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Corsair SP2500 2.1 Gaming Speakers Review

Date: March 11, 2011
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher

With the launch of its HS1 headset last fall, Corsair proved that the audio market wasn’t one it was planning on jumping into without first making sure that its products would impress. But what about those gamers that don’t like to use headphones? The answer is the SP2500, a speaker set with a unique design, and a lot of power.



Introduction

Corsair has decided to break into the audio market and it’s doing so in a big way. Late last year we were introduced to its HS1 USB-based headset and came away thoroughly impressed. Well, today, we’ve been given the delight of its next adventure into the audio world, with a high-end set of 2.1 stereo speakers – the SP2500. These speakers are not your run of the mill, over-stylized stereo set, these mean business.

What makes them so special you ask? First off, a long list of audio jargon to wrap your head around. Each satellite is bi-amplified with a digital active crossover, featuring a 3 inch mid-range driver and an asymmetric silk-domed ferrorfluid-cooled tweeter. Marketing must of loved that phrase.

The mid is rated to 40 Watts and the tweeter at 16 Watts. The big thing mentioned is that this is sustained output; measured by the FTC method (rather than the usual ‘Peak’), and are capable of running at 100% volume for 2 whole days without distortion. Why anyone would want to run these speakers at such a level for so long is beyond me, but it’s nice to know they can.

The subwoofer is a beast of a speaker, even compared next to the monster that is the Logitech Z5500. The Sub uses a bi-amplified, 120 Watt, 4th order band-pass system using an 8 inch driver. The band-pass system will be explained later on in this review.

Controlling all this power comes down to a small wired DSP remote control system which includes a rarity theses days, a TFT based display. This little unit controls the various equalization modes, volume and other sound processing features. In total, the system is on the large size with the subwoofer taking center stage. And you know what they say about big equipment… big boxes.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

It’s rather strange to mention padding here at Techgage, but it is worth mentioning. The majority of the packaging is cardboard and very easy to take out and even put back in – while at the same time being completely solid. Kudos to the package design team.

The only problem would be a change in key features since the box design was finalized, namely that of total power. The box and manual state the total power as 220 Watts when it is actually 232 Watts -minor changes to the satellite values I believe. Taking everything out, let’s see the major components…

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

Quite the grand piece of kit measuring in at 18x11x10 inches, the subwoofer really is a beast. The size really can not be stressed enough, it is huge and will require decent floor or desk space, depending on setup.

For comparison, this is the unit next to a now somewhat aging Logitech Z5500 sub, which uses a front-facing 10 inch driver.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

Aesthetically, the SP2500 sub is rather reserved, choosing a very simple and stateful design of function over form. The only indication of it being a speaker comes from the small 3.5" flared port. All the I/O options are tucked away ’round the back. Maybe age is beginning to creep up on me or it’s my pragmatic nature, but these understated designs have become more appealing over time.

The sub housing is a thick plastic rather than the standard chip or fiberboard found with larger boxes. It does make the unit much lighter without having too much of an effect on the acoustic qualities, due in part to the 4th order band-pass.

Round the back of the unit is the rather small selection of inputs and outputs. As far as inputs go, there’s a dual RCA phono connector and a 3.5mm jack. No coaxial or optical inputs here.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

Corsair’s reasoning behind this is justified though; since these speakers are for PC use, the soundcard will handle things like DTS decoding and such, so the need for additional decoding on the speakers is unnecessary. Optical would have been nice – then consoles could make use of these speakers without worrying about Y splitters and extra cables, but consoles can still be used with appropriate adapters for RCA or Jack.

Those with an astute eye will also notice something strange. First, the lack of normal speaker wire clamps (a good thing), but also a lack of a standard connector type for the satellite connections. Yes, those are 4 pin ATX connectors commonly found on power supplies. There is a justifiable and very good reason for this which will be explained later in the review.

