Buying Guide: PC Speaker SystemsDave Salvator
15 years have passed since the PC first learned to make sounds beyond the
occasional beep. In that time, there's been a world of change, and PC audio has
come of age. But however much PC audio has improved, it can sound only as good
as your output devices allow, so selecting the right speaker system is critical.
a lot of choices, and they vary both in price and number of speakers.
Multichannel audio, which requires more than two speakers (in modern speaker
parlance, two-channel sound is simply called stereo), can enhance both games and
DVD movies, and it's the current rage in PC sound, but that doesn't mean it's
right for you. Use this guide to help pinpoint the system that will most closely
fit your intended uses, meet your feature requirements, and still match your
a time when "good PC speakers" was something of a contradiction in terms. But
companies like Cambridge SoundWorks, Klipsch, and Polk Audio have dramatically
improved the sonic scene.
arrival of multichannel sound cards, which support four-, five-, six-, seven-,
and now eight-channel output, created a market for multichannel speaker systems.
In the late 1990s, the driving application for multichannel audio was the 3-D
positional audio in games. This ushered in a new type of sound design for games,
which improved players' abilities to interact with imaginary worlds. Noise from
a character positioned behind you and to your left would actually come from the
left rear speaker, for example.
Initially, most multichannel setups consisted of controlling electronics and
five speakers in what were called 4.1 (four dot one) systems—four speakers
positioned with one left/right pair in front of you and the other behind, and a
separate floor unit, commonly referred to as a subwoofer (although in most
cases, bass speaker is a more accurate term), for low-frequency sounds.
The floor unit is the 1 in 4.1. The arrival of DVD-ROM drives and the DVD
format's support of Dolby Digital audio brought 5.1 sound cards and speaker
systems to the PC. The fifth speaker sits on top or in front of your PC monitor
and provides an outlet for Dolby Digital's all-important center-front channel
information, which contains nearly all film dialogue. A sixth speaker—either a
dedicated bass speaker or subwoofer—is the dot-one. When playing Dolby Digital
content (movies, usually), this sixth speaker is the output for the Low
Frequency Effects (LFE) channel and delivers rumble effects.
you'll hear the bass speaker that comes with many PC speaker sets called a
subwoofer, it usually isn't. It reproduces low frequencies, but a real subwoofer
is specially designed to handle signals of from roughly 10 to 50 Hz—very low
frequencies that are below what typical home audio speakers can properly
reproduce. Home systems use subwoofers to beef up low-end response. Crossover
circuitry sends signals that are below a certain frequency to the bass speaker
or subwoofer, whichever you have. The crossover frequency depends on your
speaker system, and some systems let you adjust this value.
arrival of THX certification brought another level of sophistication to the PC
speaker world. Star Wars creator George Lucas founded the company THX to
test film playback equipment. The goal was to insure that audiences would get
the optimal entertainment experience possible. The company extended its testing
to home theater equipment and now even tests PC speakers. Several makers,
including Altec Lansing, Cambridge SoundWorks, Klipsch, and Logitech, have
speakers that carry the THX seal of approval.
The number of speakers you need depends on what you do with your PC. With
multichannel speaker systems, space becomes an important consideration, too,
since the systems can demand a lot of real estate where your PC lives. Here is a
rundown of speaker configurations.
A 2.0 system has two speakers—one for each side of your PC monitor—and no bass
speaker. Small sets take up very little room on the desktop and no floor space.
If your PC is already in cramped quarters and you don't play games or listen to
loud music, this may be a good choice.
This configuration is the same as a 2.0 setup, but adds a bass speaker to handle
low-frequency sounds. You'll almost always get better bass response from a 2.1
system than you would from a 2.0 speaker set. A 2.1 speaker setup is ideal for
the music enthusiast who doesn't play many games, doesn't watch DVD movies
often, and operates in a space-challenged environment. Even if you have plenty
of room for a 4.1 setup, 2.1 saves you from having to run extra cables for the
Gamers who want to hear sound all around need at least a 4.1 speaker setup. This
is ideal for generating sound on four sides of you in gaming situations, which
allows you to better localize or determine the position and movement of sound
emitters in the game. While these speakers can do a fine job of delivering
multichannel gaming audio, a 5.1 speaker set is probably better, primarily
because it will do a better with DVD movie playback.
