Equipment Review No. 1   March 2002

Kenwood/Boston Acoustics Unity System
$1200
Kenwood USA Corporation
2201 E. Dominguez St.
Long Beach, CA 90801
310-639-9000 (voice)
800-536-9663 (toll free)
310-604-4487 (fax)
http://www.kenwoodusa.com

Basic Description

DVD Receiver with 6 speaker surround system; plays DVD, CD, MP3, CD-R, CD-RW, and VCDs; DTS, DD, DPLII, CS-5.1, and DSP modes; 100W 8” woofer, 5 2-way satellites w/ 3” midrange and 1” tweeter; universal remote for TV, VCR, cable/SAT; 3 digital inputs, 1 digital output; composite, S-video, and component output; 1 year parts and labor warranty; main unit measures 17 5/16” W x 3 11/16” H x 16 1/8” D.

Note: Power output is rated (with all channels driven) 25W x 5 channels at 1kHz with 10% THD.


Equipment

RCA 25” television, Toshiba M754 VCR, Toshiba 34HF81 (video tests)


Setup - Connections

Included with the system is a large two-sided sheet that explains how to connect both audio and video sources, including the speaker system. The DVD/receiver unit was too deep to fit in my cabinet, so I had to position it in a slot above. The speakers are labeled and color coded on back for minimal confusion. The wire comes with plugs that slip onto the connections on the back of the receiver, and are color coded (as well) to make hookup easy. Rubber feet are supplied for all speakers including the subwoofer.

Just for kicks, I made my girlfriend make the audio connections and position the speakers. She is not the most knowledgeable about audio/video components and I was curious to see if she could figure it all out. (I thought this would be a valuable exercise to see how a person of average audio savvy would do. After a few minutes she had it all connected, and everything worked the first time (which is more than I can sometimes say for myself!)) Once we had the system going she exclaimed, “I want one too!”

On the back of the unit there are composite and s-video connections, and both of these outputs as well as component for DVD. There are also analog and digital inputs and outputs for a variety of sources that you may want to connect to the Unity system. On the front there are audio and video inputs as well; perhaps they would be used for a gaming system or camcorder.

The unit has a fan that helps keep it cool. I left the unit on continually during the review period, so the fan did come on. It was not loud; although when the room was totally quiet it was possible to hear it blowing from a foot or two away. Also, the DVD unit was audible, but very low in level. Any sound from the system itself (music/soundtrack) would make the sound coming from the unit a non-issue. If the unit were placed inside a cabinet, then I would think that it would never be a problem.


Setup - Remote

The codes required to program the remote control are located in the last pages of the user manual. I programmed the remote to control my television and VCR. It will also control a cable box or satellite receiver, although I never had a chance to use this in my system. I did wish the remote was backlit, but otherwise it was easy to use, and well laid out. All the sources had direct inputs that made operation super easy.

When I wanted to use the VCR, I just pushed the VCR button and the receiver switched to the VCR input, and I had control over the functions of the VCR. I was still able to turn the volume up and down or switch surround modes as necessary. Normally, I would push TV, press (device) POWER, and then hit the VCR button. Once the TV is on, all you do is push the device buttons and you are ready to go.

The remote gives you complete control of the unit, but you are also able to control the unit directly from the front. I find this a huge plus—I like being able to switch source, change volume, etc from the front of the unit.


Setup - Manual

The manual is organized like other Kenwood manuals. In other words, as long as you take the time to go through the entire manual, you can be an expert on the Unity system. They do, however, need to get a professional to proofread the manual who speaks English. Luckily, these errors don’t cause trouble understanding the text.

Aside from the spelling errors, I was able to go page by page and learn all the functions of the Unity system. The early pages cover connections in detail, and describe the buttons on the remote and the front of the unit. There is a nice display that indicates surround mode (DTS, DD, Pro Logic, DSP, or CS-5.1), what speakers are functioning, and input—all that without looking cluttered in the slightest. The display lights up when you are activating something on the unit, and then dims again in an idle position. The last surround mode used is remembered for each input, so it is not necessary to switch modes each time you change sources—another important feature.

