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Onkyo SKS-HT594 review: Instant Atmos speaker kit could use some polish

The Onkyo SKS-HT594 takes advantage of Dolby Atmos soundtracks and doesn't break the bank, but it's not the best value option.

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Steve Guttenberg
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Steve Guttenberg

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.

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4 min read

First the good news: the Onkyo SKS-HT594 six-piece speaker/subwoofer package slashes the cost of entry for the latest home theater formats, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. These two new surround schemes add height channels to standard 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround, promising an even greater sense of envelopment.

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Onkyo SKS-HT594

The Good

The Onkyo SKS-HT594 is one of the least expensive speaker systems designed to play back Dolby Atmos and DTS:X formats. The six-piece package includes a pair of large bookshelf speakers that feature a special "height" top-mounted driver, plus center and surround channel speakers, and a 10-inch, 120-watt powered subwoofer.

The Bad

Some less expensive, non-Atmos systems sound better. The height channel capabilities are limited to only the front-left and -right channels, not the surround height channels. The speakers' fit and finish feels budget, and its spring-clip wire connectors don't provide as secure a grip as banana connectors.

The Bottom Line

The Onkyo SKS-HT594 takes advantage of Dolby Atmos soundtracks and doesn't break the bank, but it's not the best value option.

The bad news is that the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X rollouts have crept forward at a snail's pace. Dolby Atmos-encoded Blu-rays are slow in coming, with little more than a dozen on the market since the format was released a year ago, while DTS:X just recently debuted and so the selection is currently limited to just a single title, "Ex Machina."

Meanwhile receivers such as the Pioneer Elite VSX-90 and Onkyo TX-NR646 have done a poor job demonstrating what Dolby's height channels bring to the party. Also, there are currently no receivers that support DTS:X yet, so while many 2015 Atmos receivers promise upgrades to DTS:X too, we are unable to test the differences between the two formats for ourselves.

While the SKS-HT594 is the cheapest Atmos-capable speaker system on the market, it's still a relatively poor value. The Onkyo HT-S5800 system adds a receiver to the same kit for around $100 more, making it a better buy overall, but your dollar still goes further with other speaker systems.

Design

Sarah Tew/CNET

From the black vinyl-wrapped particle board cabinets to the nonremovable satin cloth grilles, the SKS-HT594 system has the sort of low-budget look and feel we associate with cheap home theater-in-a-box systems from back in the day.

The five speakers are reasonably compact. The front left and right bookshelves measure 18.1 inches high by 6.1 inches wide and 7.3 inches deep; the center speaker is 16.1 inches across and roughly 4.5 inches high and wide, while the surround speakers are really little, just 9.1 inches high and 4.5 inches by 3.75 inches.

Sarah Tew / CNET

The sub is the brute of the family, a hulking 18.25 inches high, 12.5 inches wide and 15.6 inches deep! That bad boy has a large bass port on its front baffle and a blue LED you might find distractingly bright in a darkened home theater.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Owners of home theaters with side and rear surround channel speakers, take note: the SKS-HT594 system comes with just one pair of surround speakers, and Onkyo doesn't separately sell extra pairs of surround speakers.

Features and setup

The SKS-HT594's front left and right speakers each have two sets of drivers. The front baffle hosts a 5-inch woofer and a 1-inch dome tweeter, and the top panel has a 3.25-inch midrange/woofer. That's why these speakers have two sets of spring-clip wire connectors, one for each set of drivers.

Sarah Tew / CNET

As with other Atmos speakers, the top driver is only intended for use with Atmos or DTS:X receivers. The top driver fires up towards your ceiling, so if you want to get the best Atmos or DTS:X effects, these speakers should not be placed inside a cabinet or other types of furniture. Of course you can use the SKS-HT594 with non Atmos or DTS:X receivers, just don't hook up the top driver channel's spring clips to the receiver.

Sarah Tew / CNET

The center-channel speaker has a pair of 3.25-inch woofers, and a 1-inch dome tweeter. The surround speakers are tweeterless, with just a single 3.5-inch woofer. All the speakers have metal keyhole slots for easy wall mounting, and they're all have a 6-ohm rated impedance.

The 120-watt sub has a 10-inch woofer on its bottom panel, and an RCA input and volume control knob on its backside.

Sarah Tew / CNET

The SKS-HT594 package also includes a complete set of speaker wires and a subwoofer cable to hookup the system.

Setup and calibration of the SKS-HT594 with an Onkyo TX-NR646 Dolby Atmos receiver was a straightforward task. We used 80 Hertz crossover points for all of the speakers, and achieved a fairly smooth blend between the subwoofer and the speakers.

Performance

We started our auditions with the newly released "Gravity" Atmos encoded Blu-ray, and the soundstaging was both huge and hugely impressive. This Blu-ray's new sound mix, with the voices of the free-floating astronauts in near constant motion, did a better job demonstrating the benefits of Atmos' height channels than others we've heard. Even while the SKS-HT594's surround speakers lack Atmos height drivers the sound mix maintained a convincing illusion of height as sounds panned from the front to the rear surround speakers.

That might have something to do with the surround speakers' placement in the CNET listening room; we have them a foot higher than our seated height. That is, after all, the way Dolby has always recommended placing surround-channel speakers. The front and rear speakers together created a coherent, room-filling soundstage.

When we turned the front height channels off while watching "Gravity" we didn't just lose the extra dimension of height, the front soundstage also flattened out and dimensionality was diminished. With other Atmos discs, "American Sniper," "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay," and "The Expendables 3," the Atmos effects were more subtle, and therefore contributed less to the enjoyment of those films.

The SKS-HT594's large subwoofer provided a solid foundation for movies and music, bass definition was decent, but not up to the standards set by Hsu Research's entry-level subs, for example.

Atmost is one thing, but when comparing the SKS-HT594 with the non-Atmos $500 Andrew Jones designed Pioneer SP-PK52FS speaker-subwoofer system, we much preferred the latter with both music and home theater. The Pioneer sounded more accurate overall, and that was most noticeable on voices on the center channel speaker. The SKS-HT594's speakers sounded boxier and hollow by comparison.

Conclusion

The Onkyo SKS-HT594 system's main appeal is to buyers upgrading to Dolby Atmos or DTS:X receivers, and are now searching for a cost-effective speaker package. We liked the sound well enough, but the SKS-HT594 system doesn't fare well in direct comparisons with the less expensive Pioneer SP-PK52FS speaker-subwoofer system. If you're not interested in surround with height channels, we recommend the Pioneer SP-PK22BS system over the SKS-HT594.

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Onkyo SKS-HT594

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 9Sound 7Value 7