The built-in speaker(s) on your computer, smartphone, tablet, or iPod don’t do your audio justice, especially if you want to enjoy full, rich sound or share your music with people more than a few feet away. So along with good headphones, a new set of speakers is one of the most rewarding audio upgrades you can give your gear.
But if you've recently visited any store - local or online - that sells consumer electronics, you've likely been confronted by rows and rows (or screens and screens) of computer speakers, speaker docks, and the like, in many different sizes and at many different prices. Which do you choose? To help you find the right set - for yourself or your favourite gift recipient - here's our guide.
How to find the best speakers
As you're browsing the aisles or webpages of your favorite stores, here are some tips to keep in mind.
Specs and sound quality
Put simply, you should ignore manufacturers' specifications, especially frequency-response numbers. No standardized testing methodology exists for speakers, so many vendors exaggerate specs—often laughably so—making them essentially worthless. With very few exceptions, you can't rely on these numbers to tell you anything about a system's audio quality. Instead, use your own ears: Try to audition speakers locally before you buy. While a store isn't an ideal environment for testing, it's better than nothing, and it can let you separate the good from the obviously bad.
When testing speakers, bring a variety of your favorite music and take your time. A quality system provides good balance between the treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail. Be especially wary of systems where the treble detail or bass sounds especially prominent - some speakers exaggerate one or both these to stand out in a crowded store display. This is especially common with bass: Speakers that use small drivers - and this includes subwoofers with small-for-subwoofer drivers - simply can’t reproduce the lowest notes, so vendors often tweak speakers to emphasise upper-bass frequencies.
This approach adds some punch, but it can also make the speakers sound boomy or thumpy—a trait that becomes fatiguing over time. If deep, controlled bass is important to you, you'll need speakers with relatively large woofers or a good-sized subwoofer. Otherwise, consider speakers that forgo the lowest frequencies altogether in favour of accurate sound across the rest of the audio spectrum.
Computer speakers vs. docking speakers vs. wireless speakers
Will your new speakers be used mainly with a computer? If so, any set of standard "computer speakers"—a self-powered system you connect to your computer using a simple analog or digital cable—will work just fine; you just plug in and enjoy. Computer speakers also work with tablets, smartphones, and portable media players—you just connect a cable from the device’s headphone jack to the speaker system. (Some smartphone charging docks and cradles even have a dedicated audio-out jack that provides higher-quality audio than the headphone jack offers.) But there are other options, as well.
If you’re looking for speakers to be used primarily with Apple gear—iPhones, iPods, or an iPad—you may want to consider a system that includes a dock cradle featuring Apple's 30-pin dock connector or Lightning connector. The connector plugs into the port on the bottom of your device, letting the speaker system grab the highest-quality audio signal while simultaneously charging your player. (If the docking speaker system can run off main or battery power, it likely charges your player only when the speakers are connected to AC power.) Some of these systems can also connect to your computer via USB, letting you sync your device with your computer while docked.
iOS devices released prior to the iPhone 5 in September 2012 use a 30-pin dock connector, while the iPhone 5 and subsequent devices use Apple’s new Lightning connector - make sure you buy the right kind of dock for your particular device(s). To use an older, 30-pin speaker dock with newer, Lightning-connector devices, you’ll need one of Apple’s Lightning-to-30-pin adapters or a third-party adapter.
A few speaker systems that include an iPad-compatible dock cradle are out there, but not many. If none are to your liking, but you want the charging/syncing capabilities and better audio quality that come with a docking system, can use an adapter cable such as CableJive's dockXtender basic or dockXtender plus the appropriate Lightning adapter, if necessary—to connect your iPad to any system with an iPhone dock. Keep in mind that most iPhone/iPod speaker systems will charge the iPad slowly, if at all.
If you have a Windows Phone smartphone or an Android smartphone or tablet, speaker docks made specifically for these devices are few and far between, so I haven’t included any in this year’s list. However, you can connect Android and Windows Phone devices to any speaker system using a basic audio cable; CableJive’s DockBoss lets you connect these devices to a 30-pin iPhone speaker dock; and a Bluetooth speaker system is always a solid option.
