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Definitive Technology Incline Desktop Speakers: Impression and Sound Quality

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Definitive Technology Incline Side ViewI’m biased so let me say it up front: my general experience with monitor sound bars and desktop speakers is “cheap”.  With very few exceptions, desktop speakers feel cheap and they sound cheap.

Thankfully, these speakers didn’t feel like your average desktop speaker package.  On the contrary, they had some nice heft and weight to them but not so much that you feel like you can’t move them.  The machined aluminum base added a sense of distinction.  I never had that overwhelming “plastic” sense that I’ve have gotten with so many other brands.  Definitive deserves some high marks for their attention to detail here.

The weight and design of the speakers had another payoff during my later use that I hadn’t anticipated: it made using the Incline’s built-in volume control and power button an unremarkable experience. 

“Unremarkable” is a really, really good thing if you stop and think about it: How many desktop speakers have you had to hold with two hands just to move the volume dial or power on or off because when you did so, the speakers would slide around?  Then, you need to play with placement all over again.  Sometimes it’s the little details that make a big difference.

Setup

I setup the Definitive Technology Inclines on my desk, which is a large drafting table covered with a Vyco drawing board.  A Vyco Drawing Board is a protective, 5-ply vinyl covering usually used on top of a drafting or drawing table surface. 

My computer setup consisted of an 11” MacBook Air running OS X Mavericks and 27” Apple Cinema Display.  I plugged the Incline’s USB into the Apple Cinema Display.  I did this for the simple reason of convenience so that I wouldn’t have to plug and unplug the USB each time I left with the Air and not because I have a belief that the Cinema Display’s USB ports are somehow superior to the Air’s


Definitive-Macbook Styling

The Definitive inclines were a perfect design match for the MacBook Air

Setup was a piece of cake but there’s one thing that puzzled me on setup: I couldn’t understand the discrepancy between what I saw the user guide and the back of the speakers.  The two were not the same.  The user guide showed multiple inputs; yet I only saw a single USB input on the back of the speaker.  I checked, double, and triple checked: no other inputs were visible.

Incline Back Panel 

Out of the box, the rear panel of the right speaker didn’t show all the inputs mentioned in the user manual.  All the inputs are covered by a latch.

Come to find out after speaking with the representative at Definitive, there’s a plastic panel that covers all the non-USB inputs and the subwoofer out port!  This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the user manual (see Note 2 at the end of the review).  While I understand that this looks nicer and that most people will most likely use only the USB port, adding the cover is confusing.

Screwdriver Removing Rear Cover of Inclines Inputs exposed on Inclines

Removing the rear panel with a small screwdriver finally exposed all the inputs

Popping the cover off wasn’t easy, either.  There was no latch to detach it—just a thin slot.  A regular flat head screwdriver wouldn’t fit the slot.  I had to use a micro flat head screwdriver (but not too small) and had to toggle the screwdriver back and forth until I finally got the latch to pop.  I would have preferred that the plastic panel be left off by default and optionally included with the accessories if someone ever wanted to add it.

With that first mystery solved, it was time to position the speakers.  I set the speakers to either side of my Cinema Display.  I experimented with the speakers behind, flush, and slightly forward of the monitor.  While I listened to the speakers in all three locations, I settled on placing them behind the monitor so that I could have more workspace.  I found a slight toe-in angle to be perfect. 

It’s not mentioned in the user manual, but the bottom of each speaker specifies a “left” and “right” designation.  You’ll need to know this to set the speakers up properly so you don’t invert them accidentally. You know you have them setup properly when the volume button is on the outside of the right speaker.

Left and Right Designation

The bottom of the speakers gives you a right and left designation so that you know which is which

The aluminum and black design of the Inclines was a perfect match to the styling of the MacBook Air and Cinema Display.  If you’re a Mac owner, then you’ll love the styling of these speakers.  They are great aesthetic match although I’d say that the design is more “Samsung” than “Apple”.  The Inclines feature hard edges as opposed to Apple’s softer, curved styling.

Desktop Setup with Monitor for Inclines

The Incline Speakers are a perfect design match for Macintosh systems

Sound Quality Tests

Sixty seconds after I had setup the speakers, I spun up iTunes (11.1.3).  When I first played the Incline speakers, there was an initial impression that I experienced again and again with everything I played: how clean the sound was.  In fact, as I turned up the volume there was a wonderful lack of excessive compression and strain that so often characterizes desktop speakers.  Whether it was the bi-amplification, the Class D amplifier, or a combination of several engineering choices, the speakers immediately presented “audiophile-sound”. 

