Desktop Speaker Faceoff
High-quality speakers can do wonders for your computer’s audio. (Credit: Audioengine)
Speakers are the personal computer’s neglected stepchild. Most people are so focused on processors, RAM, screen resolution, and hard drive capacity that they forget about audio quality. But you don’t have to put up with built-in computer speakers that sound awful. Advances in digital processing, improved Bluetooth codecs, and state-of-the-art materials combine to bring amazing sound to your desktop. Below are five speakers that will make your ears sit up and take notice. Although these components run the gamut in terms of pricing, all of them make a visual statement and—more importantly—an acoustical one, too.
KEF Egg Wireless Digital Music System
KEF’s Egg speakers produce extraordinarily well-balanced sound. (Credit: Techwalla)
You might want to nickname these the "Jerry Maguire speakers" because they’ll have you at hello. Even if you’re not an audiophile, you’ll recognize the superior quality of KEF’s Egg speakers from the very first musical note—the difference is that profound. The Egg has been deservedly praised for its soundstage, balance, detail, and warmth.
Of the PC speakers reviewed here, these are the only ones that will make you want to look behind the housing to see where someone parked a piano. KEF spotlights this system’s ability to handle high-resolution (24-bit/96kHz) audio files, the better-than-CD-quality gold standard at which many of today’s producers and studio engineers record audio. In fact, the quality is so good that only a few listeners have the aural acuity to enjoy it fully. To hear top-of-the-line sound from the Egg, you’ll need to be connected via USB and using the system’s built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converter).
DACs have been around since the ‘70s, but only recently has computer storage capacity reached the point where storing the large files associated with high-resolution audio is no longer a problem. Nowadays the question is how to extract that data, which is where DACs come in. High-resolution (or high-definition) audio isn’t yet thoroughly mainstream, and there aren’t many places where you can download these files—a KEF representative says no one as yet streams them—but two sites worth trying are HDTracks.com and iTrax.com. To learn more about DACs and high-resolution files, check out this blog from KEF.
Design & Build Quality
The Egg’s unique shape has earned it its moniker, though it also resembles a car’s side-view mirror and a fencer’s mask. Whatever shape the Egg suggests to you, its build quality reflects its sturdy, premium components. Each speaker weighs nearly 5 pounds, so the risk of casually knocking one over is low. Each measures 10.8 X 5.4 X 6.8 inches and comes in three colors: Frosted Blue, Gloss Black, and Pure White.
The Uni-Q array places the tweeter at the center of the midrange driver. (Credit: KEF)
The Egg features KEF’s Uni-Q system (which is viewable, as the grilles are detachable). The Uni-Q system puts the tweeter at the acoustical center of the midrange driver—rather than placing it above, as in most other systems. As a result, the entire frequency bandwidth of the driver seems to emerge from one point in space. KEF pioneered this highly successful innovation in the 1980s and continues to use it today.
A 50-watt amplifier drives the speakers, splitting its power evenly between the two satellites, each of which includes a 19mm internally vented, aluminum dome tweeter and a 115mm midrange driver.
Connections & Controls
The Egg is KEF’s second foray into the powered-speaker market, following the x300A in 2013. In creating the Egg, the company has reduced the amount of desk space that the speakers occupy and has packed as much technology—including an array of connectivity options—as it could into the smaller chassis.
The Egg offers Bluetooth wireless connectivity, as well as USB, 3.5mm, and optical inputs. In terms of wireless, the system uses the aptX codec, which has improved the Bluetooth format’s ability to stream files without sacrificing audio quality.
The Egg also has a port for a subwoofer, though the bass is surprisingly sufficient without it. But if you can’t live without the rumble, or if you plan to attach your speakers via optical cable to a TV as well as to your PC so it can double as a home studio, investing in one may be worthwhile.
The speakers’ controls are excellent. At the base of the right satellite are power, volume, and source buttons. You press the source button to cycle through, and a colored indicator light tells you which source you’re on, Bluetooth, USB, optical, or AUX (optical and AUX share a port, so you’ll have to choose one or the other at any given time, though the corresponding colors on the light indicator differ). You can access this port, which is located on the side, by removing a detachable cover.
