Altec Lansing Expressionist Plus v. Edifier E3350
Two 2.1 speaker systems sound it out
Review With most computers bulging at the seams with music and video files, the days of making do with even a cheap set of active stereo speakers, let alone laptop offerings, are truly dead and buried. A decent 2.1 active speaker system will not only pay dividends when it comes to playing your music but can also provide bowel trembling bass when playing games or watching video.
PC palpitator: Altec Lansing's Expressionist Plus FX3021
Recently, Edifier and Altec Lansing simultaneously released new 2.1 speaker sets that are in head-on competition. Both consist of a meaty downward firing subwoofer and a couple of satellites. Both have clearly spent some time and effort on styling as well as performance. And both are yours for under eighty quid.
Edifier describes the E3350 subwoofer as looking like an, ahem, ‘exotic pyramid’. Yes, quite. Fourth Dynasty envy aside the E3350 continues the restrained and minimalist styling we have come to expect from Edifier, of late. Even though everything is made of plastic, it’s a high-quality plastic with blemish-free matt black surfaces. Some rather nice design touches include the diffuse red halo LED that surrounds the touch sensitive on/off switch on top of the subwoofer and the satellites' cloth speaker covers.
Altec has gone for an altogether more curvaceous and organic design theme with its Expressionist Plus. This works well on the lovely gloss black subwoofer but the satellites look just little on the cheap side when placed alongside it, and this isn’t helped by the over-designed speaker grilles and satin finish metal stands. Although the latter do, at least, allow you to change the angle of the speaker units themselves.
In short the Altec satellites look a little too much like PC speakers while the Edifier's look like small hi-fi speakers and we know which look we prefer.
Hi-Fi choice? Edifier's E3350
Edifier has also thought rather harder than Altec about the best way to connect up a 2.1 speaker. The E3350's satellite tether cable branches from the subwoofer to each speaker allowing for a great degree of flexibility. Altec's approach is to connect one speaker to the sub and then use a separate cable to connect the two satellites together. The farthest apart you can separate the two Altec speakers is 150cm, while the Edifier’s can manage twice that distance.
The two Edifier satellites are also substantially larger and heavier than their Altec counterparts. Looking like miniature bookshelf speakers they stand at 240mm height and measure 100mm across their felt-covered bases. By comparison the Altec satellite speaker housings measure 90mm in diameter and weigh about a third as much.
Altec's satellite speakers have the edge on clarity
The size differential continues with the subs, the Altec measuring up at 160mm tall and having a diameter of 260mm. The off-pyramid shaped Edifier unit meanwhile is 200mm tall, measures 290mm front to back and 240mm across it its widest point. The Edifier is also the more hefty of the two units – at around 3.5kg it’s over 500g heavier than the Altec.
Connection ports on the Altec sub run to two 3.5mm audio inputs – one labelled Input and one Aux – plus a DIN connector for the satellite speakers and a power socket. Around the back of the Edifier sub you will find 3.5mm audio-in and speaker-out jacks along with a power socket and a 9-pin D-type connector.
While Altec put the system volume controls on the right hand satellite, using the DE-9 connection the Edifier features a cabled remote volume controller with a machined aluminium knob surrounded by another red halo LED. It’s another nice touch and a great bit of design. The remote unit also houses a 3.5mm headphones jack and an similarly sized auxiliary audio-in, the latter being especially handy if you are forever swapping your input source and don't want to keep changing jacks around at the back of the subwoofer.
The Edifier subwoofer is not without a few design faults though. The cable sockets are very tightly grouped together at the back, so when you move the unit you need to take care that they don't tangle, jam and prise themselves loose. Also, the bass control is hidden away at the back of the sub unit making it a pain to access with ease.
Edifier's remote features audio interfacing
Edifier has missed a trick by not putting both the volume and bass controls on the remote. To make matters worse the Edifier's bass control has no visual indication of its setting. By contrast Altec put the bass control where it should be, on top of the sub housing and combined with the on/off switch.
On paper the E3350 is the most powerful of the two systems, having a combined power output of 50W compared to the Altec's 33W. The driver sizes are pretty similar with the Edifier subwoofer having a 5in driver compared to the 5.25in driver in the Altec bass unit. The Altec satellites each contain a 2in driver whereas the Edifier's contain a 2.75in unit and a 3/4in dome tweeter. So much for the paper specification, but how do they sound?
Interfacing on the Edifier includes a D-type connector for the remote
To start with that difference in power output doesn't have any real impact on the perceived loudness of the two systems, both of which pump out more than enough noise to fill a medium-sized room and both of which can be turned up to 11 without any distortion creeping in.
When it comes to visceral rumble though, the Edifier's subwoofer can generate more than the Altec and that may be an important issue for serious gamers. Turn both subs up to max and, while the Altec generates a decent enough sonic boom, the Edifier pumps out some rather more serious thunder in the mountains.
Turned up all the way it's far too much rumble for any reasonable music or video playback needs, but if you want your game effects to really have that last degree of earth shaking resonance then the E3350 is the system for you. The only game we had to hand was Marathon II: Durandal – jeez, that makes us feel old – but the thunder on planet Lh'owon sounded spectacular through the Edifier sub.
With music, we were highly impressed by the definition and fidelity the Altec system displayed while playing back the Nanci Griffith album Poet in my Window. In such a sparse soundscape the Edifier system sounded just a little muffled by comparison. Moving on the something with a bit more meat on the bones – in this case the Foo Fighters' Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace – the extra size of the Edifier satellites started to tell, revealing more powerful bass and a greater sense of both energy and presence.
Altec's interfacing features a multipin DIN output for the satellite speakers
The same proved true when we challenged both systems with the last movement of Beethoven's ninth – the Altec satellites, again, not managing to project the same degree of power or composure as the Edifier units.
As a final musical hurdle we played some more Beethoven, this time the Op. 131 string quartet. Though the Altec's definition was once again very fine, we noticed a greater feeling of warmth from the Edifier speakers, which made the music rest just a little more easily on the ear than the rather sharper Altec’s.
The Edifier takes the cake on features and sonic robustness, although the Altec has the edge for movies
Before calling it a day we watched the opening 15 minutes of Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith on a netbook while swapping back and forth between the two speaker systems.
Here the Altec system closed the gap, with dialogue sounding clearer and more to the fore than playback through the Edifier rig. Still, both systems gave the sound effects of war in space a highly impressive immediacy, while also giving John William's epic musical score room to roam. After trying both systems with other videos, we would actually be inclined to favour the Altec system, if this was the primary intended use – the drama may be less, but the balance is superior.
Buy either of these speaker systems and you are not likely to be disappointed. Both look and sound the part and provide an impressive audio experience for music, video and game play though each system has differing strengths in each field. For our money though the Edifier system is just the bit more grown up of the two. Its larger satellites make it a better bet for loud music than the Altec system and you get that handy cabled remote control. To seal the deal the Edifier's RRP is £10 less than the Altec's. ®
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