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Computer Speakers are Blah?
There are two pervasive opinions held by most who opt for a pair of computer speakers: the first that because they’re cheap you shouldn’t expect them not to be ugly looking, and the second that since they’re cheap (often under $100), that you shouldn't expect anything from the sound quality.
Altec Lansing’s expressionist CLASSICs could be the exception on both fronts (with some caveats), even if they do come in at $79 retail. Visually they’re just about as far away from a plastic box as can be imagined; each of the two speakers consisting of a long tube, with a squarish plate of plastic on the front surrounding the grill. When placed down, there’s the impression of a very svelte and attractive shape for bookending on your computer table (just make sure there’s plenty of room behind each speaker of course).
So the sensible approach to reviewing these speakers is to first toss away the perceptions noted above and concentrate on how they sound in use. Now if you’re like me, you’re not using the computer for video or audio intensive uses, but for watching the occasional DVD or video clip from Netflix or Hulu, or playing music in the background while doing other things. Meaning that it’s not your preferred way for watching or listening, just that it’s convenient while doing other things. And I would bet fair money that most, again like me, rarely punch up the volume loud - saving that for when away from the computer like with the home theater or playing music through an amplifier to the speakers.
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There’s no manual, just a quick setup guide. Nor is there a switch for selecting the input or Auxiliary as both are live. So after having placed the two speakers in position flanking my Mac desktop, I take the analogue audio output from the computer and plug it into the right speakers auxiliary stereo input (had I been using a PC, I could have gone from the audio cord to the CLASSICs digital input using the included SPDIF digital cable). I’ve also plugged in the power supply to the right speaker as well.
A nice touch is that there’s a small glowing light to show that the power supply is connected to a live outlet, paralleled by another glowing light on the right speaker when its power switch has been pressed. The only other controls consist of a volume rocker switch riding the curve of the top of the right speaker - rubber pads making the two settings easy to locate for pressing.
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Listening on the Computer
So I bring up iTunes, which mostly has music in Apple’s Lossless format (or high bit rate MP3), make sure that audio out is selected in the Sound menu and that the CLASSIC is turned on. I start off by playing the Cars - not only because I’m well familiar with how the music sounds, but also because the songs feature a lot of isolated stereo effects.
The sound quality is unexpectedly good. Mid-tone and highs are reasonable - although the drum set is a bit harsh at times - the crispness and clarity of the guitar riffs and vocals were fine. Bass response is better than decent, helped by the tube like shape, although there's no real substitute for having a subwoofer. Stereo separation was good too - even though the built in wiring between the two speakers limits it to a distance of around 8 feet (and as these are hard-wired, no greater distance is possible). The sound has quite a bit of punch and I found that those audio titles encoded at a higher bit rate for MP3 sounded much better than I could have hoped for. But it's fair to say that going for full amplification creates too harsh a sound so I always kept that dialed back a bit.
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Casual Doesn't Mean Bad
“Casual listening” shouldn’t be considered an insult, and it’s a good way to describe the sound quality of speakers that are not created for home theater or high-quality listening. But for casual listening, be that from a desktop, laptop or even a portable player, these speakers perform well and enhance the sound all out of proportion to their cost and expected performance.