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Razer/THX Mako 2.1-Channel Speaker System

Date: May 12, 2008
Author(s): Rory Buszka

Razer is well-known for producing high-quality peripherals, but audio can be an entirely different bag. Our concerns over their new found venture can be set aside though, as the tag team effort between them and THX helped build an amazing 2.1 system that’s actually worth its $400 price tag.



Introduction


Razer began its gambit for domination of the lucrative gaming peripheral market in the late 1990s, building a line of innovative mice and keyboards which blended groundbreaking performance features with incredible styling and tactile appeal.

As time has passed, Razer has branched into other product categories targeted especially at gamers, including high-quality headphones and a companion 3D positional-audio sound card, which combined to form the Barracuda gaming audio system. As with their previous efforts, the Barracuda system met broad acclaim from the gaming press, and proved that Razer could be a formidable market player in any product category, not only input devices but in audio hardware as well.

At CES 2007, Razer and THX co-launched launched Razer’s next salvo in the gaming audio market – a powerful 2.1-channel loudspeaker system called Mako.

The Mako system is an eye-catcher, with its combination of glossy curvaceous and mirror-finished flat surfaces, and the apertures through which the speaker drivers fire into the room, which rim the bottom edge of each satellite speaker. The down-firing subwoofer is endowed with a broader aperture, but matches the satellite speakers in its bizarre styling, which is evocative of grainy UFO home videos.

The otherworldly styling of the Mako satellite speakers is made possible by two technologies developed by THX, Ltd., which develops performance standards for audio-visual systems in the theater, the home, the car, and for the PC. THX is more than just the furious blast of vacuum-cleaner noise at the beginning of a movie – their raison d’etre is to advance the state of the art in audio systems.

If an A/V system component is capable of meeting the criteria for THX Certification in its product category, consumers can rest assured that the product they’re considering is able to deliver the best audio/visual performance that can be expected from a product in its category.

THX Certification is a distinction that only the finest audio-visual gear can receive. THX functions as an independent laboratory in this sense, evaluating products submitted to it for certification, and producing thick reports documenting multifarious facets of the system’s performance, from frequency response to impulse response to total harmonic distortion. THX then bestows its coveted certification mark on the product, or offers its own suggestions for improving the product so that it can meet THX performance standards.

More recently, THX has begun to develop audio technologies to advance the state of the art, placing it in a similar category as two other companies, SRS Labs and Dolby Laboratories, though not all of THX’s technologies are DSP-based. Two of these new, patented THX technologies are present in the Razer Mako system: Ground Plane technology, and Slot Speaker technology, which we’ll discuss from a technical standpoint later on.

Does the Razer/THX Mako’s bizarre design and compliment of technologies add up to spectacular sound, as we’d expect from a company like Razer (or THX, for that matter)? Techgage’s own Rob and Greg were impressed when they first heard the Mako 2.1 at CES 2007. However, nearly a year and a half after their CES introduction, after repeated delays in the Mako’s launch, and with one additional potential competitor already on shelves, we’re only just now seeing a review sample. Were these strange-looking newcomers worth the long wait?



First Impressions

The Razer/THX Mako speakers come in some classy packaging, as we’ve already come to expect from Razer. The box is trimmed in typical Razer fashion, with some additional commentary from Robert Krakoff about how the Razer/THX Mako speakers promise to “redefine the state of the art” in loudspeaker systems, and information about how technologies like “Ground Plane” and “Slot Speaker” contribute to an improved listening experience. Sweet; we can’t wait.

Opening the top of the box, you’ll see that the included accessories and cabling are nestled in the upper Styrofoam shell, along with the control pod and instruction manual. In addition to the Mako satellites and subwoofer, you get two speaker cables with RJ-45 terminations, the control pod (which connects via a VGA-style connector, hence the warning to NOT connect it to your PC’s VGA port, and likewise the warning NOT to connect the speaker cables to RJ-45 network jacks), a two-prong power cable, and a rather unremarkable 35mm stereo miniplug cable for connecting the speakers to your sound card or your motherboard’s onboard line-out jack.

