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LaCie FireWire Speakers
LaCie's descriptively-named FireWire Speakers are unique among speakers we've tested: rather than connecting to your computer using a standard audio cable, or even a USB cable, these compact (5.3" high by 3.9" wide by 3.5" deep) speakers connect via FireWire. You plug the right speaker's built-in FireWire cable -- unfortunately, the speakers aren't labeled, so trust me on this, the one with the FireWire cable is the right -- into your computer's FireWire port (a powered, 6-pin FireWire 400 port is required), and then string the built-in audio cable from the right speaker to the left. You then change your computer's audio output to the FireWire speakers using the Sound pane of System Preferences on a Mac or the Sounds control panel in Windows. (Windows users will need to install the included software for the speakers to work; Mac users get true plug-and-play here, although users of PowerPC-based Macs will need to make a minor adjustment, described in the included documentation, in the Audio MIDI Setup utility.) The built-in 4-Watt-per-channel digital amplifier gets both power and audio from the FireWire port; no other cables, adapters, or batteries are necessary.
Besides the FireWire connection, the Speakers' most unique characteristic is their design. Looking like air vents on an old ship -- you know, the things people hid inside in old movies -- the gloss-white bodies are sleek and attractive. The face of each speaker has a rough, black finish and a black metal grill to protect the speaker driver. The bottom of each speaker features a rubber ring that keeps the speaker in place, as well as a plastic cable-wrap that lets you store excess cable; you snake only the amount of cable you need out of a small slot in the rear. Unfortunately, the built-in FireWire cable is only 30 inches long, which may be too short if your computer is positioned under your desk (and especially if it's on the left side, since the FireWire cable is in the right-hand speaker); unless you're using the speakers with a laptop or a computer within reach, you'll need a FireWire extension cable.
Also on the bottom of the right-hand speaker is a 1/8-inch auxiliary-input jack. Using the included miniplug-to-miniplug stereo cable, you can connect another audio source, such as an iPod, to the FireWire Speakers; that source's audio will be mixed with any audio coming from your computer. Unfortunately, the speakers still need to be connected to a computer -- or at least to a FireWire power source or to LaCie's optional power supply -- when listening to an auxiliary audio source. It's too bad this power supply isn't included, given the Speakers' $90 price.
The FireWire Speakers' sound quality is good for their size, and better than that of the USB models I've tested. Midrange and treble are inoffensive -- a significant accomplishment with small, bus-powered speakers -- although you do hear a slight tinniness with some types of music (specifically, rock and other guitar-heavy genres). Bass response is limited, as you would expect from speakers with 2-inch drivers, but decent upper bass gives the speakers some kick. One advantage of using a FireWire connection instead of USB is that FireWire offers more power; accordingly, these speakers play louder than any of the USB-powered speakers I've used, though you will hear distortion at the highest volume levels. (On a Mac, I actually found that even the lowest volume level was too loud at times; for example, when listening at night, I had to turn the computer's main volume down to the lowest level and then further reduce iTunes' own volume level.)
Those criticisms aside, it's tough to find speakers that take up this little room on your desk and sound good; the FireWire Speakers were a pleasant surprise in this respect. Although I was happy to get back to my (more expensive) day-to-day speakers, I used the LaCie models exclusively for several days and found them to be enjoyable for casual desktop listening.
Another claimed advantage of both FireWire and USB speakers is that they take a direct digital signal from your computer rather than a (purportedly) noisy analog signal. However, it's important to keep this alleged advantage in perspective: few bus-powered speaker systems, including the FireWire Speakers, offer fidelity good enough to really benefit from this advantage. Unless your computer is truly besieged by analog noise, you're unlikely to notice this benefit in everyday listening. The bigger advantage of a USB- or FireWire-powered design are that you don't have to worry about AC adapters or batteries, and you don't have extra cables cluttering your desk.
Likely the biggest drawback to the FireWire Speakers is their price: You can get considerably better sound quality -- and save your FireWire port for data -- via a similarly-priced subwoofer/satellite speaker system such as JBL's equally-eye-catching Creature II; you can even get slightly better sound quality in a two-piece system from Klipsch's $100 ProMedia Ultra 2.0. But if you're looking for today's equivalent of Apple's Harman-Kardon-designed Pro speakers, LaCie's FireWire speakers are your best options -- and they sound better, too.
LaCie FireWire Speakers