Desktop USB Speaker Roundup
So, while still heartily recommending the F5, I figured I might look in a different direction for something a little more practical. Something that might work where the F5 does not. I thought to myself, "What are people looking for in this segment?" With limited space, a reasonable but not unlimited budget, and an eye towards style, what are folks really looking for? I noticed a few models had built-in USB inputs and that really seemed to make sense—simplify the setup while (hopefully) improving on the integrated sound solution found in many computers. So I rounded up several models that looked worthy of investigation, and these three separated themselves from the pack.
My criteria for this shootout was pretty straight forward. USB input was a must. Relatively small size was important too, and I used the Adam F5 as a yardstick. An inch or two smaller in each dimension doesn't sound like much on paper, but in reality it makes for an easier time with placement. Price was limited to what I'd call "reasonable". I didn't have a specific cap but generally lower was better—as much as I love Adam Audio's Artist series (which would otherwise qualify for this article), they start around $1,000/pair and move up from there. That puts them outside the realm of consideration for many users. Lastly, the appearance was a factor. No hulking rectangular slabs in black-ash finish would qualify. It had to be somehow tasteful or at the very least inconspicuous. Oh, and the things had to actually sound good as well. Even a great looking, well built, compact, affordable speaker setup won't cut it if the sound isn't up to a reasonably high standard.
That left me with a small group of models to evaluate. After living with them for a while, a few got the boot based on mediocre sound quality. The remaining three comprise a good collection, where each has something unique to offer depending on the situation. The contenders ended up being the Definitive Technology Incline ($399), Polk's Hampden ($399), and a refreshed version of the speaker that practically reinvented this segment, the Audioengine A2+ ($249).
I connected these via USB (one at a time, obviously) to a Windows 7 based desktop system and played a wide variety of music over the course of several months. I've been exploring streaming services a lot lately, so the bulk of my listening was spread through Spotify, Rdio, Orastream, and Tidal. In keeping with the theme of "real world users" I figured it was good to spend some time with lossy music. Rdio in particular, with their library newly revamped using 320Kbps AAC compression (which is measurably superior to MP3), sounded very pleasing on these speakers, pushing the limits of their fidelity and making the jump to lossless difficult to confidently identify.
While attempting to use Orastream's Classical HD service which offers a mix of lossless CD quality and hi-res material, I quickly realized a limitation in all three of these models. Each one has a USB implementation that limits playback to sample rates of 48kHz or less. That surprised me because in this day and age hi-res material is all the rage. Windows can do 24-bit/96kHz without any special drivers, and I figured these speakers would be designed to at least go that high. Alas, I was wrong, and all three models essentially support Redbook CD standard tracks and not much else. As these are products built to a cost and the DAC feature isn't really the main selling point, I don't consider this a deal-breaker. At these prices, and considering this seems to be standard across the board, I guess I can't complain.
Now, with introductions out of the way, let's meet our first contender.