I’ve seen a lot of forum posts and friends looking at speakers lately, there’s a lot of mystery behind what makes for a good set and how to get the most for your money on a budget. I’ll outline below a small section of how I go about picking speakers for myself or what I look for when reviewing a set of them. Without wasting too much time lets jump into the fray and get this going.
First a few key items.
- Be honest with yourself, what do you want to do with these speakers?
- Do you want to listen to music? watch movies? play games?
- How important is 5.1 to you? Do you have the space and mounts to set them properly?
- What type of listener are you?
I’ll go by category and you can go from there
2.0 / 2.1
5.1 / surround
2.0 / 2.1
Stereo speakers are coming back into the mainstream right now, everyone is using sound field emulation to try and create a surround effect. They do work but it depends on your needs. Because this is a 2.0 / 2.1 section we’re not focused on that to begin with.
- Frequency response, anything around 28-45Hz at the bottom end, the top end is almost always 20-25KHz
- Speaker size is a sensitive spot with a 2.0 or 2.1 system. Without a sub you want bigger satellite speakers, most come in a 2.5″ – 4″ variety, bigger is better in a 2.0 system as it usually gives you a lower frequency response. In a 2.1 system try to aim for a 3″ speaker, it’ll still give decent midrange.
- Tweeters are something to shoot for if you’re aiming for full range, it also means that the midrange doesn’t work nearly as hard.
- Cabinet material – most computer speakers have a plastic shell, some are even using metal now, ideally you want MDF or some wood composite. In a 2.0 system you probably will not get this. In a 2.1 be sure that the subwoofer box is some time of wood though as plastic will sound awful.
- Subwoofer size in a 2.1 for music should be at least a 5.25″ speaker or higher. Some older sets came with an 8″ speaker for extremely good low frequency sound. 4″ subs are punchy and often lack any good range so try to avoid them at all cost.
- Wattage is the worst measure of a good system, most people gauge what they by on simply this rating. What needs to be understood is the following.
- RMS – If you’re looking to go by power ratings look at this and look at the distribution by channel. If you’re lucky you’ll get something like 25w x 2 for the front speakers and maybe 30w x 1 for the subwoofer in a 2.1 system or just 25w x 2 for a 2.0 system. This is the real power rating you’ll see in daily use.
- Peak / PMPO / Burst / Max – This is the curse that haunts audio purchases. On a 50w RMS system you may see a peak or PMPO rating as high as 1000w, this is false and honestly just for chest thumping because it’s a theoretical peak level. Your speakers and amp will fail before you ever reach it.
- Good power on a 2.0 system is around 35-50w for a bedroom or smaller area.
- Good power on a 2.1 system will be around 40-65w or slightly higher, the boost here comes from the subwoofer not added power to the satellites.
- This configuration works best in games and music, movies will sound alright but you’ll need to focus on speakers with 3D surround effects if you really want to run 2.1 or 2.0 and get a decent feel.
- Budget brands – Logitech Z, Creative Inspire, Altec Lansing
- Midrange brands – Logitech Z, Creative Inspire
- Expensive brands – M-Audio, Logitech Z, Creative GigaWorks, Altec Lansing
5.1 / surround
Surround sound was huge in gaming for almost a decade, every major company got in on the game and it’s actually a bit hard to find a respectable set now. For the movie fan or hardcore gamer, these can be essential for a good experience.
- Frequency response on a 5.1 set usually hits around 30Hz flat, some systems do try to claim lower but if you’re around here you’re good because most games and movies only go that low during explosive sequences or heavy crashes. Try to avoid anything that starts in the 40’s though because chances are you’ll have a lot of bottoming out from the speaker.
- Speaker size is often pretty fixed on these sets, don’t be shocked if everything you find has a 3″ driver going for it. The response will be pretty decent.
- Tweeters are welcome on the front or center channel speaker, generally if you get them in the front you get them in the back. If you go for smaller size enclosures expect to lose these as part of the compromise. Watch the frequency response of the satellite speakers if you get a set without tweeters, the midrange may be too high for your liking.
- Cabinet material on a 5.1 set is almost always plastic for the satellites, try to go with something that doesn’t sound or feel too thin, you will lack the deeper tones but at least it will not produce a hollow tone. The subwoofer is usually wood composite or MDF on these systems, if it’s plastic I suggest running.
- Input connections matter quite a bit depending on the use, I’ll outline the potential connections below.
- Stereo / headphone jacks – These are great for PC systems to get 5.1 sound, almost every motherboard now supports 5.1 output from the back panel. If you plan to get 5.1 out of a gaming system or DVD or Blu-ray player you need something else. If you try to use it on a console you’ll just get bad emulation from the right and left front channels or sometimes stereo sound x5.
- TOSLINK / S/PDIF jack – Perfect for the console hookup or DVD or Blu-ray player setup. Be sure to get a set that has the same input as your player or system though (most gaming and dvd systems use TOSLINK optical cables). Some PC systems also support this and it makes cabling a lot easier to setup. This is the more universal solution for most people.
- Control pods are important to consider, are they easy to understand, do they have bass and treble control or even dedicated subwoofer volume control? Do you want theater modes as well? How are they designed? Some of the best control pods don’t need fancy looks, in fact spring tension on the knobs can be annoying when you’re just trying to up the volume a notch. Look for these qualities.
- Surround modes – What does the control center feature? Can you adjust front, center and rear? Do you have Dolby and DTS support?
- Stereo modes – Not everything you use will be in 5.1, for music the preferred method is stereo 5.1 or stereo x5 to just share the channels through all the speakers.
- Input select – Was made popular by Logitech, if you plan to run multiple systems you should consider this for sure.
- Control knob – Sounds silly but some control systems are designed around being futuristic looking while having really terrible function. If you can try before you buy I suggest doing this. If the control looks poorly built or handles terribly it will only get worse.
- Subwoofer size matters, with 5 smaller speakers the sub will need to be located close to the user or in a sweet spot by the wall for the best spot to resonate. Most midrange speakers in this field don’t hit the lower end of the midrange, as such voices and natural sound are way too high so the sub in these sets covers that up. Aim for at least a 6.5″ speaker, although many companies are now using dual 5.25’s or 6’s instead which are okay. Few companies still give you an 8 or 10″ speaker.
- Wattage is a nightmare on 5.1 systems, if you buy a computer set or a HTIB setup you’ll deal with insane power figures on the box. 1000W or 2000W aren’t uncommon and should only make you facepalm to see them. The following will look familiar for guidelines.
- RMS – If you’re looking to go by power ratings look at this and look at the distribution by channel. If you’re lucky you’ll get something like 25w x 5 for the satellites and maybe 50w-70w x 1 for the subwoofer in a 5.1 system. This is the real power rating you’ll see in daily use, don’t aim too high as you’ll usually just get distortion at max power or it’ll overheat.
- Peak / PMPO / Burst / Max – This is the curse that haunts audio purchases. On a 150w RMS system you may see a peak or PMPO rating as high as 2000w, this is false and honestly just for chest thumping because it’s a theoretical peak level. Your speakers and amp will fail before you ever reach it, expect this rating even from name brand companies.
- * Good power on a 5.1 system is around 125-200w, most systems are high rated by default for the subwoofer power. Be sure to focus on speaker sizes and frequency response levels.
- Budget brands – Cyber Acoustics
- Midrange brands – Logitech Z, Creative Inspire
- Expensive brands – Cambridge Soundworks, Klipsch
- Legacy brands – Klipsch Promedia, Logitech Z, Creative GigaWorks, Altec Lansing
Hopefully this helps a bit, be sure to know your products before you buy them, ask for specification sheets when you need them so you can have an informed decision on those big purchases.
For those looking for buyer beware tips, avoid anything too good to be true, it almost always is. Sets from the back of a van, from a swap meet or other events are often false for ratings and use some of the cheapest components. It’s a deal until you set it up and hear the results, avoid the scams and take the time to get something with a real warranty that has been produced in the last few years.
To the audiophiles reading this, you already know what you’re doing so pretty much… this entire thing doesn’t apply to you. Thank you for your time though, hopefully it was entertaining.