Certain instruments, including piano, flute, and guitar, also fare better than I expected. When I play simple recordings with just vocal and guitar - such as some of the quieter moments from James Taylor's Live at the Beacon Theatre DVD and Bebel Gilberto's eponymous CD, it's not immediately apparent that I'm hearing the least expensive speakers you can buy at the world's most notoriously low-rent retailer. The instruments that lose the battle are mostly the higher-pitched ones, like cymbals and cabasa; the SXXSW6000 smears them at best and nearly obliterates them at worst.
The tiny satellites fail, though, when they try to reproduce anything with a sharp attack, such as drums, explosions, or gunshots. The little drivers just aren't capable of delivering any impact. A deep Pearl snare drum suddenly sounds like something purchased at Toys R Us. Car crashes sound like someone whacking the bottom of a disposable aluminum roasting pan. (I'm not exaggerating - that's pretty much what they sound like.) Gunshots sound like that same roasting pan being perforated by a Daisy Red Ryder.
The satellites' racetrack drivers can't disperse the treble anywhere near as broadly as a real tweeter can; at higher frequencies, they're extremely directional and focused. As a result, they don't produce an enveloping sound in stereo - nor are they very enveloping when you turn on the surround sound. The surround speakers blare into your ears, making their presence audibly obvious.
Rising above its brothers, the subwoofer surprised me with its competence. It can't muster much output, so it never gives that kick-ass sound you always hope for. But it does sound pleasingly tuneful. When I played Steely Dan's Aja, the little sub sang the grooving, studio-slick bass line with surprising gusto, even though the sound from the satellites reminded me of the system on which I first heard this tune: my mid-'70s Sears portable 8-track player.
There's no question that offering six functional speakers for $50 is an impressive feat. When you consider that the speakers look nice, JVC's accomplishment seems nearly miraculous. The critics on Amazon.com agree; most of them seem satisfied with the SXXSW6000 despite their acknowledgement of its faults. And if you ask me to cite something better for $50 - or even $100 - I draw a blank.
Indeed, it seems snobby to criticize this system; it's as easy a target as a Paris Hilton CD or a McDonald's hamburger. But just as I wouldn't hesitate to spend $35 for a decent bottle of single-malt rather than $12 for a mass-market blended scotch, I'd rather spend $300 or so for a more competent surround-sound speaker system than $50 for the SXXSW6000.
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