For the most part, DVD movie audio uses Dolby Digital, a 5.1 audio format. Some
games can also take advantage of the Dolby Digital format. The front-center
speaker is very important in this format, because movies present nearly all
dialogue through this channel. DTS (Digital Theater System), another DVD movie
format, also uses the 5.1 channel sound. The 5.1 configuration is increasingly
popular for PC speakers.
This format adds a third surround channel called center-surround. Dolby and DTS
now offer 6.1 DVD movie formats—Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES. For PC sound, the
third surround channel is a nice luxury but doesn't really add much audio
information, because the distance separating the left and right surround
channels in a PC listening environment often is only about four feet. In
home-theatre setups, the third surround channel is more useful, since the left
and right surround channels are sometimes 10 to 15 feet apart.
$30-$50. To get any
speaker set worth having, you'll need to spend at least $30. Entry-level 2.1 and
4.1 systems are in this price range, and they deliver good basic PC audio
choices open up quite a bit in this price range. You'll find good entry-level
choices in all speaker configurations—2.1, 4.1, 5.1, and even 6.1. There are
several very solid 2.1 speaker sets available for around $100 that are fine for
general Windows audio and listening to music.
$100-$200. As you
move up the ladder, you get into stronger offerings in all categories, and the
improvements come in the areas of wattage (more powerful amplifiers) and better
speaker components. You can also get 5.1 speaker systems in this range that
feature a Dolby Digital and DTS decoder, which is a great feature for those who
watch DVDs on a PC but don't have DTS decoding support in the DVD player.
$200-$300. Most PC
speaker makers have top-shelf offerings in this price range in all
are a few sets of 5.1 and 6.1 speakers in this price range. They provide
powerful amplification and carry THX certification.
$400. Above $400,
you'll find quite a number of home-theater-in-a-box offerings, although these
are primarily targeted at living room entertainment centers. If your PC is part
of your home theater setup, then consider these speakers not so much for your PC
but for your whole living room experience. You can also explore using a good
entry-level stereo amplifier and a set of bookshelf speakers, although this will
push the cost into the $500 to $600 range.
Speaker systems have a wide range of capabilities, some necessary, some not.
What follows describes the more common and useful features.
Since you need to decide what speaker configuration you want before anything
else, we present a brief summary of our earlier descriptions, for convenience.
2.0/2.1: A two-speaker system (or one that adds a dedicated
bass speaker) is fine for basic PC audio and music listening. It's also good
in cramped environments.
4.1: The combination of four speakers arranged in
front/back pairs and a subwoofer is good for PC gaming and delivering DVD
5.1: As with the 4.1 arrangement, this is still good for PC
gaming, but the front-center speaker it adds lets this setup deliver better
DVD movie audio.
Somewhat exotic for PCs, these systems are intended
more for home theater. They provide even more surround-channel information by
adding a third rear speaker to the 5.1 format.
This is an
important consideration, since an underpowered amplifier won't deliver the
needed oomph to a speaker set. Be careful when reading power ratings on
PC speaker spec sheets; speaker manufacturers sometimes play a little fast and
loose with these figures. For a 2.1 speaker configuration, total continuous
power should be at least 15 watts. That may not sound like much, but for
two-channel PC speakers, often that's enough. High-end 6.1 PC speaker systems
typically have around 40 to 50 watts per satellite channel. See the Reality
Check section for more information.
want to make sure your set of speakers has all its controls either in one of the
front-channel satellite speakers or a desktop control pod. Speaker systems of
any type should include volume and bass controls, at the very least. Other
useful controls include the center-channel volume level typically found on 5.1
systems, a surround-channel volume control, left/right balance, and a mute
button for when you need to interrupt your listening session.
This is a must-have if you want to enjoy your PC audio late at night while
others are sleeping. The headphone jack should mute the speakers' outputs when
you plug in headphones and should be located close to the controls. Most PC
speakers use the 1/8-inch stereo headphone jack found on Walkman-type portable
music devices and are compatible with any regular set of headphones for portable
control: A wireless
remote is always nice, but not essential.
