Aaron Marshall on Three Desktop-Friendly
Powered Speaker Systems
(Reprinted from the Fall 2004 Audio Ideas Guide)
As maligned as it is by many audiophiles, the compact disc made the idea of having a serious audio system at work truly practical. Audiophiles lucky enough to have a work environment which could accommodate a pair of bookshelf speakers and a little integrated amp or receiver (or, for some CEO/corner office types, much more elaborate setups) could increase quality of life on the job significantly with some well reproduced music to help the day fly by. Some, especially computer intensive jobs like writing code, could even make headphones practical. With CDs we could shuttle tunes between home and work with relative ease. Multi-disc changers could keep the music flowing for hours on end without our intervention and, if you got bored of your own collection of tracks, there was always the radio.
Now that we’re much more deeply ensconced in the digital age, office systems are even more practical, and growing more so if for no other reason than the ubiquity of computers. Using a PC, or even a digital portable like Apple’s Ipod, the contents of hundreds of CDs can be duplicated at the office, ending the need to shuttle discs back and forth. Random access to all those tracks and a myriad of playlist and shuffle features are ideal for shaping your music collection to your workday without having to stop to reload a changer or hunt for a missing disc. Apple’s Itunes music player will even allow you to share music libraries with your co-workers across a local network. A broadband connection to the internet also opens up the door to online radio. Although the sound quality of streaming radio can vary from mediocre to unlistenable, the sheer volume of choice and international diversity is staggering and only likely to grow (to get an idea of just how much internet radio is available visit www.radio-locator.com). With local commercial radio stations offering little or no worthwhile content, far flung streaming stations can be a great way to broaden your musical horizons and get turned on to new music.
Since I spend much of my professional life in front of a video editing workstation I’ve been lucky enough to incorporate music listening into my workday. Not only is making some noise not a problem, the workstation itself is designed for high quality video and audio playback. Until a couple of years ago I used to schlep a pile of CDs back and forth between home and work, invariably ending up with a large pile at the office at the end of a job. Now I simply carry a 120 gigabyte firewire drive around and plug it into the machine I’m working on. I can play MP3s or AIFFs off the drive via Itunes and feed the computer’s output into a Mackie mixer and from there into a pair of powered monitors. Depending on the system, the powered monitors can be quite good, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the Mackie HR824 and, more recently, the Genelec 1029A at my disposal over the past few years.
Ever since I got my laptop, however, I’ve been hoping to put together a quasi-portable office system using it, and the aforementioned firewire drive, as a source. The word system is probably over complicating things a little actually, since all I really needed were some powered speakers. In this day and age, of course, powered computer speakers are almost as ubiquitous as computers themselves. Unfortunately they are almost all trashy, cheap plastic approximations of speakers, often given away as a freebie to help sell the computer itself. With such fierce competition and razor thin margins in the PC business it’s not a big surprise that something as subjective as sound quality falls to the bottom of the priority list pretty fast. Considering what most people listen to them on, it should come as no surprise that MP3s are widely considered to provide “CD quality” sound. Through most PC speakers you could never tell the difference.
For those of us with priorities more closely aligned with high quality sound there is still hope, and, as I’m hoping to demonstrate here, it doesn’t have to cost more than the computer itself (although it certainly can). To get an idea of what was possible at various price points I gathered three different powered speaker systems to use with my Macintosh G4 Powerbook: the very budget oriented Edifier R1900, the more ambitious but moderately priced Swans T200A, and the very serious, professional grade Genelec HT208. During the process of reviewing these speakers I also discovered a way to dramatically improve the sound of any laptop with the Echo Audio Indigo sound card.