The Razer/THX Mako satellite speakers and subwoofer are packed between the two Styrofoam shells, in closed-cell foam bags. Despite the fact that the enclosures are made of plastic instead of the pressed-wood or fiberboard enclosures we’ve grown accustomed to in high-end PC speaker systems, all three speakers have a bit of heft to them, which tip us off to two things – that the speakers use ferrite magnets, most likely, and big ones at that. Despite the fact that the enclosures are made of plastic, they don’t seem flimsy or cheap. The base of each speaker is rimmed with a perforated steel mesh grille.

The Razer web site’s ‘technical specifications’ page reads like a features/benefits chart, and doesn’t give much in the way of numeric quantization of the Mako system’s performance characteristics, besides some wattage and system frequency response numbers. So here’s what I was able to pull out of the product literature, as well as what I was able to determine on my own.

Beyond their radical styling and THX-developed acoustic technologies, the Razer/THX Mako 2.1 speakers aren’t functionally much different from your typical high-end 2.1-channel PC speaker system. It’s the THX ‘secret sauce’ of advanced technologies and meticulous tweaking that’s expected to make the difference here, so let’s next look at the technologies of the Mako speakers in detail.



Features Overview

The Razer/THX Mako 2.1 speaker system represents a departure from your typical PC speaker system, and from typical ‘box’ loudspeakers in general, with THX, Ltd. bringing their considerable engineering might and audio experience to bear on every stage of their conception, development, and tuning. What Razer and THX ended up with, however, speaks for itself with its fusion of Razer’s striking design and THX-certified audio performance. (No pun intended.) Let’s look at how the various advanced audio technologies come together in the Mako speakers to make them a serious contender for the top spot on audio-loving PC enthusiasts’ lists.

The first thing the Razer Mako speakers confront you with is their styling, which I’ve already described as ‘otherworldly.’ Their physical forms resemble upturned Japanese rice bowls, and a large overturned mixing bowl. They’re surprisingly compact, but weighty – there’s no danger of these pods sliding around on your desktop or floor. While the original Mako speakers displayed at the 2007 CES featured prominent blue-LED illumination in the top of the satellite speakers, that design feature was (thankfully) dropped in favor of a much more subtle (and far less garish) silkscreened Razer logo on top of each speaker. No, Razer, you do not need to put a blue LED in everything.

Bass – we all crave it, even the most uptight audiophiles among us. And if the Razer/THX Mako system falls flat in the bass department, most ordinary listeners will likely dismiss the system out-of-hand. Making sure that doesn’t happen is one of the beefiest subwoofers I’ve seen in a PC audio system. Though its enclosure is plastic, this sub is heavy, suggestive of a monstrous magnet on the woofer driver (though the review sample had to be returned, so I didn’t take the liberty of disassembly.) Amplification circuitry for all speakers is built into the bottom of the sub, instead of being located inside the woofer’s air chamber.

The Razer Mako’s subwoofer is anchored by a beastly bass driver with a polypropylene cone, a 3/4″-thick rubber half-roll surround, and a sturdy stamped frame. It’s cinched tightly into a sealed pressure vessel, which is uncommon in PC speaker systems. This sub is capable of moving quite a bit of air, mechanically speaking. In the past, bass-reflex subwoofers have been the norm, using a mass of air suspended in the port and bouncing on the internal air volume of the box to augment low-frequency output. However, if there’s information in the audio signal that’s deeper than the enclosure’s tuning frequency, the woofer will sometimes unload and ‘bottom out’, as its voice coil bumps up against the back of the magnetic structure.

The Razer Mako’s subwoofer takes a different approach, using a small sealed enclosure and DSP processing to force the woofer driver to provide deep bass extension from the small enclosure by boosting the amplifier drive level at a rate that compensates for the sealed box’s natural ‘rolloff’ at the low end of its response curve. This design won’t run into overexcursion issues at low frequencies, but you won’t be left wondering where the beef is. Check out the testing section to see what I thought of this sub. Go on, peek ahead; I won’t tell anyone.

