M-Audio AV42 Desktop Multimedia Speakers Review: Poor Build and Design Let These Down

The ~$130 M-Audio AV42’s are not good speakers, and I don’t think you should buy them.

You can skip down to the categories below to find out more about why…otherwise, here’s a short history of my experience with desktop speakers so you know where I’m coming from.

My first pair of desktop speakers (that wasn’t some cheap pair that came with a computer) was a 2.1 setup from the Creative Labs-owned Cambridge Soundworks. It was called the “PC Works” system, and I bought it with my own funds at Office Depot. It had tiny satellite speaker cubes and a tiny subwoofer, and the whole thing was designed by Henry Kloss.

It put a ton of sound out of a teensy package, and it was phenomenal for the $49 or so it cost teenaged-me.

I knew almost nothing about professional audio reproduction at that time, in spite of the fact that my dad worked in radio and also owned his own disco/PA system. But I did have a sense of what I thought sounded good, and my little system became the new gold standard for home audio.

I eventually upgraded to the 4.1 PC Works system. It came with its own stands for the rear speakers. After that, I had a 4.1 THX system from Altec Lansing, and two 5.1 THX systems from Logitech.

Surround sound setups lost their lustre in the last few years. Surround effects are cool, but unless you have a room built to house the speakers, the systems are a bit cumbersome. Also, surround mixes in games and movies tend to amplify how good or bad the sound editor was at their job. The best surround mixes make great use of the platform, and the worst ones sound lame and flat. The best ones are few and far between. (Incidentally, Skywalker Sound does great work on movies, and EA’s games tend to have good mixes).

I eventually settled on a pair of Bose Companion 20’s. It’s a 2.0 monitoring system, without a sub. The speakers are sleek, their frequency response is okay, and they have a nice wide soundstage achieved in part through digital trickery.

I’ve always wondered if I’d be better off with a standard pair of monitor-style speakers over the more consumer- oriented Bose model. I spend most of my audio time wearing headphones. I like the sense of resolution and intimacy that headphone- listening provides. But there’s no denying that speakers have their place too.

If you search around for desktop speakers, the M-Audio AV42s pop up quite often. It seems like M-Audio might be phasing them out soon in favor of their “Carbon” line, but it’s unclear to me right now. Still, the reviews are there, and most of them are quite positive.

I have no idea what those reviews were talking about, unless they spent only a couple of minutes listening.

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The volume knob in this picture is set to half. I never got even close to this in my week with the unit. It would have destroyed my head.

Sound

The AV42’s make audio go with a 4-inch woofer and a 1-inch waveguide-enhanced tweeter. The character of the sound is very nice and balanced. The high frequencies stick out a little more, but certain mid-bass sounds will bring the right amount of thump. They don’t go nearly as low as something with a dedicated subwoofer, but they provide enough bass that you won’t feel like you’re missing too much…although they don’t render the sub-bass thump from Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi that I test headphones with. But neither does the Bose Companion 20. That’s just a physics limitation.

Soundstage is where big problems start to crop up. The two tweeters have waveguides on them. That’s the shiny bit of plastic around the small speaker cone on the top of the monitors. These waveguides work…but I find that they push the mids and highs too high vertically in the sound field. And it sounds weird as a result.

Typical speaker positioning for monitors of this type would be to align the tweeters with your ears. However, if you do that here, you’ll find that the higher frequencies will float a bit above that level, vertically. So, I got the best results by having the tweeters a bit below my ears, with the speakers sitting right on my desk next to my monitors.

This vertical heightening was the only big effect I noticed from the waveguides. They didn’t provide nearly as spacious a sound as the basic DSP tricks in my Companion 20’s, nor as the 2.1 setups I’ve had in the past. The sound field is also not very smooth. You’ll be able to tell precisely which speaker a sound is coming from…not great for immersive listening.

That brings me to my next problem, and the first of several build issues I’ll be talking about: my unit had a big channel imbalance.

