PC speakers review

We tested 16 speaker systems to see which gives the best boom for your buck.
 
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01 .Introduction

Speakers

Test results for 16 PC speaker systems, priced from $85 to $300

The PC speaker market is 'booming' if you’ll pardon the pun, driven by the growth in high quality multimedia — from music and DVD movies to games and even websites.

While stereo sound is standard on even the cheapest laptop, size restrictions mean it usually sounds pretty 'tinny', and many desktop systems don’t come with any speakers at all. For anyone wanting good quality sound, buying a set of external speakers is a no-brainer.

But which type should you buy? Will a set of stereo speakers — a 2.0 system — do the job well enough? What about adding a subwoofer to boost the bass, making it a 2.1 system? And what about adding even more speakers to give you home theatre-style 5.1 channel surround sound?

For our test, we chose a selection of popular speakers which can be used with both PC and Mac, including four 2.0 channel systems, seven 2.1 channel systems and five 5.1 (surround sound) systems. Of these, three systems were compact (portable) speakers: the JBL On Tour XT, the Yamaha NX-A01 and the Sony Travel Speakers.

The most interesting thing our test showed is that quality sound does not depend on bigger speakers or more of them — some smaller speakers were among the top performers.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


In brief

  • You don’t have to pay top dollar to get good sound quality.
  • Bigger is not necessarily better.
  • 2.1 channel can sound better than 5.1. 3

Brands tested

  • Harman Kardon Soundsticks II
  • Edifier Multimedia Speaker S2.1M (S330)
  • Altec Lansing FX4021
  • Logitech Z-2300
  • Edifier M2600 Multimedia Speaker
  • Cyber Acoustics 5.1 Amplified Speaker System CA-5001
  • JBL On Tour XT portable
  • Logitech X-530
  • Altec Lansing VS4121
  • Cyber Acoustics Amplified Speaker System CA-3892
  • Creative Inspire T6100
  • Creative GigaWorks T40
  • Bose Companion 2 Series II
  • Edifier M1550 Multimedia Speaker
  • Yamaha NX-A01
  • Sony Travel Speakers for Walkman/PC SRS-T57
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The following models scored the best results in our test

What to buy
Brand Price
Harman Kardon Soundsticks II $299
Edifier Multimedia Speaker System S2.1M (S330) $180
Logitech X-530 $150
Altec Lansing VS4121 $149

Though the Harman Kardon Soundsticks II were the pick of our sound experts, they’re also at the top of the price range. There’s a big price drop for the next three highest ranked, which makes them great value for money.

Of particular note is the Logitech X-530, which was the only 5.1 channel system in the top four. Around half the cost of the Soundsticks II, it’s outstanding value if you want surround sound.

