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Desktop audio is often considered a dirty term in hi-fi circles. The usual desktop set-up will see a pair of active computer speakers sitting either side of a computer, taking their input direct from a computer’s headphone socket — which is about as dirty as audio gets. Add in some cheap plastic speaker construction and the even cheaper Chinese drivers used by many known-brand companies in their “computer accessory” speakers, and really, they may make your music louder than the computer’s own speaker, but they certainly won’t make it better.

Things have changed recently. We have seen what amounts to a revolution in computer-based music, with iPods, iPhones and iTunes leading the charge. The escape path for high-quality audio is the humble USB socket. Attach the right equipment, and you can bypass all your computer’s grungy audio circuits and pull a much cleaner digital signal from the USB socket.

You need three main things to make music from the USB output. You’ll need a DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) to change the digital file into an audio signal. You’ll need an amplifier. And of course you’ll need loudspeakers.

Well here’s handy — the AktiMate Micro speakers contain all three elements. They have their own internal DAC, and 40W of amplification to feed the speakers. And while they may be made in China under careful quality control, these are no cheapies, but a properly considered hi-fi speaker design.

So in their simplest implementation, they need only mains power to the one speaker, their USB input, and the speaker cable link between the mini binding posts of the two speakers. Turn them on, make sure your computer recognises them so you can choose them as your sound output under Control Panel/Sound (PC) or System Preferences/Sound (Mac), and you’re off. You can control their volume either from the computer (ideally you should keep this level relatively high) or using the volume control on the bottom right of the master (left) speaker, which will be well positioned to reach in any normal set-up.

But there are other input options available to you than just the USB socket. There’s a minijack input on the back of the master speaker, so you can connect pretty much any source, smartphone, non-Apple music player etc., through that.

On the top, meanwhile, is an iPod/iPhone dock, with a neatly hinged flap to cover it when not in use. This dock will not only charge your iDevice as it plays, it also takes the music out digitally, not in analogue form. Until just a few years ago, such digital docks were heinously expensive and available only from high-end digital companies like Meridian and Wadia that had a special arrangement with Apple. Now here you can bypass the built-to-a-price internal DAC and audio circuits inside your iPod, and instead enjoy the AktiMate’s superior treatment.  

To select between these three choices of input, there’s an input selector on the bottom left of the master speaker.

So, with these 24cm-high Micros perched in sexy red on the table alongside our Mac of choice, we fired up our test folder of favourite tracks, first from a third-gen iPod nano docked atop the master speaker, and secondly via a direct USB connection with the Mac Mini running iTunes and VLC.

Longterm readers may recall our great love for the larger $599 AktiMate Minis (which have just been revised in a ‘+’ form). The Minis became instantly legendary for their huge punchy sound with real hi-fi credentials. And blow us down if the Micros don’t deliver much of the same. It’s on a slightly smaller scale, as expected from the smaller cabinets, but you still get a real hi-fi soundstage between the speakers, an excellent balance between a rich and pumping low-end, a lovely living midrange and an open treble. The combination works across all musical types, even making for big open classical landscapes, while rock and pop are delivered bright and bouncy and begging for you to turn them up. And the Micros don’t mind you turning it up.

If you know the sound of the AktiMate Minis, this is obviously slightly smaller, the dome tweeters here are perhaps slightly less incisive and sky-blue open, and obviously the bass can’t plumb quite the depths and power that can kick from those larger cabinets and higher amplification.

But given you’ll likely be sitting near-field in a desktop situation with the Micros, closer than you probably would be with the Minis, some of that size of sound is retrieved, and we reckon the Micros’ sock-it-to-me sound is still likely to bring massive pleasure to listeners of all breeds.

Our sister magazine Sound+Image slapped the Micros with a Desktop Audio Award within weeks of their arrival, and we’re not arguing with them. These are stunners.