Hi-fi magazines are not known for their interest in desktop systems that work with a computer, but this is changing. For many people, their computer is now their main source of music (and, vinyl revival notwithstanding, this looks set to increase over the years) and an increasing number of us are now homeworkers, in ever-shrinking homes, the desktop speaker is fast becoming the main speaker.
A few hi-fi companies have seen this desktop audio market as an untapped potential, but have traditionally made products physically constrained by small speaker size – the B&W MM1 for example is a great sounding desktop speaker, but a great sounding beer-can sized desktop speaker. The KEF X300A is not fixed by the conventions of size imposed by desktop audio’s past. These are full-sized, active monitors, just ones fed by USB as well as the mains. A USB B-type socket connects the speakers to the computer and an USB-USB connector hooks speaker to speaker. There is a mini-jack auxiliary input, but the default pathway is very much USB.
And it’s here where you begin to see why KEF is taking desktop audio seriously. That USB input works to 24bit, 96kHz precision, but requires no custom drivers for PC or Mac use. The internal amplifiers (two per side) are Class A/B affairs (20W to the tweeter, 50W to the bass), and it has a four way red/green LED in the cone surround denoting status. There is also a wireless version for AirPlay or DNLA systems.
This isn’t the bit most people will see first, though. Most people will look at these speakers and see a full-sized bookshelf speaker that bears more than a passing resemblance to the KEF LS50. The colour scheme is a little more muted (it’s all gun-metal grey rather than gloss black with a copper coloured Uni-Q unit) and the finish of the X300A is a more squared off (but round edged), ripple-touch wrap with a separate front and rear baffle than the organic shape of the LS50. All of which makes it look very tidy on the desk. The LS50 is a shade bigger all round, too. But – and the reminding of this will be a constant theme of this review – it is a desktop speaker, designed to sit close to your phone, tablet, laptop or desktop. Yes, it has EQ settings for desktop and speaker stand use (suggesting the former is a near-field and the latter a mid-field installation), but this is used primarily in that desktop environment. While it would be a dereliction of duty not to evaluate it in context with other bookshelf and active bookshelf speakers (including, of course the LS50 itself), where it’s intended to go and the rivals it will face in that place must be drawn into the process.