Sony Core SSCS3, SSCS8, and SACS9 settings/mini review
I'm an old time member, but haven't posted anything in years while I was going down a huge rabbit hole of high-end headphones and amps, including several on the tube darkside. Well, I've come out of that hole and wanted to get back into home theater while spending a small-to-modest budget because I will always revert back to my headphone rig(s) for critical music listening.
I wanted a 3.0 system for a small room (although I finally went to 3.1, more about that later), and I settled on the Sony Cores (CS3 towers, CS8 center, and CS9 subwoofer). I know the Cores have very mixed reviews on this forum, so I wanted to give my insights to help anyone on the fence about these. There are also many who feel the bookshelf CS5 is better than the tower CS3. I opted for the towers over the bookshelves because my initial plan was a 3.0 system to be used heavily for music. I've heard some very high-end home theaters, and I knew I could never approach that level of sound, so I didn't even try to or convince myself I could magically find some hidden inexpensive miracle gem. I feel that I have a decently tuned and discerning ear that was developed over the years of headphone listening and listening to high end stereos of close friends.
I also got a new receiver to drive them, the Sony STR-DH590. It replaced my dying Yamaha RX-V467, which was a champ, but started showing its age and was starting to fail in some areas. Again, this was a budget decision to go with the base Sony.
In short, the Sony Core system punches way above its price point. Some people here call them a little gem that Sony seems to put out every so often, and I'll completely agree with that. They are much better than my older Sonys (the SS-F series), but of course they will fall short of speakers costing much more. I knew this going in because I didn't want to blow my budget.
My use is about 50% music and 50% TV/movies. I can tell immediately that the towers are voiced for home theater, but they do perform admirably with music, especially with a subwoofer (more about that below).
Without going into too much detail about how I went through all the tweaking, I started with a 3.0 setup first. Based on my room and the high proportion of music listening, I thought this would be a good entry point. I ran the DCAC PEQ and kept the default settings (engineering sound effect). I liked the sound of them immediately. The towers put out ample bass and the highs were crisp and clear. In fact, the bass was very prominent, and I can see how many people would like this. On-axis soundstage was ok, but I've heard much better. Honestly, the center is fine, and dialogue is very clear, especially male voices, so I don't know where the dislike for the center comes from. It's a good match with the other Cores you'll get for your L and R channels.
After doing some critical listening, and referencing the sound quality to my headphone rig, I realized I had to tweak the sound quite a bit. For starters, the bass was boomy, which was most likely due to speaker placement and room properties, as they were in the corners of the small room. I couldn't redo the room much (it's a rental). With limited EQ controls at my disposal, I tried to reduce the boominess, and the only way to do so was set the PEQ to full flat. However, this made the rest of the sound feel flat and dull.
Anyway, I decided a subwoofer would help in many ways, and since I already exhausted my budget, I didn't have much to spend on one, so I got the Sony Core. I know this isn't well liked around here, but I can say it sounds just fine, and it's much better than my older Sony SA-W2500 by a decent margin. Bass is controlled just fine. Does it sound like a Hsu? Of course not, but it pairs nicely with the Sony Cores, which was the point of its designers.
Adding the subwoofer did immensely help my setup in my small room. I ran the PEQ again, but then I manually the L and R to small and the cross-over at 80 hz. After which, all the boominess was gone. Bass was much more controlled and less fatiguing. I also noticed the soundstage opened up and the mids and highs were more controlled and refined, which is expected when the amp and speakers are relieved of running the full sound spectrum.
I experimented with different crossover points. The sound transition was seamless from 80-110 hz, but going above 110 hz made the bass wooly and boomy, and below 80 hz the sound lacked body in addition to bass. Either my room has some weird acoustics or the +/- 3 db for towers most definitely isn't 45 hz. as Sony claims. I saw a graph online that the bass starts falling off a cliff at 70 hz, so my preliminary findings of setting the crossover at 80 hz seems to unscientifically confirm that.
I tweaked other settings, including trying the full flat and front reference sound fields, and while they sounded better than before adding the subwoofer, I still ultimately settled on the engineering field. It sounded the most open. Front reference was warmer, which I liked, but it was still a l little congested and had a slight reduction in imaging. The front reference was still pretty close to the engineering setting (which is Sony's studio standard), so this tells me the speakers were designed and voiced pretty close to this standard. Full flat completely changes the sound signature.
After spending a few days with the Cores, I went back to my old system of Sony SS-F series speakers and Yamaha receiver, and the difference was immediately noticeable. The older SS-F series were more hollow, yet bass was much less controlled. While I believe those were voiced for theater too, they have more musical limitations than the newer Cores.
So, in conclusion, if anyone is on the fence about the Core speakers (any of them), I think they are well worth their price and put out good-to-very-good sound. A few tweaks, especially crossing over the towers with a subwoofer, will make them sound even better.