Analog Bliss part II: the Ikeda Sound Lab 9 TS Moving Coil cartridge review
Flagship Closed-Back Headphones from MrSpeakers, Audeze and Fostex
Joseph Audio Pearl 2 Loudspeakers
Review: Audioengine B2 Bluetooth Speaker, Peachtree Audio Deepblue2, and Audioengine A5+ with B1 Bluetooth Music Receiver
Review: Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier
by John and Davis Richardson
For the Not-So-Rich-And-Famous
“Hey John, how would you like to review some lifestyle products?” That’s the invitation I got in editor Scot Hull’s basement not long ago when I stopped in for a quick visit. Lifestyle products… Really? On the way home, I supposed I would need to reach down and yank that pine cone out of my backside so I could approach this project like a regular person instead of a neurotic audiophile. So that’s what I decided to do: explore these products just like anyone else would, casting aside all of the preconceived (and probably baseless) notions I had about such equipment coming into the project.
I’ve come to believe that there may well be room for products like these in anyone’s home. To wit: my wife and I were recently having dinner with some friends on their outdoor patio when the Male Person of the host couple (who claimed to have all of the technical know-how) asked me to choose a streaming radio station from his iPhone. He then clicked a button, and music magically emanated from a little box placed strategically not far from the table. Both my wife and I commented on how pleasant it was to have such nice music gently playing in the background of our al fresco meal, and from a stereo that no one really noticed. There you go: a “lifestyle audio product” in use in a normal home environment, — and I even liked it!
So then, what was it that Scot helped me load into my car? When I got to unpacking everything once home, here’s what I discovered. In my possession were three different products/systems from two separate manufacturers:
- Audioengine B2 Premium Bluetooth Speaker ($299.99)
- Audioengine A5+ Desktop Speakers ($469.99) plus B1 Premium Bluetooth Music Receiver ($189.99)
- Peachtree Audio Deepblue2 Bluetooth Speaker System ($399.99)
So what is it that such folks want anyway? Well, as I quickly found out, the names of the game are convenience, ease of setup/use, portability, versatility, ability to blend with decor/home environment, and last, but certainly not least, good sound. Besides the last point, this list pretty much sums up everything we audiophile types abhor when we boast of our “main/dedicated/whatever systems.” Lest we forget, our odd habits sometimes make us the butt of jokes conceived by Real People With Lives.
While I’d admit to not being initially very excited about this latest review assignment, my heart raced a bit quicker as I opened the boxes to see what was inside. Even the packaging was different: colorful cardboard boxes (maybe not as much double boxing here…) with flip-up tabs to be hung from display racks at big box stores were what I ripped into. The gear seemed well constructed and attractive, if maybe not quite up to the high-end standards I’m used to. Maybe. But … the Audioengine gear was actually stashed away in attractive microfiber bags. A nice touch.
As I sorted the different parts into piles for later assembly, I got to thinking about my approach. Obviously, this was not the kind of gear I wanted to (or could) integrate into my “big” rig, but I could just use it as a regular consumer would, with little regard to set up or tweaking. Pardon the chuckle. Anyway, yeah, that would work. Now, where to place it? Bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, porch? Hmmm….
In order to get some “color commentary” from someone who would actually buy and use stuff like this, I recruited my son, Davis. He’s 16 and heavily into movies and gaming, but not so much into the intricacies of high-end audio, but he does enjoys playing and listening to music. Among lots of other instruments, he plays the eigenharp (I had to Google it, too). He happens to be a pretty good writer, so that was a bonus. In the end, Davis spent enough time with both the Audioengine B2 and the Peachtree Deepblue2 in his bedroom to comfortably comment on both of these. You’ll find that below.
What we have here are a trio of components that more or less integrate DAC, amplifier, and speakers into a compact, and often one-box, package. All of these components can go hardwired, or wireless and controlled by your computer, tablet, or smart phone. You can stream radio, Youtube audio, or even your music collection pulled down from the cloud. I like to think of these devices more or less as 21st century boom boxes.
So let’s get to it. I’ll give some background and technical information about each product, then I’ll tell you the context in which I used it, as well as what I thought about its performance and sonics. Finally, Davis will follow suit, giving his own opinions where appropriate.
