If you want to add 5.1-channel surround sound to your computer but balk at the notion of placing large, ugly speakers around your workstation, Altec Lansing's affordable 5100 ($159 list price) may be the solution. Designed for PCs and game consoles, the package consists of four identical satellites, a center speaker, a subwoofer, and a control module. The ported sub has dual, direct-firing 4-inch drivers. Each of the uniquely styled satellites sports dual 1-inch aluminum cone drivers inside a slim, black-plastic cabinet mounted on a curvy, brushed-aluminum stand. The 5100's subwoofer-based amp reportedly delivers 23 watts to the sub, 7 watts to each satellite, and 22 watts to the center.
You'll have no problems using the wired control module to adjust levels and select between stereo, 4.1-, and 5.1-channel playback modes, but we wished it had a text or numeric display instead of status LEDs. The 5100's PC connectivity is strictly analog, which is adequate if you have a 5.1-channel sound card, such as our Creative Labs Audigy 2 Platinum EX. The speaker cables are hardwired to the center and sats, and they have color-coded RCA-type plugs that connect to the sub. It's worth noting that some other multimedia speaker systems are compatible with standard speaker wire for greater flexibility.
The 5100 sounds good, albeit slightly underpowered. In Quake III, the satellites' accurate imaging helped us pinpoint foes, but even with the sub cranked, explosions lacked the earthshaking quality we heard from more-powerful systems such as Logitech's Z-680. When we played our Requiem for a Dream DVD, the center speaker stood out from the mix, delivering clear dialogue. The surrounds blended well, and the soundstage had respectable depth, but richer midrange would've enhanced realism.
While the amp has adequate headroom for solid performance at moderate volumes, some of our MP3s that weren't fully normalized had atypically loud background hiss when we juiced the volume to compensate. Hard-core users should consider a higher-wattage system, but mainstreamers will surely appreciate the 5100's compactness, attractive design, and good sound.