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The Best Computer Speakers Today

By Brent Butterworth, The Wirecutter

If someone asked me what’s the best all-around buy in a 2.0-channel computer or desktop speaker system today, I’d recommend the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40. It offers sound that’s competitive with everything we’ve heard under $300, yet it’s readily available for just $119.

If someone asked me what’s the best all-around buy in a 2.0-channel computer or desktop speaker system today, I’d recommend the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40. It offers sound that’s competitive with everything we’ve heard under $300, yet it’s readily available for just $119.

That said, the AV 40s can be a bit large and not very nice to look at, so we have some alternative picks as well. The Audioengine A2+ is sleekly designed, super-compact, and sounds fantastic, although it isn’t real loud and doesn’t have a lot of bass. The Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201 sounds good (although not as good as the AV 40 or the A2+) and adds Bluetooth wireless plus a user-friendly design and control layout. The Edifier Spinnaker has a cool, cutting-edge design with a handy wireless remote, Bluetooth, and pretty good sound.

Photo credit: Flickr user mikeporesky via Creative Commons.

Unfortunately, while all these speakers have okay bass response, if you want really big bass, you’ll probably want a 2.1 system, which will include a separate subwoofer. (It’s difficult or impossible to add a subwoofer to most 2.0 computer speaker systems.) We expect to test 2.1 systems soon.

Why should you trust me?

As Stereos Expert for About.com and an editor and writer for numerous audio-focused magazines and websites including Sound & Vision and Home Theater, I’ve been testing speakers for more than 20 years.

By my reckoning, I’ve conducted more blind speaker tests than any other journalist in the U.S., including a recent evaluation of outdoor speakers for the Wirecutter. I even built a custom modular audio switcher just for the purpose of blind testing. And I’ve also done lab measurements of hundreds of speakers; here’s an easy-to-understand primer (PDF) I wrote on that topic. In fact, I did lab measurements of the speakers tested here that you can see on the About.com Stereos page.

Who should get these?

If you do anything with your computer that involves audio…you’re much better off with one of these two-piece systems.

Computer/desktop audio systems are great for lots of purposes. Because you can separate the speakers, you’ll get a much better stereo effect than you can with any all-in-one audio system. You’ll probably get better basic fidelity, too, because most of these products use the same two-way (woofer/tweeter) arrangement that’s proven itself in most of the world’s best bookshelf speakers. If you do anything with your computer that involves audio—audio or video editing, web production, gaming, even just watching Netflix—you’re much better off with one of these two-piece systems than you’d be with an all-in-one audio system.

But it you’re a casual listener who just wants to play your favorite tunes or podcasts, ahome Bluetooth speaker might be a better choice. Most Bluetooth speakers are one-piece designs with rechargeable batteries built in so you can carry them around easily. Some of them sound pretty good, too. Computer audio systems are usually a pain to move around; most have a separate power supply and wired connections to the computer and from speaker to speaker.

How we picked

We’d previously selected the Audyssey Media Speakers as our top pick in computer speakers, but the company has discontinued that model. Also, many new models have been introduced since our last article on this subject, and some had received few or no reviews from major publications. So we decided to gather 11 of the most promising computer speakers and do a blind test.

To get to these candidates, we first had to come up with some criteria to narrow down the field from dozens of possibilities.

First of all, we decided to focus this piece on a simple 2-channel system because it doesn’t make sense to directly compare systems with subwoofers to ones without. All of these speakers have built-in amplifiers. You can use conventional speakers (like our pick for best budget bookshelf speakers) in a desktop or computer audio system if you add some sort of amplifier, but having the amp built in minimizes desktop clutter.

The only must-have features for a computer speaker are a volume control and a line input, which connects to either the headphone output on a computer, smartphone, tablet, or other source, such as a TV’s audio output. Some desktop speakers augment the main input with other options such as a Toslink optical jack, USB digital audio jack, or a front 3.5 mm input jack. Some add features such as Bluetooth, a headphone output, a subwoofer output, or a desktop remote control.