Wall-mounted power supplies are often cheap for hardware makers but a royal pain
for hardware buyers. A "line lump" or what some call a "soap on a rope" supply
is better, because the bulky step-down transformer that would needlessly cover
several outlets is somewhere in the line cord, and you connect a normal plug
instead of a big brick to the power outlet. The best arrangement, though, hides
the transformer in the subwoofer cabinet, so the power supply consumes neither
power-outlet real estate nor extra floor space.
Some higher end 5.1 speaker sets come with a Dolby Digital/DTS decoder—a handy
feature for those who want to use their PC speakers with consumer audio gear.
Most PC software DVD players can handle Dolby Digital decoding, and some will
also accommodate DTS. This feature isn't essential, but it's a nice extra.
Does size matter? With speakers, kind of, but decent speakers do not have to
fill an entire living room. Most PC audio environments involve what's known as
near-field listening, where you're sitting within three feet of the speakers and
don't want to blast yourself into the next county.
multichannel speaker sets offer a feature that will split a two-channel stereo
signal and mirror the stereo output in the two surround channels, giving you a
kind of surround stereo effect. Whether this sounds good to your ears is a
matter of taste, and while this feature will fill the listening environment with
more sound, it can also muddy stereo imaging and cause listener fatigue.
need to choose carefully here, because not all multichannel speaker systems will
connect to all multichannel sound cards. This is especially true for 6.1 speaker
sets. In general, 5.1 connections are pretty standard—one connector each for
front left/front right, surround left/surround right, and center/subwoofer. Some
speaker sets also have a digital audio input, which is convenient because you
only have to connect a single cable from your sound card to your speakers. If
you want to listen to DVD audio in all its 5.1 glory, however, you'll need to
connect your PC to your 5.1 speakers using the three analog connectors. This is
because high-resolution DVD audio material exceeds the bandwidth of the
current-generation S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) digital audio
Wattage is to speakers what horsepower is to cars: an important feature that's also used to claim bragging rights. Amplifier power ratings are one of the most abused and
least understood specs in the speaker world, and the situation got so bad three
years ago that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued new regulations for
rating the power of all amplifiers, including those used in self-powered
speakers. The rules state that all power specs must be quoted as continuous
average power into a stated impedance, at a stated distortion over a stated
important to understand about power ratings is as simple as three little
letters: rms. The rms, or root mean square measure of power is the most
useful, because it represents sustained power output over time. The maximum
wattage, peak power, is misleading because amplifiers can sustain it only
briefly. So when looking at amplifier ratings, don't be swayed by big numbers.
Be wary of specs like "peak power" or "peak system power," and instead look for
figures like Watts RMS. Here's an example of a credible spec (and one that
follows FTC guidelines) for an amplifier's total sustained power output:
Watts RMS at 8 ohms, with no more than 0.1% THD, from 20-20,000Hz, all channels
certainly quite a mouthful, and most PC speaker systems won't carry power
ratings in this much detail, FTC regulations notwithstanding. Many makers, such
as Cambridge SoundWorks, Logitech, and Polk Audio, will at least give you the
RMS wattage ratings, though.
specs manufacturers do or don't include, the arrival of THX certification for PC
speakers has helped make selection of a quality system somewhat easier. THX
certified multichannel systems such as those from Altec Lansing, Cambridge
SoundWorks, Klipsch, and Logitech deliver solid performance.
Good for basic PC audio and music listening. No bass speaker/subwoofer to eat floor space.
The lack of a bass speaker/subwoofer can make for anemic bass response and leave overall sound quality wanting.
Good for listening to music. The bass speaker/subwoofer should help round out bass response.
A bass speaker/subwoofer will take up floor space. 3-D positional audio has to be faked using sound-card effects processing that tries to simulate sound moving all around you, including behind you.
Good for listening to music. Great for games with 3-D audio effects.
You'll need space for the surround channel speakers, and there will be additional wiring, so watch your step.
Good for just about all audio. The addition of the front-center channel speaker will improve DVD movie audio by providing a dedicated outlet for dialogue.
You'll need a place to put those surround channel speakers, and a way to route the wiring so you don't trip over it. You may not really need the center channel if you're not watching DVDs on your PC.
