Desktop USB Speaker Roundup

It's been a while since I've ventured to the land of desktop speakers. Several interesting sets have some my way over the past 6 months or so, but none seemed quite worthy of a write up. Much of the blame for that lies squarely with Adam Audio - their F5 active monitors sit on the "Wall of Fame" and make it very tough for potential challengers. By forgoing any sort of focus on aesthetics, Adam seems to have dedicated all their efforts on pure sound quality, and it really pays off. Not that I think the F5 is ugly by any means...it's just sort of utilitarian. It's also somewhat large and may not be a good fit for those with limited desk space.

So, while still heartily recommending the F5, I figured I might look in a different direction for something a little more practical. Something that might work where the F5 does not. I thought to myself, "What are people looking for in this segment?" With limited space, a reasonable but not unlimited budget, and an eye towards style, what are folks really looking for? I noticed a few models had built-in USB inputs and that really seemed to make sense—simplify the setup while (hopefully) improving on the integrated sound solution found in many computers. So I rounded up several models that looked worthy of investigation, and these three separated themselves from the pack.

My criteria for this shootout was pretty straight forward. USB input was a must. Relatively small size was important too, and I used the Adam F5 as a yardstick. An inch or two smaller in each dimension doesn't sound like much on paper, but in reality it makes for an easier time with placement. Price was limited to what I'd call "reasonable". I didn't have a specific cap but generally lower was better—as much as I love Adam Audio's Artist series (which would otherwise qualify for this article), they start around $1,000/pair and move up from there. That puts them outside the realm of consideration for many users. Lastly, the appearance was a factor. No hulking rectangular slabs in black-ash finish would qualify. It had to be somehow tasteful or at the very least inconspicuous. Oh, and the things had to actually sound good as well. Even a great looking, well built, compact, affordable speaker setup won't cut it if the sound isn't up to a reasonably high standard.

That left me with a small group of models to evaluate. After living with them for a while, a few got the boot based on mediocre sound quality. The remaining three comprise a good collection, where each has something unique to offer depending on the situation. The contenders ended up being the Definitive Technology Incline ($399), Polk's Hampden ($399), and a refreshed version of the speaker that practically reinvented this segment, the Audioengine A2+ ($249).

I connected these via USB (one at a time, obviously) to a Windows 7 based desktop system and played a wide variety of music over the course of several months. I've been exploring streaming services a lot lately, so the bulk of my listening was spread through Spotify, Rdio, Orastream, and Tidal. In keeping with the theme of "real world users" I figured it was good to spend some time with lossy music. Rdio in particular, with their library newly revamped using 320Kbps AAC compression (which is measurably superior to MP3), sounded very pleasing on these speakers, pushing the limits of their fidelity and making the jump to lossless difficult to confidently identify.

While attempting to use Orastream's Classical HD service which offers a mix of lossless CD quality and hi-res material, I quickly realized a limitation in all three of these models. Each one has a USB implementation that limits playback to sample rates of 48kHz or less. That surprised me because in this day and age hi-res material is all the rage. Windows can do 24-bit/96kHz without any special drivers, and I figured these speakers would be designed to at least go that high. Alas, I was wrong, and all three models essentially support Redbook CD standard tracks and not much else. As these are products built to a cost and the DAC feature isn't really the main selling point, I don't consider this a deal-breaker. At these prices, and considering this seems to be standard across the board, I guess I can't complain.

Now, with introductions out of the way, let's meet our first contender.

COMMENTS
blueingreen48's picture

Since I'm a headphone listener with a couple of wonderful small USB dac/amps (Dragonfly and Geek Out) and a good desktop/portable (Centrance), I don't need the additional ones included in these speakers, particularly since the Geek Out will play all of my files up to DSD. So I think my next desktop upgrade will be to the ADAM F-5. And it's going for 275 online.

Mauro's picture

Hey there, some links have errors ;)

bradleyp's picture

Great review! I own the A2, and concur with your findings. They are doing nice duty now with my TV.

As an alternative to the Adam F5 and an alternative to these three speakers if one has the room, the JBL LSR305 is definitely one to consider. They can be had on sale for $250/pr, and you get bass down below 45Hz, precise imaging, and active crossovers leading to one amp per driver. Versus the F5 you get better bass and give up a little transparency...for half the cash. They also serve as mini monitors in a traditional hifi set up just fine.

AllanMarcus's picture

$275 each ($550/pr) is quite a bit more, but not that much more.

However, the Emotive Airmotiv's range from $299/pr to $499/pr, probably sound pretty close to the Adam's. They fit all of the criteria for this test.

AllanMarcus's picture

oops, the emotiva's, as well as the F5s, do not have a built in DAC.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
My bad. Big thanks to Jon Iverson for fixing the links for me.
forkboy1965's picture

So very glad you put up this review. I too have settled upon the notion of one day upgrading my Klipsch desktop speakers to the Adam Audio F5. They simply beat the competition everywhere I find a review.

But my problem is I must keep my current computer set-up in a cabinet, which makes the addition of speakers any larger than my Klipsch impossible. One day this won't be an issue and when the day arrives I may have to re-look at these options if only as they would allow me to save a few bucks and apparently get to within 90% or so of the quality of the F5's.

John Grandberg's picture

The whole "cabinet" limitation is very familiar to me. So I feel your pain. In a perfect world, we'd all have freestanding desks with no boundary issues, and plenty of room/budget for Magnepan Minis or maybe big Adam/Genelec/etc monitors.

Until then, I'll keep my eye out for great sounding compact desktop systems.

forkboy1965's picture

Thank you! You are both a scholar and a gentleman.

Sharon's picture

Thonet and Vander VERTRAG - 2.0 Wooden Bookshelf Speakers

$89.00 a pair plus free shipping @ amazon.com

marksig's picture

nuPros (A-100, A-200, A-300) from German manufacturer Nubert(.de). They sell directly to customers in Germany, and don't seem to have an English site, which is probably why they seem to be unknown outside Germany. A shame, because their speakers are among the best for a fair price. The nuPros are direct competitors to Adam Audio's monitors.

Cat's picture

How would you rate the Incline when compared to the B&W MM-1? The Incline is quite a bit cheaper here in Singapore, so if it's better than the MM-1 I'll just get the Incline instead.

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