Because these speakers can connect to most audio sources, you can use them for more than desktop audio.

Because these speakers can connect to most audio sources, you can use them for more than desktop audio. They can serve as music systems and TV sound systems in small dens and bedrooms, as long as you have only one or two sources you want to connect.

We figured anyone who cares about the sound of their computer speakers would be willing to spend at least $100 on them and that only the most devoted desktop audio enthusiasts would want to spend more than $300, so we narrowed our search to models in the $100 to $300 price range. There are countless inexpensive plastic computer speakers selling for $50 or less, but we haven’t yet heard one that’s good enough to please anyone who’s even slightly serious about audio.

We figured the main criteria most buyers seek in computer speakers is sound quality, so we focused on that. But if other factors are also important to you—Bluetooth, compact size, even cool looks—we’ve got recommendations to suit your needs and desires.

The Best Overall Choice

The AV 40s were one of the least expensive models we tested, yet no other speakers came close to the sound quality and value they offer.

In our tests, no other computer speaker came close to offering the combination of sound quality and value we found in the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40. With one possible exception, it equaled or bested the sound quality of any other speaker we tried. Yet at $119, it was one of the least expensive models.

“I don’t have anything really negative to say about it,” Lauren said after hearing the AV 40. “Knowing the price and extra features, I would absolutely buy this one. It’s flatter-sounding and fuller-sounding than the others.”

Will largely agreed: “The bass is somewhat boosted, but still, it seemed to have the most even balance of highs, mids, and lows. It’s a much bigger sound than I would expect from computer speakers.”

I was immediately taken with the AV 40, amazed at how flat its frequency response sounded (except for that mild bump in the bass that Will noted), and how loud it could play without distortion. I normally use a $1,260 pair of Genelec monitors for recording projects, but I expect I could work with the AV 40—especially considering it’s about one-tenth the Genelecs’ price.

I should note that the Studiophile AV 40 is a hybrid design intended as much for use as a studio recording monitor as it is for desktop use.

Here I should note that the Studiophile AV 40 is a hybrid design intended as much for use as a studio recording monitor as it is for desktop use. It has consumer-type features such as RCA input jacks and a 3.5 mm input on the front for easy temporary connection to a phone or tablet, but it also has 6.2 mm (¼”) balanced line inputs on the back for connecting to a mixing board or pro-style USB interface.

It has a convenient front volume knob, but the power switch is on the back of the left speaker, which is a bit inconvenient. M-Audio introduced the AV 40 in 2008 and revised it slightly about a year ago.

Who else likes it?

Other reviewers generally agree that the Studiophile AV 40 is a solid buy. CNET’s Steve Guttenberg said “[t]hey sounded bigger, delivered more bass, and played louder than the other PC speakers we had on hand,” and rated them four out of five stars.

Expertreviews.co.uk rated it five stars. In 327 user reviews on Amazon.com, the AV 40 averaged four stars, with most of the under-four-star ratings reflecting product defects.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

At 8.75 x 6 x 7.25 inches (HWD), it’s the bulkiest speaker we tested, about the size of a typical audiophile bookshelf speaker. Also, its plain, black box aesthetic won’t win any design awards. We think the sound more than makes up for these shortcomings, but it’s possible that it may be too big and/or ugly for your desktop.

Bass-heads might also be a bit disappointed by the lack of a discrete subwoofer. PCMag.com’s Jamie Lendino rated the AV 40 only 3.5/5 stars, complaining that the bass couldn’t match that of 2.1 systems, but ended by describing the system as “a stereo pair of powered monitors that sound as good as, or even better than, just about any 2.0 set of speakers in its price range, if not a full-blown set of reference-quality studio monitors.”

What about reliability?

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are a lot of user reports of these things starting to break after about a year and a half — enough to make us concerned considering the fact that the warranty lasts only one year. If this really concerns you, we recommend adding the optional two-year warranty that Amazon offers for an additional $12.

