A Little Night Music

Review samples traipse through my 5.1-channel home theater system in a constant procession. A smaller number get hooked up to my 2.1-channel desktop system. But very few make it into the bedroom to serve me before I drift off to sleep. A speaker named The ONE, from a company named Audience, is one of the rare exceptions. What follows is not an orthodox review. It's just a story about how a distinctive product was able to fit briefly into my life.

The ONE sells for $995/pair and comes in blue, red, white, or black. It is an unusual speaker. Most speakers of its size—about seven inches in height—use a two-way design with a tweeter and woofer receiving frequencies divided by a crossover. The ONE prides itself on using a single full-range driver (hence the name) to eliminate the crossover. According to the manufacturer this eliminates the ills of "sonically dissimilar drivers, phase distortions, lack of resolution, and transient response degradation." It prevents the signal from having to pass through sound-altering crossover circuitry and couples the amp directly to the driver's voice coil, improving control over the driver.

The ONE is seven inches tall. With their softened edges and cobalt blue finish, the review samples looked fetching. Seen from the side, the enclosure is a trapezoid, which may prevent standing waves from bouncing between the nonparallel front and back sides. On the front, beneath a fabric grille, is a three-inch titanium alloy driver. On the back is a four-inch polymer-coated paper passive radiator and plastic-nut binding posts. The fit and finish of this made-in-the-U.S.A. product are excellent. In addition to four loudspeaker models, of which The ONE is smallest, the company also makes cables and powerline conditioners.

This product has limitations. The manual cautions: "It is important to remember that The ONE is a single 3" driver and cannot play at very loud volumes in rooms without causing damage to the speaker. For close field desk to use this is not a concern. However for 'in room' applications a subwoofer is required..." While this doesn't rule out home theater use, the manufacturer qualifies that to rooms "where space is at a premium." Power requirements are modest. As little as five watts will make these things go. But maximum power handling is somewhere between 25 watts (according to the website) and 50 watts (according to the printed manual).

This suggested use with low-wattage amps. My Peachtree Decco2 desktop amp qualified, at 40 watts per channel, and for a few weeks I used the ONE to play FLAC and MP3 files from a PC, with a Meridian Explorer USB DAC, and CDs with a Rotel Red Book CD player. A Pinnacle Baby Boomer sub (permanently located beneath my desk) firmed up the bass. But even after break-in, I found the speakers uncomfortably bright, especially when I was sitting in my desk chair. This seemed odd because the Decco2 is, if anything, a mellow amp, with that sweet little tube in its preamp section. Was The ONE's tweeterless design trying too hard to assert its top end? When I moved to my armchair, a few feet farther back, the tonal balance improved, but the ONE was still more fatiguing than the Decco2's usual mates, a pair of Era Design 4 speakers.

The story might have ended there. But while I found The ONE fatiguing for foreground listening, its low-level resolution was excellent for background listening, especially in the armchair. I wondered what would happen if I used it in another setting involving low levels and a distance of several feet between the speakers and my ears. There is such a setting in my home: the bedroom.

I've told this story before but here's a brief recap. I have chronic insomnia and can sleep only with a combination of strong meds. When the meds began to lose their potency, I upped the dosages, but didn't want to keep upping them till my liver exploded. I found two ways to boost the effectiveness of the meds without taking more of them: Install a blackout curtain—it works best if you banish all forms of in-room electronic light pollution—and play slow, hypnotic music. With the elephant tranquilizers, pitch darkness, and lulling music, my conscious mind relaxes its grip and lets the unconscious mind come out to play. With this regimen, I sleep well most nights, and my dream life has returned, becoming rich and meaningful.

An Altec Lansing docking system has administered my nighttime music fix since 2007. When the review sample developed a buzz after five years of daily use, I even bought two more of them, and they still serve the purpose. But as I stared at The ONE sitting on my desk, I couldn't help wondering how it would fare at night, doing what it does best: playing intelligibly at a low volume.

Curiosity overcame me. I installed The ONEs at the edge of the pine dresser I've had since I was a toddler, reversing the pedestal wedges to aim them downward toward the bed. Yes, they were awfully close together, reducing stereo separation to virtually nil, but this positioning enabled them to fire more or less directly at my head on the pillow.

To power them I pulled my Sonic Impact Super T amp out of mothballs. The T stands for Tripath, maker of the TA2024 chip on which this Class D amp is based. The Sonic Impact is rated at 15 watts per channel though in practice it clips at 5.5 watts. No matter. That was more than enough to power The ONE at a low volume, and I need my bedtime system to whisper, not scream.

A few practical hurdles presented themselves. The amp has only stereo RCA inputs (no dock or Bluetooth) and the highest-qualilty RCA-to-mini-plug cables in my collection were too stiff to allow my iPod nano and Sandisk Sansa players to sit exactly where I needed them behind the speakers. I resorted to a flimsier but more flexible generic cable. Then there was the amp's blinding blue LED. It's bright enough to put out your eye. I jerry-rigged a panel of duct tape in multiple layers and fastened it around the amp with one of those big rubber bands the postal service uses to bundle my mail. The persistent blue light still streamed out of the back ventilation holes, but the overall light level was down by 90 percent and that seemed enough for a temporary installation.

So: Were the Audience speakers an improvement over the Altec Lansing system I've relied on for so long? The ONE, even powered by the cheap chip amp, offered a more zingy top end and better overall resolution. I could hear musical details better and was able to get along with lower (and thus more neighbor-friendly) volumes for my dead-of-night listening. The Altec, in contrast, had a pleasingly darker lower midrange and more weight in the midbass, despite its shallower enclosure.

By day, another member of the household sprawled out on the bed streaming video and audio from an iPad mini with a longer interconnect reaching the amp. The combination of The One and the Super T was declared a great success. They could make dialogue distinct even when a fan was loudly whooshing a few feet away during the oppressively humid demo period. And when they weren't running, the speakers were beautiful perched on the dresser with the amp nestling between them. My bedroom system certainly has never looked better.

As I said from the outset, this is a story, not an orthodox speaker review. It doesn't purport to be the ultimate statement about this product's performance. But if it fires your curiosity, you can order The One directly from the manufacturer, try it for 30 days, and get a refund if you're not satisfied. It's also sold through some of the company's 100 U.S. dealers. Only foreign dealers are listed on the company website, but you can find a U.S. dealer near you by email request. See the Audience-AV.com website for product details and dealer information.