[SoundStage!]Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
October 1998

The $50 Speaker Hunt

I'll admit it. The real reason I started staring at the woman behind me in the line at Best Buy was because she was cute. It all started because I happened to need a Fast Ethernet hub and some network cards. The store had a sale on exactly what I wanted, so I stopped by and did some shopping. It was Saturday night, and the checkout was packed with patrons. The woman after me in line had just picked out a little boombox and some CDs to go with it. The audio system was a Yorx, a brand which a lot of people seem to have for the following simple reason: When you're saving up week by week for a complete little stereo, the first thing you get enough money to buy is usually a Yorx. The CDs were Jimmy Buffett's Songs You Know By Heart and the Beatles' Past Masters, Vol. 2. She was dropping about $140 total on the whole thing, less than most of the cables that connect my home system together. But as I thought back to when I was in the same spot audio-wise, I recalled what it was like to go from some ratty old setup to a brand-new CD-playing system of any quality. She was going to head home, groove away to "Paperback Writer" and "Margaritaville" all night, the whole time having a hell of a lot more fun than I ever get to have playing Dead Can Dance on my $10,000 system. Never forget that the jump from no sound to any sound, even a boombox, is tremendously bigger than what you get going from a crummy system to a state-of-the-art one.

This got me thinking about what really constitutes "budget" audio. If you believe some magazines, a well-made $2000 amplifier is a good "budget" value if it can sound nice for so little money. These reviewers are obviously out of touch. I've always used the "B" word for high-end components running between $500 and $1000, which is within reach for many people. While better, this too is far from being Realistic (I don't often get to crack a pun just through capitalization). In the real world of students, families, and budgets, $1000 is a big chunk of change for a system. Recently I've been spending a lot of time around people who know I write about audio, and I keep getting the same question: What's good to get for $300-$500? That's often a request for a complete playback setup, mind you, not a single piece. I've had to tell most of these people the honest answer: "I dunno."

But when you think about it, where can shoppers in that price range get good advice? Not from the "let's measure it and ignore what we hear" crowd that normally covers that part of the market. Just as bad is when the high-end press latches on to some inexpensive piece, puts in their overpriced reference system, and declares "I can't believe how good this cheap equipment is." Invariably they decide it must be a steal even though they know nothing about the context those pieces are normally used in. The people I talk to don't care how a $200 CD player sounds compared with a $2000 transport/DAC combination. They want to know why they should buy that against of the $99 Kenwood unit that's on sale at The Wiz this week.

I always advocate not complaining about something unless you're willing to fix it. While I've still got some work I'm doing advancing my own system using big-budget equipment, I'm now shifting my focus for regular reviews to strictly components under $500 each. I'm digging through the sale ads helping people pick out receivers, and I'm sifting through piles of speakers looking for the few actually worth buying. It's far more fun than trying to decide which of the two cables I have gives a deeper soundstage. To get my perspective firmly back into real-world audio, I decided I should take an adventure and decide what to buy if I only had $50 to spend on a pair of speakers.

Optimus PRO X5

Are you shocked I ended up at Radio Shack? I kinda was. Most of the $50 speakers you can pick up at normal electronics chains are positively abysmal. Here's a hint: If you're spending under $100 for a pair of speakers, and they claim bass down to 60Hz, run away. You do not want to find out what they sacrificed to pull that off; a lower frequency limit of 100-150Hz is more what you should expect. Similarly, any three-way system in that price range is to be avoided. It's just barely possible to get decent sound out of two drivers in such an inexpensive setup. Integrating three correctly is definitely out of the question.

I ended up getting the Optimus PRO X5 speakers, which were on sale for $25 each (regular price is $50 each). Here's some of the reasoning for that choice:

  • Consistently cheap and available: While there are often close-outs or one-time promotions that drop some speaker prices dramatically, the 50%-off sale on these Radio Shack models is a regular occurrence. While you can't get them this cheap every day, you can be assured that if you watch the Radio Shack circular, you'll eventually find them deeply discounted again. I wouldn't pay the full $100 for a pair, but at a 33% or greater discount, they're an excellent deal.

