Tuesday, February 12, 2013

USB Speaker Comparative Roundup

USB Speaker Comparative Roundup By Michael Feir ++ Introductory Remarks: Being totally blind, I'm a man who truly appreciates good sound. Much of my time is spent writing, communicating, shopping, staying informed, reading books, playing games, listening to music, documentaries, described movies, audio dramas and pod casts on my computer. While acquiring good speakers for desktop computers is pretty straight-forward, finding a truly satisfactory set of USB speakers for use with one's ultra book or laptop has proved to be a harder proposition. While I don't expect the same quality of sound from travel speakers as from desktop computer speakers with sub-woofers and residential electricity, I want the best sound I can get while away from home. Having a sounds cape similar to one's normal working environment can help tremendously when it comes to getting into the right frame of mind for taking advantage of inspirations I have while travelling. I often find myself in situations where other people are doing things which I either can't do or have no interest in. When such circumstances arise, people tend to feel better if I can amuse myself while they're thus engaged. Also, being a collector of audio entertainment, I often have occasion to want to let others hear what's on my hard drive. Audio dramas, pod casts, or music can add wonderfully to time spent in good company. Having a good set of speakers is akin to having a colour TV rather than a black and white one. You're likely to notice a lot more sonic detail and enjoy what you're hearing more with a better set of speakers. Being on a fixed income means that I need to be pretty careful how I spend money particularly on luxury items. I read lots of reviews and carefully go through the rationale behind different approaches or choices. Every once in a while, I can save or otherwise acquire a little extra money and can set my sights a little higher than my usual low to mid-range. This time around, I chose to hedge my bets and buy both a high-end pair of speakers whose innovative approach intrigued me plus another kind which was more in my usual price range. This gives me a total of four varied approaches to the problem of how to get good sound from the limited power available through a laptop's USB port while taking portability and style into account. I don't find myself in such circumstances very often in life. With such plentitude of choice and time, I've let loose my inner geek in hopes of being helpful to others in search of good sound while on the move and on a budget. People will naturally wonder what my definition of "good quality sound" is. In my humble opinion, good quality sound does not consist in excessive volume or bass as common commercial wisdom would have us believe. It should have enough bass to do justice to explosions, bass instruments and such. One should be able to hear the overall position and detail of soundscapes; the wind rustling through the leaves of trees, birds, animals and insects in a forest. Too much bass generally means that the waves on an ocean and the creaking of ropes pulled tight by sails tend to unduly bury the call of gulls. Too much bass also tends to make conversations harder to hear over lower ambient noise given unnaturally greater presence by bass bias. Anyone who has gone to a movie theatre and come away with a head ache can testify to the detractions of too much volume. One tends not to be able to hear dialogue over louder noise and music. Chances are pretty good that while travelling, you aren't going to want speakers which put out as much volume as speakers designed for home use. Other people in the next hotel room/cabin/city block likely won't want to hear the same sound that you do. Sound imaging is crucial. One should be able to tell where things are located within a scene. Good stereo separation matters a great deal if you use speakers for more than merely filling a room with background music. It becomes absolutely indispensable when considering audio gaming. In that realm, one's prowess and pride hinge upon being able to have a keen awareness of where enemies or obstacles might be. To summarise, good sound has reasonable levels of volume and bass as well as good balance and sound imaging. When seeking a good pair of USB speakers, good sound naturally comes first in priority. However, there are other considerations including size, ruggedness, ease of setup and use, weight, and price. With each set of speakers, I'll provide descriptions, specifications and my thoughts on how these other considerations are addressed. Once these details have been dealt with, it'll be time for the main event. I'll take you on a crash tour of the gauntlet of tests I've taken these speakers through. Rather than a blow-by-blow recounting, I'll describe each test and then point out where speakers either excelled or came up short. For now though, we'll introduce the contenders: + The Tried and True: Logitech V20 Speakers These speakers have been my travel companions for well over five years. Slightly rectangular in