The satellites are quite small and a little bit on the heavy side (for its size). Again with the understated design, the only bit of color across the whole unit is the mid-range driver with a rich electric blue. The flash from the camera does kind of make it appear brighter than it is, so don’t worry too much.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

The 2 main features of these satellites comes down to the bi-amplified setup and the asymmetric layout of the tweeter – the same sort of setup found in studio monitors. Each mid-range driver and each tweeter are on its own amplifier; making use of a fully digital active crossover system.

Each frequency range (100Hz-5kHz and 5kHz-20kHz) goes through to a different amplifier for each speaker. The active crossover also allows for a roll-off of one frequency range to another, so each amplifier works slightly outside these frequency ranges. In total, there are 6 amplifiers. Left and right tweeter, left and right mid-range, and 2x 60 Watt amplifiers for the sub.

The net result of this means that you don’t have a single speaker trying to cover a very broad frequency range, removing the need to balance out the audio curve to accommodate it; better sound quality ensues.

Two little stands are also included, increasing the elevation of either the front or the back by an inch. This is so that the speakers can be aimed correctly for a more accurate stereo soundscape.

Round the back of the satellites we find those ATX connectors again.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

On the following pages we’ll go through the control unit and take a detailed look at some of the features and design choices.

Control Unit

The control unit is of the wired variety that connects to the back of the subwoofer via a 15-pin VGA connector. This unit controls master and sub volume, equalization modes and various sound profiles, as well as selecting input options.

It has two 3.5mm jacks, one on top as AUX 2 input, easy reach for something like an iPod; the second jack on the base is for connecting headphones. The anomaly would be the inclusion of a currently superfluous micro-USB port, to which Corsair states as being for possible future firmware upgrades.

This in itself is very intriguing and something I wish were included with other speaker sets, namely those with DSP units – as there can often be minor annoyances or bugs that can be fixed via firmware updates. In the case of the SP2500’s, that list would be small, but we’ll touch on that later.

Selecting all these features through a small and limiting LCD display would not be ideal, so Corsair were kind enough to provide a 1.8 inch TFT display – a real rarity with PC speakers.

There are four backlit buttons and a digital dial for menu selections.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

When powered on, it’s very discrete with a small white light under the master volume button – no garish brilliant blue LED’s that never quite reached laser level here. Pushing any buttons or turning the dial will illuminate the backlight.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

The bottom 3 buttons, from left to right are Master Volume, Menu and Subwoofer Volume. The main dial will always default to volume control when left idle for a while, pushing the dial as a button enables muting – both on volume and sub. There is a small problem with the screen, that of limited viewing angles. For the most part, you can navigate settings blind, but the option menu does require you to look at the screen.

The dial has a small amount of feedback when rotating, but as a button, it is rather stiff. It can be a little awkward when it comes to sensitivity, not every felt rotation click will result in an action, usually every 2-3. This is minor though, since it otherwise performs flawlessly.

Due to the nature of the speakers being largely digital in nature (makes use of digital crossovers and a DSP for EQ and environment settings), even volume control is digital. This can prove to be a bit of a nuisance as volume control works in steps – 24 in total. These are linear in progression and as a result, the difference between 2 settings can be stark, with no other way to fine tune the volume without using your PC’s system volume control. If more volume settings were made available, 30 for example, it would make dialing in a specific level easier, without having too quiet or too loud. That upgradable firmware sounds like a good idea now.

Programs & EQ

In the menu, there are two modes to bare in mind, EQ and Programs. These are various Digital Sound Processing effects to either correct or enhance various aspects of the supplied audio. We’ll take a gander over the Programs first.

The options either side of None – the default, will be Headphone and Late Night Modes. Late Night mutes the subwoofer and redirects the bass to the midrange drivers via the digital crossover, setting the frequency response down from 140Hz to 100Hz. It also enables dynamic compression, preventing sudden peaks in volume (sudden gunfire and surprise music/ads come to mind…).

This mode is great for movies, but not so great for music, as anything below 100Hz is inaudible – muting pretty much all bass. The sub can be re-enabled and you’ll keep the dynamic compression, so for music, this might a better option at night.