Even with the cost of the warranty factored in, these still cost less than half as much as anything that will give you similar sound quality. On the off chance that yours does crap out down the road, you’ll still come out ahead in terms of sound quality and price by buying another pair of these, compared to buying a different set of speakers.

A smaller step up with style

The Audioengine speaker set is one-third the size of our main pick, but it can’t play as loud or as deep. It shines in smaller spaces.

In certain ways, the $249 Audioengine A2+—a recent, $50-more-expensive update to the company’s original A2—is better than the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40. At just 6 x 4 x 5.25 inches (HWD), it’s only one-third the size of the AV 40, so it’s more practical for the average desktop. The midrange and treble sounds at least as good as the AV 40’s, maybe slightly better. But it can’t play as loud or as deep as the AV 40, mostly because each A2+ has a 2.75-inch woofer. (The AV 40 has 4-inch woofers.) However, you have the option of adding a subwoofer if you like because it has the line outputs you need for connection to a powered subwoofer like Audioengine’s S8.

Lauren seemed to like the A2+ a little more than the AV 40 overall but picked the AV 40 because of its price and greater bass output. “This [the A2+] has the most clarity of all of them. Not only did it have better treble response, but it had a bigger, more exciting sound, especially with pop music.”

Will listened to more R&B—and more deep bass notes—than Lauren did, and while he thought that the A2+ had the clearest mids and highs, the best stereo imaging, and the biggest stereo soundstage, he said, “Unless you’re very close to the speakers, it lacks adequate volume. It also distorts on deep bass notes. But in a very small space, it’d be great.”

I agreed that the A2+ had the clearest, flattest midrange and treble response. Voices and most instruments sounded extremely natural, and overall the A2+ performs like a real high-end stereo speaker. But then there’s the bass. It certainly had more than I expected from 2.75-inch woofers, but still, most of my deep-bass test tracks overwhelmed it, even when I was sitting just 3 feet away with the volume turned down a bit. I also found that the other speakers easily played 3 to 6 decibels louder; at 6 feet, the A2+ simply doesn’t produce enough volume.

Voices and most instruments sounded extremely natural, and overall the A2+ performs like a real high-end stereo speaker.

The A2+ includes a USB input for a digital connection to your computer, which may deliver slightly better sound quality, although it’s limited to 16-bit/48-kilohertz resolution, so it can do CD-quality sound but little more.

Most separate USB digital-to-analog converters offer 24-bit/96-kilohertz resolution or better for playing high-resolution downloads from HDTracks.com and some other sites. The A2+ also has RCA stereo line outputs for an optional subwoofer. The power switch/volume knob is on the back, which looks cleaner but is inconvenient.

Other reviewers seem to like the A2+. In his four-star review, David Carnoy said at CNET, “If you’re looking for a set of compact, good-looking PC speakers that deliver great sound for their size, the Audioengine A2+ certainly fits the bill.” GearPatrol.com enthused, “Countless sonic details and nuances create a rich, immersive sound field that—just like its bass—belies the speaker’s compact stature.” In 23 total user reviews on Amazon.com (17 for the black version, six for the white version), the A2+ averages 4.6 stars.

Good sound plus Bluetooth

The Grace Digital speakers have somewhat tinny highs and an artificial-sounding upper midrange, but they do have Bluetooth.

If you really want the convenience of Bluetooth so you can stream wirelessly from your smartphone, tablet, or computer, we can’t blame you. Our two top picks in computer speakers lack Bluetooth, but we did find a couple of pretty good systems that include it. One is the Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201, now selling on Amazon.com for $173. It’s a nicely designed set of two-way minispeakers with convenient controls on top of the right speaker.

Lauren ranked the GDI-BTSP201 below the M-Audio AV 40 and Audioengine A2+, criticizing it for tinny highs, but still rated it third overall. Will lauded the GDI-BTSP201 for its “very big sound,” but thought the upper midrange sounded artificial and hyped-up.