shape, each speaker has a kickstand that folds out of the back making them about as stable as whatever surface they're set up on. They come in a protective travel case which zips closed having three compartments. One for each speaker plus an area in the centre for the two cables to be safely stored. The buttons on them are raised and easy to feel but are quite small. I've only made use of the volume buttons. The following more technical blurb was taken from the Internet: The Logitech V20s generate their sound with high dynamic headroom circuitry for enhanced volume with less distortion. Each speaker has Bass 2 Max-X high-excursion drivers and 3 pressure drivers. This optimizes bass response. Product Identifiers Brand Logitech MPN 970155-0914 Model V20 UPC 097855034038 Key Features Number Of Speakers 2 Max. Power Output 1 watt (RMS) Connection Type Wired Subwoofer Without Subwoofer Technical Features Speaker Frequency Response 70 - 20000 Hz THD 0.05 % Dimensions Speaker Width 6.25 in. Speaker Height 6.44 in. Speaker Depth 1.5 in. Speaker Weight 1.23 lb Miscellaneous Exterior Colour Black Release Date August, 2005 These have clearly been around the block a while. My pair still functions but is starting to show its age. The kickstands are getting a bit looser. The rubber feet on one speaker have come off and gone missing. Direct contact with a hard surface adds a slight but notable extra vibration to sound coming from it. These things aside, the speakers have stood up quite well to extensive heavy use. The sound you can get from these speakers is excellent provided that you don't push volume too high. Past around 70 to 80%, you will hear things get distorted especially when more bass is required. Even without really being able to function at maximum volume, the fullness and quality of sound produced is roughly that of a medium-quality boom box or built-in TV speakers. There is that sort of compartmented sense common to smaller speakers that detracts from realism but one becomes accustomed to it. The kickstands are part of the speakers and fold into grooves in the back of each speaker. The cables run out from each stand. The thicker cable ends in a USB connector which plugs into your laptop. The thinner cable ends in a plug which goes into a hole on the side of the other speaker. You can store the speakers in the case with this thinner cable always connected. Having the cables run through the kickstands and be essentially irreplaceable is the only worrisome drawback of these well-designed speakers. Should either the cables or kickstands break, you have a pair of useless speakers on your hands. Provided you can find a pair in good shape, you can expect quite good durability from them. Prices on Ebay seem to be in the $70 range. Even used, you're pretty much going to get your money's worth from these speakers provided that you care for them properly and don't tax them attempting to get more volume or bass than they can offer. These speakers offer some interesting enhancements for those who look in the speaker properties. There is a tab for tone allowing you to adjust the bass and treble output. The V20s also have built-in AGC or automatic gain control which can be found in the "custom" tab. All normally offered enhancements are also available for use. + Portable Taken to Extremes: Logitech Z305 Sound bar The Z305 is shaped rather like those boxes which hold a tube of toothpaste only with the corners and edges nicely rounded. This thick solid durably constructed plastic bar measures precisely 30 cm or one foot in length. The unit isn't heavy but is solid and has enough heft to let you know that you've got something of substance. If your laptop has especially weak hinges, this may not be the ideal solution for you as the extra weight might prove sufficient to shut your laptop's screen onto your fingers should the opened angle not be great enough. As long as there's some resistance to the movement of your screen, you'll be fine. The single necessary USB cable tucks neatly into a track-like groove running around the inside of the bottom of the speaker. The cable is relatively thick. Two grooved rubber pads cover much of the back of the Z305. They allow it to rest firmly on the back of your laptop without slipping sideways. Between these two rectangular pads is a fork-like two-pronged spring-loaded clamp which secures the Z305 to the bezel on the top of your laptop. The ends of the claw extensions are padded so you don't have any direct plastic on plastic pressure or vibrations. The reason the clamp is divided that way is so that the sound bar won't interfere with the small built-in web cams commonly housed near the top edge of laptops and net books. The top of the Z305 is where the clamp extends from. The only other feature is a small patch in the exact centre where a logo is. The front of the unit faces directly away from you when the Z305 is mounted on your laptop. It has three thankfully tactile slightly recessed buttons. Going left to right, they are volume down, mute, and volume up. The bottom of the Z305 has the cable storage guide and a small jack for