Boston Acoustics Horizon Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Jim Swantko   
Saturday, 01 March 2008

Boston Acoustics was founded in 1979 and over the years has grown into a true powerhouse in home, mobile aftermarket and OEM audio systems. My history with the brand dates back over 20 years ago, when I purchased a pair of their Pro 5.2 separates and Pro 12.0 subwoofer for my car. Mobile audio was where my interest in the audio hobby began – and Boston Acoustics played a big part in what made it so much fun.

The speaker system I was asked to review was Boston’s budget-conscious Horizon surround sound system. When I unpacked the main speakers, the HS 450s, my first thought was, “When did Boston start making electrostatic speakers?” These speakers are dead ringers for panels. When viewed from the side, they have a leaned-back graceful arc from top to bottom and stand about three-and-a-half feet tall. To my eye, they are exceptionally stylish.

The grilles are standard black, but the rest of the speaker is covered in a grippy, rubbery gray material which Boston calls their “soft touch finish.” This color scheme is much more appealing to me than all black, which seems to be the norm today. Should you decide that black grilles don’t quite match the interior design of your home, don’t worry. Boston has you covered. They offer eight additional grille colors, which range from caramel to rosebud pink. Boston designed these with the clear understanding that today’s consumer requires not only performance, but also easy integration with home décor. It’s a wonderful idea and I am surprised that no other company has thought of this design approach so far. The HS60 surround sound speakers, HS225 center channel and matching HPS12HO subwoofer all share the aesthetics of their taller siblings.

My second thought was, “Wow, these are light.” The 450s weighed in at 20 pounds and had large recessed handles in the back, which made moving them around a breeze. The HS60 and HS225 weigh nine and 11 pounds, respectively. The HPS12HO comes in at a hefty 45 pounds.

The HS450 driver complement is a single one-inch soft dome tweeter and a pair of five-and-one-quarter-inch woofers coupled with a pair of six-and-one-half inch passive radiators. The HS225 and the HS450 share the same dual and one-quarter-inch woofers and single tweeter, with the exception of the passive radiators. The HS60 surrounds utilize a single six-and-one-half-inch driver, along with the matching one-inch tweeter. The HPS12HO sub has a 12-inch driver in a ported enclosure with a 300-watt internal amplifier. It includes an infinitely variable 40-180Hz crossover and phase control for easy system integration.

The product literature states that these speakers utilize Deep Channel Design (DCD) woofers for more bass from less amplifier power, and maximized bass output system (MBOS) for improved bass acoustics. It seems obvious that Boston designed these to be overachievers in the low frequencies, even though they chose to use small drivers. The speakers are all magnetically shielded, so monitor interaction is not a concern. They also include five-way gold-plated binding posts and adjustable feet, as well as built-in wall-mount brackets.

The retail pricing on the HS450 main speakers is $299 each. The HS225 center is $249, the HS60 surrounds are $149 apiece and the sub is $499. Considering the very reasonable pricing, I was very impressed with the build quality. The speakers were all solidly constructed and very nicely finished.

I experimented with speaker placement and found the best results were to pull the HS450s approximately three feet away from the back wall. Closer than this, the bass was a little boomy. The speakers had nearly two feet of space between them and the side walls. I found that toeing them in slightly helped to focus the image. I listened to the HS450s alone to get a feel for their two-channel performance before listening the system with full surround. The components used in the two-channel system were an Esoteric DV-50 CD/DVD/SACD player, an Audio Research LS26 tube preamp and a pair of NuForce Reference 9 V2 Special Edition mono amps, with cabling by way of Audio Magic.

For the surround set-up, I placed the HS225 below my monitor, which is about one foot out from the back wall. The HS60 surrounds are about three feet behind my seating area and about two feet away from the side walls. I got the best results by aiming them toward the center of the room. The sub was corner loaded in the front right corner of the room. For this set-up, I used a Denon AVR-988 surround receiver for processing, switching and power for all five speakers, and fed the sub the LFE output. I used the on-board automatic set-up and room correction to optimize.

I began listening immediately and noticed that the speakers sounded good right out of the box, which was a pleasant surprise. Typically, I dread the break-in period and the associated harshness which usually accompanies it. Over the course of a week or so, I could detect a slight change in sound as the drivers broke in. The speakers began to open up after the first 24 hours and break-in was completed within a week or so.

Music and Movies
I began my review, as I always do, listening in two-channel mode. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a speaker with dual five-and-one-quarter-inch woofers, so I immediately threw some challenging material at them to see how they responded. Tool’s Undertow (Zoo/BMG/Volcano) is an album that is never far from my CD player, so in it went. If you’ve never heard this album, well, I’m not sure how to describe it. Words that come to mind are “dark,” “angry,” “ominous” and “emotionally painful.” It’s an all-out assault on the senses and should be played with extreme caution, preferably at the gym or before you enter a cage fight.

The second track, “Prison Sex,” like the rest of the album, has tremendous impact and drive from the tag team comprised of bassist Paul D’Amour and drummer extraordinaire Danny Carey. The kick drum’s impacts were deep and powerful, more so than I thought possible with a pair of modest-sized drivers. I’m sure the dual six-and-a-half-inch passive radiators helped. The bass licks had snap and, even during the most violent portions of the song, each instrument maintained its individuality. The speakers are rated down to 46Hz and I have no reason to doubt this spec’s validity.

At extreme volumes, however, the laws of physics once again showed that small speakers can only move so much air, regardless of power or cabinet design, and the instruments began to smear together and the bass started to get a little bloated. The average consumer will probably never reach these limits, but if they do, they can simply power on the HPS12HO sub – more on that later.

