Sounds good

Introduction

Apple and harman-kardon have just unveiled their latest Jonathan Ive-designed accessory – the SoundSticks. And, as you’d expect, they look great. Aesthetics and price are often the difference between a speaker’s success and failure. But this isn’t the best way to chose a set of speakers. The selection of speakers tested here shows why “what you see isn’t always what you hear”. Yamaha YSTM40 The YSTM40, the newest of Yamaha’s USB speakers, needs Mac OS 9.0.4 to work via USB. But even if you don’t have OS 9.0.4 or USB, there are two analogue-audio inputs. As it’s only a two-speaker system, the YSTM40 is limited in the sub-bass department. Because there’s no subwoofer, the main speakers have to cover a wider frequency-range – which results in a flat and undifferentiated bass. However, the bass levels can be boosted by a knob on the speakers – but this gives a somewhat muddy bass. On the plus side, there is an output jack for a subwoofer, which would make a world of difference. The mid- and high-range sound was crisp at a moderate volume – even when the treble was set at maximum. Higher volumes, of which this 24W system is capable, suffer from distortion – depending on how high you’ve set the treble and bass. The YSTM40 has two tone-controls for bass and treble, which allow the sound to be tweaked, and – along with an over-sized volume knob – are conveniently to hand. The power button is on the right speaker’s face and there’s an easy-to-reach surround-sound mode. However, this effect was not up to scratch. There’s also a headphone jack, so there’s no need to clamber round to the jack on the back of your machine. As with most of the Yamaha speakers, this system is available in a choice of Calypso Black and Platinum White. Yamaha YSTMS35D At £49, this is one of the cheapest three-speaker systems available. The nicest looking of the Yamaha systems, with a cube-shaped sub and small-cuboid satellites, these speakers have volume and power controls on the right satellite. The bass control – there’s no treble – is on the back of the sub. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem, as the bass needs to be set to max anyway – the sub is so feeble that any lower and it becomes useless. The specs claim the subwoofer has 18W of power, and can reach down to 45Hz – this should make for a reasonable output. However, Yamaha must have set the bass-levels of the amp low. The sub frequencies are hardly audible, and even the bass-frequency output pales in comparison to other subwoofers – disappointing for a three-channel system. If you’re on a budget, you’d do better to buy a decent two-speaker system, such as the YSTM40, even if they don’t look as nice. Yamaha YSTMS55D The YSTMS55D is the top model out of the three Yamaha systems, with a sub boasting 40W of power and a frequency range down to 32Hz. Unfortunately, as with the YSTMS35D, the bass levels are too low, but cranking up the bass control can give OK results. The sound has a pleasing, warm resonance, due to the driver-housing, and higher frequencies are clear and distinct. With a total power of 80W, this system can easily break your, and your neighbour’s, ear drums. It distorts a little at this level, but unless you’re planning to start a club, don’t worry. Again, there’s a headphone jack, volume control and both analogue- and digital-audio inputs. As with the other analogue-and-digital systems, the only noticeable effect of audio over USB was less volume. You’ll have to pay more for this top-end system, but the drop from £119 to £79 makes it worthwhile. It’s a shame these speakers don’t look better – the satellites are boxy, and the sub is massive. Plus, it only has a fabric shielding, so you could easily kick-in the subwoofer. Creative Cambridge Soundworks Digital For pure sound quality, this system is the best. The satellites have been well thought-out, with stereo copper-wire inputs hidden behind detachable sprung-plastic stands. These act like suspension, and allow the speaker to vibrate without rattling against the desktop. Each satellite is an identical matte-black, round-edged cube, with black metal grills shielding the diaphragms – although the sub is a plain black box. All inputs and the bass control are located on the subwoofer’ and the volume is thoughtfully connected via a cable to the sub. There are two analogue inputs to allow another computer or stereo to be hooked up. The digital input is unusually via an S/PDIF – so unless you have a soundcard with a digital-audio out, you won’t be able to fully utilize the digital-audio capability. The output is the smoothest I’ve heard from a multimedia system. The Soundworks Digital has the lowest range out of all the systems tested, an impressive 30Hz. The sub-bass output is magnitudes more powerful than any of the other systems tested. Not only is it pumping, but beautifully differentiated from the bass frequencies. With 24W power for the subwoofer and 8W each for the satellites, the individual amps can drive this system to the limits of tolerable volume without distortion. All for just £61. harman/kardon Soundsticks As we have come to expect, the latest Ive-designed device is striking. The transparent design hints at clear, differentiated sound, and this is exactly what you get. The iSub really pumps hard, driven by a 20W amp, and with a frequency range starting at 44Hz it’s hard to beat for strong, defined bass. The Sticks themselves output impressively sharp sound. However, the feel was not as warm as I like. Many audio experts insist that only wood will do when it comes to speakers, because this gives a natural resonance to the sound. While not everyone agrees, I think the pure-plastic design of the SoundSticks does result in an artificial feel to the output. As a result, this system lacks the smoothness I want from a product that costs over £100. The system is incredibly simple to install, as it’s connected via USB to your machine. Unfortunately, this is the only connection – there is no analogue input. Apple’s dedication to digital-over-USB, although offering maximum user-friendliness, is not ideal for audio-purists. There is no volume control on the amp itself, restricting you to the Mac’s system volume control. This means the amp cannot be set relative to the signal. The SoundSticks are intended for use with Mac OS 9.0.4 with enhanced multimedia. I initially tested the system on OS 9, and was horrified to find that the speakers were seriously clipping (a “cutting-out” of the sound, normally caused by a signal input to the amp that exceeds its physical limits) at maximum volume. Changing to OS 9.0.4 dramatically reduced this. While the design is stunning, I have one or two doubts. The hole in the top of the iSub exposes the diaphragm to stray missiles. We dropped a wire-tie in and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t shake it out – I dread to think what would happen if you spilled a drink nearby. The multiple speakers in the satellites are totally superfluous: it would have made more sense to spend the same money on one high-quality, powerful speaker than four, smaller, cheaper ones. However, this system is well suited for multimedia use, particularly if you value looks.
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