Do you remember the days when a personal computer could only beep and produce a few single tones? The computer’s musical abilities have come a long way in the past 15 years. The development of sophisticated and affordable soundcards for the computer, led by companies such as Creative Labs and Turtle Beach, along with the inclusion of CD/DVD drives have turned computers into true multi-media machines.
Oddly enough, the trend in computer speakers was to minimize their size over the years. I guess it didn’t matter to average Joe that their tiny plastic 3-watt-per-channel speakers sounded awful because they were more than likely listening to highly compressed MP3s.
But recently (thank heavens) the trend has turned the tide towards better, higher fidelity computer speakers. This is evidenced by the growing number of product offerings in the computer speaker market from traditional speaker manufacturers. Awareness is building in consumers regarding digital sound quality. There are more people with access to broadband internet thus making it more feasible for online music distributors (legal or otherwise) to offer less compressed digital files. Music enthusiasts who find themselves spending more time at the computer are looking for higher fidelity options when listening to music.
Axiom Audio’s Audiobyte computer speakers are the company’s answer to the growing market for high fidelity computer audio. Like all other Axiom products, these speakers are both designed and manufactured to the highest standards right here in Canada. The Audiobyte system, priced at $342 CAD, consists of two handsome desktop speakers and a separately housed amplifier that’s designed to sit on top of a computer case. The fact that the amplifier is in a separate housing makes this system stand out from the crowd, since virtually all other computer speaker systems have the amplifier built directly into one of the speakers. The desktop speakers house a 3-inch aluminium cone woofer and a 1-inch titanium dome tweeter, in a sealed cabinet. They have an impedance of 8 ohms, an SPL of 87 dB (1w/1m) and a frequency response rated from 100 Hz to 20 kHz. Each speaker measures 6.5 x 5.5 x 4 inches (165 x 140 x 101 mm) – which should be a comfortable fit for most computer desks. The speaker grilles attach magnetically. The magnets on the speakers are embedded under the finish giving the front baffles a clean look. I would like to encourage Axiom to do this for every speaker in its product range. I kept the grilles removed during the review for two reasons – an overall improved sound and my preference for speakers without the grilles on.
The digital design (class D) amplifier provides 55 watts to each of its channels and offers a large volume dial in the front. It is designed to provide amplification to the speakers as well as a passive (non-powered) subwoofer via its mini-stereo output jacks. An RCA output is also provided if you’d like to hook up an active (powered) subwoofer. Finally, a USB jack on the back of the amplifier can provide power and charge to a USB device, making the Audiobyte system an excellent choice as a standalone system for an iPod or any other MP3 player.
The Audiobyte system is available in a choice of 10 traditional and luxury finishes that will suit just about any taste. The speakers provided to me had a gorgeous glossy cherry finish, although personally I would probably go for one of the funky glossy orange or blue finishes. This wide choice of finishes is yet another feature that makes this system stand apart from other computer speakers.
My review set came with the EPZero, a passive subwoofer which retails separately for $175 CAD. This compact subwoofer, finished in a standard black, features dual 6.5-inch woofers and has a fixed crossover designed to precisely match the desktop speakers. The EPZero offers three gain (room trim) settings: flat, half boost and boost. The front of the subwoofer has the same large volume dial as the amplifier. The power for the subwoofer is provided by the digital amplifier supplied with the speakers.
Connecting the speakers to the amplifier and the computer is made fool-proof thanks to the colour coding of all the jacks and cable ends. All of these connections are made by means of the supplied 3.5 mm mini-stereo cables, which make it easier to set up but it also means that you won’t be able to use the amplifier or the speakers separately with other components. When making the connections, I realized that only one mini-stereo input is provided on the back of the amplifier, which is too bad as it would be nice to see a second input (and an input selector).
Since the speakers are quite small, putting them directly on my computer desk meant that the tweeters would be almost a foot below my ear level. I used two VHS tapes (yes, I said VHS!) under each speaker, to bring the tweeters closer to my ear level. This improved the sound dramatically. In a permanent setup I would definitely buy or fabricate little pedestals for the speakers. The amplifier is intended to sit on top of the computer case which will work well if your computer sits under the desk. In my setup, the computer case sits on top of the desk which would be too high for the amplifier – the volume knob would be in an uncomfortably high position. Instead, the amplifier fit perfectly on a table right beside my printer. From there I could easily reach the volume control as well as the power switch in the back. Word has it that Axiom is working on a remote volume control for this system. I have to say I really enjoyed the big volume control on the amplifier: It’s big, smooth and allows for precise adjustment, without even looking at it. Every other computer speaker system I’ve used has had a tiny volume control that simply didn’t offer nearly the same precision.
When auditioning the Audiobyte system, one of the first things that I observed were excellent upper-mid and high frequencies. The music pieces that I listened to included selections from jazz, rock and various house, encoded as high quality (low compression) MP3s files and non compressed WAV files. The upper frequency spectrum played with a glitter that I would normally associate with not computer speakers but rather a two channel music system. The Audiobyte system delivered impressive sonic details with every song selection. Both male and female voices were presented with clarity and good resolution. But make no mistake, the Audiobytes are small speakers that can only go so far. Compared to my Audioengine 5 bookshelf computer speakers, the Audiobytes were obviously limited in frequency range and unable to create the same width or depth of soundstage that I’m used to. Of course, the downside to the Audioengine bookshelves is that they’re significantly larger than the Audiobytes and hence require much more desktop real estate.
The lower frequencies in the Audiobyte system were taken care of by the EPZero subwoofer, which produced a formidable amount of bass. After some experimenting with the gain setting on the back of the subwoofer, I concluded that the ‘flat’ setting produced the most desirable results. The EPZero clearly resolved distinct bass frequencies, instead of producing the “one-bass” notes that so many other computer subwoofers do. Using this setting, the bass blended very well with the speakers. Overall, the bass was tuneful and provided enough punch for most of the music that I listened to.
Part way through my audition, I decided to take the EPZero subwoofer out of the equation to see how the desktop speakers would sound without it. Of course speakers of this size are physically limited when it comes to the lower end of the spectrum. Not surprisingly, the sound instantly became quite thin and lost much of the bottom-end impact. A subwoofer is an absolute must companion for the Audiobyte speakers.
Axiom has been doing lots of work in the digital amplification range, starting with its insane EP600 digital subwoofer (the best sub we’ve ever heard) to their impressive A1400-8 digital home-theatre amplifier, both tested by us in past issues. They have now turned that experience into a fantastic little 55 watt per channel amplifier. This little amp delivered clean, crisp sound at any volume. That’s the beauty of experience and tricked down technology!
Finally there’s a computer speaker system that combines style with performance. The elegance and large array of custom finishes of Axiom’s Audiobyte speakers put typical plasticy computer speakers downright to shame. This system has an exemplary build quality and it’s difficult for Axiom’s attention to detail to go unnoticed. Their musical performance is about as good as you can squeeze out of speaker cabinets that are this compact. At a combined price of $517 for the speakers, amplifier and subwoofer, the Audiobyte system places itself at the higher range of two channel computer speakers. However, given the aesthetics and musicality of this system, the price is well justified.
Audiobyte Computer Speakers
Price (MSRP): $342 for Audiobyte speakers and amplifier, $175 for EPZero subwoofer
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