Audio adapters, also called sound cards, are a dying breed. Nearly all motherboards provide embedded audio that is more than good enough for most people’s needs. In particular, the embedded audio provided by nVIDIA and Intel chipsets is excellent, with good support for six-channel audio. Only gamers, those who work professionally with audio, and those who have purchased a motherboard without embedded audio need consider buying a standalone audio adapter.
Gamers dislike embedded audio not because it lacks features or sound quality but because it puts a small burden on the main system processor, which can reduce graphics frame rates slightly.
Computer speakers range from $10 pairs of small satellites to $500+ sets of six or seven speakers that are suitable for a home theater system. Personal preference is the most important factor in choosing speakers.
Speakers that superbly render a Bach concerto are often not the best choice for playing a first-person shooter game like Unreal Tournament. For that matter, speakers that one person considers perfect for the Bach concerto (or the UT game), someone else may consider mediocre at best. For that reason, we strongly suggest that you listen to speakers before you buy them, particularly if you’re buying an expensive set.
Speaker sets are designated by the total number of satellite speakers, followed by a period and a “1” if the set includes a subwoofer (also called a low-frequency emitter or LFE). A speaker set that includes only two satellites is called a 2.0 set. One that adds a subwoofer is called a 2.1 set. A 4.1 speaker set has four satellites—left and right, front and rear—and a subwoofer. A 5.1 set adds a center-channel speaker, which is useful for watching movies on DVD. A 6.1 set adds a rear center-channel speaker, which is primarily useful for gaming.
The price of a speaker set doesn’t necessarily correspond to the number of speakers in the set. For example, there are very inexpensive 5.1 speaker sets available, and some 2.1 sets that cost a bundle. We recommend that you decide on the number of speakers according to your budget. If you have $75 to spend, for example, you’re better off buying a good 2.1 speaker set than a cheesy 5.1 set.
Speakers For a basic 2.0 speaker set, buy the $15 Creative Labs SBS250 (http://www.creative.com) or the Logitech X-120 (http://www.logitech.com). They have only 2.5W per channel, but that is sufficient for listening to music and casual gaming. The sound quality is surprisingly good for the price, much better than no-name 2.0 sets that typically sell for $8 or $10. If you need a bit more power, go with the Creative SBS270 set, which sells for a few dollars more and provides 5W per channel, but is otherwise similar to the SBS250 set.
For a basic 2.1 speaker set, buy the $35 Logitech X-220, which provides 5.8W to each of the two satellites and a 20.4W subwoofer. For a step up in power and sound quality, go with the $70 Logitech Z-3 set, which is what Robert uses on his desk. For a premium 2.1 set, buy the $115 Logitech Z-2200, which boasts THX certification and 200W RMS total power, or the Klipsch Promedia GMX A-2.1, which has only 78W RMS total power, but provides stunningly good sound quality for the price (http://www.klipsch.com).
For a basic 4.1 speaker set, buy the $45 Creative SBS450, which provides 6W to each of the four satellites and 17W to the subwoofer. For more power and better sound quality, go with the $130 Logitech Z-560 set, which provides 53W to each of the four satellites and 188W to the subwoofer.
For a basic 5.1 speaker set, buy the $60 Logitech Z-640, which provides 7.3W to each of the four satellites, 16.3W to the center-channel speaker, and 25.7W to the subwoofer. For more power and better sound, go with the $150 THX-certified Logitech Z-5300 set, which provides 35.25W to each of the four satellites, 39W to the center-channel speaker, and 100W to the subwoofer. For a premium 5.1 set, choose the $275 Logitech Z-680, which is THX-certified and provides Dolby Digital & DTS hardware decoding, along with 62W to each of the four satellites, 69W to the centerchannel speaker, and 188W to the subwoofer. We use a Logitech Z-680 set for our Home Theater PC. Also consider the $325 Klipsch Promedia Ultra 5.1 set, which provides five 60W satellites (any of which can be used as the center-channel speaker) and a 170W subwoofer.
The Logitech Z-680 and Promedia Ultra 5.1 are both top-notch speaker systems. Both have superb sound quality and as much power as anyone could need. We slightly prefer the Klipsch Promedia Ultra 5.1 speakers for listening to classical music, and we slightly prefer the Logitech Z-680 speakers for gaming.
For a basic 6.1 speaker set, buy the $70 Logitech X-620, which provides 7.4W to each of the two front satellites, 7.5W to each of the two rear satellites, 8W to each of the two center-channel speakers, and 24.3W to the subwoofer. For more power and better sound quality, go with the $250 THX-certified Creative Megaworks THX 6.1 set, which provides 70W to each of the five satellites (any of which can be used as the rear center-channel speaker), 75W to the front center channel speaker, and 150W to the subwoofer.
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