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Review: Get loud with Cerwin-Vega's surround speaker system

Story Highlights

• Impressive sound quality at a relatively modest price
• Features five speakers, each with six woofers and one tweeter
• Has a 12-inch, 250-watt powered subwoofer
• System lacks table stands
By Steve Guttenberg
CNET.com
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(CNET.comexternal link) -- In the 1970s, Cerwin-Vega was a big name in the speaker business, but it fell off the radar a while back.

It never really went away but instead focused on building speakers for car audio, clubs, and movie theaters.

The company's biggest coup in the latter venue was its development of Sensurround speaker technology with Universal Studios, which used special Cerwin-Vega subwoofers to supply ultra deep bass for Sensurround-encoded movies such as "Earthquake" and "Midway."

The new CVHD 5.1 (Cerwin-Vega High Definition) series marks the brand's return to the consumer market, and -- thanks to its combination of impressive sound quality and relatively modest price -- it looks and sounds like a winner.

Cerwin-Vega's engineers insisted the new system had to have five identical satellite speakers to guarantee seamless surround imaging. And each of those speakers sports a whopping seven drivers -- six woofers and one tweeter -- a safety-in-numbers strategy that ensures the speaker can handle power and deliver full home theater dynamics while maintaining low distortion.

The CVHD 5.1's seriously potent 12-inch subwoofer supplies the motivation to rock your world. Best of all, the CVHD 5.1 is equally adept with home theater and music, a rare feat for flat-screen-friendly speaker packages, especially one as affordable as the CVHD 5.1.

Our only real complaint is that there's a hidden charge for anyone who's not mounting the speakers on the ceiling or the wall: you'll need to invest an additional $280 to $435 in floor stands for five satellite speakers, above and beyond the set's $1,000 list price. Thankfully, the fact that the speakers can be found online for hundreds less takes out a bit of the sting.

Design

The Cerwin-Vega CVHD 5.1 is a six-piece satellite/subwoofer system. Each of the five identical satellite speakers (CVHD 63) measures 22.5 inches high by 5 inches wide by 5 inches deep--far smaller than full-size bookshelf or tower speakers, but a tad bigger and bulkier than some competing svelte flat-screen models, but attractive enough.

The speaker's front surface has a thin silver plastic frame and nonremovable black cloth grille, and the cabinet is made of molded black plastic. The speakers come with metal wall-mount brackets, or you can opt for OmniMount wall/ceiling mounts.

Adjustable floor stands with wire management to hide speaker cables are sold separately, and they're not too expensive -- the CVHD-FST (for the front and back lefts and rights) list for $180 per pair (but can be found for as little as $110 online) and CVHD-CS (for the center channel, which sits horizontally) goes for $75 or less. Wall or ceiling mounts or floor stands are your only choices -- the satellite's curved ends prevent it from standing on its own, and Cerwin-Vega doesn't offer a table stand. That means you're either mounting these speakers or investing up to $435 for floor stands.

The 17.75-inch-high-by-16.75-inch-wide-by-16.5-inch-deep subwoofer sure looks like it means business, but its textured black paint and black cloth grille won't win any beauty contests. Pop off the cloth grille and you can ogle the red-ringed 12-inch woofer and Cerwin-Vega logo--the sight will quicken the pulse of any audiophile old enough to remember the brand's glory days in the 1970s, but the color may be too flashy for more subdued tastes. The sub is built like a tank and weighs 48.5 pounds.

Cerwin-Vega recommends an unusually high subwoofer-to-satellite crossover setting of 150 hertz, and that's what we used for most of our listening tests. But many receivers' bass management systems come with fixed crossovers, set to 80 or 100 Hz, so we also listened that way and didn't hear much difference in the sound. If you can dial in the 150 Hz setting, go for it--otherwise don't sweat it.

