How To Buy…Speakers (Part 1)

12/15/2012 9:27:36 AM

Upgrade your sound without upgrading your soundcard! James helps you pick out the best computer speakers

A lot of emphasis is placed on the visual improvements you can make to your computer by upgrading it. Upgrades of all kinds trumpet things like smoother scrolling, or sharper images, on more screens. For that reason, many people overlook the strong impact that other elements of a multimedia system can have on your computing experience.

How To Buy…Speakers

How To Buy…Speakers?

Better audio can eliminate minor irritations, such as buzzing, rasping and the general interference that can otherwise mar the experience of using your computer. If you’re using your PC to play games or watch video, it’ll help bring out the nuance, detail and atmosphere that bog-standard integrated speakers might miss, in the same way a higher resolution screen will sharpen visuals. If you’re using a laptop, a decent pair of speakers is the bare minimum you need to get a half-listenable sound out of it!

Choosing a set of speakers for your PC is the kind of thing that’s easy to do if you only know a little. Annoyingly, the more you learn, the easier it becomes to obsess over the details, and the harder it gets to actually choose. Unfortunately, that means we’re about to make buying speakers very, very hard, before (hopefully) making it easier again by explaining what you need to look for.

Basically, everything a speaker does comes down to physics. The larger and more powerful a speaker is, the more air it can move, and the better it can move it. That means louder sounds and a greater range of frequencies covered. Remember, though, that terms like 'quality' are ultimately subjective. What you think sounds 'clean', someone else might find 'sterile'. What you think is loud might still be too quiet for someone else. Just make sure you get what you want – speakers are one area where it makes a lot of sense to try before you buy, or at the very least, get the opinion of people you trust.

How Much Should You Spend?

The price of speakers starts at the bottom and goes all the way to the top. You can buy a pair for less than a tenner, or you can remortgage your house for the best. Luckily, if you’re looking for a fairly standard stereo setup, you can find some of the best, professional-quality units out there for little more than $80, and certainly no more than $111. The more you spend, the better the system will be in objective terms, but if you’re spending more than $160 on a stereo setup you probably won’t notice until they’re sitting in a acoustically treated room, like a recording studio.

How Much Should You Spend?

It’s all different if you’re buying a surround system. We wouldn’t spend less than $111 on a surround system for a computer if we could help it, but there are far fewer options available if you’re looking at PC-specific peripherals. Once you move into the home theatre market, you can expect to spend something more like $238 for a decent 5.1 system. Again, spend any more than that and you’re probably not going to notice the improvements, but don’t be tempted to go much cheaper either – at that level, you’re not getting a good price for good speakers, you’re buying an expensive pile of rubbish ones.

What Make/Model/Manufacturer Should You Look For?

There are currently only two names in PC speakers worth mentioning: Logitech and Creative. Between the two of them, they’ve stitched up the market at virtually every level with low-cost speakers of reasonable quality and output. That’s a fairly pointed use of the word ”reasonable”, though - you’re unlikely to be massively impressed by either, especially if you know what to listen for - but on the other hand, once you cross the fence to serious home theatre or audio equipment, you can instantly add half onto the price again, so don’t be hasty in dismissing them.

Logitech S120

Logitech S120

If you’re aiming for a low-end purchase, the best you can get is actually one of the lowest-end available. The Logitech S120 2-speaker system clocks in at a frankly meagre $16 – and yet it’s almost unsurpassed in the world of low-price stereo speakers. By the time you find anything substantially better, you’re spending the sort of money that should really get you a 2.1 system with a subwoofer included. Don’t be put off by cheapness – they’re well-made and practical.

If a 2.1 system is what you’re after, we can recommend the Logitech Z313. The housing isn’t perfect, with integrated cables and controls on the subwoofer alone, but the sound quality is excellent and it’s got all the features you could want out of a 2.1 system. $55 isn’t so steep it’ll put you off, but it’s also not so expensive as to be upsetting. Again, it’s not likely to stun you with its quality or features, but the price-to-performance ratio is as good as it gets.

If, on the other hand, you’re after a surround sound setup, you’ve only got one real choice before you reach home theatre prices, and that the Logitech X-530, which costs $111 and, like most of Logitech’s systems, offers substantially better quality than you’d expect for the price. Admittedly, it’s in a section of the market where price isn’t a primary concern, but if you’re looking to upgrade from 2.1 and don’t feel ready to enter enthusiast territory, this is the model to go for.

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