Computer Speakers Review
Why Do I Need Computer Speakers?
PC manufacturers seldom equip their products with excellent speakers. As laptops get thinner and computer monitors get slimmer, the quality of integrated speakers takes a hit. Even when you buy an expensive and powerful PC, it most likely comes with subpar speakers that sound tinny.
Even when a computer bears the logo of a premium audio equipment manufacturer like Altec Lansing or Bang and Olufsen, its output rarely measures up to that of an external computer speaker. Built-in speakers are just fine for playing back operating system alerts such as beeps from your favorite chat application. But, if you enjoy multimedia such as movies, music and video games, you may find them inadequate. Fortunately, you can improve your PC's sound output with external speakers.
Freestanding PC speakers sound better than the ones built in to computers because they have internal amplifiers. Unlike home theater speakers, computer speakers are usually small. You can place them on your desk and arrange them around your computer. These desktop speakers come in different sizes and have varying designs.
Anatomy of a Computer Speaker
Computer speakers have a lot of parts that affect how loud they are and the quality of the sound they produce. Depending on the type of media you plan to use the speakers for, some components are more important than others.
The size of a computer speaker’s enclosure, as well as the material it is made of, affects the quality of the sound it produces. A spacious enclosure allows for air movement and high sound energy. Basically, the size of a speaker determines its peak sound volume. Still, you shouldn’t just buy big desktop speakers because they sound louder than small ones; big, loud speakers don’t sound good in small rooms, so the size of the room you plan on using them in should be a primary consideration.
Ideally, a speaker enclosure should be tightly sealed, as this creates a more accurate sound. Some computer speakers, especially subwoofers, have enclosures with ports at the front, back, bottom or sides to properly vent the sound pressure inside the enclosure. Look for speakers with reinforced enclosures, which dampen unwanted vibration that can ruin the sound quality.
Budget speakers are usually made of plastic to save on production costs, while high-end speakers use sturdier materials for their enclosures. More expensive speakers also tend to be eye catching – the Harman Kardon SoundSticks III are actually part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
The driver is the heart of all desktop speakers. It's responsible for converting electrical energy from the amplifier to sound by vibrating a diaphragm exposed to an electromagnetic field. The sound driver is the circular or conical central portion of the speaker.
As a rule of thumb, bigger drivers produce louder and sharper sounds than smaller drivers. Driver size is of particular importance when shopping for 2.0 computer speakers. This is because they don’t have dedicated subwoofers and instead combine tweeter and woofer drivers in their cramped enclosures. To choose the best 2.0 computer speaker, look for those with at least 5-inch drivers.
Bass is the rumble you hear as your speakers pick up low-end sounds, and to bring out those bass sounds, you need a set of computer speakers with a subwoofer. A subwoofer is a loud speaker that processes low-frequency audio signals and delivers them as bass notes, and they come in wired and wireless models.
Computer subwoofers are usually wired to satellite speakers that handle the mid- and high-frequency notes. 2.1 speakers are the most affordable speakers with subwoofers included. To make up for weak bass, get a speaker system with a separate computer subwoofer that houses a large low-frequency driver.
In addition to a subwoofer, a speaker typically also houses a smaller, secondary driver known as a tweeter. Tweeters usually have diameters of 1 inch or less and are responsible for reproducing high-frequency sounds. In some units, a third driver, known as a midrange driver, is also present to handle audio frequencies between the low and high ends.
The diaphragm on a sound driver is directly responsible for the quality of sound coming out of the speaker. Driver diaphragms are made of different materials, and you should pay attention to them when shopping for computer speakers. Budget speakers often use silk, paper and plastic diaphragms. These make capable diaphragms that sound pleasing to the ears. However, if you're in the market for high-end and audiophile PC speakers, make sure the diaphragm material is titanium or aluminum. These higher-quality materials respond faster to electromagnetic stimulation and produce more precise sounds.
To enjoy stereo sound from your computer, you need at least a two-speaker system, or a system with two channels. By using two or more speakers, and sometimes a subwoofer, your computer speaker setup can assign one unit to each channel of audio output and produce better audio performance than mono-aural single speakers.
The number of speakers in a system is indicated by a number with a decimal. The number before the decimal indicates the number of satellite speakers, and the number after the decimal indicates how many separate subwoofers are included.
For example, the simplest computer speaker setup is the 2.0 computer speaker system. It has two speakers that provide enough sound separation to deliver stereo output. In this basic audio setup, the subwoofer resides in one of the two speakers. Like the 2.0 system, a 2.1 computer speaker setup has two satellite speakers, but it also includes one computer subwoofer. Thanks to their subwoofers, 2.1 PC speakers produce loud and rich stereo sound. You can buy even bigger setups with five or more satellite speakers and separate subwoofers.
