January 2015

Dayton Audio B652 speakersNow that I’ve had a chance to look back at 2014, it’s pretty obvious what the biggest story in audio was. Headphones? Old news. Wireless speakers? There are a lot, but most are pretty much the same. High-resolution audio? Still waiting to take off. Dolby Atmos? Cool, but too complicated for most people. No, the big story in audio was the emergence of a largely new but rapidly growing category of product: ultra-low-budget audio.

Ultra-low-budget audio began to emerge a couple of years ago, mostly as products sold through Parts Express and Monoprice. You could say it began with the Dayton Audio B652, a bookshelf speaker that costs about $40 USD per pair and sounds OK -- better, at least, than most of the single-box, wireless audio systems so popular today. Or you could say it began with the line of budget speakers designed for Pioneer by engineering whiz Andrew Jones, exemplified by the SP-BS22-LR bookshelf model ($129/pair).

Mainstream brands are now getting into the ultra-low-budget game. Polk, in particular, sells crazy-inexpensive yet decent audio gear. For example, its PSW10 10” subwoofer sells for around $130 on Amazon, and you can usually find a pair of its bookshelf speakers for about the same price. MartinLogan is another example; I’ve often seen ML subwoofers selling for less than $150. Pretty shocking for a company that made its name with room-dominating electrostatic speakers costing thousands.

Polk Audio PSW10

You can also buy ultra-low-budget audio products straight from the source: China. Through sites such as head-direct.com and china-hifi-audio.com, you can get cute but decent-sounding desktop amps for less than $100, and very nicely made tube power amps for under $200. The fit, finish, and sound quality don’t equal what you get from, say, Audio Research or VTL; the brand names, such as Music Angels and Qinpu, may be unfamiliar; and in the case of china-hifi-audio.com, shipping can be expensive and slow. But these products are viable alternatives to buying used gear -- and unless you get lucky, good used gear is rarely cheap these days, thanks to eBay.

Alongside even a modest audiophile two-channel system, the quality of this gear is usually unimpressive, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR perhaps excepted. But alongside the audio systems most people now use -- soundbars and one-box, wireless speakers -- these ultra-low-budget systems often shine.

Pioneer SP-BS22-LR speakers

These products haven’t received as many reviews as more expensive, mainstream brands, but I’ve tested a lot of them, and my friend Steve Guttenberg has reviewed several of them for CNet. Here’s what I’ve found.

The separate speakers usually sound much better than the ones built into single-box, wireless audio systems. Part of this is because you can spread them apart to get genuine stereo separation, something a single-box audio system can only simulate. Part of it is because they usually have bigger woofers and enclosures than single-box speakers, so they can play deeper and louder without edging over into distortion, as most single-box speakers do.

The downside of ultra-low-budget speakers is that most of them have very simple crossovers -- usually, a single capacitor in series with the tweeter. This keeps the tweeter from overloading, but it lets the woofer run full range. Thus, at 3kHz and above, you’re hearing a mix of a cheap tweeter (which might sound OK) and a woofer with a really rough high-frequency response. If you’re so inclined, it’s not hard to improve these crossovers yourself, and you can often find tips online.

Really, really cheap amps, such as the Lepai LP-2020A+ for $20 -- currently the best-selling audio component on Amazon -- tend to be basket cases on the test bench, and it’s easy to hear their rough edges in an A/B comparison with any decent amp. But if you connect them to a pair of 8-ohm speakers, they can generally play loud enough to fill a small room with sound.

Topping TP20-Mark 2

My preference in budget amps is for better-built products, such as the Topping TP20-Mark 2, currently $79 on Parts Express. I tested a similar model, the TP30, and liked what I saw on my audio analyzer -- and what I heard. These amps use the same class-T technology as is used in the Lepai LP-2020A+, but they’re better made, with nicer designs and beefier power supplies. I found that the TP30 drives low-impedance speakers much more dependably, and delivers stronger bass reproduction, than the LP-2020A+. Of course, at $79, it’s four times as expensive as the Lepai -- but the Krell S-300i integrated amp I usually use is 125 times more costly than the Lepai.

Lepai LP-2020A+

Some audiophiles might deride the new wave of ultra-low-budget audio products -- and except for my Music Angels Mengyue Mini tube amp, I rarely listen to ultra-low-budget gear after I’ve finished reviewing it. But I find this trend a welcome development. In an era when $10,000 amps and $20,000/pair speakers are commonplace, ultra-low-budget audio gives the listener on an average budget a way to get something way better-sounding than a single-box audio system -- and a way to get into the audio hobby that doesn’t require living on beans and rice for a year while he or she saves up for that dream system.

. . . Brent Butterworth