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Ditch your basic bookshelf speakers and stream in high-fidelity instead
I'D originally set my sights on some refined, time-honoured hardware. A hand-built tube amplifier. Too-tall speakers. Maybe a turntable. All connected by a snake pit of cables.
But a new generation of technology beckoned: speakers that fit on bookshelves and still combine amplification, digital processing, streaming capability, and even room correction to produce high-fidelity sound. And some of them claim they can do it all wirelessly. This convergence of relatively small, powerful components held the promise of a plug-and-play system that performed as well as or better than a stack of esoteric equipment.
Above all, these "active" speakers offer a simplicity unimagined and, in many ways, unwanted by hi-fi aficionados, for whom endless tweaking, upgrading, and equipment-swapping is the main appeal of the hobby.
But the end of fussing sounded good to me. I'd rely on easily available digital sources, whether a computer, phone, or streamer, piggybacking when possible on Wi-Fi or Bluetooth - not the most rarefied audiophile formula.
Even then, it wasn't so simple. If you're going to take this route, get your Internet house in order, even if that means, as it did in my case, spending hours on the phone with customer service agents in California and the Philippines, installing new routers and mesh systems, and requiring two home visits from Covid-ready cable technicians. Then, and only then, should you press play.
KEF LS50 WIRELESS II
Set-up time: 10 minutes
Ideal location: Near a living room TV
Looks like: Futuristic roulette tables
Weight equivalent: A ripe pumpkin
The latest offering in KEF's active speaker line sets a high standard for hassle-free but sophisticated listening, and the revised user interface is a giant leap from the interlocking and buggy apps that controlled earlier models. These 12-inch rear-ported speakers are driven by 380 watts apiece and show off a broad, enveloping soundstage that projects music up, down, and around with impressive finesse and muscle across the frequency spectrum. During Quantic's Cumbia Sobre el Mar, the female vocals were positioned far to the left of the speaker, and though the cowbell and clarinet were a bit recessed, the overall sound was holographic and hypnotic. Ultrahigh-resolution playback is available when the speakers, otherwise wireless, are tethered to each other with a supplied cable. And they sound great when connected to the TV.
BLUESOUND PULSE FLEX 2i
Set-up time: Less than 15 minutes
Ideal location: Kitchen
Looks like: A tissue-box cover
Weight equivalent: A half-gallon of milk
This small but well-built speaker embodies the convenience of the wireless genre, producing alluring, high-resolution sound in a plain, portable cabinet. They're at home on a kitchen shelf while you're listening to NPR - or Kendrick Lamar - in the background. When I put them to the test with Aimee Mann's Save Me, the accordion that lifts the track was a bit subdued, and Mann's voice lacked its dizzying dips and peaks. Nor did it take long for Bob Marley and the Wailers to tax the bass.
But overall, they were capable of engaging all of the senses when desired and consistently pleasant, as though a satin sheet had been draped over the notes. The BluOS app was so user-friendly I ended up running it on my iPhone, with Bluesound's Node2i streamer, to control several of the other speakers I tested.
US$299 each; bluesound.com
DEVIALET PHANTOM REACTOR
Set-up time: Less than 20 minutes
Ideal location: Home office
Looks like: A cannonball
Weight equivalent: A large cantaloupe
It's one thing to say that 900 watts are packed into a speaker the size of a melon, but yet another to feel them. And mostly they're conveyed in the bottom end, where unexpectedly the tank-like Phantom Reactors make their mark with authority. In stereo, the mismatch of size and sound is startling at first - it's rare to see such a small piece of equipment capable of convincingly filling a large room. Bass was almost always effortless and distortion-free. The screeching prison gates on Chris Stapleton's Death Row played with ominous power, and Dan Zanes's Wonder Wheel conjured the irrepressible spirit of New York City. They felt a bit hemmed-in on Little Feat's live performance of Willin', and Wynton Marsalis's trumpet on Blood on the Fields forfeited some presence and definition. But think of these as powerful, wireless boomboxes, achieving a reliable and satisfyingly uniform high-wattage sound.
US$1,350 each; devialet.com
BOWERS & WILKINS FORMATION DUO
Set-up time: 40 minutes, including stands
Ideal location: A medium-size room
Looks like: Postmodern periscopes
Weight equivalent: A case of seltzer
I was floored by the chest-stirring bass these relatively small speakers produce from their swept-back cabinets and distinctive tweeters. They weren't the best at everything, including resolution or power, but what the speakers lacked in detail, they made up for with full-throttle, sensory involvement. During the Grateful Dead's live recording of Eyes of the World, the speakers, in sync with the audiophile ideal, vanished. This open, airy soundscape held true on the strumming guitars of the Velvet Underground and on David Bowie's Station to Station, its virtual train chugging from one side of the room to the other.
Set-up time: A few hours, including stands
Ideal location: Medium to large rooms
Looks like: A PC tower bound for MoMA
Weight equivalent: Old black-and-white TV
Bruno Putzeys, one of the creators of the Kii Three, says he was so confident of the science and measurements undergirding the design that he didn't actually listen to the speaker until two weeks before it shipped to customers. His goal was an utter neutrality of sound, meaning the speakers reproduce exactly what the artists and sound engineers intended. No more, no less. In my experience with them, he has largely succeeded.
These industrial-chic speakers are outfitted with six drivers - one on each side, two in the rear, and a mid-range and tweeter on its face. Each also has a dedicated 250-watt amp and its own digital-to-analog converter. The speakers can be tethered to a controller that serves as a preamp and volume control. The overall result is breathtaking resolution and lightning-quick bass that never strains. Calypso Minor by Abdullah Ibrahim projected each instrument with crystalline purity. Electronic, acoustic, and orchestral pieces were equally sharp, detailed, and palpable.
DUTCH & DUTCH 8C
Set-up time: Several hours, including stands
Ideal locations: Living rooms, dance clubs
Looks like: A superbuff shelf speaker
Weight equivalent: An armchair
The most exhilarating, and exacting, of the bunch. Connecting a streamer required an inexpensive but discontinued adapter, plus a set of new cables. Programming distance to the walls and volume levels meant temporarily relocating my modem, which I had to cable into each speaker. Despite their modest 10-by-15-inch footprint, they weigh about 57 pounds apiece. But when I finally switched them on, what emerged was one of the most soaring home musical experiences I've had in a long time. Max Cooper's Emergence shook the walls. Beck's The Golden Age was layered with fresh detail. Percussive waves and flamenco-like riffs on Duende by Bozzio Levin Stevens etched a three-dimensional wall of sound.
While not quite as controlled as the Kii Threes, the bass on these is equally powerful. Song after song played with unmatched vibrancy. The user interface is a work in progress, and room correction requires feeding a software program dozens of microphone measurements. But even unedited, these visceral, concussive monitors blasted the air and tested my floorboards and shutters. They moved everything - but mostly me.