Audioengine B2 Bluetooth Speaker
First up is the Audioengine B2 Bluetooth Speaker, which is the most compact and least expensive of the units under review. It’s also the simplest and least feature-laden. If you want good sound in a small, simple package and aren’t all that technically savvy, then this could well be the easy choice for you. The B2 is a small, unassuming wood-veneered box that contains four speaker units, consisting of two kevlar woofer/midrange drivers and two silk-dome tweeters per side, looking sort of like two small speakers laid end-to-end and connected at their bases. Driving these transducers is a TI-PCM5102A 24 bit DAC chip feeding a 15 watt-per-channel class AB amplifier. The frequency range is said to be 65 Hz – 22 kHz (+/- 2 dB), which is hard to believe given the diminutive size of the thing. The cabinet itself seems quite well-made and -finished and should complement anyone’s decor, especially with its neutral gray magnetically attached grille. This device is very significant-other friendly, and the only thing that’s remotely funny-looking about it is the Bluetooth antenna that sticks out of its rear panel like a little flagpole. It has its own internal DC power supply, so it does need to remain tethered via electrical cord to an outlet. That’s really about the only thing limiting its mobility and stashability (is that really a word?). On second thought, don’t stash it too far back into a cabinet, as its volume control is on the rear panel. Yeah, you’ll probably want ready access to that.
Like I said, this device is really very simple. It has a 3.5 mm jack on its rear to accept an analog output from a disk player, iPod, TV, or whatever. The only way to access its internal DAC is via Bluetooth, which might be problematic for some folks. I’d minimally like an optical input to accept digital audio signal directly from my Apple TV, but that’s just me…
OK, I really didn’t expect to like the B2 all that much. It just seemed too small and simplistic to be taken seriously, or even enjoyed, by someone as serious about high-end audio as I am. Well, let’s just say that this little box is deceptive. Deceptively good. Its primary use in my world was the audio part of my super-simple home theater system, which consists of a projector, screen, and an Apple TV (which, unfortunately, is not Bluetooth capable). As I typically watch movies at night, my normal audio system consists of a Lavry DA10 professional DAC/headphone amplifier fed optically via Toslink from the Apple TV. The Lavry in turn powers a nice set of Audio Technica headphones.
The B2 doesn’t have an optical input, so I had to run Toslink from my Apple TV to my Lavry DAC, and then analog from there into the B2. While I probably got better sound that way than if I used the B2’s internal DAC, it sort of defeats the purpose of the B2 to a certain degree. Alternatively, I ran analog audio signal directly from my MacBook Air to the B2, thus bypassing the Apple TV altogether as a streaming device (I have to do this anyway when I want to watch Amazon Prime, since Apple TV doesn’t support that vendor). I also had the luxury of experimenting with Bluetooth using the Macbook Air, and it worked beautifully in this respect. Streaming audio tracks from movies this way was great; I didn’t have to worry about any sort of physical link between the Macbook and the B2. And the sound was impressive from such a small, integrated box. I watched all 10 installments of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” using this setup, and the B2 had me on the edge of my seat during the intense battle scenes thanks to its realistic rendering of the sound track, with no dropouts or any other issues associated with the Bluetooth connection. Even the B2’s internal DAC seemed just fine, as I never had the impression that anything was amiss sound-wise coming from the little box.
I also spent some time streaming pure audio via Bluetooth directly to the B2. I’m not going to tell you that the little Audioengine device can work miracles, because it can’t. It is what it is, and that’s a portable one-box system. No one should expect it to take the place of any multi-component audiophile system. That said, it was quite musically satisfying. While there was little to no deep bass, what did come through was quite nice and rich, capturing the basic essence of the performance.
I had this piece of equipment set up in my room before my dad had it, and I used it a lot. I only ever used the Bluetooth connection with it, and it worked very well. Not a single problem. The Bluetooth range was long enough to cover my whole room and more, so I could have my phone with me on my bed as I played music through the B2, which is pretty standard for Bluetooth devices, but nonetheless, good news that it works. I listened to a pretty wide variety of music, from classical to folk to ambient and so on, and speaker held up well throughout it all. It had a nice way of bringing out the sounds and blending them at the same time. The bass wasn’t overpowering, and the treble was warm, which overall led to a rich sound. Of course, nothing professional, but it sure beats listening to music straight off a phone by a long shot. I used the B2 to listen to music to fall asleep to every night and I really enjoyed that. It was warm and comforting and not too heavy but also definitely not too light. All in all, it was very relaxing.
