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One way to have music everywhere you go is with a laptop computer. The only problem is that laptops’ tiny speakers are embarrassingly inadequate for listening to music. This is fine in a coffeehouse or café, where most people use headphones of some sort to respect the privacy of others, but it’s not fine if you’re on a picnic and there are no other laptops around. Or perhaps you’re stuck in a motel room overnight and just can’t watch another TV show. In such situations, you need speakers.
But decent-size rechargeable speakers can be too heavy and cumbersome to be easily portable, and they must be plugged into an AC outlet and charged. UltraLink’s new UFi UCube speakers ($149.95 USD per pair) provide a good solution: They plug into and play through a USB connection -- no AC outlet needed! The host computer will provide the necessary power. The UCubes are small, weigh very little, and easily fit into an overnight bag or medium-size camera bag.
They are also just so darned cute and stylish. Fastened to the included stands, they stared up at me like Pixar’s Luxo Jr. I almost expected them to speak on their own.
What’s in the box?
UFi’s extremely well-designed presentation box measures 11" x 9" x 6." It contains two UCube speakers, two stands, a USB cord to plug into your computer, a heavy-duty patch cord with male RCA connectors at each end to link the speakers, a quick-start user guide, and a promo sheet depicting UCubes in the four colors available: black, silver, red, and white, each as cute and cool as the others. Each speaker is a 3.25" cube of hard plastic with a metal grille protecting a single flat-diaphragm Balanced Mode Radiator (BMR) driver. All corners are rounded, which helps make the speaker more modern-looking, and keeps it from catching on clothing in an overnight bag.
The stands are of brushed aluminum, 4"W x 4"D x 2.75"H, and quickly and easily fasten to the speakers with the thumbscrews provided. On its stand, the UCube is 6"H. The bottoms of both speaker and stand have feet -- you can use each without scratching the furniture.
UltraLink specifies a sensitivity of 83dB/W/m and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. Each speaker is powered by what the company says is a 15W class-D amplifier, and its single BMR driver is equalized via DSP for best sound quality. On their own, the UCubes weigh 13.6 ounces (left) and 11.8 ounces (right); with stands, the weights are just slightly over 16 ounces (L) and 14.5 ounces (R). Though light, both speaker and stand have an A+ feel of solid build to them. I didn’t try it, but I had the feeling I could drop one and it would survive.
Connection and setup
Connecting the UCubes was every bit as easy as UltraLink’s quick-start guide says it is: Plug one end of the USB cord into the jack on the back of the left speaker, and its other end into your computer. Plug the patch cord into the jacks on both speakers. Choose the UCubes as the output device for your computer (no drivers are needed), and that’s it. The process differs slightly for Mac OS X, Windows XP, and Windows 7, but brief, clear directions are given in the startup guide for each type of installation. My PC, running Windows 7, defaulted to the UFis without my having to go through setup at all (though I did have to go through it to reassign my regular computer speakers when my listening was done).
Though the UCubes worked without their stands, they performed far better with them, and that’s how I did the rest of my listening. The UCubes had plenty of acoustic output for my needs. Their circuitry saves power during quieter passages so that it will have enough for louder ones. According to UltraLink, its special mounting gives the BMR driver the ability to disperse sound through an arc of 170 degrees. That seemed to be true -- with the speakers placed 2’ apart, to either side of my computer’s keyboard, and with me seated a little over a foot away, the UCubes produced excellent soundstage coverage without the sound seeming to Ping-Pong between them. There was no center hole -- the little UFis did an amazing job of creating a three-dimensional soundfield.
When I played Enrique Bátiz’s recording of José P. Moncayo García’s fiery Huapango (CD, Naxos 8.550838), the Festival Orchestra of Mexico was spread from side to side, the upper strings on the left and the lower ones on the right. Woodwinds were dead center, and brass and the percussion behind the winds were spread from left to right. With this recording and all others I played, the UFis displayed their greatest strengths: transparency, and extremely accurate and clean mid-frequency definition. The UCubes are claimed by UFi to have a frequency response of 100Hz-18kHz, +/-6dB. It was no surprise that the highs sounded a bit rolled off, or that there was no furniture-rattling bass.
The UCubes excelled with recordings of solo piano and solo guitar, accurately conveying each attack with realistic tone. They were merely OK with jazz, depending on how much bass the recording contained; likewise with rock. But with regular computer programming -- YouTube, news, and interview shows -- they demonstrated an outstanding ability to convey human voices with accuracy and presence.
I tried the UCubes with a desktop computer (I don’t own a laptop). Normally connected to my PC is a Logitech X-230 speaker system, which has dual drivers and a ported subwoofer. I far preferred the midrange sound of the UCubes to that of the Logitechs, but of course the latter had focused, pounding bass with which the little UFis could not compete.
My point here is that though the UCubes will work with a home computer, they are most at home when connected to a laptop on the go. In this application they’re easy to transport, a snap to connect, draw no power from the AC outlet that you might not be able to find anyway, and will surely deliver better sound than your laptop’s own speakers. Nor do you have to remember to plug them in and charge them up so they’ll be ready when you need them -- the UCubes are always ready to rock. They’d be a solid addition to and extension of any laptop. And they’re just so cute and stylish!
. . . Rad Bennett
- Logitech X-230 computer speaker system
- HP Pavilion desktop computer
UltraLink UFi UCube Compact USB Loudspeakers
Price: $149.95 USD per pair.
Warranty: One year, limited.
UltraLink/XLO Products, Inc.
Ontario, CA 91761
Phone: (909) 947-8960