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Choosing the best computer speakers

Whether you are watching a movie, playing a high-intensity video game, or listening to streaming or recorded music, the quality of your computer speakers plays a large role in determining the quality of your experience. However, computer speaker reviews as well as other feedback from experts and users tell us that some speakers are better suited to certain users and uses than others.

If listening to high-fidelity, lossless music with the best possible audio definition and clarity is a priority, audiophile-grade computer speakers are pretty much a must, even though those can get quite pricey. Some of the computer speakers preferred by professional musicians and recording studios can cost $1,000 or more, though some nearly as stunning choices don't carry quite as stunning a price tag. But cost aside, there are other reasons why those with a less finely attuned ear might prefer other speakers.

For example, some of the best high-end computer speakers are 2.0-channel systems, lacking the subwoofer found in more modest choices. That's not an issue when listening to many musical performances, but while these audiophile-centric speakers deliver great low-end response, some of the deep lows typical of movies, action games and some types of music won't have the same presence.

A 2.1-channel computer speaker system brings a subwoofer into the mix to deliver deeper, louder bass. These computer speaker systems are popular picks for music, gaming and general use. These systems contain a large subwoofer that's often placed on the floor and paired with two smaller satellite speakers that go on either side of a computer monitor. Many 2.1-channel computer speaker systems feature adjustable bass levels, multiple inputs for connecting other devices, including iPods, and remote controls. Audio quality runs the gamut, but you can expect great fidelity and ample power from systems priced between $130 and $200.

Surround-sound, 5.1-channel computer speaker systems (five speakers plus a subwoofer) promise a home-theater-like experience. Reviews say surround sound can be exciting for films and games, with spaceships whizzing past your ear or enemies creeping up behind you. Most modern digital sound cards can handle 5.1-channel sound, though you should check your computer's specs before buying these speakers.

On the downside, unless you really relish the surround-sound experience for movies or gaming, some experts warn that 5.1 systems can be more trouble than they're worth, with multiple speakers to find places for and cables snaking everywhere. Two top computer speaker reviewers -- CNET and TomsHardware.com -- describe 5.1 systems as "impractical" for computers, saying they prefer compact 2.0 or 2.1 systems.

When you're looking for cheap computer speakers, be prepared to make some concessions in both audio quality and function. The very cheapest computer speakers are often disappointments, with build quality, sound quality and convenience all sub-par. However, we also spotted some cheap computer speakers that are relative standouts, according to expert and user reviews. No, they don't keep up with expensive computer speakers in tonal quality, but they can still sound pretty good to nonfussy listeners -- and they are certainly an upgrade over the tinny built-in speakers in your laptop, desktop computer or computer monitor.

To find the best computer speakers, including ones that provide the best value, we go through dozens of professional reviews and feature roundups. We also dig heavily into hundreds of user reviews posted on popular retail websites. Using this data, we judge computer speakers on performance, of course, but also on how well they are put together, and how much bang for the buck they deliver. Top choices are named, as are some formidable alternatives.

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