Bookshelf speakers are an oft overlooked home-entertainment addition, perhaps because bookshelves are a dying breed, or are always crammed with the latest videogame releases. But the bookshelf form-factor is a great, multi-purpose alternative to an MP3 player dock and makes for a tidy, attractive desktop speaker solution, too, if you prefer to deliver your audio entertainment from a computer.
The Microlab H21 speakers are a great example of the bookshelf form factor at its strongest, a simple, tidy package that delivers both bluetooth connectivity and regular auxiliary input. With no subwoofer to try and find a place for, bookshelf speakers naturally get their name from being suitable for shelf placement and are more often than not found with a similarly shelf-friendly mini-system. With the mini-system of today typically being a smart-phone, it makes more sense to have just the speakers themselves and let the music come from the nearest available source.
The H21 speakers don’t have much in the way of the over-the-top aesthetics you will often find in desktop 2.1 systems, they sport a simple, clean design enclosed entirely within a simple, rounded cabinet with an attractive leather finish. The main speaker includes controls for switching the source/pairing a bluetooth device in addition to basic transport controls (play/pause prev/next) and, thank the stars, a rotary volume control.
If rotary volume wasn’t a clue enough as to their quality ( seriously, buttons for volume control disgust me! ) you’ll find standard screw terminals on the back which allow you to connect the pair together ( the main unit powers the secondary speaker ) with any length of speaker-wire you desire. This offers two benefits; you can place the speakers as far apart as you like, and you can cut the wire to length so it doesn’t hang down below the shelf or spool up in unsightly bunches. It’s touches like this that really make the H21 speakers special. Many 2.1 systems that you might use in similar use-cases have hard-wired satellite speakers and enjoy spreading a veritable spaghetti mess of wires everywhere.
Also ’round the back are an RCA connection for hooking up a mini-system or, using a 3.5mm to RCA cable, a dock or direct connection to a mobile phone, tablet, computer or any other device you might want to play audio from.
Finally, and most cleverly of all the Microlab H21 have a USB port. A full-sized, female USB port the likes of which you might find on a USB wall adaptor or portable charger (or, of course, on your PC or laptop). It delivers 1A of juicy currant at 5v which is enough to comfortably power and charge pretty much any mobile device you might want to hook up, from iPhone to Pandora to PS Vita and even, albeit slowly, an iPad. It’s clear that the MicroLab H21, despite their traditional bookshelf form-factor, are aimed at modern mobile gadgets; thus fusing the old and the new into one convenient and far too often overlooked package. The astute will notice that this USB port should power a genuine Apple iPhone dock, and that same dock will allow for an auxiliary audio connection- it seems silly to mention turning speakers that I deem great because they’re not a dock into a dock by means of another piece of hardware, but it’s an option.
Despite lacking a discrete subwoofer, the H21 speakers don’t suffer any lack of bass. Each speaker contains a woofer and tweeter to adequately cover all the ranges, and their deceptively simple appearance doesn’t indicate a compromise of sound quality. Indeed, they’re punchy enough to handle my current affection for seemingly random electronic noise, yet still do a stellar job of re-creating the beautiful dynamic range of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s take on many videogame classics. Simply put, the H21 are capable of doing all tastes in music equal justice and deliver sound performance befitting their price.
The Microlab H21 Bluetooth speakers combine compactness, a clean, well considered design and decent sound into a package to comfortably rival many desktop 2.1 systems and decimate all but the very best MP3 docks and wireless speakers; many of which aren’t particularly groundbreaking in their quality. They are available in 4 colours, Black, Red, Brown and White, the former and latter of which are the best match for various Apple products if you swing that way.
At around £90, the MicroLab H21 speakers might seem a little on the expensive side, but their classic form factor, great feature set, well considered design and great sound make the price, in my opinion, seem pretty reasonable. For flexibility I find that Bluetooth is an excellent thing to have, and am playing music to the H21 speakers from a MacBook Air as I write this review.