Back in 2013 we were blown away by Philips’ HTL9100, an innovative soundbar with a pair of detachable wireless speakers that you can whip out whenever you’re in the mood for surround sound. Philips calls it ‘Surround on Demand’.
Now, Philips (or more accurately Woox Innovations, the company that develops and sells Philips-branded AV gear) has incorporated this clever idea into the 2.1 channel Fidelio E5, but this time the front speakers feature detachable tops that can be used as rears at the back of the room. It’s the dream audio solution for anyone who’s allergic to clutter.
The E5 is a beautifully designed system. The main body of each speaker is dressed in woolly black cloth that wraps around its curved edges, and build quality is superb. The cabinets are taller and chunkier than most 2.1 system speakers but that just means there’s more of them to love.
The left speaker’s rubber control panel houses volume, input and Bluetooth buttons and an NFC connection tag. The same speaker is also fitted with a small LED that glows red, white or blue to indicate its status.
The top speakers’ stylish silver grille complements the black cloth nicely when docked, while the classy cedar wood finish and leather handle on top make them easy to pick up.
The detachable speakers sit fairly loosely on top – we were expecting them to click more securely into place – but the concave shape holds them steady enough. The system detects when they’re docked and reconfigures them for use as a single speaker. An LED in each speaker fires up when your detach them, which glows in different colours to indicate how much battery life is left (they charge up when docked). The system uses proprietary wireless audio technology that operates without network interference.
All of the AV connections are located on the back of the left speaker, and selection is generous. It includes two HDMI v1.4 inputs and an ARC-compatible output (which passes through 3D but not 4K), optical and coaxial digital inputs and a 3.5mm minijack input – the only thing missing is a USB port. The right speaker connects to the mains and communicates with the left speaker over a single cable.
The wireless subwoofer is tall, narrow and styled in the same winning combination of black cloth and cedar wood. Again, a single LED tells you that the sub is active, but there are no other buttons or sockets to worry about.
Those detachable speakers are the main attraction but the E5 doesn’t skimp on features elsewhere. There’s Bluetooth with apt-X and AAC support, one-touch NFC pairing and Audio Return Channel support.
Philips has kept audio processing to a minimum but there’s a surround sound mode that kicks in when the top speakers are docked, while the sub’s Double Bass technology gives low frequencies a leg up.
SEE ALSO: Best Wireless Speakers Round-up
There’s also built-in Dolby Digital 5.1 decoding and Dolby Pro Logic II. You can feed a Dolby Digital bitstream into the E5 from a Blu-ray deck through the optical or HDMI inputs and enjoy discrete surround sound, with a virtual centre channel completing the 5.1 experience. The lack of HD audio decoding is a shame but not a deal-breaker.
In terms of spec the E5 musters 120W of power, with the subwoofer chipping in 90W. Each main speaker uses a 3in full-range woofer and a 1in soft dome tweeter, while the surround speakers use a single 2.5in full range driver. The sub packs a 6.5in woofer.
Setup is quick and easy. Once you’ve connected the two main speakers and hooked up your external kit, you’re pretty much good to go – the wireless surrounds and subwoofer are all paired out the box. We used ARC to pass sound from a Samsung TV and it worked like a charm. The only hassle was remembering to activate HDMI-CEC in the TV’s setup menu.
The E5 is controlled using a stylish oval-shaped remote with large, clearly-labelled buttons. Dedicated controls let you adjust bass, treble and audio delay, plus you can easily switch inputs using the pad at the top. The ‘Surr. Sound’ keys turn the surround sound mode on or off when docked.
The lack of an LED display makes operation a little cryptic, but it doesn't take long to work out what all the flashing lights mean.
Pushing the E5 right in at the deep end with Pacific Rim on Blu-ray, it makes light work of the movie’s massive battle scenes. When the first Jaeger/Kaiju clash occurs off the Alaskan coast, the E5 fills the room with a big and exciting soundstage, populated by crisp effects and huge waves of bass. The sense of scale is impressive, helped no doubt by those roomy speaker cabinets.
There’s a deep thump when the Jaeger slams its fists into the monster’s head, and the impact of metal on bone has real bite and aggression. The tone is vigorous but not brash, which means you can listen to those brutal effects at high volumes without getting a migraine.
The E5’s sound is also remarkably crisp, a sonic characteristic carried over from the HTL9100. During the battle scenes it effortlessly picks out the hiss of crashing waves and the electric crackle of the Jaeger’s plasma cannon, in turn making everything sound open and detailed.
You can also hear this excellent high-frequency reproduction during the movie’s few tranquil moments. At the Kaiju wall building site, the gentle background chatter and gentle flutter of sparks from the workers’ machinery comes through clearly. Dialogue is also lucid and authoritative.
SEE ALSO: Best Surround Sound Systems
If the E5 has a weakness it’s the surround speakers. Their smaller full-range drivers lack the bass extension and finesse of the main speakers, resulting in a slightly thinner sound across the rear soundfield. But because they’re only handling less demanding surround information it’s not a huge problem. And to their credit, they tease out plenty of detail and generate an immersive soundstage with clear, accurately-placed effects.
When they’re docked and surround sound mode is engaged, the surround speakers focus on high-frequency information in a bid to improve width and openness. It’s not particularly effective.
Bear in mind that if you connect your TV to the E5 using ARC or optical, you might have to sacrifice discrete surround sound. While it’s technically possible for TVs to pass a Dolby Digital bitstream through their optical or ARC ports, most sets convert the signal into stereo PCM, like our Samsung TV.
This isn’t a fault of the E5, but it does have unfortunate consequences. With a PCM signal, the E5’s surround speakers simply replicate what’s coming through the front speakers, which not only sounds odd (particularly when you have dialogue coming from all four speakers) but having to reproduce a wider frequency range also exposes the limitations of the surround speakers. Therefore your best bet is to connect your Blu-ray deck directly to the E5’s optical or HDMI inputs.
Playing a range of music via Bluetooth and CD reveals the E5 as a terrific hi-fi system, provided you turn the surround sound mode off when the top speakers are docked. The speakers’ dynamic tone bring excitement to uptempo tunes, while more elegant genres like jazz and classical benefit from the E5’s clear detail reproduction and refinement. There’s a lovely balance across the frequency range, while punchy, agile bass from the subwoofer makes everything sound full-bodied.
Soundbars are all well and good, but the E5 is proof that you can have a space-saving, clutter-free audio system without sacrificing true surround sound.
The use of detachable wireless surround speakers is pure genius because you can whip them out when it’s movie time then stow them away neatly when you’re done. Frankly we’re surprised more companies aren’t doing it.
But a good idea won’t justify £600 on its own – what seals the deal is the E5’s gorgeous design, generous features and wonderful sound quality, which is right up there with systems like the Tannoy BaseStation One and Samsung HW-H750.
Negatives are few and far between, but the thin-sounding surround speakers and the lack of USB ports, HD audio support and 4K passthrough are minor blots on the copybook.
Polished performance, classy looks and wireless surround speakers make Philips’ ingenious 2.1 system money well spent, despite some minor shortcomings.
Next, check out our pick of the Best Surround Sound Systems