Semi High-End Portable Audio

May 14, 2011

Faced with the prospect of at least five months on the road with nothing but my iPod with a set of in ear ‘phones and the mono speaker on my netbook to keep me company, I started looking for an alternative. Music matters!

A set of tiny unpowered speakers wasn’t going to cut it because most of them sound dire (quietly dire I guess as the majority can’t raise enough volume to scare a timid mouse). Powered computer speakers would be too big and clunky and the thought of dealing with more cables was enough to put me off the idea for good. Then I remembered one of Ken Kessler’s columns in Hi-Fi News, where he mentioned a Yamaha portable speaker that actually sounded good. A quick look on the Net led me to the NX-U10 USB powered speaker, which seemed to be just the job, so I grabbed one in a hurry.

The NX-U10 is an interesting device, it weighs only 500 grams or so, looks good, is well built and offers a number of cool features. It’s powered by a computer’s USB port, or it can be run from the supplied USB wall wart or run on four AA batteries. There’s a fold out stand round back that hides the USB port and serves as a battery cover. The NX-U10 is also a USB DAC, taking a digital signal from the computer. It interfaced in moments with my Mac or Win7 computers without driver installation. There’s even a 3.5mm jack for non USB sources like cellphones or portable media players. It comes with the USB cable, 3.5mm – 3.5mm cable and a neat carry bag.

Yamaha claims this unit can pump out 10w per channel, which is heaps for a USB powered device, in fact the boffins at Yamaha reckon this is 20x more than most USB powered speakers, which are generally only up for half a watt or so of power. This apparent miracle is due to a PowerStorage Circuit, which “stores unused electric power and supplies only enough to match the music level”. The maximum rated dynamic power is 6w a side, with 10w available for “instantaneous use”.

Be that as it may, the NX-U10 manages to generate volume levels that are normally the province of powered speakers and it sounds dramatically better than the tinny little speaker in my netbook and way better than the speakers in my MacBook Pro. Placed at the front of the room, it makes satisfying sounds and has no trouble creating a big presence that sounds far bigger than the little unit has any right to sound. Despite the presence of a SR Bass system (Swing Radiator), there’s not much low bass; to be frank I wasn’t expecting much given that the whole speaker system measures 248 x 100 x 33 mm but what bass there is sounds good to me. The frequency range is quoted as 90Hz – 20kHz but who knows how many dB down that is at the low end.

For something this small, the NX-U10 is a bit of an audio tardis – much bigger on the inside than seems possible from the outside dimensions. I can’t really think of another option that sounds this good, is as simple to set up and drive (one cable) and is this small. The only rub is the price – local dealers have it priced at $249, which is a fat stack for a portable speaker system, even one this good. A bit of a luxury then but worth it if you’re really not keen on being without some kind of music system while you’re travelling.

The NX-U10 seems to be a discontinued product but stock is still available in NZ.

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