The satellite speakers of the Mako system are where the THX-developed Ground Plane and Slot Speaker technologies come into play. The satellite speakers look like overturned bowls, with annular openings around their bases for the “midbass drivers” (which reproduce both midrange and upper bass information) and a slimmer opening on the front of the satellite (beneath the THX logo) which hides the tweeter. Also inside each speaker, mounted on the bottom of the midrange’s “ground plane” waveguide, is a passive crossover network that divides midrange and lower frequencies to the 3″ poly-cone, ceramic-magnet midbass driver, and treble frequencies to the “slot speaker” tweeter.

The purpose of the Razer Mako’s THX-developed “Ground Plane” technology is to eliminate a phenomenon called “desk bounce”. Speaker drivers radiate directionally at some frequencies, but some sound still radiates at angles up to 45 degrees off-axis and beyond, particularly in the case of ‘dome’ tweeters, which employ a rounded diaphragm that’s extremely rigid, and also achieves broad spherical dispersion by virtue of its small size. When a loudspeaker with a high level of off-axis radiation is placed just above a flat surface such as a desk, this extraneous sound radiation can bounce off the desk’s surface and be reflected toward the listener’s ears, smearing detail because of the multiple arrivals of direct and reflected sound.

Ground Plane technology causes all the acoustic energy to radiate from the plane of the desk itself, so it can’t be reflected off the desk. In order to accomplish this, it’s necessary to bring the tweeter down to the desk’s level as well, so the THX engineering crew devised “Slot Speaker” technology to load the tweeter to a slot-shaped waveguide whose height is still smaller than the wavelengths of treble frequencies. This prevents treble energy from being reflected inside the waveguide itself, which would impair detail. Instead, as the treble wavefronts reach the end of the waveguide, they diffract off the upper edge of the waveguide and radiate upward toward the listener’s ears.

The tweeter driver itself is placed slightly forward of the midrange driver’s voice coil, and the slot speaker aperture only radiates through about 120 degrees horizontally, so while it’s not a true omnidirectional treble radiator, the Mako speakers still achieve exceptionally broad dispersion, and produce an incredibly wide ‘sweet spot’. More on this effect, and the combined effect of Ground Plane and Slot Speaker technologies later in the ‘listening testing’ section of the review.

Razer’s design prowess is also evident on the Mako system’s control pod. There are no mechanical buttons or knobs here; instead, every bit of user feedback is accomplished through touch-sensitive membranes, much like on a touch-screen monitor. The power status of the system is displayed through the state of the blue LED underneath the Razer logo. The LED glows steadily at full brightness when the system is active, but touching the logo will place the system into standby mode, indicated by a gently throbbing LED. Source selection and one-touch muting is also accomplished similarly by other touch-sensitive regions near the center of the control pod.

A series of blue LEDs around the outside edge of the control pod indicate system volume. At saner volumes, the LEDs are blue, but as levels rise into the realm of the extreme, or even dangerous to your hearing, the LEDs turn red. This is an important visual cue, because the system incorporates automatic limiters that keep the sound clean and unstrained, so you might not realize that you’ve pushed volumes to an unsafe level if you rely on the presence of distortion to clue you in that the sound is ‘loud enough’.

The input panel of the Razer Mako system is clearly labeled, and features both text labels and pictorial guides to make connections easy. From the images, you can tell exactly what’s to be connected to each jack. The speakers connect using flat cables with RJ-45 terminations, though only two of the pins on the RJ-45 connector are active, and the control pod connects using a VGA-style connector. There’s also a master power switch for the system, which really and truly powers down the system. If you can’t tell why the system is silent, and there’s no illumination on the control pod, check here first.

