We now reach the critical stage of my experiment—finding the right speakers. My requirements included relatively small size, energy efficiency (our small amp can't handle speakers that need lots of power), sound quality that competes with the better $400 iPod speaker systems, and (based on the now-established cost of the other components) a price tag around $250.
I obviously couldn’t try every speaker system in this price range, so I sought out a number of inexpensive speakers that enjoy reputations for good sound, as well as a few speakers that were otherwise unique.
In the latter category, I tried a number of truly compact speakers that wouldn’t take up much room on a desk, dresser, or counter; some of these had footprints as small 4 to 5 inches across. Unfortunately, the tiny size of these speakers prevented them from producing lower frequencies. In that respect, they just couldn’t compete with the better one-piece desktop systems, which use their larger enclosures to enhance bass response.
However, I did find some specialty speakers that I’d consider for specific uses. For example, Boston Acoustics’ SoundWare ($200/pair) uses a uniquely-shaped weatherproof enclosure, just 6-by-6-by-6.5 inches in size, that makes it great for use in bathrooms, around pools, and outdoors; it’s available in any of seven colors, including a paintable white model. Although the pair of SoundWare speakers I tested were clearly lacking at the low end, treble and midrange response were good and I found the combination to be quite enjoyable for music that doesn’t emphasize bass.
But for my DIY system, I wanted something with fuller-range sound. In the end, I narrowed the selection down to two speakers: Paradigm’s Atom v.5 ($250) and PSB’s Alpha B1 ($279). Both are traditional bookshelf speakers, which means they take up a bit more room than truly-compact models, but the improved sound quality over those tiny speakers is worth a few more inches of space, in my opinion. Both the Atom and Alpha are also efficient enough to work well with the low-power amps I was using.
The Atom v.5 is the latest version in Paradigm’s respected Atom line; the current model is just 6.5 inches wide but 10 inches deep and 10.8 inches tall, using a 5.5-inch cone woofer and a 1-inch voice-coil tweeter in a ported enclosure to enhance bass response. Available in Cherry, Rosenut, and Black Ash finishes, the Atom v.5’s black grill—rigid with a fabric covering—can be removed if you prefer the “naked” look. I wasn’t a fan of the grill’s magnetic-attachment design, as it allows the grill to be attached crookedly, but the speaker is quite attractive overall.
When paired with either amplifier—the Gen 2 or The Dock—a pair of Atom v.5 produces impressive audio quality across the frequency spectrum. Although bass response begins to decline fairly quickly below 80Hz, the Atom v.5 gives you rich, full sound that easily fills a normal-size room. At higher volumes, the Atom’s midrange and upper bass can sound a bit pronounced, but I had few complaints at normal listening levels.
PSB has its own line of acclaimed bookshelf models, and the Alpha B1 is the best fit for my DIY system. At 7 inches wide by 9.5 inches deep by 11.8 inches tall, the Alpha is a bit larger than the Atom, and approaches the limit of “compact.” It also slightly exceeded my $250 budget. But if you’ve got the room, the Alpha B1 is a worthy investment. Available in Black Ash, Maple, or Sienna finishes, the Alpha has a rigid, metal grill protecting a 5.25-inch cone woofer and a 0.75-inch aluminum-dome tweeter; like the Atom, the Alpha uses a ported design. The back of the Alpha also provides two types of wall-mount connectors.
The Alpha provides excellent midrange and treble response, even at loud volume levels. As with the Atom, bass response rolls off starting at around 80Hz, but not quite as quickly; its usable bass extends a bit lower. The Alpha’s bass and upper-bass response are also a bit tighter, sounding a bit less boomy than the Atom at louder volumes. On the other hand, because of these traits, the Alpha doesn’t have quite as much bass impact. And the Alpha was a bit less efficient; I had to increase the amplifier volume slightly to reach a similar volume level as the Atom.
My minor criticisms of both of these inexpensive speakers are considerably outweighed by their excellent sound quality. And remember, these positive impressions come from using the Atom and Alpha speakers with a measly 15-Watt amplifier. As I found by connecting each pair to a much more powerful system—specifically, an Outlaw RR2150 receiver—both these speaker models scale well. In other words, if you later upgrade your amplifier, or decide to use the speakers with a traditional audio system, you’ll get noticeably better sound quality. So the Atom and Alpha are sound investments.