The 5051 is a small compact sound system that looks like a 2.1 setup with a center speaker added. You might call it a kind of "3.1." But let's be clear from the outset: This is indeed a "small" system for close-up listening with a PC. It's not designed to compete with high-powered top-of-the-line systems or to fill a large room.
Its all-black design gives it a reserved look. The controls are on the right satellite, with blue pilot lights, and an infrared remote control is included.
Direct And Reflected Sound
The solution Altec has used to reproduce surround sound using only front speakers has already been used in home theater solutions by other vendors.
This consists of placing the rear speakers towards the side walls and using their acoustic reflectivity to create a time lag and directionality that is offset in relation to the direct sound delivered by the front channels. To do this, the 5051's two side satellites are doubled up. Their lower part has a traditional acoustic system consisting of a full-range speaker, while the upper part contains a second full-range speaker that sends sound both to the outside of the listening triangle and towards the inside (obviously with phase inversion). The rear of this dipole speaker is covered only by a metal acoustic grille.
The operating principle of the 5051 is interesting. Note, however, that all the sounds are pictured as coming from the front. Altec is being honest about that.
A system like this is obviously capable of providing sound reproduction that goes beyond traditional stereo. But it would be naïve to expect it to deliver the same quality that a true 5.1 system with properly placed rear speakers can offer. No sound system can make sounds come from behind you if no sound is being emitted - except maybe a system that would be highly directive and reflect sounds off the rear wall, but no such system exists on the consumer market. Thus, 5.1 speakers will still always come out on top as far as surround sound is concerned. But if you've decided you don't want the trouble of installing rear speakers, Altec's solution is attractive - not only for the surround effect it provides, but also because of its center-channel speaker (that goes on top of or under the monitor), which makes for more realistic reproduction of dialogue in movies.