  • Enclosure construction: Most bargain-basement speakers have thin wooden panels that resonate out more music than the woofers themselves. And nothing in the world can fix a paper-thin wooden box other than starting over and building a new cabinet. The die-cast aluminum enclosure of the PRO X5 is very rigid and solid. While it has its problems, they are ones you can address through some simple DIY upgrades. Upgrading the speaker is incredibly easy, as it disassembles into two pieces that allow total access to the internals.

  • Sealed-box loading: If you've got an inexpensive woofer, the last thing you want to do with it is use a port to try and extend its low-bass output. The popular Optimus PRO LX5, Radio Shack's first unit with the Linaeum tweeter, included two small ports. Stuffing them up in various ways was an integral part of every after-market upgrade procedure I ever saw. The cheapest ported speakers I'd recommend start at around $150/pair; less than that, and you want a sealed box.

  • Two-way design: There is no hope of getting real extended high-frequency response from a super inexpensive speaker without a separate tweeter. While the one in the X5 is certainly not world class, it's far from being objectionable when you consider what you're paying for it. The individual drivers in the X5 are actually quite decent; the speakers' major flaws are from other sources.

Upgrade potential is the biggest thing that made the X5 stand out among the other contenders I was checking out. Sure, the enclosure rings, but that's easy to fix with a quick damping upgrade. Yes, the crossover has problems, but building a new one is straightforward and inexpensive if you get some design help. The major flaws in this Optimus model are the result of saving $5 worth of parts that you can easily put back in yourself. I don't quite have those upgrades ready to hand over yet, but rest assured I'm working on them. The raw speakers themselves are quite livable even without them, but you might not know that if you don't use them the right way.

Here's the first clue: Throw away the grilles. OK, maybe you should save them for protection, but you never want to hear these speakers with the grilles on. Listen to your neighbor's stereo through your wall instead -- it probably will sound like it has better top-end extension.

The second thing to realize is that these are not traditional high-end speakers. They do not sound best sitting on little stands in the middle of your room. Since the vast majority of people buying these little guys are going to stick them right against the rear wall, that's actually how they were designed to be used. Since the imaging is somewhat limited anyway, the bass reinforcement and tonal balance shift you get from close-to-the-wall placement is much more important. Also, try to get these as high as possible. If the tweeter is below your ear, the sound degrades substantially. I have mine sitting on a shelf above my computer at the moment, firing down at my ears, and that's a much better placement than on the 30"-high stands I had been using.

Although you don't place them like speakers you're probably more familiar with, that doesn't mean everything is different. Experiment with placement width and toe-in to tune in the best results. I've found that you can't push these much more than 6' apart from each other without losing the center image, but no matter where they're placed, you should try rotating them toward your listening position. The speakers come with little rubber feet you can attach. I threw them away with the grilles and used Blu-Tak instead to stabilize the bottom.

After going through this setup regime, the speakers were shockingly good. I spent several weeks with these as the sole source of music in my bedroom. While they don't shame the Magnepan MMGs they replaced in that role, for $50 I have no complaints. Recently I switched to using the X5s exclusively with my computer, where they get pounded by Quake and Need For Speed on a regular basis. While they aren't magnetically shielded, use of a small woofer in the aluminum cabinet means they can easily be placed far enough away from a monitor to avoid visual warping. The tiny size of these speakers makes them perfect for situations where you'd like something that sounds decent, but you have very little room. I'd certainly take a pair of these any day over a cheesy sub-sat system with no treble and one-note bass from [lawsuit-happy manufacturer name intentionally left blank].

