To help give you an idea of how the iDomes sound, we tested them with a wide variety of movies, games and music. While the DS500 and SW510 are separate products, they are also sold together as a bundle so we tested them together as one unit. We tested the iDomes over a period of several weeks to allow the speakers to properly "burn in" and reach their full potential. This extra time also allowed us test the iDomes with a very wide range of material.
After the iDomes had a chance to burn in, we begin our music listening tests with Miles Davis' quintessential jazz album, Kind of Blue. The first track on the album, titled "So What", begins with a piano and bass introduction. While normally an enjoyable experience, the bass during the introduction seemed lacking and quiet and we were barely able to make out individual notes in Paul Chamber's expertly played bass line. Increasing the volume on the SW510 subwoofer helped things to a point, but the bass quickly became muddy when we cranked the SW510 past 2/3 volume. Things improved significantly once things picked up as Miles Davis joined in on the trumpet. We noticed immediately how well the DS500s handled the highs, they were crystal clear and very revealing. We were able to hear every nuance in the upper ranges of the music and the mids were also present in abundance. Overall, our first taste of how the iDomes perform was pleasant, although we wished the bass had been more detailed.
Next, we changed gears and moved on to some classic rock. AC/DC's "You shook me all night long" sounded great on the iDomes. The highs were crisp and the bass finally showed signs of life as we had no trouble hearing Phil Rudd's drums. Eric Johnson's virtuoso instrumental "Cliffs of Dover" also sounded great on the iDome's, each note from Eric's Gibson ES-335 sounded crisp and full-bodied, like it should. Moving on to some more modern rock, we queued up Rage Against the Machine's second album, Evil Empire. The iDomes handled the heavy guitars with ease and showed off a solid mid-range which contributed to a very "full" sound.
We then tried out a couple of tracks from several metalcore bands such as As I Lay Dying and Killswitch Engage. Metalcore is a cross between heavy metal music and hardcore punk and this is a genre of music that is characterized by heavy guitars, sparse usage of melody juxtaposed against brutal, often screamed, vocals and frequent employment of rapid machinegun-like double bass. This genre of music is very demanding of speakers and it is a good test of how "tight" a set of speakers are since an especially "melow" or "loose" set of speakers wouldn't be able to keep up with the music's extremely rapid pace. Unfortunately, the iDomes didn't quite pass the test. While the DS500 speakers performed well and the highs and mids were as crisp and full as always, the SW510 subwoofer fell flat trying to reproduce the extremely fast double bass found in the music of many metalcore bands. The bass would often become very muddled to the point where it was near impossible to make out individual drum beats. While listening to metalcore music, we often found it was better to turn off the SW510 altogether since it often made a mess of the bass line.
So far we were very pleased with the performance of the DS500 but we weren't at all impressed by the SW510's sloppiness. We decided to throw some hip-hop and electronic at the iDomes to see if the SW510 was better suited at producing slower, boomy bass. We were rewarded as the iDomes sounded great playing rap albums. We also listened to The Prodigy's latest album and the SW510 filled the room with hearty bass. Overall, we were very impressed by the performance of the DS500 speakers, they produced crisp and clear highs, full mids and sounded great with everything we threw at them. We weren't as impressed with the SW510 which we found to be "loose". We finally found the SW510's forte with rap and electronic music, but even then, the bass wasn't as deep as we would have liked although it did produce abundant volume.
We watched a number of movies while putting the iDomes through their paces. While the 2.1 iDomes weren't able to compete with surround sound setups when it came to positioning and immersiveness, we didn't expect them to. Considering it is a 2.1 system, the iDomes had excellent positional capabilities. We were able to locate things on screen from the sounds they made and it added greatly to the immersiveness of the experience. The DS500's crystal clear highs and full mids made speech easy to discern and brought out details in the sound that helped to make the movies more realistic and believable. Since we like our movies to be theater-loud, we quickly found out that the iDomes were also capable of very impressive volume, given their size. Overall, the DS500 speakers performed well with movies, lending a satisfactory level of imersiveness to our movies.
As with music, we found the performance of the SW510 subwoofer to be a bit less than satisfactory. It simply didn't have the same floor shaking impact that we demand from our movies. Explosions and crashes didn't have enough depth or force as we would have liked. While the bass was certainly present, it wasn't out in force. We also wished the bass was deeper. While we didn't experience the same muddiness that we had with music, the bass often felt "loose" and slow. Overall, we wouldn't say that we were disappointed with the SW510's performance, but we were certainly unimpressed.
In games, we believe that the most important quality that we expect from a set of speakers is spatial positioning. This is especially true for 1st person games of all types (not just shooters), where being able to hear what is happening around you is a great asset. For this reason, a surround sound setup is usually more desirable than a 2.1 setup when it comes to games. However, that doesn't mean that you need a surround sound setup in order to have a sonic edge over your opponents in a game, as anyone who has played Counterstrike with a good pair of headphones will attest. Once again, the DS500 digital speakers shined. The crystal clear highs, full mids and good positioning really helped us pinpoint the source of sounds in our games. We played a couple rounds of Counterstrike with the iDomes. In a tactical shooter like Counterstrike, being able to hear where your enemies are is a huge asset and it really gives you a tangible edge over your opponents. Luckily, the iDomes didn't let us down as we were able to pinpoint, with relative accuracy where enemy gunfire and footsteps were coming from.
While we were once again impressed by the DS500, the SW510 subwoofer let us down again. As with our movie experience, the bass was definitely present, but it wasn't particularly deep or powerful. The explosion of a grenade or the impact of the rocket just didn't have the same satisfying boom as with other speaker sets in this price range, like the Logitech Z-2300s. Ultimately , as with our movie experience, we weren't too disappointed but we definitely weren't impressed either.
Onboard vs Discrete
One of the potential draws of a digital speaker system is the possibility that they will sound equally good connected to an expensive high-end discrete sound card as they would connected to a "free" integrated solution. We put that to the test.
First, we hooked up the iDomes to a Creative Xi-Fi discrete sound card using the optical S/P DIF output. Then we connected the iDomes to the optical S/P DIF output of the Realtek integrated sound card on our motherboard. We were unable to tell the difference. It didn't matter if we were listening to music, watching movies or playing games, the two sound sources sounded identical on the iDomes when we were using the optical S/P DIF connection. Next, we tried the same comparison between the integrated Realtek sound card and the discrete Xi-Fi while using analog connections. The difference was obvious and immediately apparent. There was no mistaking it, the Xi-Fi simply sounded better.
So does this mean that you don't need to buy a sound card if you have the abit iDomes? Yes, for the most part. While the sound quality between the integrated Realtek and the premium Xi-Fi was identical, the Xi-Fi has the advantage of EAX support. However, if your interested in the iDomes, your primary concern probably isn't to play games anyway, so you probably won't miss EAX too much. Since you don't need a discrete sound card to make the iDomes sound good, you can "save" money when you purchase the iDome since you won't need to purchase a discrete sound card. Considering the iDome's relatively high price, for a multimedia speaker set, the fact that you don’t need to purchase a discrete sound card is definitely a plus.