First off I played an album I hadn’t heard before: Alanis Morissette’s Havoc and Bright Lights.   The opening song, “Guardian” gave me a very positive impression of the speakers’ openness and character.  Alanis’ voice was clean and clear. The second song, “Woman Down” starts off with deep bass beat and the bass line keeps throughout the song. Bass had surprisingly good weight, but bass vibrations resonated onto my desk (this was a theme I noticed few times).  If I cranked the speakers to a moderate to loud level, I could feel the vibrations as I worked.

Next, I played some classic Adele from the album 19.  Adele’s voice in the opening track, “Daydreamer” was just sultry.  The plucks on the guitar strings were distinct and exhibited a wonderful decay. There was a truly fantastic, stable image thrown by the speakers. 

On every track, Adele’s voice was solidly suspended in a three-dimensional space that was deeper than the plane of the monitor.  On, “Chasing Pavements”, instrumentation was distinct and solidly placed across the soundstage.  The soundstage had a nice extension to the left and right boundaries of the speakers—and slightly beyond.  Adele’s mega hits, “Rolling in the Deep”, “Rumor Has it” and “SkyFall”, confirmed all my previous impressions.

 

Music Selection

Music Selection for Incline testI played a varied selection of music through the Inclines 

Next it was time for some live Pink Floyd. The classic song, “Time”, from Delicate Sound of Thunder had simply gorgeous imaging of the clocks and instruments.  I couldn’t help but crank it up a bit.  The strikes of the clocks were each distinct and layered in their own space across a broad soundstage and Nick Mason’s drumbeats were clean and articulate.  David Gilmore’s riffs on “Sorrow” had sonic weight but once again exacerbated some of the bass vibrations into my desk I had noticed earlier on select tracks.  I finished off my Floyd session with “Run Like Hell” from The Wall Live (1980-1981 album).  Imaging and soundstage for this song was just awe-inspiring.  The antiphonal verses between Roger Waters and David Gilmour alternated across the soundstage, as did the running steps and car peel out at song’s end.

The Inclines were cruising through my musical selections, but like some freshman upstart trying to make a varsity team, I wasn’t going to let them off the hook without trying the torture test of Saint-Saëns Symphony #3 in C Minor—and I did it with two different symphonic recordings. In case you’re not aware of this track, it’s a crushing test for any speaker.  On the Boston Audio Society’s version (which I didn’t play) you’ll even be warned that this track can damage your subwoofer. 

Well, this track finally brought the Inclines to their knees.  The deep, authoritative organ bass generated vibrations that I felt on my desk and caused the fine instrument detail and tonality—especially the trumpets—to suffer as a result.  That’s the only time I felt like I pushed the Inclines to exhibit signs of real strain.  I conceded the TKO and let’s be real, this kind of program material isn’t going to be used with these speakers.  But hey, they hung in there far, far better than I expected.  My hat’s off to the Definitive Team because they performed admirably against this undisputed heavy weight orchestral champ.

Movies and TV Shows

Because so much media consumption is now done on computers and mobile devices, I wanted to see how the speakers fared with movies and TV shows.  I opened Netflix and streamed one of the Episodes of the CW’s show, Arrow, which is based on the DC Comics character, the Green Arrow.  Dialogue through the Inclines was incredibly clean, clear, and intelligible.  Effects came from a nice, wide, and deep soundstage. 

 

Arrow-CW Tv Show Thor

The Inclines thrived on movies and TV Shows

I had the same experience flipping through some movies, including Olympus Has Fallen.  I never felt like I was missing out on the impact of the action or the audio detail.  The largest shortcoming I noticed was in the opening throne room scene from Thor where Odin plunks down his staff.  That’s a very tough scene to get acoustically spot-on.  The bass was on the loose side and lacked the controlled authority that you’d get with a good, dedicated subwoofer.  If you’re one of those people who wants the last word in cinematic impact, then you’ll want to add the Definitive ProSub 800 or a similarly powered sub to the Incline’s subwoofer output jack.

During halftime of one of the football games, I brought my brother-in-law (a finicky audiophile himself) into the office to see the Inclines. I played the X-Men: Days of Future Past trailer in HD from apple.com/trailers.  The trailer features a hauntingly beautiful combined score of John Murphy’s “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor)” and Hans Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line" from the movie The Thin Red Line.  This trailer yearns to be played loudly, and the Inclines indulged us—without reservation—no matter how much we cranked it.  My brother-in-law asked me if there was a sub connected. When I told him “no” with a grin, he just gave me this stunned look.  Priceless.

