What the best computer speakers have

  • Good sound clarity. Computer speakers should sound crisp, clear and distortion-free, regardless of the sound volume at which they are played.
  • Wide frequency response. Frequency response is the range of frequencies that a speaker can reproduce. The best speakers have flat frequency response, which means that sound reproduction is uniform across the range with none of the high, mid or bass frequencies dominating. The human ear can pick up sounds from about 20 Hz on the low end to about 20 kHz on the high end. Most speakers can hit 20 kHz easily, but they vary more on the low end. For games and special-effects-laden movies, you'll want a speaker with good low-frequency (bass) response to get the full "impact" of the on-screen action.
  • Sufficient power. Computer speakers have built-in amplifiers that dictate how much sound volume they can generate. For close-by listening, power isn't crucial, but if you plan to entertain a crowd -- or your neighborhood -- you'll want enough watts in reserve. Keep in mind that many computer speakers introduce a little -- or a lot -- of distortion when cranked to their maximum.
  • Multiple connections. The most basic computer speakers will have a simple analog-audio input to accept sound from a computer or laptop. Other speakers will add auxiliary inputs for audio from other devices as well, such as iPods and other MP3 players. A headphone output adds a touch of convenience for times that call for private or quiet listening. Speakers with their own audio processing will have a USB input to accept digital audio.

Know before you go

What kind of computer speakers are right for you? To find the right computer speakers, experts say you need to consider your listening environment, your listening preferences and your budget. For example, audiophiles who plan on listening to lossless, high-fidelity recordings and streams will be disappointed by speakers that can't deliver the clarity and fidelity of their source material.

Movie buffs will still want good clarity for dialog and more, but they also will want speakers with a robust low end that can deliver all the visceral impact of the latest Hollywood blockbusters. For casual listening and gaming with better sound quality than is possible from the built-in speakers in most laptops or desktop monitors, even cheap -- but well made -- speakers will be a notable upgrade.

Where will the speakers be placed? The small satellites in many computer speaker systems won't take up all that much room on your desktop. However, some systems use larger enclosures for better sound, so keep their footprint in mind (or, where possible, consider wall mounting). Most computer system subwoofers are small enough to fit under a desk without too much hassle, but check to make sure that you have room.

Do you need additional inputs? Many speaker systems have additional inputs so you can easily plug in gaming consoles, iPods and other external devices. Make sure you take this into consideration before picking up computer speakers that might not have the connections you seek.

Are aesthetics important to you? Appearance and stylish design aren't important to everyone, but if looks are a consideration, then getting computer speakers with the right size, color and design to blend in with your existing computer hardware is something to consider.

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