Article By Steven Stone
I realize it has been a while since my last Nearfield article. New writing responsibilities for The Absolute Sound are partially to blame, but the bulk of the fault lies with my innate laziness. At heart I'm just another slacker...
Since slackers tend to like things to be easy, I have reviewed two "slacker-friendly" desktop speaker systems. Both combine desktop-sized speakers with an analog amplifier so all you need to do is connect an analog input from your computer, i-pod, or CD player and you're off to the races. Both are available exclusively via the Internet. So, with a couple of keystrokes and a visit from your friendly neighborhood delivery guy either system can be ensconced on your desktop and pumping out anything you've got in your i-tunes library.
The only way I could make this any easier is if I came over and plugged in the speakers myself.
Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0 System
The Sierra Sound's introductory product is designed to accommodate not only your desktop computer, or any two analog sources, but also to serve as a dock for your i-pod. On the top of the left-hand speaker, you will find an indentation that will accept any i-pod ever made. Want a stereo iPod based alarm clock or bedroom mini system? The iN Studio 5.0 even comes with a remote that allows you to access the controls on your docked i-pod at a distance. Sierra Sound has some engaging interactive features that demonstrate the full panorama of their speaker system's ergonomic capabilities.
But bells and whistles don't mean diddily-squat if the sound coming out of the speaker resembles caca. Fortunately, the Sierra Sound speakers are quite a few steps above what you typically hear from an i-pod dock or computer speaker system. Part of this sonic goodness comes from the speakers' size. They're 7.25 wide by 8 deep by 10.75 inches high and use a 1-inch magnetically shielded silk dome tweeter mated to a 5-inch paper cone midrange/woofer. A 50-watt amplifier built in to one of the speaker boxes powers the drivers in both speakers. Total system weight is listed at 23.3 lbs, but naturally the speaker that houses the system's electronics weighs more than the other one. Even the passive speaker weighs over 8 lbs and when you rap on the speaker cabinet, it emits a reassuringly muted thunk. These things ain't junk.
Sierra Designs sent me their glossy black finished system, but they also have white (for kitchen use) and Ferrari Red (for Dexter perhaps?) I ran the USB output from my Mac Pro into a Trends USB Audio DAC and then connected the Trends' analog output to the Sierra input 2. Input 1 received an analog feed from my EAD 8000 Pro DVD master CD/DVD player. The time from unboxing to having the first sounds took under ten minutes. If I wasn't such a slacker I could have done it in five.
My first impressions of the Sierra iN Studio 5.0 system were decidedly positive. The overall harmonic balance errs on the side of euphonic warmth, especially in the lower midrange and upper bass. The speakers' rear-firing port delivers sufficient bass extension so the absence of any way to hook up a subwoofer to augment the low end isn't a deal-breaker. Sure, I would like to see a line-level subwoofer output so that instead of relying on the speaker alone to supply bass it could be augmented by a sub, but for this feature I'm afraid we'll have to wait for Sierra Sound's next version.
Despite a somewhat thick lower midrange and upper bass, the Sierra Sound speakers have more than decent resolution. On Chris Thile's latest release, Punch Brother's Punch, the low-level detail was good enough to let me hear the faint dull roar of NYC that even the thick walls of the studio couldn't eliminate. Despite their forgivingly warm harmonic balance the iN Studio speakers are not merely easy listening transducers they deliver enough information to keep you fully involved in the music.
On upper frequencies, the Sierra Sound's tweeter behaves much as you would expect from a well-designed but modestly priced silk dome tweeter. Extreme upper frequency response is slightly truncated but the roll-off is subtle and the loss of extreme upper frequency air isn't anything to lose sleep over. Personally, I prefer the sound of a modest silk dome tweeter to a middling metal dome tweeter. The silk dome usually delivers a smoother upper frequency presentation without amusical bright zones, especially in the 1 to 3kHz region. Obviously, a budget-priced speaker design requires some sonic compromises, but the iN Studio's silk dome tweeter renders the upper frequency range in a pleasingly musical way so even less than perfect sources are listenable.
