How's that for a beginning to a review. Why am I so upset? Because I purchased an Onkyo Integra 9.8 preamp-processorless than four years ago from an official Onkyo dealer, wrote a good review of the product, and within three years the FM receiver on the unit went bust. As I couldn't be without a preamp for review purposes, I kept using it until my Classé pre-pro took over. Then three months ago, that's about 40 months since my purchase and just over the 36 month warranty period, I took the unit to an Onkyo certified repair facility 20 miles from here. As it was three months beyond the warranty period (my bad), I paid $80 for them to evaluate it. Three weeks later I got a call from them that the FM circuit board was fried, no longer available from Onkyo and therefore the unit was non-repairable (their bad). That's less than four years from when the unit was first put on sale.
This was not some cheap receiver, but the top of the line unit from Onkyo's supposedly top subdivision. So now I have a $1900 boat anchor. Come on Onkyo. Repair parts should be available for at least five years from the first sale date, never mind the last one, especially since it was your premier product and you still sell very similar units. It's the last Onkyo or Integra product this audiophile will purchase, and I hope this sways some of my readers towards more reliable companies.
Now on to something more interesting! As my reader's should know, I'm a card carrying horn and tube-ofile, having my media room's 450 square feet of surface area taken up by about 200 square feet of horns. Luckily I have a separate room for my toys so my wife doesn't complain too much about its looks. Still, there are times when I do enjoy sitting at a computer reading e-mail or whatever, listening to background music. Of course, shoehorning (get it) my main speakers onto the top of my computer desk would be somewhat difficult. It would also be problematic to try fitting a preamp Class A tube combo or even an integrated amplifier with bookshelf speakers in the space allotted. Also, most bookshelf speakers aren't tuned for nearfield listening. Also, I'll be retiring in a few months and will need to transport a decent sounding system to my second home in the Caribbean. So I've been evaluating several compact desktop systems.
The first desktop audiophile speaker system evaluated was a pair of Audioengine A-5 powered speakers, which have a matched amplifier built in along with an iPad dock. It has analog stereo rca inputs so requires an external DAC or the use of the computer's D/A conversion. They actually sounded very good for a nearfield system and would probably suffice for a small room listening system. At $399 it is a very good value.
About two months ago, I heard of a company called XTZ, Inc., Swedish producer of electronics, speakers, and measuring instruments. I had been trying to find a decent speaker and room analyzer setup and theirs seemed to fit the bill, so they were contacted to purchase one of their several units, review to come. I also noticed on their website that they also had a desktop speaker system with a separate small DAC/stereo amplifier combination which also had a computer program which when used with USB connection to the computer, would do some digital signal processing for room correction.
XTZ's American rep, B R Olle offered to send along with the measuring unit their...
MH 800 DSP
The software consists of a downloadable program named DIRAC HD Sound which is PC and MAC capable and has algorithms matched to the speakers that adjust FIR and IIR filters and several room correction modes. So with any computer and the above you have a self contained stereo system for 490 Euros or about $512 plus shipping. Since there's no place to evaluate them, they come with a 21 day from delivery trial period with full return privileges. The company has been in the high end game in Sweden for years and manufactures their own amplifiers, including Class A solid state units, speakers and subwoofers using the best Seas, Acuton ceramic and Peerless drivers, stands and cables, and the afore-mentioned room and speaker measuring instruments.
The system arrived in one box, with each piece of equipment in
a separate box with plenty of Styrofoam padding. Setup directions were in
excellent English, but of course I didn't bother reading them. More on this
First some niggling:
1. It was shipped with a European IEC ac cord without an American adapter.
2. The speaker wire is standard zip cord about 4 feet long, just about enough for a desk system. I was somewhat surprised as they make audiophile grade wire.
3. The left and right speaker output lettering under the jacks were reversed.
4. In order to download the software one has to register the
product, which requires a serial number. Unhappily there are three different
numbers shipped with the units, one for the speakers on the side of the box, one
on the bottom of the amplifier, and one on the back of the manual. Being the
typical know-it-all male who never reads the service manual which clearly states
that the s/n on the back of the manual is the correct one, almost an hour was
spent trying combinations of the other two s/n without success. Finally, I did
relent, read the manual and used the correct one. Learn from my error!
