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The Ultimate Desktop Sound System, Here and Now

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- High-quality audio has taken a back seat to high-definition video in recent years.

There are dozens of reasons for this phenomenon ranging from the sound of early digital recordings and CDs to the infusion of electronic sounds and recording techniques and, most recently, the popularity of terrible sounding music files made popular by iPods and iTunes.

If you think I'm being harsh just remember how Apple  (AAPL) spent years marketing the iPod - by touting the thousands of your songs an iPod can hold. They stressed quantity over quality.

So, society has created at least one - and possibly more generations who've been taught that music sounds overly-compressed, overly-modulated, and basically one-dimensional. As for live stuff add sky-high ticket prices for live concerts and you have the explanation for the current state of the music business..

It's somewhat odd because the same people who run out to buy the latest in HD and 4K video technology think nothing is wrong with listening to music through horrid sounding little white ear plugs

But, there is hope. Very quietly (pun intended) over the past decade or so some very smart people have been working to make digital music sound better. People like digital pioneer Gordon Rankin who holds patents on circuit design, musician/composer David Chesky who had the forethought to begin selling super-high-resolution music on HDtracks.com and Websites such as Computer Audiophile and AudioStream along with other pioneers of the technology.

Most people listen to music files through their computer so the logically, that's were we need to focus our attention. In the 21st century hi-fi is literally moving to the desktop.

Listening to music through the circuitry and tiny speakers in your computer is the low point of the music food chain. It's the worst possible way to listen (right after those cheap ear plugs anyway.)

First step up would be to plug in a pair of external speakers into the earphone jack. Sound quality is better but you're still dependent on your computer's sound card. Powered speakers aren't necessarily much better.

So, the proper way to do this is have an external DAC (digita-to-analog converter) rather than depending on the 20-cent music chip built into your computer), a high-quality amplifier and a great pair of small speakers. I believe I've found the ultimate combination.

Let's begin with the speakers. I've heard many in my lifetime but few as small or as good as the Audience ClairAudent "The ONE". Don't be fooled by its diminutive size (7 by 7 by 5.5 inches and only 4 pounds each). These are incredible devices. They should be. They sell for $995/pair.

Inside there's a 3-inch, full-range driver facing forward and a passive radiator on the back. The same little speaker driver (actually 16 of them per channel) has been used on the company's cost-no-object floor-standing system costing $72K).

Even one little Audience speaker driver is capable of reproducing nearly everything from the highest highs to surprisingly deep bass. No, not the low-frequency sound of an earthquake but ridiculously low musical notes really do come from inside this tiny enclosure.

The ONEs sound clear and clean and have an amazing range. Being a single-driver design imparts little coloration. The combination of one full-range driver in a small box makes the sounds more three-dimensionally pleasing than almost everything else I've ever listened to.

I've even tried The ONEs on speakers stands in my main listening room. They are incredible. Actually they sound strangely similar to my prized Quad 57 electrostatic speakers (circa 1963) considered by some as the best sounding speaker ever made. I know that's not using them as designed for the desktop but you should know they can be used as your main speaker system in a small room too.

Audience sells small stands ($75/pair) which allow the speakers to be aimed at your ears. I can also recommend the matching speaker cables ($199/3-ft pair and $249 for 5-ft pair).

The ONEs are somewhat delicate when it comes to amplifier power. Although they can play might loud there is a limit. Rated at only 25-watts you need to choose a matching amplifier wisely. I'm happy I found the Nu Force DDA-100.

The DDA-100 is both a 50 watt/channel stereo amplifier it also has a built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converter) . That means you can plug in your computer (via USB, optical or coaxial connection) and your speakers and you're set. If you don't turn up the amp past "11" it shouldn't harm the ONE speakers.

On the computer end you need good music playback software. You can use iTunes if you'd like but better sound quality can be obtained by using dedicated software from J-River (for Windows, Mac and soon Linux) or a number of other popular programs.

The Nu Force amp is capable of handling high-resolution digital music files up to 24/96 (USB and optical) and 24/192 through the coaxial connection. The only control is the front-mounted dial which you turn up or down for volume changes or press to cycle through the available inputs. There is also a tiny remote control included to handle all those chores from across the desk or across the room.

The DDA-100 has won awards for both it's sound and design and the critics were absolutely right. The amplifier is easy to use and sound quality is fantastic. I've tried it with speakers other than The ONE and it sounds great there too.

Nu Force is currently asking $549 for the DDA-100.

So, to recap, $995 for the Audience The ONE speakers, $75 for the speaker stands, at least $200 for the speaker cables, $549 for the amp, playback software (J-River is $50) and a high-quality USB, optical or coaxial cable from the computer to the amp (anywhere from $10 and up). It's a big investment for a desktop system - but you will be the envy of anyone and everyone nearby.

It should also sound amazingly to you too.

Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

To submit a news tip, send an email to tips@thestreet.com.

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