Experts say music lovers and those with small spaces will do well with 2.0 or 2.1 speaker systems. Both are two-channel speaker systems, and the more expensive ones approach (though don't quite reach) audiophile quality. Note that 2.0 speaker systems lack a subwoofer. Although bass response might be respectable on higher-end systems, it's not going to rattle your fillings on hip-hop and dance tracks.
For those who value accurate music reproduction, the MM-1 speaker system from the British company Bowers & Wilkins (*Est. $500) blows the competition out of the water, according to reviewers. There is no subwoofer in this system, and reviewers say these speakers don't deliver chest-pounding bass, but low ranges are hardly weak and integrate seamlessly with high and mid ranges.
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 speakers produce clarity and detail that puts other high-end PC speakers to shame. This is the result of a combination of factors. Most PC speakers rely on the computer's electronics for sound processing, pulling audio from the headphone jack. The MM-1 brings that processing on board, connecting to your computer via USB. Tim Gideon of PCMag.com says, "The USB connection is fed to an 'audiophile' quality digital-to-analog converter that incorporates equalization to increase the 3-inch woofers bass output." Also, the speaker components are of exceptional quality. Although there's usually a clear advantage to bypassing your source's sound processing system by connecting via the USB port, Gideon says audio quality doesn't suffer too much if you instead use the available headphone connection to stream music.
Most reviewers point out, though, that the MM-1s are clearly meant for close-range listening. These aren't designed to fill the room, though MaximumPC magazine's Michael Brown says "We found they had no difficulty filling our 80-square-foot home office with music." David Carnoy at CNET recommends placing these speakers about 3 feet away from you and separating them by 30 to 36 inches, which makes sense for most desktop setups. Reviewers also warn the deficiencies in low-quality recordings will become painfully obvious when listening to the MM-1's. However, as Hugo Jobling at U.K.-based TrustedReviews.com puts it, anyone who would play such files via speakers like this very often "frankly doesn't deserve the gift of hearing."
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 system is relatively costly, though, and there are less expensive options for those looking for higher-than-average stereo computer speakers at a more affordable price. The Audioengine 5 (*Est. $325) is praised for clarity and detail. Music is lively and balanced with full, though not thumping, bass. The main complaint from reviewers is their size. Audioengine 5 speakers measure 10 inches by 7 inches by 7.75 inches. When compared to the MM-1, which measures 6.7 inches by 3.9 inches by 3.9 inches, it's easy to understand how they deliver more powerful sound than the MM-1s and their younger sibling, the Audioengine 2.
This is one reason why reviewers, including CNET's Steven Guttenberg, prefer the Audioengine 2 (*Est. $200) . Though not as powerful as the Audioengine 5, these give the same clarity and detail in a more compact package. Tom Mainelli at Australia's Good Gear Guide warns that "the Audioengine [2s] reproduce music so well that you may find yourself stopping to listen instead of working." Placement of the speakers seems to have some effect on the balance, as noted by both professional reviewers and users. It's worth placing these on stands at ear level and/or at a greater distance from your work area (say 6 feet as opposed to the usual 3 feet), especially if bass overwhelms other ranges. Equalizer adjustments can also help balance the ranges out.
If you don't want to drop $200 or more on PC speakers but you're still looking for above-average sound for your tunes, reviewers and users rate M-Audio's AV 40 system (*Est. $160) highly. Though not quite as tall as the Audioengine 5, the AV 40s are 8.5 inches by 6.2 inches by 7.5 inches. Reviewers say a natural, open sound comes out of these speakers with a solid bass kick, but balance may have a lot to do with placement. Users in particular recommend using stands or mounting them on the wall order to get the placement just right. Otherwise, highs or lows -- or both -- could suffer. Users also say there's a breaking-in period, and sound doesn't reach its zenith until the speakers have been used for about a week. Overall, reviewers give high ratings for excellent sound quality at an excellent price.
None of the 2.0 systems profiled above are really capable of window-rattling bass, which is far from optimal for movie buffs, gamers and others who appreciate the visceral jolt that well-delivered low frequencies can provide. Manufacturers of 2.1-channel systems typically don't shoot for audiophile quality. Instead, they focus on clarity, detail and balance across all ranges without sacrificing full, rich bass.
Experts' top pick in this category is the Harman Kardon SoundSticks III (*Est. $170) . The minimalist, transparent SoundSticks emit a pale glow from within (Tim Gideon at CNET says they look like "exotic jellyfish"), and critics consider them a true work of art; indeed, the design is now part of the New York Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. The sound is equally impressive -- clear, sharp and balanced across the ranges, with no distortion even on bass-heavy tracks at full volume.
Harman Kardon made only superficial changes to the successor of the Harman Kardon SoundSticks II, including stronger, better-looking cables and a softer glowing light (you can't turn it off without turning off the speakers). The minimalist design still omits some features -- there's no remote, no headphone jack and no marks on the volume buttons, so if you cranked up the volume the day before and forgot to turn it back down, you (and your neighbors) may be in for an uncomfortable initial blast. The SoundSticks III connects via a 3.5 mm stereo jack, so it works with computers, MP3 players and portable CD players.
The Logitech Z623 (*Est. $145) is the SoundSticks' closest runner-up -- but only for movies and games, not music, some experts caution. Testers at PCMag.com, TomsHardware.com and TechTree.com all pick the Z623 speakers as a favorite, mostly thanks to its heart-pounding subwoofer: "The punch from the subwoofer was powerful enough to knock the wind out of your lungs at higher volumes," writes Prasad Naik at TechTree.com. The two satellite speakers are almost -- but not quite -- as crisp, clear and brilliant in the high ranges as the Harman Kardon SoundSticks III, says Tim Gideon at PCMag.com, where the Z623 speakers win the 2010 Best of the Year award. The Z623 speakers are also THX-certified (meaning it conforms to the digital sound standard established by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas), and people who own this speaker system give it outstanding scores at Amazon.com and Newegg.com.
