AudioFiles: Micro Machines

How to get great sound in today’s shrinking living spaces

PSB Alpha PS1 speakers
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Audioengine A2+ speakers
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NAD D 3020 amplifier
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Pro-Ject VT-E turntable
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Paradigm MilleniaOne speakers
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Pro-Ject Stereo Box DS
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PS Audio Sprout
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For many complex reasons, folks in densely populated cities are living in increasingly small quarters. In New York, for example, the “micro-apartment” has been presented as a possible solution to the city’s affordable housing crisis-though monthly rents still inspire gasps from many non-New Yorkers.

One result of this shift is people trying to exist with as little “stuff” as possible. But music lovers can’t pursue their passion without stuff-specifically, speakers and other audio components. Unless you’re happy with headphones, or willing to settle for the so-so sound of a small wireless speaker, you need a real stereo system of some sort to play your music. Fortunately, the audio industry offers a wide range of products that give you genuine audiophile-grade sound but fit easily into a 350-square-foot apartment-or into an office, dorm room or bedroom.

Just the Two of Us

The easiest way to get audiophile sound in a small space is with a high-quality active (i.e., powered) speaker system. The amplifiers are built in, so all you see are the two speakers. You can connect active speakers directly to the headphone jack of a computer, tablet or smartphone. Some models add USB digital input and/or Bluetooth wireless capability. Thanks to internal equalization circuits and digital processing, the best active speakers deliver superb sound quality. Many are even used as recording monitors in project studios.

One of my favorite active speakers-and at just 6 inches high, one of the smallest-is Audioengine’s $249/pair A2+. Each A2+ incorporates a 2.75-inch woofer and a .75-inch tweeter; the amplifiers, volume control and analog and digital inputs are built into the right-channel speaker. The A2’s sound is incredibly clear and natural, and it beat out many larger models in a blind test I recently conducted. Of course, with such a small woofer there’s not much bass. But acoustic jazz doesn’t require much bass. With upright bass you’re hearing mostly overtones, not the deep fundamental tones, and of course most jazz drummers use small kick drums.

If you want more bottom end, try larger active speakers, such as PSB’s $299/pair Alpha PS1, Audioengine’s $749/pair D6 or even Dynaudio’s $2,300/pair Xeo 4. You can add a subwoofer, but be careful: When I added a small subwoofer to the system in my former Brooklyn co-op, the neighbors complained if I set the sub’s level any higher than 2.

Piccolo Stereos

The advent of high-efficiency digital amplifier technology has made it possible to pack a whole system’s worth of audio gear into a component no bigger than a hardcover book. These new “digital integrated amplifiers” typically combine a stereo amp, a preamp, a digital-to-analog converter, a Bluetooth receiver and a headphone amp into a single chassis. Just add speakers and some sort of audio source, which will usually be a phone, tablet or computer-and maybe even a TV or cable box too.

One of the best known is NAD’s $399, 30-watt-per-channel D 3020, an unusual design that can stand vertically, in which case it measures just 2.5 inches wide. PS Audio’s Sprout adds a built-in phono preamp, and ups the power to 50 watts per channel and the price to $499. Probably the tiniest of the bunch is Pro-Ject’s $549 Stereo Box DS, which puts out 40 watts per channel and measures just 4.1 by 2.9 by 5.7 inches.

Now all you need is a pair of speakers. Unfortunately, even most bookshelf speakers tend to be a little too large to fit comfortably into a micro-apartment or a small office. What you require for that micro-apartment is a micro-speaker. One of my favorites is PSB’s $749/pair Imagine Mini, a truly world-class speaker that’s just 9.4 inches high. The Imagine Mini packs a 1-inch tweeter and a 4.5-inch woofer; its bass might not be powerful enough to handle Bill Laswell’s dub remixes, but it should reproduce Ron Carter’s lines just fine.

Those who find the Imagine Mini a little too pricey might like the NHT C1, a similarly sized speaker that runs just $249/pair. It won’t match the Imagine Mini’s sonic refinement, but at the low listening levels required in a small space, it will do a great job. If you find the black-box look of the Imagine Mini and C1 too dull for your sleek living space, consider the Paradigm MilleniaOne, a superbly engineered microspeaker with a rounded cast-aluminum enclosure.

Finally, the elephant in the audiophile’s tiny listening room-vinyl. If you simply can’t live without your records, look into Pro-Ject’s new VT-E turntable, which stands vertically, so it fits easily on a slim shelf and can even be wall-mounted. The U.S. price has yet to be announced, but it sells for €299 in Europe. Sadly, the question of where to store all those LPs in your micro-apartment is left to you.

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