Speakers are rarely difficult to get to grips with. They plug into the mains, an amp or just an MP3 player and use cone-shaped drivers to pump out sound. The SoundScience Frankenspiel FS-1 throw away both these conventions, but in doing so are extremely easy to use and sound absolutely fantastic for their size.
The SoundScience Frankenspiel FS-1 are high-quality USB speakers. Such things are rare, because the limits of USB power - typically 500mA - make it difficult to drive a decent-sized speaker.
These speakers get around the problem by implementing a rather unusual technology. Rather than using traditional speaker cones, the Frankenspiel FS-1 use BMR drivers. BMR stands for balanced mode radiator, and it's a technology that lets speakers get very small without sounding small at all. The component producing the sound here is flat rather than curved, completely changing the way it radiates sound.
Fancy learning more about this technology? Cambridge Audio produced an interesting white paper on BMR in 2010 to support its Minx BMR speakers, available to read online. We'll get onto the results of the technology later.
The Frankenspiel FS-1 are tough little black cubes, very similar in appearance to last year's SoundScience QSB set. A few aesthetic changes have been made, though. An eye-catching glossy black finish has been traded-in for more demure matt black and the curvy edges have become much more angular.
There are a few characteristic trim elements, too. A thin line of orange lines the speaker grill, and a little Frankenstein's monster icon sits in the very middle of the front. They're extremely well-made, clearly not a cheapy product, but fall a way short of the simple classiness of the QSBs - in spite of using less a finger-print happy finish.
They are far from ugly, but would look more at-home next to a computer than in a classy lounge. That's much more likely to be where they'll end up anyway, of course.
There's just one way to connect the Frankenspiel FS-1 to a source - a miniUSB port on the back of one speaker. The other unit acts as a slave device, plugging-into the main one through a high-quality phono port - cable supplied.
Setup and Use
Once the miniUSB cable (also supplied) is plugged in, the Frankenspiel FS-1 will automatically start acting as computer speakers. There's no volume control on the boxes - gain is controlled completely by the computer and its own software controls.
Although this USB-only approach is limiting, stopping you from being able to plug in other sources through an otherwise-omnipresent 3.5mm auxiliary jack, it makes them very easy to use. No battery to charge, no mains plug to worry about. However, it also won't work with devices like the iPad - Macs yes, iPhones and tablets no.
The perfect usage scenario we can think of is a lonely hotel room where the TV only spouts films with poorly dubbed foreign dialogue. Keep your laptop filled up with movies and these speakers will be a lifesaver. With four little rubber feet on each speaker box and a fairly small footprint, they'll fit onto bedside cabinets or those depressing little hotel tablets easily. To further up their travel-readiness, a semi-hard case is included. It houses the speakers and all the necessary cables. When boxed the lot has dimensions of around 32 x 11 x 11cm and weighs just under 1.4Kg.
Like the SoundScience QSB speakers, the Frankenspiel FS-1 sound is far greater in scale than the dinky size of the boxes might suggest. To test them beyond their normal bounds, we paired them with a projector in a mid-size room, and while they obviously can't compete with a proper home cinema setup, they can produce room-filling sound. At higher volumes, the low-end is commendably rich too, when we would usually expect speakers this small to struggle at anything approaching top volume. We're not talking subwoofer-like presence, but they avoid sounding small.
Part of this room-filling effect is down to the way BMR drivers disperse sound. Cone speakers naturally direct their output through a fairly narrow channel, but with a flat balance mode radiator, the FS-1 dispersion is around 170 degrees, according to SoundScience. This reduces the effectiveness of carefully toe-ing in of the speakers, but also gets rid of the extreme directionality of small speakers. The trade-off is more than worth it in this case.
These are a huge upgrade over built-in speakers of laptops, and they can compete with decent powered PC speakers too. The one complaint is that the top-end - while clear and detailed - can sound a little harsh at times.
The sonic upgrade the Frankenspiel FS-1 offer over the old, cheaper QSBs is that they are designed to make use of higher-output USB ports, such as those of the MacBook Pro. With the right connection, they offer greater volume and power, but the tone of the sound is much the same.
As the original SoundScience QSB speakers are available for as little as £69 online, most people are better off saving the £40-60 premium of the FS-1. Without a high-powered USB to hand, they offer little benefit over the cheaper model. And while the Pasce Minirig is less of a room-filler, it offers comparable sound quality and a much more versatile design. However, if you use a MacBook and want a stereo speaker to take out on the road, you can't do much better.
The Frankenstein reference may make you think the SouncScience Frankenspiel FS-1 will be a patchwork of half-finished ideas. However, these USB speakers are anything but. They offer impressively large-scale, room-filling sound and are extremely easy to use - as long as you only want to hook them up to a computer, rather than an MP3 player.