A Shockingly Decent $50 Stereo System
By James Grahame
I've used a pair of Logitech computer speakers with a powered subwoofer in my office for years. I've never been particularly happy with the quality; yes, they can make the floor joists vibrate and sever the auditory hair cells from my cochlear nerve. Just not in a nice way.
So I set out to find a replacement.
I realized in a hurry that mainstream big box stores weren't going to be much help; they've been overrun by plasticy iDocks and a smattering of component systems – replacing my sound system with something that sounded better was looking to be an expensive proposition.
Then I remembered a product that I wrote about in 2009 – a tiny bargain-priced amplifier that used a digital amplifier chip manufactured by Tripath. It offered surprisingly clean sound for the money. Sure enough, Parts Express still offers a range of Tripath-based amplifiers and the price has come down considerably. Figuring that they'd all sound much the same, I opted for the no-frills Lepai LP-2020A+, a $20 unit based on a Tripath TA2020 chip. It's capable of outputting 20W + 20W into 4 Ohms at full power and includes a 12V, 2A power supply.
This minuscule amp is just about as bare-bones as they come, with defeatable treble and bass controls and a volume knob on the front panel. The back offers a 3.5mm jack for an MP3 player, alongside stereo RCA jacks. The inputs are tied together, so you can only use a single source.
Of course, finding the right amplifier was only half of the battle.
Luckily, I stumbed across a review in Stereophile that praised a $29.98 pair of Dayton B652 bookshelf speakers, also from Parts Express. The review concluded, "Keep a pair in your dorm room, a pair on your desktop, a pair in your office. As long as your expectations are realistic and you're willing to have fun, the Daytons are sure to please." That was good enough for me.
These moderately sized speakers measure 11-13/16" H x 7-1/16" W x 6-7/16" and can be placed almost anywhere because they don't have a rear bass port that needs to be kept open. You shouldn't expect great beauty at this price; the B652s are basic black vinyl-covered rectangles with cheesy plastic spring clip connectors on the back. There's a wall mounting hook (these would be perfect in a reception area or small restaurant), and the removable cloth grilles are mounted on fiberboard, but they do the job.
Inside, you'll find a 6 1/2" polypropylene cone and a 5/8" ferrofluid-cooled polycarbonate dome tweeter. Each speaker is rated to handle 40W RMS (70W maximum) into 8 Ohms, with a 70-20,000 Hz frequency response and a sensitivity of 87 dB 1W/1m. They're well suited to the little Tripath amplifier.
All in all, this combination offers amazing bang for the buck. As long as you keep the volume at a reasonable level and defeat the tone controls, you're rewarded with clean, uncolored sound. Don't expect floor-shaking bass from this setup, but this minor shortcoming is shared by other inexpensive bookshelf speakers that tend to bottom out well above 50 Hz.
Pricewise, there's nothing to complain about. You're looking at a total of $49.98 plus around $10 for UPS ground shipping, a fraction of the cost of an MP3 player dock. In return, you'll receive a system that should offer years of faithful service in an office, garage or workshop.