The third option, and the one that’s seen an explosion in popularity over the past couple years, is a wireless speaker system. Most of these connect using Bluetooth, a feature that’s quickly becoming pervasive, especially on mobile devices. Some use Apple’s AirPlay technology, which offers better range and audio quality than Bluetooth but works only with Apple devices. The big advantages of most wireless speaker systems are that you can use them with multiple devices and that you aren’t tied to a particular location—you can walk around with your phone or tablet, and control audio playback from a chair or desk on the other side of the room.
iPhone and iPad dock compatibility
If you'll be using a docking speaker system with an iPhone or a 3G- or LTE-equipped iPad, look for one that sports the Made for iPhone or Made for iPad logo. Such products were developed according to Apple's specifications, so they're more likely to charge your device properly and less likely to suffer from interference due to your iPhone or iPad's wireless circuitry when not in AirPlane mode.
Multiple devices and multiple inputs
Planning to use your speakers with both a computer and a tablet, smartphone, or other media player? Wireless speaker systems usually make it easy to use multiple audio sources—assuming most of those sources feature Bluetooth.
If wireless isn’t an option, many computer speakers have two inputs—you can connect an additional device to them by running an audio cable from the phone or tablet’s headphone jack to the speaker’s second input jack. Conversely, most speaker docks also have an auxiliary-input jack for connecting a computer or other audio source using a standard audio cable. (As noted above, there are also adapter cables that let you connect a computer to a speaker system that has only a 30-pin dock connector.) Make sure the speaker systems you’re considering include such additional inputs.
Especially for computer speakers, look for systems with the additional inputs located where they’re easily accessible, rather than inconveniently placed on the back of the speaker or on a subwoofer located under your desk. Also, when shopping for a speaker system to be used with multiple devices, consider where the speakers will sit: If you'll be doing a lot of listening at your computer, you'll likely want a system with separate left and right speakers—which usually means computer speakers. Otherwise, any design will do.
In the sections below, I provide descriptions of each of the major types of stereo (left+right channel) speaker systems on the market. (I don't cover surround-sound systems.)
2.0 computer speakers
A 2.0 system (two channels but no subwoofer) usually comprises compact, left and right speakers, with the amplifier housed inside one of those speakers. By separating the left and right channels, a 2.0 system provides much better stereo separation and imaging than a one-piece system that confines the left and right speakers to a single enclosure. Most 2.0 speakers also take up very little room on your desk. However, because they tend to use small speaker drivers to keep their footprints small, 2.0 speaker systems rarely match a good 2.1 system (below) when it comes to bass response
USB-powered 2.0 computer speakers
Although not as common as AC-powered models, some 2.0 speaker systems get their power from a USB port on your computer. In fact, these models use only a single USB cable for both power and audio—they grab a digital audio signal over USB—making them appealing to people averse to cords and cables. Some are also portable, making them convenient for laptop listening. But because a USB port doesn't provide much power, USB-powered speakers tend to be small, don't play very loud, and can't produce much bass—their sound quality is rarely as good as that of a similarly priced AC- or battery-powered speaker system. The ones listed here offer solid sound—for USB speakers, at least.
Studio monitors/powered bookshelf speakers
A variant of 2.0 systems, studio monitors are essentially powered bookshelf speakers. Considerably larger than most 2.0 systems, they generally give you much better bass response thanks to more-powerful (and better-quality) amplification and larger low-frequency drivers. They can play much louder, as well. In fact, a good set of studio monitors produces sound quality closer to that of a traditional home stereo system. On the other hand, studio monitors can take up a lot more room on your desk, and they sometimes sound better from across a room than when you're seated directly in front of them (called near-field listening). Professional studio monitors, often used in recording studios, can cost hundreds of pounds, but there are some great options at reasonable prices if you've got the room.
Note that most studio monitors are designed like traditional bookshelf speakers, with a flat base. This means that if you put them on your desk without a stand, they’ll project audio directly at your stomach or chest. Most can be wall-mounted to get them up off your desk and positioned at ear level. Alternatively, you can buy a set of inexpensive speaker stands designed specifically for using studio monitors on a desk; these stands are short but angle the front of each speaker upwards towards your ears.
