My New Desktop Speakers

If you follow this blog, you know that music is important to me. I listen to a lot of music, and have varied tastes, ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Durutti Column; from punk to jazz; from classical to rock. I listen a lot at my desk, in my home office, and it’s important that I have a good sound system there.

After recently moving house, I felt it was time to upgrade my speakers. I have a Cambridge Audio system, with a small Scirocco amp, a DacMagic, and small speakers from the same company. Bookshelf speakers are always a compromise; you want good sound, but you don’t want them to be too large, and size trumps sound quality.

Down in the living room, however, I have much better equipment. My speakers are Focal Chorus 806 Vs (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which I bought in France. Focal is a French company known for high-quality speakers that is just starting to get international distribution. When I bought my speakers, I went to a good hi-fi store and listened to several different speakers. I found the Focal Chorus line to be the most neutral of those I heard; I notably hated Bower & Wilkins’ overly bassy speakers. I initially planned to get floorstanding speakers, but decided it wasn’t worth spending that much money on them, and got standmount speakers.

416906l-qUL._SX425_.jpgSo for my office, I considered a number of options, such as active speakers, but decided that, since I like the Focal Chorus sound, I probably couldn’t go wrong with another set of speakers from the same company. I opted for the slightly smaller 705 V (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which only cost £230 ($400 in the US).

I was not disappointed. When I hooked them up, still using my diminutive Cambridge Audio amp, I started playing András Schiff’s recent Diabelli Variations (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), and they sound just wonderful. The soundstage on these speakers – right out of the box – is amazing for the price. Also, the detail of the piano’s various sounds comes through excellently. They have detailed treble and a generous low end. I had been thinking of adding a sub-woofer to my office system, but now I don’t think I need it. I am tempted to upgrade my amp slightly, but I know it won’t make a big difference. (Though I may want to use this small amp in a different room of my new home; there, I have an excuse now!)

These aren’t small speakers; they are 31 cm high (just over 12 in), and I have them on “stands;” two 34 cm high wooden boxes which each contains two drawers. So the speakers are a bit higher than I’d like, but I’ll find something soon to lower them a bit. (I want the tweeters to be at ear height, and they’re about 6 inches above that point.) Here’s how they look on my desk:

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(I shot that photo with my iPhone, and it looks a bit distorted, like it’s a wide-angle lens…)

I’ve written in the past about how I think the best way to listen to music on a computer is not to use desktop speakers, but a full stereo. I stand by this: the quality you get from a real amp and speakers is much better than any desktop speakers you may find (with the exception of active speakers, or studio monitors). It’s often not that much more expensive to get a stereo system for your desktop compared to the price of some computer speakers.

So, I’m quite happy with my new sound. Once I get the right stands, things will be even better. I’m looking forward to some good listening in the future. If you’re looking for speakers, I’d suggest you check out the Focal Chorus line. They’re very neutral, eschewing the high-level bass that many modern speakers produce.

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13 replies
  1. John Hendron says:

    Several years ago I faced a similar dilemma, wanting some higher fidelity sound around my office Mac. At the time, B&W and Bose were showing off “computer speakers” in the Apple Stores, yet I knew that they really couldn’t compare to a separates system like I had downstairs with my “stereo.” I used the opportunity to move that system up into my office. I use B&W’s 600 line – similar in appearances, at least, to Focal’s 700 line – and I have the bookshelves connected via a Rotel integrated amplifier. Because of my office set up, the speakers are particularly angled towards my seat, four feet from my right side and likely 3’6″ from the left, with the left speaker much higher (I have a monstrosity of a desk from Ikea that I have to work around). So, not ideal, but if I push my seat back a little and just get away from the keyboard, it can be quite nice.

    I’d encourage anyone in this position to do what you did – to go out and listen and find what you like – and while it may be more money and effort up front – I’ve been using my investment in a DAC (6 years), and amp and speakers (17 years) for the long haul.

    Second – which I still need to tweek with new furniture – is to consider how to arrange it all. With the setup you picture, you’re likely getting that very focused stereo effect that’s hard to get away from (and why many like a near-field orientation to speakers, i.e., sitting up close). Not sure if there is room for dedicated stands or not in your office – but another thing to consider is something heavy – like 4 bricks – under each speaker. You’d lower them, but also position them hopefully in a way that restricted wobble when the volume is turned up.

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Focal Chorus 806 V speakers, a Yamaha RX-A1010 AV amp, Cambridge Audio 651BD optical disc player. I don’t do surround sound, but wanted an AV amp because I have a number if devices with HDMI. I control my music with an Apple TV that streams from my iTunes library on a Mac.

      Reply
  2. Scott Atkinson says:

    Errr, my apologies John. My question was directed at Kirk, though that’s some nice stuff you have.

    Reply
  3. Robert Westcott says:

    Hi Kirk, interesting post as always, thank you. About 3 years back I bought a pair of B&W MM-1s as computer speakers and have been pleased with them ever since. The MM-1s have a built in DAC + amplifier and work plug-and-play straight off a USB connection. No fuss. Nothing in the Apple store touches them: Bose, etc. don’t come near.

    In my main room I have a Weiss DAC driving an ATC SCM-50 active speaker system. For that system I use driver software to get the digital files from iTunes delivered in good condition to the DAC. Weiss recommend Amarra, which I have used, but my own preference is for Pure Music. Either of these products attaches to iTunes and generates the audio stream needed by the DAC, bypassing iTunes’ own audio out and just using iTunes for asset management.

    Getting to the point of this post, recently I tried driving the MM-1s with the Pure Music program and was amazed at the improvement in sound. Clearly, the MM-1s had a reserve capability which was called into action when they received a clean digital signal. So I would recommend to anyone serious about computer speakers that they try a product like Amarra or Pure Music and see what difference it can make. Not cheap. Both are available on a trial basis for you to test first. If your experience is the same as mine you may well find it a good investment.

    Best regards

    Robert

    PS I was surprised at your remarks about B&W speakers being “overly bassy”. I can’t speak for all of their products but I have used B&W since buying a first pair back in 1978 and heard them in many of my friends’ systems, etc. They are usually pretty clean, controlled and neutral if driven properly. I wonder if the “bassy” problem is somewhere else in the chain? You probably don’t want to extend this post into a full blown hi-fi discussion; just saying that your experience sounds unusual and might be worth investigating further. Cheers, R.

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      I’ve noticed that not only are B & W speakers bassy, but also their P5 headphones, which I heard for the first tome a few weeks ago. You may like it, or not notice it, but it’s very clear to me. I think each person had a specific taste for tone, which is why there see so many speakers.

      Reply
  4. Scott Atkinson says:

    I experimented with various music players available for OS X (including Amarra and Pure Music) and couldn’t hear the difference between iTunes and the rest. I like JRiver’s Media Center as well because it plays flac files, but can’t hear any difference between the two.

    Reply
  5. Tom Fynan says:

    Can Appple TV control a system if there is no video component? My main listening system is very simple: CD player, amp, and two speakers. I am looking for a way to use my iTunes library with this system. The CD player has an optical input, and I see the Apple TV has an optical out. I just don’t know if you can use it without a screen to display the menu.

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      You can use it as a passive output, either through iTunes (using AirPlay), or with the iOS Remote app. You can do the same with an AirPort Express, if you need a wifi base station.

      Reply
      • Tom Fynan says:

        A much belated thanks for the info. I am now enjoying music from my iTunes library on my “good” system: Mark Levinson CD player and amp, and WattPuppy 7s.

        Reply

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