Flat-Panel Speakers Sound Good, Save Space--And Decorate Your Wall
By Michael J. Himowitz

(FORTUNE Magazine) – You can always tell when a good magician has bamboozled his audience--each spectator turns to his neighbor and says, "How'd he do that?"

That's how I felt when I hooked up a set of Benwin BW2000 speakers to my computer and put a CD in the drive. All of a sudden, great music blared out from the two flat panels, neither much bigger than a CD jewel case. As I tried out the speakers with a variety of music formats and games, I kept looking behind them for the boom box producing the sound--but there was none to be found.

Once toys for audio buffs, flat-panel systems like the BW2000 ($129) are making their way into the mainstream. The package includes two five- by nine-inch flat-panel speakers about a third of an inch thick and a compact subwoofer that sits on the floor and enhances bass tones. The speakers, which can be mounted on a wall or placed on desktop stands, don't require any special software. They hook up to your computer's sound card with regular cables. You can also attach the BW2000 to any radio, tape, or CD player with standard audio output.

The flat-panel speakers use technology developed by NXT LLC, a British outfit that's licensing the system to computer and audio equipment manufacturers around the world. Traditional speakers use a cone that moves in and out like a piston to create sound waves, but NXT-based speakers use a magnet to stimulate a complex pattern of vibrations spread uniformly over a flat panel. Since the speaker doesn't need an enclosure to focus the sound, it produces an even tone that radiates around the flat panels. This eliminates the hot spots and dead zones that bedevil standard speakers--so you can put NXT speakers anywhere in a room and count on good sound.

While the BW2000 isn't likely to impress audio fanatics with $10,000 stereo systems, the flat-panel speakers do produce clear, crisp music and sound effects that are just as good as other low-end speaker sets I've tried. The midtones and upper ranges are accurate but lack the warmth of the Altec Lansing speakers normally attached to my computer.

The system's weak spot is the subwoofer--it booms a bit and doesn't have enough sophistication to produce a smooth bass line at lower volume levels. But when you consider that a decent subwoofer sells for as much as the entire Benwin package, the BW2000 is good value for the money.

Over the next year, you'll see flat-panel speakers everywhere--as decorator wall hangings for cramped college dorm rooms and as ceiling tiles in offices. PC manufacturers will also equip laptops with them to bring high-quality audio to traveling multimedia presentations. (The speakers will slide out from behind the flip-up screen.) Also look for some improvements in sound quality. An Israeli company called Waves Ltd. has struck a deal with NXT for technology that boosts the bass response of small speakers--a cool development that could eventually eliminate the need for subwoofers altogether.

Meanwhile, if you don't have much space on your desk or you're just looking for a good, reasonably priced speaker set, the BW2000 is worth consideration. For information, call 888-923-6946 or surf to www.benwin.com. And if you really get into concepts like "bended resonance" and "distributed-mode modulation," you'll find a full explanation of NXT's technology on its home page, www.nxt.co.uk.

--Michael J. Himowitz