Rock the Room with Altec Lansing's FX6021 Speakers

I f you think the aural experts at Altec Lansing only make portable speakers for the iPod, youire forgiven: the companyis marketing efforts mention little else. Such speakers donit really interest us -- weid sooner use an iPod with a decent set of headphones.

Altec Lansing FX6021

Altec Lansingis FX6021 speaker system.

In reality, though, portable speakers are not Altec Lansingis -- to borrow a phrase from business school students -- core competency. The firm is a great sound system maker, a fact supported by their flagship 2.1 package, the FX6021. We set out to see if this US$299.95 ($229.94 from Amazon) system was really worth its price tag, and weire happy to say it delivers with high marks in all respects: practicality, technology, and (most importantly) fidelity.

(For the uninitiated, a 2.1 sound system has a subwoofer for powerful delivery of bass frequencies, and two satellite speakers which create and direct the mid-to-high frequencies.)

The FX6021 is, first and foremost, a practical set of computer speakers. The cables are color-coded for easy setup. The satellite speakers each come with an extension cord. An external speaker-controller and remote is included, so that without touching your computer you can power the speakers on and off, adjust volume, and tweak the relative volumes of the subwoofer and satellites. The controller box also has a headphone jack and an auxiliary input, making it easy to pump out the music on a visitoris iPod without fumbling for cables behind your computer.

Even better, the back of the subwoofer sports an extra set of standard RCA input jacks, so you can send the sound from just about anything -- a TV, a game console, a retrofitted Victrola -- through the speakers. The only feature we miss is a way to toggle among the primary, RCA, and auxiliary inputs. (As it is, the three inputs layer one on top of the other, so that youid have to mute two of the devices to listen to any one by itself.)

This system does nothing to reduce cable clutter, but thatis par for the course with audio equipment. To preserve both versatility and fidelity, each satellite has its own shielded cable. If you use the 1/8-inch headphone jack on your computer, though, youill be sending an unshielded signal anyway, so really picky ears might find fault with the sound -- or a nearby radio tower might wreak real havoc. Either way, you could use the better-shielded RCA jacks if this is an issue for you.

The FX6021 is a great stereo system -- and with GarageBand, it also makes a great amp.

Okay, so theyire practical, but how do they sound? That all depends on what youire used to listening to. For those that listen to music primarily in the car, where music usually sounds thick and close, these speakers will sound startlingly crisp, but the sound may feel more remote. For those used to the ultra-clear sound of digital speakers -- the kind you plug into a USB port, like Harman/Kardonis SoundSticks -- these speakers will sound much warmer and richer. The FX6021 strikes a good balance between clarity and richness, though they are neither as warm nor as rich as most higher-end (above $600) speakers. The bass response is punchy and full without being intrusive; the high-end response on a drummeris ride or an audienceis applause has good depth and great resolution.

In-Concert Technology

Even 50 feet away the sound remains clear, with little volume drop-off.

The FX6021 also sports Altec Lansingis trademarked "In-Concert Technology." The theory goes that by cleverly placing and aiming the six transducers inside each satellite speaker, the whole system can paint a space with an even coat of sound. (The inspiration comes from the distribution of speakers on a concert stadium stage.) Now, many of us who often buy consumer electronics have come to expect "technologies" to be little more than marketing gimmicks. Fortunately, however, Altec Lansing has delivered the goods.

Once we had the FX6021 properly set up and aimed, we walked from end to end of the first floor of our test house -- nearly 50 feet -- and heard virtually no volume drop-off. More importantly, the sound remained wonderfully clear at all distances. The success of this in-concert technology makes the FX6021 great for entertaining guests: It pumps music into the entire first floor of my house without making unpleasantly loud the room where my speakers sit.

It is an ancillary result of the in-concert design that the speakers are deceptively loud, because the total sonic energy is distributed so well to different distances. Trap that sound in a small, acoustically active room, though, and youill find the increased energy density makes for quite a din. If youire just looking to fill a small room, these speakers are definitely overkill.

Two quibbles

We have just two quibbles. First, the remote control, while convenient, uses a tacky, unreliable button technology we find irritating. While we know the infrared technology used in the remote is industry standard, the slicker solution uses radio frequencies, which do not require line-of-site between the remote and the controller box. The remote is also small enough that it could get easily lost, and we would have appreciated a paging feature like the kind used on most cordless telephones.

More importantly, anyone who nominally listens to music at very low volume will sooner or later notice that the subwoofer puts out a very, very low volume buzz at 60 Hz (thatis about the B-flat just over an octave below middle-C) due to the ever-present 60 Hz signal that supplies electrical power in the US. (Itis 50 Hz in most places overseas.) Even though most people will never notice this sound -- itis common on consumer-level speakers -- it also isnit that hard to filter away, and Altec Lansing should have just spent the money to stamp it out. The same is true of a very, very quiet white noise in the satellite speakers.

These complaints, though, are minor ones, and this 2.1 sound system is as good as weive seen at combining great sound with total practicality. Three hundred bucks ($229.94 from Amazon) may sound steep for a set of computer speakers, but in sonic clarity, depth, and warmth, and in producing a truly useful feature with "In-Concert Technology," Altec Lansing has easily justified the FX6021is price tag.

Product: FX6021 Stereo Speaker System

Company: Altec Lansing

List Price: 299.95

Vendor Price: 229.94

Works with any audio-producing device.

Pros: An eminently practical and well-designed speaker system with clear, rich, and well-distributed sound.
Cons: Remote could be better; not ideal for small spaces or listeners who prefer their music quiet. These cons are minor, however, and are more than made up for by the pros.