X-Men Days of Future past

X-Men Days of Future Past Trailer featured musical scores that were hauntingly beautiful through the Inclines.

In short, the Inclines never crumbled with most music, TV, and movies like they did with the Saint-Saëns torture test.  All in all, they stood tall (no pun intended) and worked wonderfully well with both movie and TV content.  And just in case I haven’t been clear enough: throughout my music, movie, and TV samplings there were many, many instances where the center phantom imaging was just freaky.  That’s a compliment to the design of the speakers.  On several occasions, I kept putting my ears close to the monitor to make sure that the Cinema Display’s internal speakers weren’t on—even though I knew they weren’t. 

At the beginning of the review, I mentioned the Monsoon Planar Speakers and sub (it’s a 2.1 desktop system).  I still have those and use them from time to time.  I put them head-to-head with the Inclines to have a friendly face-off and played the X-Men trailer again and some music in an A-B fashion.  I switched between the two in my Mac’s sound control panel. I didn’t want to take any prisoners in this so I let the two speaker sets duke it out.

Needless to say the Inclines thoroughly and undeniably smoked the Monsoon planar speakers in control, clarity, detail, definition, and more.  It wasn’t even close. In fact, the Monsoons—even though they are crossed over to a sub—caused far, far more vibration-induced distortion and rattling than the Inclines. It was painful to listen to. 

The only area where the Monsoons (like any and all planar speakers) couldn’t be beat is in the absolutely massive soundstage they throw.  But, as big as that soundstage was, it was clearly apparent that the imaging and timbre stunk: compared to the Inclines it was all muddy, bloated, lacked definition, and didn’t have a solid image.  When comparing the Definitive Technology speakers and the Monsoons, the only way to describe the difference is to compare what you’d experience between listening to a two-channel system in phase and out of phase.  That’s how dramatic the difference was with the Inclines.

Observations

I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the Inclines, but if forced to levy hypercritical observations about the sound, I’d say that the top end sounded a bit rolled off at times.  Cymbals didn’t always have the crispness, impact, and decay you would experience in a good two-channel system. 

There was also some hints here and there of some midrange bloat and distortion that to my ears was consisting with the smearing you get with vibrations—not necessarily due to the typical sound you get when the amp is clipping.  Before you think I’m getting down on the Inclines, just remember that you’re going to get the vibration/smearing issue with just about any pair of desktop speakers—and it will be far, far worse and distorted with lesser quality speakers as I painfully heard with the Monsoons.

Bass notes with the Inclines were really good, but just don’t have the tight detail and definition you’d get if you paired them with an external sub—thankfully you have that option!  But I have to tell you, for a pair of desktop speakers, I was continually impressed by how clean, detailed, and effortless the sound was. 

These speakers have audiophile pedigree written all over them.

Recommendations

There are a few recommendations I’d suggest to the folks over at Definitive Technology. First and foremost, there needs to be a decision about the plastic cover.  Silly as it sounds, this was my biggest beef with the speakers.  If it’s going to stay on by default, then it needs to be mentioned explicitly in the user manual or put a sticker on the panel saying that the other inputs are located behind this panel.  Otherwise, users may think they got the wrong speaker models. 

If it’s going to stay on, then there needs to be an easier way to get it off.  I guarantee you that some person is going to scratch the back of the speaker trying to get it off.  My personal recommendation is to put that cover in with the rest of the accessories, give a small instruction on what it is, and give the user the option to put it on.

Secondly, I’d like to see some additional details in the user manual.  A note about the back cover, the hierarchical priority of inputs, and note that the USB mode will be saved

Thirdly, and I confess these next ones are really being a nit-picky: I’d like to see a bit more vibration dampening on the bottom of the speakers or in the cabinet enclosures.  If you’re using a solid, wood desk the speaker’s resonances are not a big issue.  I wasn’t. 

If someone is putting these on a drafting table or flimsy ready-to-assemble desk, then you will feel the vibrations on the desk as you work.  The level of the vibrations will vary by the type of music you play and it may be more noticeable to some than to others.  If you play some seriously bass-heavy stuff then you may want to supplement the base of the Inclines with some additional rubber footing or simply get an external sub. 

