Tired of the sad sound coming from your computer? Buying PC speakers should be relatively painless, but to get the most bang for your buck, you should analyze your needs before pulling out your wallet. Options run the gamut from super-cheap, space-saving stereo speakers that sound just okay, to pricey, bass-infused powerhouses that deliver loud, thumping beats. Since music lovers, movie addicts, and gamers have different sound agendas, first we'll explore the key points everyone should consider.
Stereo, 2.1, or Surround Sound: What's the Difference?
Understanding the lingo is an important place to start. Stereo speakers consist of only a left and a right speaker, "2.1" refers to a pair of speakers augmented by a subwoofer, and surround sound involves between five and seven speakers plus a subwoofer. The role of the subwoofer is to cover deep bass frequencies, generally below 100Hz. A solid sub at a reasonable volume can add throttle to film explosions and depth to kick drums, bass guitars, analog synths, orchestras, and more. Some stereo speaker pairs, however, sound great even without a subwoofer, primarily because their woofers (the drivers dedicated to low-mid and low frequencies between 100Hz and 1KHz) are perfectly capable of handling the bass response.
Smaller stereo pairs, or those with only one driver, tend to offer less bass response. A surround-sound speaker setup employs a stereo pair, a subwoofer, a center "channel" that covers dialogue in movies, and two or more rear satellite speakers for sounds passing behind you. If you're a film buff, you have the room, and you don't mind a lot of wires, a surround system can significantly enhance your movie-watching experience. Most PC surround systems, however, are geared toward gamers. If you're looking for a top-notch gaming sound system, try sets from Logitech, Altec Lansing, or Razer. Some systems even incorporate headsets. If you simply want to hear deep bass rumble in your movies, a 2.1 system is the way to go—and fortunately, there are affordable options. Otherwise, a simple stereo pair will probably suffice.
How Much do You Have to Spend?
Even if you're on a tight budget, low-cost speakers can noticeably improve your listening experience. You can drop as little as $50 or as much as $500 on a speaker set, but the good news is that some of the best products we've tested start in the low $100 range. Our Editors' Choice, the admittedly pricey Audioengine 5+ ($399, 4.5 stars, pictured above), delivers amazing clarity, detail, and refined bass performance. The Harman Kardon SoundSticks III also offer fantastic audio performance, look cool, and sell for well under $200, and Hercules makes some solid-sounding 2.1 systems that are available for less than $100. The more you spend, the higher the quality of the drivers—the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1, for example, offers amazing sound in a diminutive package, but come with an even higher $500 price tag.
Do Extra Features Matter?
You might not think much about extra features when it comes to PC speakers, but there are some things to consider: Do the speakers include bass and treble controls so you can tailor the sound to your tastes? How about a Mute button? Is there an Aux input for plugging in an MP3 player? How about a remote control? High-quality sound and robust extra features are not mutually exclusive—the Cambridge SoundWorks MicroWorks II and the Audioengine 2 both deliver excellent audio, but offer no remote or other extras. For multiple inputs, Bluetooth streaming, and other useful features, check out Creative's ZiiSound T6.
Listening at Home or at the Office?
How you plan to use your speakers will also help determine your best option. You probably don't need a mammoth subwoofer if you're listening at work—small speakers with decent clarity might be the wisest choice, particularly if you're just using them to watch YouTube videos or listen to Internet radio streams. For home, maybe you want larger or more stylish speakers, and the ability to blast them without distortion (especially if your PC is your main music source).
What About Connections?
If your PC has a limited number of USB ports, you'll probably want to go with the more common 3.5mm "mini plug" audio output connector, though USB-powered speakers often come with software that enables special functions. The super-expensive-but-amazing Focal XS, for example, connects via USB and controls iTunes via the speakers' physical buttons. For a digital input and an excellent value overall, check out Antec's Soundscience Rockus 3D 2.1 Speaker System.
What About Wireless?
Now that the latest wireless speakers actually sound good, it's something to consider—especially if you're prone to moving your laptop around the house, and don't want to constantly disconnect and connect your speakers. The Bose SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker ($299.95, 4 stars) offers surprisingly accurate and punchy sound over a stereo Bluetooth connection, although it looks more like a single-unit iPod dock than a proper set of two-channel PC speakers. If you'd still rather have that—and you'll get better sound this way—Apple's AirPort Express router is an old standby that lets you connect any set of PC speakers to it via a standard-size 3.5mm jack. Out of the box, it only works wirelessly with iTunes and other iDevices via AirPlay, but third-party drivers like AirFoil extend that functionality to Spotify, Pandora, and other programs on both PCs and Macs.
Ready to amp up your desktop sound? Check out the latest PC speaker reviews in the Speakers Product Guide.