Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag(s): Multi-Channel Systems
When my good friend Thomas Kubalsky suggested that I try a 5.1 set of loudspeakers and receiver that he had recently been given by his brother-in-law, I was a little hesitant at first. Being a child of the 70s, I could not help but think of the first surround sound systems by JVC and the likes that all sounded pretty terrible, regardless of whether the multi-channel function was activated or not. Somehow, I had managed to get by without hearing a proper surround system for half a century. On the other hand, I also had the sensation that my hesitation was in conflict with the spirit of this blog, which bears the importance of venturing into the unknown in its title. 'Explorations in Audio' requires us to put our ears over whatever we think we know in order to test the validity of our beliefs. — For the times they are a-changin'.
If I was going to write a review on a 5.1 setup, I wanted to first prepare for the task. This was especially so, as I was lacking experience in the placement of subwoofers. Hence, I asked Thomas to hold on to the set for me to give me some time to prepare. In the period that followed, I started the category of subwoofers and wrote my analysis on subwoofer placement. Feeling sufficiently prepared, I contacted Thomas again, and we packed our children's handcart with equipment and pulled it the two blocks from Thomas’ place to our apartment. The set consisted mostly of plastic components and, although quite bulky, weighed in at just above 10kg. When comparing this to much of the gear tested here previously, the low weight did not exactly scream quality. However, I did not want to jump to conclusions and was prepared to be surprised.
The name HTB-7590-D (see edits below) alone suggested that Philips had not intend this equipment to become the beacon of their audio engineering. It is far too long and clunky to be casually dropped at a dinner party. We might assume that the “H” stands for home and the “D” for digital, but these letters could also be internal code for some other purpose. In fact, the name was so inconspicuous that I continued searching for it long after I had found it. I simply could not imagine that this was its name. Running a web search, I could see that there were a number of similarly named Philips devices with higher and lower numbers, none of which had found much attention in the press. On the back of these HTB-7590-D units, one could read that they had been designed and engineered by Philips in Europe. However, there was no mention of a manufacturing country.
I set the system up with my four-year-old son Max, who had no trouble carrying the tower speakers into the room with me. The speaker wire was firmly installed on the side of each speaker and exceptionally thin in diameter. It was, however, sufficiently long for our 5.60m x 4.70m listening room. The rear speakers had longer wires attached to be positioned further away from the unit. Each wire was colour-coded to indicate the correct pair of clamps on the back of the receiver unit. The speakers themselves were narrow plastic satellites perched on hollow plastic tubes. The tubes became slender towards the base plates, and four rubber foam cushions were employed to couple the speakers towards the ground. The satellites consisted of two full-range drivers each. Between them was a bass port which had been designed to resemble a tweeter when seen from a distance.
The subwoofer was of side-firing, rear-vented design, and the cabinet material appeared to be simple plywood. Coming from the Dragon Audio subwoofer, the 4kg Philips looked like a toy. Of the four attached rubber foam cushions, one had already been lost. The 6.5-inch driver was stuck behind a non-removable speaker cloth. I had never come across a cheaper-looking woofer design but decided to be open-minded. Our ears do not look especially fancy either, and yet they are precision instruments capable of tremendous tasks. The Philips receiver had all the electronics necessary for processing the information and sending the amplified signal to each loudspeaker in one single box. Its power consumption of 105 watts looked rather dismal in the face of having to drive five-plus-one loudspeakers. All the more, I was surprised to find the total output power RMS rating to be at 800 Watts with all channels driven at <10% distortion.
Max and I turned the HTB-7590-D on for the first time, and I slipped in Mark Knopfler’s remastered version of the Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms” album. The room instantly sounded as if we were trapped in an underwater fish tank, and I quickly understood that many parameters had to be off at the same time in order for the performance to be so dismal. A look at the owner’s manual revealed that the front speakers had been designed to be positioned relatively close to the TV-set. When bringing them closer, I noticed that of the four existing rubber foam pads there was always one that was suspended in the air. To give all speakers a more stable stand and a well-defined coupling toward the ground, I placed each of them on three 5mm rubber pyramids. This took the remaining uncertainty out of the sonic equation and instantly resulted in a fuller more assured sound.
Since the HTB-7590-D receiver did not have a proper display, I connected an old computer monitor to it via HDMI. In the audio settings, I found that all speakers’ volumes had been raised to +6 dB. My first task was to again set this to neutral. I also found that some tonal adjustments had been made via the internal equaliser and also reset this to flat. It was only later that I also found where to turn the function ‘Audio Improvement’ off completely. The next listening test showed that the system was beginning to sound tonally more realistic. With all the superfluous emphasis turned off, it was also easier to hear the problems in timing that still existed. Luckily, the internal sound processor (DSP) offered six sliders to set the distance of each speaker towards the listening position.
