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Altec Lansing's ACS-48 Speakers

Can there really exist a classic computer product? Us computer enthusiasts (nerds) simply love to upgrade various components, because technology well, progresses. What about technology that doesn't necessarily involve speed? Certainly, audio reproduction can progress, just not at such a furious pace. Enter the Altec Lansing ACS-48 3-way speakers.

Altec's promo stuff

The PowerCube Speaker System, from Altec Lansing, is the market's leading affordable three piece multimedia audio solution for the home or office personal. Now, Altec Lansing offers an audiophile step-up from the PowerCube: the PowerCube Plus Multimedia Speaker System.

The PowerCube Plus offers audiophile performance and power for multimedia playback from its multiple speaker drivers in the satellites: each one houses a 3" midrange and a 3/4" tweeter so that you can experience hi-fi audio from your CDs, games or the Internet. In addition, the PowerCube Plus 6" subwoofer is encased in wood, offering you deeper, richer bass output for greater audio low frequency dynamics.

The PowerCube Plus Speaker System has electronic controls to adjust the volume of the powered satellite speakers and the subwoofer simultaneously so you don't need to continue to adjust each piece separately. Most systems require separate adjustments, but with the PowerCube Plus, just set the subwoofer output level for the desired bass effect, and your volume control adjustments will effect all three pieces at the same time.

The PowerCube Plus Speaker System is the audiophile solution for those who demand a greater level of power and performance from their PC's multimedia playback, and its only from the leader in computer audio, Altec Lansing.

Specifications (The Boring Stuff)

Drivers (per satellite):
One 3 inch shielded full range driver
One 3/4 inch high frequency tweeter
Drivers (subwoofer): One 6 inch long throw woofer
Satellite Power: 20 Watts per channel RMS at 0.8% THD
Subwoofer Power: 40 Watts at 0.8% THD
System Response: 35 Hz - 20 kHz
Input Impedance: >10k ohms
S/N Ratio: >65dB
Built-in Power Supply
UL/CUL/CE Approved

The review
Initial comments

The first thing that struck me as I lifted, er hoisted these babies out of the box, is that the subwoofer box is HEAVY. About 16 pounds of 6" subwoofer and amplifiers to be specific. That box also is NOT plastic, like so many other manufacturers have decided to produce. However, if the box is wood, then that means it's also not magnetically shielded. That's not so bad because how many of you have room for a 16 pound box nearly a foot deep and 7" tall on your desktop! I don't think that virtual speakers will ever be a reality due to physics, but it would be very cool to claim you have a 50" woofer on your virtual desktop.

I have seen many ads and heard many speakers, but these are something very special. Most consumers don't have home stereo systems that sound this good. Being a high-end audio enthusiast for over 15 years, I can readily appreciate the occasional shining star. The ACS-48's join that unique and excruciatingly small company of components known as "great." Are these diminutive wonders up there with the likes of Thiel, Vandersteen, or B&W? Of course not, nevertheless, Altec has succeeded in producing what has already become a classic, computer related or not.

Inside the mysterious white box

A word of caution: Do not open the subwoofer box, it will void your warranty. That being said, the rear panel port and connector bay unscrews and slips out rather easily. What makes this box so heavy is from two parts. The power inductor, bolted to the inside front of the enclosure, appears to be a hefty 80 watt unit. The sub itself, with it's magnet assembly, is at least as sturdy as the inductor. Upon closer inspection, I found three components that are being, well, underutilized.

I found three TDA7294 IC amplifiers screwed to a massive heatsink that could easily pump out 100 watts each! If the power supply was a bit beefier, a full 300 watts of peak power could be squeezed down the dinky little wires that connect the satellites to the woofer box. Somehow, I'm moderately relieved that Altec decided NOT to do this as these jewels nearly make your pants leg (or skirts)flap.

The web is a wonderful place, call it God's library, to find out just about anything you'd want to...and some stuff that you wouldn't want to. The spec sheet for the TDA7294 claims that the chips can pump 100 watts into a 4 or 8 ohm load. Small dips in the impedance curves stress an amplifier, sometimes to gross distortion, and when you decide to crank the 48's up, you find yourself shouting to anyone, even if they're only 12" from you! I was able to measure over 110 decibel peaks at a distance of 2 feet. This is loud...lease breaking loud for those apartment dwellers out there. Can you imagine the landlord throwing you out because "your computer is too loud?" With the 48's, it's not only a possibility, it's a reality. Watch your volume levels folks, before you can't hear the beautiful noises that emanate from the paper and plastic cones.

