Philips Fidelio E5
If you want hassle-free surround sound but think the type generated by soundbars is some kind of evil magic that ought to be STAMPED OUT or an emperor's new clothes-type lie perpetrated by devious marketing folk, Philips has just the thing.
The £699 Fidelio E5 (available October 2013) transforms from a true 2.1 active speaker system to a true 4.1 system. The speakers are composed of two sections: when the top parts are sitting on the bottom 'mother' speakers they act as a single unified speaker, and when lifted off, they become the surround satellites for a Dolby Digital/DTS home cinema sound system. You just lift, walk, place, and put them back when the film's over.
The wireless connection between the two sections is lossless and synchronised, so the surround sound mode should work without any effort or setup on your part. Operating separately of the mother speakers, they have 10 hours of battery life, and when reunited they recharge to full in four hours. Whatever mode they're in, their output is augmented by a dedicated 90W sub which is also wirelessly and losslessly connected to the setup.
There are dual HDMI inputs (with ARC so you can boost your TV's sound), as well as Bluetooth aptX for streaming music and NFC for simple pairing of wireless gadgets.
Testing the transformation with Transformers
Sounds good doesn't it? But does it actually sound good? In our brief ears-on at IFA watching (rather fittingly) Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the surround mode was palpably different to the stereo, with multichannel effects coming through loud and clear and decent weight added by the sub.
We didn't listen long enough to make a judgement on the quality o the sound, and had no price-competitive 5.1 system to compare it to, but the effect was impressive - and there's no doubting the convenience of a completely wire-free, temporary surround system.
Oak, leather and a festival of LEDs
The speakers themselves are quite beautiful things with leather handles and real oak inlays. They don't dock in a particularly satisfying fashion, though, and we can't help but think they'd look better in surround mode if a contactless inductive charging method had been employed. A festival of LED flashes also greets the satellites when freshly docked, and although Philips says they're dimmable, we worry they might be distracting.
AV aficionados will scoff at the lack of control you get over in-depth settings, and could bemoan the fact that the front centre channel of 5.1 soundtracks is folded into the output of the mother speakers. But this system isn't for AV aficionados: it's for people who want their Saturday night rental to have a bit more Leicester Square about it, without the trailing wires or speaker mounts drilled into walls. Or the tourists.
Pending a full test of the audio quality, we think the E5 is an ingenious system that could bring real surround to homes where such a thing would previously have been unthinkable. Shrewd work.