At this point, it's probably appropriate to check out the specs on these speakers. The tweeter is a 1" dome, the woofer 3" in diameter, and the nominal impedance is 8 ohms. Dimensions are 6 1/2" x 4" x 4 1/2", weighing in at 3.5 pounds each. The warranty is five years, but I voided mine about 10 minutes into my tweaking. Frequency response is rated from 150Hz-20kHz, while power handling lists at 15W RMS, 30W peak. That's the main spec I have problems with. See, the biggest problem with the design of the X5 is the crossover. All you get is an infinitesimal capacitor to block low frequencies from the tweeter; the woofer runs full-range. So when you turn the volume up, after about 3W of input the woofer sounds so distorted that I can't imagine anyone would continue past that point (although I'm sure some do). While 3W doesn't sound like much, the sensitivity seems fairly high (no spec on that, but I'd estimate around 88dB), and these are sufficient for a small room. While I'd like to just say you could use a simple inductor and block high frequencies from getting distorted in the woofer, unfortunately that doesn't work. The woofer voice coil is far too inductive at higher frequencies for something that simple to be effective. That's the main thing I'm still working out before I hand over plans for a complete overhaul of the speakers. It would also be nice to smooth out the overall impedance curve and make these an easier load for a typical receiver to drive correctly.

Compact, inexpensive, and offering a sky-high value per dollar, the Optimus PRO X5 is a good little performer when set up correctly. The great potential for upgrades makes it an even better buy. If you're looking for speakers with really tight budget or size constraints, I recommend checking these out if you can catch them on a good sale. I hope to have the full upgrade regimen planned out soon, but even without any internal modifications, they're a fair deal. I think most neurotic audiophiles should pick up a pair just to get their heads straight about the audio budget constraints of the average person.

News Flash: My local Radio Shack started a sale on the Optimus PRO X5 as of September 24th. It's supposed to last until the end of October, and the speakers are now under $20 each! I'd never seen them so cheap before. It's unclear at the moment if this is actually a final clearance because the model is being discontinued. I plan on detailing my upgrade plans in a future column for the current unit regardless, but I suspect I'll also look at any replacement for the speaker that becomes available as well.

The HeadRoom AirHead

Speaking of inexpensive products useful to regular folks, HeadRoom recently started shipping their much-anticipated AirHead system. Having done a preview of their prototype back in April, I feel responsible for some of the pent-up demand for the finished product, which was expected quite some time ago. Well, the production line continues to be unkind to HeadRoom. While the finished AirHead corrects all of my concerns with the prototype, a couple of subtle flaws crept in during the revision, ones that didn't really become obvious until units started shipping all over creation.

I know it's impossible for the gang in Bozeman to duplicate my portable adventures around New York City, where the new AirHead didn't perform perfectly because of radio interference issues. Rather than try to cover up the problem, HeadRoom has decided they won't continue to ship a device that fails to meet their normal quality standards, even if it is a lower-priced unit. Check out their official statement for more information. While I'm certainly not happy with this turn of events, as it threw a wrench in my writing schedule for this month, I'm satisfied that HeadRoom has handled their customers in a professional manner. A full refund is available to unhappy early adopters, along with a very generous trade-up offer for those who want to keep their units until the new model is available. The only people burned here in any fashion were those expecting a unit in a couple of weeks, only to find out it's still months away. Expect a redesigned version of the AirHead with improved cosmetics to be available by the end of the year. I'm looking forward to writing about it when it's ready because I think it's going to be an excellent piece of gear to have after the final small bugs are worked out.

The October Audio Equipment Guide

I'm not one to be normally recommending audio magazines, but there's one issue of Audio I buy every single year. In October, Audio compiles a massive listing of all available products from every manufacturer they can find. There are hundreds of pages of specs, pricing information, and the biggest spread of ads for juicy equipment you'll see anywhere. Whether you're planning to spend $100 or $100,000, nothing else you can buy offers such a comprehensive look at all the products available to the audio buyer. Watch for it on the newsstand -- it usually shows up a bit later in the month than usual.

.....GS (gsmith@westnet.com)


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