As we move to thinner TVs and computers, one of the nagging problems is that the audio quality that can be produced from these spindly systems is lacking. We’ve seen numerous companies come out with answers to the problem, so when Orb Audio updated its Mini-T system, my curiosity was piqued.
You might remember the Orb Audio name from our review of the company’s system called The People’s Choice. The Mini-T uses the same, spherical speakers, as well as the same subwoofer, but it pairs them with the namesake amplifier which has been updated from its previous version. The idea is that, instead of dealing with crummy audio from your computer or flat-screen TV, you can hook up a small 2.0 or 2.1 audio system to bring things back to how they should sound.
It’s first worth noting that, as I alluded to before, the Mini-T amp isn’t a new product for Orb. The previous version was battery or AC powered, had a rather nondescript case and lacked an output for a subwoofer. Orb says that there’s also an improved signal path, larger wire connectors and the cabinet has been updated to gloss black.
Across the back of the device you’ll find only two sets of speaker outputs, as well as the subwoofer out, a stereo input and an AC power plug. Though these offerings are somewhat spartan by today’s standards, it’s worth noting that this isn’t intended to be a home theater system so simplicity is perhaps a key offering.
By itself, the Mini-T amplifier will run $69. Pair it with a high quality set of speakers and it sounds rather fantastic. Each channel gets powered by 15 watts, save for the subwoofer which is signal only and intended to be used with self-powered subs. Combine the Mini-T with a pair of Orbs and the system price goes up to $299, which is about $60 less than buying the components separately.
The speakers look fantastic, which is what I’d expect considering that they’re the same Orbs that are included with every one of the company’s system. The Mini-T amplifier is nondescript, but I suppose that’s not such a bad thing. But really, none of this matters without talking about the sound, so let’s move that direction.
The difficulty that Orb has to face with the Mini-T system is in how it is billed. The company touts it as a supplement to your “computer, iPod or TV”. While it definitely will sound better than your computer’s built-in speakers, there’s a problem with taking a system that’s designed to fill a room and putting it in your face on the desktop.
Just as near-field monitors sound like utter crap in a large room, the Mini-T system is plagued by being a large-room system used at close range. While I was generally very happy with the sound that my demo system (the amplifier, 2 Orbs and a 10-inch subwoofer) provided on the TV or when hooked up to my iPhone, I was positively disappointed when using the system on a desktop.
Orb uses a bit of audio engineering magic to create great sound. The Orb speakers, no matter how much you drive them, will absolutely not present low end frequencies. They’re not designed to do so, and Orbs subwoofers do a great job of filling in the bottom end. But when the Orbs are within a couple feet of you, as they will tend to be in a desktop environment, the sound doesn’t have the proper space in which to blend. So what you end up hearing is amplified mid and high-range frequencies with a disjointed subwoofer.
If you want room-filling, spacious sound, Orb can do it in spades. But when you’re on a computer that’s generally not going to be your focus, and I was left seriously wanting for quality systems by Logitech or Klipsch that I’ve heard and loved for years. To top it off, adding the Super 8 subwoofer tacks on another $299 to my price tag, so I ended up reviewing a $600 system of “computer speakers” that didn’t sound half as good as what I’ve heard from systems that cost 1/3 as much.
That’s not to say that Orb’s Mini-T system is without its merits. Again, if you’re hooking it up to your TV or using it in a corner of a large room to amplify an MP3 player you’re going to love what the Mini-T can do. Large rooms are where the system shines because the audio has time and space to meld into a cohesive experience. At close range, the Mini-T is lackluster at best.
Orb’s system is beautiful. There’s no denying the craftsmanship and the quality of what the company produces. But there are other systems on the market that are better suited to boosting the sound on your desktop. The problem at hand is one of marketing, and it’s an easy fix.
Orb should probably shift its focus away from the computer and more into the market of people who are buying midrange soundbars for TV. I can’t even really recommend that they continue a focus on portable audio products because there are spectacular docks for iPhone and Android devices that sound amazing and have features like remote controls that the Mini-T can’t accomodate. For one such example, take a look at the Model M from Geneva.
The other problem at hand is that Orb’s system isn’t designed around a desktop environment. As such, it’s heavy on the wiring. Many higher-end desktop speakers include audio controls in the speaker pod to cut down on extraneous wiring, but the detached, 3 or 4-component system from Orb needs speaker wire, subwoofer cabling and power adapters to all run separately. The stock pictures make it look promising:
The reality, unfortunately, is considerably more messy and not exactly in line with the promise:
All said, Orb’s audio quality is still top of the line, but it needs to be used in the way that it is intended. Place these lovely spheres on either side of your TV, hook up a subwoofer and you’ll enjoy fantastic sound at a price that’s competitive to higher-end soundbars with subwoofers. Put them in the corner of a room and let them help you dance the night away. But please, for your sake and the sake of a company that’s doing truly great things, just keep them off your desktop.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.