2.1 computer speakers
A 2.1 system (two channels plus a subwoofer) typically uses even smaller left and right speakers than a 2.0 system. These speakers, called satellites, produce the higher frequencies, while a larger speaker/amplifier component, usually designed to sit under your desk, produces lower frequencies. (A 2.1 system is often called a subwoofer/satellite, or sub/sat, system.) The two big advantages of a 2.1 system over a 2.0 system are that you usually get much better bass response—both more impact and the capability to extend down to lower frequencies—thanks to the dedicated subwoofer, and the smaller left and right speakers take up less room on your desk (though the subwoofer/amplifier unit may take up a lot of room under it).
If you want to be able to pack your speakers in your luggage, laptop bag, or backpack, you need something small, light, rugged, and battery powered. However, thanks to the smaller size and lower power of portable speakers, you'll sacrifice sound quality for such convenience. The majority of portable speakers can connect using a standard audio cable, but many recent models also support Bluetooth connections.
Yes, the venerable boombox is back—a number of companies now make big, luggable sound systems that run off lots of big batteries (or AC power). But instead of cassette decks, they feature iPhone docks and Bluetooth. Think “portable but not packable”—and, yes, you can even carry them on your shoulder. Compared to truly portable speakers, these systems will give you better sound, more bass, and louder volume, albeit in a much larger and heavier package that won’t fit in your carry-on.
Desktop speakers and speaker docks
If you’re looking for something compact to put on your desk, the kitchen counter, a dresser, or a bookshelf, but you don’t really need portability, desktop speakers are the way to go. Thanks to AC power and larger-than-portable-speakers enclosures, these systems can offer surprisingly good sound quality, but they’re still compact enough to fit in small spaces. Some include an iPhone or iPad dock, and some even provide alarm-clock or radio features. A few offer battery-powered operation, which is convenient if you just want to be able to move your music from room to room, or take it to the backyard. (We haven’t yet tested any Lightning-connector speaker docks, so I don’t include any here.)
Bluetooth wireless speakers
Bluetooth speakers let you cut the cord—or dock—between your audio source and your speakers. You can stream audio to stereo-Bluetooth (A2DP) speakers from any recent Bluetooth-equipped smartphone or tablet, including iPhones, iPads, and most Android and Windows Phone devices, as well as from many media players, including the iPod touch and iPod nano. Recent Macs and some recent Windows PCs also support stereo-Bluetooth streaming, and you can use Bluetooth speakers with other devices by purchasing a Bluetooth transmitter, offered by a number of companies. Most Bluetooth speakers also allow you to connect to non-Bluetooth devices using a standard audio cable. Because of this wide compatibility, Bluetooth is easily the fastest-growing category of speakers over the past year or two.
For convenience, some Bluetooth speaker systems provide Play/Pause, Back, and Forward buttons on the speakers themselves; most tablets and smartphones let you control music playback using these buttons. Some Bluetooth speakers also double as a speakerphone, letting you easily switch between music and voice features. Bluetooth speakers generally have a wireless range of around 30 unobstructed feet.
It’s worth noting that if you listen to high-quality music files and you have good ears, the sound quality of a Bluetooth speaker system is usually not as good as that of a similar wired system. (A new technology called Apt-X is helping to reduce this shortcoming. However, Apt-X isn’t yet widely supported, and you need Apt-X on both ends of your wireless connection—your Bluetooth source and your Bluetooth speakers.) Also, note that even though Bluetooth speakers connect wirelessly to your music source, the rest of the system isn’t wireless: For non-portable models, you still need a power cord, and for systems with left and right speakers or a subwoofer, there’s usually a cable connecting those components.
Bluetooth speakers come in all types—you may have noticed that I included a number of Bluetooth-equipped models in the various recommendation lists above. I provide a combined list here, noting the type of each speaker, for readers who are looking specifically for wireless options.