Thirdly, there’s no AirPlay, wireless, or Bluetooth option.  Personally, I didn’t miss it, but for some this may be an issue. Just remember that the addition of a quality wireless option would further add to the cost of the speakers.  If you did ever want to add wireless audio to the Inclines, then you can!  Just supplement these with an external solution, such as an Apple AirPort Express (you can even use Toslink between the two), and you’re done.  That solution will do the trick just fine.

Finally, it would also be nice to have a distinct indicator button that would show you if the speaker was in USB direct mode or not—even if it’s in the form of a double-flash of the LED power button when you turn the speakers on. 

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

noah katz posts on October 29, 2020 01:33
In case @TheoN is still around or someone else can help, I'm puzzled by the following parts of the review.

“It’s not immediately obvious, but the Incline speakers can process the USB signal from your computer in two different ways. The first (and default) method allows you to adjust the volume from your computer. The second method bypasses the computer’s gain stages and volume controls. Definitive says bypassing the computer’s (usually) inferior gain stages and volume controls maintains a purer signal path and gives you the highest sound quality. Once you engage this second method, your computer’s volume controls won’t have any impact on the speakers’ volume. You’ll only be able to adjust the volume from the Incline’s volume keys, located on the right speaker. ”


Regarding the first method, if the computer's USB audio output is used, the output is digital and presumably volume is controlled in the digital domain, so there are no gain stages involved.


Or perhaps the problem is that the computer's DAC doesn't have enough bits of resolution so that sound quality is compromised at lower levels?

“The Incline has a great selection of flexible digital and analog inputs: Optical Toslink, USB, and 3.5mm stereo “mini” analog line-level in. If you choose a digital input, the Incline’s built-in 56-bit DSP will handle the processing.”

This seems to imply that when using the 3.5mm output, either the DSP/response shaping won't be used, which seems like it would result in radically different/inferior sound, or that the Inclines' will reconvert the signal back to digital before feeding to the DSP.

Can someone straighten this out for me?
Justin1996 posts on January 27, 2016 21:13
Stupid question but what is Definitive Technology? In brief
slipperybidness posts on January 13, 2016 16:40
Chilly, post: 1113112, member: 77712
This post is a little dated but I have a question I cannot find the answer. I have the inclines and PRO800 sub that are wonderful.

I know the USB connecting uses the built in DAC on the speaker. If I have a sound card connecting to the inclines through an optical cable is the sound controlled by the DAC in the sound card or the DAC in the speaker?
Well, optical connection = digital connection
So, it seems that you must be feeding digi to the DAC in the DT
Chilly posts on January 13, 2016 15:58
This post is a little dated but I have a question I cannot find the answer. I have the inclines and PRO800 sub that are wonderful.

I know the USB connecting uses the built in DAC on the speaker. If I have a sound card connecting to the inclines through an optical cable is the sound controlled by the DAC in the sound card or the DAC in the speaker?
AllanMarcus posts on May 18, 2014 23:06
Moronic design decision!

TheoN, post: 1013265
Hi Allan,

It was a lot of fun reviewing the Inclines. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to listen to either the AudioEngine A5s or the Polk Heritage desktop speakers. I thus can't offer you an educated opinion on that one to tell you my impressions about the differences between the speakers. Simply from a design and spec's POV, there are a few differences that strike me:

First, the Inclines are bipolar speakers vs. the Audio Engine and the Polks. The bipolar speakers do enhances the sense of soundstage depth and breadth. If that's something you like, then you'll like the Inclines.

Second, on paper the Inclines go down into the low 40's at +/-3dB. The AudioEngine speakers are only listed as going down to 50Hz.

Third, there are connectivity differences between all the speakers. The Polk seems to have the fewest options of all. The Inclines give you lots and a sub out.

Fourth, the Inclines have a “direct” mode as indicated in the review. That may or may not be something of value.

Fifth, they all sure do look different. Aesthetics play a role

Like most well-designed speakers this may simply come down to preference and I'd encourage you to try both out in your own setup and decide on which will work best for you.


Thanks for the feedback. I just ordered a pair for my son, but he has a turntable and a computer input. The turntable has a pre-amp built in, so a simple RCA to 3.5mm should work. It's just such a moronic design decision not to have a way to switch inputs. He will have to unplug the turntable to play from his computer. I may have to get him a small pre-amp/switcher. Good think I got the speakers used from amazon for a significant discount.

I imagine DefTech will add an input option in the next version. I would have loved to have heard the engineering pitch for three inputs, but only one can be used. Something like: Our marketing folks tell us that our audiophile customer are idiots, so let's design something only an idiot would appreciate.

At least the sound quality is good.
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