Dell XPS 27 - An all-in-one PC powerhouse with BIG sound baked right in!

Ever hear of an "all-in-one" PC? It's term for the sort of desktop computer where all hardware lives inside the same enclosure as the monitor itself. The example that most quickly comes to mind is the Apple iMac series, though many others exist as well. These things have been around since the early 1980's but the actual term "all-in-one" seems to be a lot more recent, and I honestly hadn't paid them any mind until a few years ago.

The benefit of such a machine: no separate PC enclosure taking up valuable desk space. There's less cable clutter as well, which I appreciate more and more these days. My experience with all-in-one devices has been that they tend to run more quietly than their desktop counterparts, though a penalty is often paid in terms of maximum performance and expandability. Worth it? Maybe.

In case you haven't been paying attention, sales of traditional desktop computers, as well as laptops, are on the decline. Think about it, when's the last time you had a friend, family member, or coworker get excited about the launch of a new PC? No, people tend to be far more interested in the latest smartphones and tablets, and an increasing number of folks no longer own a PC of any sort. So what's a company that sells computers to do?

Dell, a massive player in this space, managed to actually increase sales by over 4% last year, shipping roughly 40 million PCs. They did so in part by offering a wide range of niche products, including the popular Alienware gaming PCs and the "Rugged" line of laptops and tablets. Another highly-unique Dell model, and the subject of this review, is the XPS 27 all-in-one audio-oriented PC.

One glance at the rather obvious speaker array on the XPS 27 tells us there's something special going on here. You'd be forgiven for thinking Dell slapped a generic "soundbar" on the system and called it a day. Not so. The XPS 27 is in fact built from the ground up with audio in mind. I was actually surprised at how much effort went into this thing.

Dell engineers worked with Grammy-winning producer Jack Joseph Puig to create what they consider the best sounding all-in-one PC on the market. Now, if you've had much experience with other models, you'll recognize their goal as not being all that lofty. Most of these things sound pretty terrible, mainly owing to their limited internal space. Just like a laptop or an ultra-thin flat-panel television, there really isn't much room to work with, so the sound quality ends up taking a big hit.

Dell probably could have stopped at "pretty decent" and still had a winner on their hands, but it seems they wanted something that goes above and beyond. That meant packing the XPS 27 with some impressive hardware centered around its large array of speakers and surprisingly potent amplifiers.

Dell_XPS27_Photo_Speakers

Design
The speaker implementation goes like so: dominating the front panel are a quad of 40mm "full-range" drivers flanked by a pair of tweeters in the far left and right positions. Low frequency response is boosted by a pair of rear-firing passive radiators. Then Dell throws in a rather unusual pair of down-firing drivers. That really stood out to me, so I looked into it.

Dell's principal engineer Doug Peeler explains:

"When you have a down firing speaker, this can attenuate certain frequencies and create some potential directional issues. But in certain frequency ranges, by having a reflection off the table, it creates a livelier center image. You can augment the center image to give a clearer vocal range, so you have more prominence to any audio content that is focused on having a high quality center image versus a very strongly panned left or right signal. So, this is something unique we do to take advantage of the way the brain perceives sounds, by intentionally bouncing it off the table to get additional level enhancement and phase shift in specific frequency ranges."

To me, that seemed a bit counter intuitive at first. Don't we want more separation between speakers rather than less? Isn't this device already at a disadvantage compared to traditional stereo speakers, which flank your monitor for a wider stance? If that's the case, it seems odd to implement a design augmenting that center image. Despite my misgivings, I can confirm that the XPS 27 does an excellent job with vocal clarity, but also that it sounds surprisingly spacious—which is not something I would have expected. Interesting.

Dell spent a lot of time (over 12 months) optimizing the XPS 27 for sound quality. It's full of attention to detail, like the chemically-etched stainless steel grill which Dell claims is 48% open versus 30% in the average computer speaker. Or the special grommets designed to keep the high-excursion drivers from vibrating in the frame. Every design aspect I looked at was more carefully considered than one might expect, and certainly more so than any other all-in-one I've ever heard of.

The amplification stage is of critical importance in any serious audio setup. Here Dell uses a pair of 50W class D "Smart Amps" from Texas Instruments. Special attention is paid to making sure the amps have adequate power.

Here's Doug Peeler again:

"One of the things that we see in competing products is under sizing the amps and under sizing the actual electrical traces that deliver current to the amps. We made major efforts to ensure that the power supply rails which support the amplifiers were wide enough to deliver all the current demands. We measure up to 4.9 amps driving into the amplifier at a 24 volt rail. This helps with dynamic peaks. If you look at the voltage rail on the amplifier, that’s basically the top end of what it can deliver. As you have an electrical signal going through an amplifier, the voltage rail is the maximum, like a ceiling. When you have a very low voltage rail, you have a very low ceiling. We wanted to ensure we had a very high ceiling of operational voltage so that the amplifier could handle all of the peak demands of any type of content that we throw at it, to ensure a full dynamic range of sound."

This absolutely squares with my observations on volume capabilities and drive—this thing gets surprisingly loud.

Let's talk about bandwidth. Dell says they aimed for solid output down to 70Hz, where most competitors dry up above 100Hz:

"In that frequency range, there is a very significant amount of bass energy. When you look at acoustic reproduction of musical instruments, like the kick drum in standard rock and pop music, you need a speaker system than can reproduce the fundamental frequencies of that instrument to really feel it. A typical center frequency is around 90Hz. So, when you have a system that can’t go down below 100Hz, you are not able to reproduce the fundamental frequency of those instruments and you lose a lot of the experience. By going down into that range, we are able to fully and naturally produce a full musical range, and therefore recreate those experiences provided by the music."

Keep in mind we're dealing with a relatively slim all-in-one PC from a mainstream computer company. The language above sounds more like something you'd hear when discussing a set of moderately sized desktop speakers or perhaps a higher-end bluetooth speaker. Dell obviously takes this thing rather seriously—check out this quick video to get some further design history.

Specs
A nice integrated audio system won't mean much if the system itself quickly becomes obsolete. My review unit came loaded with an Intel i7 "Kaby Lake" 7700 CPU, 16GB RAM, a 512GB NVMe solid state drive, Radeon RX 570 8GB video card, and the articulating 27 inch touch-capable UltraHD (3840x2160) display. This system can handle just about anything you might throw at it short of demanding games—I did plenty of photo editing, media playback (including heavy transcoding), music server duties (including multi-zone DSD upsampling), and the system performed flawlessly. The CPU is among the very fastest currently available for this application, which calls for a 65W TDP chip. You can buy faster processors but they will demand more power and cooling than an all-in-one could hope to muster.

Dell gets bonus point for having an exceedingly quiet cooling solution. At idle, it's about as quiet as they come, and you only really hear fan noise during extended heavy CPU loading. The only way to achieve complete silence would involve moving to a fanless device, which would bring a significant reduction in performance.

Connectivity on the XPS 27 is plentiful, with a total of 5 USB 3.1 ports plus an additional pair of USB C Thunderbolt 3 ports. There's also the more common array of SD reader, Ethernet, HDMI, DisplayPort, and 3.5mm audio out, as well as Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac wireless. Most of the ports live in a recessed section around back which is rather difficult to access—one of my few complaints about the design. My other complaint is the lack of HDMI input. Dell provides HDMI and DisplayPort outputs useful for multi-screen scenarios, but not being able to tap this gorgeous screen for external sources (gaming consoles for example) seems like a missed opportunity to me. There's also no optical drive on board which I ended up not really missing.

Price as tested is $2799, which is competitive with other high-end devices in this space. Apple's iMac, when similarly configured, sells for about the same price—but keep in mind it does not have a touch screen option. As I'll discuss on the next page, that makes a big difference while using the machine.

COMMENTS
Martin.'s picture

Nice to see a different review for a change. Is the touchscreen really that useful? I"m thinking that if I want to watch a movie, the screen will be full of fingerprints. I haven't been sold on tablets, so I guess I'm not the target audience.

John Grandberg's picture

Thanks, I agree a change of pace is welcome every once in a while. Plus, it's a massive consumer electronics company, going to great lengths to offer quality sound. That seems significant.

Regarding fingerprints, it's not as bad as you might think. Most devices these days use some sort of oleophobic coating to help prevent smudges. That works pretty well. I also keep a little microfiber cloth around to wipe down every once in a while.

roon215's picture

Good thing again from Dell. The look given is wonderful. Yes, the fingerprint can be issue, we need to clean the display each time, I do it in my touch system. It will be the same in this case too, I think.

Bansaku's picture

....to turn into a Hackintosh!

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