May be overkill for PC audio, but if you want the absolute best surround sound from your PC, you'll get it with this.
You'll need space for the three surround channel speakers, and you'll also need to make sure that your sound card's output is compatible with whatever 6.1 speaker set you choose.
Set a budget.
Listen, listen, listen! Take your favorite CDs and DVD movies and do a LOT of critical listening before you buy. You know what sounds good to your ears. Listen at louder volumes and at more moderate volume levels and note the differences. Use a wide variety of material, both delicate and raucous.
While conducting your listening tests, pay close attention to bass response, since the bass speaker/subwoofer is often the first part of a speaker system to exhibit audible distortion. With pop music, listen for the drummer's kick drum and the bass line. For classical recordings, listen for instruments like the timpani (kettledrums), bass violins, and low brass. In DVD movies, play scenes with a lot of action. Explosions are an especially good way to gauge a speaker set's bass response. Bass response is especially important for DVD movie and gaming audio.
Disconnect the speakers from the test PC's sound card, set the volume control at about 50 percent, and listen closely for "hash" or "hiss" sounds. Substandard amplifiers generate hissing when idle, and this can become quite annoying after a while.
Decide what speaker configuration you want for your PC before you walk into the store, or at least narrow down the list.
Don't rely on store salespeople for correct product information. They often know less than you do.
Don't buy more speakers than you need.
Get a set of speakers with a headphone jack so you can enjoy your desired listening level, even late at night.
Make sure the box of the speakers you're buying has not been opened. An opened box might indicate that the speaker set was returned and is damaged, defective, or missing pieces.
Make sure that wherever you buy your speakers, there's a 30-day return policy.
This is a technique (used primarily in 3-D games) that makes sounds appear as
though placed in space around the listener. The sound effect of a bee buzzing
around your head would be one example. In a two-channel system, the effect must
be faked using digital signal processing (DSP). It doesn't sound bad, but tends
to sound better with headphones than speakers, especially since "sweet-spotting"
becomes an issue with only two speakers—you have to keep your head at
stereo-center and on-axis (facing forward) to get the optimal effect.
See Dolby Digital
Balance: Balance is
a speaker control that determines how much sound appears to come from the left
versus the right channels. The control reduces power to one side (left or right)
making the apparent volume of the other louder.
circuit splits the audio signal into frequency bands, routing the lower band to the bass
speaker/subwoofer. Ideally, the crossover frequency, below which signals
get routed to the bass speaker/subwoofer, should be 100 Hz, since humans can
begin to localize (determine the position and direction of) sounds above that.
(decibel sound pressure level): A measurement of how loud a sound is.
Sound pressure is the value over time of the rapid variation, caused by
acoustic waves, in air pressure at a fixed point. Sound pressure level,
which is given in dB SPL, is a logarithmic ratio of the sound pressure of the
measured sound to the sound pressure at the threshold of hearing. The range of
human hearing is generally said to be around 120dB, with 0dB representing
absolute silence and 120dB to 130db representing the threshold of pain
(depending on the reference you consult), at which severe hearing damage can
occur. The table* shows db SPL values for some common sound levels.
Type of Noise
Decibel Sound Pressure Level (dB SPL)
Threshold of hearing
Background in a TV studio
Quiet bedroom at night
Curbside at a busy road
Threshold of pain
Jet airplane at 30 meters
Decoder: A device
that can take an incoming digital audio stream, decompress it, and convert it
into discrete channels that are, in turn, converted to analog signals the
speaker system sends to the appropriate speakers.
DirectSound and DirectSound3D:
Microsoft sound APIs (application programming interfaces) that are part of the
DirectX family of gaming APIs. Access to sound devices in a Windows-compatible
manner is one of the capabilities the APIs give developers. DirectSound3D
extends the abilities of programmers, letting them do 3-D positional audio,
giving listeners the impression that sounds are coming from particular points in
Digital, also called AC-3, is the standard 5.1 audio format for DVD movie discs.
Dolby Digital can also be down-mixed to a two-channel format when a DVD movie is
played on a two-channel speaker system. A recent addition to Dolby Digital
called Dolby Digital EX is a 6.1-channel format that provides specific
information for the center-rear speaker channel. (See also, DTS ES.)