Results table

Full results for all models are shown in the table below

b>Brand/model Price paid ($) Overall Performance Ease of use Off/Standby cost per year ($) Powered-on cost per year ($) Controls (locations, type, functions) Aux-Line in Other connections (location) Wall mountable speakers Amp/sub Dimensions (HxWxD in mm) Speaker Dimensions (HxWxD in mm) Speaker configuration Warranty (years)
Harman Kardon Soundsticks II
www.harmankardon.com
299 75 78 65 5.01 5.26 Sub: Bass up/down (rear), Speaker R: touch control volume up/down (front) Yes NA No 258 x 232 x 232 254 x 50.8 x 50.8 2.1 1
Logitech X-530
www.logitech.com
150 72 75 60 4.58 10.52 Sub: Bass up/down (rear), speaker R front: volume up/down, power on/off No Headphone (speaker front R) Yes 228 x 152 x 235 203 x 63.5 x 76 5.1 2
Altec Lansing VS4121
www.alteclansing.com
149 70 66 88 5.18 7.89 Speaker R: Volume, Treble, Bass, Power Yes NA No 347 x 204 x 251 233 x 100 x 131 2.1 1
Edifier Multimedia Speaker System S2.1M (S330)
www.edifier-international.com
180 70 70 68 6.79 11.57 Sub: Bass (rear of sub), Wired remote Yes Headphone (wired remote) Yes 246 x 246 x 286 190 x 68 x 100 2.1 1
Altec Lansing FX4021
www.alteclansing.com
189 69 66 80 11.84 12.10 Remote control ( only ) Yes NA Yes 348 x 220 x 228 169 x 90 x 90 2.1 1
Logitech Z-2300
www.logitech.com
300 69 69 68 4.24 19.71 Remote control ( only ) No Headphone (wired remote) No 280 x 280 x 380 170 x 90 x 150 2.1 2
Edifier M2600 Multimedia Speaker
www.edifier-international.com
180 68 65 80 7.57 10.91 Remote control, Sub: output level Yes Headphone (sub front) No 306 x 187 x 302 156 x 89 x 104 (centre: 122 x 132 x 104) 5.1 1
Cyber Acoustics Amplified Speaker System CA-3892
www.cyberacoustics.com
130 66 62 83 5.63 8.68 Speaker R: power on/off, Bass up/down, volume up/down Yes Microphone, Headphone (speaker R, right side), Microphone, AUX (speaker R, rear) No 238 x 177 x 267 197 x 87 x 90 2.1 1
Creative Inspire T6100
www.au.creative.com
125 66 63 78 8.06 14.14 Sub: Output level, Speaker R: Power/Volume knob No NA Yes 286 x 180 x 255 182 x 68 x 65 (Centre: 111 x 168 x 67) 5.1 1
Creative GigaWorks T40
www.au.creative.com
135 64 60 78 7.32 10.52 Speaker R: Volume, Treble, Bass (front), power (rear) No Headphone (Speaker R front) No NA 320 x 116 x 150 2.0 1
BOSE Companion 2 Series II
www.bose.com.au
149 59 54 80 6.29 6.57 Speaker R: Volume Yes Headphone (Speaker R front) No NA 189 x 81 x 153 2.0 1
Edifier M1550 Multimedia Speaker
www.edifier-international.com
85 56 53 70 8.36 7.89 Remote control ( only ) No NA No 228 x 151 x 220 165 x 68 x 68 (Centre: 66 x 160 x 44) 5.1 1
Cyber Acoustics 5.1 Amplified Speaker System CA-5001
www.cyberacoustics.com
180 54 47 83 5.98 11.18 Sub: Output level, Speaker R: Power, Fader, Volume No NA Yes 316 x 244 x 264 213 x 78 x 87 (Centre: 117 x 125 x 87) 5.1 1
JBL On Tour XT portable loudspeaker
www.jbl.com
238 54 54 55 0.54 2.63 Main unit - Volume up/down, Remote control - mute Yes USB (side) No NA 150 x 65 x 150 2.1 1
Yamaha NX-A01
www.yamahamusic.com.au
130 53 46 80 0.81 2.63 Main unit: Power on/off, volume up/down, mute No NA No NA 89 x 84 x 84 2.0 1
Sony Travel Speakers for Walkman/PC SRS-T57
www.sony.com.au
120 41 31 80 NA NA Main unit: Power on/off No DC 6V power (back) No NA 85 x 224 x 57 2.0 1
 

 

Table notes

Footnotes

  • NA Not tested — this speaker system is battery-powered and had no AC power supply.
  • (R, L) Denotes positioning. L = Left, R = Right.

Price What we paid in February 2008. Running costs based on 15c per kilowatt-hour.

Performance (80% of Overall) Based on our expert panel's performance scores per speaker system during playback of test samples of audio.

Ease of use (20% of Overall) Whether the speaker systems were easy to set up.

Features

  • Controls Playback controls and location on speaker system.
  • Aux Line-in Auxiliary line-in connection.
  • Other connections Headphone, microphone, DC power.
  • Wall mountable speakers If the speaker box has mounting brackets.

Specifications

  • Amp/sub dimensions Size of the subwoofer (where applicable).
  • Speaker dimensions Size of the included speakers.
  • Speaker configuration Channel separation: 2.0, 2.1 or 5.1.
  • Warranty Manufacturer's warranty period.

Harman Kardon Soundsticks II

Price: $299 Harman kardon soundsticks

Good points

  • Best performer for sound quality in 2.1 and overall.
  • Touch-sensitive playback controls.
  • Great stereo image.

Bad points

  • Relatively expensive.

