Buying Guide: Find the best speakers

The built-in speaker(s) on your computer, smartphone, tablet, or iPod don’t do your audio justice, especially if you want to enjoy full, rich sound or share your music with people more than a few feet away. So along with good headphones (see our headphones buying guide), a new set of speakers is one of the most rewarding audio upgrades you can give your gear.

But if you’ve recently visited any store—local or online—that sells consumer electronics, you’ve likely been confronted by rows and rows (or screens and screens) of computer speakers, speaker docks, and the like, in many different sizes and at many different prices. So how do you choose? To help you find the right set—for yourself or your favorite gift recipient—here’s the latest edition of our annual speakers buying guide, which includes both general shopping advice and specific recommendations.

What to look for when shopping

As you’re browsing the aisles or webpages of your favorite stores, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Specs and sound quality: Put simply, you should ignore manufacturers’ specifications, especially frequency-response numbers. Because no standardized testing methodology exists for speakers, many vendors exaggerate specs—often laughably so—making them essentially worthless. With very few exceptions, you can’t rely on these numbers to tell you anything about a system’s audio quality. Instead, use your own ears: Try to audition speakers locally before you buy. While a store isn’t an ideal environment for testing, it’s better than nothing, and it can let you separate the good from the obviously bad. (If you can’t test at a local store, read reviews from sources you trust, and buy from a retailer with a good return policy, in case you end up not liking the speakers.)

When testing speakers, use a variety of your favorite music and take your time. A quality system provides good balance between the treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail. Be especially wary of systems where the treble detail or bass sounds especially prominent—some speakers exaggerate one or both to stand out in a crowded store display.

This phenomenon is especially common with bass: Speakers that use small drivers—the part of the speaker that actually produces sound waves—simply can’t reproduce the lowest notes, so vendors often tweak their speakers to emphasize upper-bass frequencies. (Even some subwoofers do this, especially those with small-for-subwoofer drivers.) This technique adds some punch to the audio, but it can also make the speakers sound boomy or thumpy—a trait that becomes fatiguing over time. If deep, controlled bass is important to you, you’ll need speakers with relatively large woofers or a good-sized subwoofer. Otherwise, consider speakers that forgo the lowest frequencies altogether in favor of accurate sound across the rest of the audio spectrum.

Computer speakers vs. docking speakers vs. wireless speakers: Will your new speakers be used mainly with a computer? If so, any set of standard “computer speakers”—a self-powered system you connect to your computer using a simple analog or digital cable—will work just fine; you just plug in and enjoy. Computer speakers also work with tablets, smartphones, and portable media players—you just string a cable from the device’s headphone jack to the speaker system. (Some smartphone charging docks and cradles even have a dedicated audio-out jack that provides higher-quality audio than the device’s headphone jack offers.) But there are other options, as well.

Docking speakers (top left), Bluetooth wireless speakers (right), and computer speakers (bottom left) each have their advantages.

If you’re looking for speakers to be used primarily with Apple gear—iPhones, iPods, or an iPad—you may want to consider a system that includes a dock cradle featuring Apple’s Lightning connector or 30-pin dock connector. The connector plugs into the port on the bottom of your device, letting the speaker system grab the highest-quality audio signal while simultaneously charging your player. Some of these systems can also connect to your computer via USB, letting you sync your device with your computer while docked.

iOS devices released prior to the iPhone 5 in September 2012 use a 30-pin dock connector, while the iPhone 5 and subsequent devices use Apple’s new Lightning connector—make sure you buy the right kind of dock for your particular device(s). To use an older, 30-pin speaker dock with newer, Lightning-connector devices, you’ll need one of Apple’s Lightning-to-30-pin adapters or a third-party adapter.

Most iOS-focused docking speakers are designed for iPhone and iPod touch models; their cradles aren’t large or sturdy enough to hold an iPad. However, a few speaker systems that include an iPad-compatible dock cradle are available. If none are to your liking, but you want the charging/syncing capabilities and better audio quality that come with a docking system, you can use (for Lightning-connector docks) Apple’s Lightning to 30-pin Adapter (0.2 m) cable or (for 30-pin docks) an extension cable such as CableJive’s dockXtender basic ($16) or dockXtender ($26) to connect your iPad to any system with an iPhone dock. (You can also use one of these extension cables with Apple’s cable if Apple’s cable on its own is to short.) Keep in mind, however, that most iPhone/iPod speaker systems will charge the iPad slowly, if at all.

CableJive’s DockBoss lets you connect any source to a 30-pin speaker dock.

