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Altec Lansing PT6021

Date: December 15, 2006
Author(s): Rory Buszka

Altec Lansing fields us a new concept in powered audio – a simpler route to home theater sound. Their new PT6021 system holds special promise for Home Theater PC applications. But can it meet the performance challenges of true home theater use?



Introduction


The history of the Altec Lansing name goes back—way back—to the late 1930s. The “Lansing” in the company’s name is James B. Lansing, an early audio pioneer whose initials also serve as the name for another landmark audio company: JBL. Altec-Lansing’s claim to fame in the loudspeaker world was their enormous A7 “Voice of the Theatre” loudspeaker, which was developed to satisfy the motion picture industry’s desire for greater fidelity and output from theater loudspeakers.

The Altec Lansing brand changed hands and produced a wide array of home audio products through the 1980s, eventually settling upon the personal computer audio market under its new name, Altec Lansing Technologies, Incorporated. It’s clear, however, that Altec Lansing seeks to reclaim brand’s former reputation as the “Voice of the Theatre.” They’ve acquired the rights to the former Altec Lansing professional audio products, and re-released the massive A7 in limited quantity, with a few tweaks to bring the gentle giant up-to-date. Altec Lansing Technologies, Inc. is now owned by Plantronics, known for their high-quality headsets.

The focus of this review is the new Altec Lansing PT6021 audio system. It’s a powered 2.1 speaker system that incorporates the same loudspeaker technology used in their FX6021 model, but with two obvious differences at first glance. First of all, it’s black, where the FX6021 is silver in color. Secondly, the system includes a universal remote. Huh? A PC speaker system with a universal remote? Upon further investigation, it turns out that PT stands for “Powered Theater”.

Altec is positioning the PT6021 to be more than just a speaker system for your computer. The mounting brackets included with the system are intended to allow easy mounting of the satellites to the frame of a flat-screen television, hinting that Altec Lansing has home theater applications in mind. The slim profiles of today’s plasma and LCD televisions don’t leave much room for decent speakers, and the PT6021 is primarily envisioned as a replacement for the internal speakers, offering crisper sound with improved low-frequency response.

The PT6021’s tall, slim satellite speakers certainly make a bold aesthetic statement in any application, whether standing tall on your desk or hugging the wall next to your prized plasma screen TV. A thoughtful inclusion is the universal remote, which you can use to operate a range of audio-video gear, as well as the speaker system itself. This speaker system could be especially attractive for Media Center PC users who seek improved audio quality without investing in a stack of components and separate loudspeakers. However, the inclusion of the universal remote suggests that this speaker system might be used in audio-visual systems without any PC at all.

Needless to say, this is not your typical computer audio system, and for that reason, this will not be your typical computer audio review. I’ll be testing the PT6021 both as a typical PC speaker system, and also in a home theater setting. Home theater use will be a new kind of challenge for the system, its audio components originally conceived for a high-quality PC audio system. The home theater testing of this system will be torturous. And rest assured – even the bundled universal remote will be put to the test. This is one product that will need to work hard to earn its keep. Weighing in at just under $350, its price puts it within spitting range of several excellent 5.1-channel speaker systems. Can the Altec Lansing PT6021 handle the extreme challenges of home theater performance while delivering the clarity and balance that high-end customers demand?



Out of the Box; Specifications

My PT6021 review sample arrived in a plain cardboard box, with minimal exterior markings. It is sometimes the case that manufacturers order their products from China in plain cardboard boxes, and then repackage them into the consumer cartons, featuring the product’s image, features, and other pertinent information. I suspect that my review sample was simply sent directly to me without being repackaged. Upon opening the box, I was greeted by the instruction manual, and the top of the subwoofer module. The other system components were securely packed in the side of one of the Styrofoam blocks.