Edifier Multimedia Speaker S2.1M (S330)

Price: $180 Edifier mutilmedia speaker

Good points

  • Remote control (wired).
  • Auxiliary-in connection.
  • Wall mountable speakers.

Bad points

  • Small volume range, the maximum level is relatively quiet.

Logitech X-530

Price: $150 Logitech

Good points

  • Best performer for sound quality in 5.1.
  • Two-year warranty.
  • Wall mountable speakers.

Bad points

  • Ease of use only OK.

Altec Lansing VS4121

Price: $149 Altec lansing

Good points

  • Best for ease of use.

Bad points

  • Better for games and DVD films than music.
  • Can sound muffled, slightly unnatural.

Altec Lansing FX4021

Price: $189 Altec lansing

Good points

  • Remote control (wired).
  • Auxiliary-in connection.
  • Wall mountable speakers.

Bad points

  • Worst power consumption in standby mode.
  • Average stereo image.

Logitech Z-2300

Price: $300 Logitech

Good points

  • Two-year warranty.
  • Remote control (wired).

Bad points

  • Expensive.
  • Lack of clarity in the higher frequencies.

Edifier M2600 Multimedia Speaker

Price: $180 Edifier

Good points

  • Remote control.
  • Auxiliary-in connection.
  • Performs well with music.

Bad points

  • Centre channel during films can sound tinny with vocals and dialogue.

Cyber Acoustics Amplified Speaker System CA-3892

Price: $130 Cyber acoustics

Good points

  • Auxiliary-in connection.
  • Good stereo image.

Bad points

  • Bass too heavy with 'out-of-the-box’ settings on the subwoofer. Needs tweaking for best results.

Creative Inspire T6100

Price: $125 Creative inspire

Good points

  • Wall mountable speakers.

Bad points

  • Subwoofer rattled under heavy load during sound quality tests.
  • High power consumption when in use.

Creative GigaWorks T40

Price: $135 Creative gigaworks

Good points

  • Best performer for sound quality in 2.0.
  • Connection for MP3 player via Creative Docking station.
  • Good stereo image and localisation.

Bad points

  • Requires some tweaking 'out-of-the-box' for best results.

Bose Companion 2 Series II

Price: $149 Bose companion

Good points

  • Auxiliary-in connection.
  • Dual input connections for connection to a PC and MP3 player.

Bad points

  • Poor quality at high volume levels.

Edifier M1550 Multimedia Speaker

Price: $85 Edifier

Good points

  • Remote control (wired).
  • Cheapest system tested.

Bad points

  • System sounds small and lacks power.

Cyber Acoustics 5.1 Amplified Speaker System CA-5001

Price: $180 Cyber acoustics

Good points

  • Wall mountable speakers.

Bad points

  • High power consumption.
  • Poor low bass responsiveness.

JBL On Tour XT portable

Price: $238 JBL on tour

Good points

  • Remote control and auxillary connection.
  • Dual power source (mains and batteries).
  • Low standby power consumption.

Bad points

  • Poor stereo image.
  • Lowest ease of use score.

Yamaha NX-A01

Price: $130 Yamaha

Good points

  • Small, portable design.
  • Low standby power consumption.
  • Good overall sound quality.

Bad points

  • Under-powered.

Sony Travel Speakers SRS-T57

Price: $120 Sony travel speakers

Good points

  • Dual power source (mains power and batteries).

Bad points

  • Poor sound quality.
  • Small and boxy, audio distorts too easily.

Expert testing

For the sound quality part of our testing we brought in the experts — or, rather, we took the speakers to them. Testing was done at Megaphon Sound Studios at St Peters in Sydney, with quality judged by three sound professionals: Sound Engineer Shane Fahey of Megaphon Studios, Mastering Engineer Steve Wilson of Reaktor Audio Services, plus independent Sound Engineer Tim Chaproniere.

Testers

We tested the speaker systems for ease of setup and use, as well as for sound quality. We also looked at their power consumption both in use and on standby, but the power consumption test does not contribute to the overall score.

To test the performance of the speaker systems, a quality 5.1 channel sound card was used instead of the integrated audio of the test PC. Note that for both PC and Mac to properly use 5.1 speakers a 5.1 output soundcard is required.