Headphone mode is more of an EQ based setting that corrects the sound profile of lower quality gear, bumping up the mid range and dropping the bass and treble, giving them a more balanced sound profile. This corrects the ‘impressive’ tuning that goes on with certain headphones, the common ‘smiley’ or ‘double hump’ profile. It will largely come down to personal taste, but for those that enjoy good quality and balanced sound, this mode proves to be quite effective. It won’t work miracles, but it certainly helps calm down some otherwise extreme tuning that can go on. Those with a decent pair of headphones can skip this option.

While on the subject of headphones, the jack port on the base of the control will automatically mute the speakers when a pair of headphones are inserted. On top of this, Corsair has done a fine job balancing out the volume, so you won’t be in for a surprise when un/plugging your gear. The other good news is that it doesn’t have much affect on audio quality, you will hear the headphones as if they were plugged directly into your soundcard – there may be some distortion, but for the most part, I can’t tell the difference.

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a while with headphone bypasses in the past with DSP based speakers, so I’m glad Corsair took note and left things alone. My only quibble is that the speakers must be turned on in order for the headphone socket to work, since it still needs to go through the DSP. Having said that, since the sound card volume is set to 90% and if I were to plug my headphones into that – my ears would bleed.

The next program mode, Mod X, is a rather strange function. Certain movies when released to the public, use the same mixing profile as that used in cinemas. So the soundtrack has been made for a very large room with a wide soundscape and big speakers. Play this on your little home theatre setup and you’ll be constantly changing volume, turning it up during the quiet bits, and turning it up further after the loud bits made you partially deaf. Mod X compensates for this, but its effect is hit or miss, depending on the film and soundtrack. It’s one of those ‘fiddle’ options that you can try to see if it helps.

Stadium, Concert Hall, Club, Theatre, Karaoke and Wide are the usual additions to any DSP’s portfolio, with varying degrees of success. Wide for example does change the sound scape, but at a severe cost to audio quality. Same for Karaoke, it compress the centered mid range; the usual location of studio recorded vocals, so you can sing along, but its success largely depends on the recording. Dynamic Pop is the last on the list which reintroduces the ‘smiley’ EQ curve but with dynamic range compression – the setup often found with various home theatre kits.

For those unaware, Dynamic Range Compression performs a similar function as Normalizing or Auto Volume Limiting Systems (AVLS), making louder things quieter and quieter things louder – depending on the implementation.

Equalizer

While the SP2500’s make full use of the DSP, the only thing missing is custom EQ settings, limiting you to the modes available on the control unit (or via your soundcard’s drivers).

For the most part, the EQ modes will perform much like they do anywhere else, even with Mod X and Headphone modes making an appearance again. The two settings that the audiophiles among you will want to pay attention to will be Reference and Classical.

Reference is an electrically flat EQ curve, meaning that the frequency response curve should be near linear – often resulting in the typical ‘sounds cold/harsh’ response. Classical is an acoustically flat curve, which means it should take into consideration the human ear’s response to sound, resulting in a much warmer sound than the reference EQ. While I do not have the equipment to test this, Classical does sound like the better mode, negating the need for me to tune my sound card’s EQ settings.

There are two gaming EQ modes as well, FPS and Action Gaming. Both boost the base range while FPS increases the mid range as well for better positional tracking of bullet fire, etc. These EQ adjustments are not that harsh either, so they will not completely destroy the original sound. For the music lovers though, stick with Classical and you’ll be fine.

Speaking of which [Ed: ouch on the pun], now would be good time to bring up the 4th order bandpass and the design choice of using ATX cables.

4th Order & ATX

Most speaker systems in the PC market make use of what is called a Ported Bass-Reflex system. This is basically an exposed speaker with a hole in the side of the housing for air flow. Theses systems are all well and good but can result in a distorted or muddy response – meaning that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between bass notes, it comes out as just ‘bass’ with no definition, all ‘boom’ and no ‘thud’.

