Surround sound. The future of audio, the only way to experience your movies, games, TV and music, right? Well, actually, no. Sure, surround is great at times, but usually, good old-fashioned stereo will do fine.
Surround setups need lots of speakers and lots of cables, and everything has to be in exactly the right place to get the balance correct. Which is all a bit of a pain, especially if you only want the surround on when you’re watching the occasional movie.
This is where the Philips Fidelio E6 comes in.
The Philips Fidelio E6 is a 5.1 surround sound system disguised as a pair of stereo speakers and a sub. Intended to be used in stereo mode most of the time, for listening to music and for normal television, it can transform into surround mode in seconds for when you want the full immersive sonic experience for movies and games.
The system consists of two main speaker units, two satellite speakers and a subwoofer. It’s fully active, with the amplifiers and processors housed within the speakers themselves. They’re well made and have an understated style, wrapped in grey woollen mesh. The main speakers are not that large, and really need stands to get them at the right height, especially if you have a massive TV.
The satellites, which sit on top of the left and right speakers in stereo mode, have brown leather handles, and lift off to be positioned either side of the listener for surround on demand mode. They’re powered by internal batteries that charge when they’re docked, so the should never run out of power unless you embark on an all-day movie binge. Input options are two standard HDMI sockets, and a third that supports ARC.
For audio connections you have digital optical, coaxial and a 3.5mm mini jack socket. There are also USB and Ethernet connections. The system comes with a remote control, which is small but not too small, for changing the volume, input and various other settings.
The system is nice and easy to set up. A two-meter long nine-pin DIN cable connects the left and right speakers, and the sub connects wirelessly. Everything you need comes straight out of the box, no extra cables required.
Once plugged in, the system picked up the sub on its own network instantly, and it only took a few minutes using Philips’ HCWeSet manager app to connect the system itself to our home network. This, and agreeing to the terms and conditions of the services and the privacy agreements that allow you to cast and use Spotify, is all the app is actually used for, unlike many modern systems which have a dedicated control app.
This is good in a way – so many products these days are let down by a badly made, hard-to-use app that’s essential to use the thing – but having a physical remote doesn’t quite fit with the E6’s future-proof approach. It would be good to have the option of controlling the system from a tablet or phone as well, for those inevitable remote-down-the-back-of-the-sofa moments.
As a stereo system, the E6 does a great job. The bass is tight despite the sub having a wireless connection, which can often lead to latency issues. The overall sound is bright, powerful and can go very loud, the sub especially so. It can be quite overpowering if you’re listening to bass-heavy music, and we generally found ourselves using the EQ to turn it down unless we were listening at low volumes. Still, having too much bass is way better than not having enough.
The E6 supports both Spotify connect and Google cast, allowing you to play music wirelessly from all manner of devices. If that isn’t enough then you can always use Bluetooth, or plug in a USB drive. Connecting more traditional audio equipment, like a CD player, isn’t so easy – the only analogue input is a 3.5mm minijack – but the E6 is all about the modern digital approach to things, and it’s not really aimed at hi-fi fanatics.
As a stereo system the E6 is pretty good. But the real magic happens in surround-on-demand mode. Simply lift the tops off the main speakers and place them either side of where you’re sitting, run a quick setup and you’re good to go.
Whereas traditional surround sound speakers need to be positioned in exactly the right spot in relation to the listener for the surround effect to work, as long as the E6 satellites are in roughly the right place the system can compensate for their position and balance the sound itself. It does this by playing a specially designed tonal signal, which locates each of the rear speakers and adjusts the levels so they act like they’re positioned where they should be.
This means you can just plonk them on top of a shelf or pile of stuff, and the sound should still be perfectly balanced. We tried this with the speakers in all manner of silly setups around the room, and it really does work very well, although obviously they do sound best if they’re close to head height and each one is at a similar distance from the main speakers. Wireless connections usually have a little delay compared to wired speakers, so we were expecting some latency issues, but surprisingly we didn’t notice any problems at all.
And that’s not the only trick the satellites have up their sleeves. Both function as separate Bluetooth speakers, and they can be paired together and used as a stereo Bluetooth system as well. Although they lack the weight of the main system, they do the job if you want to chill outside or watch a film in bed on your laptop.
As well as the satellite speakers using clever processing to create the soundstage, the left and right speakers use more sonic trickery to create a virtual center speaker, with each unit housing an angled driver that projects the center channel audio inwards to create the impression of a speaker sat directly below the screen. Combined with the satellites, this gives the E6 a really good surround experience, as good as any 5.1 wired system we’ve heard. It’s detailed, but subtle, thanks to the satellites having less bass than the front speakers, and the convenience and ease of use give it a definite edge over a standard wired 5.1 system.
Philips has hit on a great concept with its wireless surround systems. Most TV works best in stereo, and most people don’t watch films frequently enough to justify having a full surround system running all the time. The option of having surround when you want it, rather than all the time, is novel at first, but once you get used to it you really come appreciate it.
The streaming options make it a future-proof audio system that can play really loud, and the ability to use the satellites as standalone Bluetooth speakers is a nice little bonus.
Surround-on-demand mode really is impressive. The processing used to calibrate to satellites, combined with the virtual center speaker, create a very accurate soundstage even if the speakers aren’t in the ideal position. The complete lack of latency means you really wouldn’t know it was a wireless system if nobody told you – leaving aside the fact that you don’t have wires running all over the place.
The left main speaker has a display on it telling you which input you’re running off, or what mode you are in – this can’t be turned off, only dimmed, and with the lights out it’s really bright, even when on its lowest dimmer setting. Most people probably won’t notice this, but for some it will become annoying.
The lack of a control app is an oversight, especially in this day and age of controlling everything from your phone. The system also really needs speaker stands to elevate the main speakers to the right height. For an all-singing, all-dancing system like this it wouldn’t have hurt Philips to include some in the box, especially at this price point.
The Fidelio E6 system is a clever idea, and it plays all its different roles fairly well. It’s a good stereo, a great surround system, and an okay Bluetooth speaker. If you’re a serious movie buff you may want to look elsewhere, as it doesn’t quite compete with a full wired 7.1 surround system, and an audiophile would probably prefer something less booming.
But if you’re looking for an audio solution for a small space like a studio flat, and you like your movies, then the E6 would be ideal. It does have a few issues, but nothing major, and most importantly the Fidelio E6 holds its own and then some against a traditional wired 5.1 system. It’s well worth a look.
By Alastair Marr
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