Review: RSL Digital Fidelity One speakers
At a Glance
We’ve recently reviewed a number of premium speaker systems on Playlist, including what we think is the best “portable” iPod speaker system on the market, Altec Lansing’s $250 inMotion iM7, and what is certainly the best sounding iPod-specific home speaker system, Klipsch’s $400 iFi. But we haven’t forgotten that there are plenty of people out there who are just as interested in good values as they are in top-of-the-line sound. So today we consider a system that retails for a fraction of the cost of the aforementioned systems, RSL’s $60 Digital Fidelity One . (The actual list price of the Digital Fidelity One is $100, but the current “introductory” price is $60.)
The company name, RSL, may sound vaguely familiar to audio buffs. In the 1970s and 1980s, Rogersound Labs (RSL) was a popular speaker manufacturer and retailer in southern California. With eight stores, the company specialized in “factory direct” sales of their own speakers along with retail sales of audio and video equipment from well-known brands. Back when I was (much) younger, I lived in southern California and the Rogersound Lab stores were among my favorite destinations for AV gadgetry. I even owned a pair of RSL speakers, which offered surprisingly good sound for the money. I actually know someone whose RSL speakers are still going strong today.
Unfortunately, in the late 80s, the company was sold, the original owners and management left, and by 1992, the company was out of business. But during bankruptcy proceedings, the original owners bought back the rights to the RSL name and held onto it just in case they ever decided to get back into the audio business. That time has apparently come: The Digital Fidelity One, a 2.1 (sub/sat) “computer” speaker system, is the first new product offered under the RSL name since the original company went out of business 13 years ago.
(Note: The Digital Fidelity System is currently only available via the RSL Web site; however, the company offers an excellent “satisfaction” guarantee: If you don’t like the system, RSL will refund the cost of the system and the original shipping charges, and will pay for the return shipping cost.)
Really Simple Look
When you take the Digital Fidelity One (DFO) system out of the box, your first reaction is likely to be something along the lines of, “Wow, those look old school.” In an era of black, white, silver, and chrome speaker designs, the gray plastic look of the DFO reminds me more of the cheap computer speakers I had back in 1992 than most of the systems I review for Playlist nowadays. However, as I’ll get to in a moment, the appearance of the DFO components belies their solid construction.
Each satellite is 6.25" tall, 3.75" wide, and 5.25" high, including the base, and includes a captive (non-removable), 78-inch cable that terminates in an RCA plug; you plug each satellite into the back of the subwoofer. In addition, one of the two satellite bases includes the system’s on/off switch and volume controls; this base connects to the subwoofer separately via its own Remote cable. (Since the bases are removable and interchangeable, you can choose to place the base with the controls under either satellite. Alternatively, you can remove the bases to reduce the height of each speaker to 4.75"; however, you’ll obviously want to keep the control base handy.) The front of each satellite is covered in a non-removable, darker gray, cloth grill.
The subwoofer is 11.5" high, 7.25" wide, and 10.5" deep, with a cloth grill that matches those of the satellites. In addition to the speaker driver, the subwoofer unit contains the system’s amplifiers, which supply 5 Watts to each satellite and 15 Watts to the subwoofer. Although those power ratings sound low, RSL claims that they’re “honest” ratings that should compare favorably to much higher ratings provided by most computer speaker manufacturers. (As I note below, my testing confirms this assertion.) In addition, whereas most computer speakers use Class B amplifiers, the DFO uses Class AB amplifiers, which RSL claims should provide increased fidelity thanks to less distortion.
The rear of the subwoofer provides the system’s connections: the jack for the external AC power supply, the left and right speaker jacks, the remote jack, and a 1/8” minijack for connecting a single audio source such as an iPod or a computer; the system includes a 1/8” mini-to-mini cable for making the connection. (I would have liked dual inputs, common in most speaker systems these days, so I could connect both my computer and an iPod.) The rear of the subwoofer also hosts a bass level control that lets you adjust the sub’s bass output to taste.
RSL claims that although the DFO’s cosmetics may appear to be simple, the company has put more into each part than the typical computer speaker system. For example, the subwoofer uses unusually high-grade ceramic and a larger magnet structure than most speakers at this price point, and the sub’s enclosure is made of 15mm MDF, a fairly thick grade. The plastic satellite enclosures are 3.5mm thick, which RSL claims makes them sturdier—and better sounding—than many inexpensive satellites that use thinner plastic. Picking them up in your hands, they do feel more rugged than many of the other sub-$100 speakers on the market. RSL also includes dampening material inside the satellites and subwoofer to reduce resonances. Finally, whereas only the satellites are magnetically shielded in most inexpensive systems, the DFO’s subwoofer is shielded, as well, making it safe to place next to a TV or computer monitor.