While you can find some basic computer speakers with no controls, most units come with at least a volume knob. When no controls are available on the speakers themselves, you have to adjust volume from your computer.
When you have controls on your PC speakers, you can independently adjust sound output without fiddling with software settings on your computer. Besides volume, some high-end speakers also let you control audio output from different channels as well as treble and bass levels. The subwoofer should have separate controls from the satellite speakers. A few premium computer speakers, like the Bose Companion 5, house controls on a control pod, while some ship with remote controls.
A speaker system’s frequency response is its output over a frequency range. Only consider desktop computer speakers with frequency responses ranging from less than 100Hz to more than 20kHz. These values signify a wide frequency response with loud bass and quiet high frequencies.
Since most people can't hear sounds above 20kHz, most PC speakers top out around that figure. However, the low-frequency limit varies considerably from speaker to speaker. A limit of 40Hz is good enough for a PC speaker, but high-end speakers may go as low as 30Hz. In addition to this frequency range, manufacturers also quote a variance limit, typically +/- 3dB, which represents the consistency in sound as reproduced by the speaker from the source.
A speaker's power rating can be either its continuous (RMS) power or peak input power. Expressed in watts, RMS power is the amount of input power the speaker can continuously bear. Peak input power is the upper limit of a surge in power tolerable by the speaker. Exceeding the continuous power rating or the peak input power may damage the electronics inside the speaker.
Computer speakers with higher power ratings not only deliver deeper bass, but they also are more resilient to power surges and can drive other auxiliary sound equipment better than speakers with lower power ratings. For a pair of PC speakers, a combined power rating of 40 watts is good enough, unless you plan to pair them with an entertainment or gaming PC. When looking for excellent 2.1 speakers to use with such PCs, pick a system with at least 200 watts RMS power and 400 watts peak power.
The speaker's impedance is its resistance to an electrical signal. This is different from but related to its power rating. A low-impedance speaker can draw more power from an amplifier than a high-impedance speaker. Usually, the impedance of PC speakers varies from 4 to 6 Ohms, and you should only bother about this value if you plan on driving those speakers with an external amplifier or AV receiver.
Sensitivity determines how loud a speaker is when supplied with input signals. Measured in dB per watt and stated simply as dB, speaker sensitivity is a measure of sound pressure and directly correlates with loudness. Therefore, a speaker with a higher sensitivity produces a greater sound output than one with a lower sensitivity if you supply both of them with 1 watt of power. When shopping for PC speakers, choose the setup with the highest sensitivity rating, as it's also the most power-efficient choice.
Computer speakers are useless without a way to connect them to your PC and other devices. You can find speakers that communicate with your computer either through cables or wirelessly using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Some also require access to an electrical outlet to work.
Wired vs. Wireless Speakers
Wired speakers rarely have built-in batteries and have cords that connect them to your PC. Since it is easier for manufacturers to build wired 2.1, 5.1 and 7.1 speaker systems than wireless surround sound models, wired multi-speaker systems for PCs are more reliable and less expensive than wireless surround sound speakers. Furthermore, wired computer speakers generally sound better than wireless ones, which suffer from inefficient compression and decompression of wireless audio signals. However, unless you are an audiophile or use your computer as a sound-mixing console, gaming rig or home entertainment PC, you’ll most likely prefer the portability and overall convenience of wireless speakers.
Wireless speakers can connect to your computer by Wi-Fi, but Bluetooth is the most common wireless technology used in speakers. With their maximum range of 33 feet, you can place Bluetooth speakers all around the room. While some of these speakers need to be plugged in to electrical outlets, there are popular models with integrated, rechargeable batteries that provide up to 10 hours of listening time. In some cases, manufacturers make both wired and Bluetooth wireless versions of the same speakers. The JBL Jembe Bluetooth speakers belong in this category. If you're truly keen on having Bluetooth speakers, you can add a Bluetooth adapter to a regular, wired speaker.
The major advantage of Bluetooth desktop speakers over Wi-Fi models is how easy they are to set up and connect to your computer or mobile devices. Still, Wi-Fi connectivity does have its advantages. Speakers equipped with Wi-Fi have longer wireless ranges than Bluetooth speakers. A typical Bluetooth speaker has a maximum range of 33 feet, while Wi-Fi desktop computer speakers can reach 100 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors. Thanks to this extended range, obstructions like walls affect Wi-Fi speakers to a lesser extent and make them ideal for multi-room setups.
