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Punching above their weight

In most homes, when it comes to technology, small is considered beautiful. While many discerning Geare readers will love the way their 60-inch plasma and monumental floorstanding speakers dominate their décor, there are apparently partners and other people out there who are keen to reclaim their living space by introducing sound systems that

produce big sound from compact kit. The pesky laws of physics impose some degree of limitation on this, but mankind has struggled long centuries to fashion technological marvels that hit the sweet spot for performance, power, design and discretion. Branko Miletic and Jez Ford round up music systems that pack surprising punch…

The smart set The drive for diminution has been

any audio system needed to match

the music we want straight down

assisted by the ever-shrinking size

its 12-inch diameter. Cassettes and

a wire, off a stick, out of thin air.

of media. When vinyl was king

CDs allowed micro systems to be

Here are three of our favourites

(not that it’s dead or anything),

created. But today, we can get all

from the new audio smart set.

T Epoz AktiMate Maxis

If you’re after a simple iPod docking solution for bedroom or study, check out the sensational $650 AktiMate Minis. But these new $995 Maxi models raise the cabinet size to cater for larger spaces, while piling in the new technology. They can stream tunes via Wi-fi or Ethernet from your PC or Mac music collection, they can directly access internet radio and podcasts (they use the excellent Reciva media module), there’s FM radio built in, and they have a healthy crop of external inputs. With 60W internal amps driving their four-ohm speakers, they’re a single-product party system with the audio experience of the UK’s Epos stable to ensure top performance levels.

Sonos S5 ZonePlayer

Until this year, the massively-acclaimed Sonos system of ZonePlayers required half an engineering degree to understand, even if they were exceedingly simple to install. Enter the combination of $699 S5 Zoneplayer and iPhone/touch control App, and now any damned fool can stick a stylish corner-hugging S5 in their room and enjoy the streaming media services for which the brand has become famous. The S5 sounds as good as anything its size or price we’ve ever enjoyed; it expands easily into a multiroom system by adding additional Sonos units; and the simple access to PC and Mac music, internet radio and subscription services mean you may never see a CD again.

Pure Sensia

Pure is known for the quality of its digital radios, but in the rush to embrace its football-shaped new-age Twitter-sporting touchscreen $749 Sensia (above), the unit’s non-radio functionality is often underplayed. As with any of the company’s ‘Flow’equipped radios, the Sensia can connect wirelessly with your home Wi-Fi system in order to access your PC music collection plus thousands of internet radio stations. Pure’s portal to the web is The Lounge, which presents beautifully-organised onscreen access. Sonics can’t match the AktiMates or Sonos units here, but it sounds pleasant enough, and the extraordinary design and DAB+ touchscreen cleverness is much compensation.

his $329 iPod-docking tabletop radio makes it into our round-up less through thrilling whizz-bang technology than because it walks a traditional line so very well. It is solidly built, 35cm wide, 17cm high and 13cm deep, gloss wrapped in black all over with a matte metallic-finished front. It has one marvellous central knob and a load of small press buttons at which you have to peer pretty closely to ascertain their functionality. In terms of sources, it’s fairly basic — there’s your iPod docked up top (iPhones unofficially supported), and there’s FM radio but no DAB+ digital, nor even any AM, which is a strange omission in this sort of unit, and will deter fans of news or talk radio. The rest is good news, and this is led by its audio performance. From the two 7.6cm

(three-inch) drivers it can make an excellent noise for the price — rounded, rich and in many respects positively hi-fi. It reaches down well into upper bass frequencies (indeed some modern material with an overloaded low-end can sound slightly bloated if you leave the rear ports too close to a wall), while the midrange and treble are clean and open; it delivers good stereo from its well separated speakers. We gave it the remastered Beatles and it sounded quite thrilling; we were pinned in happiness for two full albums. The top volume (level 30) has been well pitched to get loud without pushing beyond the abilities of the internal amplifiers, which are specified at 10W per channel in the manual but 28W in the local literature — whichever, there’s enough power here to do the job. Meanwhile you get a great remote, which is

es and it We gave it the remastered Beatl re pinned sounded quite thrilling; we we s. in happiness for two full album

asymmetrical so can be used in the dark. This has a pretend jog wheel and can navigate iPod menus, as well as giving direct access to bass and treble, FM presets, even sleep and snooze, although most users will slam the marvellous large snooze button on the top in front of the iPod dock. FM reception wasn’t the most sensitive, and lacks a mono button for weak stations, but the strong ones again sounded great through this solid box. You get 10 presets which can be filled by an autoscan. Small touches also please — it shows the date on the display, and you can dim that display easily. Twin alarms and one auxiliary input round out the specs of this excellent unit which we suspect would have been retailed at a rather higher price had it been brought to Australia through strictly hi-fi channels — we salute the Hong Kong manufacturer (there’s nothing ‘Nordic’ about it) for paying such obvious attention to solid construction and well-chosen electronics. The missing AM and DAB+ aside, this is highly recommended, and we will be investigating the range further in upcoming issues. More info:


Study style

If you’re looking for speakers to attach directly to your computer, you have the choice of using the computer’s audio output, or using a USB solution. On the whole, PC soundcards and Mac minijacks are not the finest nor most reliable of outputs, whereas the humble USB socket will deliver digital audio which can then be converted more thrillingly by a dedicated device. Here’s one of each type…

Focal XS 2.1

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esigned, we suspect, as a simultaneous musical and fashion statement, the MCR-040 is one of the latest additions to Yamaha’s expanding line-up of micro home hi-fi systems. We’ve been using this one in Geare HQ for a good few months, and have been notably slow to uninstall it. Here’s why. For a start, it’s well-equipped. You can enjoy the hiss-free joys of Australia’s new DAB+ digital radio (in the capital cities where it’s broadcast, anyway), as well as conventional FM. There’s an iPod docking on the top of the unit which charges as well as plays, or you can plug a USB stick or drive of music (MP3/WMA) into the waiting socket on the front. Those still spinning silver will be pleased there’s a CD player onboard as well, and there’s a minijack auxiliary input on the front. In décor terms, you can pick a colour to best blend with your environment — it must be a stocktaking nightmare for dealers, but 10 separate colours are available, from bright orange and red down to the rather more tasteful light grey of our review system.

Also assisting with ease of placement, the speakers detach entirely from the main unit, so can be placed usefully wherever convenient — ideally evenly spaced from your listening position and roughly at ear level, as with any pair of speakers. Their frontal impact is a low 12cm square, but they’re 28cm deep, making use of both Yamaha’s VCCS (vibration control cabinet structure) system of support to allow loud stuff without rattling, and YST Active Server Technology, a longstanding Yamaha practice of optimising (ideally cancelling out) effective impedance between amplifier and speaker in order to improve linearity and higher sound pressure levels than would otherwise be possible. The upshot, in a nutshell, is solid and impressive bass levels, backed by a strong and powerful overall presentation. With the speakers separated and well positioned, the whole is involving and entertaining at a level extremely impressive for an all-in-one unit of such capabilities at a price of $499. And so colourful too… More info:

More Info:

We’ve recommended this system before, but why would we stop? Focal is a French company that has some of the best speaker technology in the world, so while $799 is a fair ask for a desktop speaker system, you get a big performance for your money. You can either dock your iPod or USB connect direct t o your PC or Mac music collection, with delicious results. A 70W subwoofer with 16cm ported driver can sit out of the way to provide a solid low-end, while the two stylish pod speakers on aluminium stands get 30W each, the combination being both impressively integrated and very definitely hi-fi. Anyone with an aluminium Mac is most likely reaching for their credit card already. You won’t regret it.

Logitech Z520

Logitech is getting adept at producing slightly space-age speakers for desktop audio applications. The $150 Z520 speakers take a normal audio input via minijack — no USB, sadly — and angle upward towards the likely position of your receiving lugholes, their rears flaring outwards to a deep base that provides a large enough chamber for some decent bass production. Connections are easy if unusual — the left speaker has a flying lead terminated in a pair of fixed RCA phono plugs. These connect to the right speaker, which also gets a sizable 14V 2.5A input from a surprisingly small transformer, to drive its quoted 26W internal amplifier. There’s also a useful headphone socket. While you won’t get the hi-fi wonder of the Focal, nor the bass of that system’s dedicated sub, things are impressive for the size and price.

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n the old days of hi-fi amplifiers, you could take a token punt at quality by the weight of a product — heavy meant a big power transformer, and that most likely meant lots of guts. While digital amplification has put that equation to rest, there must be something going on inside the SoundDock 10 — it weighs a spine-surprising 8.4kg. This is, of course, the largest, meatiest Bose SoundDock to date, 43cm across its bowed stern, 24cm deep from its curved frontal iPod dock to its ported backside, and utterly unportable. Looks? Pure home-industrial Bose. We can wrap up on facilities pretty quickly — it plays music from your iPod and it has a remote control. You get a minijack auxiliary input and a composite video output (for sending iPod video to a screen), plus a mini-remote that has 10 keys: on/off and play, two for input selection, two for volume, two for previous/next track, and an unusual pair for last and next playlist selection (which can send you off to unexpected places). You can get a version that ditches the iPod dock for a streaming Bluetooth receiver instead, should you be not of the iPod persuasion. But in terms of facilities, er, that’s it. And this at a price where most companies will at the very least give you More Info: www.BOSE.COM.AU


radio and alarms, and quite likely network connectivity for new media. There’s not even a USB port here (bar one for upgrades). Which would indicate lots of money spent on two things. Firstly on the mainstream media marketing campaigns for which Bose is renowned. Secondly on the sound. Bose has kept things simple, which is what traditional audio fans generally prefer, and things really do sound great.

