Simple by name and smart by nature, these innovative speakers deliver great desktop sound
As I think I’ve said before, regular readers will know I’m not the greatest fan of Bluetooth speakers: too many of them are inexpensive, plasticky and a triumph of some kind of style over function. However, of late I’ve been spending more time listening to desktop audio systems, simply because I’ve been spending more time at my desk in the home office – oh, OK then, the dining room –, and I’ve discovered a growing number of really rather good speakers offering good quality sound without the faff of separate amplifiers and speakers.
There’s currently a procession of these little speakers passing across the desktop, from the tiny prototype Frankenspiel FS-X to the very good, and pleasingly retro-modern, Ruark Audio MR1. The latest is the £400 Listen speaker system from Simple Audio, the Glasgow-based company founded by former Linn Products MD Peter Murphy a few years back to market a range of affordable Roomplayer multiroom products.
I think it’s fair to say the Roomplayer idea had some fits and starts in the early days, but it’s now well-established, with a Bridge to connect the devices to the home network, and versions of the Roomplayer with and without amplification built-in. The company is also now well-established, having been acquired last year by US-based Corsair, a computer memory and components company with annual revenues of some $500m.
Still working out of its offices in Scotland, Simple Audio has expanded its range to include two models of Bluetooth-capable speaker: the Listen I have here is a mains-powered desktop speaker system using a biamplified design, and with USB, line and Bluetooth inputs, plus headphone and subwoofer outputs, while the smaller Go sells for £80, and is a compact all-in-one with rechargeable battery power and even a microphone for hands-free operation with smartphones.
(As ever, those are typical prices: not too much Googlage can save you £30 or more on the Listen and £20 or so on the Go)
The Listen speaker system may follow the usual design of such speakers in that the control and amplification circuitry is all in one speaker, with the other operating as a ‘slave’, but this is a true biamplified and active design, delivering 40W per channel and with a multicore cable carrying separate outputs for each drive unit between the speakers. The drive units themselves are a 25mm silk-dome tweeter and a 7.5cm long-throw woofer in each cabinet, using neodymium magnets, and with a fully digital signal path with DSP to optimise the sound.
The system comes complete with everything you’ll need to set it up and use it: there’s an offboard power supply for the speakers, a generous captive lead to connect them on the left speakers, plus a 3m extension cable, and both line-in audio and USB cables. However, what really grabs the attention – apart from the beautifully designed packaging – is the touch-control panel atop the right speaker, giving on/off, volume control and muting, plus Bluetooth switching.
The merest touch is required to change settings, and the volume can be adjusted with a swipe of a finger or just a tap at the desired level: it’s a very slick and decidedly classy design, as is the rest of way this system looks. Most connections are hidden round the back – power in, USB and subwoofer outputs – but the line-in and headphone sockets are mounted on of the right speaker’s uprights for easy access.
And the Listen system is more compact than you might think from the pictures: each speaker stands just 20cm tall, and takes up minimal desk-space.
The sound? Well, these little speakers deliver so much more than they have any right to: used either side of my monitor they deliver a sound not only tightly-focused in the way it appears to come from between and around the enclosures, rather than from the speakers themselves, but also spacious and with fine soundstaging.
Use them with a degree of toe-in and the music ‘snaps in’ in a very acceptable fashion, whether playing music from one of the many high-quality software players or just watching BBC programmes on the iPlayer. The BBC’s recent Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake documentary benefited from the clarity and definition of the Listen speakers, with excellent intelligibility and fine power to the music, while some classic 70s rock and pop from BBC Four was delivered with excellent verve and drive, encouraging some fingertip action to push up the volume.
Do that and you’ll discover that the Listen speakers can step up to the plate when asked to deliver some serious welly, leading me to move them from the desk into my main listening room and take advantage of both that extension cable between the speakers and the remote control supplied, which also adds play/pause and forward and reverse skip.
These are pretty viable speakers for filling small to medium-sized rooms, too, although a bit of help from an active subwoofer might come in handy if you want to attempt some wall-shaking. However, given the size of the Listen speakers, that’s hardly a surprise.
Whether on the desktop or on shelves, the Simple Audio speakers have definite appeal, proving that they’re more than just a very slick design, and have the wherewithal to cope as real hi-fi speakers, too. Whatever you may feel about the benefits of small active speakers connected to a computer as opposed to conventional player/amp/speakers systems, the Listen speaker system does prove you can have a system that’s compact, affordable and still capable of a more than acceptable, and for their size exceptional, standard of performance.
Simply, these speakers make music, and do so with minimal fuss and more than a dash of style, not to mention solidity of build and an overall feeling of quality and solid engineering. They’re really a bit special.
Simple Audio Listen
Active Bluetooth speaker system | £400
Power 40W per channel
Drive units 25mm soft-dome tweeter, 7.5cm long-throw woofer, driven actively
Inputs Bluetooth A2DP, USB, line-in
Outputs Subwoofer, headphones
Accessories supplied Mains adapter, cables, remote handset
Dimensions (HxWxD, each speaker) 20x11x11cm
Written by Andrew Everard