As good as the SoundWare XS 5.1 system is for its size, it can't defy physics. The Pioneer SP-PK21BS sounds much, much better, but it's also a much, much larger speaker system. And even if living room decor is your priority, you should seriously consider the larger (but elegant) Energy Take Classic 5.1 system, which sounds considerably better as well. However, neither of those systems can compete if space is at a premium, and the petite SoundWare XS 5.1 ($500 street price) is an excellent, affordable option with solid sound quality.
Design and features
The SoundWare XS is a six-piece system that comes with five identical cube satellite speakers and a subwoofer. The system we tested is black, but it's also available in white. Boston Acoustics also sells additional SoundWare speakers in a variety of colors for $100 each.
The cube satellites are incredibly tiny, just 4.43 inches wide, 4.25 inches high, and 4.43 inches deep. Each one weighs just 1 pound. The speaker's rear is faceted, so instead of being a 6-sided cube, the SoundWare XS satellite is a polyhedron. Its 10 "sides" also make it easier to squeeze the wee speakers into corners. If you place it on a shelf the speaker can be angled up or positioned to fire straight ahead. Or wall-mount the little guys with the included articulating bracket so you can angle the speakers in toward the listening area.
Since the SoundWare XS satellites' perforated grilles aren't removable, it wasn't immediately obvious that the satellites are two-way designs. Due to their tiny size, there normally wouldn't be enough room to squeeze in a tweeter and a midrange driver on the front baffle. Boston's engineers worked around the space limitations by mounting a .5-inch tweeter on a small bracket in front of the 2.5-inch midrange driver. That's pretty ingenious. We can't say the plastic speaker cabinet is especially well-built, but it doesn't feel flimsy or delicate.
The push-to-open, all-metal connectors recessed into the speaker's rear accept only skinny bare wires (you can't use banana plugs, spades, or pins). We found the connectors extremely awkward to use; you have to push with a fair amount of pressure on the connector to open the hole, then ever so gently angle the bare wire into the hole, and then release the connector. Once the wire is in there it tends to stay put, which was not the case with the spring-clips on the Klipsch HD Theater 500's or Bose Acoustimass 6 Series III's satellite speakers.
The Boston subwoofer is a rather plainly finished dark gray box, though rounded edges soften the look. It has an 8-inch woofer and port mounted on its bottom panel. The built-in 100-watt amplifier features BassTrac circuitry that is said to reduce distortion, and the amp has just a single RCA input (there are no speaker-level inputs).
We used a Denon AVR-1912 receiver and an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player for all of our SoundWare XS listening tests. Really small speakers like these sound best with very high subwoofer-to-satellite crossover settings, so we experimented a bit with the AVR-1912's bass management system before settling on a 200Hz crossover setting.
Also, we found that keeping the subwoofer volume higher than average, relative to the satellites, really helped the overall sound balance. Of course, the exact crossover and subwoofer volume settings will vary, depending on room size, acoustics, and taste. The subwoofer's volume control was very sensitive, so even very small movements made a big difference in bass volume. With speakers as small as these, setup details can make or break the sound. We'd recommend placing the subwoofer within 4 or 5 feet of any of the three front speakers to help ensure the best possible sound.
When reviewing small speakers, we usually go easy on them at first, so we gently nudged the volume up while watching the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray. We shouldn't have worried, as the SoundWare XS was actually pretty adept with home theater bombast, and even the cannonballs crashing through the sides of the wooden ships didn't result in overt distortion. There are definite limits to how loud little speakers and a subwoofer can play, but the SoundWare XS did a better job with this Blu-ray than what we heard from the Klipsch HD Theater 500. The subwoofer/satellite blend was so smooth we never heard the sub as a sound source (that's a good thing).
That said, the louder we played the SoundWare XS the more aware we were of the limitations of the satellites. They sounded thinner and harshness increased when sound was played loud. Turning the volume down helped the SoundWare XS regain its composure. Dialogue was clear and articulate, and the five speakers created an enveloping surround experience. The SoundWare XS was better on that score than any two- or three-channel sound bar we've tested.
The "Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D" Blu-ray documentary features world surfing champion Kelly Slater and Tahitian surfer Raimana Van Bastolaer showing their talents on the best waves at Tahiti's famed surf site Teahupo'o. Listening to the tremendous power of the surf and water spray, it was easy to forget we were listening to five tiny speakers and a sub. The underwater shots of the waves were accompanied by the sound of deep rumbling bass. The SoundWare XS communicated the fury of the waves with real gusto.
Music is a tougher test of sub/sat integration, so we used pianist Keith Jarrett's recent "Jasmine" album with bassist Charlie Haden to see if there were any sub/speaker blending problems. The piano's low notes sounded fine, but Haden's stand-up bass notes were a little uneven, some being a lot quieter than others. Rock music on CD sounded lightweight, and vocals lacked body. The SoundWare XS' sub sounded fine, but the transition to the itsy-bitsy satellites wasn't as smooth as we've heard from the Bose Acoustimass 6 Series III's even smaller satellite speakers (and much larger sub), or systems with slightly larger speakers, like the Energy Take Classic. The Take Classic is still the best-sounding small system we've heard.
The Acoustimass 6 Series III is more expensive at $700, and it sounds more powerful than the SoundWare XS. Ah, but Bose's even smaller satellites lack tweeters, so they can't match the Boston system in terms of resolution or clarity.
For buyers searching for a quality home theater speaker system, but who insist on one that packs maximum performance into the smallest possible size, Boston Acoustics' SoundWare XS deserves serious consideration.