listening room, so much so the boisterous bass balance was thick and boomy during the scenes where astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to gain control after an accident sent her tumbling off into space. Perhaps in larger rooms the XL7F towers generous bass balance would be put to better use. Fluance refers to the XL7F's 8-inch down firing woofers as subwoofers, so it would have been nice if the speakers had a volume control so the user could adjust the bass level, but alas, the XL7F offers no such control.
The full impact of the street combat scenes on the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray were taken in stride, even when we pushed the volume way up. The speakers handle power with ease, but when we switched over to our reference Pioneer SP-PK52FS ($550) 5.1-channel home-theater speaker system we heard a significant improvement in overall clarity. The sound was more transparent, but the battle scenes visceral impact and mayhem were reduced. The Pioneer system has a separate subwoofer, but even with that the XLHTB's low-end oomph clobbered the Pioneer's. Dialogue over the XL7C center speaker sounded slightly nasal and boxier than what were heard from our Pioneer SP-C22 center speaker.
Playing music, starting with Beck's "Sea Change" SACD in surround, the Pioneer SP-PK52FS system reproduced the sound of the vocals, acoustic guitars, bells, glockenspiel, and drums with superior clarity. The XLHTB system sounded harsher and clouded over the detail, but played louder, and sounded fuller. Again the XLHTB's very ample bass was the most obvious difference between the sound of the two systems.
We heard much the same differences with more conventional two-channel music. So unless you crave a bass heavy sound and like to listen loud at times, the less expensive Pioneer SP-PK52FS system would be the preferred option.
If this head-to-head was the movie "Role Models," then Pioneer would be likable Paul Rudd and Fluance would be eternal brat Seann William Scott. Despite its failure to grasp the notion of subtlety though, there is a lot to like about this system, the most obvious being that it's relatively cheap. On the other hand, unless your goal is the most bass for the least money, there are better choices at this price.