I’ve never been a label whore. Still, the hardest part about reviewing a product from a well-known manufacturer is setting aside the expectations that are associated with the big “name brand” and dealing strictly with the product in front of you. Doing that was one of the major challenges of reviewing the Pioneer HTS-GS1 surround sound system for the Xbox 360. I did my very best to evaluate this product on its merits, and discover where it does, and doesn’t, live up to the terrific reputation of Pioneer audio products.
For most reviews, I’d move immediately into features, and hit the aesthetics as small points throughout the article. But with a product targeted towards Xbox 360 owners specifically because of its form factor and façade, it would be stupid to start anywhere else. Pioneer did an outstanding job of finding a way to have this system fit with the 360 without making it look like the system. They could have put the subwoofer in a 360 case, with the volume dial where the power button goes, and it wouldn’t have been a better fit that it is.
The flat white paint and rounded speaker backs of the HTS-GS1 pay homage to the design work done by the folks in Redmond without tripping over itself. From the controls and LCD of the display unit to the large opening in front of the subwoofer indented and ringed in silver like the power button on the 360, the design of the unit is obvious and yet subtle at the same time.. The grey speaker grilles provide contrast without distracting the viewer from the visual theme at hand. In short, the styling of the unit is spot on and really couldn’t be much better built as a visual mate for the Microsoft gaming console.
In terms of size, the HTS-GS1 is pretty typical, if not a bit smaller than most boxed home theatre systems. The left, right, and both rear speakers measure 4 ½ by 4 by 4 ½ inches (HWD), with the center channel speaker at 4 ½ by 10 ½ by 4 inches. The largest component is of course the subwoofer cabinet, which comes it at 14 ¾ by 8 by 17 ½ inches.
Aside from the visual appeal of the unit, the most interesting aspect of the HTS-GS1 is the integration of the receiver into the subwoofer cabinet. This greatly reduces the size of the display unit to the point where it is basically a tethered remote control. It also makes for a single point of connection for all of the cords that need to reach out to the speakers and the display unit.
The receiver inputs and outputs are very well designed. The speaker connections are color coded and grouped logically. The unit offers two optical, one coaxial, and one analog input for external devices. One of the optical ports is dedicated to the 360, and Pioneer is thoughtful enough to include one in the box. (At least that’s what the instructions said. However the optical cable was missing from the unit I reviewed). The receiver also includes AM and FM tuners and the matching antennas.
Setting up the HTS-GS1 is very straightforward. The speaker cables have special plugs at on the end intended to connect to the subwoofer/receiver, which match the color-coding on speaker ports. The unit is then connected to the 360 via the optical cable. The audio is tuned simply using the included microphone and the Multichannel Acoustic Calibration (MCACC) system. The auto setup saves the user from a lot of headaches. Want to reposition the speakers? Simply put them where you want, set the microphone where you normally sit when playing games, and press the MCACC button. It takes all of 2 minutes and can be run at any time.
The remote included with the unit is the definition of the word complete. It includes buttons for nearly anything a user could possibly need or want. It seems to be designed for the standard user, but with a slide down panel that offers far more advanced audio tuning features, as well as most functions available on a standard multiple device remote. The remote features that stick out most are the Xbox 360 specific (X, Y, A, B, and power) buttons geared for operating the console as a DVD player.
In terms of surround sound decoding, the unit offers the standard solutions: DTS, Dolby Digital, Pro Logic, and both Pro Logic II Movies and Pro Logic II Music. It also offers stereo as a sound option for any source, with multichannel sources down mixed to the left and right front speakers. Additional audio features, including Advanced Surround with presets for specific surround sound effects, and dialogue enhancement are available on the slide-down portion of the remote.
While the design and feature selection are great additions to the HTS-GS1, as I’ve said before, it all comes down to the sound. And in terms of volume, the unit doesn’t disappoint, especially considering the size of the speakers. With the increasing number of audio products I test, I’ve begun to develop a routine for putting a unit through its paces. First, I watch Top Gun. The HTS-GS1 performed pretty well in this first test, and the surround sound was in full effect with the sound of the F-14’s and MIGs buzzing from left to right behind you and at times seemingly flying right overhead. The unit seemed strong with sharp, harsh sounds like engines, squealing air brakes, and missile explosions. The next test is Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, where the unit showed some weakness. It lacked the warmth or richness Lucasfilms’ THX audio provides, and my much older Koss KS5190 has no problem conveying. It also seemed in spots that the subwoofer was being maxed out, which sounded sort of thumpy during the opening space battle. The dialogue enhancement feature came in handy in a few points during this movie. (If the HTS-GS1 could actually enhance the dialogue Lucas wrote, there’d be no need to even review it before purchasing.)
Next, I got down to the brass tacks the HTS-GS1 is targeted for: gaming audio. Starting with Burnout Revenge, it was nice to hear the hum of the engine sounding alive and crisp, with the surround features accentuating the feeling of being right over the engine. Passing cars moved the appropriate directions through the speakers, and the volume of the cars crossing the intersection increased and decreased in volume appropriately. Sadly, the unit faired less well while I played Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It almost feels like the unit is designed for sound effects, but when it comes to the spoken word, there just isn’t that jump, that liveliness you expect out of a surround sound unit.
For the last test, I listened to a mix of music from Led Zeppelin to Ben Folds. Again, it seemed the unit performed best with loud, sharp, strong sounds while sounding a bit thin for vocal or acoustic numbers.
The HTS-GS1 has a lot going for it, in terms of features, design, and volume, but it also has a few failings as well. I ran the MCACC setup process 3 times, and could not increase the quality of the softer audio sounds coming through the receiver. Also, I noticed that there was not a noticeable increase in the depth of sound between connecting my DVD player with an optical cable versus the analog connection. In the effort to be “everything to everyone”, the remote control is overloaded, and yet somehow missing a mute button. While it may seem like a small issue, the easy connectors on the subwoofer end of the speaker cables mean that replacing them is not as easy as popping into Radio Shack for a new roll of speaker wire. Lastly, the HTS-GS1 is saddled with an issue I’ve never really had to comment on in a review before, and that’s price. The MSRP of the unit is a whopping $499, which is more than the console it’s designed to support. I was able to find the unit selling for around $379 at a couple of local stores, limiting but not eliminating the issue. Several units in that price range are generally regarded to provide better sound quality for the money than the HTS-GS1. In fact, the unit that the GS1 is based upon, Pioneers HTS-260 has most of the same features, and I found it selling in the $299-$329 range.
In conclusion, the HTS-GS1 is a decent little system. It provides plenty of volume, especially for only 600 watts total output. However, with the somewhat cold sound, and the pricing, I pretty hard to recommend this system gamers who aren’t under orders from their interior decorator to color coordinate their home theatre with their 360. You’d be far better off spending another $150 on Pioneers higher end HTS-560DV, and a can of flat white spray paint.