5. The DAC will only decode at 44 and 48 kHz rates but will accept 88 and 96 kHz files down-rez'ed to the above when used through its USB input, which is probably appropriate for the price and its main function as a desktop system.
DIRAC software is easily loadable from the website (once one figures out which
serial number to register the product with), and it automatically loads at
computer startup. Unhappily on one of my computers, the sound panel won't
recognize the Dirac software like this. One has to disable then re-enable it for
the computer to recognize the processing. Unlike their other analyzers (which
cost as much as this system) that do correction for your speakers and room,
there are 12 different algorithms for standard corrections such as no
correction, flat to 40 Hz, loudness compensation and bass extension.
Unhappily, when this processing is used, the software only recognizes 44 and 48
kHz files and changes the 44 to 48 kHz. 88 and 96 kHz files are passed through
either the computer's analog or USB outputs without processing.
I had purchased the Audioengine 5 speakers so it was very easy
to compare them with the MH 800's using the computer's analog outputs in a
desktop configuration. In this setup, the Audioengine units had a somewhat
tighter deeper bass and richer midrange that added some warmth to mp3 computer
radio programs, while the MH 800's had somewhat cleaner highs and more depth of
field and ambiance feel. Both sounded far superior to the several sets of
computer speakers that came with my various computers over the years.
Interestingly, when using my Mediacenter 17 program on my 44 kHz. from CD and my
48 kHz from analog master tape files, by adjusting the built-in digital graphic
equalizer, I could get the two sets to almost be indistinguishable. While not up
to typical audiophile standards, both were sufficiently more natural sounding
than the freebies that they were certainly worth the price.
When decoding 44 and 48 kHz. files, the built-in DAC on the
XTZ unit with USB input was significantly better than my computer's DAC analog
output, but my 88 and 96 kHz downloaded files from www.HDTracks.com
sounded better using the computer's DACs at their respective bit rates vs. the
down-resolution that the XTZ unit does in the decoding process.
The above comments are related to using the systems in the nearfield, meaning sitting closer than the apex of an equilateral triangle with the speakers at the corners of my desk. When listening in the farfield from about six feet away, again with an equilateral triangle formation, the XTZ speakers lost some of their ability to form a complete soundfield, and their ability to support the bass decreased further, but was still sufficient for relaxed listening. As far as the Dirac software was concerned, no matter which algorithm was used, except for flat and flat to 40 Hz, the decrease in clarity of the sound was sufficient to not warrant using it.
So which is the better deal? For those with high bit rate files and a decent computer sound card or motherboard, or an iPad, I'd go with the Audioengine 5 self powered loudspeakers. For those with none of the above, using a computer with USB output, the XTZ system with its built in DAC and stereo amplifier should satisfy any audiophile who enjoys listening to music while working on their computer. At $519 it isn't quite a steal, but well worth the cost.
And now some comments from Mr. Olle:
After the above comments, I felt that I hadn't fully evaluated the system for use in a small room rather than just as a desktop system. Therefore, I pulled out a pair of speaker stands I hadn't used in years, connected the amplifier-DAC to my home theater computer in my main media room, and after about an hour warm-up on some satellite television, took a listen. While their size prevented them from producing sufficient sound to fill a large room with orchestral-sized tuttis, on chamber music and solo voice or guitar, they sounded very good for the price. In desktop mode, I preferred the sound without the Dirac processing, but in the largish room with the speakers away from the side walls, the processing, especially in the “flat to 40 Hz.” mode added a little warmth without much damage to the quality of the sound. Obviously, they have set up the processing to compensate for the speaker's use in the far field in a room. Thus, when used in the near-field in a desktop application, leave the Dirac processing off. But if you're using them in the farfield in a smallish listening room, use it.
With the above said, these are not audiophile quality units, but for the price they'd be great for a second system or computer setup, they'd be great.