Best bud­get Mac speak­ers

Michael An­saldo’s au­dio up­grades won’t break the bank

Macworld - - Contents -

Your lap­top’s built-in speak­ers aren’t do­ing any favours for the gi­ga­bytes and gi­ga­bytes of mu­sic and movies on your hard drive. Even the best ones can leave your au­dio sound­ing thin and life­less. Ex­ter­nal speak­ers – along with a good set of head­phones – are a must for get­ting the best fidelity from your me­dia files.

A trip on­line or to your favourite elec­tron­ics store will re­veal a head-spin­ning va­ri­ety of op­tions in this

cat­e­gory, with some sys­tems cost­ing as much or more than you paid for your lap­top. You don’t need to take out a per­sonal loan to up­grade your au­dio, though. Qual­ity speak­ers can be found even with a bud­get of around £50. And while there is a cer­tain de­gree of ‘you get what you pay for’ at this price level, you’ll be re­warded with sat­is­fy­ing sound if you’re will­ing to make a few com­pro­mises.

We’ve given you a head start by test­ing some of the most com­monly avail­able bud­get mod­els. All cost around £50, some­times sig­nif­i­cantly less. We set up each in a typ­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment – on a desk in a home of­fice – and play a va­ri­ety of au­dio tracks to push their sound ca­pa­bil­i­ties. We also pro­vide some buy­ing ad­vice be­low to help you choose the right model for your needs.

What to look for

2.0 speak­ers vs. 2.1 speak­ers

Sure, a 5.1 (five speak­ers, one sub­woofer) mul­ti­chan­nel speaker sys­tem sounds sexy. But even if you were to un­earth one for £50 or £60, the qual­ity would be just as cheap. That money can buy a much bet­ter qual­ity two-speaker sys­tem. These ba­sic 2.0 stereo set­ups, which are com­prised of just a left and right speaker with a sin­gle driver (the loud­speaker) in each, abound in this price range. Oc­ca­sion­ally you can also find a de­cent 2.1 sys­tem – a pair of speak­ers to han­dle the higher fre­quen­cies and sep­a­rate sub­woofer for the bass. These take up more space but of­ten pro­duce more bal­anced sound. More on that next.

Au­dio qual­ity

Try not to be se­duced by man­u­fac­turer’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions on sound qual­ity. Even if you can parse fre­quency re­sponse num­bers, they are fre­quently ex­ag­ger­ated. Let your ears be your guide in­stead. Lis­ten for a good bal­ance be­tween the high (treble), mid, and low (bass) fre­quen­cies. Of­ten, speak­ers will ex­ag­ger­ate one – usu­ally the treble or the bass – at the ex­pense of the oth­ers. Good speak­ers will pro­duce full, de­tailed au­dio that sounds as the cre­ator in­tended it.

Be aware, though, that find­ing strong bass re­sponse in this price range can be chal­leng­ing. With­out a sub­woofer, 2.0 sys­tems have trou­ble

re­pro­duc­ing low fre­quen­cies. The man­u­fac­tur­ers of­ten use tech­no­log­i­cal tweaks to beef up the bass notes, but these can sound boomy, and muddy the over­all mix. If a deep, con­trolled bot­tom end is a pri­or­ity, a 2.1 sys­tem might be a bet­ter in­vest­ment.

AC power ver­sus USB

Both these op­tions are preva­lent in the sub-£60 price range. Usb-pow­ered speak­ers re­duce cord clut­ter, as they don’t need a sep­a­rate power ca­ble. How­ever, they can’t sup­ply as much juice as the AC va­ri­ety, so they tend to pro­duce lower vol­ume and less bass.

Cre­ative In­spire T12

Price: £51 from fave.co/2qo0mlk

Cre­ative Labs has been syn­ony­mous with great­sound­ing Mac speak­ers for years, so I ex­pect ex­cel­lent au­dio even from the com­pany’s low­erend prod­ucts. The In­spire T12 speaker sys­tem did not dis­ap­point, de­liv­er­ing warm stereo sound at a great price com­pared to other bud­get Mac speak­ers we’ve tested.

Pro­duced in matte-black plas­tic with a glossy black front panel, the speak­ers are aes­thet­i­cally kiss­ing cousins to Cre­ative’s higher-end T20 se­ries. Each 180x71x98mm speaker has a tweeter on the front and a woofer that takes up the en­tire back­side. In lieu of a sub­woofer, the T12 uses Cre­ative’s Bass­flex tech­nol­ogy to ex­tend the low fre­quency. Set­ting the T12 up is easy. The left speaker has

an at­tached ca­ble that plugs into the right speaker to tie them to­gether. Also on the back of the right speaker is the power port, and an au­dio in­put jack you con­nect to your Mac’s head­phone port us­ing a sup­plied 3.5mm cord. On the front is a vol­ume knob that dou­bles as the power switch, a head­phone jack for pri­vate lis­ten­ing, and an aux­il­iary-in jack for lin­ing in your smart­phone or other MP3 player.

The T12 have im­pres­sive sound for desk­top speak­ers at this price. The high end was crisp with­out ever get­ting tinny, and the Bass­flex tech gives the bot­tom end a pleas­ing punch. The speak­ers also pack a vol­ume wal­lop that be­lies their small size. Cranked all the way, they eas­ily fill a mod­est-sized room with sound, though the au­dio tends to muddy at that level, too. I found the half­way point on the vol­ume knob to be the sweet spot for desk-bound lis­ten­ing, de­liv­er­ing sat­is­fy­ing sound whether I was lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal, rock, jazz, or hip-hop.

The T12s are also a great au­dio en­hancer for mu­sic and movies on your phone or tablet, but

hav­ing to phys­i­cally tether your mo­bile de­vice to speak­ers seems ar­chaic. For its part, Cre­ative of­fers a wire­less ver­sion of the In­spire T12 that’s vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal, save for a Blue­tooth pair­ing but­ton where the aux in­put is on the wired ver­sion.

Ver­dict

If you want to up­grade the au­dio qual­ity of streamed mu­sic and videos on your Mac and are work­ing with a mod­est bud­get, the In­spire T12 fit the bill. They won’t daz­zle you with de­sign like the Gogroove BASSPULSE, and they don’t in­te­grate the wire­less ca­pa­bil­ity like most newer sys­tems do. But if those aren’t deal-break­ers, they will pro­vide bal­anced sound with enough bass that brings out the best from most styles of mu­sic.

Gogroove BASSPULSE

Price: £44 from fave.co/2edmw0b

If the phrase ‘Mac speak­ers’ still con­jures im­ages of a pair of beige boxes, Gogroove’s BASSPULSE may be a bit of cul­ture shock. This 2.1 speaker sys­tem prom­ises to turn any mu­sic lis­ten­ing ses­sion into an in­stant party with a boost to the bot­tom end and coloured lights that pulse to the beat (choose among the blue we tested, or green or red,).

The BASSPULSE sys­tem con­sists of a 279x235x114mm, 10-watt side fir­ing sub­woofer and two 209x88x76mm satel­lite speak­ers, each with 5 watts of power. The sub is stur­dily built and weighs just over 3kg, while the satel­lites are slim sheets

of sculpted acrylic, each with a Neodymium Full­range driver embed­ded at the top and an­gled to tar­get your ear­holes when you’re sit­ting at a desk. All three pieces have built-in LEDS that glow blue, red, or green depend­ing on which model you buy.

The two speak­ers share a sin­gle cord that plugs into the out­put jack in the back of the sub­woofer. An in­cluded 3.5mm cord plugs into the ad­ja­cent in­put jack. The other end plug­ging into the aux­il­iary out­put or head­phone jack on your Mac or mo­bile de­vice, or you may con­nect the sys­tem via Blue­tooth if you pre­fer to be un­teth­ered. The power cord is at­tached to the back of the sub­woofer, so you don’t need to worry about mis­plac­ing it.