Included with the KEF Egg is a cool-looking remote with a grippy texture. You also get an optical cable, speaker cable, a power block, and USB-to-mini-USB cable. There’s no 3.5mm cord, however, which might be KEF’s subtle way of discouraging Egg owners from using that lower-quality connection.
On the downside, the Bluetooth connection seems a little weaker than on other wireless speakers. If you move your audio source away from the Egg, you might start hearing hiccups after about 30 to 40 feet. Also, the Egg’s automatic shutdown feature may not appeal to everyone; but KEF has a firmware update that overrides this auto-off feature, in case you prefer to have your speakers remain on.
As mentioned earlier, most users won’t feel the lack of the subwoofer—a credit to how well-balanced these speakers are. Still, if you’re a devoted gamer who longs to feel the tank as it rolls over enemy skulls, you might consider adding a subwoofer.
Should you get the KEF? They aren’t cheap, at $500 on KEF’s site. But for audio quality you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than the KEF Egg. These speakers earn an extremely high 95% score from Techwalla.
Audioengine A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers
The A2+ adds a glossy sheen to a classic PC speaker look. (Credit: Techwalla)
If you’re looking for audiophile-quality sound with exceptional clarity and detail, the A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers from Audioengine are an excellent choice. They definitely punch above their weight in both size and price. The sheer volume of sound these speakers produce is startling. They sit on your desktop and fill a room.
The A2+ builds on the company’s original A2 speakers, adding a USB connector and built-in DAC. As a result, you no longer have to connect to your computer via its 3.5mm jack input and rely on its (typically average) sound card for digital processing—which means that you can enjoy these speakers to their fullest potential.
Audioengine recommends burning these speakers in for a good 20 hours or more so the drivers have a chance to settle. Playing music at regular volume for a couple of days will do the trick. Afterward you’ll have bass that’s more tightly aligned with the other components. Setting the speakers on either side of a laptop pointing straight ahead produces the best soundstage and imaging. But if you prefer to angle the speakers up toward your ears, Audioengine sells desktop stands for just that purpose.
Design & Build Quality
The A2+ speakers’ hand-polished MDF wood and rounded edges impart a striking look. The red and white versions feature a glossy finish, while the satin black alternative is matte. The simple, elegant fronts lack controls but include the exposed drivers and front-port slots. Grilles aren’t needed for these speakers, thanks to the robust materials used.
The interiors contain sound-deadening insulation, and circuit boards are mounted vertically for mechanical shock protection. Everything is custom designed, from the cabinets to the toroidal transformers. Sound emanates from ¾-inch silk dome tweeters with neodymium magnets and 2¾-inch Kevlar woofers. Powering these drivers is a dual-class AB monolithic amplifier that delivers 60 watts of total power. Both drivers have magnetic shielding so that you can place them beside a video monitor.
The active, left speaker, which weighs 3.55 pounds, houses most of the A2+’s guts. The right speaker weighs slightly less, at 3.15 pounds. Each speaker measures 6 X 4 X 5¼ inches.
Connections & Controls
The A2+’s connections (which accommodate traditional speaker cable) and controls appear on the back of the left speaker. They include RCA, 3.5mm, USB, power input, and volume. The A2+ is compatible with most devices and certainly with all desktops, laptops, and notebooks.
The A2+ places all connections on the back of the left speaker. (Credit: Techwalla)
Audioengine includes all connecting cables—a minijack audio cable, a USB cable, a 6.5-foot speaker cable, a power block, and a power cord—and they are of a higher quality than those that shipped with its predecessor, the A2. The A2+ is also elegantly packaged, with the speakers tucked into microfiber bags.
The A2+’s main shortcoming is its lack of wireless support. According to Audioengine, adding wireless would have pushed the cost of the speakers past $300. Audioengine does offer a proprietary wireless adapter separately for $150.