The above may sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, but from my years testing audio equipment, I can tell you that better construction quality generally results in better sound quality, so I was impressed by the fit and finish of the Digital Fidelity One system, despite it’s less-than-smashing appearance.
One other interesting tidbit: Unlike most speakers in this price range (and even many significantly above it), which generally use analog volume and power controls, the DFO’s volume and power buttons are digital. This has the potential to reduce noise and interference, but it also has two other benefits: First, there’s no annoying “thump” when you turn the system on or off. And second, digital controls don’t degrade like many inexpensive analog controls. (Have you ever had an old radio or TV where adjusting the volume results in “scratchy” noise?) In addition, RSL has designed the system so that no matter how loud you were listening to the system when you turned it off, volume is lowered to a moderate level the next time you turn it on—no more blasting yourself out of the room accidentally. The actual volume up and down buttons feel a bit cheap in the way they “click,” and although there’s a power indicator, there’s no volume level indicator, but these controls otherwise work well.
Respectable Sonic Level
In my experience, most sub/sat systems under $100 have at least one or two obvious flaws, such as poor bass, exaggerated treble, excessive or too little midrange, or tinny overall sound. Even our favorite sub-$100 system to date, JBL’s $100 Creature II, follows this rule, with treble that can be quite bright—especially at louder volumes. And the closer you get to the $50 mark, the more of an issue this is. For example, the $50 Logitech X-230, which we found to be surprisingly good for the price, are boomy in the bass and can be fatiguing in the treble. Given the Digital Fidelity One’s plasticky appearance, I expected this pattern to hold true.
Yet the DFO’s audio quality is a pleasant surprise: The system produces a natural, balanced sound without any glaring flaws. Despite the relatively small subwoofer, it produces reliable bass down to approximately 60Hz—fairly tight, melodic bass, not the one-note, boomy bass of many inexpensive systems. The midrange is slightly prominent, but not excessively so, giving the system a warm tonal balance. It’s biggest error is thankfully one of omission rather that addition: a lack of ultimate treble detail, especially at low volume levels, that at times creates a slight “muffle” effect. (At louder volumes, this isn’t as significant an issue.)
In fact, perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the system, considering the performance of many of its competitors in this price range, is that it doesn’t offend. I was able to listen to the DFO for hours at a time without getting “music fatigue.” (If you’ve ever listened to a system with too much treble, or harsh midrange, or overbearing, boomy bass for any length of time, you know what I mean.) And unlike many cheap computer speakers, if you turn the volume up a bit and step back in the room, the soundstage of the Digital Fidelity One really opens up.
Finally, for those concerned about volume, I have good news. Despite the system’s seemingly low power ratings, the DFO easily filled a 14' x 11' room (with 18' ceilings), providing as much volume as I would ever need—and I was able to crank the volume much louder than that before I was able to produce significant distortion. Don’t expect the kind of decibel levels you’d get from something like Klipsch’s ProMedia GMX A-2.1—a system that can quickly induce hearing loss—but for $60, you won’t be wanting for volume.
Now, although it seems like I’m offering the DFO a lot of praise—and I am—it’s important to keep that praise in context: This is, after all, a budget speaker system, so it doesn’t truly compete with some of the better systems we’ve reviewed. It can’t match the detail and soundstage of the Altec Lansing FX-6021, or the power and presence of the Klipsch iFi, or the rich midrange of the Tivoli Model Two (the latter of which we’ll be reviewing in the near future). What it can do is give you enjoyable, balanced sound, for three $20 bills, and that alone is worth praising.
As someone who’s a stickler for good audio quality, I often find it difficult to recommend inexpensive speakers—such systems are usually an exercise in compromise. But the Digital Fidelity One is a different story. It’s not a looker by any means, but when it comes to the music, it’s a well-rounded, enjoyable system that can be had for the price of a few CDs. If my speaker budget was limited to $60, this is likely the system I’d buy, despite its bland appearance. Heck, it might even be my choice with twice that budget. And although the system is currently only available online, RSL’s purchase guarantee takes the risk (and expense) out of an audition. The DFO is easy to recommend, and gets our 4-Play rating—and Playlist Pick designation—for being such an excellent value.
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