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2013 Head-Fi Summer Buying Guide (Desktop & Portable Speakers)

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Desktop & Portable Loudspeakers

PSB Imagine Mini


TYPE: Desktop speakers

PRICE: $760

URL: www.psbspeakers.com

Even Head-Fi'ers occasionally hang up their headphones and want to listen to loudspeakers from time to time. CNET Audiophiliac blogger Steve Guttenberg recently reviewed the PSB Imagine mini loudspeakers on Head-Fi.org. You can read the complete review by clicking here. About the PSB Imagine mini speakers, Steve said:

"...no in-ear or full-size headphone images as naturally as the Imagine mini. The mini resolves dynamic shading better than headphones, and you feel more viscerally connected to music over speakers."

The PSB Imagine mini loudspeakers start at $760/pair, and require a separate amplifier to power them (they do not have built-in amplifiers).

Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air


TYPE: Desktop iDevice dock with AirPlay

PRICE: $600

URL: www.bowers-wilkins.com

I picked up a Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air iDevice dock with AirPlay, and to say I’ve been using it a lot would be an understatement--I actually bought a second one to use at the office. Being able to hop on iTunes on any of my Macs, or on any of my several iDevices, and wirelessly stream music (losslessly) to the Zeppelin Air is killer. It is the best-sounding iDevice dock I've yet heard, and it can play loud, with 150 watts of total amplification (each of the five drivers with its own amplifier).

The biggest downside of the Zeppelin Air for me is the lack of flexibility that comes with a single-chassis unit. Obviously, the speakers can't be separated to improve imaging. And make sure to read the instructions to find out how to adjust the Zeppelin Air's bass level, as it can be a bit heavy at its default setting (for my tastes).

Bowers & Wilkins MM-1


TYPE: Desktop speakers

PRICE: $499

URL: www.bowers-wilkins.com

I also have the tiny Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 active (self-amplified) loudspeakers on my desk at my home office, and they sound beautiful. They do not, however, play very loudly, which is fine for me, because I rarely listen at high volume levels. Also, despite being so small, they manage to sound surprisingly full--just don't expect deep bass. As little desktop nearfield monitors, the MM-1 system is wonderful, with nice, neutral mids, and a surprisingly refined treble.

Audioengine P4 loudspeakers and Audioengine N22 amplifier


TYPE: Desktop loudpeakers and amplifier

PRICE: Starting at $249/pair and $199, respectively

URL: audioengineusa.com

At my office can be found the Audioengine P4 loudspeakers (starting at $249 a /pair), audioengineusa.com, and Audioengine's N22 amplifier ($199). This system is not as refined sounding as the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1, but it still sounds very good for the price, and it plays much louder, and has deeper, more impactful bass. The N22 has the added benefit of a built-in headphone output, so, in addition to being very affordable, it's also very Head-Fi-friendly! For the price, this Audioengine P4/N22 system is easy to recommend.

PSB Alpha PS1


TYPE: Desktop loudspeakers

PRICE: $299.99

URL: www.psbspeakers.com

For many years, PSB (named after Paul and Sue Barton) has been making some of the best value loudspeakers around. Some of their speakers defy logic, in terms of performance for price. One of their most recent examples of this is intended for the desktop, and it's also PSB's only powered (self-amplified) loudspeaker model. It's called the PSB Alpha PS1.

Of course, given its small size, deep bass is out of the question (without a subwoofer); but, still, the PSB Alpha PS1's bass performance exceeded my expectations, rated to punch as low as 58Hz at -10dB (and 80Hz at +/- 3dB). Bass detail is very good, too. Mids are neutral and extraordinarily well fleshed out. Treble, which is rated to 22kHz (+/- 3dB), sounds extended, detailed, and devoid of edginess. The PSB Alpha PS1 can also play extraordinarily loud for its size. In other words, for the size and price, the Alpha PS1 is everything I'd expect from PSB, and more than I'd expect from just about anyone else.

At its $300 price point, I'd have been thrilled to have passive speaker performance like this. That its self-powered, though, is a huge bonus, and simplifies the desktop. Given the value it already provides, I feel greedy for even suggesting this, but my only wish for the PSB Alpha PS1 is a built-in USB DAC circuit (a la the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1), for an even simpler desktop.

If you want even more impact, PSB made sure that adding a subwoofer couldn't be easier, as the Alpha PS1 has a dedicated subwoofer output. I may one day play around with adding a subwoofer to this set; but right now I'm perfectly happy to listen to the PSB Alpha PS1's as they are.

If you're looking for a neutral, revealing, impactful loudspeaker system for your desktop--and if you're on a tight budget, but don't want your desktop to sound low-budget--the PSB Alpha PS1 has my highest recommendation.


Ultimate Ears is really branching out

As if Ultimate Ears (ue.logitech.com) diving full-on into the over-ear headphone market wasn't news enough, I found out they're also venturing into loudspeaker products--even one that is essentially a smart internet radio alarm clock. Did I have reservations when I heard the news? Yes. I was afraid that perhaps Logitech was stretching the UE brand out just a bit too far. It turns out my concerns were unfounded. The speaker products UE released this year--at least the few I tried--are fun and worthy expressions of UE's expertise in sound.

Logitech UE Mobile Boombox


TYPE: Bluetooh wireless loudspeaker

PRICE: $99.99

URL: ue.logitech.com

The first UE speaker product I encountered was the new Logitech UE Mobile Boombox ($99.99), a tiny portable, rechargeable Bluetooth wireless mini stereo loudspeaker that lets you play music from any Bluetooth-enabled device from as far as 50 feet away. (It will support up to eight pairings, with up to two connected at the same time.) Though your next house party won't be powered by your UE Mobile Boombox, its two 1" full-range drivers do a better job of playing music than I expected from drivers that could fairly be described as two dots. Though I use it for music on occasion, it has seen just as much use playing the sound for movies or shows I watch on my iPad while traveling. The UE Mobile Boombox can also serve as a Bluetooth speakerphone (though its call quality is only so-so).

