These days, most people store their music on a computer or mobile device, rather than on packaged media. That's if they store it at all. Instead of locally stored music libraries, more and more listeners are getting their music from streaming services. Music is changing, and music systems are changing right along with it. This Monitor Audio system is a case in point.
Available in gloss black, white and walnut finishes, the Radius 90 (CDN$629 per pair) is a conventional-looking mini loudspeaker. But it incorporates some interesting technology. The 4" mid-woofer employs a C-CAM (Ceramic-Coated Aluminum/Magnesium) concave cone originally developed for Monitor Audio's range-topping Platinum series. It has now trickled down to the company's entry-level Radius lineup. The 1" C-CAM gold dome tweeter has followed a similar trajectory. Both drivers are bolted through to the back of the rear-vented enclosure, forming a very rigid stricture.
These are very attractive speakers, with beautifully finished cabinets. Both drivers are protected behind mesh grille. The gold dome tweeter is just visible behind the mesh, creating an elegant look.
With its unusual arched shape, the AirStream A100 amplifier (CDN$549) looks anything but conventional. You can lay it flat, or use it vertically in the supplied base. It's a Class AB design, with rated power of 2x50 watts. The "AirStream" name is well chosen, because the A100 has built-in Wi-Fi, and support for Apple AirPlay, allowing you to stream music from iOS devices and from iTunes libraries on PCs and Macs. The A100 is DLNA- compliant, so you can stream music from devices that support that protocol. It also has analog (two RCA jacks) and optical digital inputs on the back panel, along with locking speaker connectors. But there's no headphone output, and no USB input for playing music from a computer, mobile device or portable drive.
There is a USB port on the front panel, but that's for charging connected devices, and for transferring Wi-Fi settings from a mobile device to the amplifier. If you don't have a Wi-Fi network set up in your home (doesn't everybody??!!), you can still stream to the A100 wirelessly, using its Wi-Fi Direct capability. Also on the front panel are buttons for choosing sources (Wi-Fi, optical, analog), plus power and volume controls. Included with the A100 is a funky little teardrop shaped remote for skipping tracks, selecting sources and adjusting volume. Like the Radius 90, the AirStream A100 is a beautifully made product, and will give real pride of ownership.
My MacBook Air doesn't have an optical output, so I opted to connect to the AirStream A100 wirelessly. That was a little challenging, because Monitor Audio doesn't supply written instructions, only a Getting Started leaflet with diagrams and symbols. If I were an Egyptologist, I could probably have deciphered these hieroglyphics; but I'm not so I was baffled. Fortunately, Monitor Audio has a written manual on its Website, which provides clearer guidance. I connected my iPhone 6 Plus to the front USB port, pushed a little wireless button on the back, and a message appeared on my phone asking if I wanted to transfer my network settings to the connected device. I selected OK, and the network light on the A100's front panel changed to blue, confirming a connection.
All my listening tests were performed using AirPlay, from an iTunes library on my MacBook Air and music collection on my iPhone 6 Plus. The speakers were set on the top of a fold-down desk, with the tweeters exactly at ear level. I did most of my listening seated at the desk about four feet from the speakers. The speakers and my chair formed an equilateral triangle, ideal for nearfield listening. I also moved around the room and listened from 10 feet or so.
Listening at the desk, a CD rip of Luigi Boccherini's Opus 12 Concerti Grossi (AAC 320kbps), in a classic Philips performance with Raymond Leppard conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, sounded warm and full, with lovely texture in the strings.
"Lulú", the opening track from New York Days by the Enrico Rava Quartet (ECM, CD rip, ALAC) was a treat. Rava's trumpet had delicious bite without being overbearing, and Stefano Bollani's masterful piano work was beautifully delineated. Larry Grenadier's double bass sounded surprisingly satisfying. The lower strings were a little bloated, but the upper strings were fast and articulate.
The boominess was also apparent in "Giant," from Prog by The Bad Plus (Sony Music, CD rip, ALAC), a wonderfully bad-ass jazz piano trio. But the drums had really good impact and the cymbals appropriate sizzle, and the piano sounded big and enveloping. The whole album is really fun to listen to through this lovely little system.
Lower female voices, for example Sharon Robinson's intro to "Boogie Street" in Leonard Cohen's Ten New Songs (Columbia, CD rip), sometimes sounded cavernous; but that was the only issue I had with vocal reproduction.
Given their diminutive stature, it's not really a surprise that the Radius 90's major weakness is bass performance. It's not just that it can't go really deep, but that there seems to be a bump in the upper bass, which may be intended to compensate for the lack of deep bass. This is accentuated when the speaker, with its rear bass port, is placed near a wall. On music with a lot of mid and upper bass content, this can make them sound boomy.
They also seem slightly rolled off in the highs, which helps balance the voicing. For nearfield listening especially, this really works in its favour, as it keeps highs from being overbearing. Also predictable, given their size, is that there's some dynamic compression during loud passages, though rarely any sense of strain.
None of these observations negates the fact that this is a very enjoyable system, equally satisfying when listening up close, or when sitting back and listening out loud in a small to medium-size room. Listeners who want fuller, better-defined bass can add a subwoofer; the A100 has line outputs that can be used for that purpose.