The 48's are a true 3-way design, meaning that there are two crossover points and three drivers. The sub isn't really a sub, but a normal woofer that recreates sound atabout 150Hz and below. The shielded 3" midrange handles the voice and various man-made instruments from about 150Hz to 3kHz. The 3/4" plastic tweeter, while less than desirable, handles the sibilant sounds, including cymbals and various other high frequency harmonics. Most of the "Dolby pro-logic" multimedia setups (including some in Altec's own lineup) are not true three way designs--they have no tweeter. Tell me how any 3" midrange is going to reproduce 10-20kHz signals? They aren't and don't. Gotta have tweeters, period.

Listening For Over One Year

The set I currently own is actually my second set. I let some relatives listen to my old set and they had to have them, so I suffered with some old Yamaha's (one 3" driver) for a week until the new pair arrived. I didn't listen to much music then, just Windows 98 theme .wav file noises.

I listen to a ludicrously wide variety of music. I'm told I'm weird. Fine. I like my Rock, Pop, Dance, Trance, Ants -In-Your-Pants, Classical, New Age, World, and Electronic music just fine, thank you. The 48's reproduce it all strikingly well. Altec's claim of 35Hz for the bottom end is a bit far fetched. Sprach Zarathustra, also known as the theme from 2001, has a 32Hz introduction playing for over half a minute and serves as an excellent gage for woofers. My Pinnacle PN8+ speakers can reproduce this fundamental with appreciable realism. While the Altec's couldn't keep pace with the Pinnacles, they weren't that far behind. I'd say subjectively, that the woofer is capable of frequencies in the 50Hz region at significant levels, Milli Vanilli proved this to be the case, 110 dB worth!

In fact, I writing this review while listen to B-Tribe, a very difficult to reproduce CD. The mid-range is simply exquisite. Very liquid, non-tiring, and pleasant are words that can be associated with these drivers. Voices can be clearly understood without a harshness or graininess that accompanies most computer speakers. The tweeters only add "reach" to the sound.

Altec's choice of plastic tweeters is less than desirable in a multitude of ways, but they had to make these puppies at a price point, so in they went. I usually listen to a metal dome or paper hybrid type of tweeter and plastic units usually make me barf, or run out of the room with my fingers in my ears. I have had listening periods of over 5-6 hours straight with no impending headaches.

I should mention that ACS-48 set #1 had a Creative Labs PCI128 sound card and set #2 has a Creative Labs Live! Value sound card powering them. Ever heard of "garbage in, garbage out?" If you have a $10 sound card, don't even think of hooking these monsters up. You'll be running for the cotton because these will reveal any shortcomings (lack of quality) your cheap sound card will possess.

Signal To Noise And Other Observations

65dB S/N (signal to noise) is a ratio by where you measure a signal level and compare it to a noise level. Being a sound studio owner and an avid laboratory tester, I can say that 65dB is not a fair estimation of the hiss that the 48's generate. Aside from computer fan issues, I measured a S/N (unweighed) of 65dB relative to 2.82 volts or 1 watt into an 8 ohm load. In the computer room, I was never able tohear any hiss from the tweeters, so I could only attribute this figure to a lower frequency power supply hum at 60Hz, which also could never be heard. I also don't listen at the "1 watt" level either. Fully winding out the push button volume control (should be a knob, not up/down type buttons) revealed an extremely slight hiss, which of course went away when the music faded up. With the right kind of music, this fade up could also give one a heart attack--say if it's starts loudly, like most dance music does. Relative to maximum output, the S/N calculates out to be in the low 80dB range, which is what is perceived.

Conclusions

It was my wife actually, that found these speakers. About a year ago, we were in a CompUSA and she was pushing the demo buttons, alternating through all kinds of speakers when she pushed the ACS-48's button. I was farther down the aisle looking at cables or something. WHAT IS THAT? I shouted in the middle of the store. I figured that computer speakers were a total joke and my finicky tastes would have to be satisfied by nabbing home-style speakers and shoving them near the monitor, which would've bent the picture up quite nicely. I ran over to find out what she did and could hardly believe that this little conglomeration of boxes was making the sounds that they were. She finally had to drag me away after I had listened to all of the music selections that were available.

I really hate to say this, but the Altec Lansing ACS-48's will go down in computer peripheral (and dorm room) history as being THE speakers to get. Buy.Com has them for about $100, not including shipping. Altec has been selling the 48's for over two years and I wonder how long they will continue to make them. The computer industry moves so fast, it's hard to imagine a product being manufactured unchanged for two years, that would put everyone out of business. In the near future, production will cease. That will be a sad day for those who don't have a set. The 48's make my "get them before they're gone list." THAT is a very short list.

William Yaple
Bill@TargetPC.Com
99/10/05
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