Speaker docks made specifically for particular Android and Windows smartphones and tablets aren’t nearly as common, so I haven’t included any in this year’s list. (Some of the speaker docks I recommend below are available in Android or Windows phone versions.) However, you can connect non-iOS devices to any speaker system using a basic audio cable: CableJive’s DockBoss lets you connect any audio source to a 30-pin iPhone speaker dock; the DockBoss5 lets you play and charge any USB-equipped device on a 30-pin dock; and the SamDock makes 30-pin docks compatible with Samsung Galaxy models. There's also Bluetooth; speaking of which...

The third option, and the one that’s seen an explosion in popularity over the past few years, is a wireless speaker system. Most of these connect using Bluetooth, a feature that’s quickly becoming pervasive, especially on mobile devices. Some use Apple’s AirPlay technology, which offers better range and audio quality than Bluetooth but works only with Apple devices. The big advantages of wireless speaker systems are that you can use them with multiple devices and that you aren’t tied to a particular location—you can walk around with your phone or tablet, and control audio playback from a chair or desk on the other side of the room.

I provide specific model recommendations for each type of speaker below.

Multiple inputs: Planning to use your speakers with both a computer and a tablet, smartphone, or other media player? Wireless speaker systems (more on these below) usually make it easy to use multiple audio sources—assuming most of those sources feature Bluetooth.

If wireless isn’t an option, many computer speakers have two inputs—you can connect an additional device by running an audio cable from the phone or tablet’s headphone jack to the speaker’s second input jack. Similarly, most speaker docks and Bluetooth speakers also have an auxiliary-input jack for connecting a computer or other audio source using a standard audio cable. (As noted above, there are also adapter cables that let you connect a computer to a speaker system that has only a 30-pin dock connector.) Make sure the speaker systems you’re considering include enough inputs for the devices you’ll want to connect.

Especially for computer speakers, look for systems with the additional inputs located where they’re easily accessible, rather than inconveniently placed on the back of the speaker or on a subwoofer located under your desk.

The controls and connections for Logitech’s Z523 are conveniently located on the right satellite speaker.

On-speaker controls for computer speakers: The most-basic computer-speaker systems have no controls of their own; you connect them to your computer and then adjust output volume using your computer’s own volume level. Look instead for systems that provide their own volume controls. Even better, many systems let you adjust bass and treble levels to fine-tune audio output for your particular listening environment. If the speakers you’re considering include such options, be sure the controls are easily reachable on one of the speakers, or on a control pod or remote control, rather than on the back of a subwoofer that sits under your desk.

Price: To some extent, the more you pay for a set of speakers, the better the sound quality or the more features—or both—you get. Fortunately, speakers are among the most heavily discounted computer accessories, so be sure to shop around. Your budget may get you more than you think.

Now that you know what to look for, read on for speaker types and recommendations.

Speaker types and recommendations

In the sections below, I provide descriptions of each of the major types of stereo (left+right channel) speaker systems on the market. (I don’t cover surround-sound systems.) For each type, I also include a number of recommendations at various prices. For each recommendation, I indicate the audio-input options: audio jack (analog), optical connection, iPhone or iPad dock, Bluetooth, AirPlay, or USB. Prices listed are MSRP, so you’ll likely be able to find each product for a lower price—sometimes substantially lower.

Of course, these recommendations are by no means exhaustive—many quality systems aren’t listed. But you can’t go wrong with the models listed here, and they should give you an idea of the state of the art in each category.

Edifier Exclaim e10
Edifier's Exclaim e10

2.0 computer speakers: A 2.0 system (two channels but no subwoofer) usually comprises compact left and right speakers, with the amplifier housed inside one of those speakers. By separating the left and right channels, a 2.0 system provides much better stereo separation and imaging than a one-piece system that confines the left and right speakers to a single enclosure. Most 2.0 speakers also take up very little room on your desk. However, because they tend to use small speaker drivers to keep their footprints small, 2.0 speaker systems rarely match a good 2.1 system (below) when it comes to bass response. Recommendations:

JBL Pebbles
JBL's Pebbles

USB-powered 2.0 computer speakers: Although not as common as AC-powered models, some 2.0 speaker systems get their power from a USB port on your computer. In fact, these models use only a single USB cable for both power and audio—they grab a digital audio signal over USB—making them appealing to people averse to cords and cables. Some are also portable, making them convenient for laptop listening. But because a USB port doesn’t provide much power, USB-powered speakers tend to be small, don’t play very loud, and can’t produce much bass—their sound quality is rarely as good as that of a similarly priced AC- or battery-powered speaker system. The ones listed here offer solid sound—for USB speakers, at least. Recommendations:

Audioengine A2+
Audioengine’s Audioengine A2+

Studio monitors and powered bookshelf speakers: A variant of 2.0 systems, studio monitors are essentially powered bookshelf speakers. Considerably larger than most 2.0 systems, they generally give you much better bass response thanks to more-powerful (and better-quality) amplification and larger low-frequency drivers. They can also play much louder. In fact, a good set of studio monitors produces sound quality closer to that of a traditional home stereo system. On the other hand, studio monitors can take up a lot more room on your desk, and they sometimes sound better from across a room than when you’re seated directly in front of them (called near-field listening). Professional studio monitors, often used in recording studios, can cost well over $1,000, but there are some great options at reasonable prices if you’ve got the room. Recommendations:

Note that most studio monitors are designed like traditional bookshelf speakers, with a flat base. This means that if you put them on your desk without a stand, they’ll project audio directly at your stomach or chest. Most can be wall-mounted to get them up off your desk and positioned at ear level. Alternatively, you can buy a set of inexpensive speaker stands designed specifically for using studio monitors on a desk; these stands are short but angle the front of each speaker upwards towards your ears. Some good options are the Audioengine DS1 (for small monitors; $29) and Audioengine DS2 (for larger monitors; $34).

PSB Alpha 1-100 Powered Media System
PSB’s Alpha 1-100 Powered Media System

2.1 computer speakers: A 2.1 system (two channels plus a subwoofer) typically uses even smaller left and right speakers than a 2.0 system. These speakers, called satellites, produce the higher frequencies, while a larger speaker/amplifier component, usually designed to sit under your desk, produces lower frequencies. (A 2.1 system is often called a subwoofer/satellite, or sub/sat, system.) The two big advantages of a 2.1 system over a 2.0 system are that you usually get much better bass response—both more impact and the capability to extend down to lower frequencies—thanks to the dedicated subwoofer, and that the smaller left and right speakers take up less room on your desk (though the subwoofer/amplifier unit may take up a lot of room under it). Recommendations:

iHome iD8 speaker
iHome’s iD8

Non-Bluetooth portable speakers: If you want to be able to pack a speaker in your luggage, laptop bag, or backpack, you need something small, light, rugged, and battery powered. However, thanks to the smaller size and lower power of portable speakers, you’ll sacrifice sound quality for such convenience. These days, most portable speakers connect using Bluetooth (see “Bluetooth wireless speakers,” below), but if your device doesn’t support Bluetooth—or if you just want to save a few bucks—you can still find a few decent portable speakers that connect using a simple audio cable. Spend a bit more and you can get a portable speaker with an iPhone or iPad dock cradle. Recommendations:

Logitech UE Boombox
Logitech’s UE Boombox

Transportable/boomboxes: Yes, the venerable boombox is still around—a number of companies make big, luggable sound systems that run off lots of big batteries (or AC power). But instead of cassette decks, they feature iPhone docks and Bluetooth. Think “portable but not packable”—and, yes, you can even carry them on your shoulder. Compared to truly portable speakers, these systems will give you better sound, more bass, and louder volume, albeit in a much larger and heavier package that won’t fit in your carry-on. Recommendations:

Soundfreaq Sound Step Lightning speaker
Soundfreaq’s Sound Step Lightning

Desktop speakers and speaker docks: If you’re looking for something compact to put on your desk, the kitchen counter, a dresser, or a bookshelf, but you don’t really need portability, desktop speakers are the way to go. Thanks to AC power and larger-than-portable-speakers enclosures, these systems can offer surprisingly good sound quality, but they’re still compact enough to fit in small spaces. Some include an iPhone or iPad cradle that charges your device while docked, and some even provide alarm-clock or radio features. A few offer battery-powered operation, which is convenient if you just want to be able to move your music from room to room, or take it to the backyard. Recommendations:

If you have an Android or other non-iOS smartphone or tablet, a few docking speakers are out there, but most vendors are opting for Bluetooth connectivity (see the next category).

iRig iLoud speaker
IK Multimedia’s iLoud

Bluetooth wireless speakers: Just a few short years ago, this annual buying guide was awash with iPhone/iPod docks, with only a few Bluetooth models. Oh, how things have changed: These days, Bluetooth speakers are the most popular option, by far, for mobile devices.