The carton contained the subwoofer with attached power cable, the instruction manual, the satellite speakers with attached cables, weighted bases for the satellite speakers, the universal remote, a smaller credit-card remote, the control pod with attached cable, a stereo RCA signal cable, two eight-foot speaker cable extensions, and brackets for mounting the satellite speakers to the frame of a flat-panel television, with an additional packet of hardware for assembling the brackets. I unpacked all of the carton’s contents and laid them out for a photo. Batteries for the universal remote are packed with the instruction manual, and the button-cell battery for the smaller credit-card remote is also included.

The inclusion of two eight-foot extensions for the satellite speaker cables is thoughtful, but I was disturbed by the omission of a 3.5mm cable, even though the 3.5mm jack is present on the rear of the subwoofer. Those who seek to use these speakers with a home theater PC (or a PC of any sort, or a portable music player, etc.) will find themselves making a run to the local RadioShack for the appropriate cable. I see no reason why a 3.5mm audio cable should not have been included with this set, and I think that Altec Lansing would do well to revise the package to include one.

Altec Lansing PT6021 Specifications


Specification


Comment

Frequency Response

32Hz-18kHz (-10dB)

This system is
capable of covering most of the audible range. The 32Hz low frequency
point might be a tad optimistic.

Maximum Output

101dB SPL

75-80dB is about as
loudly as I personally care to listen. Extra headroom is always
appreciated, though.

System Power

58W RMS @ 1%THD

This is a continuous
rating, instead of a peak power rating, as some manufacturers will
sometimes advertise.

Subwoofer Power

44W RMS @ 1%THD

This isn’t bad, but
it isn’t as powerful as some of the competition’s subwoofers.

Satellite Power

7W RMS @ 1%THD

Both satellites
combine for a total of 14 watts. The low end is where the real amplifier
punch is needed.

Satellite Drivers

(Per Satellite)

Six 1” Micro Drivers

These drivers have
the combined piston area of a single 2.5” cone, though the smaller cones
should offer greater clarity and wider horizontal dispersion.

Subwoofer Driver

One 6.5” Long-Throw
Woofer

This is a smaller
driver than some of the competition uses, though it’s not just about the
driver. The enclosure design also plays a major role in a subwoofer’s
bass output.

Controls

Wired Control Pod;
Infrared Wireless Remotes

Many high-end
systems use external control pods, allowing for greater placement
flexibility of the satellite speakers while ensuring that the controls
are within easy reach.

Input Connections

Stereo RCA Inputs;
3.5mm stereo input on subwoofer, 3.5mm auxiliary input on control pod

This system accepts
stereo inputs from a variety of sources, and the auxiliary jack on the
control pod is a nice touch.

Satellite Dimensions

2.5” (W) x 1” (D) x
14.4” (H)

These satellites are
slim, but they are tall. They’ll look great next to your flat panel
display…or attached directly to it.

Subwoofer Dimensions

8.5” (W) x 7.9” (D)
x 16” (H)

This subwoofer
features a taller, slimmer design as well, with a smaller footprint than
the competition.

(The full list of specifications can be found in the PT6021 brochure. The specs listed here are the ones you’re most likely to use in comparing this system to others.)



PT6021 Features Overview

The satellite speakers of the PT6021 each employ six 1”-diameter “micro” drivers, which use neodymium magnet assemblies. By weight, Neodymium magnets possess nearly ten times the strength of ordinary ceramic magnets. The primary advantage of these micro drivers is their ability to perform like a conventional driver of larger diameter, moving plenty of air while preserving treble detail.

The satellite speakers aren’t heavy, but they do have a feel of quality to them. A perforated metal grille covers the tiny drivers. Overall, while the design concept is evocative of the Harman/Kardon SoundSticks, its execution in this system is much more aesthetically appealing, in my opinion. At fourteen inches tall yet only two inches wide, stability of the satellites is a concern, but the weighted bases are sufficiently stable to eliminate that concern.

The stands allow for the satellite speakers to be angled up to 15 degrees rearward, or 5 degrees forward. Assembly of the satellites to the weighted bases is straightforward and simple. However, inserting the wire into the channel in the base tears up the insulation, and removing the wire again tears it up even more. To save the cable, assemble and disassemble these speakers as infrequently as possible.

