By Jim Hill
Musical Fidelity v90
If you're looking for the flexibility and fidelity of hi-fi separates for your desktop, this miniature tower system is true audiophile territory and it actually takes up less desk space than your average micro. It comprises a Bluetooth streamer (V90-BLU), stereo amplifier (V90-AMP) and a DAC (V90-DAC) in three simple brushed aluminium boxes. We've added one pair of DALI Mentor Menuet speakers to complete the package.
There's a sonic advantage in keeping your circuits separate as it reduces audio jitter and interference, but it also means you can expand, or upgrade in steps. You might choose to add the matching V90-LP phono stage and a turntable at a later date for example, or the V90-HPA headphone amp. Our configuration of 17cm x 12cm boxes allows us to connect a smartphone via Bluetooth and a hard drive full of MP3s, with analogue and digital inputs also available for additional sources. Flexibility is the name of the game here.
Music streamed from our iPhone 6 to the V90-BLU, converted by the V90-DAC and then amplified by the V90-AMP sounds fabulously deep and detailed when it finally reaches the DALI speakers. Although not enormously powerful, the 20W/channel amp provides quite a kick in the bass bins of the little Menuets and manages to find lots of scale in the mid-band too.
It's a pity there's no inbuilt source, like a radio, but this diminutive hi-fi system has all the sonic appeal of separates without invading your space or draining your bank account.
Best for: Desktop audiophiles on the upgrade path
£647 (DALI Mentor Menuet speakers £849) | Music Fidelity
They might look as though they were designed in a wind tunnel and yes, Toyota does own a chunk of the company, but no, wind resistance isn't a big issue for desktop hi-fi. The streamline design is all about improving the acoustics, but it doesn't hurt that the end result looks good enough to be stocked in the Apple store. Eclipse active speakers can often be found in recording studios, but the little TD-M1s have been tamed for domestic use with useful features like USB ports, AirPlay and a companion app making them ideal desktop solutions.
For just under £1,000 you get a stereo pair of active speakers joined by a single cable with two USB ports and a DAC built in, so all you need to add is a laptop, or mobile device to get going.
That distinctive design is all about isolating the single drive unit in a rigid enclosure free from standing waves, while dispensing with any kind of front baffle in order to deliver a more convincing soundstage. A slightly rippled rind around the front drive unit actually helps disperse the sound waves subtly and it works beautifully. Placement of the speakers is rather critical, but with your head forming an equilateral triangle in front of speakers that are towed in toward you, the stereo image is so accurate, it feels like you are wearing headphones.
They are also incredibly revealing, which is bad news if you're listening to crummy recordings with loud vinyl crackle, or compressed MP3s, but great for airy orchestral pieces and breathy jazz vocals. The 24bit/192kHz DAC is quite capable of handling high-resolution audio too.
The high price might be a barrier for some, but if you enjoy the clinical and thrilling nature of a pair of highly accurate close-up monitors, these aerodynamic speakers are the bomb.
Best for: Style-conscious sound engineers
£999 | Buy it now from Apple
Monitor Audio AirStream S200
If desk space is at a premium, you won't find another stereo streamer that will give as much bang per square inch as the AirStream S200. While its footprint is no bigger than a CD case, you're actually getting a stereo pair of speakers (one above the other) a subwoofer and 65W amplifier in one sleek unit. There's no remote, but with Bluetooth and AirPlay built in, you'll probably be using mobile devices, or the laptop on your desk to control it anyway.
Like Monitor Audio's other AirStream devices, setup is simplified by connecting your iPhone by USB and letting it configure the wireless settings for you, so in no time, all of your AirPlay devices are connected. DLNA and Bluetooth streaming is also possible from non-Apple products if you don't mind a little audio compression. There's also a USB port for making a wired connection with your device and charging it at the same time.
If the grill were removable, you would see a central gold dome tweeter flanked by two three-inch metal cone bass drivers, which instead of lying flat, are angled to the left and right. It's this arrangement, together with some DSP, that achieves stereo sound from a single cabinet. At the back of the cabinet is a flat ABR (Auxiliary Bass Radiator) to boost the bass.
But does it work? Well, it cannot compete with a pair of separate speakers for stereo imaging and the pseudo subwoofer isn't going to shake the PC off your desk, but it does deliver a surprisingly broad and well-projected performance with a satisfying thump in the bass and plenty of detail.
It's not fussy when it comes to formats and boasts a high resolution DAC capably of playing back 24bit/192kHz FLAC files. It's a pity the USB port cannot be used to load audio files directly, but for the money, this slim system is flexible enough to fit into almost any small room situation.
Best for: Space saving beat music fans
£200 | Monitor Audio
The middle sibling of Samsung's three M Series speakers is just the right size for desk duty, bringing the music on your laptop, or portable device to life through wi-fi, Bluetooth, or a wired connection. The real beauty of these wireless wedge-shaped speakers, is the ease with which they can be linked together using the excellent AllConnect app to provide multiroom music throughout your home, but a single desktop speaker is a good place to start.
Samsung is doing its best to prove that AirPlay isn't the only way to stream music, by kitting the M Series out with both Bluetooth with AptX and DLNA with NFC to ensure linking with other NFC devices is as painless as possible. You can access online streaming services like Spotify and Deezer via the AllConnect app too.
