Q acoustics 3010i 5.1 Cinema pack

Just like soundbars, satellite speakers often get frowned upon by the audiophiles and AV enthousiasts. The problem they are referring to is the limited mid and lower range they are typically able to provide because of the small speaker cabinets.

But satellite speakers do have a place in certain situations. We highly recommend them as a first step in the process of building full blown home theatre set-up without compromise. What’s more, sound quality has improved a lot over the years. And we haven’t even started talking about some of the cool designs out there.

The trick is to know what to look out for and you may be very pleasantly surprised about what some of these little satellite speakers are capable of.


What are Satellite Speakers?


Satellite speakers typically have the smallest cabinets of any speaker powered by an AV receiver. It is their size that makes them attractive because they offer great flexibility to play many roles in a home theatre, but at the same time, their small size also defines their biggest challenge. Soundbars are the biggest competitors of satellite speaker packages, but when chosen well, satellite speakers can be a much smarter investment for the future.

Part of the bad rap that seems to follow satellite speakers is a past presumption by manufacturers that someone who’s buying satellite speakers doesn’t care as much about sound quality or an immersive audio experience as someone who’s considering bookshelf or tower speakers. Too often they haven't been built with the same attention to detail or specifications. But that is no longer a general rule. While that is certainly still the case for some brands, some other speaker brands have understood the market potential and the needs of the budding home theatre lover and audiophile and are using ever progressing engineering skills to design that high quality satellite speaker set. 

Because of their small size, the biggest challenge in satellite speaker design lies in the mid to low ranges, which is why it is important to let a subwoofer take care of that part of the job. But here is a word of caution:  even with an added subwoofer, satellites and a subwoofer don’t necessarilly blend well. The potential issue is that the speaker’s lowest frequency response range does not match up with the subwoofer’s upper range by default. Also a separate subwoofer, should really not go much higher than 80Hz if it is to remain “hidden” in the room and play those low frequencies without turning heads. A subwoofer is simply not made to play these frequencies.

That’s why it is a good idea to ensure that the subwoofer and the satellites are designed to work with each other if you are going to go down the road of satellite speakers, a 5.1 (or 2.1 or 7.1) package. If satellite speakers are your option of choice, it is wise to choose a package that includes a subwoofer, so you are certain that the entire range is covered.  

It is fair to say that satellite speakers come in many different shapes.  What probably is of most interest to you is that the sound and build quality can vary greatly from speaker to speaker. How do you differentiate a good satellite speaker (package) from a bad one? 

Luckily you don’t have to put up with bad sound if you want satellite speakers. Just understanding a few key factors will help you find some great sounding satellite speakers with amazing dynamics and sound quality that also offer tremendous range, looks and flexibility. 


Best Uses for Satellite Speakers


The main attraction of satellite speakers lies in the fact that they are compact and extremely décor friendly. Unlike towers, they are wall and ceiling mountable and on condition that you choose carefully, they can be a big improvement on your laptop speakers, portable speakers, television speakers or even a sound bar. Very often their strength lies in their flexibility and the compromise they offer between improved sound quality and appeal to the eye.

They obviously work really well for creating immersive surround sound in small to medium sized rooms, often in a 2.1 or 5.1 arrangement.

But don’t get stuck in limited thinking when it comes to satellite speakers. They can also be used as side or rear surround sound speakers in a larger system that uses tower or bookshelf speakers as the mains.

And they aren’t just limited to multi-channel use. Satellite speakers also work great as part of a desktop system and pair well with turntables, PCs, gaming consoles and other nearfield listening experiences, especially given their compact stature.


What to Look for in a Satellite Speaker


As we mentioned before, the key lies in choosing carefully, maybe even more than with a bookshelf or tower speaker.

To start with, although weight isn’t everything, a light satellite speaker with flimsy plastic cabinet and cheap paper drivers will definitely not create an impressive immersive experience. Satellite speakers should “feel” heavier than they look and pass the knock test without any unwanted resonances.

From a sound quality perspective, they should produce a full, neutral and balanced sound with thrilling dynamics that make you believe the sound is coming from a much bigger speaker. The neutrality should also allow them to seamlessly blend with other speakers as a surround, height effects and/or other home theatre speaker. The best satellite speakers don’t call attention to themselves, but rather become invisible as the listener is immersed in convincing and highly impactful sound. 