The 4th Order Band-Pass makes use of ‘acoustic suspension and isolates the driver which fires into a ported chamber before leaving through the port.

This setup is quite popular among audio enthusiasts as it has a better transient response, allowing for punchier bass, and also lowers the cutoff frequency, meaning the sub can specialize in what it does best; produce bass without having lower range mid-tones distorting things.

The following diagram supplied by Corsair does a fine job of showing the difference between 4th Order and Reflex designs.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

The one problem with any of these ported bass systems is that of port noise, and this is something noticed quite early on in the review. Originally, I mistook it as a defect and had a new set delivered, with the exact same problem. A little more research on my part could have avoided this.

When under heavy, low frequency conditions (30-55Hz range), the port on the front of the sub becomes a contention point. This results in it sounding like a muffler on a car exhaust. The only way round this is to use a bigger port, the problem with this is that it changes the acoustic properties of the sub, which means a larger box would be needed, a balancing act as it were.

Port noise will not become an issue except under very high volumes with continuous and very low frequency sounds. Emphasis on continuous. Out of all the music tested, only two tracks could consistently produce any kind of port noise (for those interested, both tracks came from games, Razorback from Unreal Tournament and the title theme tune to Bloodrayne, two personal test pieces I use since they have large and long bass sweeps). This is with the sub volume at 20/24 bars, master volume at 10/24 bars and system volume at 90%.

For a more clinical reproduction of the problem, simply use a tone generator with a sine wave frequency between 30-60Hz. The most apparent reaction came in at 36Hz.

It must be reiterated that under normal use, port noise will not be an issue. It’s only under high volumes with lots of bass going on that you may even notice, but by that point, you’ll be too deaf to care – these speakers are quite capable of some uncomfortably high volumes.

Another issue that did arise, unrelated to the sub, is that of high volume hiss. With an empty input channel selected and maximum volume set, there is a very faint hiss coming from the satellites, probably digital noise as a result of the DSP. The hiss is very faint, and under any kind of sane volume, inaudible.

Why ATX?

The Satellites with the SP2500 would be considered high power and on top of that, bi-amplified. Normal jack or RCA connectors would not be able to handle the 40 + 16 watts of power required reliably. This is largely a safety concern than to con people out of money for specialised connectors.

If normal speaker wire clamps or RCA connectors were provided for people to use their own cables, then there’s nothing stopping them from picking up the cheapest and consequently, thinnest cables possible and pumping 56 Watts of power through them, melting or even burning the cable. While this is unlikely to happen, it is of concern.

Being bi-amplified as well, the mid-range and tweeter need separate channels, so that’s 4 wires for each satellite – not an elegant solution for standard connectors. This is when the ATX cable comes in.

Corsair are now known just as much for its power supplies as its memory. So, taking a page out of its PSU business, it went with the ATX cable instead of the standard audio connectors. This actually kills 2 birds with one stone as it were. First, power; these cables and connectors are used for delivering reliable power and thus use a heavier gauge wire. Second, there are 4 pins/wires, providing the + and – for each of the 2 channels on the satellite (Mid + Tweeter).

Replacements? Longer Cables?

Before you go screaming out ‘Proprietary till you’re blue in the face, you can calm down. ATX cables and connectors are not proprietary, they are just uncommon in the audio market. So the bad news is, you won’t be able to find a replacement pair of cables in a hurry – at least not in the audio section of retailers. The good news is that there is nothing stopping you from making your own with some 18 or 16 gauge wire and a couple 4 pin ATX connectors from a hobby shop. Some e-tailers even sell 4pin ATX extension cables.

Corsair has stated that it is looking into releasing longer cables than the provided 1.8 meters, as well as replacements for the current set. 1.8 meters may seem quite short to a lot of people when it comes to speakers, but again, this is justified by the fact that the SP2500’s are near-field speakers, meaning, they are meant to be heard from up to 2 meters away – about the max distance of your head from the monitor.