I noticed that the upper frequencies had more energy than I am used to, but not overly so. My ears are very sensitive to aggressive tweeters and I was able to listen to the Bostons for hours on end with no fatigue. Boston uses a one inch Korec soft dome tweeter throughout the Horizon speaker line. I typically prefer a soft dome to a hard dome of some exotic material, as soft domes just seem more forgiving and listenable, although some will argue that this is at the expense of ultimate detail. When listening to Dave Matthews “Lover Lay Down” from Under the Table and Dreaming (RCA), Carter’s cymbal work came through with clarity and intimacy.

If I had to find one area to fault the HS450s, it would be the midrange, specifically vocals. This portion of the spectrum seemed to be a touch more attenuated than the rest. While listening to “Bullet the Blue Sky” from U2’s Joshua Tree (Island), Bono seemed to be singing behind the rest of the band, not out front as expected. I am not entirely surprised by this, considering the fact that the little drivers did such a good job on bass. I would assume the enclosure’s design is optimized for bass performance, so there must be a trade-off somewhere and this was it.

With the two-channel listening done, I switched gears to home theater mode and situated the remaining three speakers around my theater area. After all the hook-ups and optimizations were complete, I sat down for a listen. This was obviously what the Horizon system was designed for.

The center did a wonderful job with dialogue and, as expected, it blended perfectly with the mains, as did the surrounds. This is the sign of a strong center speaker. I generally expect these types of results from more expensive speakers, so I was pleasantly surprised.

One of my favorite movies of all time is 1990’s Oscar Award-winning Goodfellas (Warner Home Video), which tells the story of Henry Hill and his rise through the ranks of a mob family. The story is told in the first person, with Henry (Ray Liotta) talking directly to the audience. His voice is textured and clear, but for me, the tale is told by the background music, which runs the spectrum from Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis to The Rolling Stones and The Who. It all sounded fantastic.

The Sony Playstation 3 has become somewhat of an addiction of mine since I received it as a gift for Christmas. The game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare can blur hours into what seem like minutes as I hunt down enemies and try my best to end their virtual lives. The HS60s in the rear proved absolutely vital for saving my own skin, as I was able to detect faint footsteps behind me as would-be assassins tried to sneak up and put a knife in my back. They also really rocked when F-15s dropped cluster bombs on my head. The dynamic range of these little bookshelf speakers really impressed me.

The real thunder, however, was provided by the aforementioned HPS12HO. The sub is small enough to get stashed in a corner or under a TV without much objection from the wife. It can also be dressed up in any of the colored grilles that I mentioned earlier.

I played with the crossover and gain until it was just right for my listening tastes. It was obvious that this sub was designed to work with these speakers, as it added to the system without detracting in any way. It rolled in just as the HS450s began running out of steam in the lower frequencies. As good as the 450s were alone, they became that much better with the sub. Bass became more authoritative with additional weight and power.

As I watched Spider-Man 3 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), the room shook in the scene where the corner of a skyscraper got ripped away as a giant I-beam crashed through the windows. Massive chunks of the building, and a beautiful actress, came crashing to the ground. Spider-Man swooped in at the last second to save her, and the low-frequency fireworks were as impressive as the visual special effects. Another magical scene to my ears was when villain Sandman was formed from rivers of gravel. The sound of the gravel as it writhed along like a snake was just amazing. I found myself watching this scene over and over just for the coolness factor.

The Downside
I have yet to come across a product which is perfect, and as much as I enjoyed the Horizon system, I’m afraid that is still true for a couple of reasons. First of all, these speakers really work best on smooth, hard surfaces, such as hardwood flooring. I noticed that, on my carpeting, they were very easy to knock over, even with a slight nudge. If you have small children, or large dogs as I do, then you need to be aware of this, as more than likely they will get bumped and topple over. The finish is sturdy enough to hold up to the fall; however, your expensive new flat panel television might not be. Luckily for me, I placed the speakers just out of range and an expensive impact was avoided.

Secondly, I would recommend using banana plugs to connect speaker cables, or be gentle when tightening down the posts onto bare cable. I had one of the binding posts break while tightening down the terminal onto bare cable. I assume that my breakage was a fluke, but my past experience with Boston Acoustic products has been nothing but exceptional. As I stated earlier, nothing is perfect.

The Horizon 5.1 system reminded me that the folks in Peabody (pronounced correctly “P-bdddy”), Massachusetts really know how to design pieces which work together, like my old car system. I’m happy to report that this is one of those instances where the sum of the parts exceeds the individual pieces.

What I sometimes forget in this hobby is that, more often than not, it makes sense to use equipment designed to work together. I know it seems logical but I, like many, sometimes get lost in the specs and the “gotta have it” factor. I try to mix and match components that seem like they should work together and result in a touchdown. Sometimes I get lucky and find the end zone – sometimes I get a chop block and end up with a torn ACL (sorry, I’m watching the Super Bowl as I type this). What I’m trying to say is that consumers should trust companies like Boston Acoustics to know what they are doing.

At the end of the day, I was really impressed with the Horizon 5.1 system. For a little more than $1,600 retail, a consumer can bring home a full 5.1 speaker system, which not only looks great, but can also really kick ass. Yes, it has a few flaws, specifically if you are a two-channel enthusiast, but this is not what the system was designed for, in my opinion. For movies and TV, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the system and wondered if there was a need for a mega-buck surround package when so much fun could be had for so little. If you’re shopping in this price range for a surround system, I highly recommend you put Boston Acoustic on your demo list.
Manufacturer Boston Acoustics
Model Horizon Speaker System
Reviewer Jim Swantko

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