Okay, now for some music that most readers of TAS will recognize: Leonard Bernstein’s classic rendition of Le Sacre du Printemps in 24-bit/96kHz from HDtracks. Uh-oh. 24-bit is a no-go via the USB input on the A2+ speakers, which is a somewhat-disappointing, yet very understandable exclusion. Most people who will buy the A2+ powered speakers won’t have a large collection of hi-res audio files, so this is a moot point; if, however, you have a bunch of hi-res files and want to use these speakers at work or elsewhere, you’ll need an external DAC capable of 24-bit audio. Luckily, I also received the D3 DAC, but hold your horses; we first need to test the 3.5mm mini-jack. Just as you might expect, sound quality took a step back, but this seemed to be an across-the-board decrease, which is less grating than a sudden drop within a certain frequency range would be. Still, the 3.5mm mini-jack input is great for plugging in that iDevice and rockin’ out while working in the garage or having friends come over and connecting their phones. And at 15W RMS, these puppies can really crank. They were loud enough to fill my house with music and drown out the clang of pots and pans as I cooked breakfast, or, if you’re so inclined, the noise of dorm- and roommates.
During this first stage with the A2+ speakers—i.e. without a DAC—I was breaking in the sleek Audioengine D3 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC with a pair of Grado PS500s. This thumbdrive-sized aluminum-shell DAC is very pretty to look at, and matches surprisingly well with my aluminum-cased MacBook Pro—something that might be attributed to the designers’ former Apple days. I was at a coffee shop with the D3 when someone tapped my shoulder and asked, “Why are your headphones plugged into your thumbdrive?” Thirty minutes and a quick audition later, the D3 had successfully converted the inquirer into a freshly minted junior audiophile, flush with excitement and on a quest to listen to high-quality music. If that’s not a litmus test, then I don’t know what is. For a piece of audio equipment—whether the $189 D3 or the $110,000 dCS Vivaldi—to have the ability to cause even the most curmudgeonly of people to spontaneously combust with aural happiness is really what counts. No, I’m not saying you’ll get dCS-level performance for $189; I’m saying that for $189, you’ll have something with the power to inspire that fits in your pocket. Maybe Audioengine should employ that as a campaign: Go around to coffee shops where lots of college students and young people hang out and let them plug in the D3 for a quick test drive. I guarantee their rinky-dink MP3s will come to life with the D3 plugged in, not to mention if you let them play some real hi-res music through it.
I really wanted to hear that Stravinsky, so let’s get back to what the combination of the A2+ speakers and D3 DAC sounded like. With Amarra Hi-Fi turned on and the D3 DAC plugged into my computer (connected to the A2+ speakers via the 3.5mm mini-jack), I played the 24/96 version of Le Sacre du Printemps (that’s The Rite of Spring to us non-Francophiles). All right, I’ll admit that this might be cheating; there’s no way that such little speakers could recreate the power of a live orchestra, but they still elicited an “air-conductor” session where I threw my arms around all Bernstein-like. The D3 DAC did exactly what it’s supposed to do—make digital audio sound great. At $189, the D3 DAC is a must-have piece of the A2+ puzzle. Plus, it comes with a nice 1/4" adaptor cable, so you can plug in those beefier headphones and enjoy all the music you’ve been missing because of that sorry built-in computer DAC. Seriously, what did we do before these tiny USB DACs came around?
I’m not going to go audiophile on you and describe the minutest nuances of the speakers, because that would completely miss the point: these are desktop speakers and are only $249, and for $249 you get such quality sound it’s ridiculous. And what’s more, they sounded so good that I started listening to them instead of my main stereo—that’s how much I liked the A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers. As aforementioned, I even went a little crazy and switched all the stock cables with audiophile-grade versions from Audioquest and WireWorld. Unnecessary? You bet. But I mention this because how many 6" desktop speakers have USB, RCA, and 3.5mm inputs, RCA output, can accept banana, spade, or bare speaker wire, and sound this good for only $249? At that price, the A2+ speakers seem like the perfect gift for the recent high school graduate, or college student, or really anyone who needs great sound in a small form factor. Sprinkle a little sugar on top with the D3 DAC, and you’ve got a winning combination that can now improve on-the-go sound for a grand total of $438. Ahem, I have USB cables that cost more than that. Now if only I had had a pair of these when I was in college, life would have been sweet.
Specs & Pricing
A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers
Inputs: USB (up to 16-bit/48kHz); RCA; 3.5mm mini-jack
Outputs: Variable RCA Out
Drivers: 2.75" Kevlar woofers, 3/4" silk dome tweeters
Frequency response: 65Hz–22kHz ±2dB
Power: 15W RMS (60W Peak)
Dimensions: 4" x 6" x 5.75"
Weight: 10 lbs.
D3 24-Bit DAC
Frequency response: 10Hz-25kHz ±0.5dB
USB transfer mode: Asynchronous (dual clock)
Input: up to 24-bit/96kHz
Output: Analog audio mini-jack
126 Industrial Dr. Bldg B
Burgaw, NC 28425