I agree, and I’ll add that the bass output is a little lacking, as I noted in my review on About.com Stereos. Still, though, the Grace Digital system has decent sound, a great design, and a fair price. You can get it in black, white, or red, too.

At Digital Trends, Ryan Waniata gave it four stars, a Digital Trends Recommended Product badge, and generous praise such as, “We can say without hesitation that these little speakers offer a seriously impressive level of sonic value for their $200 asking price.” At PCMag.com, Jamie Lendino gave it four stars, concluding “As long as you’re not expecting serious bass punch, the Grace Digital Bluetooth Speakers will satisfy; they sound sufficiently full and powerful, with all kinds of music I tried.” In 15 user reviews on Amazon.com, it averaged 4.7 stars.

Good sound, Bluetooth and cool looks

The Edifiers have a pretty cool design that's akin to a rhino horn. They also sound pretty good and have Bluetooth on board.

The Edifier Spinnaker E30 has one of the most exotic designs of any desktop speaker system, looking more like a pair of rhino horns than speakers. So if you want to make a statement with your desktop speaker system, the Spinnaker is your baby. (And for those who really want to take it over the top, it also comes in red.)

Fortunately, it also sounds pretty good and has cool and useful features. It’s the only system here with a Toslink optical digital audio input (good for use with TVs), and it has a cool wireless remote that turns the unit on and off and controls volume. (Plus Bluetooth!) The only inconvenience is that all the connections are on the bottom of the right speaker, which looks slick but fits only very slim cables.

The Edifiers have a pretty cool design that's akin to a rhino horn. They also sound pretty good and have Bluetooth on board.

Lauren described the Spinnaker’s sound as “not bad,” but complained that the treble sounded a little soft. But Will liked it even better than the M-Audio AV 40, applauding its “velvety sound” although he, too, wished for a little more treble. In fact, he said the combination of the sound and the design made the Spinnaker the one he’d buy. I generally agree with the way Will and Lauren described the sound, and I’ll add that that the bass from the Spinnaker’s 4-inch woofers sounded weak compared to several of the other speakers we tested.

The Spinnaker gets mostly good reviews. Tim Gideon of PCMag.com gave it four stars and said, “…the Spinnaker is a wireless Bluetooth system that will make quite an impression on your ears, as well…” Writing on Kitguru.net, Zardon gave it eight stars out of 10 and said, “We did notice a little roll-off in the high end but I do need to stress that for the sub-£500 market, these are exceptionally good speakers.” The average of 28 user reviews on Amazon.com was just 3.5 stars, but most of the complaints were about reliability, not sound. Make of that what you will.

What else did we consider?

The Bose Companion 20 didn’t impress us; we found the sound dull compared to all of the top-ranked speakers in this test. Both Will and Lauren complained about a weak midrange and lack of depth.

The Creative GigaWorks T40 Series II made the cut because it’s well-liked by Amazon user reviews—it has a score of 4.3 averaged over 310 reviews. However, it was the least-liked of the eight speakers that made it into our blind test. “They lack bass, and when you play material that has deep bass, they distort,” Lauren said.

The Edifier Eclipse looks super-cool and is reasonably priced, but I found the bass performance weak and noticed a big spike in the treble response that was a real dealbreaker. It’s one of the three models I pulled from the comparison before it even got to the listening panel.

Emotiva’s Airmotiv4 was one of the top picks in our last ranking of computer speakers, but at the time we did the test the manufacturer was deciding the future of the model, and we didn’t want to risk recommending something that might not be around for long. Besides, at $350, they’re a step-up candidate at best.

…she was scared out of her wits when an old Genesis tune from her neighbor’s phone suddenly started blaring…

We had two problems with the Harman Kardon Nova. First, the umbilical cord connecting the two speakers uses a fragile connector similar to the hated S-video connector of the pre-HDTV days, but with even more tiny pins. The first time I disconnected it, I accidentally bent one of the pins. I tried to straighten it with needlenose pliers, but couldn’t get it to work. Lauren had a sample of the Nova and found that it always stayed in Bluetooth pairing mode, such that she was scared out of her wits when an old Genesis tune from her neighbor’s phone suddenly started blaring from the Nova. Though it looks cool, it needs some work.