Much of the manual is devoted to explanation of the DVD/CD/MP3/VCD player. For those of you who have used these types of components in the past, nothing should come as a surprise feature-wise. For those who have the capability to burn MP3 discs on their computer (or in another device), you will be rewarded in the fact that the Unity system can handle these discs and they can be navigated on-screen. The setup menu is important for setting up TV shape, rating restrictions, etc.

There are two pages devoted to the different surround options and what they do. There is also description on how to adjust the parameters when using the DPLII modes. The next page is important and covers speaker placement and adjustment. There is a nice diagram and suggested placement options and distances that will provide the best sound. I was able to install the speakers in almost exactly the preferred positions (excepting the surround speaker height). The manual states that the speaker levels have been pre-adjusted for normal use. However, if you want to change the levels to achieve the best match possible, you can. With the test tone running, I did not need to change the levels in my room.


Tuner

The first source I tried was the tuner. I started at the low end of the FM band and started programming stations into memory. The unit stores up to 30 stations, and I programmed in about 10 in no time at all. You can manually or automatically tune stations, and cycle through presets as well. The station display is easily visible from 10’ away. The on-screen menu (for the TV) worked on DVD/CD/MP3 discs, but not on the tuner.

After positioning the loose wire antenna (included), I was able to get fairly good reception for the major radio stations in Los Angeles. I was even able to receive 88.1 (for those who are in the LA area know how hard this station can be to receive)! Overall, the tuner performance was very good. I favored using the Circle Surround mode over any of the other modes for listening to the radio.


Surround Modes

In addition to DD and DTS modes, the Unity system gives you the opportunity to use Dolby Pro-Logic II (for music and film) and Circle Surround (primarily for music). There are also Arena, Jazz Club, Theater, Stadium, and Disco DSP modes. To change modes from the remote is as easy as pushing the “Listening Mode” button. The unit will display the current surround mode in the window, and then by pushing the button again, you can cycle through the various surround modes. DD and DTS are exceptions and are auto-detecting. And, of course, there is normal stereo mode as well.

These different modes are described in the review for the Kenwood VR-510 receiver in the “Listening- Surround Modes” section of that review.


Listening - Film

I tried a variety of different source material with the Kenwood Unity system including radio, DVD, CD, videotape, and broadcast television. In every case, the system worked without a hiccup. With CD I preferred to listen in the stereo mode, but with radio I preferred CS-5.1. The DPLII music mode wasn’t bad either, but I liked the envelopment with CS-5.1 vs. a slightly out-of-phase quality with DPLII. It is easy enough to determine which mode you prefer by the click of a button.

I put on a battle scene from Private Ryan on the DTS Sampler #4. Dialogue came across particularly well, and I didn’t feel the system was overloading with moderate to louder playback levels. The speakers are not large, and neither is the amplifier, so some care should be taken regarding room size and/or playback level. My room measure approximately 12’ x 15’ and I sat on the bed (on the far wall) during the listening. There was a slight lack of fullness from the satellites, but it was not objectionable, and overall the sound was very good. The bass was also much better than I expected—providing lots of rumbling and other effects during this scene. Because all the speakers are identical in terms of driver complement, they produced a solid illusion of space without any detraction that is common if the speakers are not tonally matched. There was a very slight lack of smoothness in the high frequencies, but that is unavoidable at this price. Frankly, I was amazed at how great the effects sounded with this clip. The speakers had the uncanny ability to sound much bigger than they had any right to. And unlike some single-driver “cube” speakers, they were large enough to reproduce lower midrange and upper bass without excessive distortion.

With chapter 15 from Little Man Tate, piano came across very nicely, and ambient effects were good. There was some sibilance on the dialogue, but tonally the sound was well balanced. On chapter 11, the speakers showed their size. There was not quite the richness that you’d find with a larger speaker system, but this would only be noticeable to more critical listeners. Bass notes are taut, but not as defined as more expensive subwoofers, although the quantity of bass was never an issue. On chapter 12, the louder sounds in the midrange could sound a little bit constrained, but given the price of the system it is hard to complain.