Since their size prohibits satellite speakers from producing truly deep bass, it’s important to listen for a dynamic and detailed mid-range, where 80% of musical content occurs, as well as sparkling high frequencies which let you know it was built with a high-performance tweeter.

These days it is possible to find satellite speakers where the enclosures are extremely deceptive and the all-important midrange detail is completely intact. As we explained earlier, midrange is what typically suffers on satellite speakers, along with mid-bass. New techniques in porting speakers and utilizing the properties of concentric and other 2-way systems is leading to greater output and a more linear frequency response. Hurray!


Our Favourites 


Based on your feedback, most people appreciate our recommendations. We listed our favourite 5.1 satellite speaker packages that prove that satellite speakers don’t necessarily mean poor performance. Although these are ‘packages’, some of the brands also offer the option of separate speaker purchase. Also, note that the options don't stop with these packages or brands. We have many more options for all budgets under our Home theatre speaker packages section.


SVS Prime Satellite 5.1: Big on sound

The SVS Prime satellites may not look as fancy as some of the other satellites listed here, but if your budget doesn’t quite reach as far and authoritative full-range sound is you priority in your search for a 5.1 home theatre speaker system that delivers with seamless sub/sat blending, SVS’s Prime Satellite 5.1 is about as good as it gets. What we like is that this package is a great starting point for a high quality ste-up. Start with the statellite speaker package and you can later expand with tower or full bookshelf speakers for the LCR's when your budget allows. The satellite speakers will find their new use as rear speakers and they are perfect for that. 

Veteran reviewer Dan Kumin wrote: “The system as a whole proved capable out of all proportion to either size or price. The SVS suite passed our home theatre test with flying honors.” 


ELAC Cinema 5 home theatre system: tiny speakers, impressive build quality, excellent price

If the tiny Bose home theatre speakers are your cup of tea, you should check out the ELAC cinema 5 5.1 home theatre system. Inside the cinema 5 box is a six-piece surround-sound speaker system engineered to expand your sonic landscape, while taking up so little space you barely know it’s there.

I think it needs to be said that the Rapallo guys were a bit sceptical when it came to quality build of this budget system. But they were very pleasantly surprised when they unboxed the speaker package: the ELAC Cinema 5 system sounds excellent for such tiny speakers and the set-up is easy-peasy. What more would one want? 


Q Acoustics 3010i cinema package: Mr Popular

The Q Acoustics 3010i are extremely popular speakers and for good reason too. The home theatre package compromises of  of 2 pairs Q 3010i speakers , a Q 3060 Subwoofer  and a Q 3090i Centre speaker. The system provides a massive cinema sound from compact cabinets all of which can be wall mounted with optional, dedicated brackets. It doesn't hurt that they are very easy on the eye too. 

LIke the SVS Prime satellites, the Q acoustics 3010i cinema package can be an excellent starting point for a home cinema system that can be expanded at a later stage. A smart investment, is what we say. 


Yamaha MusicCast 50 and 20 speakers: wireless options

If for any reason you have to go wireless, the new Yamaha MusicCast speakers are the way to go. Start with one or two 50's speakers and add a Yamaha  MusicCast SUB 100 subwoofer. At a later stage, the 50's can be used as rears and you can add a pair of full sized LCR speakers for a full blown high quality home theatre. 


Also worth checking out are the Emotiva BasX satellite speakers and the Cambridge Audio Minx Min 22 satellite speakers


The Final Word on Satellite Speakers 


Many people considering a compact, lifestyle-friendly speaker system end up settling for a sound bar because its form factor requires a “path of least resistance” towards what they think is a great audio experience. 

The reality is, high performance 5.1 or 2.1 satellite systems can be had for the same price as a quality sound bar yet offer a much wider variety of options for further expansion in the future and potentially offer a better surround sound experience as well. All without taking over the room physically. Our advise: consider the pro's and cons of each option before you jump. 



Source: Cnet, Best Reviews, AVSforum, Audiogurus, SVS, ELAC, Q Acoustics, Yamaha, Emotiva, Cambridge Audio; Image: Expertreviews UK