Ask any veteran reviewer what components they enjoy reviewing the most and they will invariably answer, "The lightweight ones." Fortunately, in the nearfield everything I review is small and easy to move. I like it that way.
Fort this installment I'm going to look at speakers, really small speakers. The more time I spend exploring the infinite parameters of my desktop listening environment the more I realize that small is beautiful, and that the ideal desktop speaker is the smallest one that can still produce a full frequency response (at least 20kHz to 150Hz) with no stress or harmonic compression. I've auditioned several speakers recently that can get the job done.
Role Audio Skiff
Role Audio doesn't supply a great deal of technical information about the Skiffs. I do know they are magnetically shielded, have a rated impedance of 8 ohms, and 88dB/W/m sensitivity. The permanently attached black speaker grill prevents close examination of the Skiff's single driver. Available in satin black lacquer ($199 ea.) or a birch ($249 ea) all-wood cabinet, the Skiff presents a fairly unassuming face to the world. After all, it's a just a little box, but that's much of its appeal - stealth high-end audio at its finest. Leave audio jewelry to the poseurs wearing blinged-out Rolexes.
Setting up the Skiffs on my desktop took about ten minutes, including getting the right mix and balance with my reference Earthquake Supernova IV 10" active subwoofer. The toughest part of the job was moving my collection of foam step-up squares close enough together to accommodate the Skiff's tiny footprint. Once configured the Skiffs virtually disappeared. Close your eyes, spin around on your computer chair three times, and I dare you to accurately point to where the drivers are located. The combination of no crossover, point source drivers, and a well-damped acoustic suspension cabinet creates a nearly ideal close-field monitor. If seamless imaging floats your boat, it will bobbing happily along in time with the music heard through these little beasties.
Shortcomings? First, as all audiophiles already know, nothing is perfect. With just one full-range driver, the Skiff's dynamics do suffer when compared with multi-driver transducers. Although the Skiff doesn't suffer from noticeable dynamic compression it is more reticent when it comes to micro-dynamic contrast than its larger sibling, the Kayak. Also don't expect to be able to drive the Skiff to head-banging levels without using a beefy amp (such as my Accuphase P-300) and even then the Skiffs will exhibit some self-limiting at dynamic peaks. That's just physics, folks.
When compared to the $200 a pair Aperion 422 speakers, the Skiffs deliver slightly better low-level resolution and less overall homogenization. They also have a drier harmonic balance with less lower midrange and upper bass energy. In a pinch you could get away with using the 422's sans subwoofer, but the Skiffs really need a sub to supply a satisfying low frequency balance. Surprisingly, although the 422's have a separate dome tweeter, they have no additional top end air or treble attenuation when compared to the Skiffs. If anything, the 422's present a slightly darker and more forgiving sonic picture.
If you believe speakers should be heard, and not seen, the Role Skiffs may well be your ideal desktop speaker. They are small enough to be locked in a desk drawer at the end of the workday, yet produce full-size sonics when coupled with a quality subwoofer. The more time I spend with the Skiffs, the less inclined I am to try bigger speakers. The Skiffs make "small is beautiful" into more than a cliché.
Gallo Adiva Ti
According to designer Anthony Gallo the Adiva's secret is its fill material, called S2, which is a patented. "Usually when you put a woofer in a very small enclosure, the resonance frequency and Q go up. The S2 flakes flatten the Q (like using a shock absorber to dampen the spring effect of the air) and since the flakes weigh more than the air they replace, along with their large surface area, they couple to the cone indirectly at low frequencies allowing a mass-loading effect to take place, thus improving the low frequency response without compromising the higher freq, because the mass-load is not coupled to the cone at higher frequencies."
The proprietary 3" driver took quite a bit of research time to develop. Its paper dust cap is strategically attached to its cone to dampen break-up modes. It uses an "under hung" design to keep the voice coil short and light for low inductance, but the coil itself is 1" in diameter so it will have good power handling capacity. With Teflon insulated 18 AWG silver clad OFC wire that is silver soldered by hand the Adiva displays the kind of attention to detail that makes it different from any other small round desktop speaker you may have previously seen or heard. This ain't no toy.
On a desktop the Adiva's small footprint and circular size work beautifully once you solve the ergonomic puzzle of how to optimally set them up. They are completely round, after all, so they have a tendency to roll. The Adivas come with a circular rubber base that does supply some small measure of stability for desktop installation, but I found that the cardboard core of a roll of packing tape made a much better stand. With it not only were the speakers less likely to roll away, but elevating the Adivas a couple of inches off the desktop made it possible to position them more accurately. Painted black or covered with black felt the cores can look pretty sharp, for cardboard.
So how do the Adivas sound? As if they were made for a desktop. The Adivas image just as well as the Role Skiffs, which is to say they completely disappear. They also create a large enough sweet spot that even with a lot of head bobbing it's difficult to accidentally move out of the imaging zone. Here's where they best the Skiffs, which seem to have a smaller listening window. Harmonically, these two speakers have more similarities than differences. Neither tries to supply excess lower midrange energy at the expense of overall harmonically neutrality or balance.
Too Many Speakers & Too Little Time
Anthony Gallo Acoustics