This is HeadFi. Obviously we are primarily interested in the discussion of headphones. But how many of us use some form of speakers as well? From experience I suspect the majority of us do. From full blown, dedicated 2-channel rigs to low priced, space saving desktop solutions, I imagine most people here have some type of speakers around.
When it comes to “computer audio”, a term which is becoming less and less meaningful with each new USB DAC release, many of us simply don’t have the space on our desk to support a decent speaker setup. There are quite a few low priced satellite/subwoofer systems on the market from companies like Logitech, Klipsch, Creative, and Altec Lansing. For the most part they end up offering passable sound quality but aren’t anything exciting.
Some lucky people have the budget and more importantly the desk space to support a better solution. In most cases this ends up being more like a powered studio monitor – a popular example is the Swan M200 in MKII and MKIII configuration. For $300 or $400, these reward the listener with excellent sonics and are quite visually appealing as well. Unfortunately they also demand, at minimum, a 7 inch by 9 inch patch of real estate on your desk. Realistically they require much more than that since the rear port should not be anywhere near a wall. In my situation the M200 (and other small to midsized powered monitor types) are simply not an option.
Hopeful that they might offer an improvement over my aging Logitech setup (which was only ever intended as a temporary solution anyway), I decided to take a chance on the new UCube speakers from UFi. I was not familiar with UFi as a company, so I looked into it: turns out to be a new division of the more familiar Ultralink, maker of cables including the high end XLO and Argentum brands. Their website:
Selling for $150, these compact speakers are obviously not meant as a reference level solution. Normally I would not even bother to write about something like this, but I feel that these offer something special and are thus worth sharing.
The UCubes are shaped just like the name implies - compact cubes measuring just over 3 inches in each direction. What sets them apart from most small PC speakers is the fact that they are completely powered from the USB connection. A single USB cable runs from your computer to the left UCube speaker, and a single RCA type cable then runs from left speaker to right. There is no power switch and no volume control. No drivers are required, just plug and play.
The astute reader will recognize the implication here: with a single USB connection, we are not only eliminating the separate power connection but also the “line-out” audio connection from the computer. That means the UCubes have their own integrated DAC as well. So although I call them speakers, the reality is that the UCubes feature a USB DAC, integrated class-D amp, and speakers all together. Note that there is no provision for tapping into the DAC or amplification sections for any other use. There is also an onboard digital signal processor, which I originally assumed was used shape overall response. Looking deeper into the matter, I find that it does in fact do just that, but also helps regulate the power supply.
Another aspect that sets the UCubes apart from most compact speakers is the driver choice. While most compact desktop speakers use traditional cone drivers (usually made from the cheapest possible cone material, a voice coil, and a small magnet), the UCubes employ BMR technology. BMR stands for Balanced Mode Radiator. Without getting too technical, BMR drivers are a hybrid of traditional cone speakers where the entire cone moves back and forth like a piston, and something called a Distributed Mode Loudspeaker where sound is made by applying vibrations to only part of the panel, which then generates sound waves. It’s actually a fascinating technology and makes for an interesting Google search to learn more. The traditional benefits of using a BMR driver include compact size, wide audio dispersion, and diminished limitations in terms of placement near a rear or side wall. I found all of those aspects to be true with the UCube system, but I’ getting ahead of myself again.
Since USB connections do not supply high amounts of power, UFi designed their UCubes to “store” power whenever there is a lull in the music. That enables the UCubes to deliver the equivalent of 15 watts per channel during more complex passages. This seems like a variation of traditional class AB amplifiers with their RMS versus dynamic power ratings, although I’m sure there are some key differences. In this case the DSP-controlled power supply is actively trying to store away energy rather than just having a fixed capacity. Either way, it allows the UCubes to get fairly loud yet remain portable.
Yes, I used the word portable. That’s another interesting aspect. As a compact, lightweight, USB powered device, these speakers can be used on the go with a laptop. I’ve seen smaller and more portable USB speakers but those were little better than the integrated laptop speakers anyway. The UCubes actually offer good sound that you would want to listen to rather than just tolerate. The only downside here is that the piano black finish of my UCubes seems like it would show wear very easily. They are also available in red, white, and metallic looking silver, and one of those colors might be a better match for hiding flaws.
The UCubes seem very well built for the price. The included stands are made of some type of lightweight metal. The speakers themselves have a plastic feel but seem fairly solid when I wrap them with my knuckles. The finish itself is nicely done, with a high gloss and a smooth finish. I tried to capture a picture of a reflection but my meager photography skills conspired against me. Suffice to say that they look very nice, which is surprising at this price point.