Performance

For the listening assessment, we tested each system at its best, using a selection of music of various kinds selected specifically for the kind of system — whether 2.0/2.1 or 5.1 channel. We also tested all systems with a DVD movie selection involving a combination of music, dialogue and special effects.

The expert listeners evaluated each sample and scored it for individual tracks, noting comments, resulting in an overall score for each system. The scores from the experts were aggregated to give a total performance score for each.

Ease of use

The other major consideration is how easy the speakers were to set up and use. This goes hand-in-hand with performance because if the speakers are not set up and, if necessary, adjusted correctly they won’t provide optimum audio performance.

This task could have been easier for all the PC speakers tested. The 'out of the box' experience was hampered by the lack of some simple instructions in the user manuals.

  • Four systems — Creative GigaWorks T40, Creative Inspire T6100, Logitech Z-2300 and Logitech X-530 didn’t include troubleshooting information in case of problems during setup.
  • Several others provided limited information that our testers found wasn’t very useful. These included the Cyber Acoustics 5.1 CA-5001 and Yamaha NX-A01.
  • Several manufacturers didn’t provide Australian contact details or information on support options. These included Edifier, JBL, Logitech and Sony.

For physical setup, we looked at whether the speakers included colour coded connections, and individual speaker marking (to correctly identify where speakers should be placed in the configuration), and if playback controls were easily accessible during normal operation.

Most of the models tested has good colour-coded connections, the exceptions being the Altec Lansing FX4021 and Harman Kardon Soundsticks II, which didn’t include colour coding for all connections.

Access to controls

To provide easy access to volume, treble and bass, most of the tested systems positioned the controls on one of the satellite speakers or included a remote control. The power switch was difficult to access in some cases, however, as it was positioned at the rear of the subwoofer, which usually sits on the ground and often under a desk.

  • Only the Edifier M2600 included a remote that could be used to switch the speaker system between a powered-on and active standby mode.
  • Of the others, the Edifier M1550 and Edifier S2.1M (S330) put both the power switch and bass control at the rear of the subwoofer.
  • The Creative Inspire T6100, Cyber Acoustics 5.1 CA-5001, Harman Kardon Soundsticks II and the Logitech X-530 put only the bass control on the rear of the subwoofer.
  • The GigaWorks T40, Edifier M2600 and the Logitech Z-2300 put only the power switch at the rear of the speakers.

Two important findings from this test:

  • You don’t always have to pay top dollar to get good sound quality.
  • You don’t have to go to the extent of 5.1 channel surround to get high quality sound — three of the four top-scoring systems were 2.1 channel.

Value for money?

The highest scoring PC speaker system we tested was the Harmon Kardon Soundsticks II — a 2.1 channel system which looks as funky as it sounds. Although at $299 it was at the top end of the price range (along with the similarly priced Logitech Z-2300 speakers, also 2.1 channel) the Soundsticks II scored better than the 5.1 channel systems in our sound quality trials — though those 5.1 systems cost considerably less.

The test panel described them as producing "a warm and natural sound, nice responsiveness, good definition, plus a great stereo image" and said they sounded more powerful than they looked.

Proving that you don’t have the spend top-dollar to get top quality was the second-ranked Logitech X-530, a 5.1 surround sound system. Although it came in just behind the Soundsticks II in our overall rankings, at $150 it was only half the cost.

The cheapest system we tested was a 5.1 channel system, the Edifier M1550, priced at $85. Its performance ranked just behind the $149 Bose Companion 2 Series II.

Based on performance scores, three of the top four PC speakers were 2.1 systems, so despite having more channels, surround sound (5.1) is not necessarily going to give you better quality sound, at least for the price brackets we looked at here.

Surround me

Where 5.1 surround sound may be preferable however, is where it is an advantage to have speakers physically located behind you. This is more likely the case with movies and computer games than just music. The inclusion of surround sound in movies and PC games can help 'put you in the picture', with voices and sound effects to the side and rear adding substantially to the overall immersiveness of the movie or game experience. PC games in particular benefit from this, as you can actually hear relevant noises around you and respond accordingly — someone sneaking up behind you, for instance.