Sidebar: 2.1 – An Analog Odyssey

One thing that’s puzzling about a speaker system that claims to advance the state of the art in sound is this: The Razer Mako 2.1 system only receives input signals in two-channel analog stereo. By contrast, the Logitech Z Cinema system reviewed last month used a completely digital signal chain all the way to the amplifiers via a single USB cable. This USB connection was also capable of handling control signals for the Z Cinema system, which operated as though it were simply an external USB sound card – changing your Windows Volume Control settings on the PC’s monitor caused the Z Cinema’s own display to register the change.

So why are we stuck with analog signal inputs on this more expensive system? For one thing, the analog input of the Mako system can accommodate a broader array of potential sources – everything from plasma televisions to portable music players, a capability that was missed with the Z Cinema system. Also, we aren’t left to wonder about the quality of the digital-to-analog conversion in the speaker system – with the Mako’s analog input, we can choose a high-end sound card, and know that we’ve got high quality upstream components feeding the speakers.

The included cable with the Razer Mako system is flimsy-looking, though, so if you’re really concerned about the effect that signal cabling could be having on your audio experience, you might do well to pick a better-quality cable, or use high-quality RCA-style interconnects to bring signals into the Mako’s Line2 input. I’m not a believer in $8000 audio cables, but for long signal runs, I’ve found that better cables can make a slight difference in signal transmission. Unfortunately, speaker systems with optical or coaxial digital input are still nowhere to be found in the PC audio market.

Now that we’ve given the Razer Mako 2.1 system a thorough once-over, let’s take a look at how it performs sonically, with some focused listening tests.



Listening Tests

Razer’s Mako 2.1-channel speaker system promises to redefine the state of the art in PC sound reproduction – a lofty claim indeed. To accomplish this, Razer enlisted the help of THX Ltd. to elevate the acoustic design of the system with a pair of advanced technologies intended to solve specific problems associated with high-fidelity reproduction on the desktop. However, all the ‘advanced technology’ in the world is little more than a marketing gimmick if it doesn’t produce noticeable improvements in the listening experience.

Methodology and Equipment

To test the Razer Mako speakers, I used all the included cables, and hooked the system up to my ‘Reference’ PC, which represents a modest mid-range machine in terms of computation and graphics performance, but is specially outfitted to be a faultless audio source. Its ASUS Xonar D2 sound card is the cleanest and clearest we’ve ever heard, with plenty of dynamic range, and the highest-quality Burr-Brown DACs and op-amps, placing it in the realm of high-end audio componentry in terms of component quality. Material was available in WMA, FLAC, and CD format, and I listened to a broad variety of program sources while testing the Mako system, though for critical listening, I restricted myself to specific material that I felt would be the best challenge for the Mako system’s capabilities.

The “Ground Plane” speaker design requires that the satellite speakers be placed on a flat surface, so I used a fairly solid desk with a heavy 3/4″ particle-board surface finished in smooth woodgrain vinyl laminate. That’s right – even the surface characteristics come into play with these speakers. Setting them on carpet for some preliminary testing, I noticed that the highs sounded rather muted, so you definitely need a hard, smooth surface to set the satellite speakers on. Placing the subwoofer on carpet, however, produced no ill effects, so you’re good there.

Music Testing

I remember the alternative group EVE 6 well; their runaway hit song “Here’s To The Night” had to have been the official ‘class song’ of every high school graduating class the year it came out. Their music came to my attention again when the recently-reformed group came to play at Purdue University earlier this year. A friend and I picked up tickets and went, and I acquired a newfound respect for the group’s music and attitude, so it’s no surprise that their energetic Horrorscope found its way to the top of my “CDs To Buy” list on short order. It easily found its way into my CD tray for the Mako system testing as well, thanks to its driving bass lines, meaty guitar, emphatic kick drum line, and awesome vocal harmonies.

The first thing I noticed about these speakers was their very lively, spacious midrange. Below a certain frequency, these speakers function as true hemispherical radiators, but even in the upper midrange, the satellite speakers have a toroidal radiation pattern created by the annular “Ground Plane” opening at the base of the satellites. Vocals filled my room, seeming to create a cascading waterfall of sound behind, beside, and even above me.