The accessories, which I’ll cover in a later section, are also very respectable. Ultralink being primarily a cable manufacturer, it seems fitting that the bundled cables would be a bit nicer than your typical generic pack-ins. The included cables do not disappoint. The USB cable doesn’t initially look like much, but closer inspection reveals the end pieces to have a nice metallic glossy finish. The connection cable is an RCA type and is a bit flashier. The print on the jacket says “Matrix Mini Solid Core 6N OFC”. Ultimately I doubt it really matters much but it’s always nice to get quality accessories.
Each speaker has 4 small rubber “feet” affixed to the bottom corners. This enables them to be used without the stands and still avoid scuffing the bottom. The stands also have the same “feet”. Another nice touch on the stands – the point where they make contact with the speaker has a layer of soft padding, again to prevent scratching. All of this points to a well thought-out product.
I tried to capture the reflective nature of the finish here
Unwrapping the protective cover on the USB connection
A quick glance at the box tells me that UFi clearly intends the UCubes to be sold in retail stores. Indeed the UFi website claims they will be “available soon at the Apple Store”. Inside, everything is well packed to avoid damage to the high gloss finish. The contents include two speakers, two stands, USB cable, connection cable, and a user manual.
I normally use a wide selection of associated equipment when I review a new piece of gear. But the UCubes don’t really allow for that. The only thing they need is a computer to connect to. I used my desktop rig (built by me), as well as a Dell netbook and an Acer laptop. All three are running Windows 7. The desktop setup is in a sort of armoire that has enclosed sides, rear, and top. This makes it especially difficult to get good sound there. When used with the laptop or netbook, I just set the speakers up wherever I had room.
These are just the impressions of one guy. I do these reviews for fun, not profit, and I don't claim to be any special authority. Many people have agreed with my assessments of other gear but some have also disagreed, and I totally respect that. We all hear differently on a physical level and we all have different preferences as well, so I think it is almost impossible for one person’s impressions to apply to every other person. As with all my reviews, I hope you enjoy reading them and I hope they help our hobby to some extent, but I don't pretend that they are anything more than my opinion.
With expectations set relatively low, I plugged in the UCubes, chose them as the output device in Foobar2000, and started putting them through their paces. As I expected, they are primarily midrange focused. But I was immediately impressed with their high frequency extension as well – it seemed clean and fairly extended without being shrill or harsh. Often small speakers use tricks to boost the highs and make them seem more detailed than they really are. But here were the UCubes with their 3 inch full range driver giving me a pleasing amount of sparkle. Impressive.
Obviously bass is not going to be a strong point on a tiny speaker like this. That just comes with the territory. But I found that it hit reasonably low, enough to where I could still comfortably track bass guitars and kick drums. There isn’t a ton of energy down there, and I’d say that the manual is accurate when it lists response as 100Hz-18kHz. The overall result reminds me of the experience listening to a bass light headphone like the Etymotic ER6i. Certain music just doesn’t work so well, but most of the time you don’t feel like you are missing too much. I realize that the ER6i has more low frequency response than the UCubes, but the resulting “feel” is similar.
A good example of bass performance is the track “Tricotism” by Ernie Watts, from the XRCD release of the album Unity. Early in the song we get treated to a bass solo, but this one is special in that it features both an electric bass and a traditional double bass, both playing at the same time. The UCubes deliver enough low frequency information that the listener can tell there are two distinct instruments playing. But of course we don’t get a ton of depth, so the result is not as convincing as it would be with a larger bookshelf style monitor. Overall it is an admirable performance for the size.
Mids are a strength of the UCubes. Listening to Paper Airplane, the latest release from Alison Krauss & Union Station, I was impressed with the clarity of vocals as well as guitar. In this respect they match or even exceed some of the low priced bookshelf speakers I’ve heard. Dan Tyminski’s voice even sounded fairly convincing, though just a bit thinner than real life (yes, I have heard him sing live).
Highs were fairly smooth, slightly rolled off at the very top end but still airy enough to convey a good amount of realism. Percussion fared well, with things like triangle and cymbal strikes sounding suitably lifelike. The urge to artificially boost highs to give a false perception of detail, a common problem in this segment, has been skillfully avoided. These have to be the best highs I’ve ever heard from an admittedly limited sample of compact computer type speakers.
Another strength of the UCubes is the way they image. I don’t know if it is caused by the DSP equalization giving them a smoother response, or just the BMR technology allowing for a wide dispersion of sound, but whatever it was I really enjoyed it. Nearfield listening can be challenging for many speakers because it allows you to more easily hear the transition between drivers. That obviously doesn’t apply to single driver speakers like the UCubes. Another potential nearfield issue is that the soundstage is “different”, often having more depth than width. The UCubes are somewhat guilty of that, but it still comes across as convincing. The soundstage doesn’t really transcend the width of the speakers by much, but what is there is very distinct, and the center image is very clearly defined. Another aspect of it is the lack of any specific “sweet spot”. Moving your head back and forth results in very little change to the sound, especially compared to how a traditional speaker would behave. I also appreciate that they aren’t limited to placement: I achieved very similar results when using them with my desktop system in the enclosed armoire as I did using them with a laptop on a wide open desk. This, combined with the small size, means that they can actually sound good in places where no other speakers can go. I had initially wondered if the lack of articulation in the stands would be a drawback, but now I don’t believe that to be the case.
