In addition to my main media room system, while playing on my study room computer, like most other audiophiles, I’ll listen to my music downloads or web broadcasts from the several thousand available radio stations broadcasting everything from classical to reggae. Until a couple of months ago, a pair of Koss Electrostatic headphones, bought as a birthday present by my wife when they first came out about 20 years ago, were used with very good results. Unhappily, one of the channels started humming and their being so old, they were determined to be unrepairable.
Thus the search for an alternative began. As I have a Stax setup in the media room, the first thought was to buy another setup as I’ve not been able to find any others that satisfy me. Finances came into the picture which precluded the purchase. So a decision was made to go ahead and purchase a pair of small bookshelf speakers. This was again a problem, as several inexpensive ones with built in amplifiers that were tested, sounded tinny or had absolutely no bass. A separate amplifier was out due to space constraints. Thus, a review of amplified audiophile grade bookshelf speakers was begun. While there were many out there, most were constructed for studios as highly accurate but unmusical monitors or for head-banger bands with boomy bass.
Audioengine A5 Powered
Going to their web site I found that they sell direct from the web, have 2 powered speakers, a subwoofer, a passive speaker, separate amplifier, wireless connections for the speakers and several accessories. At $349 per pair (which has not changed in 6 years) for the bigger A5 in black or white and $449 in light bamboo, or $199 for the 2’s, with a 30 day money back guarantee, charge card or PayPal payment, free ground shipping, an iPod input and power supply through USB, with input for wireless transmission, and a 3 year warranty, the price was certainly right considering I’ve had interconnects that were 10 times more expensive. The order was placed, within two minutes a confirmation was received, and in about 10 days the speakers arrived. One large box contained two smaller boxes housing the speakers, power cord, USB, 2 meter mini-phono interconnects, with short RCA adapters, and zip cord speaker wire, all in cloth bags.
The speakers are built from 1" thick MDF, colored either black, white or bamboo laminate, have a 5" Kevlar woofer with a port on the back, and a ferrofluid cooled 20 mm silk dome tweeter, They are shielded to decrease video interference, and have an amplifier with crossovers matched to the speakers built in to the left speaker, which also has all of the inputs, power cord, volume control, and AC switch. The amp shuts down after about 10 minutes of quiescence so the AC switch can be left on for minimum power draw but to keep the amp at peak output quality.
Dimensions are 10" high, 7" wide and 7.75" deep, the left weighing 14 and the right 9 pounds. Most of the components are produced by the company, and each speaker is built to audiophile specs with stiff internal bracing and sound damping material, thick mitered walls with rounded edges for decreased diffraction, wit the tweeter and woofer being time aligned. Frequency response is said to be 50 Hz to 22 kHz (+/- 1.5dB) with less than 0.05% distortion, and less than 50 dB crosstalk.
The speakers were placed first on top of my roll top desk, about 4 feet apart and about three feet from my listening position, with output from my computer through a Xonar D-1 sound card. Music varied from high MP3 rate classical music web stations such as WCRB out of Boston, to 16/44 kHz CD files to 24/176 kHz downloads from HDTracks and Linn Recordings.
While the speakers are derived from studio monitors, they certainly didn’t sound like them. They are clear and clean like a studio monitors, but are musical enough to satisfy this audiophile. In this position though, bass was missing. Moving them down to the desk area, about 7 inches from the desk’s back wall where they were surrounded by the rolltop, they appeared flat into possibly the mid to high 40’s. I was tempted to bring up one of my powered subwoofers to fill it out, but really didn’t feel it was necessary.
Now don’t get me wrong. These are no replacement for most of the speakers we’d use in our main systems. On the other hand, if you purchased 3 pair for $1047 or four pair for $1396, and had a decent subwoofer or two, with a decent pre-pro and some long interconnects, they would be an excellent purchase for a video surround system. And, if you purchased their AW-1 Wireless Audio Adapters, you could forget the long interconnects for video programming, as they transmit data equivalent to CD quality.