AirPlay wireless speakers
Like Bluetooth speakers, AirPlay-enabled audio systems let you cut the cord, but they take advantage of Apple's AirPlay (formerly AirTunes) technology to let you stream music, from your iOS devices or Macs, over your local wireless network. (Some of these systems also include an iPhone/iPod dock.) The advantages of AirPlay over Bluetooth include better audio quality—AirPlay uses lossless audio compression, while Bluetooth uses lossy compression—and much better range, as you can stream anywhere within range of your Wi-Fi network. The biggest disadvantages of AirPlay systems are that you can use them with only Apple-branded sources, and that they tend to be quite a bit more expensive than comparable Bluetooth systems.
Build your own speakers?
As an alternative to buying a speaker system, you can build your own system for your computer, smartphone, or tablet—even for Bluetooth or AirPlay listening. A few years ago, I wrote about building an iPod/iPhone speaker system from a small amp, a dedicated iPod dock, and a set of quality bookshelf speakers. Many of the components in that article are no longer available, but the how-to information is still relevant. More recently, I wrote about building your own AirPlay-enabled audio system, and we’ve also covered several desktop amplifiers. Going this route allows you to spend as much (or as little) as you like on whatever design and level of quality you prefer.
If you’re interested in this approach, we’ve got some upcoming articles you’ll want to watch for, including an article on adding Bluetooth to an existing speaker or stereo system; a roundup of desktop amps with a built-in digital-to-analog converter for getting quality audio from your computer; and an updated version of that AirPlay do-it-yourself article.
On-speaker controls for computer speakers
The most-basic computer-speaker systems have no controls of their own; you connect them to your computer and then adjust output volume using your computer. Look instead for systems that provide their own volume controls. Even better, many systems let you adjust bass and treble levels to fine-tune audio output for your particular listening environment. If the speakers you're considering include such options, be sure the controls are easily reachable—again, on the left or right speaker, or on a control pod or remote control, rather than on the back of a subwoofer that sits under your desk.
To some extent, the more you pay for a set of speakers, the better the sound quality or the more features—or both—you get. Fortunately, speakers are among the most heavily discounted computer accessories, so be sure to shop around. Your budget may get you more than you think.
The best speakers: Our recommendations
The following product reviews were written by Nick Spence, Cliff Joseph and Ashleigh Allsopp
Though it’s 1.3 pounds heavier, the Zipp feels about as portable as the big-but-totable Big Jambox. And as great as the Big Jambox sounds, the Zipp sounds even better. With its clever AirPlay and PlayDirect implementations, its simple setup process, and its attractive design, the Zipp is an easy speaker to recommend. If you want a portable AirPlay speaker, it’s an excellent option—as long as the price isn't too steep for your needs.
Read our Libratone Zipp review
Edifier Exclaim e10 speaker system
The Exclaim e10 speakers are at the affordable end of Edifier's audio accessories range and as such won't radically change the way you listen to music on your computer, iPhone or even TV. That said, we feel the speakers are good value for money and offer a respectable sound that is hard to beat at the price.
Apple doesn’t currently support Apt-X in its iOS devices, so you could certainly save some money by opting for one of the less expensive models in the Braven range. However, the sturdy design, robust sound and long battery life of the Braven 650 make it one of the best pocket-sized portable speaker systems currently available
Read our Braven 650 review
Gear4 AirZone Series 1
You’re not going to get an audiophile speaker system for £199.99, but the AirZone provides good sound quality for everyday music listening, along with a radio tuner and the convenience of AirPlay wireless streaming. It’s good to see Gear4 raising its sights, and bodes well for the other AirZone models that it is planning.
Read our Gear4 AirZone Series 1 review
iLuv Sound Cubes Amplified Stereo Speakers
For £29.99, iLuv's Sound Cubes are ideal for anyone looking for a cheap way to get better sound from a laptop or desktop computer.
Edifier Spinnaker e30 speaker system
The Spinnaker e30 speaker system from Edifier is certainly worth considering if you can get your head beyond the unusual design. The speakers performed perfectly well in our tests, adequately coping, with one or two exceptions, with a range of music and compatible devices, even handling the less than audiophile limitations set by Bluetooth well.
Orbitsound T9 review
Some people will prefer a more compact all-in-one speaker dock, but the T9 will work a treat if you’re looking for an affordable speaker system that can enhance the soundtrack of a film or even get a party going.
Read our Orbitsound T9 review