I used a simple laser distance meter made for room measurements to determine the distance from my head to each speaker. To do so, I held the meter over the top of my head and pointed it on the main driver of each speaker. I set the corresponding slider to the nearest approximation and then proceeded to move the speaker to correspond with the set value. This also allowed me to perfectly align the subwoofer. In order for the subwoofer not to overly excite room modes in my listening position, I had set this up first. Although side-firing subwoofers are more forgiving to place, I preferred a more direct sound and turned the woofer with the driver pointing towards the listening position. This way, I was sure to benefit from the punchiness and agility of the woofer and get better bass layering. I had then set up the satellites to be phase-aligned with the woofer. The rear loudspeakers were set as far behind and wide away from the listening position as possible.
Following the phase alignment, the HTB-7590-D sounded pretty grown up. I was especially pleased with its bass performance, which was not only full and satisfying, but also clean, dry, and layered. To my surprise, this woofer-satellite combination worked better than our previous setup with the Dragon Audio subwoofer. This was probably the result of having more exact placement options with the smaller speakers in the room. The Shure-DA combination would have benefited from a larger room.
We decided to test the HTB-7590-D with Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 Blu-ray album “Western Stars”. I had heard much praise regarding the audio track and thought this might be a good starting point. Listening to Bruce Springsteen tell the old tale of fear, passion, and forgiveness in Dolby Surround (originally recorded for Dolby Atmos) made me feel that multi-channel sound was the ideal companion for concerts on Blu-ray. Especially the audience cheering and clapping had a wonderful effect in the room. Still, there were some moments in which I was not sure what to make of the feature. Should the strings really have played via the rear channels? Little things like these had such an effect that I snapped out of the sensation of being at the event.
On the small full-range satellites, Bruce Springsteen’s voice did not have the full depth that I was used to from listening to his songs on our usual equipment. There was generally a slight lack in tonal richness that is commonly associated with wooden materials. As Springsteen’s voice became lower in some passages of the performance, the satellites revealed inherent resonances caused by their cabinets of thin plastic. This effect was not apparent during the whole performance and only stuck out during two or three songs. Holding my hand against the speakers, I could really feel the resonance that extended nearly all the way down the shaft towards the ground. Improved internal bracing and better insulation could have lessened this effect but would surely have increased the sales price of the unit.
I would have liked to see proper buttons on the receiver’s front. The capacitive ones were poorly lit and very small which made it easy to confuse them in low-light conditions. Often, they did not immediately respond to touch commands, which at times led to a successive opening and closing of the disk-tray or to the unit switching on and then off again. The built-in LCD display was neither bright nor large enough for the information to be read from the sitting position. It also did not help that it was tilted upward. The remote control had lots of important and easy to reach functions. Sadly, the keys quite frequently failed to execute the command on the first or second push. Harder pressing of the keys resulted in bending sounds coming from the plastic housing of the remote. None of this felt very sophisticated or reliable.
No up-mixing options were presented for Auxiliary devices, which made 5.1 functions exclusive to the onboard features, HDMI or SPDIF devices and only if provided by the track. 2-channel operation of the HTB-7590-D was generally alright but not as full and tonally rich as we were used to from our previous devices. Channel separation and soundstage were reasonably good. Bass performance was generally excellent, especially considering the materials used, and the amplifier never seemed weak or unfit for the task. The full-range drivers of the satellites had their limits in terms of tonality, but also in frequencies above 20.000 Hz. This could make the music seem a bit stale occasionally. Resonances affected male vocals at times, indicating the cost-conscious build-quality of the cabinets.
All-in-all it can be said that the Philips HTB-7590-D is a worthwhile 5.1 system that is still going strong after 10 years of use. While it does not hide its concessions to the price-conscious consumer, it does deliver a solid performance, especially when listening to 5.1 recordings. It is musically solid enough to bring pleasure to most households, but only if it is set up by someone who knows what they are doing. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to get lost in the features and adjustments which will leave this particular, and actually most other 5.1 systems, sounding pretty useless. I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to expand my horizon with a technology that was still new to me at the time, and I look forward to our next project.
Edited, 10 Oct 2022 As Landon has rightly pointed out to me upon reading this article, there is a blog entry on toenegel.net of 31 August 2012 that describes the new Philips naming scheme introduced that year. According to this, the HTB-7590-D was the best version of the mid-high-end 5.1 home theatre Blu-ray system that provided a docking station for use with iPod. — We live and learn.
Front and rear loudspeakers