The UCubes are capable of reasonable volume levels. They obviously won’t fill a large room with big sound, but they do a decent job of providing background tunes in a small to medium room. The very wide sound dispersion means that they are actually quite good for that sort of thing, much better than some of the similarly priced “premium” iPod docks I’ve experienced. Those generally offer higher output levels at the cost of distortion, to the point where you lose clarity and might as well turn it down anyway. The UCubes gracefully stop getting louder at the top range of volume selection, which of course done through software. But in my opinion they really shine most in a nearfield situation and offer plenty of headroom when used that way.
I made some indentations with my fingernails to show that this surface is actually soft padding, not just metal as it seems to be from a distance
I really don’t have any way of doing a direct comparison like I usually do. These UCubes are vastly superior to my old Logitech 2.1 setup, which was purchased roughly 7 years ago for around $120. I regrettably gave them away to a thrift store prior to writing down the model number. Sure, those had lower bass extension, but it was muddy and out of control, often bleeding into areas where it shouldn’t have. So the UCubes are a very welcome upgrade from there. I do own a set of rather cheap bookshelf speakers – the ubiquitous Insignia NS-B2111. But that is not a fair comparison because mine are extensively modified (including the upgraded GR Research crossover) and driven by a Lead Audio LA-200 DAC/amp, for a total value of nearly $1000. I really have nothing else with which to compare so I’ll just discuss possible alternatives.
The Audioengine 2 is a well respected small powered speaker. It sells for $199, which is $50 more than the UCubes: that may or may not be a significant increase depending on your budget. Each speaker is 6”x4”x5.25”, which again is possibly significant. Lastly, they require a power plug as well as a source to feed them, making them much less of a portable option. So they are not a direct competitor but possibly a good choice for some people.
Cambridge Audio sells a compact speaker called the Minx Min 10. It is similar in size and appearance to the UCubes and also uses a BMR driver (round instead of square). These sell for $79.99 each and act like regular speaker, in that they require amplification to work. So at $160 before amping, they really are priced in a different league than the UCubes. I like the fact that they have a matching sub designed to augment their low frequency performance, but at $399 it isn’t worth talking about in the same context as UCubes.
Mission also sells a similar BMR based compact speaker. Their M-Cube is very similar to the Cambridge offering and thus requires external amplification. Amazon sells them for $169 each.
Both of those BMR models could actually be superior to the UCubes for all I know. But their pricing and different feature set makes them a bad comparison. And all the small computer speaker setups I’ve heard from Logitech, Boston Acoustics, and others have been somewhat inferior to the UCubes: heavy bass and especially midbass to color everything and make it seem more full range. So regretfully I don’t really have the ability to do any direct A/B testing with a comparable product. But part of the appeal of the UCubes has to be their uniqueness.
Overall I’m pretty impressed with the UFi UCubes. They offer good looks and good sound at a reasonable price, and are small enough to fit practically anywhere. Their wide sound dispersion capability means you can get good results from them even in placements that would have other speakers sounding terrible. Factor in the well thought out accessories and there really isn’t much not to like here.
The biggest drawback of the UCubes is actually one of the things I like best about them. I’m referring to the sound signature, which clearly won’t be for everyone. There are plenty of people out there who measure sound quality by the amount of bass impact it has, and nothing more. These are clearly not the best option for someone like that. But what you do have here is very clear and accurate music reproduction. It’s great for vocals, acoustic tracks, lots of jazz and classical, and various types of somewhat softer music. It even keeps up pretty well (with expectations set accordingly of course) on rock, electronic music, and even bit of metal if the volume stays at a reasonable level.
The thing I like about the sound is that it helps break the cycle of boomy, muddy computer speakers and delivers a good dose of audiophile clarity for the price. Ever talk to someone who learned everything they know about audio from listening to a big car stereo? I mean the kind involving a huge bandpass box full of subwoofers in the trunk. These folks often have a hard time making the transition to good, realistic sounding hifi. When they try headphones, the only thing that will sound right to them is a Sennheiser CX300, Sony XB series, or similar models with huge bass. It is my opinion that many computer speakers do this same disservice to listeners – people who will eventually want to move to a higher end setup. If they start early by being exposed to clear, clean sound, then they will have a much less difficult time down the road. For those people, people with limited desk space, or people who might want a portable sound solution, I can easily recommend the UCubes.
Edited by project86 - 7/23/11 at 11:09am