You might have the latest graphics card and the best monitor money can buy, but if your tinny speakers are letting the side down then you are missing out on getting the full immersive experience.
So much work goes into the sound design of games that it is worth investing in a set of speakers that can do justice to the soundtracks. While 5.1 systems can offer unrivalled immersion through full surround sound, there are a number of factors that are causing them to fall out of favour.
For a start you need a lot of room to house the speakers. You also need to rearrange your room so that the speakers are properly positioned and calibrated, as well as laying the wires. These considerations can make 5.1 systems impractical for a lot of people, whereas 2.1 systems are much easier to get right, deliver just as good sound quality and through virtual surround sound technology can offer DTS and Dolby Digital surround sound effects.
High quality 5.1 systems can also cost a lot of money. Most budget 5.1 systems are a false economy because you end up buying speakers that are just not up to the task. Too many corners are cut and you'd be much better off putting the money to a higher-end 2.1 set which will give you far better sound quality for a similar price.
There are a number of things you should expect from a decent set of 2.1 speakers. First and foremost is audio quality – the whole reason why you are upgrading. Any speaker set you go for should be made from components that offer the best possible audio quality. Deep bass sounds should be adequately provided by the sub-woofer – though not at the expense of other levels.
Because you can't always listen to speakers in action before you make your mind up and buy, we've tested some of the best 2.1 speakers on the market to help you make a decision.
1. Antec Soundscience Rockus 3D 2.1 - £150
An assured entry into the 2.1 PC speaker market. The build quality is excellent and makes the satellite speakers feel durable. The bodies house a 2.5 inch driver and the satellites are capable of 25W of power, while the medium sized subwoofer can handle 100W.
For music the sound definition is sharp and clear. Details are well-produced as are highs and mid ranges, with a bias towards the higher ends that can lead to a slightly harsh sound in some cases.
The bass is controlled by switching between three options. Annoyingly the switch is positioned at the back of the subwoofer, which makes it difficult to get to.
'3D' mode is specifically for games and movies and switching to it gives an instant boost to bass that gives a more cinematic – though not entirely 3D – experience. With a bit of tweaking you can get the 3D 2.1 to sound fantastic across any media or games.
2. Corsair SP2200 - £76
At first glance these might seem unassuming, but once they're plugged in, such impressions are quickly forgotten.
High frequencies are reproduced fantastically, and mid ranges are crisp and clear. Subtle environmental effects in games and little flourishes in music, which can easily be missed by lower quality speakers, are given new life.
Bass sounds are well catered for by the throaty and powerful subwoofer that delivers power and impact to explosions in games and movies.
The sound positioning from the stereo speakers is also incredibly impressive, with sounds coming not only from the left and right, but also convincingly from the centre. Overall this is a fantastic 2.1 set and it won't cost you a fortune.
3. Creative Zii Sound T6 - £249
If you've got a gaming laptop then the Creative Zii Sound T6 will definitely be up your street. These wireless speakers offer fantastic 2.1 sound without the hassle of cabling.
For desktop users this means a few less wires pouring out of your rig and adding to the already nightmarish tangle behind your desk. If you're a laptop gamer then the ability to sit with your laptop wherever you want without worrying about wires is a huge selling point.
From the early days of Sound Blaster, Creative has been a brand synonymous with PC sound technology and there is some good technology powering this set of speakers.
The speakers are made from two separate cabinets, so each speaker is actually made up of high end drivers. These can be swivelled and adjusted on the stands enabling you to adjust sound coverage in a room, resulting in better sound quality. And if the unit is connected to a PC via USB it can be used as a 5.1 system.
Highs and mid-range sounds are rich and vibrant, however bass sounds can end up sounding limp and lifeless, which is a shame. It's also pretty expensive so if you're not interested in its wireless capabilities your money should be spent on a better sounding system.
4. Logitech Z623 - £111
Not every speaker system is certified, and Logitech is proud of the Z623 2.1's certification. Unfortunately over the years the value of THX certification has been lowered by it being awarded to sub-par speakers.
The 200W amplifier built into the subwoofer delivers 35W to each of the speakers and a hefty 130W to the subwoofer for bass. The size of the subwoofer, and the amount of power delivered to it, is indicative of Logitech's aims here.
This is a speaker set designed for bombast. Because of this these speakers perform well in games and action films with scenes of carnage accompanied by a thunderous bass and reliable low ranges.
However when it comes to nuances, especially in music, the Logitech Z623 underperforms resulting in a rather cold sound reproduction.
The enjoyment gleaned from the Z623 relies heavily on what you want to use them for. For blasting out sounds from games and movies these perform fine. If you want to use them for listening to a lot of music, however, you're better off with a more versatile set of speakers.
5. Sony SRS DB500 - £120
Like the bouncer outside a rough club, the SRS DB500 is a big, ugly bugger that packs a hell of a punch. These are speakers that are meant to be placed alongside a gaming rig.
The subwoofer is capable of 150W RMS, and is flanked by two satellites that offer 75W apiece. This means they're capable of blasting out sounds that can give you an incredibly immersive experience. Where these speakers really come into their own is loud, intense action scenes. The mighty subwoofer brings raw power to explosions.
When it comes to music, things are not as clear cut. Where the bass adds extra depth to movies and games, with a lot of music it can be intrusive, drowning out a lot of the other ranges. Music also suffers from a muddy fidelity which means that some details are lost. You'll find yourself adjusting the settings on the fly as you switch between movies, games and music – and even between genres.
It might not be the end of the world, and when the SRS-DB500s shine, they really shine. However, their weaknesses highlight the fact that these are not the all-round performers we were expecting.
6. Teufel Concept D500 THX - £449
Not many companies can get away with charging so much for a 2.1 system, but Teufel is a respected brand when it comes to speakers. The build quality and design of these speakers is fantastic. They look amazing and feel sturdy – which is important considering the price, and the size.
As you could guess from the pricetag these are not ordinary PC speakers. Setting them up isn't a simple process and involves wiring the satellites to the subwoofer, rather than simply plugging them in. However when it's all set up and playing music all of a sudden the price, the inconvenience, everything makes sense.
These speakers sound phenomenal. The range these speakers can hit – from lows to highs – is impeccable and can transform music so much that your favourite tracks sound as fresh as when you first heard them.
The subwoofer performs incredibly well during movies and games, giving a strong bass presence without drowning out the rest of the sounds. They're a big investment but if you have the money you won't be disappointed.
First published in PC Format Issue 253
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