Logitech UE Boombox


TYPE: Bluetooth wireless loudspeaker

PRICE: $249.99

URL: ue.logitech.com

Getting you closer to house party music levels is the Logitech UE Boombox ($249.99), which is a portable, rechargeable Bluetooth wireless stereo loudspeaker with two 2 5/8" passive radiators, two 3" woofers, and two 0.5" tweeters. The built-in rechargeable battery can keep the UE Boombox playing for as long as six hours between charges. The UE Boombox will allow up to eight Bluetooth pairings, with up to three of them connected at the same time.

The UE Boombox is a very sleek, simple, attractive looking speaker, that, as one reviewer put it, looks like a nod to designers Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive. Spanning its entire length is a thick, beautiful, wraparound aluminum carrying handle that looks to me like something that helps form a tough chassis.

As for its sound quality, it's actually very good for a battery-powered portable boombox--especially if you take even just a minute to experiment a bit with placement. The uses for the UE Boombox are easy to find. Since I don't have patio speakers, the UE Boombox finds itself in that role. Rockumentaries on Netflix, on an iPad? Yeah, it works great for that, too. The UE Boombox is loud music with you. It's fun.

Logitech UE Smart Radio


TYPE: Alarm Clock

PRICE: $179.99

URL: ue.logitech.com

The last of the UE speaker products I tried was the Logitech UE Smart Radio ($179.99). You know what this one is? It's an alarm clock for Head-Fi'ers. On those occasions I need an alarm clock to wake me up, the UE Smart Radio wakes me up to my music on MOG (it also support many other streaming stations and services). I also use the UE Smart Radio to play music while I'm changing in the bedroom.

One cool feature I do use on the UE Smart Radio a lot is the free bank of "Sounds & Effects." There are some nice nature sounds (some more convincing than others), as well as other effects, my favorite being the sounds of a city downtown. I'm out in the suburbs, so running the city sounds makes me feel like I'm in a downtown apartment with my windows open. I also occasionally use the city sounds as my alarm tone, as it's a fairly relaxing effect to wake up to--and it also has the occasional entertaining side effect of making me wonder (for just a few confused seconds) where the heck I fell asleep the night before. (Some of these effects, including the city sounds, work well via the UE Smart Radio's headphone jack, too.)

It hasn't been all peaches and cream with the UE Smart Radio, though. Some problems I've run into with it include failing to get it to pull from my iTunes library--I'm at a complete loss at this point to understand how to make that work. Also, I tend to prefer using the UE Smart Radio's companion app on my iPhone to control it, as I find that far faster and more intuitive than using the control panel on the radio itself.

Still, these glitches haven't come close to undoing the charm of using what feels like a clock radio built for Head-Fi'ers.

So, yes, Logitech is definitely branching out with the UE brand, but their moves in that regard--based on my experience with the products they're branching out with--convince me that they're so far staying true to UE's "POWER TO THE MUSIC" motto.





TYPE: Portable, Bluetooth loudspeakers

PRICE: $199.99

URL: www.ultimateears.com

Ultimate Ears (UE) has been promoting the UE BOOM portable Bluetooth loudspeaker as the "social music player," and I can understand why. We recently hosted a pool party, and two UE BOOMs served as the poolside music engines that kept the music flowing. (Only one UE BOOM is needed, but I’ll explain why we had two in just a minute.) And the UE BOOMs were a big hit, everyone in attendance impressed by, and asking about, the compact speakers.

A big part of the UE BOOM's appeal is the form factor--a compact, cylindrical design that almost begs to be grabbed; so, throughout the party, the BOOMs were being moved to wherever the party goers flowed. In addition to being so grabbable, the UE BOOM has a metal swivel loop on its bottom that allows the attachment of a carabiner, so you can clip it to things (like your backpack, for example). The cylindrical design also allows the UE BOOM to be placed in cup holders, and even fits into a bicycle water bottle holder.

Another big part of the UE BOOM's allure is the fact that it's water- and stain-resistant. For much of the party, I kept them immediately poolside, where they were getting thoroughly splashed. The UE BOOM also seems very ruggedly built, and has already survived a few drops to the deck without issue. It also has long battery life, lasting up to 15 hours per charge--press a couple of buttons, and the UE BOOM will tell you (literally, with a human voice) what percentage of battery life is left.

Of course, none of this would matter if the UE BOOM didn't sound good, and, for what it is, it sounds excellent. It's not hi-fi, but the sound is more full-range than I'd expect from the two 1.5" drivers and two 2" passive radiators in each UE BOOM. It also plays a lot louder than I reckoned it could. The UE BOOM's sound is lively and fun.

Sometimes the fun has to be interrupted by a little bit of business, and for those times the UE BOOM can serve as a Bluetooth speakerphone--and it's actually surprisingly good in that role.

I mentioned earlier that we were using two UE BOOMs, and here's how. If you're using an iOS or Android device, there is an available UE BOOM app that allows two UE BOOMs to be joined together as either two separate stereo loudspeakers, or with each one dedicated to serving one channel of a stereo pair. One UE BOOM sounds good. Two is even better and louder, especially if you're running one as left and one as right. (I use the dual-stereo mode only when the two are separated by a relatively long distance.)

At $199.99 each, the UE BOOM is the best Bluetooth speaker of its type that I've used. I love the UE BOOM's slogan: "Make Music Social." The UE BOOM really does encourage that, and I love it.


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