Anyone who's spent time listening to the tinny, lifeless sounds that creep out of the average laptop or desktop monitor knows how important a good pair of multimedia speakers can be. Here's what to consider before embarking on your sonic upgrade.
A good pair speakers can fit into a variety of different contexts. Whether you're a musician, a DJ, a producer, or just your run-of-the-mill music snob armed with a hard drive full of lossless files, most modern speakers come with a variety of inputs that will suit your needs. Still, you'll want to consider how and where you'll be using your new speakers. While XLR inputs will be familiar to musicians and producers, most consumers have never seen these three-pin connectors. Similarly, while a 3.5mm audio jack is great if you plan on using your speakers with just your laptop or smart phone, you'll also appreciate some RCA inputs if you even want to move them closer to your TV. In general, you want your speakers to grow with your system, so the more inputs the better.
Powered vs. Passive
The majority of multimedia speakers you'll look at will be powered, or "active," meaning they already come with an amp built into one (or both) of actual speaker housings. Passive speakers, on the other hand, need to be powered with an external amplifier. Your audiophile friends may scoff at active speakers -- ignore them. Active speakers may weigh a little more, but they are far more convenient for most people. Some higher-end speakers even feature what's called a bi-amped design, where each speaker has two amplifiers, one dedicated to the low frequencies and one dedicated to the mids and highs. These speakers tend to be much more efficient and provide better tonal accuracy. That said, if you already have a beloved amp, by all means go with passive speakers.
You can spend six figures or more on a pair of speakers and they'll still sound like crap if they're not positioned correctly. Before you commit to a new pair of multimedia speakers, do yourself a favor and think about placement. Will they live on your desktop only? How close to the wall will they be? Do you plan on using stands?
While there's no one rule for all stereo speakers, in general you'll want to make sure you line up your speaker's tweeters with your ears. Similarly, you'll usually get the best possible sound stage balance if your speakers are equidistant from side walls and a different distance from rear walls. If you're bass head and are thinking about purchasing some rear-ported speakers, you should plan on allocating a minimum of 6-12 inches between the rear of the speakers and the wall. Speakers with front ports (usually passive), on the other hand, don't require this clearance. Overall, you'll want a solid surface that doesn't move or vibrate. Consider isolation or dampening pads too (some speakers come with them).
As you pore through feature lists, you'll likely come across a lot of specs. Ignore them. The majority of that info is largely meaningless anyway as everyone tends to use different testing methods. This holds especially true for things like frequency response (or bandwidth), which is essentially the width of the spectrum we are hearing. Our ears can handle ten octaves or ten doublings of frequency, with the lowest frequency hovering around 20 Hz and the highest at about 20 kHz. Today, it's common to see speakers that also claim frequency response beyond the 20 Hz - 20 kHz range, which is ridiculous. First, most audio gear simply isn't capable of this. Second, you'd only be able to appreciate it if you've sound-proofed your entire house or apartment.
Good sound may ultimately be subjective, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few general rules everyone should know. The first has to do with physics. Specifically, more powerful speakers = better sound. Beefier speakers can not only go louder, they can also produce richer, more expansive bass. That said, the same does not hold true for price. Whatever you do, don't confuse big price tags with better sound. We've listened to a number of $200 speakers that blow the Kevlar and silk drivers out of systems that cost more than twice as much. Ultimately, your main goal should be to find the right pair for your specific needs. Whenever possible, use your ears. Also, look for reviews written by people with similar tastes that you trust to help narrow your options down. While some prefer a cleaner, more accurate sound out of their speakers, others gravitate toward a more "colored" sound signature, with punch-you-in-the-gut bass response or over-the-top mids and highs. Overall, good sound is what you think it should be, and nothing more.
Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired