How To Buy The Best Desktop Speakers
When looking for the best desktop speakers for your use, there are a few things to consider when doing your research. There are a number of options available and it all depends on your plans on how you will use your computer speakers. There are cheap to expensive, small use of space to large use of space, mediocre sound to expensive sound, and with or without subwoofer just to name a few options.
Uses could be from office use, personal use, playing background music, playing music to enjoy, to watching movies to playing games. Different uses have different goals. And finally of course price: and each additional benefit you are looking for will possibly tack on some extra cost.
Now first thing to realize is you are most likely not looking for speakers comparable to a home theater system. Sound quality naturally won’t be as high quality, footprint won’t be as high, and input/outputs are most likely not speaker channel wire but more likely regular 3.5-mm jack (pictured right) (a.k.a. headset jack) or even USB.
With all this in mind, here are some things you want to look at and think about for your future best computer speakers from some necessary considerations to some extra convenient nice-to-have features.
Budget and Pricing For Desktop Speakers:
First thing to look at, of course, is your budget. Even if you’re on a tight budget, you are in luck because there are some great quality speakers which will help you enjoy your computer experience more at very good prices. Speakers can cost as little as $50 or as much as $500, with many of them in the $70 to $170 range. There are a large number of speaker systems out there and pricier does not always mean better. When you consider what you will be using the speakers for, you might find that a nice simple and solid two speaker system will be perfect for you.
Stereo, Bass, and Surround Sound:
The main feature to look at is the type of speaker system and sound do you want. So we’ll cover stereo sound, bass, and surround sound.
Stereo sound: All the speaker systems you are looking at will include a left channel and right channel speaker, also commonly referred to as satellite speakers. You can also call this “stereo sound”.
Bass: Satellite speakers have woofers to handle the low to low-mid frequencies, a.k.a. bass. You can also offload this to a subwoofer to handle the bass. When you do this, you only need a reasonable component and moderate volume to really get some nice thumping bass for your music, movies, or video games.
Surround Sound: Additional speakers (can also be called satellite speakers, but also called surround sound speakers) are added to the two satellite speakers (left and right) to serve additional audio channels that “surround” the listener. This includes ambient noise and some other music and sound effects to give the user a perception of being in the moment. This is also characterized by specific placement of the speakers depending on listener location so that there is an optimum spot to sit and listen to get the full effect. As a picture is worth a thousand words, see pictured right an example surround sound speaker system setup (this is a 5.1 speaker system). (I found this really nifty diagram on a really useful blog post describing speaker placement with various surround sound systems)
How does this relate to PC speakers? The most commonly sold systems are: 2.0 speaker systems, 2.1 speaker systems, and 5.1 speaker systems.
2.0 speaker system: This system containst two satellite speakers for the left and right channels. No subwoofer is included in this system. However, for many uses for computer speakers, the included woofer in the satellite speakers can be sufficient enough for handling the low to low-mid frequencies. These speakers may end up a big bigger to handle a large woofer. The bigger the driver, the better the low frequencies will sound.
2.1 speaker system: The “.1″ means a subwoofer to cover the low frequencies, a.k.a. the deep bass. The subwoofer need only be of reasonable quality to add some nice thumping bass to your multimedia whether games or movies. The bigger the driver, the better the low frequencies will sound. A 2.1 speaker system means you have your two channels, left and right, plus a subwoofer. Because the subwoofer is handling the bass, the woofer on the satellite speakers can be smaller and so your two satellite speakers may end up smaller than in a 2.0 speaker system.
5.1 speaker system: This is a true surround sound speaker system. Besides the left and right satellite speakers and the subwoofer, there are three additional speakers: center channel, rear left channel, and rear right channel.
Which do you want?
In order of “least desirable” to “most desirable” in our opinion:
5.1 Speaker System: To be honest 5.1 surround sound is a bit overkill for just about any desktop use. It is great for movies, however most movies are watched on a theater system and not a desktop system. The other reason to get the surround sound is for gamers, and many 5.1 PC speaker systems are targeted towards gamers, not movie watchers. Gamers tend to be hard core (and why not?) and if you don’t mind the wires, a 5.1 PC speaker system can really enhance the gaming environment. So if you’re a hard core gamer (lightup keyboard and all) or for some reason use your desktop as a home theater system, you can look into a 5.1 speaker system. Otherwise, it is overkill.
2.1 speaker system: If you simply want to hear deep bass rumble in your movies and your games, a 2.1 system is the way to go. Fortunately, the 2.1 PC speaker systems are quite affordable and not priced too extravagantly above the 2.0 PC speaker systems. Some of them look very sleek. Our main reason against the 2.1 speaker system? Mostly footprint. The subwoofer is going to take up floor space. I know personally in my home office I would be hard pressed to find room for a subwoofer. If you have the room and want the bass, go for it. The other reason: aesthetics. If this speaker system is for your work, it may not look as professional having a 2.1 system and you may opt for the 2.0 sound system. Other than that, the bass is actually quite nice to have.
2.0 speaker system: The sound quality on these speakers tend to be quite good, even handling low frequencies. If you are not a hard core gamer, don’t need the home theater experience, and don’t require the subwoofer, then a nice pair of 2.0 speakers will be what you’re looking for.
Other Features And Things To Consider:
Outside of the type of sound you’re looking for, everything else for the most part varies from nice-to-have to need-to-have
Size And Footprint: As you look at speakers, look at your desktop area so you know roughly how large of a speaker you can accommodate. There will be some things you can move around to make room (like piles of paper) and some things you cannot (like shelves and hutches). More importantly, if you plan to get a subwoofer, check your floor spacing to see where you might be putting it (get the right size and you have a comfy footrest).
Powered Speakers: in other words, speakers that have their own power instead of deriving it from the 3.5mm jack. A must have to give your speakers some oomph.
Magnetically shielded: Unlike your home theater system and dvd player, your monitor and your computer will have some conflicting magnetic fields. Unshielded speakers will at the least cause some interference on your monitor
3.5mm vs USB: Your sound should be better from your 3.5mm jack. That is a port direct to your sound card which is built for sound. Your USB port isn’t. Surprisingly the sound is not bad out of your USB port, and with some drivers and software it can sound pretty good, but it should be better out of your 3.5mm jack right out of the gate. Also to consider: if you are limited on USB ports, definitely use your 3.5mm headset jack.
External Controls: While you should be able to control your speakers through your sound card software, for some people it is nice and convenient to have controls on the speakers themselves such as on/off, volume, balance, bass, treble, and mute button as example. It’s nice to be able to fine tune the sound manually. These can either be on-speaker or in the form of a remote.
If on the speaker, we prefer manual dials versus these new en vogue “touch” controls which really just are too kludgy. And they must be easily reachable: on the left or right speaker or satellite. For a subwoofer you will also want that easily reachable. Otherwise, a remote is useful as well and can come wired or wireless.
Additional Output Jacks: Also for some it is nice to have a easy-access headset jack on the speaker for plugging in your 3.5mm headset instead of having to unplug and plug the speakers and headsets over and over from the soundcard. Optionally you could use a USB headset and leave the speakers plugged into the soundcard.
Additional Input Jacks: Some systems will also offer an additional input in the form of a 3.5mm. This is handy if you want to plug in another music device such as an iPod or iPhone to play out of your speakers.
Sound Card: Your sound card needs to be able to support the speakers you buy. Most will support 2.0 speaker systems. You will want to check to make sure you can control 2.1 and 5.1 speaker systems if you decide to go that route.
Wireless/Bluetooth Connectivity: Imagine playing through your speaker system from your iPhone. Or if the speaker is portable, playing from your desktop to your speaker and being able to move your speaker from room to room. Or being able to place the speakers without having a mess of cords. This is what wireless would help with. Make sure to read owner reviews as the quality of bluetooth connectivity can vary.
Mountable Speakers: Just in case your desk or shelf does not have enough room, then you can mount them on a wall or ceiling.
Appearance: Yes, appearance does matter. Pleasing looks, sleek looks over cheap looks is always nicer for many. It may not be important for some, but for others remember you will be staring at these a lot as they are near your computer – almost like another piece of furniture. So while function is important, so is style. As an example, the Harman Kardon Soundsticks III were chosen to be part of a permanent collection at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Can you say artful and sleek?
We hope this guide has been very helpful for you!
At this point we suggest you start next with our bestseller lists of best desktop speakers for various criteria. Besides reviews we compile lists of the current most popular and bestselling speakers in various criteria (after all there has to be a reason they are the most popular) which gives you a great starting point – research these speakers to see what fits your needs, or research other speakers by the same manufacturer – you should be able to find the best PC desktop speakers to fit your needs nicely and in your budget.
Good luck and have fun!