The six tiny micro-drivers in each satellite speaker are arranged in a proprietary configuration which, in combination with special processing, comprise what Altec Lansing calls InConcert technology. The aim of InConcert is to create a focused beam of sound, directed straight at the listener for maximum purity and definition. The six tiny micro-drivers in each satellite speaker are arranged vertically in symmetric pairs, each pair located at an increasing distance away from the center of the driver array to produce a predictable vertical dispersion pattern.

Altec also claims that this “line array” configuration exhibits less drop in output as the listener moves further away when compared to typical point-source speakers. This is why the line array concept has achieved such broad appeal in live sound – it allows exceptional “throw” capability without obliterating closer audience members in the process. Altec Lansing devotes three separate amplifier channels to each satellite speaker due to the signal processing involved.

The PT6021 subwoofer seems fairly solidly constructed. It certainly is large, which bodes well for its low frequency capability. Bigger subwoofers can move more air, which is required for muscular, full-bodied bass. Yet the enclosure’s shape helps to retain the impression of compactness. This subwoofer uses a 6.5” woofer with a silver-colored polypropylene cone and ceramic magnet, and also employs a rear-firing reflex vent for deeper response and greater output.

The subwoofer is not magnetically-shielded, which can cause problems for CRT monitors if the subwoofer is placed too closely. The amplifiers for the system are built into the rear of the subwoofer enclosure, as with most systems of this type. We expect a wooden subwoofer enclosure at just about any price point these days; a wooden enclosure ensures that the output from the sub won’t be colored by panel resonance.

The system’s controls are located in a separate pod, which allows greater placement flexibility for the satellite speakers while keeping the controls within easy reach. The “Standby” button functions as the typical “power” button would, shutting off power to the amplifiers but still supplying power to the control module, so that the speakers may be powered-on via remote control. Power draw in standby is minimal.

Also included is a small “credit-card” remote with basic control functions for the speakers themselves. This is the first powered speaker system I’ve seen that includes a universal remote as part of the package. The blue function buttons operate the functions of the speaker system. The rest of the the function buttons are white, and operate the functions of whatever device is being controlled by the remote. Both remotes are infrared, and will require line-of-sight to the control pod in order to work.

Setup should be a straightforward matter for anyone familiar with hooking up a computer system. Any device with so much as a headphone output jack can be used with this system, with the appropriate cable (which, as I mentioned, wasn’t included). All the elements of the system (and all input sources) connect to the subwoofer, which contains the amplifiers for the system. However, the control pod also contains a headphone output jack (which mutes the speakers’ output when connected), and a convenient auxiliary input jack. The satellite speakers connect to the subwoofer through multi-pin DIN connections, instead of the typical 3.5mm mini-plugs, RCA connectors, or tinned bare wire ends used by other systems.

A side effect of InConcert Technology, which requires that each symmetrical pair of drivers receives its own amplifier channel (for a total of three per satellite), these beefy multi-conductor wires will be difficult to hide for those who intend to use this system with a large wall-mounted display. The DIN connectors felt a little loose in their jacks, as though the slightest jostle could pull them out. The same was true with the connectors on either end of the speaker cable extensions.

The control pod’s DIN connector felt much more secure, however. The floor is always the best location for any subwoofer, for maximum performance. The PT6021 sub’s design is tasteful, though, so you won’t feel the desire to hide it away behind something. Indeed, I find that the entire system looks better in black than it does in the FX6021’s silver finish. If you elect to mount the satellite speakers to a flat panel television, the assembly becomes a bit more involved, though not excessively so.



Listening Tests


Upon first setting up the PT6021 system, I connected it to my music-server PC, which uses the Napster subscription music service and stores the downloaded 192kbps WMA files locally on the hard drive. I recognize that Windows Media Audio isn’t the world’s greatest format, but it’s representative of what a significant portion of PC users may listen to. I listened to a wide variety of music, to get a general impression of what I was dealing with. Later, for more critical listening, I switched to CDs.