Bass is always an issue with small speakers, but Audioengine did a good job here. Its designers managed to squeeze a decent amount of bass "without using digital signal processing or fake bass boost circuits," according to its website. As with the KEF Egg, you can connect a subwoofer, but you won’t feel an urgent need to do so.
As noted, controls are on the back of the left speaker and, therefore, hard to reach. In the system’s defense, you probably won’t have much need to go back there once you’ve set it up the first time. The A2+ has an idle mode for when you turn off your computer, so you don’t have to worry about turning the speakers on and off. Volume is adjustable on the PC itself (Audioengine recommends leaving the volume knob on the speaker at the 3 o’clock position).
The Audioengine A2+ is a solid set of desktop speakers that produces excellent sound. The set retails for $250. Audioengine also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee if you buy online direct from the company’s website, indicating a level of confidence that other speaker makers don’t match.
The Audioengine A2+ earns a Techwalla score of 85%: "Clearly above average. Only a couple of issues keep this from being best in class."
A2+ Powered Desktop Speakersby Audioengine
Harman Kardon Aura Wireless Speaker System
The Aura combines award-winning design with dramatic sound. (Credit: Techwalla)
Bring on the boom. The Aura Wireless Speaker System from Harman Kardon boasts impressive bass, excelling in the low frequencies. It’s no slouch at the middle and high ranges either, delivering clear, balanced sound that immerses you in music. In fact, it immerses your apartment in music. The Aura is more than room-filling; it’s rooms-filling.
Design & Build Quality
Of the speakers reviewed here, the Aura wins hands-down for design. The company says it geared the Aura for people "who take pleasure in music and art." If you’re familiar with Harman Kardon’s Soundsticks speakers, you’ll recognize that the Aura strongly resembles the subwoofer part of that three-piece system, which won a spot in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Degas and Bernal.
With the Aura, Harman Kardon removed the two desktop satellites from the Soundsticks system and incorporated all the speakers into a single piece—a polycarbonate dome atop a cloth-covered metal base that houses six mid- to high-range 1½-inch drivers and a 4½-inch subwoofer. The six drivers are situated around the base, working in tandem with the subwoofer, achieve what Harman Kardon touts as the Aura’s 360-degree, omnidirectional sound, which projects audio in all directions, as opposed to conventional speakers which project it in only one direction. A 30-watt amplifier pushes 15 watts to the subwoofer and splits the other 15 watts among the remaining six drivers.
Everything about the Aura, especially the design, screams premium. The globe itself descends at the center into a reflex port to give negative sound waves a pathway out. At the base is a coil (actually the back end of the bass driver, which points downward) gilded with a white LED light that adds a classy touch in the dark.
Connections & Controls
The Aura offers plenty of connectivity options. At the back, you’ll find USB, AUX-in, and optical ports. You can connect your PC via Bluetooth or AUX-in (the USB port is strictly for service and firmware updates). If you have a TV nearby, you can hook it up via the optical port. The Aura is versatile on the wireless side, too, supporting Bluetooth, AirPlay (which streams at a lossless 16-bit, 44,100kHz), or DLNA.
The Aura offers optical and 3.5mm AUX-in ports. USB is for service. (Credit: Techwalla)
Touch controls for volume, source, and power run along a plastic band just above the line where the cloth-covered base meets the plastic globe. There’s also a Wi-Fi indicator light and a headphone jack. You can change the source by touching the source emblem for half a second. The emblem will then change color to indicate the source you’re on: Green is Wi-Fi, blue is Bluetooth, white is optical, and no color is AUX-in. To adjust the volume, slide your finger from left to right along the band. Little raised bumps help you find your way.
Unfortunately, the controls are quite difficult to see, and thus hard to use. Manipulating the volume, switching sources, or just turning it on and off requires you to peer closely to see what you’re doing. Harman Kardon’s smartphone app doesn’t do much to mitigate the problem.
