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Product Review
 

thiphi/Audio THT-8801 5.1 Home Theater in a Box (HTIB)

July, 2004

Piero Gabucci

 

Specifications:

 

● Codecs: DD and DTS

● Speakers: Five Satellites (3" Drivers) and One
    Powered Subwoofer (8" Driver)

● Power: 7 Watts to Satellites and 30 Watts to
    the Subwoofer

● THD: 0.15%

● Crossover Frequency: 140 Hz
● S/N ratio @ Rated Power: 70 dB
● Dimensions: Satellites - 5.9" H x 3.9" W x 3.9"
    D; Subwoofer - 15.5" H x 11.6" W x 11.8" D
● Weight: Satellites - 1.8 Pounds Each;
    Subwoofer - 28 Pounds
● MSRP: $1,199 USA

 

thiphi/Audio LLC

 

www.thiphiaudio.com

Introduction

I met Philip Juang, Co-founder and Director of Marketing for thiphi/Audio LLC (the "t" of thiphi is not capitalized) while maneuvering the halls of the Hilton Hotel in New York City during the HE Show in May, 2004. The tight hotel hallway was cramped with visitors and music coming from everywhere. I ducked into one of the hotel rooms and found a small 22” LCD monitor with very compact speakers around it. Included in his demo room were two systems, one, the sexy prototype 6A 2.1 speaker system meant to compliment flat panel monitors not due out until later this year, and the other, the very compact THT-8801 5.1 speaker system reviewed here. Philip introduced himself, told me they were located in Queens, and joked, “Someone has to be based outside California”.

I think that was a prophetic statement coming from a New Yorker, where the average apartment is no larger than most master bedroom closets anywhere else in the country. I also believe that to be the genesis for the THT 8801 5.1 speaker system: compact, flexible, and unobtrusive.

Some companies call such compact speaker packages that include a subwoofer, Home Theater in a Box, or HTIB. I guess this is partly because it all fits in one box. The THT-8801 package does include everything you need right out of the box, including speaker wire. But, it also includes a decoder (DD, DTS, etc.) and a full set of power amplifiers, as described below. Not much power, but enough for a small setup, such as a dorm room. All you need to do is add a CD player or DVD player.

The Design

The THT-8801 distinguishes itself from other systems in a number of ways. Most importantly, no controller or receiver is necessary, as all the decoding is done with the electronics console contained in the subwoofer. It also has a 6-channel amplifier, one of which drives the subwoofer, rated at 30W, front ported, with an 8” driver. It produces 7 watts to each of the five satellite speakers with 3” drivers and a THD at 0.15 %.

I’ll admit we’re not talking about very impressive specifications, but that’s not the attraction here. Again the control is all done at the subwoofer; included on the rear panel of the sub are two optical, two coaxial digital audio inputs, three analog audio inputs, and of course all the speaker connections. The decoding for DTS, Dolby Digital and Pro Logic all done by the sub, and boasts 24 bit/96k audio DACs.

Although the brain of this system is mounted on the subwoofer, the heart is the center channel. It is identical in size and design with the other satellite speakers, and in fact as I unpacked the system, I thought the center channel was omitted before flipping it over to reveal the different face with indicator lights. It lets you know when the sub is decoding DTS or Dolby Digital. It also indicates volume control, from 0 dB - 80 dB at 1 dB increments (relative). The center speaker reminds me of a nightstand alarm/clock/radio. And, actually it’s the most attractive piece in the set. The entire package is nicely designed: simple, semi-studio industrial look, all black and cubic.

The satellite speakers are magnetically shielded and can be placed inconspicuously around the room, wall mounted, or on speaker stands. Phillip was nice enough to send me the stands, so I could move the system around from room to room.

Setting it Up

This is the area that the THT 8801 5.1 HTIB is meant to attract interest, ease of setting it all up. In fact, I spent more time fishing the wires through the speaker stands than I did calibrating the system. Not much to adjust here. The credit card-size remote control not only handles volume speaker delays. In stereo mode you have your choice of DSP soundstage: Theater/Stadium/Hall or Game mode. Of course plain stereo or Pro Logic modes are also available.

Choosing your input from the remote is as straightforward as can be. There’s a button for each of the 7 inputs, and the center channel will also confirm your choice.

Four speaker modes allow you to choose which combination of the channels you want on. So, you can have all speakers on, or just left/right fronts with subwoofer only, for CD playback.

Built in test tones allow channel adjustments to all speakers except the LFE. Center and rear channel delays also allow for corrections.

Subwoofer crossover is set at 140 Hz, no choices here.

If you plan to watch TV broadcasts in Dolby Digital, you’ll need to connect both a digital input and a stereo input using up valuable real estate on the back of the sub. Be prepared to manually switch inputs on the remote from digital to analog depending on the telecast.

In Use

Running the downward test tones from my Avia DVD and using my trusty Radio Shack sound meter, I found the overall balance quite flat, for an HTIB. I also compared the built-in test tones and the Avia tones and found them very comparable.

