Unlike iPod and iPhone audio systems, computer speakers—multimedia speakers, to use the more common term—are only occasionally of interest to our editors. There are now hundreds, perhaps thousands of models released every year by companies both big and small, and it’s extremely difficult to draw any big picture, comparative conclusions about a given model’s performance relative to its price. The best one can authoritatively say is that a certain speaker delivers enough apparent cosmetic, sonic, and functional appeal to merit a given price tag.
Altec Lansing’s new Expressionist series multimedia speakers are an obvious effort by the company to move beyond sonic, price, and functional considerations into cosmetic ones. These aren’t the boxy speakers of the past, whether angled to match Mac monitors or blackened to match those of PCs. Expressionist Bass (aka FX3022) is a $130 pair of four-driver speakers that look almost steampunk in design and shape; Expressionist Classic (aka FX2020) is an $80 pair of two-driver speakers that use blocks of transparent plastic to suspend tube-shaped black cans above your desk’s surface. Both of these speakers sound good for their prices; it’s ultimately the styling that’s either going to win you over or turn you off.
We discuss both of these speakers in detail below; click on Read More or this article’s title for the rest of the story.
Let’s start with Expressionist Bass. Here, Altec has picked a winning combination of speaker drivers, pairing a couple of front-firing 1.5” mid and treble speakers with down-firing 4” subwoofer parts. This model borrows from JBL’s bottom-of-woofer ridge design, using chunks of surprisingly translucent smoked black plastic to elevate the otherwise opaque, megaphone-shaped 4” speakers above a flat surface. A circular front and rear interruption in each megaphone, ringed by silver and covered by an X-framed circle of fabric, contains the 1.5” driver. Small volume and power buttons are found on the top of the right speaker, and as with Classic, you get an auxiliary audio cable and block-styled power supply in the box.
Expressionist Classic is cooler in looks, but not on sound. While Altec’s web site shows the roughly 6.25” by 5.25” plastic frames as clear, they were slightly smoke black on our review sample—a small disappointment given that other companies with similar ideas (JBL with the GLA-55s, Lars & Ivan with the BoBos) have used truly clear parts, which better match truly clear glass desks, windows, and of course the acrylics that have previously appeared in Apple products.
This is the only cosmetic issue with an otherwise attractive speaker design. The plasticy silver ring of Expressionist Bass is replaced here with a grooved, oversized ring at the edge of the 6” deep speaker can, which uses a larger version of the X-framed fabric circle to cover this system’s drivers. Volume buttons are found on the top of the right speaker, with a power button unfortunately on the back, along with the power and auxiliary audio ports. Ultimately, the straighter lines of the visible black speaker can here reveal the visual issue some may have with Expressionist Bass, namely, that it tapers in a way that’s visually inconsistent with most displays and computers, particularly the iconic Macs.
Turn both systems on, however, and you’ll certainly notice a difference in sound quality. Thanks to those big, down-firing speakers, Expressionist Bass’s driver array is similar to what we’ve heard in $100-$150 MSRP JBL systems for the past four or five years, offering nice treble, nice bass, and fine mids. By nice, we mean to say that you won’t feel as if you’re hearing frequencies and details you’ve never heard before, but what you will hear is tight, clean sound, with enough bass punch to actually impress given the system’s dedicated subwoofer-less footprint. This is a pair of speakers we’d actually use.
Switch over to Expressionist Classic and the audio isn’t quite as impressive. The treble and the mids are similar to Expressionist Bass’s—here, the mids are stronger and the treble weaker, as one might expect from swapping a 1.5” driver for a 3” one—but the bass is basically gone. It’s not absent in the sense that you’ll wonder where the low-frequency third of your songs went, but rather, you’ll notice it in a “there’s not much bass there” sort of way. Such is the challenge when trying to purpose a 3” driver for full-range purposes; it’s good in the middle and weak at the edges.
It’s our impression that the success of these new speaker systems will come down mostly to two factors: looks and price. And any issues people have with them may come as a result of a mismatch between the way they look and what people might expect from their audio. Altec has created a pair of cool clear speakers that anyone can afford at $80, but equipped them with less stellar audio than many people would hope—and quite possibly pay more—for from such a great design. Conversely, it has created a quartet of solid-sounding drivers for a higher but still reasonable price, then placed them inside of housings that look a bit odd, like less stylish designs JBL might have produced, or possibly passed on, 7 or 8 years ago.
Their value is in the eye of the beholder. If you like the way Expressionist Bass looks, you’ll be pleased by the sound for the price. And if you like the way Expressionist Classic looks, you’ll find the price untouchable by any similar-looking speaker out there, and the audio more than acceptable given the low price tag. Our hope is that Altec will build upon the Expressionist Classic concept for a lineup of future speakers, as it represents the best that the company’s industrial designers have done in a long time; with better drivers, it would certainly find a place on our desks.