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.
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.
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).