High End to Low End
Ask anyone "in the loop" what their choice is for "best affordable multimedia speakers," and you're likely to receive one of two answers - either the Cambridge Soundworks Microworks or the S2 Midiland 4000s. Both of these speakers present excellent sound for their cost, but in terms of sound quality, they've stood alone in the domain of high-end PC audio. The Midilands were always a bit pricey at roughly $400, leaving the Microworks as the best choice for reasonable-cost multimedia speakers.
Enter Parasound, a company well-known for its high-end power amps. Presumably seeing the still-sorry state of PC Audio, they've decided to try their hand in the "high-end" segment of the market, introducing the new Parasound MediaLab ML-1 multimedia speakers. Selling for $199 direct-order only, these are the first speakers we've seen with the price and potential to beat out the Microworks.
Potential never looked so deceiving
The one thing everyone comes to expect from high-end audio equipment is refined, elegant design. From brushed aluminum to lacquered and polished wood grain, display is as much a part of sound as audio fidelity. Interestingly, you'll find none of that here. Granted that these were $200 speakers, there isn't much leniency to spring for excessive aesthetics. However, an important question to bring to mind is "Do you really want these things on your desk?"
Don't get me wrong, the ML-1s aren't exactly ugly. The problem is they're far from inspired. The satellites are rectangular blocks of molded plastic in a dull "computer gray" finish. A simple gray grille covers the drivers, and the left satellite houses a single volume knob. While we're thankful that there are no translucent blue parts, the ML-1s are as close as you can get to the $5 speakers included with cheap no-name sound cards. If you ever wondered where IBM industrial designers go, look no further than Media Lab.
While it doesn't seem proper to criticize speakers for their appearance, the fact of the matter is that looks matter, especially with parts as visible as loudspeakers. Fortunately, the woofer is designed to hide unobtrusively beneath your desk, and so its discreet appearance is far from an issue.