How to improve your PC's audio output

For most of us, any money we've got earmarked on a new soundcard would be much better spent on improving our desktop speakers.

Far more serious damage is done to the auditory experience of your favourite bands by cheap speakers than onboard sound these days, and the good news is that you don't have to spend a fortune to get a really good set.

You do get what you pay for to a certain extent, but Philips, Logitech and Creative have stereo sets for under £30 which will be noticeably better than the unbranded abominations given away free with new PCs.

There are no hard rules for buying speakers. Thanks to the amount of time and money that's been spent on research into PC audio, components are much smaller and cheaper than ever before.

Bigger isn't always better

You don't need a coffin sized boxful of woofers and tweeters to appreciate your favourite concert performance any more. Some of the best-sounding satellites are housed in tiny plastic boxes – although having separate drivers for mid and high tones is still imperative.

The most interesting developments in speaker design right now are being driven by the need for portability and iPod compatibility.

Manufacturers are focusing their best efforts on smaller stereo kits that work well with laptops and have built-in MP3 player docks, because that's what most people have figured out that they want.

Surround sound is still popular, of course. Film buffs still prefer physical systems that are linked up to their TV, but gamers who like positional effects within their virtual worlds would be better off getting a really high-end set of stereo headphones – like the Sennheiser PC350 or Razer Carcharias – than a 5.1 system.


NOISE CANCELLING: Put these beauties on you will only hear the music rather than any background noise

Vista's audio drivers can have virtual surround capabilities to mix-in faked (but convincing) placement of creeping footsteps approaching from behind.

One thing to be wary of when it comes to buying headphones, though, is anything which is branded as being designed for games. More often than not, these sets feature bass tones that are over emphasised in order to sound more 'fun', at the expense of music quality and overall clarity.

Speakers for notebooks and netbooks

"The way people accessorise their notebook is different to how they accessorise their desktop," says Stuczynski. "They take their notebook all around the home, but still want the immersive experience.

"The music buffs know that they still need a subwoofer, but some people who want freedom gravitate towards 2.0 rather than 2.1 systems. That's a set of speakers that they can just pick up and take with them."

There are some novel approaches to satisfying the demand for stereo desktop speakers that can reproduce top-end sound while remaining fairly portable. Altec Lansing, for example, recently launched its FX3022 Expressionist 2.2 kit.

Each of the tall speakers has a small low-frequency driver in the base, so you get the full range of sound without the need for a separate subwoofer. It's a neat idea, even if it does make the desk shake uncontrollably during a drum solo.

At the other end of the scale, Logic3 and Fatman both have reasonably priced iPod docks with an auxiliary-in for laptops that are surmounted by a glowing vacuum tube amp. They're rather less portable than Altec Lansing's system, but the ultimate accessory for the audio aficionado all the same.

Other companies are focused on omnidirectional sound, which is the ability to perfectly fill a room with sound regardless of where the speakers are positioned. Razer's Mako speakers are THX-certified and ear-wateringly lovely to listen to, but cost a headache inducing fortune at £250.

Logitech, meanwhile, is putting '360-degree sound' into even its most basic 2.0 kits this summer. Neither set has quite the same ability to mix surround effects like the single-speaker Yamaha Digital Sound Projector, but they are much cheaper and have the same simplicity of setup.

No matter what features a speaker kit lists on the box, though, the simple rule is to hear them in action before you buy them.

All of the technical specs that mattered in the past are still applicable, but speakers with high power ratings and seemingly incredible stats for frequency range and response can often somehow turn out to be duds.

Ideally, you should test the speakers away from the shop floor, with a favourite music track that has sounds in both the high and low ends of the spectrum.

You're primarily listening for any signs of distortion in the treble or bass effects, and also to make sure that the mid-range balance doesn't drown out vocals in favour of, say, rhythm guitars.

Of course, it's often impossible to test in perfect circumstances, especially when buying online, which is why having a reliable and trusted source of reviews is more important for speakers than it is for almost any other component in your system.

It doesn't matter how high-performance the rest of your PC is, your favourite Blu-ray film running at a smooth 24fps on a huge 34in monitor will be nothing if the audio quality doesn't match the visual experience.

So go on: whether you're thinking of a 5.1 system with the biggest subwoofer money can buy or a tiny iPod dock to give you music on the move, spend a little cash on your audio setup. Your ears will thank you.


First published in PC Plus Issue 285

Liked this? Then check out How to pick the perfect pair of headphones

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