You Need Speakers for Powerful PC Audio
Few things in life are as enjoyable as good music. But as you’ve probably noticed, that music only sounds as good as the system it’s playing through. Many PCs and Macs don’t come with very good speakers. And that’s to say nothing of the tiny built-in drivers found in most laptops. Even if you’re on a tight budget, low-cost speakers can noticeably improve your listening experience. Here are things to consider when picking the best speaker system for your computer.
Stereo, 2.1, or Surround Sound: What’s the Difference?
Stereo speakers consist of only a left and a right speaker, “2.1” refers to a pair of speakers augmented by a subwoofer, and surround sound involves between five and seven speakers plus a subwoofer. The role of the subwoofer is to cover deep bass frequencies, generally below 100Hz. A solid sub at a reasonable volume can add rumble to film explosions and depth to kick drums, bass guitars, analog synths, orchestras, and more. Some stereo speaker pairs, however, sound great even without a subwoofer, primarily because their woofers (the drivers dedicated to low-mid and low frequencies below 1KHz) are perfectly capable of handling the bass response.
The vast majority of desktop speakers are stereo pairs. Some have accompanying subwoofers, but you won’t likely have more than two or three satellites to deal with. Some serious gamers and cinephiles might want to look for a 5.1-channel (or higher) surround sound system, but the extra cost and inconvenience of placing all those speakers around the room isn’t worth it to most users.
There are also one-piece solutions (or one-piece with a subwoofer) that offer plenty of power but don’t provide the stereo imaging you get from multiple satellites. Even portable Bluetooth speakers can serve as one-piece systems for your PC if they have a 3.5mm audio input or support a USB connection (or if your computer has Bluetooth).
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What About Bookshelf Speakers?
The term bookshelf speaker generally describe any speaker that can comfortably fit on a bookshelf and is intended for use in a stereo pair or other multiple speaker setups. However, especially among audiophiles, it has a much more important implication: Bookshelf speakers are small, unpowered stereo speakers. That unpowered part is a very big detail that will please anyone who knows how to set up a high-end home sound system and will frustrate everyone else.
All speakers require power to run. Without electricity flowing into the drivers, a speaker is just a box with some weird paper and metal bits in it. The vast majority of computer speakers, along with all Bluetooth-enabled speakers and wireless speakers, are powered, or “active.” That means an amplifier is built into the speaker itself to take the signal it receives and feed enough power into the drivers to reproduce it. This is very handy, because it means you don’t need to get a separate amp to drive your speakers; you just plug them into your computer and they work.
Bookshelf speakers are typically unpowered, or “passive.” They’re intended for use with a separate amp. That means whatever music you want to hear through them needs to be put through the amp, which then connects to the speakers. They’re more expensive and take up more space when everything is configured, but the benefit is much more powerful and clear sound.
There are a few exceptions, in the form of active studio monitors. Here the distinction between bookshelf speaker and computer speaker blurs. Basically, some powered speakers are designed for high-end audiophile use, like home studio mastering. They don’t need an amp, but generally sound better and are more expensive than speakers designed for use with a computer. Of course, you can use them with a computer just as easily, since it’s still just a matter of plugging the speakers into your sound card.
We primarily test active speakers with their own built-in amps. That covers the vast majority of computer speakers, wireless speakers, and consumer-oriented home theater speakers and soundbars.
You might not think much about extra features when it comes to PC speakers, but there are some things to consider: Do the speakers include bass and treble controls so you can tailor the sound to your tastes? How about a Mute button? Or a remote control?
High-quality sound and robust extra features are not necessarily mutually exclusive; it depends on the set. If your PC has a limited number of USB ports, you’ll probably want to go with the more common 3.5mm audio output connector, though USB-powered speakers sometimes come with extra features, or even software that enables special functions. And, if your PC has Bluetooth, you can stream music wirelessly to any speaker that accepts it (which is the vast majority of portable speakers, and a large number of desktop speakers).
Listening at Home or at the Office?
How you plan to use your speakers will also help determine your best option. You probably don’t need a mammoth subwoofer if you’re listening at work—small speakers with decent clarity might be the wisest choice, particularly if you’re just using them to watch YouTube videos or listen to internet radio streams. For home, maybe you want larger or more stylish speakers, and the ability to blast them without distortion (especially if your PC is your main music source). For more, see our guide on how to set up your speakers.
