review: Altec Expressionist Ultra
April 6, 2010 by Bill Palmer
Depending on the brand and hardware design of your computer, its audio output can range from respectable to pathetic. And while this can be remedied by any decent off the shelf sub-$100 computer speaker system, Altec Lansing is asking you to think bigger – in terms of price and size – with its $199 MX6021, more memorably known as the Expressionist Ultra. To say that this system is large is an understatement, as the subwoofer is literally as large as a small minitower, and the two satellites each stand about as tall as an iPad.
Having spent quality time with the company’s own $99 Expressionist Plus last year, I can tell you that the $199 Ultra is larger and more expensive for good reason: the Ultra sounds stunning and puts the Plus to shame. I was particularly impressed with just how loud I could crank the Ultra without a hint of degradation, and once I positioned the three units sufficiently far enough from each other, how easily the audio managed to consume the entire room even at a moderate volume. Cranked way up, this system could likely serve as the audio source for an entire house party. Interestingly enough, however, the defining aspect of the Ultra may not be its audio quality as the inclusion of a controller knob (pictured above) which takes on the shape of a small truncated cone and provides volume and power control. Placing these controls on a knob instead of on any of the three speaker units makes sense, as speakers this powerful are likely to spread far enough apart that none of them might be within each reach of your computer chair. As it is, the wired controller can stretch up to about six feet from the sub, making it easy to set it on your desk next to your computer.
The entire visible surface of the knob is a notched ratchet for cranking the volume up or down which snaps back to its default position when you let go. Unfortunately, the implementation isn’t quite as intuitive as I might have hoped. Turning the knob and holding it will cause the volume to continue increasing (or decreasing) until you let go, which sounds good in theory. But if you just want to adjust the volume a smidge, you have to turn the knob by the amount you think you want, immediately let go, and if you didn’t get guess right, crank the knob again (by this time it’s snapped back to default). It has the effect of feeling like you’re using a rotary telephone; simply going with a free-spinning knob would have been more intuitive.
On a brighter note, the knob includes bass and treble controls, which are too often overlooked on a system like this. They work in the same manner as volume control (press the “Treble” or “Bass” button and then crank the knob), but oddly enough have to be turned in the opposite direction of the volume control; turning up the treble or bass requires turning the knob toward a clearly visible “minus” sign, while turning them down requires turning the knob toward the “plus” sign.
The inclusion of a headphone port on the knob is nice, as it allows you to temporarily switch over to headphones without having to disconnect the speakers from your computer in order to free up its audio port. However, in my tests, some (but not all) of the earbuds and headphones that I tried with the knob’s headphone port produced a bit of static on the line, leaving me to end up using my computer’s headphone port after all. Your mileage may vary; I couldn’t find any rhyme or reason on this.
Finally, and not to pile on, but this speaker system can’t even be turned on unless the knob is connected (unplug it and the entire unit shuts off), meaning that if you like the speakers but not the concept of the knob, you’ll be stuck finding a place to stash the knob out of the way. And then there’s the series of orange lights on the front of the knob, which strobe back and forth like the front of the Knight Rider car whether music is playing or not.
So I’m conflicted as to how to sum up the Expressionist Ultra: its audio is more than worth its price tag, but only if you’re going to spread out the three units and crank it up enough for the audio quality to matter. I like the inclusion of the knob, but I’m less than thrilled with its too-clever execution.
As with all products, you’ll have to decide for yourself as to whether this product is right for you – but perhaps even more so with this particular product than usual.