To use them effectively, however, the 5.1 speakers need to be set up in surround mode, with two small speakers at left and right-rear, behind the computer user. This can be difficult, depending on the location of the computer desk. None of the 5.1 systems tested came with stands for the rear speakers, so you would need to find a way to position and elevate them behind and at either side of your chair to get the best results.

Then, of course, there’s the problem of speaker wires. None of the PC speaker systems we tested had wireless satellite speakers.

In theory, the 5.1 speaker systems in this test could be set up as a home theatre system, but due to the larger distances involved you would probably find them lacking the quality of sound and dynamic range of a purpose-built home theatre setup. These systems are designed as 'personal' surround sound systems.

Of the five surround sound speaker systems tested, only the Edifier M2600 included the necessary RCA audio cables to allow it to be easily set up as a lounge room home theatre system. The other 5.1 speaker systems we tested would require the purchase of additional audio cables to be used in a similar configuration.

Running costs

As with lounge room sound systems, once they’re set up, PC speakers will usually continue to draw power, even though they may be in a low-power mode.

We tested each system for power consumption in standby, powered-on and in-use modes to see what they would add to energy costs over the course of a year. We calculated the cost per year at 15c per KWh and tested the speakers in standby mode and when powered on.

Not surprisingly, two of the portable systems were the most frugal.

  • In standby mode the JBL On Tour XT calculated the best at $0.54 per year, followed closely by the Yamaha NX-A01 at $0.81.
  • In powered-on mode the cost of running the JBL On Tour XT and the Yamaha NX-A01 both calculated to a total cost of $2.63 each.

Next best were two Logitech systems, the Z-2300 at $4.24 per year and the X-530 at $4.58 in standby mode. However, in powered-on mode the cost rose considerably, with the Z-2300 calculated at $19.71 and the X-530 at $10.52.

For comparison, the running cost of the top-rated Harman Kardon Soundsticks II was $5.01 per year in standby mode, rising to $5.26 in powered-on mode.

Note that the Sony Travel Speakers for Walkman/PC SRS-T57 weren’t tested for power usage as they didn’t come with a mains power supply and were battery-powered for the test (batteries were not supplied with the unit).

Speaker configuration

All these systems use what is called multichannel audio, designed to enrich the listening experience by reproducing different parts of the overall sound on different speakers. This is how they work:

  • 2.0 — Stereo, the most basic multichannel system, has separate speaker cabinets for left and right audio channels. Each speaker cabinet will have a minimum of one full-range speaker (also known as a driver), but often a speaker cabinet will include a combination of two or three different kinds of drivers, such as: a woofer for low (bass) frequencies; a tweeter for high (treble) frequencies; and/or a mid-range speaker, also sometimes known as a squawker.
  • 2.1 — Stereo plus a subwoofer (a separate speaker unit for reproducing only the lowest bass frequencies). The deep rumble of the subwoofer adds depth to the overall sound.
  • 5.1 — Surround sound. Five speakers plus a subwoofer. The speakers are left, right and middle channel in front, plus left and right-rear and a subwoofer.

In all cases, the speakers were set up according to the nature of their channel configuration, but taking into account that they are PC speakers and designed to be used in conjunction with a computer system, typically a user sitting at a desk.

Note that the constraints of desktop size means that these kinds of speakers will generally be closer to the user than is the case with lounge room speaker systems.

At this relatively close proximity, even small speakers can deliver good sound if they are high quality units.

Jargon buster

Ambience: The acoustic characteristics of a space with regard to reverberation. A room with a lot of reverb is said to be 'live'. One without much reverb is 'dead'.

Bass: The lowest part of the audio range (20-140 Hz.)

Body: Sound consistency or density, richness, substance.

Definition: The quality of a sound that allows it to be distinguished from other sounds.

Image: The localisation of individual sound sources in threedimensional space.

Responsiveness: The quality or state of being responsive, the ability of a speaker system to adjust quickly to suddenly altered external conditions.

Treble: The highest part, voice, instrument, or range (5000-20,000 Hz).

Warmth: A listening term. The opposite of cool or cold. Generally considered the frequency range from approximately 150Hz-400Hz. A system with the 'proper' warmth will sound natural within this range.

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