Overall, the PT6021 system was pleasant to listen to, with an energetic, somewhat forward presentation that favored the upper midrange and treble. With the tone controls set to their factory settings, the system was very close to “flat” acoustically as well. The subwoofer was well-behaved, neither boomy nor overbearing (though a quick adjustment of the “bass” tone control can fix that, if you like a strong low end.) Instead, the bass was musical and nicely extended, though I did notice a subtle hollowness through the upper bass region, perhaps owing to the subwoofer’s relatively high crossover frequency (in the neighborhood of 200 Hz).

Proper placement, I found, can improve the impact of the low end. Placing the subwoofer in a corner or up against a wall uses the room’s own acoustics to strengthen the bass output. I also heard a bit of “grit” and slight sibilance in the treble range, as well, though it was free of the high-frequency “hiss” that some Mylar semi-dome tweeters can create. I was, however, surprised at how smoothly the satellite speakers conveyed the crucial midrange, without any obvious peaks in the frequency response. The satellite speakers threw a wide soundstage, with impressively precise stereo imaging of the recorded sound sources within the mix.

Upon initially firing up the system, I had to verify that my hi-fi main speakers (standing right behind the PT6021 satellites) were disconnected. Also noted was this system’s “crankability” without sounding distressed at high volumes. With the bass control maxed out, I could hear the subwoofer’s amplifier clipping, but this was at already stupid volume levels. We’ll see if this impacts movie performance.

It was when I connected the PT6021 to my 5-disc CD changer that these speakers began to show me exactly what they were capable of. The first thing I noticed was improved transparency — The “grit” I had perceived in the treble range with the WMA files was gone, and the overall sound became almost unbelievably open and clear. Bass was even more taut and gut-punching. Resolution is the name of the game here, with the PT6021’s satellite speakers showing excellent detail retrieval ability and even more focused imaging.

I was able to distinctly hear Bela Fleck’s fingertips even as the actual banjo strings were barely being plucked, and percussion elements on the title track of Bruce Hornsby’s Harbor Lights seemed to hang in the air in front of me. Overall, I found the system much more pleasing to listen to when the source recording was of a high quality. If the track ever spent part of its life as a compressed file, you’ll hear it through these speakers.

The lower midrange still sounded a tad recessed, though this was not enough to deprive Ben Folds’ voice of its characteristic warmth, or Hornsby’s piano of its fullness. The overall fidelity was impressive — I don’t think that any of the PT6021’s sonic quirks are severe enough to prevent even a critical listener like myself from enjoying this system immensely. I think anyone interested in a highly-competent 2.1 system should give the PT6021 a listen, or its cousin the FX6021. From even an objective viewpoint, these speakers sound very good.

Movies

To test the system’s ability with a demanding motion picture soundtrack, I selected the Sony Pictures film A Knight’s Tale. The film boasts a rich soundscape, with a plethora of well-recorded, if a bit embellished, sound effects. The PT6021 system didn’t disappoint here, rendering the splintering of bone and wooden lances with satisfying impact, and frightening detail. Most remarkable, however, was the speakers’ ability to create a huge soundstage, so wide it almost seemed to wrap around my head. I had to check the DVD player’s menu to verify that no pseudo-surround effects were enabled, because I heard sounds that I swore could have come from beside me.

I listened at 3/4 of the system’s maximum volume, but for the movie’s finale, I decided to crank the system all the way up. The system held together well under the punishment, with the satellite speakers remaining crisp and the subwoofer retaining its authority, prompting me to adjust my listening position a few feet further away. Don’t kid yourself, however – the PT6021’s sub couldn’t compete with my own powered subwoofer, and it sounded more muddy and limited in the lower registers, likely because of the 6.5” woofer reaching its limits.