Extending beyond this and there is a dramatic roll off of high-end bass as the crossover kicks in from the sub to the satellites, about 100-150Hz+. Since the satellites have only 3 inch mid-range drivers, getting that extra oomph required for bass just isn’t going to work over a longer range. The second problem is that of stereo separation – or lack of it, as you’ll be confronted with central sound with no indication of direction, at least not without some very careful aiming and volume adjustments.

The short of it is that the cables provided should be adequate for the vast majority of users, but of course there will always be special conditions – like trying to use the speakers as part of a home entertainment system – which these were not designed to be, unfortunately.

Final Thoughts

So, after using these speakers for a lot longer than I should have, the question remains of how do they perform. As a personal preference, I’m a major user of headphones, but still enjoy a great set of speakers to deafen the neighbors at the weekend. Being the proud owner of a set of Logitech Z5500’s, these were my only real side-by-side comparison with the Corsair SP2500’s.

It’s not exactly a fair comparison by the numbers, comparing a 2.1 with a 5.1 system, not to mention the Logitech set are $100 more and 5-years-old, but some of you may be wondering about dropping the rear channels for some quality audio.

I won’t beat around the bush and make it quite clear, the Corsair speakers are fantastic, and so they should be at $250. While these speakers are being sold as a gaming set, I really doubt that was its purpose. If you want gaming audio, go with surround sound, be it with a headset or 5.1 speakers… you can’t fake positional audio.

As a set of general PC audio speakers for music, the SP2500’s are just brilliant. The mid range is warm, the bass is room filling but not overpowering (unless you want it to be) and the dedicated tweeters really push the ambiance into a room with great clarity.

The overall experience was quite a surprise when initially installed. Being a headphone user, one picks up on a lot of the various subtleties that can be lost when switching from headphones to speakers. With the SP2500’s… not the case, at all. Everything that could be heard with my standard headphones, was completely clear and audible with these speakers. This probably comes down to the bi-amplified satellites with the tweeters on its own channel.

Corsair SP2500 Speakers

The use of the 4th order sub really does help with bass. After using the Logitech set all these years, the one thing that did disappoint was the cold mid-range and the fact that the bass had no definition. It was loud, seriously loud; grin worthy, house shaking, dead waking loud, but definition wise, it was just bass. The use of the 4th order system in the SP2500’s really brings a lot more definition to the bass range. You can hear the difference between 2 different kick drums.

The only concern is that of the cutoff frequency, at 140Hz, it’s quite high, as anything over ~80Hz can introduce a directional element to the bass, instead of just filling the room. This had to be done to compensate for the fact that the satellites mid-range driver is only 3 inches. However, since these are near-field speakers, it’s less of a concern.

For gaming, you can’t really beat 5.1, even if you have to sacrifice some quality to get it. If Corsair decide to release a 5.1 set of these speakers… I’m gushing at the mere thought. There is still distinct stereo separation with the SP2500, provided the speakers are setup and angled correctly. Sound can still come through an invisible central channel. With the sub mounted above and on the desk, bass can rumble through into my hands, a gentle reminder of the reason I died after a grenade was thrown.

With movies, it largely depends on both your soundcard and the movie in question. Trying out the Mod X proved to be a challenge, as I’m uncertain as to whether or not any of the movies in my collection have been poorly mastered. In terms of dialogue through a central channel, flawless.

The only real concern I have with these speakers comes down to the strange way it’s been marketed. These live up to the title of high-end audio, but as a gaming set, not really. Its targeted specifically at PC audio, no consoles, no home theatre, it does come in as a rather niche product, but this can be said for any high end piece of equipment.

If I were in the market, looking for some decent stereo audio and had $250 to spend, would I go for these? Yes. For that reason, I’m very happy to gives these our Editor’s Choice. The price is a little steep, though various e-tailers are already selling them for less. The SP2500’s are built solid and perform with exceptional clarity. Corsair are setting a very high benchmark with its audio products and it’s great to see a new company take things seriously instead of a ‘me too’ attitude. Keep it up.


Corsair SP2500 2.1 Gaming Speakers

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