At CES, I heard a pair of KEF LS50 loudspeakers, and was floored, understanding immediately all the awards and accolades these speakers had received. The KEF LS50 is easily one of the most impressive bang-for-the-buck loudspeakers I've heard in many years. Full of body, full of detail, wonderful imaging, and only $1499 for the pair. Visions of the LS50 as desktop nearfield monitors danced through my head. Alas, my imagination got the best of me, conjuring in my mind’s eye a desk that was larger than the desk of my reality, which is a worktable barely large enough to fit a pair of speakers, let alone the DAC and amplifier the passive LS50 would require.
Then I found out about the KEF X300A Wireless loudspeakers ($999/pair), which look like slightly smaller siblings of the LS50 that also use KEF's point source Uni-Q driver technology (in which the the high frequency driver is placed in the center of the low-mid driver, placing the acoustic centers of each at the same point in space). And very significantly for me and my meager desk real estate, the X300A Wireless has, built into each enclosure, two Class AB amplifiers, 50W for the low-mid driver, and 20W for the high-frequency driver. Sweetening the deal further, the KEF X300A Wireless has its own built-in 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC, which, combined with the built-in amps, make the X300A a plug-and-play computer audio speaker setup.
As if that wasn't convincing enough, the X300A Wireless also supports wireless streaming via AirPlay (for Apple users) and DLNA (for Android users). As an avid user of AirPlay at home and work (using the Apple TV, and a couple of Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Airs), this was enough for me set out to get the KEF X300A Wireless on my desk for a listen. Immediately upon its arrival, I was struck by the X300A Wireless' build quality. Weighing 16.5 pounds per speaker, they're a lot heavier than most speakers I've used at my desk. Rapping on the X300A Wireless' cabinet sides suggests very inert, very solid build quality. Even with the volume turned up very loud with bass-heavy music, touching the cabinets and baffle on the X300A Wireless reveals very little vibration.
As with the LS50, the KEF Uni-Q driver array in each of the X300A Wireless' cabinets contains two drivers--though they do, at first glance, look like a single driver. Very impressively--and like the LS50's drivers--they also sound like single drivers, with their remarkable coherence and timbral accuracy. Musical instruments overlapping the 2.5kHz crossover point give up no hint of a crossover whatsoever, no suggestion that there's more than one type of driver at play.
Though I don't have the KEF LS50 here to do a direct comparison, the X300A Wireless' imaging is also wonderful, impressing me like its more upscale sibling did. This computer audio loudspeaker is capable of casting close-your-eyes-and-you're-almost-there sonic imagery with my best recordings, even in a desktop nearfield setup (toed-in). Of all the loudspeakers I've heard (that fit on my desk), the KEF X300A Wireless is easily the best so far, in terms of imaging.
Given its compactness, bass with the KEF X300A is surprisingly good, rated to reach 49Hz (-6dB) or 58Hz (+/- 3dB). It's impactful, taut, detailed. The X300A's midrange is very well fleshed out (though not as full sounding as my recollection of the LS50), with precise, crystal clarity. The X300A's treble is super-extended--rated to 45kHz (-6dB) or 28kHz (+/- 3dB)--and refined beyond my expectations at this price. Really, in terms of tonal balance--for this size and form factor--I literally can't think of anything I'd change about it.
I do, however, want to point one thing out: like many loudspeakers, the X300A Wireless can be sensitive to placement. Not surprisingly, when placed in front of a wall, the X300A Wireless' bass becomes more pronounced. If this happens to a degree that one finds too emphasized, the X300A Wireless comes with two-stage foam plugs for the rear ports, for two different bass attenuation settings. On my desk, where there isn't a wall anywhere near them, I actually find the X300A Wireless' bass presentation to be a bit leaner than is ideal for me. Given the X300A Wireless' very good bass extension, I use Amarra Symphony's excellent parametric equalizer to bring it forward; and with this (as mentioned earlier), the X300A Wireless' bass is fantastic for its size and form factor.
I also want to say that the X300A Wireless is certainly not limited to desktop use. It can be placed on high-quality stands and used in your main system. I tried them this way in a medium-sized room, and the X300A Wireless sounded startlingly full, especially when about two feet in front of my room's back wall. This is a surprisingly versatile pair of speakers.