The iN Studio's rendering of spatial information was far better than any computer speaker I've heard. My own live concert recordings had actual depth! Although spatiality wasn't quite as convincing or three-dimensional as I've heard through the ATC SCM7s or Aerial Acoustics Model 5s, layering was sufficient so horns and woodwinds weren't sitting in each other's laps. Lateral imaging was also convincing. Instruments were precisely located across the soundstage, and even when I was head-bobbing in time to the music the image remained stable due to the Sierra Sound's decently sized sweet spot.
Dynamics, while not as wide as with a more expensive component system, are adequate within certain parameters. First, I wouldn't advise turning the volume control on the back of the iN Studio speakers up past 12 o'clock. Above that level the sound doesn't get much louder, only messier. When dynamically stressed the Sierra Sound system goes from clear to foggy. With their level set midway I could turn the internal volume adjustments on my MacPro's USB output to full without any noticeable sonic degradation. Most of the time I found that backing off the Mac's volume by two or three clicks yielded the best combination of clean sound and sufficient volume needed to rock out nicely.
The iN Studio speakers are less than ideal if all you really want to do is to play music quietly in the background. Without a subwoofer to augment the system's bass response or a "loudness" or "low-level" control to compensate for that annoying Fletcher-Munson effect, the Sierra Speakers need to be turned up well above a whisper before they produce enough bass to balance their midrange and treble. At low volume levels they won't grab you, but when playing at that "right" volume level the Sierra Sound speakers are musically convincing and emotionally involving.
I think the hardest decision you'll have if you try out a pair of Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0 speakers for a free 30-day trial is whether to use them in your office, bedroom, kitchen, or den. They're sufficiently high-resolution to serve for dedicated near-field listening and yet they play loud enough for more casual in-room applications. Fortunately, since they're only $299 you could afford to buy more than one pair to save yourself from the decidedly unslacker-like task of schlepping them from room to room. The Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0 speaker system delivers more than enough performance to be scored as a successful premiere product.
The Axiom Audio Audiobyte Speaker System
Axiom Audio has a well-deserved reputation for making high-value home theater speaker systems. The Audiobyte system is their first foray into the world of computer desktop speakers. You won't find any transparent iridescent plastic casings or multiple midrange drivers here; instead you'll find a very small, but solid cabinet with non-parallel sides that houses a 1" titanium dome tweeter and 3" aluminum cone midrange driver. Along with a pair of speakers the Audiobyte system comes with a 55-watt per channel amplifier with provisions for a single analog input. The front panel has only one control a large chrome-plated volume knob.
Instead of the usual five-way binding posts that accept standard speaker wire the Audiobyte speakers use a stereo mini-plug, similar to what you'll find on portable headphone connectors. Since Axiom supplies all the cables you'll need as well as clear set-up instructions, this unusual hook-up configuration shouldn't cause any problems for most users. But lack of standard speaker connectors will prevent tweakers from using the Audiobyte speakers with another manufacturer's amplifier unless they make adapters. Since the Audiobyte system is just that, a system, I did not evaluate the speakers with anything except the supplied amplifier. Axiom used to make another speaker that used the very similar components called the MZero that was aimed at separates users.
The Audiobyte system is available in a variety of finishes at various prices. Their base-level system costs $349 and comes in matte finish black, grey or white. The next level up is $399 for a high gloss synthetic cherry or burled oak finish. Finally a hand-finished real burled walnut cabinet will set you back $559. The amplifier only comes in one color that proverbial audiophile favorite satin black. They sent me a pair of the synthetic burled oak, and I have to admit it looks like swirly plastic to me. I would recommend going for one of the matt finished versions, or if you absolutely need to be surrounded by wood, go for the hand finished premium version.
Given their size only 6.6 by 5.5 by 4 inches, and the lack of any port to augment bass response, the Audiobyte speakers' bass are hard-pressed to produce any bass below 100Hz (actually they're -3dB down at 100Hz). If you want any low end at all you'll need to add a subwoofer. Depending on what subwoofer you pick the price of an Audiobyte system can go up substantially. Axiom offers a dedicated EPZero subwoofer for only $179, but their smallest DSP subwoofer, the EP400 DSP subwoofer, will set you back $1,100. Axiom also makes three mid-priced subwoofers, the $340 EP125 V2, the $560 EP175 V2, and the $758 EP350 V3. Fortunately, the Audiobyte amplifier uses a standard RCA subwoofer output jack so you can use any manufacturer's subwoofer you wish. I can think of at least half-dozen fine subwoofers from other manufacturers priced around $500 that should work nicely.
