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May 29, 2008 by Mike Chin
Powered Desktop Speakers
Some people ask, "So what can you do with a silent computer?" The unstated clause is "...that you can't do with an ordinary one?" Well, there are many things that can be done better with a silent computer than an ordinary noisy one, and the enjoyment of music is one of them. In a recent article, Devon Cooke discussed the Student AES in St. Louis where SPCR presented a silent computer as a prize for a student contest, and the benefits of such a computer for a recording studio. Playback of music with a silent computer can also be more satisfying because the PC can remain in the same room as the speakers without adding a haze of hum, buzz, screech or other non-musical noises.
Normally, we restrict reviews to products that have a direct impact on noise or its suppression in a PC, but there are products of interest outside this arena, and speakers are among them. Many readers already know that most of the people involved in SPCR have a strong interest in audio and music. It is our aural sensitivity and focus that led us to silencing computers. It's natural that we would want to examine things like the Scythe Kama Bay Amp and the SqueezeBox. This time, we examine a pair of speakers designed specifically for use with a computer.
For most audiophiles (or people who just like to have good quality music reproduction), typical computer speakers are hopelessly inadequate except to make the bing, bong and brannnng sounds that operating systems like to chime. So when we heard a fellow music lover raving about Audioengine's tiny amplified A2 speakers, it was time review a pair.
Audioengine A2 promo photo.
Audioengine is a US company formed in 2002 by three partners with extensive experience in the audio industry. The website blurb summary states:
"Audioengine designs and constructs hand-built speakers at factory-direct prices. All Audioengine products are based on custom designs with very few off-the-shelf parts. After years of building professional powered studio monitor speakers, the Audioengine team has taken their experience and created unique powered consumer speakers for your home and office which are specifically tuned for digital audio. Great sound, simple designs, high-quality materials, and truly useful features are what Audioengine is all about."
The A2 is a very small stereo set of powered speakers measuring just 6(H) x 4(W) x 5.25(D). It's the archetypal size for a computer speaker, but that's the only similarity between the Audioengine A2 and typical computer speakers. Note that these speakers are not meant for use singly; they come as a pair. The two speakers are tethered to each other by a cable, and there is a 15W/ch (RMS) stereo amplifier built into one of them. The two speaker together weigh over six pounds, which is significant for such a small pair. The enclosures are made of MDF (medium density fiberboard, 18mm thick), the material most commonly used for quality speaker cabinets, and painted a glossy white (or black). The resonant plastic that's ubiquitous for small computer speakers is absent here.
Here are the technical specifications from the Audioengine website, on both the A2 and the larger A5:
I had an opportunity to speak with Brady Bargenquast, one of the founders of Audioengine, about the origins of this product and the way it was developed. Apparently, the people from SlimDevices, the company that created the SqueezeBox digital media box, came to Audioengine with a request for a tiny self-amplified computer speaker that could be connected directly to the SqueezeBox for a super-simple, inexpensive, high quality, digital music playback system. This was before SlimDevices was bought up by Logitech, and after Audioengine had already made a reputation for itself with the original, larger Audioengine A5. SlimDevices were interested in a joint venture with Audioengine to market the resulting product as an accessory for the SqueezeBox.
Brady said their first response was "No Way!", it could not be done. The limitations of size, price, source input quality, and placement options seemed too contradictory to the whole concept of accurate sound reproduction. But Brady and his partners became drawn into the project by the SlimDevices folks, who were nearby neighbors, for the technical challenges and for the sake of maybe creating a pair of speakers they could stand to listen to with their own PCs. Over half a dozen iterations later, the A2 was finally deemed good enough. The purchase by Logitech eventually saw the departure of most of the original SlimDevices crew, and the A2 was launched as a stand-alone product on its own merits, not as a product specifically for use with the SqueezeBox.
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