Peachtree Audio Deepblue2
Next up in the price rankings is the Deepblue2 Bluetooth speaker system from Peachtree Audio. Peachtree is well-known in audiophile circles as a manufacturer of high-value/high-quality integrated amplifier/DAC systems, but has since branched out into more “consumer-based” audio realms. The Deepblue2 is a good example of such a product. What we have here, at $399.99, is another integrated one-box DAC/amplifier/speaker system. It’s physically larger and a bit more sophisticated than the Audioengine B2, but otherwise similar in execution. Users will appreciate some of the more upscale amenities offered, most notably a remote control which can be used to turn the unit on or off, control volume, and select source. The Deepblue2 offers Bluetooth, analog, and optical (digital) inputs, the latter which I truly appreciated, as I could take the optical output from my Apple TV and let the internal DAC on the Deepblue2 handle conversion duties.
As far as specifications go, the Deepblue2 utilizes a class D amplifier to power two treble drivers, two midrange drivers, and a single bass driver. These drivers are arrayed on the front of the unit, with the treble/mids angled off to the side a bit while the bass driver fires straight outwards. Admittedly, it’s not as attractive as the Audioengine gear, as it’s essentially a plastic box (albeit well-built and sturdy) with drivers and all the other innards stuffed inside of it. Compared to the Audioengine B2, it’s a bit bulky, but it does have a nice little handle built-in for ease of mobility. For me, the Deepblue2 is all about convenience, features, and performance, and it’s a perfect storm of all three!
OK, for home theater use, I love this thing. For starters, it accepts digital output directly from my Apple TV, which alleviates the need for an external DAC; neither Audioengine product does this. I also really like the layout and convenience of the remote control. The best part, though, is the sound. The Deepblue2 just plain sounds huge in scale, and it throws a much larger soundstage than one would think by merely looking at it. I really do get that “3-D” effect that makes it seem like sound is coming from all over the room. I’m guessing that the angled faces on which the treble/midrange drivers are mounted lead to some interesting reflection effects which manifest themselves in something of a Bose-like manner. Granted, audiophiles generally don’t go for this sort of thing, but when I’m watching a movie, it’s a really cool audio illusion coming from a relatively small box. I found I could even partially hide the unit in a shelf system and still get this ventriloquist-like effect.
I was further impressed by the deep and powerful bass I got from the Deepblue2. While I recognize that this augmentation is really equalized mid-bass (read: midbass hump…), it really works in this type of device. Again, please remove your audiophile hats, loosen up, and have some fun here. We like lots of bass in the presence region of the audio spectrum, and we all know it. Bass aside, I found the midrange and treble to be natural and lifelike. Voices sounded natural, never hooty, and instrumental timbres were realistic. I always enjoyed hearing end-credit movie music through this box, making me actually sit through that part of the show. Compared to the Audioengine B2, the Deepblue2 sounded bigger, dug deeper, and never seemed stressed, even at high volume. That’s what adding a real woofer and a lot more power buys you.
I used this system after I used the Audioengine B2, and I think I might have been a bit biased against it. When I first listened to it, the sound seemed to sort of hover right above your head instead of surrounding you, but I got used to it soon enough and it didn’t seem to have that effect as much. Maybe I had just gotten too used to the Audioengine B2. Or maybe I just got used to the way the Peachtree’s sound goes over you. Either way, it was cool.
I thought the bass was a little overpowering, especially since I fall asleep to music every night and I have to worry about not waking my parents up. This speaker had deeper reaching bass power than the Audioengine, which I didn’t like at night because it made me a little uneasy, but I could see how that could definitely come in handy sometimes. So if you want more power and bigger bass, this is great.
Also, the Bluetooth worked perfectly fine. Not a single problem.