plugging in an external audio source. Keep in mind that you'll still need to be hooked into a USB port for the speakers to have power. The left and right ends of the Z305 are where you'll find the square speakers capping the ends of the bar. This very simple very tactile layout makes the Z305 a refreshingly accessible addition to one's laptop kit. It's as portable as it gets perched securely on a laptop's monitor requiring no additional space to set up. Dimensions (H x W x D): 324 mm x 40.3 mm x 41.8 mm Couldn't obtain frequency range but I have yet to encounter any issues there. Current prices range from $36 to $59 Canadian. + Stow, Twist and Go: The Altec Lansing IML247 Orbit Speakers These two speakers are designed with maximum portability and neatness in mind. They travel locked together as a cylinder-like shape roughly the size of a tall can of beer with a little added diameter. The two cables are stored in hollow cavities in the rear of each speaker. Thankfully, you need not be overly fastidious when storing these cables. The compartments are large enough that you can sort of stuff them in rather than try to coil them as neatly as they come from the factory. The USB cable is built into the left speaker while the RCA cable attaching the two speakers issues from the right speaker. Thankfully, the USB cable should be long enough to make it possible in most cases to attach to a USB port not on the left of a computer. The RCA cable gives a little less than a metre of separation between the speakers. This is enough to create an adequate sound stage for someone sitting directly in front of them. These speakers can be had for around $30 Canadian. The following blurb was found on the Internet: Crystal-clear sound Two full-range neodymium drivers deliver pure, distinct full-spectrum audio. Surprisingly deep bass - Front firing ports deliver lows you can feel. Twist and split to listen, reconnect to pack + Hip to be Cubical: The Ufi Ucube Speakers Sleek, well-built and by far the most bulky, the Ucubes are also priced well above any of the other contenders. Expect to pay around $140 Canadian to get your hands on a pair of these puppies. The rugged build and easily replaceable cables speak to the LONG-TERM THINKING which has gone into these three-inche cubes. The grills at the front are sturdy and each has a very small symbol or logo embossed near the bottom centre. The other sides are smooth durable high-quality plastic. A thumbscrew on the back of each speaker allows the easy attachment of an angled aluminium stand which has a rectangular gap for the cables to pass through. The two cables themselves are notably thicker and higher quality than any found on the other speakers tested in this review. The real magic happens inside these boxes of sound. Ufi claims that these speakers deliver a full 170 degrees of stereo image due to their special balanced mode radiator [BMR] drivers. They also store up energy during quiet parts of audio in order to allow their Class D amplifiers to deliver 15W sound when called upon to do so. Does all this electronic audio wizardry truly yield better bang for the extra hundred bucks? Lets start the testing and find out. ++ Round 1: Bring On The Tunes Music is by far the most likely use to which people will put their speakers, so we'll start our battle royal on this familiar ground. I've tried to select songs and pieces of instrumental music which would help test both how extremes were dealt with as well as more average musical offerings. We'll start with Michael Logosar's piano piece called Linger. It's a simple delightful tune which reaches more into the higher ranges of the piano at times. The Altec Lansing Orbits give a sense of artificiality. To call it tinny wouldn't really be fair but it lacks body. The Logitech Z305 actually does more justice to the piece despite the smaller speaker size. The Ucubes come through very nicely giving you a much richer more polished feel. The V20s do fantastically as well but there's that compartmented sense that screams "small speakers!" that the Orbits are also somewhat guilty of producing. Next up was Kristine W.'s The Wonder of It All. This thought-provoking pop/dance track features a good pallet of guitar and keyboard plus a notable perhaps too heavy bass drum. This actually caused the Logitech V20s to distort whenever it sounded. None of the other speakers had this issue even when at maximum volume. The Orbits do give the symbols a degree of prominence that strikes me as somewhat odd. A high-pitched stringed instrument was also pretty much buried by the Orbits. The Z305 and Ucubes brought everything out very nicely in the piece as did the V20s. Five For Fighting's Slice gives more of a bass line and again features symbols. The Ucubes did splendidly with this track keeping everything sounding natural and in balance. The Logitech Z305 did well but the symbols stuck out a tad more than I would have expected. The orbits didn't have that problem but just didn't bring out the more bass elements very well overall. The V20s and Ucubes did a very good job with this track. King Conga's Something