I began to watch a few scenes from The Fifth Element and almost couldn’t stop watching. During chapter 10, there is an elevator that passes by Leeloo while she is standing on a ledge, and the sheer power of it made me forget that I was listening to a $1200 system—it was encompassing, and made me slip right into the film. Again, I was given another reminder of how much bigger the speaker system sounded than it looked. With the “Diva” scene, chapter 26, the Unity system reproduced the track with great clarity. Only when the sound got more complex and higher in level was there a lack of resolution—it could be described as a resonance at certain frequencies that detracted from what was otherwise an impressive performance.


Listening- Music

For the music auditioning, I used CDs exclusively. I started with track 1, “Summertime,” from the Sunday’s Static and Silence. I found the bass to be punchy with good mid-bass performance. The subwoofer is not the ultimate in resolution, but what do you expect? There was a slight spittiness on vocals and some congestion, but otherwise sound was good. Listening to straight music, I find, is always more revealing than watching movies when trying to determine the quality of the sound. This system won’t transport you to audiophile nirvana, but it surely won’t embarrass itself either. I think it was a smart decision for Kenwood to team up with Boston Acoustics with this system. It will help with marketing and sales of the system, but it no doubt helped to bring forth a superior sounding product.

Next up was track 2, the title track, from Charles Lloyd’s The Water Is Wide. Instrumental music can be quite revealing of audio systems, and this recording really helped to show the successes and the limitations of the Unity system. The horn was not quite as real sounding (tonally), and it was presented with a bit of congestion and nasality. Cymbals however, had a pleasant quality, but were a little lacking in clarity. Bass was tight and defined, and you could hear the notes slide up and down the range. Piano sound was likewise good, and didn’t interfere with the sound of the other instruments. Imaging is not as good as more expensive systems, but very good, considering price. The fact that this system includes a DVD player along with a receiver and speaker system really pushes it over the edge in terms of value.

For something a little different I put on track 2, “Loungin’,” from Guru’s Jazzmatazz. This disc contains a gentle mix of hip-hop and light rap, and combines jazz samples and instrumentals for a head bopping experience. I was groovin’ away to the sound in no time. Voice was slightly recessed in the mix, and blended together with the other musical imagery. Tonally, the sound was good, and the instrumentation came off as easy and non-fatiguing. If you have to find fault with the system, it is in resolution capability. It just can’t compete with more expensive systems—and I don’t think it is really meant to.

I listened to two different tracks off the Telarc Collection 1 classical music sampler (CD-98101). The first piece was track 3, Bizet’s Aragonaise. Right away I noticed the soundfield had an illusion of depth. The soundstage was wide and expansive belying the size of the speaker system. Dynamics were good, but there was also a nice sense of delicacy. Strings weren’t completely free of coloration, although this was not distracting or objectionable by any means.

The second piece was track 9, Durufle’s Sanctus. The chorus on this recording was big and mellow. The resultant sound was not as crystal clear as with much more expensive systems, but the system did a decent job. I’ve heard more expensive systems that did not sound nearly as good as the Unity system. The subwoofer’s bass did a nice job of reinforcing a solid foundation present in the musical content.


Video Performance

I sampled two DVD’s from the component outputs to verify that the Unity system has a competent DVD player. With chapter 2 from A Knight’s Tale, I was impressed by the good color rendition and the fluidity of the image. I could even see film grain in parts—the picture was so clean. Overall, the image was sharp, and you shouldn’t be concerned about the video quality from the DVD. I also checked out chapter 2 from The Messenger. Image was excellent on this disc as well. On a larger screen size there may have been more to see, but this set is of very good quality and had me convinced that the in the video department the Unity system is no slouch.


Conclusion

The Kenwood/ Boston Unity system is so much better than what I envision a HTIB (Home Theater In a Box) to be. In the past, some of these systems did not even include a DVD player at this price point, making the Unity system an even better value. Combining the electronics skill of the Kenwood design staff, along with the established reputation of Boston Acoustics speaker systems, makes a lot of sense. The system worked as advertised and provided a level of sound quality that I thought would be impossible at this price. If you are in the market for a simple-to-operate, and not-too-expensive home theater system for a bedroom, or you don’t want to spend mega-bucks, then the Unity system could be the system for you. Now I just have to pry the remote away from my girlfriend!

- Brian Bloom     big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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