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How we test PC speakers at PCWorld

Computer speakersImage: Dreamstime: Vetkit

If you plan on creating an atmosphere around you when you work, play games or kick back and relax on your PC you’re going to need a pair of computer speakers. And if you’re budget conscious, you’ll want speakers that sound great but don’t cost a fortune. If that’s the case be sure to check out our roundup of the Best budget PC speakers.

But how do you know which ones to buy? If you want to understand the extensive testing process we subject our speakers to in our reviews, then read on here.

What we test in PC speakers

The obvious thing about speakers upon unboxing them is their design. PC speakers are going to sit on your desk next to your PC, so they can’t be too big. Compact designs afford you plenty of space around you to place other things, so they’re favored over larger designs.

We also look at the speaker setup. For example, do the speakers consist of five speakers and a subwoofer (5.1 multi-channel), a central woofer and two satellites (2.1 multi-channel) like the Sound BlasterX Kratos S3, or just two satellites (2.0)?

The design can also have implications for how the speaker’s sound reaches your ears. Speakers that fire downwards instead of upwards muffle their sound.

However, thoughtful designs like in the Creative Pebble Pro do a better job. In this case the audio drivers are angled at an elevation of 45 degrees, so the sound reaches your ears without any interference.

The design along with the power wattage of the speakers can affect how the sound is distributed through a room, so a key question we ask is: Does the sound fill up a room?

Creative

The speakers’ connectivity is also something we analyze. Connectivity can be wired or wireless or both, with each type having its own advantages and disadvantages. Wired connections can be the 3.5mm analog kind or USB kind.

Speaking of which, we also look at the cable placement and how many cables there are. Single cables neatly packed into one of the speakers make for an uncluttered desktop.

How the speaker is powered can make a big difference too. USB powered speakers reduce cord clutter and are quite portable compared to AC powered speakers which need to be plugged in and tethered.

Speakers with more than one connectivity type are generally the most versatile, allowing you to connect to more devices or even multiple devices at once.

The addition of Bluetooth is especially sought after. Bluetooth allows you to stream music or other sound directly from your PC to the speaker, without any unsightly cables. So, speakers with such functionality score points for this.

What are the controls like?

Most PC speakers have uncomplicated controls, with just a volume wheel, on/off switch, and a Bluetooth pairing button. There are some speakers that have extra control options available such as a mute button or a remote control. If we see these features, as long as they work well, the speakers will generally score better than those that don’t have them.

Unpacking the sound quality

The sound quality is a key feature when it comes to speakers, so we take time to test this thoroughly. Again, the speaker setup can make a big difference.

Premium speakers with 5.1 multi-channel setups can sound great, but cheaper speakers that cost around $100 or less often sound better with 2.1 or 2.0 multi-channel setups.

Playing music and listening to the fidelity of the audio is the best way to evaluate how the speakers sound.

We want to hear an immersive sound with rich detail across the audio spectrum. We rate audio that’s clear and crisp through the mids and high tones. Speakers generally afford bigger subwoofers than laptops, so we also want to hear a decent bass presence.

The tipping point of smaller speakers can be at higher volumes, where you start to hear distortion in some of the tonal frequencies. So, we crank the volume wheel up high to hear how the speakers sound at the highest volumes. Again, if we hear crisp and clear tones, that’s a great sign.

Turn-offs that will lose the speakers marks when we do our final evaluation include any muffled tones, unwanted vibrations that enter the audio stream, hissing noises, static, and or, any muddiness that detracts from the audio.

Final evaluation and scoring

Summing up a speaker and assigning a final score on the balance of its features is best done when you consider its asking price. We expect a lot more from a speaker that costs $100 than we do from one that costs less than $30, so the value-for-money proposition plays a big part in our scoring.

We also like to compare the speakers to what rivals have on offer. That way you can make the best decision when it comes time to put your money down on a new model.

Based in Australia, Dominic Bayley is a hardcore tech enthusiast. His PCWorld focus is on PC gaming hardware: laptops, mice, headsets and keyboards.

Recent stories by Dominic Bayley:

Best budget computer speakers 2024: Solid PC audio for $100 or less

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