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Speakers buying guide

The built-in speaker(s) on your Mac, iPhone, iPod, or iPad don't do your audio justice, especially if you want to enjoy full, rich sound or share your music with people more than a few feet away. So along with new headphones (more on that topic later this week), a new set of speakers is one of the most rewarding audio upgrades you can give your Mac, iPod, or iOS device.

But if you've recently visited any store, local or online, that sells consumer electronics, you've likely been confronted by rows and rows (or screens and screens) of computer speakers, speaker docks, and the like, in many different sizes and at many different prices. Which do you choose? To help you find the right set--for yourself or your favorite gift recipient--here's the latest edition of our annual speakers buying guide.

What to look for when shopping

As you're browsing the aisles or webpages of your favorite stores, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Computer speakers vs. docking speakers: Will your new speakers be used mainly with a computer? If so, any set of standard "computer speakers"--a self-powered system you connect to your computer using a simple analog or digital cable--will work just fine; you just plug in and enjoy.

If, on the other hand, the speakers will be used primarily with an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, you'll want a system that includes a dock cradle featuring Apple's 30-pin dock connector. This connector plugs into the port on the bottom of your device, letting the speaker system grab the highest-quality audio signal while simultaneously charging your portable player. (If a docking speaker system can run off AC or battery power, it likely charges your player only when the speakers are connected to AC power.)

Most recent docking speakers use Apple's Universal Dock design, which means the cradle uses standardized inserts to fit any iPhone or iPod. If a particular system doesn't include the right insert for your player, you'll need to use the insert that came with your iPhone or iPod, or buy the appropriate insert from Apple.

There are currently a limited number of speaker systems that include an iPad-sized dock cradle. If none of the iPad-compatible systems mentioned below is to your liking, you can either use a standard audio cable to connect to any set of speakers (see the next paragraph) or use an adapter cable such as CableJive's dockXtender basic ($16) or dockXtender ($26) to connect the iPad to a system with an iPod/iPhone dock. You just plug one end of the cable into the iPad's dock-connector port, and plug the other end into the dock connector on your speakers. (Keep in mind that most iPhone/iPod speaker systems will charge the iPad slowly, if at all.)

Planning to use your speakers with both a computer and an iOS device? You can connect any iPod, iPad, or iPhone to a standard set of computer speakers by running an audio cable from the speakers to the i-device's headphone jack or, if you've got one of Apple's charging docks or stands, that accessory's audio-out jack. (The latter provides higher-quality audio.) Conversely, most docking speaker systems also provide a stereo line-in jack for connecting a computer or other audio source while your iPod or iPhone sits in the dock cradle. (There are also adapter cables that let you connect a no-dock-connector audio source to a system with a dock.) Also, consider where the speakers will sit: If you'll be doing a lot of listening at your computer, you'll likely want a system with separate left and right speakers--which usually means computer speakers. Otherwise, any design will do.

(Already have an older iPod-dock speaker system that's not fully compatible with your current iPhone, iPad, or iPod? Check out our article on how to get older speaker docks working with the latest iOS devices.)

iPhone and iPad compatibility: If you'll be using a docking speaker system with an iPhone or a 3G-equipped iPad, I recommend looking for one that sports the Made for iPhone or Made for iPad logo, respectively. Such products were developed according to Apple's specifications, so they're more likely to charge your device properly and less likely to suffer from interference from your iPhone or iPad's wireless circuitry when not in AirPlane mode.

Specs and sound quality: Put simply, you should ignore manufacturers' specifications, especially frequency response numbers. There's no standard testing methodology for speakers, and many vendors exaggerate specs--often laughably so--making them essentially worthless. With very few exceptions, you can't rely on these numbers to tell you anything about a system's audio quality. Instead, use your own ears--try to audition speakers locally before you buy. While a store isn't an ideal environment for testing, it's better than nothing, and it can let you separate the good from the obviously bad.

When testing speakers, bring a variety of your favorite music and take your time. A quality system provides good balance between the treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail. Be especially wary of systems where the treble detail or bass sounds especially prominent--some speakers exaggerate one or both these to stand out in a crowded store display. This is especially common with bass: Speakers that use small drivers--and this includes subwoofers with small-for-subwoofer drivers--simply can't reproduce the lowest notes, so vendors often tweak speakers to emphasize upper-bass frequencies. This approach adds some punch, but it can also make the speakers sound boomy or thumpy--a trait that becomes fatiguing over time. If deep, controlled bass is important to you, you'll need speakers with relatively large woofers. Otherwise, consider speakers that forgo the lowest frequencies altogether in favor of accurate sound across the rest of the audio spectrum.

If you can't audition a system in person, be sure to read reviews from sources you trust.

Inputs and AirPlay: As mentioned above, most docking speaker systems provide multiple inputs--at least the dock cradle and an audio-input jack. However, some computer speakers offer only a single audio connection, limiting you to listening to sound from your computer. If you'll want to listen to other audio sources, look for a system with additional inputs, preferably within reach for easy access, rather than inconveniently placed on the back of the subwoofer under your desk. Some systems also offer wireless connectivity--usually Bluetooth or AirPlay, and occasionally both (more on these below).

On-speaker controls for computer speakers: The most-basic computer-speaker systems have no controls of their own; you connect them to your computer and then adjust output volume using your computer. Look instead for systems that provide their own volume controls. Even better, many systems let you adjust bass and treble levels to fine-tune audio output for your particular listening environment. If the speakers you're considering include such options, be sure the controls are easily reachable--again, on the left or right speaker, or on a control pod or remote control, rather than on the back of a subwoofer that sits under your desk.

Price: To some extent, the more you pay for a set of speakers, the better the sound quality or the more features--or both--you get. Fortunately, speakers are among the most heavily discounted computer accessories, so be sure to shop around. Your budget may get you more than you think.