One important question to ask is: "Will the Aura fit on my desktop?" The answer depends on your workstation. If you have a small desk, you might be better off with a different system. But if you have a multishelf setup, the Aura will work well. And if you have a television beside your workspace, things get even better, as you can use the optical port to give your TV sound a tremendous boost.
If you want a speaker that will draw admiration for its striking design and will fill your apartment with awesome sound, look no further. The Aura rates a 75% on Techwalla: "A solid product. Despite some flaws, it's still a good value." The Aura’s price recently dropped to $350 on Harman Kardon’s website, and you can find it for much less elsewhere, making it an excellent value; if you can get it for under $250, it’s a steal. You’ll have snagged a PC speaker that can double as a TV sound system and/or a multiroom audio system, thanks to its powerful sound. And you get a piece of artwork to boot!
Aura Wireless Speaker Systemby Harman Kardon
Creative T50 Wireless
The T50 Wireless speakers are tall but still achieve a small footprint. (Credit: Techwalla)
Creative has been doing some interesting things with its audio devices lately, and when it achieves success it doesn’t rest on its laurels. The T50 Wireless is a case in point. Creative took the well-received T40 Gigaworks series and added Bluetooth connectivity and NFC (near-field communications) capabilities to it. The looks have improved as well. Though the sound quality is essentially the same as before, this is by no means a bad thing: The T40 Gigaworks impressed everyone who heard it when it debuted.
The T50 delivers high-quality midrange, strong sound staging, fine balance, and clear, pleasant vocals. This last strength makes it ideal as a PC speaker since most people at their computers are listening to lots of talking heads—from news and entertainment clips, how-to videos, or family and friends through Skype.
Design & Build Quality
The T50s are solidly built, with the left satellite weighing 3.3 pounds and the right satellite 3.6 pounds. They look as though they might dominate your desktop real-estate with a too-large footprint, but this is not the case. The speakers go up—they are more than a foot high—but not out, and they fit quite nicely on either side of a laptop or monitor.
They look great, too. For the T50, Creative removed the T40 Gigaworks’ grille and added a glossy black finish that contrasts nicely with silver-trimmed tweeters and yellow-rimmed midrange drivers. These eye-catching speakers definitely add style to a workstation.
The T50 sports an MTM (midrange- tweeter-midrange) speaker arrangement. Setting the tweeter at the midpoint between the two midrange drivers enables the set to deliver pinpoint sound image accuracy, according to the company. Each satellite contains a 1-inch silk dome tweeter and two 2½-inch woven-glass-fiber cone drivers.
The speakers also include Creative’s BasXPort technology. A port tube that exits the top of each speaker and runs down nearly the length of the chassis enhances bass without requiring a subwoofer. This design allows more air to travel through the speaker’s housing, loading the acoustics chamber with a path of resistance. As Creative engineers explained to Techwalla, "A good design will be able to enhance lower-octave output by tuning it at lower frequencies."
The exact dimensions of the speakers are 12.4 X 3.6 X 7.3 inches for the left speaker and 12.4 X 3.6 X 7.7 inches for the right.
Connections & Controls
Controls on the T50 are laid out well. Knobs for bass, treble, and volume—as well as buttons for power and source, and a 3.5mm headphone jack for microphones—occupy the front of the right speaker. On the back of the right speaker are a 3.5mm audio input, a speaker-connecting cable plug, and a power input. The Bluetooth aptX connection is the best on any of the speakers reviewed here.
Easy-to-reach control knobs are at the front of the T50’s right satellite. (Credit: Techwalla)
The T50 offers only a 3.5mm jack for wired connection, making the Bluetooth digital signal superior to the poor minijack source. There is no built-in DAC on the T50. So while the speakers are fully capable of delivering high-resolution sound, you’d have to install a good sound card or standalone DAC to enjoy that level of audio. Creative does sell a portable sound card, the Sound BlasterX G1, a 24-bit/96kHz dongle that attaches via USB.
Included with the T50 is speaker cable, a power cord, a 3.5mm cable, and an RCA-to-3.5mm adapter for greater connectivity options.
The most glaring negative of the T50 is its automatic shutdown feature. When not in use for a mere 10 or 11 minutes, the speakers turn off. The resulting inconvenience is somewhat less if the power button is within easy reach. But even so, most people don’t want to have to constantly turn their speakers on and off. Unfortunately, Creative has not yet released a firmware update to fix this. One mitigating factor: If you’re listening via Bluetooth, once paired, the speakers will automatically turn on as you begin to play music.
One interesting feature of the T50 is that it can play simultaneously from multiple sources. For instance, you can play music from your smartphone over the speakers at the same time that you listen to audio from your PC.
The T50 Wireless is a solid, visually appealing 2.0 speaker system that offers above-average sound quality. It retails for $200 but you can easily find it for less, making it a good deal. The only downside that may give someone pause is the power-saving auto shutoff, which is timed to kick in too quickly for most users’ tastes.
Currently, there are not enough ratings of the T50 to yield a trustworthy score. However, the T40 Gigaworks, which delivers identical sound quality, rates a 78% on Techwalla: "A solid product. Despite some flaws, it's still a good value." It is not unreasonable to assume that the T50, which adds wireless functionality, would rate even higher.
T50 Wirelessby Creative Labs
Edifier Exclaim Connect e10BT
Exclaim Connect e10Bt features a snazzy design and Bluetooth connectivity. (Credit: Techwalla)
In some ways, Edifier’s Exclaim Connect e10BT was the nicest surprise among the speakers reviewed here. It retails for only $130, yet it produces a level of rich sound that you’d expect from a far more expensive speaker. Audio is crisp and clear, excelling in the middle and high ranges, and delivering respectable bass. The vocals in The Lumineers’ "Ophelia" comes across with surprising depth; and Meghan Trainor’s “Mom,” while not “All About That Bass,” delivers an enjoyable thump nonetheless.
Design & Build Quality
The Exclaim Connect e10Bt’s design is both cool and utilitarian: The tall sound bars housing the tweeters deliver the highs at just the right point to your ears. The upper section of each satellite incorporates two 1½-inch midrange/tweeters and a 1½-inch X 3-inch passive radiator. The base section contains a 3-inch woofer and a 3-inch passive bass radiator. These are bi-amped speakers, so each satellite is driven by its own amplifier supplying 16 watts for the midrange/tweeters and 10 watts for each 3-inch bass driver.
The speakers weigh about 3.25 pounds each. Although the bulk of this weight is in the base, the speakers aren’t especially stable. If you tend to bump into your desk, that could be an issue. Each speaker’s dimensions are 4.13 X 7.08 X 12.2 inches. They satellites fit nicely in the corners of even a very small desk. They have an unobtrusive footprint and stand out only in a good way—as cool accessories that draw looks for their space-agey design.
Connections & Controls
The side of the right speaker houses the three controls: two for volume and one for power—the latter doubling as a source button so you can switch between wired and wireless. The only wired connection is a 3.5mm input for non-Bluetooth devices. A 3.5mm cable, a speaker cable, and a power cord are bundled with the set.
Volume and power/source are the Exclaim Connect e10BT’s only controls. (Credit: Techwalla)
The Exclaim Connect e10BT lacks the connectivity of more-expensive rivals, which is understandable in view of its lower price. There’s no optical input, USB, or headphone jack. The 3.5mm input on the back is all you get. The system automatically switches to Bluetooth when you pair it with a device like your smartphone—even if it’s in wired mode.
For people who don’t want to spend a lot on PC speakers, the Exclaim Connect e10BT is an excellent choice. For $130 you snag two sweet-looking, great-sounding speakers that offer Bluetooth connectivity. This is far and away the best deal of the speakers reviewed in this list. There are not enough ratings on Techwalla for a trustworthy score, but by way of reference, the Exclaim Connect e10BT’s predecessor model, the e10 Exclaim, whose only difference is the lack of Bluetooth, scored 80%: "A solid product. Despite some flaws, it's still a good value."