Good is a cheery track that should have more than a hint of bass plus mainly mid-range singing and instrumentation. The Orbits failed miserably with this track reminding me strongly of an old underpowered radio I once owned. The Z305 actually handled this track about the best pumping out enough oomph to have you feel the bass elements without steeling anybody else's show. The Z305 claims to put out 360-degree sound and lives up to that with enough power to fill a dorm room or office nicely. For music, it stacks up remarkably even against the Ucubes. These Ucubes gave this piece a more live less processed sound. Natural is the word that most easily springs to mind. The Z305s leave one with a sense of compression where the Ucubes give a more spacious feel. Over all, I'd say the Ucubes came out ahead. Their sound staging and balance just can't be beet and you easily might think them a pair of mid-range fully powered desktop speakers with the subwoofer turned down. The power is a bit lacking at times but the tone and spaciousness are splendid. To be fair here, the Logitech V20s offer more flexibility which can really reward a listener who knows how to put the various enhancements and extras to good use. Sadly, despite my extensive experience with them, I am simply not such an audiophile. While you'd always have a more contained sound than the Ucubes, it could be tweaked to very good quality. However, the older drivers of the V20s mean that modern systems can't deal with higher volumes as well leading to distortion. However, for strictly listening to music, the Z305s offer an incredibly portable boom box equivalent as an alternative. I was very impressed with the amount of bass one could get from its small speakers. I expected the Orbits to fair better than they did with these tunes. They too often leave one with a powerful sense of their smallness. However, at their lower $30 price range, they're still a good cut above your typical built-in laptop speakers. This is even more especially the case with today's ultra-thin laptops. ++ Round 2: Going With The Show "What we do in life echoes in eternity." General Maximus concludes his speech to the Roman soldiers under his command. An archer fires a flaming arrow into the air as a signal to the main body of the army. This arrow actually seems to go upwards when you listen with the Ucube speakers. Undoubtedly, this is partially due to the upward angle that their stands set them at. The same goes for the Logitech V20 speakers. With the orbits, there's no upward sense despite the slight upward angle the kickstands put them on. However, there's at least a good two-dimensional sense of where things go. The Ucubes and V20s make the forest surroundings obvious to the astute listener. The Z305 and Orbits make it somewhat less clear that maximus is anywhere near a forest. A little later in the battle, Maximus and his cavalry charge from behind the barbarians but into the firestorm being unleashed via catapults and archers. The thunder of charging horses is portrayed wonderfully by the V20 speakers and Ucubes. The Orbits and Z305 do a comparatively passable job of this. The Orbits can't quite manage the same bass as the Z305s but offer far better sound staging. The Z305s suffer from that critical weakness with directional information. You get all the noise with more punch than the Orbits but it's stretched out left and right like a canvas. Other than left and right, there's just no telling where something might be within the sound bubble produced by the Z305s. It's designed to surround you in an envelope of sound. All well and good for filling a room with music but lacking clarity much as a black and white TV might for sighted people. A police raid is led by Inspector James Mclevy. A whistle is blown and officers burst into the house. The inspector makes his way upstairs alone in pursuit of a criminal named Henry. On the Ucube speakers, you can quite easily tell the difference between rooms from the main room to the one in which Mclevy finds his quarry. This change is also quite obvious on the V20s and Z305. The Orbits fall short of the mark here. Without change in noise level like going from a crowded to a quiet room, it can be harder to tell that a change in setting has in fact occurred. When Henry decides to attempt to leap out a window towards a building that's too far away, his anguished cry of despair clearly comes from outside. The subtle street ambience and quiet thump when his body falls upon that street clearly register on the Ucubes. Again, the Orbits and Z305 offer a choice between more directional awareness on one hand and more distinctive bass on the other. Later in the episode, Inspector McLevy has gotten himself into a rather bad spot. He finds himself wounded, bound and gagged being rowed far enough out to sea so he can be inconspicuously murdered by a psychotic criminal gleeful at this unexpected chance for revenge. Mclevy can only moan due to the filthy rag blocking his speech while the fiendish Allan Grant rows and talks. The waves come through well enough on all of the speakers but the creek of the