Speaker systems designed for desktop use are getting awfully good. With listening environments migrating from traditional media rooms to home offices and just about anywhere else, they’d better be. Recent offerings I’ve heard from Audioengine, PSB, and Definitive Technology have exceeded my expectations for the category by a large margin. These systems also have the advantage of being fairly affordable: PSB’s Alpha PS1 speakers and SubSeries 100 subwoofer combo, for example, can be had for under $500.
High Resolution Audio Technologies’ STAGE is an effort by an established high-end audio manufacturer to break the mold and create not just a good, but a no-compromise speaker system for the desktop.
At $699, it’s more expensive than other desktop speaker systems I’ve checked out. But then again, HRT had a very different out. goal with STAGE: To provide a system that’s equally at home on the desktop and on stands when used as a regular pair of monitor speakers in a media room.
The STAGE system consists of a pair of speakers combined with a compact control center that bundles a 96/24-capable asynchronous USB DAC, preamp, and 2 x 70-watt analog amp. The STAGE speakers have sleek, extremely solid injection-molded cabinets that are sloped slightly upwards to direct sound toward the listener’s ears when situated on a desktop. A two-way design, STAGE speakers have a 1-inch tweeter and three 2.75-inch woofers. The STAGE control center, a compact box designed for convenient under-desktop placement, has a stereo analog input along with its USB port and features a digitally controlled analog volume adjustment. There’s also a subwoofer output (HRT apparently has a companion sub for STAGE in the works).The front panel provides LED indicators to show which input and sampling rate is currently selected, and it also has control buttons to adjust volume, input select, and mute.
HRT’s remote control for the STAGE system is a tiny, minimalist thing, but it gets the job done. Buttons are provided for volume, mute, and input select. Perhaps my only complaint about the remote is that it’s so small, I regularly misplaced it.
Before I even set up the STAGE system in my office, I used it as a regular stereo rig in a medium-size (12 x 15-foot) room flanking a 60-inch TV. I connected my Macbook Pro to the control center’s USB port for high-res and other digital music playback, and then ran cables from the set’s analog output jacks to the control center’s stereo input for TV sound.
When used in standalone mode with no computer attached, the control center requires not just AC power, but a connection from a powered USB hub to operate. This initially created some confusion for me. “Plugged in. Why not work?” But then I went and read the manual, where I found the system’s power-up requirements clearly spelled out.
With a computer connected to the STAGE, it runs in host mode, with power from the computer’s USB link initiating turn-on (no powered USB hub connection required). If you’re using a Mac, the only configuration required is to select STAGE in the Sound control panel and 96kHz/2-channel/24-bit in the Audio Midi Setup utility. Setup options for PCs will depend on which version of Windows you’re running.
HRT also sent the UF-24 speaker stands ($150 a pair) for me to use during my test. These compact, heavy-duty stands are made of cast iron and steel and include both adjustable spikes and dimpled discs for setup on carpets or wood floors.
On the Stands
After breaking the system in for a few weeks with TV/movie sound and Rdio music streams, I got down to serious business with STAGE. Plugging in my laptop, the first cut I checked out was a high-res rip of “From Dawn Till Noon on the Sea,” from Debussy: La Mer (Living Stereo SACD; Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony).
Right off, I could tell that the STAGE’s sound had a sense of ease and air that you don’t typically hear from audio systems designed for desktop use. Strings and woodwinds were clear and unstrained even at relatively high volumes. Violin solos sounded sweet, not edgy. And when the movement’s first major crescendo approached about 5 minutes in, the swell of timpani was impressively solid and full.
Moving on to the 1970s, I played a 96/24 HDtracks download of Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die. On the joyous jazz/blues jam “Glad,” I heard a clear sense of space and separation between the Hammond organ, piano, saxophone, and drums. In the track’s second half, where things quiet down and get pensive, Jim Capaldi’s ride cymbal had a lively sizzle, and the presentation of other percussion instruments was equally crisp and dynamic.
Listening to an electronic track, “Elliptic” from the new Vessels album Dilate (The Leaf Label), I found the STAGE ably conveyed the song’s lush, atmospheric quality as well as its aggressive bass and beats. For such a compact system, the presentation was huge: wide, immersive, and unrestrained.
On the Desk
When I moved the speakers and control center over to my smaller office room and placed them on a desktop, bass sounded a bit less deep, but the STAGE definitely conveyed an intense nearfield listening experience. Listening once again to “Elliptic,” that track’s fine synth layers were well-defined, and the immersive quality I experienced with the speakers on stands seemed even more complete.
Using smartly designed desktop speakers with tweeters at ear-level also made a big difference with imaging. Listening to “Victor Jara’s Hands,” from Calexico’s Carried to Dust (Quarterstick), I experienced very accurate scaling of the soundstage to desktop proportions. Vocals in this track also sounded very natural and smooth, as did the bursts of brass instruments during the chorus.
The STAGE system from High Resolution Technologies is a compact, versatile, high-performance speaker system that’s equally at home on a desktop or freestanding on stands. With a built-in 96/24 Asynchronous DAC, it’s ready out of the box for high-res audio. But even though it excelled at high-res playback, STAGE also served as a great all-around multimedia audio solution.
With the system hooked up to my TV, movie soundtracks and Xbox games had a full, satisfying presentation — certainly a significant upgrade over many soundbars. If you’re looking for an all-in-one desktop speaker system that goes the extra mile and then some, the HRAC Approved STAGE is it.