My hope was that with the KEF X300A Wireless loudspeakers I would be able to bring at least some of the sonic magic of the amazing KEF LS50 to my desktop. Mission accomplished. The KEF X300A Wireless is the best all-in-one desktop loudspeaker system I've heard so far. It's beyond superb, and one of my favorite audio products of any type this year.
Even Head-Fi'ers occasionally hang up their headphones and want to listen to loudspeakers from time to time. CNET Audiophiliac blogger Steve Guttenberg 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).
Focal XS Book Wireless
Bluetooth for audio. Ewwww. That and screwed-up faces are what you'll get from a lot of audiophiles when you say "Bluetooth" and "audio" together. But audio via Bluetooth has gotten better. A lot better. In this Gift Guide, for example, are several examples of outstanding Bluetooth headphones. Until now, though, the Bluetooth loudspeakers we've included in the Gift Guide have all been intended for more casual use, and not really the type that an audio enthusiast might consider for more serious sit-down listening. Again, though, that's until now, as Focal's XS Book Wireless enters the Guide in this edition as the first Bluetooth loudspeakers I've used that I can recommend for consideration as your primary desktop speakers.
The Focal XS Book Wireless is equipped with Bluetooth aptX support. aptX is one of the more capable Bluetooth codecs, allowing for near-CD-quality streaming, for those paired devices that support aptX. My iPhone 5S doesn't support aptX but my MacBooks do. With either, though, I've been very happy with the fidelity I'm getting from the XS Book Wireless. Going wired through the XS Book Wireless' analog inputs will result in marginally better sound, but it's close enough via Bluetooth that I use it wirelessly much of the time.
In terms of its bass, the XS Book Wireless has surprising output considering its smallish four-inch low-mid drivers, rated down to 60Hz (+/- 3dB) and 44Hz (-6dB). While not as impactful as my beloved Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air, the XS Book Wireless' bass is more controlled, and likely to be preferred by the stricter audiophiles among us--even if it won't suit your party guests like my beloved Zeppelin Air does (the Zeppelin Air being better at this than anything its size I've ever used). In one of my desk setups that has a sturdy hutch behind it, the Focal XS Book Wireless' bass presence had more reinforcement, more oomph; but, not surprisingly, at my main desks (that have nothing but air behind them), they could be a bit light sounding without the use of an equalizer. (I usually use the parametric equalizer in Amarra Symphony.) With the XS Book Wireless' little bit of emphasis on the upper bass, I tend to increase its low-mid bass up a bit to match.
As for its midrange, I hear a bit of lower midrange emphasis tailing from its slight upper-bass accent, and it sounds neutral thereafter. It's a very nice presentation for its form factor, and helps give a little hint of richness to the XS Book Wireless' mids. The XS Book Wireless' treble is also neutral and extended, and is what I'd describe as very good for the type of speaker it is, though short of the outstanding treble refinement of the (much more expensive) KEF X300A Wireless.
We're going to be using the Focal XS Book Wireless with a computer setup located next to our little product photo studio at Head-Fi HQ. The computer rig will feed the XS Book Wireless via its analog input, and my iPhone will be paired to the XS Book Wireless via Bluetooth. So, sitting at that computer, the XS Book Wireless system will serve as that computer system's speakers. However, if I'm going to be taking photos or working in the general area (but not sitting down at the desk), I'll be able to stream music to it from my iPhone, to listen to the XS Book Wireless' reasonably room-filling sound from wherever I am in that area.
Though Focal is best known for its magnificent, ultra-expensive loudspeakers, the XS Book Wireless is another set of its excellent, reasonably-priced loudspeakers that allows you some of the Focal audio magic wherever you have a computer or mobile phone to stream music to it.
"Bluetooth audio." Go ahead and say it. The times they are a-changin'.
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).
Cambridge Audio has been known for years for making components that perform far above their affordable prices, but I hadn't had much personal experience with their gear. John Bevier at Cambridge Audio's U.S. distributor--Audio Plus Services--suggested I try their Minx M5 2.1 speaker system, feeling pretty confident I'd be impressed with the ultra-compact satellite-subwoofer loudspeaker. And I am.