oars was easier to pick out and more convincing on the V20s, Ucubes and Z305s. The seascape sounded somewhat confined on the Orbits. When the police boat comes onto the scene, I noticed the engine rumble perhaps a second sooner on the V20s and Ucubes than on the other speakers. The time our poor dogged inspector spends under the water nearly drowning has muted watery atmosphere as we follow him down into the depths which is more detailed on the Ucubes. The V20s overrode the subtle elements of water with the bass wash as did the Z305s. The Orbits actually came out ahead of the Z305s here letting more of that subtlety be heard. Aboard the stealth boat owned by the sinister Elliot Carver, James Bond is facing Mr. Carver in a war of words and wits as is customary before death and destruction. A British destroyer is firing on the stealth ship. The cannon shells fly through the air and pummel the ship. The Ucubes and Z305 do a great job of giving cannon shots and shell flights a degree of heaviness. As usual, the Z305 provides more bass while the Orbits give directional clarity to the mayhem. One problem with the Ucubes which became rather apparent in this movie numerous times was that the quieter sections of dialogue could be hard to hear. I know what you're thinking. "Quieter sections of a James Bond movie?" Surprising as it might seem, there actually are some. I suspect that during such quiet portions, the power output is lowered a little too much in an effort to store power for the louder portions. Turning on the loudness equalization enhancement within the speaker properties dialogue of Windows seems to help somewhat with this but doesn't entirely eliminate the problem. I have yet to notice this problem come up in music or even audio dramas which you'd think would be long enough to have it occur. Our final scene takes us into the first class dining car aboard a sabotaged train where the great detective Sexton Blake and his "plucky assistant Tinker" are investigating murders which have taken place. Sexton has made his arrival and accused Professor Q of these crimes. This is in fact correct as the professor himself admits. He then shoots at Sexton and escapes onto the roof of the train. The Ucubes portray this big budget audio drama in full glory with people nicely spaced in the dining car, railway sounds, a brief but fierce volley of bullets that you'd think would kill everyone in the dining car, and the professor's flying auto gyro whirring up and around as he escapes into the air. The Logitech V20s also do a capital job. In fact, they seem to give a better sense of weight and height to the sound than the Ucubes. As usual, the Orbits lack bass punch but do well with sound spacing the Z305s favour the reverse circumstances. Over all, I would have to give the Ucubes the win here with the Logitech V20s taking second place. The Z305s offer such awesome portability and bass despite their small size that I'd give them third place despite the sacrifice of good sound imaging. You could listen while in the back seat of a car and everyone could enjoy the surprisingly rich audio. The Orbits offer superior directional awareness. Provided you have a stable surface to set them up on, they would be preferable where sound motion is an important feature of the content being listened to. ++ Round 3: Gaming Smack down To be suitable for gaming, speakers need to deliver good situational awareness to the player in front of the keyboard. Failure to do this makes a set of speakers suitable only for games in which good sound positioning isn't a factor. The Z305's only Achilles's heel pretty much removes it from this section of the competition. All well and good if sound is simply window dressing. Trivia games, text adventures, and other kinds of game can fall into this category. In that case, the Z305s will more than suffice. For games demanding good reflexes and hearing, we must look to our other three options which we'll do for this round. Lets start at the race track. Top speed 3 is an excellent free multi-player car racing game put out by: www.playinginthedark.com The track and where you are upon it is conveyed via the loudness and position of your engine. The quieter that engine gets, the closer you are to an edge of the track. At the same time, optional announcements give details of how sharp upcoming turns are and where your nearest opponents are. You also hear where any close opponents are via their engine noise. It's quite easy to become confused as to which engine is yours. If that happens, you have a horn which will reveal your left-to-right stereo position allowing you to hone in on the noise of your own engine. The Belgium track is a favorite of mine. It features a moderate left turn followed immediately by a nasty hairpin turn to the right. It takes nerves of steel and a very good grasp of how close you are to the edges of the track to take this hairpin turn at anywhere near full speed. Provided one's opponents are close when you enter the turn, it is possible to cause the computer controlled cars to crash into the side of the track while trying to negotiate