At maximum volume, distortion in the subwoofer became more significant, and the satellite speakers’ normally edgy sound took on a strident bite. In home theater applications, the PT6021 system offers customers a high-quality audio option that’s on a similar level with many HTiB systems in terms of performance, but several notches down in complexity, and is also more compact. It would be an excellent system for use in a bedroom home theater, or in other small rooms. When I finished the movie, that new-electronics smell once again filled the room just as it had when I first unpacked the system, though this will likely fade with time.

System Controls

The control pod itself is quite simple to use. Its buttons for bass and treble adjustment select the adjustment to be made, and the actual adjustment is made via the large knob, with your change being reflected on the LED meter. Press the button of the active tone control again, and the control pod returns to volume mode. Or, simply let the pod sit for a few seconds, and it will do this automatically. One nit that I found to pick during the listening tests was with the LED meter’s display of the position of the tone controls. The “center” position of the selected tone control spans several “clicks” on the rotary knob, so it’s difficult to determine whether the tone controls are perfectly centered. I would prefer for the center LED to illuminate only when the tone control is perfectly centered. I expect that most users will simply decide to set these controls by ear, however.

Now, how about that universal remote? I was able to program the remote to control my RCA 5-disc changer CD player, my Sanyo DVD/VCR combo unit, my Toshiba television, and even some functions of my Harman/Kardon receiver. Of course, I found that it controlled the PT6021 system itself just fine. The remote control receives its own separate instruction guide, with plenty of codes for a variety of brands and types of electronic equipment. During the listening testing, the small credit card remote was also extremely convenient, though the same functions could have been controlled by the much larger universal remote.



Final Thoughts


Techgage has the distinction of being the first to publish a review of Altec Lansing’s newest high-end 2.1 powered loudspeaker system. Currently, only one online store carries the PT6021, and that’s Dell.com (which has had a long working relationship with Altec Lansing). I expect, however, that as demand increases for the particular kind of versatility the PT6021 offers, the number of stores carrying this system will increase.

Initially, I feel consumers will find themselves a little confused by the positioning of this system as a home theater product instead of a personal computer audio system. However, I expect that this confusion will wear off as more manufacturers of powered audio products begin to make their own forays into the home theater category, to take advantage of the growing home theater PC market. The PT6021 is a better value at its street price than at its MSRP, but even so, it’s not a “cheap” system by any means, or even an inexpensive one. Shoestring budgets need not apply.

While I don’t think that the Altec Lansing PT6021 is necessarily the best value in the high-end 2.1 system category, its chief redeeming qualities are its noteworthy sound quality and remarkable versatility. Indeed, its high price and the omission of what I feel is a typical hookup cable are the only things keeping the PT6021 from receiving a ‘9’ overall score – this product is an excellent performer in PC audio applications and proves its worth quite handily in light-duty home theater use as well. That being said, I hope Altec Lansing doesn’t assume that it has achieved the ultimate with the PT6021 system, because there’s plenty of room for improvement.

For its price, the PT6021 is somewhat light on features. I like the control pods on the newer FX4021 and FX5051 speaker systems better than the one that’s included with the PT6021. The USB input used on Altec Lansing’s new FX5051 5.1-channel system would also be welcome here, allowing for a more pure signal path to the amplifier when used with a PC. More importantly, however, since this product is targeted toward home theater applications, it would have been nice to see a virtual-surround DSP like Dolby Virtual Speaker or SRS TruSurround used here.

Great stereo sound is the first step toward a home theater experience, but virtual-surround DSP processing would allow the two satellite speakers to convincingly emulate a full 5.1-channel audio system with the simplicity of two speakers.. Currently, the only other 2.1-speaker system which can emulate a surround sound field from a 5-channel input is the $400 Bose Companion 5. The ability to switch between two or three input sources would have also been appreciated.

Thanks to Altec Lansing Technologies, Inc. for providing this chance to review the PT6021, and we look forward to many more reviews of their products in the future.

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