Bluetooth speakers let you cut the cord—or dock—between your audio source and your speakers. You can stream audio to stereo-Bluetooth (A2DP) speakers from any recent Bluetooth-equipped smartphone or tablet, including iPhones, iPads, and most Android and Windows Phone devices, as well as from many media players, including the iPod touch and iPod nano. Recent Macs and some recent Windows PCs also support stereo-Bluetooth streaming, and you can use Bluetooth speakers with other devices by purchasing a Bluetooth transmitter, offered by a number of companies. Most Bluetooth speakers also allow you to connect to non-Bluetooth devices using a standard audio cable.

For convenience, many Bluetooth speaker systems provide Play/Pause, Previous, and Next buttons on the speaker itself; most tablets and smartphones let you control music playback using these buttons. Some Bluetooth speakers also double as a speakerphone, letting you easily switch between music and voice features. Bluetooth speakers generally have a wireless range of around 30 unobstructed feet.

It’s worth noting that if you listen to high-quality music files and you have good ears, the sound quality of a Bluetooth speaker system is usually not as good as that of a similar wired system. (A new technology called Apt-X is helping to reduce this shortcoming. However, Apt-X isn’t yet widely supported, and you need Apt-X on both ends of your wireless connection—your Bluetooth source and your Bluetooth speakers.) Also, note that even though Bluetooth speakers connect wirelessly to your music source, the rest of the system isn’t necessarily wireless: For non-portable models, you still need a power cord, and for systems with left and right speakers or a subwoofer, there’s usually a cable connecting those components.

FoxL Dash7
Soundmatters' FoxL Dash7 is just 7.5" inches long, 2.1" wide, and 0.75" thick.

Bluetooth speakers come in all types—you may have noticed that I included a number of Bluetooth-equipped models in the various recommendation lists above. I provide a combined list here, noting each model’s speaker type, for readers who are looking specifically for wireless options. Recommendations:

Note that if you already have a 30-pin speaker dock for an older iPhone, iPad, or iPod, many vendors offer relatively inexpensive adapters that turn that speaker dock into a Bluetooth speaker system. We have a review of a dozen or so such products on the way.

Libratone’s Zipp

AirPlay wireless speakers: Like Bluetooth speakers, AirPlay-enabled audio systems let you cut the cord, and use the speakers with multiple sources, but they take advantage of Apple’s AirPlay (formerly AirTunes) technology to let you stream music, over your local network, from your iOS devices or Macs. (Some of these systems also include an iPhone/iPod dock.)

The advantages of AirPlay over Bluetooth include better audio quality—AirPlay uses lossless audio compression, while Bluetooth uses lossy compression—and much better range, as you can stream anywhere within range of your Wi-Fi network. When using iTunes on a Mac, you can even stream to multiple AirPlay devices (including AirPort Express and Apple TV units) simultaneously. The biggest drawbacks of AirPlay systems are that you can use them with only Apple-branded sources, and that they tend to be quite a bit more expensive than comparable Bluetooth systems. Recommendations:

Sonos’s Play:3 (left) and Play:5 (right) speakers

Build your own, or get music everywhere

As an alternative to buying a speaker system, you can build your own system for your computer, smartphone, or tablet—even for Bluetooth or AirPlay listening. A few years ago, I wrote about building an iPod/iPhone speaker system from a small amp, a dedicated iPod dock, and a set of quality bookshelf speakers. Many of the components in that article are no longer available, but the how-to information is still relevant. More recently, I wrote about building your own AirPlay-enabled audio system, and we’ve also covered several desktop amplifiers and desktop amps with a built-in digital-to-analog converter for getting quality audio from your computer. Going this route allows you to spend as much (or as little) as you like on whatever design and level of quality you prefer.

If you’re interested in this approach, we’ve got some upcoming articles you’ll want to watch for, including an article on adding Bluetooth to an existing speaker or stereo system, and an updated version of that AirPlay do-it-yourself article.

Finally, if you’re looking to get your music all over your house, rather than in just a single location, you’ll want to consider a whole-home audio system. While custom installers will gladly charge you five figures to set up a complex solution, you can instead create your own whole-home system. Such a system is fairly easy to set up using gear from Sonos, or even, for Apple users, by simply adding AirPlay-enabled speakers (or speakers connected to AirPort Express or Apple TV units) throughout your home.

[Editor’s note: This is an updated edition of our annual buying guide. Among other changes, it includes new recommendations and omits previously recommended products that are no longer available.]

[Updated 12/9/2013 to correct the vendor name for the iRig speaker; to remove the TDK Wireless Sound Cube and 3 Speaker Boombox (which were discontinued soon after the article was published); and to add the Logitech UE Mini Boom.]

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