The midrange isn’t the most liquid that I’ve ever experienced, but it’s far and away the smoothest and richest I’ve heard from a PC speaker. The highs from the “Slot Speaker” aperture seemed to contain a bit of top-end hash that I didn’t hear on my main system’s front-radiating speakers, though both possess metal-dome tweeters. It’s possible that the Slot Speaker aperture is to blame here – whenever a designer chooses to constrain high frequencies to a waveguide, the internal structure must be very carefully optimized to prevent internal reflections. The Mako satellites’ clarity wasn’t necessarily impaired by this – but their treble did seem a bit ‘veiled’, not really ‘real’. To be perfectly honest, I heard smoother, more natural treble from the old Klipsch ProMedia speaker systems, but only by a little. Most listeners aren’t likely to notice this.

That’s the bad news, if you’d even call it that… but there’s still quite a bit of good news when you take a peek under the table at the Mako system’s beefy subwoofer. The sealed, electronically-assisted design produced tight, muscular low end that went every bit as deep as the Logitech Z Cinema’s subwoofer, and deeper still. It held its composure even at uncomfortable listening levels, as waves of bass waffled the legs of my pants with the kick drum hits. On “Here’s To The Night”, the thunderous low end stayed clean, even at higher volumes. The Mako’s bass can be subtle when it needs to be, yet surprise you with its power when you decide to crank things.

To see exactly what the Mako’s subwoofer was capable of, I cued up my quintessential bass test track, Three Six Mafia’s “Late Nite Tip.” This track has plenty of sustained, deep bass tones that make ordinary woofers cry ‘uncle’, so it’s a popular test track among the car audio crowd as well. To put it simply, I was astounded – the bass from this subwoofer really must be heard to be believed. “Late Nite Tip” unleashed a torrent of pant-leg-waffling bass that hung with the track, even down to the lowest notes, and with authority. As I increased the volume, the low end never began to sound strained, though I did notice that it gradually began to duck out of the way.

So the Mako’s sub still has some limit to its performance, but unless you’re a hip-hop bass freak, you’re unlikely to ever find it. To determine just how deep the Mako’s subwoofer could reach, I popped in my Bassmekanik Faster, Harder, Louder bass test CD, and began stepping through the sine wave tracks at the end of the disc. I found that I didn’t begin hearing meaningful in-room output until 35 Hz, so the 25 Hz specification for this sub seems a bit optimistic.

To try the Mako speakers with an entirely different kind of music, with more acoustic instrumentation, I put in a CD I hadn’t listened to in quite some time, Steven Curtis Chapman’s All About Love. The Mako speakers remained incredibly clean and composed even through complex passages, and I was once again captivated by their smooth midrange and expansive soundstage. These speakers don’t produce a stereo ‘image’ that’s particularly precise, but instead produce sound that engages the room, and creates a sense that you’re in the middle of a sonic environment. The bass could lose impact and ‘slam’ at extremely high volumes, as the limiters began to kick in, but this was already at extremely loud levels that I’d never subject myself to for more than a few minutes at a time.

Gaming

Razer targets their high-end input devices chiefly toward gamers, so I pulled up BioShock to give the Mako speakers a gaming workout, to see if their Razer pedigree would show up in a gaming situation.

In testing the Mako speakers, I played through the “Medical Center” level of BioShock, and loved the way that the broad omnidirectional dispersion of the Mako speakers complemented the cavernous, echo-filled virtual spaces of the game itself – yet the apparent sense of spaciousness seemed to naturally collapse down as I entered smaller, less-reverberant rooms. I still had the ASUS Xonar D2 sound card’s DS3D GX 2.0 extensions enabled (from my earlier article comparing DS3D GX 2.0 to Creative’s EAX 5.0), so the more realistic reverberant effects contributed by the DSP extensions were clearly audible through the Mako speakers in all their fullness. Explosions were delivered powerfully and impactfully by the subwoofer, and the general sense of ambiance contributed by the subwoofer’s deep-bass output heightened the experience.