Wi-Fi speakers also have higher bandwidth and bit rates than Bluetooth speakers. Because of these advantages, their sound quality is comparable to that of wired PC speakers, and they are better than Bluetooth speakers for playing lossless audio formats like FLAC. They also handle high-fidelity audio signals, such as those delivered by Dolby and THX-certified equipment, better.
Computer speakers need power to drive their built-in electronics, and they gather that power from one of three sources: AC power delivered via a wall outlet, DC power over USB and DC power from a built-in battery. Even the best USB-powered speakers are underpowered when compared to AC-powered speakers. However, you don't need to find a wall outlet to use a DC-powered model.
Some computer speakers with USB connections do more than draw power from PCs' USB ports. These USB connections can carry audio signals in addition to delivering power, so they use a single USB cable for power and audio connection. While this makes them convenient laptop speakers, they generally are small and underpowered – USB-powered speakers are often not as loud as AC or even battery-powered speakers, and they have lackluster bass performance.
While battery-powered speakers sound better than USB-powered models, they're still no match for AC-powered PC speakers. Most battery-powered speakers pack rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, but there's a limit to how much power you can draw from such batteries.
On the other hand, AC-powered speakers don't have that limitation. With power readily available to drive multiple components, AC-powered desktop computer speakers usually pack bigger drivers and higher-quality electronics. It's no wonder then that they're usually bigger and sound better than USB- and battery-powered models.
The 3.5mm stereo input is the most popular connectivity port found on computer speakers. It's a standard audio connection interface, and you can find it on all computers, smartphones and tablets.
Some PC speakers have USB ports in addition to or in place of a 3.5mm input port.
One advantage of including a USB port is that it can charge the speaker as well as transmit audio signals. Another equally important advantage is that USB can transmit digital audio signals, which improves the sound quality with digital signal processing techniques. However, you should be cautious of computer speakers that substitute the 3.5mm port for a USB port, as they are sometimes underpowered. In some models, the USB port on the speaker does not transmit sound or power the unit but is for charging smartphones.
Besides the 3.5mm port, RCA ports, or phono ports, are sometimes found on PC speakers. This type of port is common in legacy and audiophile audio equipment, as well as certain home theater systems. Therefore, if you want to use your desktop speakers for sound mixing and production or plug them into AV receivers and external subwoofers, you should look for one with an RCA port.
Speakers for Every Need
Whether you enjoy listening to music or streaming Netflix movies, the underpowered speakers built in to your computer are unlikely to be satisfactory. Even a pair of decent compact computers speakers are a worthy upgrade in sound quality. While you can get any speakers for your PC, manufacturers optimize them for different applications. For example, the THX-certified Logitech Z623 speaker is suited for playing sound from movies and games, while the Logitech S150 is a pair of portable USB-powered desktop speakers best used for teleconferencing.
Speakers for PC Gaming
If you enjoy gaming, you probably love high-definition graphics and loud, crisp stereo sound that immerses you in the game. A separate subwoofer unit with satellite speakers projects the thumping bass you enjoy. However, it's not enough for gaming PC speakers to be loud; they must also reproduce directional sound so you can hear a stealthy enemy approaching from behind. This kind of surround sound is only possible with 2.1, 5.1 and 7.1 speaker systems.
Speakers for PC Studio Artists
Also referred to as studio monitors, PC speakers made for recording music and mixing sounds produce more accurate sounds than regular computer speakers. In addition to subwoofers, these speakers also have large tweeter drivers. While subwoofers handle low sound frequencies, tweeters ensure accurate acoustic performance at high frequencies. If you have a home studio or use music production software on your PC, then you need this type of high-fidelity computer speaker.
Speakers for Entertainment PCs
If you watch Blu-ray movies on your PC or have a home theater PC, you should go for dedicated multimedia computer speakers. These usually pack proprietary and industry-standard acoustic technologies from the likes of Dolby. Like gaming PC speakers, those made for entertainment PC systems deliver an expansive soundstage and faithfully reproduce sound outputs at both low and high frequencies. A good example of this class of speakers is the Bose Companion 2 Series III.
Speakers for Teleconferencing
Sometimes called speakerphones, speakers for teleconferencing are best-suited for offices with remote workers. Unlike regular computer speakers, these speakers have built-in omnidirectional microphones to pick sounds from everyone in a conference room. Other features that set this class of desktop speakers apart include wideband audio, noise-canceling technology and echo reduction. Certain models like the Jabra 510 MS are also optimized for specific Unified Communications platforms like Microsoft Lync. They may connect to PCs directly via USB cables or wirelessly via Bluetooth. Usually, these compact computer speakers have pretty long wireless ranges as well as long-lasting batteries you can recharge using the USB port on your PC.