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A Guide to Computer Speakers

By Kevin Reylek

Computers these days aren't just for number crunchers and fact-checkers. Today, computers are full-fledged media centers, capable of playing back your favorite music, TV shows and high-definition movies; sometimes in packages that seemingly fit into your back pocket. So, how do you get the best audio quality from your speed-demon CPU? Let's take a look at some different speaker systems and what their advantages are.

There are 2 primary types of speaker setups that you'll encounter, stereo and surround sound. We'll look at 5.1 surround sound systems, and 2.1 and 2.0 stereo systems. You might occasionally encounter a souped-up 6.1 or higher surround system, but that's a topic for another day.

A 5.1 system is ideal for watching movies and playing advanced video games that feature cinema-quality visuals and sound. Every 5.1 system features 5 "satellite" speakers (Front Left, Center, Front Right, Rear Left, and Rear Right) and a Subwoofer, which is the ".1" aspect of the system. Having this many discrete audio channels allows you to really hear the spacial aspects of a soundtrack, such as a plane flying across the room, or a clap of thunder behind you. The dedicated subwoofer provides an extra level of punch that the satellite speakers can't deliver on their own. So if you're an action movie buff or your music collection is mostly hip-hop, then a subwoofer is a must.

Logitech Z-5500

First on our list of 5.1 systems is the Logitech Z-5500. This system features a 10" subwoofer with a bass-reflex cabinet to deliver tight, punchy bass. It has digital EQ, and can even accept digital input at higher-than-CD-quality levels. The satellites have aluminum housings with removable cloth grilles, and are mounted on rotating pedestals for easy placement on a desk or wall mounting.

The system is THX-certified and can decode both Dolby Digital and DTS audio formats. Up to 6 different audio sources can be connected at once, allowing you to keep your computer, Blu-ray player, video game system, portable music player, and more, all connected to the speakers at once. A very slick digital SoundTouch control center lets you control volume and muting, input selection, effects, settings, and more from a single palm-sized control unit.

Stereo Systems

While surround sound systems offer terrific audio quality, they're not always the most practical solution when it comes to size, especially with back-to-school season upon us. To hook up your dorm room with great sound while still saving room for that mini basketball hoop, a stereo system might be the way to go.

Harman-Kardon SoundSticks II

Probably one of the more recognizable and long-lasting designs for computer speakers is the clear, curvy plastic of the Harman-Kardon SoundSticks II 2.1 system. Each of the satellites contains four 1" drivers to provide high-quality audio reproduction of your favorite songs and movies. The subwoofer not only adds that bass kick, but a bit of visual pizzazz as well. The system has a built-in EQ system and a volume control on the right satellite. It has a standard 3.5mm mini plug connector, so you can plug it right into any desktop or laptop computer.

Bose Companion 3 Series II

One of the more well-known consumer speaker brands is Bose, known for their tiny speakers and easy-to-use systems. The Companion 3 Series II is a 2.1 system that features some unique technology to get the biggest sound out of a compact package. Each of the satellites is pre-mounted on a stand and has a 2" driver for rich sound. The Acoustimass subwoofer has a 5.25" driver to provide you with strong bass without taking up a ton of room. But the most interesting thing about this system is the TrueSpace processing circuitry, which creates the widest possible sound from the system, making it sound like you're listening to a much larger set of speakers. A small touch-sensitive wired control pod is included for convenient volume control. The pod has a 3.5mm output for connecting a pair of headphones, and an Aux input for connecting a portable media player.

Altec Lansing VS4121

Another great option in the 2.1 category is the Altec Lansing VS4121. The satellites have a slim profile and each hold 3 speaker elements to provide full-range sound. The bass-reflex subwoofer packs a 6.5" front-firing driver to provide frequencies as low as 20Hz. The system connects with a standard 3.5mm plug, also making this a great choice for any computer. The right satellite has volume and tone controls, allowing you to adjust the ratio of bass and treble to suit your preferences. It also offers a 3.5mm headphone jack for private listening.

Logitech V-20

For those who are looking for something nice and portable to go along with a laptop, the Logitech V-20 is worth a peek. This USB-based 2.0 stereo system is compatible with Mac and Windows computers, and connects directly to any USB port, which supplies them with audio and power so you don't have to mess with batteries or an AC adapter. They even come with a travel case that slips easily into your laptop bag or backpack so you can enjoy them no matter where you go.

Studio Monitors

Computer speakers offer great sound, compact packages, and a high level of usability that lets you plug them right into the existing ports on your computer. One caveat to consider is that computer speakers often have a modified frequency response, designed to bring out the best in your movies and games. But if you're looking for a more uncolored sound, then a pair of studio monitors may be up your alley. Studio monitors come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but we've dug up some monitors that can fit on your computer desk and won't break the bank.

M-Audio Studiophile AV 30

The compact Studiophile AV 30 monitors from M-Audio pack high-end features into a consumer-friendly package. Each speaker has a 3" woofer and a 0.75" tweeter, and internal amplifiers provide 15W of power to each channel for a strong, distortion-free performance. The input connectors are standard stereo RCA inputs, which can connect to a computer, DVD player, television, and other equipment. The speakers even come with an RCA-to-Mini cable so you can use them with your computer right away.

The bass-reflex cabinets are made of wood and have built-in waveguides around the tweeters to provide an accurate stereo image. The front of one of the speakers has a volume control, 3.5mm headphone jack, and a 3.5mm Aux input for connecting a portable media player.

For the Audiophile who has Everything...

If you're the kind of audio junkie who has his own huge audio studio, you might want to consider the S7A MK2 from Adam Professional Audio. This bad boy packs in 7 different speaker elements and more proprietary technology than you can shake a stick at. It weighs in at over 350 pounds and costs more than some automobiles. But hey, can you really put a price tag on great audio quality?

Wrap Up that Cable

This is just a sampling of the vast number of speakers that B&H has to offer. Feel free to browse around our online store, or come visit us in Manhattan where you can get hands-on and find the perfect system to match your desktop or laptop. Whether you need the full-blown power of a surround sound system or something designed for ultimate portability, we've got you covered!

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