Computer Speakers Buying Guide

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While every Mac includes a built-in speaker (or two), those speakers don't do your audio justice. They're fine for hearing beeps and other alerts, but if you want to get the most out of your music, movies, and games, you need something more capable. The easiest solution is a set of computer speakers--a self-powered system you simply plug into your Mac's audio-out jack and enjoy.

The variety of computer speakers, and their ranges of price and quality, are wider than ever, while the opportunities to test speakers yourself before buying are few. Here are our tips for choosing a set of computer speakers for your desktop. (We focus on stereo--left/right--speaker systems here, not surround-sound systems.)

Buying advice

2.0 vs. 2.1: A 2.0 system (two channels, no subwoofer) comprises compact, left and right speakers with the amplifier housed inside one of those speakers. A 2.1 system (two channels plus a subwoofer) typically uses even smaller left and right speakers, called satellites, for higher frequencies, along with a larger speaker/amplifier component that sits under your desk and produces lower frequencies. A 2.1 system is often called a subwoofer/satellite, or sub/sat, system.

The biggest differences between the two types of systems relate to size and bass performance. A 2.0 system generally takes up less space overall--just two, generally small, spots on your desk. With a 2.1 system, the lower frequencies are handled by the subwoofer, which allows the satellites to be even smaller; that subwoofer/amplifier unit, however, often takes up a big chunk of space under your desk.

The big benefit of that large subwoofer unit is that a 2.1 system can generally reproduce lower frequencies-a trait called bass extension--and provide more powerful bass than the smaller drivers of a system without a subwoofer. (It also follows that the larger the woofer[s] in a speaker system, the better--or at least the more powerful--the bass performance.)

Studio monitors: One variant of 2.0 systems is studio monitors, which are essentially powered bookshelf speakers designed for use in recording and production studios. Studio monitors tend to be much bulkier than traditional 2.0 computer speakers and the compact satellites used in most 2.1 systems. But that larger size lets them host larger woofers that provide decent bass performance without the need for a subwoofer.

Specs and sound quality: Ignore manufacturers' specifications--especially frequency response numbers. There's no standard testing methodology for speakers, and many vendors exaggerate their 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 ears; if you can't audition a system in person, read reviews from sources you trust. A good speaker system provides good balance between the treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail.

While it's not difficult to find a set of speakers that offers enjoyable detail and midrange frequencies, quality bass is a bigger challenge. Speakers (including subwoofers) that use small drivers simply can't reproduce the lowest notes. In an attempt to give the impression of bass performance, many vendors tweak their speakers to pump out prominent upper-bass frequencies. This approach adds some punch, 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. Otherwise, consider a set of speakers that forgoes the lowest frequencies altogether in favor of accurate sound across the rest of the audio spectrum.

Inputs: Some speakers offer only a single audio connection, limiting you to listening to sound from your computer. If you'll want to listen to other audio sources, look for a system with additional inputs; these days, many speakers offer at least a second audio-input jack (preferably within reach for easy access--not under your desk) for connecting an iPod, iPhone, or other source.

Controls: The most-basic systems have no controls of their own; you connect your computer and then adjust output volume using your computer's own volume controls. We prefer systems that provide their own volume control; 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 controls, be sure they're easily reachable: on the left or right speaker or satellite, or on a control pod or remote control, rather than on the back of a subwoofer under your desk.

Appearance: While the design of a set of speakers may not be important to everyone, keep in mind that you'll be looking at those speakers whenever you're sitting at your computer, so you need to be happy with the view. On the other hand, what looks shiny and stylish in official PR shots may look plasticky and attract dust and fingerprints in real-world use; what looks stunning at first may look gaudy or tacky after a few weeks (or in a year or two when the flashy design is dated).

Price: To some extent, the more you pay for a set of speakers, the better the sound quality or the more features you get--or both. 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.

Recommended speakers

If you can audition speakers before you buy, bring a variety of your favorite music and take your time; 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. To help you narrow down your choices, or further filter your options, here are a few of our recent top-rated speaker systems. (See our speakers reviews for more suggestions. You can also see our slideshow of speakers we're recently reviewed.)

The Creative GigaWorks T40 Series II ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) is a versatile 2.0 speaker system that offers commendable sound quality--including surprisingly good bass response given the system's size--and an attractive design at a good price. Adding to the T40's appeal are multiple inputs, a jack for connecting Creative's own iPod dock, and separate bass and treble controls. Read our full review. [$150 (Get best current price); Creative]

Professional studio monitors can cost over $1,000, but if you've got some extra room on your desk, the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) offers a taste of studio-monitor performance and features for only $200. It out-performs the traditional 2.0 computer speakers we've tested, and even bests many 2.1 systems when it comes to overall sound quality (though it can't compete with a good 2.1 system at lower frequencies). It also provides unusual flexibility thanks to three inputs, a convenient headphone jack, and the use of standard speaker cables. Read our full review. [$200; M-Audio]

The 2.1 Harman Kardon SoundSticks II ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) has been around for a good many years. But in a market where products rarely last a year, the fact that the SoundSticks II is still available says a lot about the system's staying power. The SoundSticks II doesn't have all the features--multiple inputs, treble and bass controls, a headphone jack--of some other computer speakers, but its appearance remains striking and the system provides very good sound quality for the price. If your tastes lean toward clear treble detail with some bass impact, this system's is worth a listen. Read our full review. [$170 (Get best current price); Harman Kardon]

The Razer Mako ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) 2.1 speaker system is pricey, but it offers big, big sound--including standout bass performance--that impresses from anywhere in the room. We also loved its unique touch-sensitive control pod. The Mako's authoritative audio presence, range of useful features, impressive build quality, and unique design make it a standout system. Read our full review. [$300 (Get best current price); Razer]


[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor.]

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