As more and more PCs become part of the house as a media device or just in the lounge as we all become savvy with the ways of the information superhighway, then manufacturers have expended great energies in making the old beige box fit in with the modern entertainment systems.
Something that really started with Apple, and quickly found its way to PCs was to make the case less beige, smaller, to make every component seem sleek and modern to enable it to blend in. First was the case, then mice, keyboards, speakers and the whole range of components have found themselves tailored to the "piano black" lifestyle we all embrace.
A great thing to come from this is much quieter PCs, and small often equals popular. A look at the many gadgets you have, mobile phones or MP3 devices in particular, and you see how size reduction has become an unending quest.
One area that has suffered though is sound. Whilst initially the move from generic satellite speakers into curvaceous small items helped the transition from the office to the family room, once PCs became a major part of the media centres they weren't adjusted to cope with the fact that they do more than play Freecell, but stream movies and a variety of other tasks. So you end up with tinny, quiet, small-range speakers attempting to handle the latest blockbuster.
Arctic Sound, part of the Arctic brand that brings us the excellent Arctic Cooling products, are here to try and solve this problem with a proper set of speakers. Let's find out if bigger still does equal better.
Popping across to the Arctic website we find the specifications for the S361.
|Limited Warranty||2 years|
|Dimensions (Packaging)||380 L x 355 H x 400 W|
|Subwoofer Dimensions (mm)||200 L x 335 H x 300 W|
|Satellite Dimensions (mm)||115 L x 273 H x 150 W|
|Subwoofer Impedance (ohm)||4|
|Satellite Impedance (ohm)||8|
|Subwoofer Output (W RMS)||40|
|Satellite Output (W RMS)||18|
As you can see with about a foot of height these definitely aren't going to slide under your monitor and when we see 18w quoted for speaker output it's something rubbish like PMPO usually. This is RMS. These will be LOUD!
Let's take a look at them.
This certainly isn't the kind of package you could slip into the house under your jacket. It's a beast. Once the seal is broken we can see everything is packed very well indeed.
Sturdy corrugated cardboard encloses three layers of polystyrene keeping everything tightly packed and well protected.
Once out of the box your initial impression is how hefty the bass box is. It must take up three-quarters of the total weight of the package. Of course some of that will be the power circuitry but still there are obviously some quality sub-woofers in here.
The satellites are gorgeous to look at being finished in high gloss black with very silver speakers. Although the layout might be similar to other tall PC speaker setups, clearly as these are a foot tall and 6 inches wide you know the quality of the speakers will surpass that you might be used to.
Connectivity is thankfully simple. As these are a 2.1 set you have either twin-phono to 3.5mm jack or phono to phono options. This greatly enhances the usability as you're not limited to just plugging them into your sound-card but could use them in the television or your MP3 player if desired. We'll take a look at the line controller in a moment.
Even the satellites have a port on them, should you desire even more bass than you get from the sub-woofer alone. There is plenty of cable supplied too giving you lots of positional options for both the speakers and the sub-woofer.
The line controller is the main control for the speakers. All of the buttons do exactly what you'd expect them to do. It's nice to have a very obvious mute button. Anyone who has spent a frantic few seconds groping for a tiny button will appreciate something so easy to find.
Volume control is dealt with by an endlessly turning dial. The quality of this is exceptional. It's up there with some of the most expensive hi-fi systems I have ever handled. It's got great weight, a soft notchy feel to it and all around is just an extremely high-end bit of kit. Below the volume is a LED which glows blue when the system is on and, irritatingly, pulses blue when it's in standby.
One small thing we have to mention is you may have noticed in the photo of the sub-woofer above a small gap in the top of the case. Sure enough whoever packed this must have clonked it on the side of the table and just stuck it in anyway as their is no way it could have been damaged in the packaging, which showed no sign of damage. It did mean that the whole bass unit rattled quite a bit and taking the front off we discovered that the glue hadn't taken too kindly and broken off into small bits.
In no way does this affect the performance of the unit. It's entirely cosmetic, albeit slightly disappointing. And yes the smiley face on that bit of glue is exactly how it is and un-edited.
Seems like the perfect moment to plug them in and see what we have.
Testing and Conclusion
Testing speakers is one of the simpler tasks as it just involves plugging them in to a variety of sources and rocking out.
The difference that the Arctic Sound S361 make over a regular set of desktop speakers is instantly and jaw-droppingly apparent. Having much larger speakers enables the audio to be reproduced over a much greater range than you get from the speakers that are built down to a aesthetically pleasing size.
Huge response range is definitely the key. Rather than everything being compressed into the middle frequency range, having different sized speakers, with different responsibilities, allows whatever you're listening to to be freed from the normal constraints. Instead of sounding muddy or tightly packed, it has room to breathe.
The mid-range, vocals, speech and the like, has enormous clarity. You can certainly hear many things which are hidden in a less capable set of speakers, but also you have such a breadth of detail in the elements you've normally been able to hear. Subtle nuances become apparent that are otherwise hidden.
If you're a fan of Motown you'll be pleased that the high-end, although naturally not as dominant, isn't overlooked either. The sound is never tinny, but rather one of clarity. You start becoming aware that normally you're straining to hear everything, whereas with the Arctic Sound S361 listening is a relaxed and joyful experience.
Finally we have the twin-speaker, ported, sub-woofer. As one would expect this delivers unholy levels of bass for a unit this size. Bass has become one of those things that gets mentioned a lot in the blurb of any new audio item. How often have you read about headphones or speakers and all the advertising mentions the excellent bass, and all the queries from potential purchasers is "what about the bass?". Sadly this often leads to audio reproduction that is more muddy than bassy. Removing the middle and high frequencies doesn't count as improving the bass. Anyone knows that bass should be tight and crisp, not muddy and watered down. That absolutely is handled by the S361s, giving more bass than you could reasonably need yet without losing clarity in the rest of the audio spectrum.
The remote unit is of particularly high quality, being very well put together and having a quality 'heft' to it that belies the price-tag. The buttons for adjusting the treble and bass are responsive, as are those for muting the unit, as well as putting it into standby. The volume knob deserves special praise for being one of the finest we've ever come across and a tactile joy to use.
About the only criticisms we can level at the S361 are firstly, the crack in the sub-woofer and bits of glue that broke off therein. Whilst this doesn't effect the performance, and with sub-woofers normally out of the way it's not even something you notice, nonetheless we'd have been very disappointed to get it home and find this. Of course this is a one off, and not indicative of the excellent Arctic products, but I'd be remiss not to mention it.
Secondly the blue LED that is constant when the unit is on, is slightly off-putting. You need the volume controls to hand, so you're aware of it, and if you do choose to watch a film, you don't really need a bright blue light glowing away. This is a small issue compared to it's blinking when in standby. My word that is SO annoying. Why on earth is it blinking? It's nice to know the unit is in standby, but as I haven't got Alzheimer's yet I haven't forgotten whether my speakers are plugged in or not. Blinking every five seconds doesn't help.
However, these are very small issues in an otherwise exceptional unit. They might not be the most subtle speakers to ever appear on your desk, or beneath your TV, but the measure of speakers is always in the happiness they bring to your ears rather than your eyes, and the S361 make my ears very happy indeed. Available for around sixty quid, they'll make your wallet happy too.
In the quest for image quality, audio can sometimes be left behind. Treat your ears too and remind yourself that quality audio can be just as smile-inducing. Couple this with the fact they only cost around £60 and you are on to a winner, taking everything into consideration I'm delighted to award the Arctic Sound S361 our Gold Award.
Thanks to Arctic for providing the S361 for review. Discuss in our forums.