Nearfield listening has the advantage of decreasing room effects giving a more vivid and cleaner soundstage, but normally at the expense of imaging. Not so with these units. While the tweeter is depressed into the cabinet for time alignment which can give a cupping effect due to this pseudo horn like arrangement, I could discern none of this. The sound was certainly way above my expectations for a pair at this cost. While the highs were slightly depressed, I think this actually added to the musicality sitting in the nearfield where most speakers have too much high frequency information. At $349 including all the wiring, shipping, return guarantee and 3 year warranty, you can’t go wrong.
Now for the clincher! If you go up to their web site, you can purchase returned fully inspected units for about $50 less. Such a deal!
About two months ago, I was asked by our illustrious leader to do a review of a new music playback computer program from two European audiophile-software developers named Marcin Ostapowicz from Wroclaw, Poland, and Josef Piri from Amsterdam, Holland. They have developed a 256 kbyte program they’ve called JPlay which alleviates the above problems by allowing playback of computer files directly from RAM while shutting down the vast majority of the programs and processes that Windows has running in the background. Interestingly, they seem to never have met personally but have communicated through the web during the development. I asked them to comment on how this program came about and got the following:
A trial copy of the program can be found at this link along with their forum and blog site. It can only be used with Windows Vista and 7 and there’s a 32 and 64 bit version. Once satisfied with its functioning, one can purchase a full license for €99 (about $140). At 256 kbytes, the download took about three seconds on my high speed line and it loaded almost as quickly to my media room computer. One must run it as Administrator (right click) and then it has a simple setup window for controlling its several parameters. The program will function best if it is loaded immediately upon startup of Windows as it can then obtain a single block of RAM memory to store the music files. Also it helps if you minimize the number of programs in the startup menu, and get out of any other programs and unnecessary services. By right clicking, one opens the program as administrator, and by punching various keys on the computer, can set up the various parameters for the functioning such as buffer size, amount of RAM, and how you wish to run it.
As it has no Windows shell, it relies on Windows Explorer or another playback program such as FOOBAR to pull up the music files, which you then “right click" and “copy." Hitting the “spacebar" allows playback or going to the next track, “P" for Pause, “R" for restart, “M" for menu and to start at the beginning again, which won’t work if you go into hibernation mode.
Before starting playback one can adjust the amount of RAM to be reserved, and what level of program quality to use. One can run it either as a RAM use only program, or, for maximal functioning, put it into “hibernate" and “Overdrive" to shut down most Windows functions. Be aware though that when in “Hibernate," connection to your monitor, keyboard and mouse are lost as long as the music file is running so you cannot get out of the program. There is a workaround for this if you load and run the program through a thumb or flash drive. By pulling the drive, the program will shut down and the computer should return to normal operation.
I highly suggest, especially for those of you who have built your own computers or who have purchased one of the audiophile brands from a small company, that you do a trial before purchasing. I spent about two weeks of back and forth emailing with Josef and Marcin, and the personnel at M2Tech, the producer of my Young USB D/A converter, as the computer wouldn’t run correctly on my home built unit, and would either show the Blue Screen of Death, (BSOD), or freeze up the computer. I tried the program on several other computers and it ran flawlessly, but was incompatible with my HTPC-Young setup. Once the Young was taken out of the system its only flaw with this computer was difficulty coming out of its Hibernation mode. Again, the several other computers I tried it with had no problem with this.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the Young D/A processor that was causing the problem, but my anti-virus program, ZoneAlarm. While Zonealarm allowed the computer to go into the hibernate mode, it wouldn’t allow it to come out again for normal Windows function until the computer was rebooted. Once ZoneAlarm was disabled the program functioned flawlessly. When this program is run in its hibernation and overdrive mode it produces the best two channel playback with up to 24/192 files that I’ve heard in my system. Especially in its “BEACH" mode, with high bit rate recordings, the sound is almost analog in its smooth, relaxing sound. Even when not in hibernation mode, the music is a tad more musical than using FOOBAR, Media Center 16 or CPlay.
On their web site they have a Blog and Forum where the users discuss various tweaks, and about every month there is an update to the program which can be downloaded at no further charge. Finally, the two owners seem to be up 20 hours a day answering questions submitted through email and the forum.
For its size, at 256K, compared to other programs, it does seems a little expensive, say compared to Word or the Windows operating system, but it does produce the cleanest digital playback I’ve yet obtained from a computer even when the program is not in Hibernate mode. Get the trial program for free, see what you think, then go ahead and make the purchase.