I had the Deepblue2 sitting on top of my old tube-type box TV in my room. It changed the coloring of the TV on the top edge of the screen a little. Soon it got worse, and the discoloration covered the whole screen. Blues were changed to reds and whatnot, so I took the speaker off the TV. That worked, and the TV went back to normal. Then when I was done watching TV, I put it back. The next day, I went to move the speaker off the TV, but the weird colors stayed. I just turned the TV off and left the speaker off of it and the next day it was fine. I’m not sure if this thing will do this with all TVs or maybe just box TVs, but still, if you plan on putting a speaker above a TV, either get a different speaker or find a different spot, which isn’t such a difficult thing to do, so it’s an easy problem to solve.
Audioengine A5+ powered speakers
Of all the components on parade here, the Audioengine A5+ speakers will most likely satisfy the whims of the typical audiophile buyer, as they are by far the most modular and upscale-looking of the lot. They’re self-powered, as the name implies, but the similarities to the B2 and Peachtree Deepblue2 ends there. There’s no internal DAC and no internal Bluetooth receiver on the A5+ speaker system. You could couple these to your own audiophile DAC or better yet, use the internal DAC in Audioengine’s B1 external bluetooth receiver if you’re looking for wireless capability. Most of my listening was done in my living room, where I had the speakers hooked up to my relatively upscale Rein Audio X3 DAC. My listening fare was mostly streaming radio (from my vintage Logitech Squeezebox) and digital audio feed from my television. The Audioengine speakers acquitted themselves quite favorably in this configuration, giving a big, bold sound with lots of excitement. Think of these as the B2 on steroids: everything was bigger and better. More dynamics, more bass, more sound-staging; you get the general idea. Furthermore, I found the A5+ speakers to be quite attractive clad in their bamboo veneer, which is an upscale (and up-priced) option. The speakers can also be had in a simpler black or white matte finish for $399.
The speakers sound big partially due to what’s powering them: a single stereo 50 watt per channel (RMS) class A/B amplifier. Build quality is quite impressive, featuring one-inch thick MDF cabinets and well constructed drivers similar to those found on the B2. You also get high quality RCA inputs, unlike the 3.5 mm analog jack found on the other devices. In comparison to the other two speaker systems, the Audioengine A5+ speakers scream out audiophile quality.
The downstairs system that was replaced with the Audioengine A5+ speakers is quite accomplished in its own right: a pair of Von Schweikert VR-1 monitors powered by a Virtue Audio Sensation M-451 Tripath amp complete with Dodd tube buffer. Together, this ensemble represents over $2500 when purchased new several years back, compared to the $469 required to buy a pair of powered A5+ speakers today. When comparing the two systems, I’d have to say that the Virtue Audio/Von Schweikert combo gave a more “audiophile approved” performance, but it really didn’t leave the A5+ setup in the dust either. In comparison, the Audioengine speakers seemed to be a little less flat across the whole frequency range, exhibiting what seemed to be something of a bass bump, sort of like one hears when loudness equalization is employed on mass market receivers. Not a bad thing in and of itself, and I definitely got used to it once I had the speakers in place for a while. I’m assuming that most folks would be using these speakers for lower volume desktop listening or for movie soundtracks, so such equalization makes some sense here.
My favorite streaming radio station is ABC Jazz, from the Australian Broadcasting Company. It’s always got a great mix of high quality jazz programming, both cutting edge and classic, and no commercial interruptions. It streams at 128 kbs, which isn’t exactly cd resolution, but it still manages to sound great, exceeding even a good FM broadcast. Listening through the Audioengine A5+ system fed by the Rein Audio DAC, I got really nice, engaging sound from top to bottom. Bass was fulsome and punchy, mids were naturally rendered, and the top end was especially easy on the ears, if not a tad soft. I was able to squeeze plenty of volume from the speakers via the knob on the lower right hand side of the one possessing the amp, enough to nicely fill my rather large living room/kitchen area. I’d say the sound tilted a bit toward the warm end of the spectrum and was maybe a bit on the “hi-fi spectacular” side compared to my normal living room rig, but it kept me engaged, sometimes for an hour or more as I piddled around in the kitchen cleaning and cooking. While the speakers don’t extend to the outer edges of the audible spectrum, they certainly get the “presence regions” right.
