2 Ways to Get the Best Desktop Sound System
Ever since I moved out of the city and into a house with a dedicated office, I’ve had enough space to create something that I’ve always wanted: a workstation with a truly killer desktop audio system.
For most people, this pursuit would lead them down either one of two paths: buying a pair of computer speakers or buying a small soundbar for their monitor. Both are easy and relatively affordable, costing you between $40 and $200, but I wanted to do something bigger and better— and I did.
Several months ago, I was looking for a way to repurpose my old Q Acoustics 3020 bookshelf speakers that I previously used in a traditional AVR home theater system. What I discovered was the Audioengine N22 ($199), a unique powered amplifier that’s specifically designed to allow you to use your passive speakers as bonafide computer speakers. The combination of the two costs a little more than $500.
But not everybody has a spare pair of bookshelf speakers lying around, and they might not want to go through the process and hassle of buying two separate components. For that case, I’ve been testing a separate solution: the Q Acoustics M20 HD ($599). It’s an active speaker system — or set of bookshelf speakers with their own built-in amplification and streaming capability via Bluetooth — that plugs directly into your computer.
Both desktop audio systems are similarly sized and cost roughly the same amount: between $500 and $600. And both are hilariously, wonderfully overkill for your home workstation.
Option 1: Active Speaker System
The Q Acoustics M20 HD is unique amongst active speaker systems because it’s substantially more affordable — compared to the popular KEF LSX ($1,250) or Q Acoustics’s own Q Active 200 ($1,999) — but it’s also more limited in its capabilities. Only one of the speakers has a built-in amplifier, known as the “master;” in addition, it has Bluetooth streaming capabilities, but not Wi-Fi ones. It does, however, have a wealth of analog inputs, including AUX and USB, which makes it pretty simple to turn into a computer speaker system.
The sound quality of the M20 HD system is generally excellent, producing lucid mids and highs and surprisingly punchy bass, but it’s admittedly not a night-and-day difference from the passive speaker system. This is mainly due to the body of each M20 HD speaker being very similar to the body of the Q Acoustics 3020i — which are slightly updated versions of the Q Acoustics 3020 speakers that I’ve been using.
In my experience, there are two main hurdles with using the M20 HD as your computer speakers. First and most annoyingly, the speakers will go idle if your computer doesn’t play audio for 20 minutes, meaning you’ll have to use the remote or hit the button on the top of the master speaker to wake it up. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s far from ideal.
And secondly, if you want unlock the full potential of the M20 HD as computer speakers, you’ll need to connect them via USB (USB-B, to be exact) rather than AUX — but neither of these cables are included in the box. I mainly connected the speakers to my computer via the AUX jack (mainly because that’s what I used with N22 desktop amp and bookshelf speakers setup). When connected with via USB-B, the M20 HD speakers are able to play true lossless audio at up to 192kHz.
Option 2: Passive Speakers and Desktop Amp
Audioengine’s N22 amplifier is the simple and quick choice for anybody who wants to turn an existing pair of passive bookshelf speakers into computer speakers. I’ve been using it with my Q Acoustics 3020 ($229) for the last few months, and it works a dream. You just hardwire the speakers into the back of the N22, plug in the included AUX cord into your computer’s headphone port, turn the amp’s power on, adjust the audio settings, and boom — you’re jamming.
There are a few caveats with the N22, however. It’s kind of a one-trick pony as it does a job (driving passive speakers and connecting them to a source) and lacks any kinds of tricks or extra features. There’s no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity, for example. It’s another component required besides your speakers, meaning it’s going to take up more real estate on your desk, which you might not like.
Other than ease-of-use, the big advantage of using the N22 is that it affords you the flexibility to tinker down the road. You can use it to power pretty much any bookshelf-sized passive speaker so, if you get bored with your current speakers, you can replace them without needing to replace the N22, too. It’s a niche advantage for hi-fi enthusiasts…but then again, you’re probably a hi-fi enthusiast if you’re using bookshelf speakers with your computer.
Which is the best option (for you)?
When evaluating which is the better desktop speaker system for most people, the answer is pretty straightforward — it’s the latter system with the N22 amp and the passive bookshelf speakers. The difference between the two systems is really close in terms of sound quality, but the amp and speaker system is simpler — and, as Steve Jobs used to say, it just works.
That said, the active speaker system is still damn cool. It’s a versatile setup, and it works well as a standalone streaming system. But the fact that it’ll go idle when you’re not playing music — it’s an energy-saving feature that you can’t adjust — just makes it a little less optimal for home computer use.
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