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Gamers love beautiful graphics with millions of polygons and high-resolution textures, but there’s more to the experience than what you see. What you hear is important, too. Quality speakers can make a game more immersive and even give you an advantage by making important audio cues easier to notice. Here’s what to look for when buying audio equipment for your PC.
Hit The Bass, Or Not
The first decision you need to make when looking at PC speakers is whether or not you want a subwoofer. For those who don’t know, a subwoofer is a boxy piece of audio equipment that is used to pump out bass.
Dramatic music, gunfire and explosions sound best when a subwoofer is available, and picking one up is a good idea. However, a sub will take up some room under your desk, so make sure you have a place to put it. The deep sound produced by a sub travels, too, so picking up a big, beefy woofer isn’t the best idea if you’re in a dorm or sharing an apartment.
What Point What?
If you decide you would like a subwoofer you then need to decide the level of surround sound you’d prefer (there are no 5.1 sets without a subwoofer). A 5.1 system will provide a more immersive experience than a 2.1 (aka stereo) system, but you’ll also need to deal with finding a place to mount the extra speakers and run wire to them.
This can make a 5.1 system impractical. Speakers can often be mounted to a wall, and speaker wire can be hidden by tucking it under the edge of the carpet (if your PC room is carpeted), but not everyone will find the trouble worthwhile. A good 2.1 speaker system can provide reasonably realistic audio, and a 5.1 headset is less trouble for those who demand full surround sound. A 5.1 speaker set only makes sense for people with a dedicated computer room, entertainment room, mancave, or similar.
You also need to make sure your computer supports 5.1 audio. Most desktops do, but some older desktops and many laptops don’t. Refer to your system’s manual or, if you built your own system, check your motherboard or sound card manual.
PC speaker sets that offer 7.1 sound (or greater) are rare, and for good reason. Many computers do not support anything more than 5.1 output and most games aren’t optimized for 7.1. This is not to say they won’t output to 7.1; they will, but many developers put little effort into mixing audio to properly use the extra channels, so the improvement in surround relative to 5.1 is often underwhelming.
You might think speakers are speakers, and for the most part, you’d be right. There aren’t a lot of extras to worry about. Audio quality is the most important trait once you’ve decided what type of system you want. Still, there are a few things you might care about.
Audio controls can vary from one system to the next. Every speaker set will have volume, of course. Those with subs usually offer bass adjustment. And expensive systems often offer bass, treble and fade. Such controls are nice to have for on-the-fly changes, but they aren’t necessary, as Windows includes audio controls that can change these settings.
A few sets come with a remote control. This is a must-have extra if you plan to listen to music on your PC but don’t want to have to walk over to it every time you’d like to change the volume. However, most only control audio volume and balance, and won’t let you stop a song or start a new one. This is mostly useless for gamers.
Finally, buyers of 5.1 sets will want to have a look at the mounts used by the speakers. Some speakers are designed only to sit on a flat surface, which makes positioning the rear channels a huge pain. Others come with adjustable stands or hooks that make wall-mounting easier. Manufacturers usually don’t say much about this in their promotional material, so you’ll have to take a close look a product photos, look at the speakers in-store, or call the manufacturer.
There are a lot of companies in the PC speaker business but a few do stand out.
Logitech: This company has been making PC speakers for years and remains a strong choice for folks who want a quality system at a low price. Their offers range from the $39.99 Logitech Z313 to the $320+ Logitech Z906. True audiophiles will notice that Logitech tends to over-emphasize bass, but this trait can be a positive for players who enjoy hectic shooters with lots of explosions.
Creative: Another stalwart of PC audio, Creative makes a wide range of products for people who want big sound on a budget. Their reputation is not as strong as Logitech due to occasional customer reports of shoddy build quality, but overall they still offer good value. Buyers who don’t want a subwoofer should take note of the Creative GigaWorks T40, one of the best sub-less speaker sets around.
Audioengine: This company sells its speakers as sets without a subwoofer, but a sub can be added to the system. The speakers provide amazing audio quality even without the sub. You pay for what you get, however, as even the relatively basic Audioengine A2+ sells for $249.99. Gamers who crave a balanced sound will love this brand, but those who just want big bass should stick with Logitech.
Here’s what you need to do; decide if you want a subwoofer, decide if you want 2.1 or 5.1, consider the extra features you may or may not need, and then go buy the best Logitech system that has what you want. Easy!
What speakers do you use, and are you happy with them? Let us know in the comments.