Field Test: Alesis ProActive 5.1

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By George Petersen

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At Winter NAMM this year, after giving Alesis' ProActive 5.1 system a quick listen on the noisy show floor, I thought this 450-watt, THX-certified surround system was “nice,” with its five mini satellites, powered subwoofer and remotes (wired and IR) for system and I/O control. The $499 list seemed reasonable. Alesis saw these as a home/PC studio product, but I thought they made more sense as the Auratones for the 5.1 era, offering a realistic representation of what most consumers listen to at home.

When I finally got a system to check out, I was impressed by both its versatility and sound. The Sound Control Module central controller is a paperback-size, upright unit with LCD status screen, Input/Mute/Level/Mode buttons, gain control, ⅛-inch headphone jack and ⅛-inch TRS stereo input to connect an MP3 player, CD Walkman, iPOD, etc. The unit connects to the sub via a 5-foot, multipair umbilical with a 15-pin termination that carries all of the analog signals to the amps.

The rear panel has three ⅛-inch stereo jacks with provided ¼-inch/RCA breakout cables to connect to a 5.1 (LCRSS+sub) analog source — such as a console or playback deck — as well as RCA coaxial and optical jacks to connect to PCM digital stereo or DTS/Dolby Digital/MP3/Dolby Pro Logic feeds from a DVD player, encoder/decoder or workstation.

Setup is (mostly) straightforward. The system includes all necessary speaker wire (not the best, but it's free) to connect the satellites to the amps built into the sub and small speaker stands that can be inverted for use as wall mounts. One installation mystery: The manual doesn't explain the color coding on the RCA breakout cables, so you're on your own when figuring out which of the front or rear cables is left or right, or center/sub. However, an onboard tone oscillator can pan through the system, ID'ing all of the speakers. As the system automatically creates a subwoofer feed internally derived from the stereo or 5-channel inputs, there's no need to connect to the subwoofer at all when mixing (uncoded) surround material in the studio, unless you need to have a separate LFE feed.

The controller also includes an Effects mode, which allows the selection of input processing for Dolby Digital, DTS, 5.1 analog, stereo-only or “stereo x2.” The latter routes the front stereo feed to the stereo surrounds, as well.

Once set up, I was ready to listen, so I fed in a hot new DVD-A from Hi-Res Music, a re-release of the Ray Brown Trio's 1985 classic Soular Energy, which sounds great in my home system. Oops! The digital inputs on the ProActive 5.1 do not support DVD-A streams. I switched to a DTS disc of Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth, which was nice but way over-bassy. The subwoofer's 185-watt amp, ported 8-inch driver can overwhelm the 53-watt amps driving the satellites' 3-inch MF/HF drivers. The remedy was a couple presses of the controller's Level button. Turning the subwoofer level down to about 10% provided a nice spectrum. As another test, I ran the system with the sub turned off. Yick! Unless you're into some seriously hard-core rap, hip hop or metal, you'll need to cut the sub way back to create the right balance. A little bass goes a long way in making the ProActive 5.1 sound just right.

The system manual read, “Removing the satellite grilles will not affect sound quality.” However, removing the grilles made a significant and noticeable improvement in HF response and clarity. The grilles are best used to protect the drivers during transit. The drivers in all five satellites are identical and have similar rounded, ported cabinets, except for the center channel, which has a larger — yet lower-profile — enclosure and dual porting. Despite the difference in cabinet design, the overall sound of all the satellites was identical, with the center better oriented for over/under-picture placement.

In the studio, once the bass was tweaked, the system provided rich, full and surprisingly high-SPL reproduction, and mixes translated well to large and small home speakers. True, it lacked some of the subtle detail of far more expensive systems (such as my Meyer HD-1s), yet at a fraction of the price, that's understandable. The point here is that the ProActive 5.1s go a lot further than Auratone Cubes, sounding a lot like NS-10s but with far more bass. As such, these are an excellent “real-world” reference for larger 5.1 studio monitors, providing a low-cost/high-impact system in an edit suite, MIDI room or with a desktop DAW. At $499 for a complete system, these are ideal for studios of any size or budget.

Alesis Corp., 401/658-5760, www.alesis.com.






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