Geneva Model L If a table-top dock just isn’t ‘hi-fi’ enough for you, but stereo speakers and cross-room cabling just ain’t going to happen, take a look at the one-box solutions from Geneva. They include stereo speakers, subwoofer and amplification in one box, along with a slot-loading CD player, FM radio and iPod dock up top. While there are enormous versions available (one in the

Bass simply floods the room — far too much, we thought at first, but it took only a few minutes to sink into the luxurious sound on offer here. It’s the best version of rich’n’friendly we’ve yet heard from Bose’s usual ‘topped-and-tailed’ response curve; it’s not strictly hi-fi, the top-end being reluctant to head into the shimmer of high-response tweeters and the bass being slightly resonant and ‘manufactured’ rather than rising from the unimpeachable depths born of true cabinet volume. But that’s to compare the Bose with full-on hi-fi, and for all its size and weight, the SoundDock 10 remains a compact single-unit solution. And there’s no need to criticise the sonic choices made here, simply because it sounded fantastic with everything we fed it, almost too substantial when playing at low volume, rocking out at anything from medium to high levels. At its launch Bose demonstrated the unit using exclusively jazz and classical recordings, nothing complex in the midrange, so we had wondered if it had trouble unravelling that frequency range. Nope, the most jangly and thrashy recordings raced out enthusiastically. Also remarkable is the amazingly low level of physical vibration from the unit when chucking it out at high levels, even though you could fly prayer flags in the breeze emanating from its rear bass port. Downsides — it’s big, it’s heavy, and it ain’t cheap given it doesn’t do much except play from your iPod. Upsides — it sounds big and heavy, and if it’s just an iPod dock you’re after, well, yum yum, this’ll shake the room. More info:

form of an entire AV cabinet), the Model L is a sweet spot between style and sound. Performance is definitely hifi, despite some vaguely swishy EmbracingSound to create a larger stereo image — indeed it attempts to throw suitable sounds right around the room; the demo disc even includes surround-type effects. RRP is $1999 and the stand is another $399.

Shrinking the cinema

When it comes to room-shaking home cinema, going small is hard, because it’s all about moving air to create impact and deliver those low-frequency atmospherics and explosions. But if you’re prepared to countenance a subwoofer, there are ways…

Focal Dome 5.1


5.1-channel speaker package in a round-up of compact audio? While it’s true the Dali Stile system uses real boxes of significant size, it is remarkable in how well it adapts those boxes to the needs of the modern home while still maintaining the airshifting abilities for true AV performance levels. So the main left and right speakers are attractive slim towers that have their tubular ports on the front, to allow them to be placed conveniently close to a wall. The ‘Vokal’ is a small centre channel, again front-ported so it can go very close to the wall. The small ‘Rear’ surrounds are just 20cm high, but there’s no fearing for bass content thanks to a rather special subwoofer, shallow and wide, with the express goal of in-room discretion. And the finish throughout is of exceedingly high quality given the price. The piano gloss is immaculate, the enclosures are well braced and seamlessly assembled, driver quality is high at the price, and even the connectors and binding posts are of good quality. And this is real audio-visual home cinema performance. The Stile package presents a totally seamless soundscape

that is immersive and totally involving. Atmospheric movie soundtracks, like the one for Where the Wild Things Are, are replayed with very high levels of detail but never with any harshness or even slight brightness. Such a smooth and yet resolved presentation, in the case of the centre channel especially, produces dialogue that is easily audible while still managing to blend in with the rest of the sonic ‘image’. Give the Stile system a ballsy action blockbuster and it won’t flinch either. The deep rumblings of the runaway underground train in The Taking of Pelham 123 were a breeze for the little sub. In the context of our small to medium sized test room, the sub put out a wall-shaking barrage of bass that was well-detailed and real, with plenty of level without distortion. We thought the Dali Stile package sounded terrific in stereo and truly outstanding in its intended 5.1-channel configuration. Dali is a large manufacturing concern, and economies of scale allow the very reasonable $2980 asking price, while clever engineering (with significant input from Dali Australia) result in extraordinary sound and exemplary fit and finish. An authentic bargain.

A couple of pages back, we noted Focal’s speaker prowess, and here’s another stylish solution from the French folk. The $2999 Dome 5.1 pack looks kinda cute, and they sound kinda awesome. The five satellite pods are backed by a mushroom-shaped subwoofer, all constructed from die-cast aluminium alloy, with various colours available. They create a seamless and high-quality soundstage, with a powerful low and full bass, while the pods are equipped with high-quality tweeters and Focal’s polyglass mid-bass units, so things sound pretty hi-fi when dropped to 2.1 for music. If you don’t want boxes, check this out.

Harman Kardon HS250BG

To hell with the rears, reckons Harman Kardon, offering this faux-industrial 2.1-channel integrated home cinema system consisting of DVD receiver, two satellite speakers, and an active subwoofer. You also get the company’s Bridge iPod docking station included. The small front speakers can wall-mount or, as shown, fit to some rather special optional stands, while the main electronics box combines your source (CD/DVD disc mechanism) with amplification via a healthy 2 x 65W. Harman Kardon describes the system as a “missing link”, and we concur — TVs and music can sound awesome with just a solid frontchannel system. RRP is $1999. www.ehifi.

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All Australian gadgets & technology

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All Australian gadgets & technology