Though it wasn’t that long ago, I haven’t owned a pair of desktop speakers since my college dorm days. Space was at a premium back then, and the hi-fi system that I loved had to stay at home and collect dust until I moved into larger accommodations. For the time being, I was stuck with the terrible-sounding computer speakers du jour and had to wait for a bigger place that could house my real stereo. Once I got my stereo back, I never thought twice about computer speakers—that is, until I learned I would be reviewing Audioengine’s A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers and D3 DAC. It was with a mixed sense of excitement and intrigue that I opened the door a week later and found a box from Audioengine on my front porch. I mean, they’re computer speakers, how good could they really sound? But then again, if The Absolute Sound wants a set of desktop speakers reviewed, then they must be decent, right? It was time to discover the truth.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was the amazing amount of care Audioengine took while packaging this system. Each speaker—as well as the power supply and cables—is placed in its own microfiber bag, and everything in the box fits snugly together in such a way that it seems almost impossible for shipping damage to occur. The Audioengine A2+ package is as turnkey as it gets; the speakers will accept virtually any high-level source you can throw at it, as long as that source outputs via RCA, USB, or 3.5mm. If you are in the market for some affordable powered desktop speakers, that means you will be able to connect all of your source components to these bad boys with nary a worry: TVs, computers, iDevices, Blu-ray players, external DACs, Betamax, five-second anti-skip CD players…er, childhood flashback. They even have a variable RCA output so that you can connect a subwoofer (maybe their S8 powered sub?) or one of Audioengine’s wireless streaming devices. Included in the box are two meters of 16AWG speaker wire to connect the left and right channels (the binding posts also accept banana/spade-terminated speaker cables), a 1.5-meter 3.5mm mini-jack audio cable (for those iDevices and Walkmans), a 1.5-meter USB cable, the power supply, and all documentation needed. Short of a puppy with a red bow, the A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers come with everything you need to start rockin’ in no time flat. An extra surprise was also shipped along with the A2+ speakers, the Audioengine D3 DAC, which I will discuss in a bit.
The only source I used with the A2+ speakers—except for a stint of rabble-rousing friends who took turns playing iPod DJ via the 3.5mm input—was my MacBook Pro, which is presumably the kind of source most consumers of Audioengine products will use. I definitely ran the gamut of digital audio quality, from lossy MP3s to hi-res WAV files, Netflix streaming movies to DVDs, and even Pandora. I also tested every possible combination of audio format with the stock cables all the way up to audiophile-grade connections and speaker wire, just for the fun of it. But let’s stick with what comes with the A2+ speakers and go from there.
Starting with USB input (which is a new feature that the last version, the Audioengine A2, does not have), I connected my laptop directly to the A2+ using the stock USB cable, launched iTunes sans any third-party audiophile software, and played one of my favorite “soundstage test tracks,” Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.” I love this track, not only because it’s great music, but also because the way Thom Yorke plays with phasing and the soundstage. But when the track started, my heart sank: It sounded as if I were listening in a phone booth, plus there was some serious cone breakup and distortion coming from the left channel (the channel that houses the amp and inputs). I checked all my settings and everything looked correct, so I decided to step away for an hour, let the speakers break in for a bit, and come back for another listen. Interestingly enough, that did the trick; after only an hour on repeat, the speakers sounded much better, and the left-channel distortion had vanished. The lesson is to let these speakers play for a while before judging them (Audioengine allows for a 30-day audition, lucky you).
Actually, they sounded really good. Really good. I would have never thought that 6″ desktop speakers could sound this good, except for maybe those studio monitors that call themselves desktop speakers. But these are actually designed for use with your computer, hence Audioengine’s tagline, “Join the computer audio [r]evolution.” Okay, where do I sign? I suddenly had that ole music-lover’s itch to play as much music as possible (the best kind of itch, I might add), and selected numerous tracks from downtempo-ambient artists on the Ultimae record label. Want to really test a speaker’s capability? Then choose any album in Ultimae’s catalogue (ultimae.com) and be prepared to stretch for the highest highs, lowest lows, and widest soundstage you could possibly imagine. Well, the A2+ speakers performed beautifully. Not only did they provide enough bass extension to satisfy any bass head (65Hz response seems a lot lower when speakers are so close; then there’s that S8 powered sub you can add on), they proved extremely forgiving in the set-up department. I set mine at arm’s length (roughly 25″ from ear to tweeter) and toed-in directly at the flanks of my ears, which provided the best soundstage. Did I mention they were forgiving? Whether I hunched over my computer, slouched in my chair, rested my head on my hand (à la a tired college student), or sat up in that sonic sweet spot, the A2+ speakers sounded great. Let’s check that price tag again: Yep, for $249 you can’t ask for any better than this.
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