My concern prior to and confirmed during the first minutes of the audition was the modest power (and that’s being a little generous) of only 7 watts into the satellites. It seemed pushing the unit up to the maximum of 80 dB yielded barely a shudder. The dynamic range reduction switch can help a bit here.

Just in time, the arrival (pre ordered months ago) of The Lord of the Rings, Return of the King, gave us the opportunity to run the 8801 full out on a demanding soundtrack. Although it gave a pleasant experience, I felt the soundstage was a bit thin. What was lacking were the speakers engaging me, pulling me along in the adventure. Of course, this is a system designed for limited room situations. At low volume, such as when your dorm neighbors are studying, and you are watching TV because you know the material cold for tomorrow's mid-term exam, it's fine.

When I first heard the system in the 150 sq. ft. hotel room, I was struck by its ability to fill the room nicely with sound. What the system does do well is give you a good distribution of sound throughout in general. Even the sub seems to fill in the lower frequencies without dominating the system.

I wondered if my slightly larger 12’ x 17’ living room was perhaps too much for the system. After discussing my issue with Philip, he suggested to give it time and let them “breath”. Well, let me state that as I used the system more, I not only began to hear a wider soundstage and more depth but also I was turning the volume down to the 65 dB range. What this points out to me that unlike other HTIB products I’m familiar with, this one needed some “break-in” time.

Watching Paycheck with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, what the THT 8801gave me was clear audio and nice surround mix. The system reproduced what I’d heard in the hotel room nicely. No harshness, just simple clean sound. The center channel also surprised me in its clear delivery of vocals.

Well, Father’s Day came along and my sons surprised me with one old favorite and one new, Saturday Night Fever and Kill Bill. Listening to the BeeGees disco music, I found the speakers a bit mellow, I would have liked more energy in the midrange. The satellites gave nice detail in the final sword battle scenes of Kill Bill, and I especially enjoyed the exotic musical score that the cubes delivered.

On TV

I did watch game 3 of the NBA finals in both Dolby Digital and stereo modes just so I could play with the surround modes. The stadium mode was almost unintelligible with the echo effects a bit harsh. Naturally the Dolby telecast was superior, but in Pro logic or stereo modes, it's also very easy to listen to.

Music

To go to CD playback, change inputs, and a click on the remote switches the speaker mode into fronts and sub only, (with the center and rear channels off). Keep the 12 page manual handy for the first week or so, because you’ll have to remember the codes displayed on the center channel that identify the speaker modes. When 201 is displayed, this means 2 fronts on and 1 sub. 321 refers to all 3 fronts, 2 rears, and the sub on. I’ll remember them eventually.

Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love CD highlighted some very surprising details. Bass filled in nicely, no bloating at all, just helping the satellites reach the lower frequencies.
From track 10, "One Step Up", the bass guitar had a smooth lingering tone.

Diana Krall’s new The Girl in The Other Room (not my favorite of her work) was very pleasing, especially the bass. During track 3, "Temptation", the bass intro was nicely reproduced. However, her voice, although generally smooth, was lacking a bit of detail.

More Power?

What was still nagging me was the limited power output from the sub, so I did the unthinkable, and hooked up these little satellites to my 120 WPC receiver, which provided some challenge. I’m happy to say the satellites were fantastic, and handled a substantial amount of power before any distortion was detected. I replayed most of the music I’d listened to prior, and the 8801s impressed me. I now felt like the package was where I’d hoped all along. These little cubes do have it in them to give more music, detail, and depth. The subwoofer doesn’t have the ability for an amp input so use your own; making sure you set the crossover a little higher than normal to compensate for the satellites.

Helping the Subwoofer by Placing it Properly

Placement of the subwoofer is critical for best performance. Because this sub handles so much of the lower end with a crossover of 140 Hz, it needs to be treated more like a loudspeaker. Placing it mid-room about 2 ft from the wall finally gave me a good balance, and removed the boom from placing it in the corner. I do think this to be an impressive sub, from just an 8” driver. I now understand why they decided to fix the crossover at a higher 140 Hz, allowing the sub to carry more of the burden.

Conclusions

HTIB gets more people into home theater, period. Hopefully that leads to better equipment in the future. Until then, getting one that you don’t throw away when the sound is intolerable becomes the challenge. The THT 8801 5.1 speaker system is not a throw-away, it’s a keeper, and the speakers should age nicely. Is $1,200 pricey for a HITB? In this case, no, because you get everything but the sources. I believe this system fits into a niche: a true high fidelity sound from satellites, and an honest subwoofer that takes care of everything without an outboard amp. A DVD player and a TV is all you need.

My recommendation to thipi/Audio is minor, more power, please! Increase the price $100 if necessary, but give us about 30 watts per channel, maybe 75 watts to the subwoofer.

If you’re looking to blow yourself off the couch, this won’t do it for you. If you’re looking for a spouse approved, stylishly integrating, easy to set up, uncomplicated 5.1 surround sound system for a den, bedroom or dorm room, give Phillip a call.



 - Piero Gabucci -

 

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