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LISTENING IMPRESSIONS: AT THE DESK
A couple of years ago, I disclosed in the only other speaker review in SPCR before this one, that I hadn't had speakers connected to my PC for at least five years. This is not true any more. I have had a single AudioEngine A2 speaker hooked up for a while to hear the sound of various online videos, for the first listen of a downloaded song, quick check of an audio recording for posting up to SPCR, etc. The other speaker has been left disconnected, on a nearby shelf. It's small and does not take up much desktop space... but I just didn't feel the need for it.
Let me explain again: I've lived with high quality music playback systems all my life, and at some point along the way, I chose consciously not to subject myself to the painful limitations of computer speakers not when there was a fabulously good sounding audio system in my living room. When I feel like listening to music while at my computer, I simply turn the stereo upstairs up to a fairly high level and keep my downstairs office doors open. I have remote access from my desktop PC to the Squeeze Center software that feeds uncompressed CD or higher quality music in FLAC format into the upstairs stereo. The sound that flows down from the upstairs stereo is much better and more natural than I have got from any speakers ever hooked up directly to my computers. Hence, any computer speakers are up against my "audiophile" snobbery, my lack of exposure to other PC speakers, and my natural bias against speakers at my computer desk.
The Soundscience Rockus 3D|2.1 were up against it, too.
They were duly hooked up via the analog input to the PC equipped now with an Asus Xonar Essence STX, a very nice 196 kHZ / 24-bit sound card. Satellites atop, center woofer under the desk, to the left of my feet. After my experience with the AudioEngine A2 speakers, I instinctively angled the Rockus satellites inward so that their central axes intersect in front of me. This would mean that both speakers would be laterally off axis. It is the same basic setup that I use for the front speakers in my home theater room, as it provides a sound stage that's stable as one moves laterally (very nice on the sofa across the room). They were turned directly at me for a little while, but as expected, that made the sound much too "in my face."
Rockus satellites angled so their central axes intersect in front of the seated listener.
The Rockus speaker system was left hooked up there at my desk for a week, used willy-nilly, as I would have used the single speaker in the past. Here are some notes jotted randomly during this period:
- Listening to stereo speakers on the desktop is so immersive, so nearfield! It's almost like listening to headphone sometimes. Hard to have music just playing in the background... Duh! They're in the foreground 2-3' from your ears dummy!
- When my feet touch the center speaker under the desk, the bass can feel kind of neat. Buzzes the toes. lol!
- The speakers are sometimes too toppy bright at the very high end on some material when there's sound up there. A little thin in the midband sometimes.
- Lots of detail... clear... no audible distortion.
- Pulling down the top octave bar in the equalizer on MediaMonkey helps tame it. A little boost on the 250 and 500 Hz bars helps too.
- It can play pretty loudly but then I'm so close to them. Should be easy for any speaker to play this loud.
- A movie is watchable with these on the 24" 1920x1200 monitor.
- The 3D mode is sometimes OK with movies but don't like it on music at all. Any kind of music. Sounds "phasey", too bloated or resonant in the midrange on lots of music.
- 3D mode can make game sound effects more dramatic.
- The remote control is handy. Just grab it and push or turn. No searching for the volume bar with the mouse... or reaching behind the satellite.
In summary, it was a more satisfying experience than I expected. Desktop listening is very different than what I am used to with my conventional aging high end stereo upstairs. Rather than an illusion of a stage on the side of the room where the speakers are, with desktop speaker listening, it is a much more immersive experience, kind of like headphones. I could get used to it... and the Rockus speakers do enough things right and few enough things wrong that they don't get in the way of the sonic material most of the time. The upward angle of the satellites' integral stand helps it a great deal. Listening on axis generally ends up sounding a bit too bright on some music, but that's easy enough to avoid. The tone controls or equalizer settings available in any software music player also makes it easy to tame the top if it sounds too hot.
After this week of intermittent listening at the desk, I had a long phone chat with Han Liu, Antec's primary product development manager, who was deeply involved in the Rockus project. I've known Han for years, back before the P180 case project which I worked on with him. Han confirmed that...
- The Rockus is optimized for nearfield listening in a smallish room, and for use with a HTPC or big screen TV.
- Its upper treble has been deliberately boosted to help compensate for the typically duller sound of typical high compression MP3s used by so many people to maximize the number of songs in their MP3 players. The high res FLAC files and low compression MP3s in my collection, Han felt, is probably representative of only a small portion of the potential user base of the Rockus speakers.
- A satellites + center box speaker system is far easier to set up (and gains domestic acceptance far more easily) than full 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 types of speaker systems. Just the number of speakers that have to be placed, and the cables that must be routed to them are enough to discourage many potential users/buyers I can confirm with personal experience.
- The D/A converter is from D2 Audio, running at 16-bit / 44.1 Khz. It accepts only PCM signals.
VERSUS AUDIOENGINE A2 AT THE DESKTOP
Since the sample speakers from two years ago are still kicking about here in my office, it was natural to run a comparison between them. The Rockus speakers were put aside, and the A2s put in their place, set up as shown below in that review.
The AudioEngine A2s angled so their central axes intersect in front of the seated listener... back in place after a week with the Rockus.
The contrast/comparison was interesting. Here are some of my notes from the couple of days spent again with the A2s.
- The mids and highs are smoother on the A2s, but perhaps a bit more closed in.
