It happened so naturally most of us didn't see it coming - the PC is taking over from the stereo as the main way many people listen to music at home.
Sure, there'll always be a place for dedicated hi-fi systems, especially for audiophiles.
Yet, now that you can store every song you have on your hard drive and easily play them through jukebox software such as iTunes, it makes sense to use your PC as a music player - provided, that is, you have a great set of speakers.
Even if your computer has built-in speakers, there are several reasons why you might want to buy an external set. The most obvious is amplification, as most built-ins aren't loud enough to fill a room, especially for situations such as parties.
Their sound quality usually leave a lot to be desired. They often come across as tinny, distorted and unclear and, because they have to be small enough to fit within the computer case, they're limited when it comes to playing low bass frequencies.
Most of the speakers reviewed here are 2.1 systems, which means that they have left and right speakers (called satellites) as well as a subwoofer. The number before the decimal point refers to the number of satellite speakers and the number after indicates whether or not there's a subwoofer.
For example, 2.0 indicates there are two speakers but no subwoofer, whereas a 5.1 system provides surround sound through five separate satellite speakers as well as a subwoofer, making them a favourite among gamers who want to feel as immersed in their virtual experience as possible.
The main problem with subwoofers is that they can separate the bass from the rest of the music too dramatically. This is especially a problem with cheaper subwoofers, which often provide the booms and thuds that may be effective when watching action movies but aren't so good at blending in with the sound coming out of the satellite speakers.
Keep in mind that a good subwoofer shouldn't rattle your windows and be overpowering. It should round out and add depth to the sound coming from the satellites speakers.
Most subwoofers are designed to sit on the floor, which makes us wonder why some companies don't provide a long enough cord to connect them to the PC. The Creative I-Trigue 3400 had a ridiculously short cord, while the JBL Spot wasn't much better.
It also explains why so many of them are ugly black boxes - the companies assume, sometimes incorrectly, that you're just going to hide them underneath your desk.
As low frequencies are non-directional - in other words, it's hard for you to work out where they're coming from since the sound waves are so long they've already bounced off at least one wall before you hear them - there's a lot of debate over where should you put the subwoofer.
The easy answer is that it depends on the size and dynamics of the room, but we recommend putting them relatively close to the satellite speakers for most situations.
It's worth pointing out that some people also believe a subwoofer sounds better when it's elevated and not on the floor. Try placing it in different locations to find out what works for you.
The satellite speakers, however, should be placed on either side of the monitor. They're designed to work best when the user is sitting right in front of them - we found the sound quality was slightly affected not only when we stepped away from the speakers but even when we simply stood up. (This was especially noticeable with the Bose Computer MusicMonitor speakers.)
All the speakers reviewed here were chosen for their small size, style and unobtrusiveness, with the major difference being their cost. When it comes to speakers, quality does, unfortunately, come at a price, as the following reviews show.
Rating 3 out of 5
The main attraction of these speakers is you can change the satellite and subwoofer cases: black and white ones are supplied. It's a cute gimmick but we'd prefer to have a remote control that isn't supplied. What is good is that the bass and overall amplification is strong plus you can control the bass separately.
BOSE COMPUTER MUSICMONITOR
Rating 5 out of 5
This is the only speaker system here without a subwoofer and yet the MusicMonitors provide a deep and rich bass thanks to what Bose calls dual internal opposing passive radiators.
There's nowhere near enough space here to elaborate on what this means but the bottom line is these speakers provide a much more vibrant, balanced and cleaner sound than you would expect from such small enclosures. A remote control is supplied and the brushed aluminium casing is attractive.
HARMON KARDON SOUNDSTICKS II
Rating 4 out of 5
Sure, these speakers look good (if a little dated) thanks to the clear perspex casing and the four mini speakers embedded in each of the left and right satellites but it's the sound quality that impresses most. The bass is booming (you can control the level) and yet integrates well with the satellites's sound. Unfortunately no remote control is supplied.
If you're not concerned about upsetting the neighbours then its hard to beat the Harmon Kardon Soundsticks II for overall quality and volume. Those living in apartments or who don't have room for a subwoofer might prefer the Bose Computer MusicMonitor if they can afford it.
Gamers on a budget who want to feel blasts and vibrations may be satisfied with the Creative I-Trigue 3400, whereas the JBL Spot should please most people.
CREATIVE I-TRIGUE 3400
Rating 2.5 out of 5
The satellite speakers are attractive, the volume powerful, the subwoofer packs a punch and the price is lower than the other systems reviewed here. However, the subwoofer sounded disjointed from the satellites, which came across as limited in their range. The volume control is connected by a cord to the system.
- Sydney Morning Herald