Movies

I’d recently picked up Tears of the Sun starring Bruce Willis, so I popped the DVD in to see how the Mako speakers would handle this DVD’s rich soundscape. I found that the Mako speakers were adept at calling out details like the rustle of leaves and the crunch of vegetation and gravel underfoot, as well as delivering the “thump, thump, thump” of helicopter blades whirling through the air. Voices, of course, were delivered naturally and richly, and the few large explosions in the film were also delivered with steel-fisted authority, and without any audible complaint.

When it comes to impactful, high-energy movie playback, the Mako speakers certainly have what it takes, and Tears Of The Sun provided enough sonic challenges to effectively showcase the realism with which the Makos were able to paint the sonic landscapes of the African jungle. While the Mako speakers don’t deliver true surround sound, their omnidirectional dispersion allows them to cast a diffuse sound field, heightening the sense of spaciousness with movie sound effects.

Controls

The fingertip controls are slick as snot – though I found them a little reluctant to respond to true fingertip control at first. Using the entire pad of my finger elicited better response from the touch controls. Also, the sensitive part of the touch control pad isn’t directly on top of the illuminated volume bars, but just inside it. So if you’re wondering why the volume control doesn’t seem to be responding when you drag your finger along its path, that’s why. A small tag will be included with the retail product to inform users of this minor detail.

In my critical listening and usage testing of the Razer Mako 2.1 system, I discovered that there’s plenty for audiophiles of all stripes to get excited about, whether your thing is music, gaming, or desktop theater. Next, we’ll wrap things up with my final thoughts.



Final Thoughts

When Worlds Collide

The worlds of Robert “Razerguy” Krakoff and Laurie Fincham of THX are completely different, but in many ways the same. Both are considered innovators of the highest caliber in their respective fields, and the Razer/THX Mako exhibits elements of both Fincham’s ear for audio subtlety, and Krakoff’s passion for tactile bliss and exotic design.

The idea of worlds colliding to form the Razer/THX Mako seems especially fitting, considering the speakers themselves look more like something you’d expect to see smoldering in a crater behind your house than sitting on your desk, making beautiful music. Their otherworldly design packs a ton of performance into their teacup-sized satellites and mixing-bowl-sized subwoofer – so much so that you might be inclined to wonder if the compact system makes use of alien technology to deliver its incredible performance.

Will the Mako speakers be replacing your high-end stereo main speakers anytime soon? If you spent more than $600 on them, probably not, but the Mako system definitely heightens the threshold of what I’d expect from satellites this small, and a subwoofer this compact.

The main benefit of the Mako system is exactly how much performance it manages to pack into those teacup-sized satellite speakers. The sound from the satellite speakers was certainly above average for their size, and more than competitive with other THX-certified PC speaker systems like Logitech’s. The subwoofer of the Mako system also impressed with its punchy, powerful lows – it’s definitely a show-stealer when the recording has deep bass content as well. Of the well-known brands of PC speakers that you’re likely to find at a retail store, Razer’s Mako system is certainly the most impressive, but at just under $400, it’s among the most expensive as well.

For that $400, though, you get a system that’s competitive with high-end home theater loudspeakers, and that’s small enough to fit on your desk as well, with full-range performance that extends with authority into the deep bass range, something that many two-way monitor speakers like the Audioengine 5 can’t boast, though they may be capable of more resolution in the treble range.

In the end, I’m thoroughly won over by the Razer/THX Mako system, and I’m pleased to award it a Techgage score of 9/10 – for a PC-based 2.1-channel speaker system, you just can’t do any better with what’s currently out there, though there were a couple areas I’d like to see improved upon before they’ll merit a 10/10 score.

They also earn my “Editor’s Choice” recommendation. The Mako speakers offer the complete package – svelte styling, stunning sound, and responsive tactile controls. I’m deeply saddened that I had to give the Makos up, and I battled internally with the decision to send them back at the end of the two-week trial period. Maybe I could make up some excuse… I had to hold onto them a bit longer for… more testing! Yeah, that’s it.

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