Speaker types and recommendations

In the sections below, I've provided descriptions of each of the major types of stereo (left+right channel) speaker systems on the market. (I don't cover surround-sound systems.) For each type, I've also provided a few recommendations at various prices, indicating the audio-input options (audio jack, iPhone/iPod dock cradle, iPad-compatible dock cradle, Bluetooth, AirPlay, or USB) for each system. Prices listed are MSRP, so you'll likely be able to find each product for a lower price--sometimes substantially lower.

Of course, these recommendations are by no means exhaustive--there are quality systems out there that aren't listed. But they should give you an idea of the state of the art in each category.

2.0 computer speakers: A 2.0 system (two channels but no subwoofer) usually comprises compact, left and right speakers, with the amplifier housed inside one of those speakers. By separating the left and right channels, a 2.0 system provides much better stereo separation and imaging than a one-piece system that confines the left and right speakers to a single enclosure. Most also take up very little room on your desk. However, because they tend to use small speaker drivers to keep their footprints small, 2.0 speaker systems rarely match a good 2.1 system (below) when it comes to bass response. Recommendations:

USB-powered 2.0 computer speakers: Although not as common as AC-powered models, a few 2.0 speaker systems get their power from a USB port on your computer. In fact, these models use only a single USB cable for both power and audio, making them appealing to people averse to cords and cables. Some are also portable, making them convenient for laptop listening. But because a USB port doesn't provide much power, USB-powered speakers tend to be small, don't play very loud, and can't produce much bass--their sound quality is rarely as good as that of a similarly priced AC- or battery-powered speaker system. The ones listed here offer solid sound--for USB speakers, at least. Recommendations:

Studio monitors/powered bookshelf speakers: A variant of 2.0 systems, studio monitors are essentially powered bookshelf speakers. Considerably larger than most 2.0 systems, they often give you much better bass response thanks to larger low-frequency drivers; they often include better amplification and can play much louder, as well. In fact, a good set of studio monitors produces sound quality closer to that of a traditional home stereo system. On the other hand, studio monitors can take up a lot more room on your desk, and they sometimes sound better from across a room than when you're seated directly in front of them (called nearfield listening). Professional studio monitors, often used in recording studios, can cost over $1,000, but there are some great options at reasonable prices if you've got the room. Recommendations:

2.1 computer speakers: A 2.1 system (two channels plus a subwoofer) typically uses even smaller left and right speakers than a 2.0 system. These speakers, called satellites, produce the higher frequencies, while a larger speaker/amplifier component, usually designed to sit under your desk, produces lower frequencies. (A 2.1 system is often called a subwoofer/satellite, or sub/sat, system.) The two big advantages of a 2.1 system over a 2.0 system is that you usually get much better bass response--both more impact and the capability to extend down to lower frequencies--thanks to the dedicated subwoofer, and the left and right speakers take up less room on your desk (though the subwoofer/amplifier unit may take up a lot of room under it). Recommendations:

Portable speakers: If you want to be able to pack your speakers in your luggage, laptop bag, or backpack, you need something small, light, rugged, and battery powered. However, you'll sacrifice sound quality for such convenience, and some portable speakers are so compact that they don't have room for an iPhone/iPod/iPad dock. Recommendations:

Transportable speaker docks: A transportable system is ideal if you just want to be able to move your music from room to room, or haul it to the backyard, beach, or park, but you don't need ultimate portability--think of these as "iPhone boomboxes." A transportable system generally gives you better sound and louder volume than a truly portable speaker, in a larger, slightly heavier package that can still run off batteries. Recommendations:

Desktop speaker docks: If you're looking for something compact to put on your desk, the kitchen counter, or a dresser, but you don't really need portability, desktop speakers are the way to go. Thanks to their AC power and generally larger enclosures, these systems can offer surprisingly good sound quality but are still compact enough to fit on a bookshelf. Some even offer alarm-clock or radio features. Recommendations:

2.1 docks: There aren't many 2.1 speaker systems with built-in iPod docks--if you're leaning towards a 2.1 system, you'll have a wider range of choices if you shop for a set of computer speakers and then connect a standalone iPod, iPhone, or iPad dock. However, there are a couple models that, while pricey, are worth considering if you've got the cash. Recommendations:

Bluetooth speakers: Bluetooth speakers let you cut the cord--or dock--between your audio source and your speakers. Recent Macs; any iPad; the iPhone 3G and later; and second-generation and later iPod touch models can all stream audio to stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) speakers. Under iOS 4.2 and later, the iPad, the iPhone 3GS and later, and third-generation and later iPod touch models also let you control music playback using Play/Pause, Back, and Forward buttons on the speakers themselves. Bluetooth speakers come in a number of different styles. Recommendations:

AirPlay speakers: AirPlay-enabled audio systems also let you cut the cord, but they take advantage of Apple's AirPlay (formerly AirTunes) technology to let you stream music from your iOS or Mac OS X devices, over your local wireless network, to the speaker system. (Some of these systems also include an iPhone/iPod dock.) Unfortunately, even though AirPlay was announced in 2010, there still aren't many AirPlay systems on the market, and they tend to be more expensive than speakers without AirPlay. Recommendations:

Build your own?

As an alternative to buying a speaker system, you can build your own system for your computer, your iPhone or iPad, or even for AirPlay listening. A few years ago, I wrote about building an iPod/iPhone speaker system from a small amp, a dedicated iPod dock, and a set of quality bookshelf speakers. More recently, I wrote about building your own AirPlay-enabled audio system. Stay tuned for an upcoming review roundup of desktop amplifiers, as well as a roundup of desktop amps with built-in digital-to-analog converters for getting quality audio from your computer.

[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor.]


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