First of all, it's a tiny little system, each of the satellites, 2.9-inch cubes, fitting easily in the palm of my hand and weighing less than a pound each. The subwoofer is a compact 8-inch cube weighting just under 10 pounds. The system comes with a cool desktop connection hub and volume control (also very compact) that has a horizontal rubberized disk that can be spun to adjust volume, or pressed to mute/unmute. This hub/control has two inputs: USB for digital and stereo 3.5mm miniplug for analog. The bottom of the hub/control feels like a sticky silicone, to keep it from sliding around your desk.
Cambridge Audio says the Minx M5 system has a frequency response of 45Hz to 20kHz (no +/- range is specified), which, given what I'm hearing, seems a reasonable manufacturer spec. The subwoofer is powered by a built-in 30W amplifier, each satellite is fed 15W. The subwoofer does have a knob that allows you to adjust its output level.
What's most impressive about the Minx M5 is the level of richness it can convey, belying its super-compact appearance. It can also play surprisingly loud before it starts to lose composure, and it's at medium to medium-loud levels that I've most enjoyed it. Does it have the timbral accuracy and finesse of the KEF X300A or the Focal XS Book Wireless? No. But I bet you'll get a lot more of your music from it than you were expecting, and at a level that I find almost shocking for only $229.
You can expect some compromises at this price--it can't all be too good to be true for $229. The construction of the speaker components seems good, but the little stands that prop the satellites up feel like pretty flimsy plastic. The control unit's USB DAC (according to my Mac's Audio MIDI Setup) to be limited to 16-bit/48kHz. When muting the control unit, there's a fairly loud electronic popping sound. And when it's really quiet in your room, you may hear some of the amp's self-noise through the satellites.
Those quibbles aside, the Cambridge Audio Minx M5 speaker system is a lot more music and impact for the desktop than I'd have imagined possible for the price.
TYPE:2.1-channel (satellite/subwoofer) loudspeaker system
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
One 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.
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.
The Ultimate Ears (UE) MINI BOOM looks almost exactly like the UE Mobile Boombox that preceded it, but it's much improved. Sonically, UE made some key changes to the design to enhance its sound. The UE MINI BOOM has two 1.5" drivers and one 3" x 1.5" passive radiator. The older Mobile Boombox's two drivers were 1". The effect of the changes is dramatic. Switching between them, side-by-side, the MINI BOOM sounds much richer, especially through the mids (where the Mobile Boombox sounds almost tinny by comparison). It also has much more refined treble performance and a little more tuneful oomph down low. I was very happy with the Mobile Boombox--its newer sibling just trounces it, though.
And, with the MINI BOOM's much improved sound, it can now be more than twice as good as its predecessor! Let me explain: like its big sib the UE BOOM--the MINI BOOM can be doubled-up. That is, if you get two MINI BOOMs, and have an iOS or Android device, you can use the MINI BOOM app to have two MINI BOOMs play as two separate stereo speakers (each MINI BOOM playing both the left and right channels). Or, for even more powerful sound, one of the MINI BOOMs can be the left channel, the other the right channel. For two tiny Bluetooth speakers, the doubled-up MINI BOOMs are fantastic!
(NOTE: When using two MINI BOOMS, there's a bit more latency, and I wouldn't recommend playing games or watching videos with two of them because of that. Of course, that little bit of latency is of no concern when playing music. And using only one MINI BOOM works great with both videos and games.)
Still, if you're going to spring for only one, I think you'll still be thrilled with it in solo mode. In addition to its surprisingly good sound for its size, the MINI BOOM (like its predecessor) can act as a speakerphone. It is also now NFC-enabled, which is nice for those with NFC-enabled phones and tablets. Battery life is rated at ten hours (which my experience would suggest is a fair estimate). Its wireless range is rated at up to 50 feet (which I haven't tested, but it does seem to have very good range).
I use the MINI BOOM mostly for travel, taking one with me as a speaker through which I can play music, games, Netflix, and movies I've rented on my iPad. Weighing only 301 grams (around 10.6 ounces), it's plenty light enough to keep in my backpack or rolling briefcase, or to put in checked luggage.
The UE MINI BOOM is an exciting, versatile product that's very easy to recommend.