High-end PC component manufacturer Corsair has been tentatively dipping its toes into consumer audio products of late. Its first product, the Dolby-powered HS1 headset, was very impressive. The design, build, and sound quality were head and shoulders above many of its competitors, despite a few bass response niggles.
Spurred on by the success of the HS1, Corsair is branching out further, this time into desktop speaker systems--a market heavily dominated by companies such as Creative and Logitech. It's kicking things off with the top-of-the-range SP2500, a gaming-focused 232-watt 2.1 system complete with bi-amplified satellites, a 4th order band-pass subwoofer, and a nifty LCD-equipped desktop controller, all costing a considerable $249.
The satellites and subwoofer have an understated look about them. You won't find any glossy plastic, shiny chrome, or oddly shaped housings to speak of. Instead, the look is functional, with the small satellites sporting mesh-covered 3-inch drivers and a silk domed tweeter in a plain black enclosure. They're reassuringly sturdy and weighty, though, and look and feel like they'll stand up to some abuse. The 120-watt subwoofer is similarly weighty and clad in black, with its size giving it a monolithic stature.
It's significantly larger than subwoofers from similar systems, almost reaching the size found in most home theatre setups, so you'll need plenty of room under your desk to house it. This is because it uses 4th order band-pass technology, which Corsair claims provides deeper and more accurate bass compared to the ported bass-reflex designs commonly offered by rivals. It also houses the power supply, a 3.5mm jack input, a standard phono line-in, a two-stage amplifier for the sub itself, and four Class D digital amplification circuits for the bi-amplified satellites,
Bi-amplification isn't something normally seen in desktop 2.1 systems and is instead featured in much more expensive hi-fi, home theatre, and studio monitor setups. What bi-amplification does is provide separate amplification to the mid-range driver and tweeter in each satellite through individual audio cables, rather than drive the entire satellite through one amplifier via a single cable. In theory, this should result in much better sound quality because each driver receives only the frequencies it's supposed to be reproducing, so there's much less chance of distortion. This does of course depend on how well the amplifier separates the low, mid, and high frequencies--commonly known as crossovers.
It's fortunate then that the SP2500 has some top-notch digital crossovers at its disposal. They're implemented using a digital signal processor (DSP), which means the crossover can be dynamically adjusted, so higher or lower frequencies can be sent to the sub and satellites on the fly. This can dramatically change the sound of the system and in conjunction with the DSP allows for special modes and environmental effects.
They're controlled using a supplied desktop controller, which features a colour LCD, a control dial, another 3.5mm jack input, a headphone output, and buttons for power, menu, volume, and subwoofer volume. The controller is very easy to use, with the control dial acting much like the iPod's clock wheel. You can scroll through lists of different EQ and environmental presets, adjust the volume, and change inputs with ease, and the bright LCD makes things easy to see late at night.
With all the technology behind it, you would hope that the SP2500 would sound fantastic, and fortunately it doesn't disappoint. Setting the DSP to reference using the controller allows you to hear the sound without any signal processing--essentially the natural sound of the speakers themselves. It's there that you can really hear how well the system has been put together. It's a very different sound and is more like that of a good pair of studio monitors, than of a consumer 2.1 system.
There's a ton of clarity and heaps of volume on tap, with an incredibly clear high and mid-range that lets you hear all the detail from your source material. Instruments and sounds that you might have missed from your favourite album by listening on lesser speakers suddenly jump out at you, while dialogue and audio in games is very clear. Bass is strong too, without resorting to being muddy. Basslines from your favourite songs have much clarity, while explosions in movies and games really shake the room. Also worthy of note is the stereo imaging, which is excellent. Gunshots seem to fly across the speakers, and audible footsteps make it easy to pinpoint your enemies in the heat of battle.
If there's one thing to be said against the reference sound of the SP2500, it's that it's a little clinical, and extended listening can result in some tired ears. Fortunately, the on-board DSP does a great job of offering a variety of useful equalization settings and effects that adjust the sound to your tastes. There are eight different types of DSP programs on offer, along with nine EQ settings. On the DSP side, there is the standard stereo widening, as well as reverb modes such as stadium and theatre. They're not as heavy sounding as many effects, making them less in-your-face and overpowering.
That said, most people won't want to make all their music and games sound like they're coming out of a concert hall all the time. More useful is the late-night mode, which changes the crossover to push more bass to the satellites, so you don't disturb your neighbors with overpowering bass. There is also a dynamic pop setting, which applies compressions to your audio source and boosts the bass and treble. This makes the sound a little easier on the ears and much more like that of a traditional consumer system.
However, most of the really useful sounds are in the EQ settings. The standard jazz and classical settings are present, along with pop. This boosts the bass and rolls off a little of the mids, giving a similar sound to the dynamic pop setting, without the compression. This mode is great for listening to music over an extended period, because you still get all the great accuracy in the high end, without the fatiguing mid-range. Other modes include action, which beefs up low-frequency effects; drama, which beefs up the mid-range for clearer dialogue; FPS, which boosts low-frequency effects and the mid-range; and a dedicated headphone mode that boosts mid-range sounds for lower-quality headphones.
There's also an interesting Mod X mode. Many films are mastered to an EQ curve known as the X Curve, which boosts the high end for playback in a movie theatre. Sometimes that same audio mastering makes its way into the DVD and Blu-ray versions of a film. The SP2500's Mod X essentially attempts to flatten out that curve, reducing the high end for playback at home. It works well for quite a few movies where the treble is overpowering. Not all benefit, though, so it's worth experimenting to see what sounds best.
Nearly all of the programs and EQ settings are very usable, and most people will find a setting that's to their taste. Unfortunately, there isn't any way to program your own EQ using the on-board DSP, so any tweaking you want to do will have to take place on your computer. This is something of a large omission, particularly given the power of the DSP system. The desktop controller does contain a USB connection, which Corsair says could be used for future firmware updates to enable new programs and features, but nothing has been promised yet.
The SP2500 is a fantastic 2.1 system. The accuracy of satellites is something of a revelation for a consumer-focused product, letting you hear detail that you may have been missing from your audio. Though it can come across as a little clinical, the on-board DSP does a great job of offering a range of usable sounds that allow you to tune the system to your tastes. Music is detailed, accurate, and a pleasure to listen to, movies blow your socks off, and the accurate stereo imaging makes playing games a little easier too.
Though it isn't exactly a looker, the SP2500 design is functional, and the build quality is reassuringly sturdy. The addition of multiple inputs is very useful, making it easy to plug in your MP3 player directly on your desktop, or games console underneath the desk. The lack of a custom EQ is disappointing, but not enough to tarnish what is a very impressive system--it's one of the best-sounding systems available. It's a little pricey at $249, but if you value your ears at all, and don't want to clutter up your den with a 5.1 surround system, then the SP2500 should be first on your list for an audition.