How to choose speakers

Features James Hunt Dec 6, 2012

Want to upgrade your sound without buying a new soundcard? James Hunt shows you how to buy 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.

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 £50, and certainly no more than £70. The more you spend, the better the system will be in objective terms, but if you’re spending more than £100 on a stereo setup you probably won’t notice until they’re sitting in a acoustically treated room, like a recording studio.

It’s all different if you’re buying a surround system. We wouldn’t spend less than £70 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 £150 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 ahould 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.

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 £10 – 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. £35 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 £70 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.

What technology should you look for?

Speaker terminology sounds a bit odd, but it’s really quite simple once you understand the terms. Broadly speaking, all you need to know is that subwoofers enhance sounds in a low frequency range (bass), tweeters enhance sounds in a high frequency range (treble), and if anyone says “drivers” they don’t mean software controllers, but the cones inside speakers which produce sound by vibrating, or 'driving' the air around them.

Although speakers come in many different setups, you can easily tell what type you’re buying by looking at the number it’s been assigned. Although it has the appearance of a decimal version number, it’s actually referring to the configuration of the hardware. The first digit gives the number of stand-alone speakers (or 'satellites'), while the second tells you how many subwoofers there are. 

So, for example, a numbering of 2.0 tells you that you’re buying a standard stereo system with no subwoofer, while a numbering of 5.1 means that you get a 5-speaker surround system with one subwoofer. It’s important to remember that higher numbers aren’t inherently better - although they do allow you the potential to access greater features, it’s possible to that a 2.1 speaker system will sound better than 5.1 speakers, if you spend more on them. The important thing is to choose the right setup for the job you want them to do. With that in mind, just so you know what the right setup is, we’ll tell you.

2.0 speaker systems are simple, low-power and sometimes even portable. They don’t have to be cheap, but they often are, since most enthusiasts consider a powered, separate subwoofer essential for bringing out bass. By contrast, the best you can expect on most 2.0 systems is a built-in passive woofer that might shake your desk, but won’t rattle the windows. 2.0 setups are suitable for light, general use, low-budget systems, or as an upgrade from integrated speakers.

As we’ve already explained, 2.1 setups include a separate subwoofer to enhance the bass, making them perfect all-round solutions for PCs that play a lot of music, do a little gaming and get used for watching films and television. Anyone who’s half-serious about the way their PC sounds should be looking for this kind of setup at least, but they do cost a little more. Beware cheap examples, though, because a bad subwoofer isn’t worth owning.

Once you go beyond 2.1, you enter 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound territory. These setups are strictly for enthusiasts (whether they’re an enthusiast of music, gaming or movie-viewing - though it's usually the latter two of the trio). These systems will see significant benefits from being paired with a proper sound card or home theatre decoder, and since you have to pay a premium in both cost and space requirements, make sure you’ve got enough of an appreciation for the audio to make them worth having around!

In terms of technical statistics, don’t pay too much attention to things like frequency ranges and other important-sounding values. These are always doctored and sometimes pass into being complete gibberish. At the very least, you can’t trust two different manufacturers to have used the same tests to determine the hardware’s capabilities, so they’re useless as a comparison point.

Is now the right time to buy?

Speakers never go out of fashion. Nor do they ever really come into fashion. This makes them exceedingly dull when it comes to analysing the market. To put it bluntly, when you need some speakers, buy some speakers, the chances of you missing out on some amazing technical innovation are as close to zero as a block of ice. This is one area of computing where pretty much all of the advances have been made.

If you’re really desperate to find the inside track, though, the best we can offer is to say that the price of wireless speakers hasn’t quite bottomed out. Advances in wireless technology will doubtlessly improve them in the future, so do investigate properly if you’re thinking of buying a pair, and maybe consider getting their much cheaper (if technically unimpressive) wired cousins at least once more before you try and go wireless for good.

What are the technical constraints?

The technical constraints on speaker systems broadly boil down to one question: what’s plugging in where?

If you’ve got a good pair of speakers, you can expect to have a variety of inputs capable of accepting various audio signals using differing connections. A standard 3.5 mm jack might be enough for most people, but if you’re aiming for a professional-quality setup that you can use with a TV, separate amplifier/subwoofer, or high-end sound card, you’ll want greater capabilities, such as RCA or even optical input. If you spend a lot of money on your speakers, make sure they’ve got as many inputs as possible so that you can keep your options open with regard to using them in the future.

You should also pay attention to whether speakers are powered (active) or unpowered (passive). Active speakers are common, they contain a built-in amplifier which improves the quality and volume of their output. Passive speakers, on the other hand, are either so cheap that they leave the amplifier out (meaning that they’re also quiet, tinny, and flimsy) or so expensive that they assume you’ve got your own, separate amplifier. You should be able to tell pretty easily which you’re looking at based on price alone. Unless you know better, go for the active option.

One final technical element to consider is how and where your speakers will actually be set up. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on speakers – if you don’t put them in the right place, you’ll end up with sub-optimal sound.

There’s no easy way to explain how speaker systems should be set up, but in simple terms, your aim is to have the sound waves converging right in your ears without crossing or interfering with one another. You should also try and keep them a reasonable distance from walls and placed on vibration-free surfaces to minimise environmental interference. If that’s not detailed enough for you, it’s time to hit up an online AV forum and get the audiophile’s opinion! 

What’s the alternative?

Stand-alone speakers aren’t what you’d call an essential component for any PC. Sure, they can make a good soundcard sound great, but if you’re short on desk space, plug sockets or USB ports, there are alternatives that might suit you better.

For example, many monitors come with integrated speakers that do the job. Admittedly, they don’t often do it very well, but if you’re not interested in using them for listening to music or watching TV and films, they’ll do it well enough. Buy a monitor with built-in speakers and you’ll be able to save money and space on stand-alone speakers in the future. Audiophiles need not apply, however; they'll drive you mad.

So what should you do if you do want good quality sound? Well, you could skip the speakers and go straight for a decent pair of headphones. There’s actually a lot to be said for headphones: they’re portable and use less power than speakers, but can produce amazingly clear sounds. They also block out the world around you, leading to a more immersive experience that is especially good for games. Doubly so, if they’re noise-cancelling!

However, a sophisticated pair of headphones are, let’s face it, vastly more expensive than even a half-decent speaker system, but you can also get some crazily good quality audio (and even surround features!) out of them for less than the price of a home cinema system. All this, and they don’t even wake up the neighbours.

No-one’s suggesting that headphones are perfect replacements for speakers, but if you want faithful sound reproduction at lower prices, it’s safe to say that they’re by far the best alternative.