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Buying Guide: PC Speaker Systems

Dave Salvator

Close to 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.

You have 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 budget.

There was 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.

The 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

2.0: 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.

2.1: 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 rear-channel speakers.

4.1: 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.

5.1: 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.

6.1: 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 performance.

$50-$100. Your 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 configurations.

$300-$400. There are a few sets of 5.1 and 6.1 speakers in this price range. They provide powerful amplification and carry THX certification.

Over $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.

Configuration: 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 movie audio. 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. 6.1: 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.

Power: 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.

Controls: You'll 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.

Headphone jack: 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 devices.

Remote control: A wireless remote is always nice, but not essential.

Power supply: 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.

Dolby Digital/DTS decoder: 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.

Size: 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.

Stereo doubling: Some 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.

Compatibility: You 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 connector.

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 bandwidth.

What's 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:

400 Watts RMS at 8 ohms, with no more than 0.1% THD, from 20-20,000Hz, all channels driven.

That's 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.

Whatever 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.

  Pros Cons 2.0 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. 2.1 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. 4.1 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. 5.1 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. 6.1 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.

3-D positional audio: 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.

AC-3: 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.

Crossover: This 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.

dB SPL (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 0dB Background in a TV studio 20dB Quiet bedroom at night 30dB Conversational speech 60dB Curbside at a busy road 80dB Disco 100dB Chainsaw 110dB Threshold of pain 130dB Jet airplane at 30 meters 140dB

*Source: Safetyline Institute

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 space.

Dolby Digital: Dolby 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.

DTS: 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, Dolby Digital EX.)

DVD 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.

Efficiency: Also 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.

Fader: 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.

Hash: 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 model.

Hertz: 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.

LFE (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.

Localize The 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).

Rub-and-Buzz: The 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 driver's magnet.

Satellite: Any speaker that isn't the subwoofer. In X.1 speaker systems, X is the number of satellite speakers.

Subwoofer: A speaker that handles low-frequency information down to 10 Hz. Most "subwoofers" in PC speaker sets are not actually subwoofers but dedicated bass units.

THX: 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 information.

Watts rms: This 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.

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