How About Speakers for Music Recording?
Are you a musician and want to record and mix your own music at home? Look for a pair of active studio monitor speakers that represent your work as accurately as possible, and don’t color the sound in a way that way hide flaws in a recording that could show up on other listeners’ systems. Audioengine does this nicely. And be sure to pair them with a good microphone.
Check out our speakers product guide for the latest reviews. And our list of the best wireless speakers offers even more recommendations depending on how you want to listen.
Where To Buy
Audioengine A5+ Wireless
Pros: Excellent audio performance with solid bass depth and clarity throughout the frequency range.
High-quality Bluetooth streaming with 24-bit upsampling.
Wired connectivity options.
Can be used with a subwoofer.
Cons: No source knob.
Limited remote control.
Bottom Line: Audioengine’s A5+ Wireless speakers deliver a stellar sonic experience aimed at audiophiles with 24-bit upsampling to ensure high-quality Bluetooth audio.
Pros: Accurate audio performance with rich lows and pristine highs.
Can be used with a subwoofer for increased bass depth (not included).
Cons: Not for booming bass fanatics.
Always-active input design is not ideal.
Bottom Line: The handsome, versatile Audioengine HD3 stereo speakers deliver excellent Bluetooth and high fidelity wired audio in a traditional bookshelf design.
Pros: Very solid audio for the low price.
Cons: Hardwired cables create a messy desktop.
USB is for power only, not audio.
Only one input.
Bottom Line: Creative’s USB-powered Pebble speakers look cool and deliver surprisingly solid audio for just $25.
Creative Pebble Plus
Powerful audio performance with bright, detailed highs and rich lows.
Properly angled drivers.
Cons: Lots of wires.
No bass level knob.
Only one input.
Bottom Line: The Creative Pebble Plus speakers deliver the best 2.1 audio experience you’ll find for $40.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with rich lows and bright, clear highs.
Adjustable bass and treble.
Can connect to PCs and mobile devices, as well as any gear with an RCA output.
Cons: Can be pushed to distortion at absolute top volumes.
No wireless capabilities.
Bottom Line: Edifier’s R1280T speakers deliver rich, balanced audio with adjustable EQ in a handsome design for an affordable price.
Pros: True stereo separation.
Includes aux input and optical connections.
Output for optional subwoofer.
Cons: Not for those seeking serious sub-bass (unless you plan to install a subwoofer).
Bottom Line: The Fluance Ai60 speakers integrate Bluetooth in a traditional bookshelf design that delivers a rich, bright sound signature.
Pros: Excellent audio performance with rich bass and clear, articulated highs.
No stereo receiver required.
Excellent connectivity, including built-in Bluetooth.
Cons: Doesn’t automatically pair with recently connected devices.
Not for those seeking sub-bass rumble.
Bottom Line: The Klipsch R-41PM speakers are designed to work with a subwoofer, but even without, they offer powerful audio from both wired and wireless sound sources.
Klipsch The Fives
Pros: Excellent sound signature with crisp, detailed highs and round, rich bass depth
Handsome design, with removable tweed grilles
Lots of connectivity options, including Bluetooth, HDMI, Optical, and an input for turntables
192kHz/24-bit decoding from USB inputs
No app or EQ support (yet)
Bottom Line: The Fives from Klipsch look and sound fantastic, with far more connectivity options than your standard pair of bookshelf speakers.
Pros: Powerful sound for the size and price.
Solid music performance.
Wired subwoofer adds plenty of low-end kick.
Cons: No remote.
Lacks high-end clarity to really make movies stand out as well as games.
Bottom Line: The Razer Leviathan puts out large sound for such a small speaker system, but its lack of a remote makes it better suited for your desk than your home theater.
Razer Nommo Pro
Pros: Powerful, bass-heavy sound.
Crisp, clean music performance.
Cons: Relatively expensive for desktop speakers.
THX and Dolby sound modes tend to focus a bit too much on sub-bass.
Bottom Line: Razer’s Nommo Pro desktop speaker system features attractive satellites with programmable, colored lighting, and a powerful subwoofer to give PC gamers booming sound.
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