The 34cm wide wedge is easy to accommodate either lying flat, or standing upright. A sensor inside the cabinet automatically sets the DSP so that its set up for either position and getting the speaker onto your home network is made easy by the companion app available for Android and iOS.
Sonically, the Samsung makes quite a splash with a direct-sounding treble and hard-hitting bass that's well calibrated for beat-driven music. If you want a little more refinement, it's easy enough to change the EQ within the app. If you want a real low-end rumble, however, you might prefer to step-up to the larger Samsung M7 speaker.
The glossy metal casing, minimal controls and excellent companion app make this an appealing proposition, especially if you are already considering the multiroom upgrade path offered by the other M Series speakers. But listen before you buy the whole set in case you find the aggressive bass and treble balance a little too much.
Best for: Multiroom music for the smartphone generation
£230 | Samsung
Polk Hampden desktop speakers
Although the Polk Hampdens land at the lower end of price in this category, they're very much holding their own in this company. Like an old-school PC speaker setup, these weighty bookshelf speakers contain their own powered amps, as well as a DSP to smooth out your choppy, streamed audio. With a direct USB input, augmented by apt-X Bluetooth and Aux, there's no shortage of connections, and after the input has been fettled by a 4-channel amplifier it's fired forth from two sets of A1" soft-dome silk/polymer tweeters and a robust 4-1/2" mid-woofer with stiff, lightweight composite polypropylene cones.
The packaging is Apple-quality, but the finish of the enclosures is sadly slightly plastic-y, with the fake veneer making them seem cheaper than they are. However, the audio quality is pleasantly surprising. It's a full, rounded sound, a massive upgrade on the standard Apple monitor outputs. Wind them up and they're far from shabby, retaining high-end clarity and midrange detail at ear-splitting volumes, which they'll deliver with aplomb – you'll need ear defenders to sit in front of these on full chat.
As usual input quality will vary results considerably, but their warmth brings Spotify tracks to life, while studio-FLAC files really sing.
As a thoroughly modern upgrade on the old PC speakers these are definitely worth investigating.
Best for: Genuine stereo upgrade for the basshunter
£349.99 | Buy now from Amazon
Cambridge Audio Minx Xi
The boffins at Cambridge Audio have used their knowledge of hi-fi design to build a shoebox-sized component that can stream music from the web, your phone, or a NAS drive without compromising your sound quality.
There's no optical disc drive here, but with DLNA, Bluetooth and three USB ports, there are plenty of other options. You'll also find four inputs (two analogue and two digital) around the back for hardwiring any other sources you have in mind.
Joining your home network to access internet radio stations and BBC iPlayer radio involves joining your home network and typing in your password using the rotary jog wheel, so it's a little fiddly. But pairing a phone with the Bluetooth dongle that occupies one of the USB ports proved painless and allowed us to use the more intuitive and Cambridge Audio iOS/Android app.
Another nice surprise is the Minx's almost universal format compatibility. AIFF, WAV, FLAC and ALAC high-resolution audio files up to (but not beyond) 24-bit/96kHz are no problem for the audiophile-grade Wolfsen DAC.
An oversized toroidal power transformer and powerful amplifiers add weight not just to the Minx shoebox, but the music too. Add a pair of matching Minx XL speakers and you can fill your whole office with punchy, precise bass and sweet treble. Don't worry, there's also plenty of rich detail at low volume for when your working.
Best for: Hi-fi grade streaming on a budget
£349 (Minx Xl speakers £199) | Buy it now from Richer Sounds
The crisp corners, CD slot and substantial speakers are a familiar form factor, but behind the machined aluminium is a forward-thinking micro with unrivalled streaming skills, thanks to the inclusion of both NFC and AirPlay compatibility. What really sets the Sony aside from the average though, is that High Resolution Audio badge and an ability to play lossless high-resolution audio files.
It's an unfair advantage from the start because instead of being limited to 16-bit recordings on CD, or compressed MP3 files, this system can deal with lossless 24-bit FLAC, ALAC, AIFF and WAV files. So having paid the premium to download some studio master-quality recordings (Chopin Preludes by Ingrid Fliter costs £18 for the 2.5GB FLAC bundle from linnrecords.com) we bathed our ears in 24bit/192kHz sounds. Assisted by the stout SS-HW1 speakers with supertweeters capable of reaching the higher frequencies of high-resolution audio, it's possible to hear a tangible improvement over the regular CD release of this album.
Sadly, the CD player isn't able to read SACDs as well, but you do have a conveniently placed USB port below it for loading a hard drive full of tunes. But for convenience, you cannot beat the one-touch connectivity of NFC. We were able to simply bump our Sony Xperia Z3 with the MAP-S1 to stream sounds from one to the other over Bluetooth.
If the price seems steep, it's because you're getting a very well made micro, with sophisticated speakers and all of the current key features such as NFC and High Resolution Audio playback. If you can make room on your desk for it, this system will plat almost any format loud and crystal clear.
Best for: High-resolution audio geeks
£699 (SS-HW1 speakers £499) | Sony