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Reality Check: Computer Speakers vs Hi-Fi

Lower East Side Air Overview This morning’s news dump finds me distracted by an Engadget story about Audyssey releasing a new AirPlay-capable powered speaker system called “Lower East Side Air.”

This is the second time such an announcement from this company has caused my brow to wrinkle. The first time the company caught my attention was when Tech Crunch reviewed their Lower East Side Media Speakers.

Going beyond the press release I had a look at the companies’ web site for some greater depth on the Lower East Side Air product. I was surprised to find that there really wasn’t anything more to be had.


lesoverview02 Even under the heading of “specs” there wasn’t any meaningful detail offered. Oh, they make some claims about how great they sound, and how they use an array of proprietary technologies.

In reality, the only hard facts they offer are the size of the drivers (0.75” and 3”) and the means of interconnect. They make no mention of amplifier power or topology. I found myself wondering if these wee wonders are driven by some 30 cents amplifier chip or a discrete design? Were they bi-amped, providing a line level crossover and separate amplifiers optimized for each driver?

None of this detail was available. In fact, they didn’t even state the power consumption of the device, which might allow us to infer it’s potential output power.

In the realm of what was once called “Hi-Fi” to offer such a product without the full suite of technical details was actually against the law. There are standards for making claims about such equipment.

Amplifiers & speakers are typically described quoting frequency response in comparatively exacting terms (x Hz to x KHz +/- y db @ some rated distortion level) Power output is similarly stated in an exacting manner, as z watts/channel RMS @ some nominal distortion level.

Then there’s the matter of price. The AirPlay-enabled Lower East Side Air retails for $399 while the Lower East Side Media Speakers are offered for $249, making neither a bargain in my mind.

Let us compare something that’s been in use around my home for some years; M-Audio’s Studiophile BX5a.

BX5a_pairThese are not toys. They’re small professional powered audio monitors with an impressive array very clearly stated specifications. They’re bi-amped, providing 40 watts of clean power to the woofer, and 30 watts to the tweeter. The 5” diameter woofer has a light, stiff woven kevlar cone providing superior transient response.

While they’re not as compact as the Lower East Side fare, I’m willing to bet that from a pure performance perspective my old Studiophile BX5a trounce either of the Audyssey products.

The thing is, the Studiophile BX5a have a suggested retail price of $399, but can readily be found for $200. As someone who favors audio performance over other factors, I think that the M-Audio offering are by far the better value.

cheap PC speakers There was a time that “computer speakers” meant regrettable little plastic boxes with paper coned drivers, possibly reclaimed from old Radio Shack portable cassette recorders. These were driven by sub-$1 chip amplifiers capable of only 2-3 watts output at horrific distortion levels. As bad as these things were, their one redeeming quality was that they were dirt cheap. You getz what you payz for.

As computers have come to play a wider array of roles in consumer audio companies have come to offer “computer speakers” that cost in the same range as traditional hifi or even pro audio gear. In reaching up-market they may not disclose the real performance of the products in the customary manner. Often with good reason, since the products are simply not competitive on the basis of performance.

I accept that some people will buy the lesser products for their own reasons. Some will favor the convenience of AirPlay over the reality of limited audio performance. Some may require something that matches the color of their walls or upholstery. Each of us has our own personal priorities.

Loudspeakers in particular have long held a performance parameter that enthusiasts call S.A.F. for “Spousal Approval Factor.” Historically, high-performance speakers tend to be large. The SAF value of any such product varies inversely with its internal volume.

As ever, buyer beware, but don’t overlook the idea of buying professional gear. You may find that some of it is in your price range, and performs better, but simply isn’t as well known. Pay a visit to your local Musician’s Supply or Guitar Center, as well as the consumer electronics shop.

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