The GXW-5.1 comes with five satellite speakers and one FX-Digital Theater main unit, which combines a six-channel power amp, a Dolby Digital and DTS surround processor, and a subwoofer. You supply a source, such as a DVD player, a PC, an Xbox, or a PlayStation 2. The FX has one stereo-analog input and two digital-audio inputs (one optical, one coaxial). All that's missing is a USB input to make it easier to connect this kit to your PC. As it stands, you can use your computer's analog-stereo or digital outputs--if your sound card has them.
Priced at $349, we didn't expect the GXW-5.1 to have the appearance of a high-end component. And sure enough, it doesn't, but its basic, black styling does keep it from looking like a glorified boom box. The 4-inch cube sats have substantial-feeling wood cabinets and are equipped with 3-inch woofers. The sub is the heavyweight of the group. This beast houses the amplifier that drives the sats with 10 watts of power per channel and also provides 25 watts for its own 6-inch speaker.
The FX main unit has a highly legible display, a power switch, and a handy rotary volume control. Other control functions, such as input and DSP selection, are accessible from the small remote, which is a pleasure to use because it's not overcrowded with buttons.
The sats are tiny, so they're not capable of producing much bass or even lower midrange on their own. That's OK, because the FX's sub fills in the missing bass. However, the best sub/sat blend and overall sound was achieved when we placed the front three speakers close to the sub. If you separate them by more than three or four feet, a midbass gap thins out the sound. For bedrooms, dorm rooms, and other cozy spaces, this won't be a problem.
Even with the GXW-5.1 properly configured, CDs sounded a bit anemic in stereo. We tried listening in surround mode with the FX's Dolby Pro Logic II engaged, and the three additional speakers provided extra fullness and warmth. As long as we didn't get crazy with the volume, the GXW-5.1 delivered tight, well-defined bass. On funk-meister Chuck E. Weiss's tasty new CD, Old Souls and Wolf Tickets, the raw guitars and saturated horn lines rocked and rolled with gusto.
Home theater was even more satisfying. We showed the GXW-5.1 no mercy and hammered through the opening sequence of the Saving Private Ryan DVD. We found that the GXW-5.1 can take a licking and play at surprisingly loud levels without distorting. On DVD after DVD, the dialogue was always clear and succinct. This system's overall balance is bright and forward--more than once we wished for bass and treble controls so that we could tame the highs a bit.
Getting the game on
Onkyo is targeting video-game enthusiasts with this system, so we wired up our PlayStation 2 for a few rounds of SSX Tricky, which has a DTS soundtrack. If you're playing similar games using your TV's speakers, you're missing out on effects such as hearing your competitors sneak up behind you as you snowboard down the virtual mountains. We also enjoyed how the system's DSP modes were able to create a 5.1-channel sound field for games with stereo soundtracks
That said, don't expect massively deep, feel-it-in-your-gut bass from the GXW-5.1; the little sub definitely has limitations. And don't even think about putting this system in your finished basement or loft space--its 10 watts per channel will disappoint if you're trying to fill anything larger than a small room.
We liked the wee Onkyo GXW-5.1 system a lot, but it faces serious competition from the $399 . We especially liked the Philips kit's gutsy powered sub, though that system didn't equal the loudness potential of the GXW-5.1. The MX966's generous connectivity options make it a more flexible choice, although it doesn't have DTS or Dolby Pro Logic II processing. We recommend that you check out both options before buying.