- Richer mid-band, voices usually sound more natural.
- Bass is too fat sometimes, a bit artificial, doesn't go as low as the Rockus.
- The whole desktop resonates more than with the Rockus; must be because A2s are producing bass on the desktop. With the Rockus, the satellites are not producing any bass, Almost all of it is coming from the woofer box at my feet.
This last phenomenon made it less pleasant to turn up the volume at the desktop with the A2s than with the Rockus. Audioengine now offers a desktop stand made for these speakers that do pretty much what the Rockus satellite stands do: Tilt them up a bit. Being made of silicone rubber, maybe it reduces the bass/vibration coupling to the desk, too. This is something I need to try. Without the ADS1 stands, the A2s aren't quite as good as the Rockus for desktop music listening.
LISTENING IMPRESSIONS: HOME THEATER
The Rockus speaker system was hooked up to the TV/HTPC in two different ways, over a period of three weeks. First from the analog output of a Samsung PN58C6400 58 inch Plasma TV, then from the analog output of the high quality onboard sound of a HTPC. This is in a lightly furnished, 12' x 12' den. The sound quality of the TV's audio circuits and speakers is very good, but sometimes lacks clarity for dialog to be easily understood without turning the volume up.
As mentioned earlier, the speaker cables were too short to be placed on either side of the TV with the center woofer on one side. The center unit had to be left in the center in front of the TV stand, rather in the way. If the system was going to be installed permanently, at least one speaker cable would have to be replaced with a longer one.
Each speaker was set next to the TV, again, angled inward so that their central axes intersect in front of the easy chairs 2m directly opposite the TV at the same plane as the screen, about a meter apart, and a foot from the back wall.
The sound of the Rockus was much clearer than that of the TV, all around. Dynamic impact, bass weight, drama imparted by the musical score in movies all of these aspects were improved. Dialog was easier to follow than with the TV speakers even at lower volumes. These observations held true whether the source was the TV or the HTPC. The system could play loud enough to overwhelm the room and listeners' eardrums before clipping distortion set in.
The 3D mode enhanced sound effects in high action programming, and sometimes boosted the midband so that dialog was more prominent. In general, my preference was for the music mode, which seemed more natural and more compatible with a broader range of program material.
Again, the AudioEngine A2s were brought up to compare/contrast with the Rockus. The differences were interesting. The Rockus often sounded a bit more raucous, but they generally improved clarity, while the A2s did not always do the latter. Bass impact was better with the Rockus on dramatic material, and dialog was usually easier to follow. AudioEngine A2s were usually smoother sounding, and sometimes better with music in the program. Not exactly a total win, but the nod here goes to the Rockus.
It was a middling high end audio system 15 years ago... It's probably nowhere near high end today, but it still sounds very good. The source is mostly uncompressed digital audio files from the network fed via a SqueezeBox, then converted to analog by a MSB Technology LINK DAC-III 24/192 outboard D/A converter. Amplification is a Linn Kairn preamp and Linn AV5105 power amp. The speakers are NHT 2.9, a 4-way stereo pair one step down from the brand's then-top 3.3 model now long discontinued like all the other equipment I've described. Here is how my reference system sounds:
The overall sound is affected far more by the recordings and the music than any signature the system imparts. Most listeners describe the sound as very lively, clear, dynamic, detailed; smooth and soft when the music is smooth and soft, and raucous and loud when the music is raucous and loud. A notable quality for me is that when a good recording of a smallish band (say under 5~6 instruments plus a vocalist) is played fairly loudly, sitting in the kitchen through the open doorway at the far end of the house, it is not hard to imagine that the performers are actually there playing, albeit more softly than in a lounge bar. Bass extension is excellent. It also sounds very good at low volume, detailed and clear. In terms of weaknesses, on some recordings, there can be a lack of "bloom" in the midband and the overall "sense of air or space" a bit constricted. Bass can also get a bit "fat" sounding with some recordings, though many listeners like this quality.
Rockus satellites laid on their sides so as not to be shooting up toward the ceiling.
The room is quite large and lively, 30' x 13' x 8'; it's a living room that continues into the dining area. The NHT 2.9 speakers are about 1.5' in front of a wall that is mostly sliding glass doors to the front deck.
The Soundscience Rockus 3D | 2.1 satellites were perched atop the NHT 2.9 speakers, with the center woofer between them. The system was connected directly via phono cables to the outputs of the MSB Technology D/A outboard converter. Only the SqueezeBox was used for sound sources. As the photo below suggests, it is an absurd David-Goliath comparison, and the Rockus speakers are not intended for use in such a big room.
The sound of the Rockus speakers in this setup was pretty good, clear but a bit thin. The system could be heard straining as volume reached upwards of 85 dB from 3 meters away in this large room. Up to moderately loud volume (say up to ~80 dB peaks at 3 meters), with a wide range of music, the Rockus sounded better than expected, but not quite as convincing as the Audioengine A2s which were compared in the same way before. The window to the music was too small for anyone to be fooled into thinking the NHTs were playing.
Against the big NHTs in this big room, in the "traditional stereo" role, the Rockus speaker system fell short of the AudioEngine A2s, whose smoothness and richer mids made it a bit more convincing. This, despite less bass in the A2s. Remember, neither the A2s or Rockus speakers are meant for this role, and I would not accept either of them in this setup for long.
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