The NuForce S3BT seems to be based on the same design as the Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201, but in our blind test it didn’t impress because of its narrow and constricted midrange.

Logitech’s Z600 easily sounded the worst of all 11 speakers we tested: barely any bass and raspy, shrill mids and highs. But they look pretty cool.

PSB’s Alpha PS1 gets raves from some audio enthusiasts, but in our blind test we were less impressed with it than we were with the M-Audio AV 40 and Audioengine A2+, especially later, when we considered the $299 price. Given the reputation of this speaker, I wondered if we might have missed something or if something might have been wrong with the test sample. So I set up one more test, in which I compared the Alpha PS1 to the M-Audio AV 40. I didn’t know which system was which when I plugged the cables into the switcher, so this was a blind test. My preference varied depending on the music I played, but I settled on speaker #1, which lacked a little in the upper bass and wasn’t quite as smooth in the treble, but had the clearest midrange and the smoothest response overall. Honestly, I assumed speaker #1 was the PSB, but it turned out to be the M-Audio.

How We Tested

To set up our blind test, I first broke in each of the 11 computer speaker systems with pop music for 10 hours.

To set up our blind test, I first broke in each of the 11 computer speaker systems with pop music for 10 hours. I gave all of the systems a long listen, and culled what I thought were three definite non-winners so we’d have two groups of eight. I then placed the eight remaining systems in groups of four atop two 32-inch-wide, 28-inch-high MDF stands I built for speaker comparisons, with the fronts of the speakers positioned so they were 15 inches from the wall behind them.

All of the speakers were wired through their line inputs into my testing switcher, which allowed me to match the listening level for all of the speakers. Playing a pink noise test tone from my iPod touch, I measured and matched the sound pressure level of each speaker system at roughly the head height of a seated listener using an NTI Minilyzer audio analyzer and an NTI MiniSPL test microphone, then confirmed the level match through listening. For each testing session, I changed the order of the speaker presentation and re-matched the levels.

With setup completed, I called in two additional experienced listeners: Lauren Dragan, headphone and Bluetooth speaker reviewer for the Wirecutter, and Will Huff, a Los Angeles musician who’s served as a panelist for numerous audio equipment tests for Sound & Vision. All speakers were covered with thin black fabric so Lauren and Will couldn’t tell which was which, and for that matter, they weren’t even informed as to the brands and identities of the speakers. For most of our listening, we sat 6 feet from the speakers, although we occasionally moved closer to see what they’d sound like from close-up. Will used his HTC One phone as his source, Lauren used her iPhone, and I used both my iPod touch and a laptop computer with a Musical Fidelity V90-DAC USB digital-to-analog converter. In one case I was able to connect the computer directly to the speakers through USB.

I also did lab measurements of all the speakers mentioned here (except the Harman Kardon Nova, which I couldn’t get working). As you can see in the above chart (which shows only five of the 10 I measured), there’s too much data to present here, so I did an in-depth article on my About.com Stereos page.

Wrapping it up

This was an easy decision because the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 sounded so good and cost so little. But would we put the bulky, plasticky-looking AV 40 on our sleek executive desks (if any of us had sleek executive desks)? Perhaps not.

That’s why we also have three other computer speaker systems we can recommend. The Audioengine A2+ is super-compact and sounds fantastic, although it doesn’t play very loudly and doesn’t have a lot of bass. The Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201 sounds good (although not as good as the AV 40 or the A2+) and adds Bluetooth alongside a friendly design and control layout. The Edifier Spinnaker has a cool, cutting-edge design with a handy wireless remote, Bluetooth, and pretty good sound.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 3/13/14 and is republished here with permission.