Getting Started: Three Favorite Desktop Speakers

Audioengine P4,
Monitor Audio Silver RX1,
PSB Image B4 Speakers
Getting Started: Three Favorite Desktop Speakers

Playback is created by and for personal/desktop audio enthusiasts who care deeply about music and the sound quality of their systems. The only open question might involve exactly how we each would define the word “system.” For some, headphones are the music delivery vehicles of choice, while others prefer systems based on small but excellent loudspeakers designed for use in desktop (or so-called “near field”) listening environments.

Like many of you, I enjoy both headphone and speaker-based systems, but for the moment let’s focus on identifying some very good, yet not-too-expensive, desktop speaker options. As many of you already realize, the “art of the game” for desktop speakers designers is to create products that are small in stature yet that manage—in all the areas that matter most—to sound “big.”

With this thought in mind, let me draw your attention to three of Playback’s favorite over achieving desktop speakers.

Note: This article focuses on passive loudspeakers. At a later point, we also plan to release an article highlighting some of Playback’s favorites active (that is, self-powered) desktop speakers.

Audioengine P4 Bookshelf Speaker ($295 - $325/pair, depending on finish)

To read the full review:

What it is: The Audioengine P4 is the first passive loudspeaker from a firm that built its reputation by offering high-value self-powered desktop speakers. Why the shift to a passive design?

We’ve come up with a three-part answer. The first part involves sound vs. size: the P4 offers sound quality comparable to—and in some respects superior to—that of Audioengine’s best self-powered model (the A5), but in a somewhat smaller-footprint format. The second part involves freedom—in this case, the freedom to pick and choose your own amplifier as you see fit. The third part involves freedom of a different kind—in this instance, freedom to place the speakers exactly where you want. For example, you could wall mount the P4 if you wanted to, which would be unfeasible with the self-powered Audioengines, since they place amplifier controls on their rear panel. Bottom line: think of the P4 as a way to get the acclaimed Audioengine sound in a smaller and less costly package.

What’s the Draw? Balanced performance is the key to this speaker’s appeal—that, and a very attractive price. By balanced performance, we mean that this speaker offers a package of four sonic characteristics that harmonize beautifully. First, it manages to be very revealing and detailed yet without pushing the “transparency envelope” so hard that it becomes obnoxious or painfully fussy about program material. In short, it conveys most of the good stuff in good recordings, but without punishing you when you to choose to play not-so-great recordings, meaning its lets you pick what you want to play, rather than petulantly demanding “the good stuff or else…” Second, it offers purity of tonal colors and richness of dynamics that are quite impressive for its size and price. Third, if offer surprising robust bass extension for a speaker its size, so that—while it can’t quite do the bottom octave and a half (nothing this size really can), it sounds fine above that point. Fourth, it offers terrific imaging and soundstaging, both for up close listening and when heard at a distance. This fourth point does come with one minor caveat, though, which is that you’ll need to give the P4 plenty of run-in before it sound its best (early on, imaging at-a-distance will be fine, but it takes time for the up-close sound to bloom and unfold as fully as it can and should.

All in all, the P4 offers fine sound for music lovers who need a small-footprint speaker for desktop environments.

Hint: If your budget can handle it, do consider the way cool option of ordering your P4’s with solid, laminated, carbonized bamboo cabinets. They look great and are said to sound even better than regular P4s owing to enhanced cabinet rigidity (though the standard P4s, as tested here, sound great too). 

Monitor Audio Silver RX1 Bookshelf Speakers ($675/Pair)

To read the full review:

What it is: From the British firm Monitor Audio, the Silver RX1 is a small, stand-mount, two-way, bookshelf monitor speaker that incorporates most if not all of the advanced technologies that have made the critically acclaimed and award-winning Silver RX product family so famous.

As Playback reviewer Tom Martin noted in his review of the RX1,

“The Monitor Audio Silver Series RX1 loudspeakers come across like many in the seemingly endless parade of unassuming, though attractive, small box loudspeakers on the market. Because of this, the RX1s do almost nothing to prepare you for the sonic excellence that awaits you once they are installed.”

For those of you not yet up to speed on Monitor Audio, it helps to know that the firm has been a pioneer and major proponent of using light, stiff, responsive metal alloys for loudspeaker diaphragms. But with its Silver RX speaker, the firm also took quantum leap forward in using highly advanced, FEA (Finite Element Analysis) tools to help design and fine-tune its speakers.

FEA tools, per se, aren’t really new, but where Monitor deserves special credit is in figuring out that box-stock, off-the-shelf design tools don’t always do a great job of yielding speakers that sound the way software models suggest that they will. Accordingly, the Monitor Audio team has developed extensive proprietary modifications that give their FEA tools much better predictive power, and that help Monitor’s loudspeakers sound not just a little but a lot better than ever before. Monitor brought these powerful new technologies to bear in a big way in the Silver RX models—the RX1 included.

What the Draw? In a nutshell, the RX1 delivers a very sophisticated high-end sound that belies its modest price. Granted, the RX1 does not (and of course cannot) defy the laws of physics, but within the inherent limitations of its physical size it manages to sound both larger and more expensive than it actually is. That’s the draw.

The basis of the RX1’s excellence is grounded in its superb, low-distortion reproduction of the midrange of the music, which reviewer Tom Martin termed “exemplary.” In particular, Tom praised the RX1 not only for its resolving power but also for its remarkable smoothness, which Tom felt was as good as if not superior to that of loudspeakers way up in the near-$5k/pair range. The result is a speaker that sounds extremely clear, and that offers high resolution, yet without an edge, which is a wonderful combination of virtues.

Bass is taut and well defined, but not deeply extended in an absolute sense (for near full-range bass extension, try the RX1’s big brother, the floorstanding RX8). Still, the RX1’s bass reaches down extremely low by desktop audio standards, making it nearly ideal for that application.

Imaging, and especially lateral imaging, is also one the speaker’s strengths, as it does a terrify job of helping to get the sound “off the box”—something some small speakers, such as the RX1, do much better than others.

At the end of the day, the RX1 is a beautifully made, $675/pair speaker that sounds as if it could cost more, meaning you get a big taste of serious high-end sound quality for your money.

Hint: Check out Monitor Audio’s real-wood veneer finish options for the Silver RX family; they’re beautiful and help add to the “looks-more-costly-than-it-is” vibe.

PSB Image B4 Bookshelf Speaker and SubSeries 1 Subwoofer ($299/pair for the B4’s, $399 for the SubSeries I)

To read the full review:

What it is:  The Image B4 is the brainchild of PSB founder Paul Barton, and is a very compact two-way bookshelf speaker. The SubSeries 1, in turn, is the compact, self-powered subwoofer that Barton recommends for use with the B4.

In person, Paul Barton turns out to be one of the humblest men you could ever hope to meet, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is acknowledged both by friends and competitors alike as a genius when it comes to designing affordably-priced, high-performance speakers. In one-on-one conversations with Barton, I’ve learned that one of things he finds most satisfying is finding ways to give his lower-priced speaker families (such as his Image-series speakers) sound qualities similar to those found in his more expensive modes (such as his top-of-the-line Synchrony-series or upper-tier Imagine series speakers).

At Paul’s suggestion, Playback reviewed the tiny Image B4 monitors along with their companion SubSeries 1 sub, partly because there is obvious sonic synergy between the two, and partly because the complete 2.1-channel package is quite affordable (just $698 for the whole works).

What’s the Draw? The appeal of this speaker/subwoofer package (and it should be treated as a package) centers on the sound of the Image B4 monitor. The B4’s greatest strength, in turn, is its smooth, open, and articulate midrange. As reviewer Tom Martin noted, the B4’s tend to make instruments “sound realistic, rather than plasticky.” Overall frequency balance is for the most part neutral and flat, though treble response is perhaps just slightly less extended than what you would hear from more costly (actually, much more costly) high-end speakers. Bass, as far as it goes, is very tight, but not terribly deeply extended—not even by desktop audio standards. However, that’s where the benefits of the SubSeries 1 subwoofer come in.

Many knowledgeable audiophiles tend to comment unfavorably on so-called “sat/sub” systems, and the reason why is easy to understand: most subs don’t blend with their associated small bookshelf speaker worth a darn, so that results can often sound terribly incoherent and muddled. Happily, though, that isn’t what happens at all when you go to merge the Image B4’s with the SubSeries 1. Contrary to typical experiences with sat/sub systems, the Image B4’s and the SubSeries 1 sound as if they were made for one another, right from the outset (which, in a sense, they were).

As reviewer Tom Martin put it, “with the SubSeries 1, I found within minutes that I had meaningful bass extension but without killing the midrange smoothness and clarity of the B4s.” The end result is a package where the whole is arguably greater than the sum of the parts. It’s not perfect, of course, but you get an awful lot of performance (and, in the end, quite satisfying bass output) for your money.

One final note: the Image B4/SubSeries 1 system tends to produce a highly defined sound may or may not please those looking for a slightly warmer, softer, or more "liquid" sound. But for us, the strengths of the PSB system far outweigh its potential drawbacks.

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