A quick glance at Amazon’s reviews for this product shows people talking about channel imbalances, but it’s a mess. Amazon has lumped several of M-audio’s products together into one reviews section, so it’s hard to tell which model of speakers the complaints are actually about. Well, let me tell you. the channel imbalance on my AV42’s was real and obvious.

It’s pretty normal for audio gear to have a slight imbalance between left and right volumes. During the quality control phase, you try to get this to within a decibel or so at 1khz. 3 decibels is where the problem would start to be noticeable by most people.

My AV42’s had a channel imbalance of 6 decibels, biased towards the left. This means that, particularly in the vocal range, everything sounded like it was slightly to the left of center. Now, can you account for this through placement? Sure. But then they’re going to look a bit silly and uneven on your desk.

At first I thought I was going crazy, but then I broke out the decibel meter app to check and ran several tests. Sure enough, the balance problem was real and big. I plugged my Bose speakers back in to make sure it wasn’t some other part of my chain, and they are only off by about 1 decibel. I even tested different volume levels on the M-audios to see if something was wrong with the potentiometer/volume knob, but nope.

Now, it’s possible that this problem was limited to just my unit. However, when you combine my experience with consumer reviews online, it becomes apparent that it might be a widespread problem. Shame.

Build/Design

M-Audio’s design is pretty darn standard and boring for desktop monitors, with some quirks and unfortunate deficiencies. The left speaker houses the amp and all of the connections, and the power switch is on the back. Why is the power switch on the back and not built into the front volume knob? No idea.

The main connections on the left speaker are RCA inputs for left and right audio, and some speaker jacks to send audio to the right speaker. There are also two 3.5 mm jacks on the front. One is for auxiliary audio and one is for headphone output.

The look of the speakers is fine. The shiny nature of the waveguides might be offputting to some people, and there’s a blue LED power light below the left tweeter that’s just dim enough to not be obnoxious. The cabinets are built out of standard MDF/fiber board, and their black matte finish is nice. The cones are made out of a material designed to be resistant to finger poking, which is good because no grills are included.

M-Audio doesn’t install the little circular non-slip feet on the bottoms of the speakers in the factory, meaning you have to do this. Well, first you have to dig through the box to find the little included feet and peel them off their backing. They don’t include any extra feet in the box, so if you screw up applying them you’re out of luck. This is great for folks that have their own stands or pads and don’t want to use the feet, but a minor annoyance for those who just want to slap these on a desk without messing around with stickers.

Now the bad stuff.

These speakers aren’t shielded very well at all. My cell phone would cause interference noise when it was within 3 feet of the left speaker. My cell phone would send interference noise down the auxiliary cable when plugged in the front port…a feature that M-audio touts on the box. “Listen to your cell phone’s music with our provided aux cable!” is better than “Listen to your cell phone emitting hums and pops through the speakers!” Seriously, these might be the worst-shielded speakers I’ve used in the last decade. There’s no excuse for this.

The right speaker weighs a fair bit less than the left speaker, a sign of just how little is actually included inside the cabinet. It made me question whether there’s any damping material inside the cabinets at all, as it feels fairly hollow. The plastic fronts surrounding the drivers are not very high-quality. The included cables are cheap and springy, and don’t flatten out very well.

All signs point to this being a cheaper, worse version of M-Audio’s previous AV40. I read one or two other reviews that mentioned the light weight compared to the AV40, and that should have warned me off. The actual drivers here are nicely tuned and sound good…but the cheap amp and shoddy quality control completely let this product down.

Final Thoughts

Maybe don’t buy the M-Audio AV42s. They’re not very good, and there’s a solid chance that your pair will have a channel imbalance and poor shielding. I returned my pair to the store after a week of frustration. They didn’t have any others in stock for me to try, so I bought a couple of cheap pairs of headphones and a copy of Mass Effect Andromeda instead. I’ll have reviews of all three of those things later this week! Thanks for reading.

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