For my review I used two primary sources; iTunes from the USB output from my Mac Pro connected to a Trends USB Audio DAC and the analog feed from my EAD 8000 Pro DVD master CD/DVD player. Besides Axiom's new EP400 subwoofer I used Earthquake of San Francisco's Supernova Mark IV- (MSRP $840) for low bass duties. Both subwoofers integrated well with the Audiobyte speakers, but each required a slightly different set-up. The Earthquake offers crossover points up to 160Hz via a continuously variable selection knob. I found that a 130Hz crossover setting delivered the best combination of upper bass extension without adding excessive bass directionality. The EP400 subwoofer has fixed settings of 40, 60, 80, and 100 Hz. I used 100Hz but I would have preferred higher. Fortunately the DSP augmented midbass filled out the gap between 100Hz and 150Hz.
If soundstaging is high on your list of important speaker characteristics you're going to really like the Audiobytes. They completely disappear and throw up a soundstage that rivals the best I've heard. On AJ Roach's "Streets of Omaha" his perfectly centered voice is surrounded by a distant bed of synthesizers that seem to emanate from a good ten feet behind his voice. In addition, the natural room reverb on his voice floated well above the synthesizer's soundstage. Well-recorded music, especially acoustic music, images at near state-of-the-art levels through the Audiobyte system. Even old mono recordings, such as Charlie Christian's "Long As I Live" from the Charlie Christian Genius of the Electric Guitar box set, have an eerily realistic sense of depth.
The Audiobyte system also gets high marks when it comes to low-level definition. On the Charlie Christian recordings, many of which were taken from sources that were not in the best of shape, the Audiobyte system does a superb job of separating out the music from extraneous tape and groove noise. On my own field recordings of Del and Ronnie McCoury playing duets I can clearly hear and track the distant background sounds of workers setting up for the upcoming Rockygrass festival.
Mated to a good subwoofer the Audiobyte system can be surprisingly full range. But it does have some holes in its harmonic spectrum. Axiom's titanium tweeters have adequate air and dynamics and they hand off smoothly to the 3" aluminum midrange drivers. But once you get into the lower midrange and upper bass (500 to 200 Hz) these little boxes can't deliver enough meat and potatoes to make a complete meal. You can try turning up the subwoofer's crossover to 150 Hz to compensate for the Audiobyte's lack of lower midrange muscle. But even the best subwoofers aren't fast enough to integrate perfectly when you get above 200 Hz. In the end the Audiobyte system remains on the harmonically dry side of neutral. It simply can't deliver sufficient lower midrange energy to warm up its overall harmonic balance.
While the Audiobyte system handles moderate to almost loud levels nicely, when you push further it displays immediate and unmistakable signs of distress. It reminds me of the hoary old joke patient, "Doctor it hurts when I do this " doctor, "So don't do it." As long as you retain some moderation when it comes to volume the Audiobyte system will perform nicely, but if you have over-developed bacchanalian tendencies problems will arise...
On my review sample the amplifier's volume control didn't track accurately. Through its entire range it pulled the image noticeably to the right. At first I thought the problem was the power amplifier itself, but when the volume knob was turned up fully the channel levels matched perfectly. I made lemonade out of the situation by controlling the output levels from my computer's USB volume control and using the Audiobyte's volume knob as a balance control.
Axiom's Audiobyte system delivers a paradoxical set of attributes and liabilities. It images as well as well as anything I've ever heard. It also delivers scads of low-level detail. Because the Audiobyte system is so good in these performance parameters its shortcomings are more obvious and irritating. It can't play above moderately loud levels without losing most of its sonic charms, and it has a noticeable hole in its harmonic response between 200 and 500 Hz. However if you don't push it and don't mind the dry harmonic balance the Audiobyte system delivers a ridiculously high level of sonic goodness in an extremely compact and easy to use package. Since Axiom offers free 30 days auditioning (they pay for shipping both ways if you decide an Axiom product isn't your cup of tea) I encourage you to consider the Audiobyte system if you are in the market for an integrated desktop audio system. Like the little girl with the little curl, when the Audiobyte is good it is very, very good. Indeed.
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