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Buying Speakers and Headphones for Your Computer

written by: John Garger•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/30/2011

Buying speakers and headphones for your computer can be complicated unless you understand the technology and lingo behind PC sound. This guide will help you get the most out of your computer’s audio capabilities.

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    Computers and Sound

    With the introduction of Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster 1.0 in 1989, computers were capable of high-quality sound. The result is a blur between computers and other entertainment hardware such as gaming consoles, stereo systems, and home theater.

    Today, computer sound can rival that of high-end equipment in both clarity and power. To get the full sound experience from your computer, you must invest in a decent set of speakers or headphones capable of delivering a range of sound from your computer’s sound adapter.

    Buying computer speakers or headphones is a matter of matching your purchase to both your computer’s capabilities and your needs. Just as there is no point in putting a jet engine into a compact car, there is no point in buying unnecessarily powerful speakers or headphones if your computer cannot support them. This buyer’s guide can help you start thinking about how you are going to use your speakers or headphones and how much to invest to get the sound you want.

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    The Technology of PC Sound

    Before you buy either speakers or headphones for your PC, you should familiarize yourself with some standard technological terms. Computer speakers come in a variety of standards. Your “standard” PC speakers are nothing but two speakers, one for the right channel and one for the left. This standard stereo speaker setup offers little in terms of clarity and will lack any of the deep bass needed for realistic playback.

    Other standard configurations include 2.1, 5.1, and 7.1 layouts. The first number in each of these standards refers to the number of directional speakers in the system. 2.1 layouts have only two stereo speakers while 5.1 and 7.1 layouts offer surround sound. The .1 in each of the layouts refers to the subwoofer or deep bass speaker. So 2.1 speakers are a 3-speaker system, 2 stereo speakers and one bass. Following on this logic, 5.1 speakers are a 6-speaker system (5 speakers and one subwoofer) and a 7.1 layout is an 8-speaker system (7 speakers and one subwoofer).

    Subwoofers are non-directional meaning they need not face the listener to get their full effect. Consequently, subwoofers, which tend to quite large, can be placed under a desk, behind the rest of the sound system, or even under the listener to get that chest-thumping effect prized by gamers and audiophiles.

    By the nature of their design, headphones are only capable of stereo sound. However, some headphones can “fake” surround sound through on-the-fly post-processing software. Since headphones sit directly on the ears, there is no possibility to gain the advantages of having the speakers physically placed around you, so you lose the ability to experience true surround sound. In addition, headphones cannot deliver the effects of a subwoofer so you lose some realism by using them. Of course, the main reason for using headphones is private listening without disturbing those around you so don’t rule our headphones as a possibility.

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    Wattage and Power in PC Speakers and Headphones

    Without getting too technical, the higher the wattage rating of a set of speakers, the louder and clearer the sound will be. Remember, though, that the wattage quoted to you by the manufacturer is the total wattage output of all the speakers combined.

    Suppose you have two sets of speakers you are considering buying, a 5.1 and a 7.1 system. Suppose that the total wattage of both systems is 400 watts and both have a subwoofer with 50 watts of power. That means that both systems have a 350-watt power rating for the directional speakers.

    However, since the 5.1 system has 5 directional speakers and the 7.1 system has 7 directional speakers, the individual speakers in each system has a different average rating. The 5.1 system has an average of 70 watts per speaker and the 7.1 system has only 50 watts of power per speaker on average. This is not such an important consideration for high-watt systems such as the example above, but for lower wattage systems, it can mean the difference between clear and tinny sound. Remember to do the math or look carefully at the individual power ratings of each speaker in any system you are considering purchasing.

    Headphones operate on much the same level as speakers. To get the best sound from a set of headphones, pay close attention to the Power Handling Capacity rating. Anything in the 1,000mW to 3,000mW range could be considered “studio quality” and capable of delivering true-to-life sound.

    In the case of headphones, you get what you pay for. Plan to spend about $100 to $400 for entry-level DJ style headphones. Anything less and you risk tinny sound with little bass. Of course, some headphones reach into the $800-$1500 range. Unless you are a professional mixer or DJ, you probably will not get much more quality out of such an expensive set of headphones than you would with entry-level systems.

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    Practical Considerations when Buying PC Speakers and Headphones

    There are two main practical considerations when shopping for speakers and headphones. The first has to do with your environment. There is really no point in investing in 1,000-watt speakers if you live in an apartment complex unless you enjoy complaining neighbors, visits from the police, and the potential for eviction. Take a careful look at your environment and choose your speakers wisely.

    The best alternative to buying powerful speakers is an investment in the best quality headphones you can afford. You can use headphones anytime day or night without disturbing others. In fact, consider buying a standard set of moderately-priced speakers for day-to-day listening but a higher-end set of headphones for movies, games, and music

    Before you head out to the store or online to browse speakers and headphones, be sure your computer is capable of the technologies you want to experience. For example, not all sound cards are capable of delivering 7.1 technology. Many basic sound cards are capable of only 2.1 sound. Unless you bought a high-end gaming or media-editing rig, you may have to upgrade your sound card to be compatible with the speakers you want to buy.

    Some PCs use internal processing sound chips known as on-board sound. This means that a chip hard-wired onto the motherboard supplies the sound for those computers. In these cases, you will need to invest in a new sound card that is separate from the motherboard. Although on-board sound supports 2.1 speakers, you may find that the on-board sound is incapable of powering the speakers well enough to take advantage of the speakers’ range. Again, investment in a new sound card may be necessary. Check with your computers documentation to determine how sound is delivered on your PC.

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    Conclusion

    Buying speakers and headphones requires two main considerations: how the speakers or headphones will be used and what you computer is capable of. It makes no sense to invest hundreds of dollars into a powerful system you cannot use regularly because it will disturb others. It also makes no sense to buy a set of speaker or headphone system with which your computer is not compatible or will not be able to use to its fullest potential. Some planning up front can save you time and money when buying your computer’s sound system.