Audyssey Media Speakers
Editors' note: The review below was written before Audyssey dropped the "Lower East Side" portion of the product name.
Last year's Audyssey iPod/iPhone Audio Dock was named for the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. This time the company has gone east, naming its new $199 Lower East Side Media Speakers for the Manhattan neighborhood. (We'll use "LES" for short.)
Why the Lower East Side?
Well, the marketers behind the speakers were inspired by the neighborhood's gritty "tenement-lined streets that have been home to immigrants from nearly every country since the neighborhood's inception" and rich musical history that included such "hallowed venues" as CBGB, ABC No Rio, and Arlene's Grocery. (Today, of course, the neighborhood isn't quite so gritty as it once was, dominated instead by young hipsters.)
Fancy name notwithstanding, what you have with the Audyssey LES Media Speakers is a pair of powered stereo speakers. Once upon a time, we'd call these "PC speakers," but these days, the audio source might be anything from an iPod, smartphone, game system, streaming media box, or a laptop--just to name a few. These speakers are small enough that they'll fit into any bedroom, dorm room, home office, or den environment. Meanwhile, Audyssey has used its expertise with sonics to tweak the sound beyond what you'd usually find in a pair of throwaway $30 PC speakers.
Design and features
From a design perspective, the Audyssey LES speakers have a simple, clean look that has a bit of throwback feel, with integrated wiry metal stands and a single red stripe that the designers say harkens back to the red brick buildings of the Lower East Side (we kid you not).
Each of the two speakers is 9.3 inches tall by 5 inches wide by 6 inches deep, and weighs about 3 pounds. They each boast a 3.5-inch driver and a 0.75-inch silk dome tweeter up front (neither the stands nor the speaker grilles are removable), and a passive bass radiator on the rear.
The left speaker houses the amplifier, and the volume/power control and headphone (output) jack are available on the front side. There's no remote control option for the Audysseys, but they do have an automatic standby mode, meaning they'll go to "sleep" after a few minutes of dead air.
Feature-wise, these guys offer one thing missing from most PC speakers: a digital optical audio input (Toslink). That means you can connect them to an Apple TV or a game system such as the PlayStation3, and still have the 3.5mm analog input available for a second device. (Both inputs and the power port are located on the rear of the left speaker.)
There is one caveat: for better or worse, you can't toggle between the two inputs--they're both active simultaneously. That means you'll hear a mix of both audio sources if they're both active at the same time.
Audyssey includes a 3.5mm analog audio cable, and a speaker interconnect cable for tethering the left and right speaker to one another.
Audyssey, which until recently was known more for its behind-the-scenes audio technology in AV receivers and the automotive and theater markets, says it uses "unique audio software technology to solve problems with small speakers, which typically can't produce deep bass, lack clarity and produce poor sound quality at softer listening volumes." The company calls that technology Audyssey Smart Speaker technology, and says its new LES speakers' audio performance "far outpaces other speakers in the price category."
While we can say these speakers sound quite good--and they certainly do outpace many speakers in their price class--they don't "far" outpace every PC speaker in their price range.
The first thing you should know about them is that they're fairly aggressive. They have good, well-defined bass and good stereo imaging (we expect most people will set them up about 3 to 6 feet apart from each other. However, they tend to overemphasize detail, which makes them sound a tad coarse and grainy, especially with less-than-stellar recordings (because they accentuate detail, they also accentuate the flaws in your music).
In other words, whatever digital chicanery that Smart Speaker technology is doing to process the sound, it's pumping up the bass and treble. We listened to a variety of music from acoustical jazz to Top 40 and hip-hop tracks, and while it all sounded better than what we're used to hearing from most of the iPod speaker docks we test, with acoustic jazz, for instance, the symbols sounded tizzy, which gave the music a little bit of a harsh edge.
We also found the volume range somewhat limited. These guys just don't play terribly loud and seem ratcheted back to stay within the boundaries of a set dynamic range (this helps prevent distortion at higher volumes--a good thing).
For some folks, all that amped up detail and bass won't be a bad thing. The identically priced Audioengine 2s are mellower and more laid-back (warm, as we like to say), but some people may find that type of sound a touch bland.
One final note on performance: we spent most of our time listening to music in our tests, but we also hooked the speakers up to an Apple TV with an optical cable (not included). The speakers clearly sound much better than your typical TV speakers, so for folks who have their Apple TVs connected directly to their TVs via HDMI, this is a good way to boost your sound--assuming, that is, that you don't already have a soundbar or AV receiver.
It's also worth mentioning that when you combine these speakers with Apple TV, you automatically get wireless AirPlay functionality, so you can stream tunes from your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. When you add up the $199 for the speakers and $99 for Apple TV, you end up with a set of AirPlay speakers that sound better than other AirPlay speakers that cost more.
While we prefer the warmer sound and overall build quality of the Audioengine 2s, these Audyssey Lower East Side Media Speakers deliver quite good sound in a small, attractively designed package. Throw in the optical connection and you end up with a more versatile speaker system that can be paired with Apple TV or a game console. At $200, they may be a touch pricey, but we can still recommend them.