the turn. This gives you a vital head start before they can recover from crashing and achieve top speed. Practice makes perfect they say. With that in mind, I tried to win a seven-car race on Belgium track multiple times with each set of speakers. The Logitech V20s and Ucubes truly shine when it comes to sound imaging and sound quality. This makes playing sound-intensive games natural and intuitive. On the Orbits, sound staging is harder to judge at the edges. I had several collisions or drove off the track due to not being able to quite judge where things were. Q9 is a simple sidescroller which has you, a cute little alien creature jump over pits and fight monsters in order to find your way off Earth. It's very suitable for play with speakers. The Orbits are a little more problematic due to their somewhat inferior sound staging. I got smashed by monsters who I couldn't even detect until they were nearly on my game character. There just wasn't enough time to react. Given enough time and attention, people should be able to accustom themselves to the Orbits. It may simply take longer than it would with the V20s or Ucubes. The Ucubes have proved to be most excellent for audio gaming. I've never had a pair of speakers which staged various game elements so nicely. They even beet the V20s substantially. I had initial concerns that the BMR drivers and DSP adjustments to sound might inhibit proper game play. However, this doesn't seem to be an issue. ++ Conclusions: As I had anticipated, the Ucubes from Ufi clearly came out on top in terms of sound quality. Their notable bulk and the inability to control the DSP effect and procedures which make the speakers so energy efficient are a minor nuisance at times as when quiet dialogue within a movie is, I strongly suspect, being rendered too quiet by them. However, most of the time, this lack of optionality won't hinder one's enjoyment in the least. One can still employ all of the standard enhancements offered by Windows or whatever operating system one is using so a good deal of fine-tuning is still quite possible for the discerning listener. This balanced mode radiator technology is still in its early days in terms of general public use and will doubtless be improved upon over time. The Ucubes introduce it at a higher price than I'd judge warranted. One can get very nearly as good sound from the Logitech V20s which have existed since 2005 given a little familiarity with the adjustments made available through the Windows speaker properties and enhancements. Doubtless, there are also blue tooth or other wireless battery-powered speakers offering similar sound quality for a comparably cheaper price. However, that being said, these speakers employ the technology in fine style giving wonderfully clear stereo sound via USB port. The cables detach and are easily replaced with regular RCA and micro-usb cables. I have already had occasion to be profoundly thankful for this since I failed to re-pack the micro-usb cable after using them away from home. The speakers themselves are sturdy and well-built. Mid-range and high sound is produced absolutely splendidly and bass isn't really all that lacking at least to my ears. Also, the sound produced doesn't have that small speaker boom box sort of contained quality. It fills a room with very natural ambience. Overall, I'd give these speakers a 9 out of ten. They could easily have gotten a perfect ten had more control over the DSP processes been offered perhaps via small buttons on the speakers themselves so that no software download or CD would be required. There's much to appreciate about the whole plug-and-play philosophy. People who take pleasure in good sound will definitely get their money's worth from these speakers. They're clearly built to last. Despite their age, the Logitech V20 speakers have stood the test of time remarkably well. They're lighter and less bulky than the Ucubes and come in a very practical protective case. Depending on one's skill and knowledge of Windows adjustments, they can even out-shine the Ucubes in some contexts. A treasure very much worth pursuing. The real race was between the Logitech Z305 and Altec Lansing Orbits. The winner here depends on how much directional awareness of sound matters to you. If it does, the orbits deliver that far better than the Z305. When it comes to surprisingly good sound and unbeatable portability, you have to give the budget speaker victory to the Z305. It can ride atop one's laptop eliminating the need for a larger lap desk or other stable flat serf ice. Due to their very different uses, I travel with both the Ucubes and Z305 in my laptop bag. Although better for directional sound, compact and solidly built, the Orbits simply can't keep up with the competition and must take last place in this testing marathon. You truly do get what you pay for. That pretty much sums it all up. I hope this comparative review of USB speakers has been as enjoyable and informative to read as it was to produce. I welcome any comments or questions either via email at: michael.feir@gmail.com or left as comments below this blog entry.