Monday, March 8, 2010

Toys for Boys: Gigaworks T40 Series 2

Go Volumen! Helsinki, 2003

I just realized I hadn't been doing my duty as a citizen of the consumer society since Christmas. Apart from food and a couple of comics, I hadn't actually bought a damn thing. I tried to go buy a pair of shoes the other day, since my winter shoes are falling apart at the seams, but just couldn't stand it and left. Then I came home and remembered I had an old pair of winter shoes in the cupboard. I took them out, polished them up, replaced the shoelaces, and now they're good to go for the rest of the winter. Perhaps we won't even have a proper winter next year, so I'll avoid the chore of replacing them altogether.

To fix that, today I made a precision strike to the local electronics hell, and came back with a pair of desktop computer speakers. I had a perfectly good pair, only they'd developed a little hiss in the left one that was just noticeable enough to be annoying when there's nothing playing. I took those to the office, where the A/C covers the hiss. Since I liked everything else about the ones I had before, I stuck with the same brand, only I went one model up. My Creative Gigaworks T20 Series 1's spot on my desk has now been taken by a pair of T40 Series 2's.

Gigaworks is a damn stupid name, if you ask me, but that's what Creative calls their top-range line of 2.0 desktop speakers. They're intended primarily for music. There's no subwoofer. Most are a bit bulky for desktop speakers, and the T40's are the bulkiest of all. They have two midrange drivers and a tweeter; the T20's make do with one driver. They also have something called BassXport, which means a hole at the top that's supposed to make the bass sound better.


When I got the T20's, I was amazed by the quality of sound that came out of something that's so small and so cheap. I paid maybe 60 euros or so for the T20's, and a bit over 100 for the T40's. There's just one major qualifier: they sound fantastic as long as you're sitting between them at the computer. Get up and take a few steps, and the sound immediately goes muddy. They're very directional. I'm sure that's a conscious trade-off. In other words, if you want something to fill the room with ambient sound, there's probably something better suited for it out there, even in this very low price range.

With that caveat, the T40's sound fantastic. They're crisp and very precise, the stereo image they create is very vivid, and even small nuances come through beautifully. The sound is also surprisingly rich and full for something this small. I mostly listen to "small band" music – singer-songwriters like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, or Jacques Brel, Latin stuff like Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Cesaria Evora, or solo or chamber music such as Glenn Gould playing Bach, which is on right now. (He could stop humming.) The speakers handle all of this really well – this music is every bit as enjoyable this way as sitting on the couch listening to it through my "real" stereo.

However, there is music that's just too much for these little things to handle. I tried listening to the first movement of Bruckner's sixth, and that didn't go so well. A full symphony orchestra opening up is a lot to handle, both dynamically and in terms of frequency range, and where the "smaller" music just sounds like music, that sounded like Bruckner's sixth playing on too small speakers. Magnificent music, but that was in spite of the speakers rather than because of them. I wouldn't expect Phil Spector's stuff to sound that hot over them either.

But then again, I only listen to stuff like that maybe once a year, and then not at my computer. And I don't even like Phil Spector.

So, how do they compare to the T20's? Well, they're similar. Whether they're worth the 50% markup is debatable. They're certainly not 50% better; more like 10 to 20% better. The biggest difference is that I have to turn the T20's up about 3/4 of the way before they open up, whereas the T40's sound good even at low volume. Other than that, they sound maybe just a hair "bigger." The physical design is also somewhat improved from Series 1 -- these don't fall over as easily as the T20's, the over-bright blue LED has been replaced with a more discreet blue ring around the volume/power dial, and there's a port for Creative's iPod dock at the back. I liked the gray metallic finish of the Series 1's better than the glossy black with tiny blue flecks finish of the Series 2, which looks maybe just this side of garish. Not obnoxious or anything, just not as classy.

The bottom line? Both Gigaworks speakers I've used are really, really good for the price. They're way better than any comparably priced 5+1 setup (unless your main criterion of quality is bass that kicks you in the nuts), and come this close to a real hi-fi listening experience, as long as your ass stays on the chair. Whether the T40's are worth the extra cost and size is a matter of opinion. Then again, in absolute terms, neither of these is expensive at all. I don't know if they're all this good, but I doubt there's all that much out there that's much better anywhere near this price. The T40's are perhaps just punchy enough that they might be worth considering for a cheap home theater setup -- they're certainly miles better than the built-in speakers on most TV's, and if you can figure out a way to hook them up, a couple of pairs might make for quite decent satellites. It's amazing how far this stuff has come.

And actually Glenn Gould hums pretty well.

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