Drivers: The parts
of a speaker that actually produce sound; also called transducers. Drivers come
in several forms, with the most common being tweeters for high-frequency sounds,
midrange drivers for the middle band of audio frequencies (from roughly 150 Hz
to about 2,000 Hz), and cone drivers, sometimes referred to as woofers, to
handle bass frequencies.
This is another 5.1 audio format that some DVD movies use as an alternative to
Dolby Digital. DTS is favored by home theatre aficionados because it uses less
compression than Dolby Digital, and some believe it sounds better. The
differences are often subtle, though, and opinions vary as to which format
delivers superior sound quality. A new arrival, DTS ES, is a 6.1 version of DTS
that provides specific information for the center-rear channel. (See also,
audio: A fairly new
multichannel audio CD format that delivers 5.1, 24-bit audio sampled at 96 KHz,
or a two-channel down-mix at 192 KHz. This format delivers better audio quality
than current CD audio, which has a 44 KHz, 16-bit resolution.
referred to as sensitivity, this speaker measurement gauges how much sound a
speaker can produce when being driven by a specific amount of power, usually one
watt. Greater efficiency is desirable because an amplifier won't have to work as
hard to drive the speaker, and as a rule, the less an amplifier has to strain to
drive a set of speakers, the better the audio will sound.
A control that changes the level of sound between front and rear speakers by
attenuating the power going to one set, making the other seem louder.
Frequency: This is
the number of cycles per second (See Hertz)
a periodic signal, such as a sine wave, makes. For example, a 1 KHz sine wave
test tone completes 1,000 cycles each second. If you were to graph a sine wave,
one complete cycle would look like a dollar sign ($) turned sideways.
Also called hiss, this is the undesirable sound an amplifier/speaker system
emits when sitting idle. The source may be the speaker set's power amp, the
sound card output, or both. Often, hash becomes audible when a speaker is
sitting idle with the volume set to a loud level. If hash is readily audible
when a speaker set is idle at a moderate or low volume, shy away from that
A unit of measurement for the frequency of a periodic phenomenon, such as a
sound wave. One hertz, abbreviated Hz, is one cycle per second. The range of
human hearing is generally stated to be 20 Hz to 20 KHz (kilohertz). The note
orchestras tune to is called A440 because it is the note A and has a frequency
of 440 Hz. You'll often hear a 1 KHz test tone when TV stations have signed off
for the night. A set of speakers should faithfully reproduce the majority of the
audible spectrum, although most speaker sets won't go all the way down to 20 Hz;
the majority roll off (attenuate the signal) around 50 Hz.
(Low Frequency Effects) channel:
This is the .1 in a 5.1 speaker system. The term LFE is specific to Dolby
Digital, since this is the channel over which the audio format sends rumble and
other low-frequency effects to enhance DVD movie audio.
process of determining the location and direction of a sound-emitting object.
The area of study concerning human localization of sound is called
psychoacoustics. People are very good at localizing sounds in all directions. We
can actually "see" much more with our ears than with our eyes, since we can
determine the location of sounds 720 degrees around us (360-degrees horizontally
and 360-degrees vertically).
most common type of speaker distortion that occurs when a speaker driver exceeds
its excursion limit in its housing and physically bangs into the speaker
speaker that isn't the subwoofer. In X.1 speaker systems, X is the
number of satellite speakers.
speaker that handles low-frequency information down to 10 Hz. Most "subwoofers"
in PC speaker sets are not actually subwoofers but dedicated bass units.
A set of specifications created by an offshoot company of LucasFilm. THX assures
audio and visual quality in movie theatres, as well as with home theater
equipment. There is also a THX certification for PC speakers.
Tweeter: A speaker
driver that handles high-frequency information. A tweeter is typically the
smallest driver in a satellite speaker. Not all satellite speakers have
tweeters, however. Many PC speakers use what are called full-range
drivers that pull double duty, handling both midrange and high-frequency
is sustained power output over time. This power rating is a better indicator of
an amplifier's actual power than "peak power" or "peak system power." Any audio
system with an amplifier should disclose its power rating in watts rms.
Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.