Features

The five satellite speakers are two-way designs employing six 3-inch cellulose/composite woofers and a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter. The satellites are extremely efficient (95 dB) -- that's a good thing, because they can play really loud with low power receivers (maximum power handling is rated at 125 watts continuous). Instead of the typical plastic-spring clip connectors, the speakers boast heavy-duty five-way binding posts--they accept banana plugs, spades, or bare wire ends.

The powered (250 watt) subwoofer features a front firing 12-inch woofer and two ports. The rear panel has volume and variable crossover (50 to 150 hertz) control, a pair of RCA inputs, a separate "LFE" input, and a 0/180 degree phase switch.

If you like the look and sound of the CVHD system but don't need the full surround treatment, Cerwin-Vega also offers a stereo (plus subwoofer) version of the system, the CVHD 2.1. It retails for $700.

Performance

Back in the 1960s, car guys used to say, "There's no substitute for cubic inches." Big engines made more power and torque than little ones, and that holds true today for large subwoofers. A 12-inch woofer in a big cabinet can generate a lot more room-filling low frequencies than any 6- or 8-inch sub. Cerwin-Vega's 12-inch beast can fill even fairly large rooms with very deep bass.

Big bass wouldn't mean much if the satellites didn't keep pace with the muscular subwoofer. No problem there -- the sats were unusually alive and dynamic. The combination of the two mimicked the sound of a much larger system with tower speakers.

Since the surround speakers are exactly the same as the front speakers, the CVHD 5.1 system was capable of producing front-to-rear, wraparound soundfields.

The center channel speaker's talents reproducing dialog were also above par. The spatial coherency on well-recorded DVDs -- such as our favorite, "House of Flying Daggers" -- was obvious in the smoothness of the sounds as they moved from speaker to speaker. That said, we could localize the surround channel speakers' positions, more than we could from true dipole/bipole speakers such as Aperion's Intimus 534-SS; those speakers go for $245 each, and are utilized in systems such as the Aperion Intimus 533-PT Cinema HD. But dipole/bipole speakers are relatively expensive, so we really can't fault the CVHD 5.1 as a $1,000 system.

On CDs, the CVHD 5.1's sound emphasized every recording's detail, and yet treble was very natural. You can hear an acoustic guitarist's fingers sliding over the strings and a drummer's most delicate tap on the cymbals. Most packaged 5.1 channel systems sound undernourished and bass-shy in stereo, but again, the CVHD 5.1 broke that stereotype. It was almost as satisfying in two-channel as it was in surround.

Live concert DVDs from Cream and My Morning Jacket sounded especially good. In fact, the CVHD 5.1 sounded better and better as we cranked the volume, which is a sure sign the CVHD 5.1 has very low distortion and the sats and sub are well matched. Hey, Cerwin-Vega is known as "the LOUD speaker company," and that's no hype.

The drums, in particular, came off well, with the sort of impact and power that's rare in $1,000 sat/sub systems. Acoustic jazz on the One Night With Blue Note DVD was just as mush fun, the vivid clarity of Herbie Hancock's piano and Freddie Hubbard's trumpet added to the music's excitement. The sub's control over the bass was decent, but it could have been a little tighter and better defined. Then again, we were pleasantly surprised how well it integrated with the satellites, but the CVHD 5.1's blend wasn't perfect.

There were a few times where the bass sounded a little thin, but even so, the sat/sub blend was well above average. To prove that point we did try substituting a different subwoofer -- the 10-inch model that comes with the Onkyo HT-SR800 home-theater-in-a-box system. It didn't come close to matching the Cerwin-Vega satellites; the CVHD 5.1 is, indeed, a finely tuned system.

In the final analysis, the Cerwin-Vega CVHD 5.1 system represents a great bang for the buck -- but it would be an even better one if you weren't stuck with having to buy those floor stands.

We'd love to see the company charge a bit more (say, $1,200 instead of $1,000) and include table stands with the speakers. In their current configuration, though, they're still highly recommendable -- especially for anyone who listens to a good balance of music and movies and has an appreciation of deep bass.


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