For a compact speaker/amplifier combo with such a small footprint, I think the Audioengine A5+ gets dangerously close to serious audiophile territory for a really reasonable outlay of money. Add a Bluetooth antenna, and you’re really talking about saving desktop real estate…. Just stream radio or other music from your mobile device and call it done!
This, friends, is where something like Audioengine’s last trick, the little B1 DAC/bluetooth receiver, comes into play.
At first glance, I thought the B1 might appear as something of a ripoff at $190. After using it extensively, I’ve changed my mind and pretty much decided it’s my favorite part of the whole ensemble I received. In short, it’s both a decent DAC and a quality Bluetooth receiver built into one really small, elegant package. It sports both analog and digital outputs, so you can use its internal DAC, or bypass it altogether if you already have a favorite converter, while still utilizing its bluetooth receiver capabilities.
While the B1 is perhaps meant to mate to the A5+ speakers, the beauty of the device was that I could use it to make any system Bluetooth capable. I tried it out with my little vintage system I keep at the other end of my attic “man cave” which consists of a 1970s era Kenwood integrated amp driving a pair of JBL 4410 studio monitors. It was super convenient to be able to stream my music collection directly off the hard drive of my Mac Mini computer over to the Kenwood amp without any cables. Here, I used the internal DAC of the B1, and I found it to mate nicely sound-wise to the vintage gear. I fell asleep late at night on more than one occasion listening to this fine rig while thinking how stoked I would have been to have owned such a setup during my teen years.
While the DAC claims to handle 24 bit files at up to 48 kHz, I found it to work best when fed Redbook (CD) quality material, as this fits nicely within the accepted bandwidth of bluetooth devices with no loss of resolution and no need for downsampling. I have lots of higher resolution files, and they did stream, but seemed blurred and fuzzy sounding when played back. Stick to CD quality files (or less) for best results.
Final Comparisons and Summary
So if I were in the market for a “lifestyle audio device” and were considering the models on review here, which would I choose? Wow, that’s a tough one… All of these performed at or beyond my expectations, especially given the comparative price points. For me, it would really come down to how I’d be using the thing: background audio in tight quarters vs. compact home theater applications vs. desktop audio. I’ll try to highlight what I think the best use of each would be as I see it.
The Audioengine B2 should be considered “The Little Engine That Could,” as it never missed a beat, no matter what I threw at it. It always managed to play music with aplomb, giving a more than satisfying sense of tone and volume for such a compact and integrated box. I loved it as the audio system for my small and simple home theater setup, and I suspect that most buyers looking for a compact system for a bedroom or kitchen would really like it as well. Also, you really can’t beat the fit-n-finish at its asking price.
I found the Peachtree Deepblue2 to be a definite step up performance and feature-wise from the B2, as it should be for an extra hundred bucks. It’s larger and definitely more modern looking, with its gray matte exterior. I also really appreciated its easy-to-use remote as well as its addition of an optical digital output. Pay attention all of you AppleTV fans! Keep in mind too that the Deepblue2 will be a better performer in larger spaces due to its more complex speaker ensemble and powerful amplifier. It’s just physically larger than the Audioengine B2, and it sounds that way. Just be aware of its seemingly emphasized bass, which ought to make it really shine in a portable home theater type of environment, but maybe not as much for someone just looking to listen to music.
What about the Audioengine A5+/B1 combination? It’s definitely the most expensive option, coming in at $660 for the pair. However, it’s the most modular of the systems, and in many ways, probably the most versatile. As such, it’s going to most likely speak to our audiophile tendencies. What you get is really refined sound in a small package along with Bluetooth capability if you choose to use it. If not, then you have the option to go without and not pay for something you aren’t going to use. I could easily see this system used as an ultra-high quality audiophile desktop ensemble, or as an accoutrement to a fairly sophisticated audio/video setup. That’s how I used it in my living room, and I really couldn’t be happier. I really enjoyed that bamboo veneer as well.
Overall, you really won’t go wrong with any of these systems. Just pick the one that looks like it would best fit your budget and projected use, and I doubt you’ll be sorry. Just realize that these pieces aren’t high-end audiophile gear that will replace a real two-channel system costing $5000 or more. But that’s okay. Sometimes simple really is best.
Which brings me back to Davis. I did ask him which system he would most likely spend his hard-earned money on. His ready answer? The Audioengine B2.