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The best desktop speakers, ever

Audio Engine Speakers

Everyone’s lamenting the decline of proper stereo equipment. Teens are losing their hearing [1] to their tinny iPod earbuds and nobody knows what non-compressed music sounds like anymore.

People don’t buy stereos these days — listening to music in one’s living room has become part of an overall surround sound home entertainment setup that comprises a tv, five or seven speakers and a subwoofer. All music destined for commercial success is now mixed with such high compression [2] (to grab attention [3] on the radio and compensate for the poor quality listening devices that are so prevalent) that it’s lost all nuances and dynamics. There’s actually a movement to reduce the amount of compression applied to recorded music [4].

And yet, in our era of the long tail [5] and tech entrepreneurship, there’s more and more excellent, affordable audio equipment available, mostly made in China to exacting specifications from US or European engineers and sold on the web or through smaller retailers. As with everything these days, Google and niche sites are your friend — as long as you know what you’re looking for, chances are you will find it at a price point that works for you.

The quest for ever-better audio equipment never ends, truth be told. The scale has an unlimited top end of course, and — given enough money — it could always be just a little better. I’m never not thinking about it (like any good nerd [6]).

I listen to a lot of music while working in my home office.

Recently, I found what I think are the best desktop speakers I’ve ever heard. They’re made by a company called Audio Engine [7] and cost only around $200 (a remarkable feat given that Bose charges twice as much money for what are essentially two plastic boxes [8] with artificially enhanced bass and the most horribly coloured sound you can imagine).

The Audio Engine A2 speakers [9] come in two kinds of black (glossy or matte) and white. They’re small, heavy and quite beautiful. They have Kevlar woofers and silk tweeters. And — after about a week of burn-in, which all good audio equipment requires — they sound simply extraordinary. The built-in power amplifier (in the left speaker) produces ample power to fill a room, and if you’re sitting right in front of them (using a near-field monitoring setup in a typical computer application) they can be quite overwhelming even at low volumes.

More Audio Engine speakersThey have excellent bass, focused mids, and trebles that are never sharp or uncomfortable, regardless of what kind of music you play. The A2s also have great depth of field and sound stage. Even coupled with a better-than-average, yet still quite flawed external sound card/DAC such as my trusty old M-Audio Audiophile USB, they sound briliant — musical and coherent regardless of musical style. Even complex orchestral music doesn’t overwhelm these tiny wonders.

Audio Engine sells a set of little rubber pedestals that tilt the speakers slightly backwards and bring them inline with the incline of your monitor.

I’ve replaced the cables that came in the Audio Engine box with my own — I’m using a decent-ish pair of Monster interconnects plus some leftover Totem Tress [10], a fantastic speaker cable made by Totem, who make the speakers I use in my main stereo, to connect the amplified left hand side to the unamplified right.

I cannot recommend these speakers enough.