But testers at About.com and MaximumPC magazine argue that while the Z623 system shines for movies and games, it stinks at playing music. "Too boomy," says About.com's Lisa Johnston, who has to practically turn off the subwoofer to make some songs bearable. Michael Brown at MaximumPC magazine finds vocals and instruments "unpleasantly harsh" and says the Z623 speaker system "leaves us wondering what value THX certification really holds for the consumer at this price point."
However, Brown does recommend the Z623's little brother, the similar-looking Logitech Z523 (*Est. $75) . The Z523 speaker system doesn't punch you in the gut with its bass -- but at half the price of the Z623, reviewers don't expect it to. The Z523 isn't THX certified, and it packs far less power than the Z623 (40 watts versus 200). "But frankly, we haven't heard anything that comes close to the Z523 at this price range," writes Brown, this time in a review for DigitalTrends.com. With both games and music, he is "bowled over by both the volume and the quality of sound."
Brown says the Z523 speakers can sound harsh in the high ranges when you crank up the volume past 80 percent, and PCMag.com's Tim Gideon says bass-heavy tracks can distort at max volume, too. "At a more reasonable level -- still loud enough for a party, even a raucous one -- the Z523 handles deep bass well," Gideon says. "I've definitely heard better subs, but not in this price range." It's the only under-$100 model on CNET's list of the top PC speakers.
For more powerful bass, experts like the runner-up Creative GigaWorks T3 (*Est. $250) . The T3 speakers deliver crisp mid and high ranges and deep low ranges. Andrew Harrison of PC World (Australia) Good Gear Guide says, "Overall the Creative GigaWorks T3 could conjure up a smooth and mellow sound, dimensionally deep with some quite convincing stereo imaging." These speakers also score points for their compact design. The satellites are on stands; this means they're at a better listening angle than box-shaped speakers that sit on a desk.
Balance among the ranges can be tricky, though, if you like to crank up the sound. The T3 speakers use a proprietary technology that Creative calls SLAM (Symmetrically Loaded Acoustic Module). This delivers bass from three drivers in the subwoofer in three directions, and this can overpower high and mid ranges at loud volumes. If you listen to a variety of musical genres and watch multiple types of movies at high volume levels, this means frequent adjustment of the bass (which can be done with a knob on the back of the subwoofer). Reviewers say, though, that at reasonable volumes, these speakers deliver an enjoyably balanced sound.
For picky audiophiles with big budgets, the Focal XS (*Est. $600) is the priciest PC speaker system recommended in reviews. "This set is clearly aimed at audiophiles who want high fidelity to extend to their PC audio," PCMag.com's Tim Gideon says. Rather than bone-crunching bass and party-drowning loudness, the Focal XS speakers deliver precise, balanced and accurate sound across all ranges. The satellite speakers on stands are designed to line up perfectly with your ears, and Maximum PC magazine's Michael Brown says the Focal XS speakers allow him to hear and enjoy each distinct layer of some extremely complex music. One of his favorite tracks -- complete with voice, guitars, violin, flute, Wurlitzer and more -- "can devolve into a distorted mish-mash on lesser systems," Brown says. "It sounded positively glorious on the Focal XS." It's also a favorite at Macworld; besides its "excellent sound quality," tester Dan Frakes notes that its sleek black-and-aluminum design matches Macs perfectly.
With the rise in popularity of laptops and netbooks, wireless computer speakers are becoming more popular. Wireless computer speakers are typically 2.1-channel systems with two satellites and a subwoofer. It's important to note, though, that wireless speakers aren't completely wireless. The system needs to be powered through a wall socket, and the satellites need to be connected to the subwoofer through a physical wire, but the connection from the speakers to the source is wireless. That means you can leave them on your desk or a shelf and work on your laptop across the room and possibly even between rooms, depending on the speakers' wireless range and any interference factors.
The 2.1-channel Creative Inspire S2 (*Est. $100) uses Bluetooth to stream music from any device that supports Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP). However, Creative optimized connectivity by including a Bluetooth transmitter that plugs into the USB port of your laptop or netbook. The transmitter delivers improved sound, according to reviewers, because it uses apt-X audio coding, which is better than A2DP technology. There's even an auxiliary port for hardwiring non-Bluetooth-enabled portable devices.
All reviewers are impressed with the sharp detail from the small satellites and subtle but present bass that blends in well, especially for Bluetooth. Volume levels get fairly loud, although most report distortion at really high volumes. The speakers sport a compact design, including the subwoofer, which measures 7.8 inches by 7 inches by 9.1 inches. The satellites can sit on your palm at 4 inches by 2.8 inches by 2.9 inches. Range is advertised at 30 feet, though it will be less if there's a wall between your laptop and the speakers.
The top competitor to the Inspire S2 is the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 Wireless system (*Est. $150) . This system uses a 2.4 GHz radio frequency connection. Reviewers report a range of 20 to 30 feet, again reduced if there's a wall in the way. Like all 2.4 GHz radio frequency devices, the speakers are vulnerable to occasional dropouts, depending on the number of other wireless devices in the area. This wasn't a significant complaint from reviewers, however.
Reviewers are dazzled with the crisp, powerful sound these wireless speakers produce. Tim Gideon at PCMag.com says, "When balance is met, the system sounds amazing, at high or low volumes." Dan Frakes at Macworld says the subwoofer is finicky, and he suggests placing it at a distance from the wall or adjusting the bass level to avoid an uncomfortable boom effect. Distortion in the high ranges occurs only at very high volumes, and you can crank these up quite a bit without any problem.