Once the sub is plugged into an AC out­let, all you have to do is flip on the power switch. Ev­ery­thing is con­trolled from a panel on the front of the sub. A pair of knobs con­trol the vol­ume and bass level, re­spec­tively. Be­neath these is a ‘pulse’ but­ton that ac­ti­vates the LEDS. These glow steadily un­til you crank the bass past 80 per­cent of max­i­mum, then they’ll pulse with the mu­sic.

Given the big sub­woofer – and the name of the sys­tem it­self – it wasn’t sur­pris­ing that the bass stole the show in my

test­ing. How­ever, it tended to bleed into other fre­quen­cies. Dialling down the bass knob added a lit­tle more clar­ity, but the bass had more or less the same boom qual­ity whether I was play­ing rock, jazz, or EDM. The mids and highs were more dis­tinct, and the sound never dis­torted even with all knobs cranked to the limit.

The puls­ing lights, how­ever, were a ma­jor dis­ap­point­ment. Maybe I was ex­pect­ing too much, think­ing they would op­er­ate more like a dance floor strobe, but even with the bass cranked they pro­duced noth­ing more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flicker. Frankly, they work bet­ter as a light by which to nav­i­gate the speaker con­trols in a dark­ened room than an am­bi­ence-en­hancer.

Ver­dict

The BASSPULSE may over-prom­ise on its light show ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but it’s a good speaker sys­tem for the price. Most users will no­tice a def­i­nite im­prove­ment over their Mac’s built-in speak­ers, with enough power to fill a small room whether you’re lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, gam­ing, or watch­ing a movie.

Log­itech Z150 Stereo Speak­ers Price: £22 from fave.co/2gunesg

Log­itech’s Z150 stereo speak­ers cater to those with sim­ple needs. No flam­boy­ant de­signs or crazy amounts of con­nec­tiv­ity op­tions for these users. It’s enough to find a pair that brings a lit­tle ex­tra vol­ume and clar­ity to our com­puter au­dio and fits

on our desk. Even within our bud­get Mac speaker round-up, this pair is no­tably in­ex­pen­sive and unas­sum­ing.

As you’d ex­pect with en­try-level speak­ers, the Z150 set is small, light­weight, and slim on fea­tures. The en­clo­sures mea­sure 151.5x84.5xmm, and each are con­structed with matte-black plas­tic, weigh­ing 550g. The 2in speaker driv­ers are un­cov­ered on the front panel, and the con­trol unit has a power/ vol­ume knob, a head­phone jack, and in­put for other de­vices like your phone or tablet. A cut­away at the bot­tom of each speaker seems to be for aes­thetic pur­poses rather than any sound en­hance­ment.

The speak­ers re­quire min­i­mal setup. They’re hard­wired to­gether, so you just need to plug the de­tach­able power cord into an out­let and the 3.5mm ca­ble at­tached to the back of the con­trol unit into your Mac. With 6 watts of peak power, these speak­ers can get plenty loud. I kept the vol­ume knob at the half­way point (my Mac vol­ume was set to max) dur­ing desk-bound lis­ten­ing.

The sound qual­ity is bet­ter than you’d ex­pect at this price point: the stereo sep­a­ra­tion is ex­cel­lent and the mids and highs are clear and full. How­ever,

with no sub­woofer or other bot­tom-end sup­port, the bass is clear but has no depth and could eas­ily get over­pow­ered by the rest of the track. At higher vol­umes, the highs started to suf­fer a lit­tle, too, with cym­bals get­ting harsh and some sibi­lance creep­ing into the vo­cals.

One quirk of the Z150 is that al­though it in­cludes a jack for head­phones, it of­fers no am­pli­fi­ca­tion for them. If you plug in for some pri­vate lis­ten­ing, you’ll quickly no­tice that the speaker’s vol­ume knob has no ef­fect. In­stead, you have to ad­just the vol­ume in your sys­tem set­tings. This is a com­mon com­plaint about the speak­ers in on­line user re­views.

Ver­dict

The Z150 will bring clear sound and nice vol­ume boost to mu­sic and movies played on your Mac or mo­bile de­vice. If your ex­pec­ta­tions – and your bud­get – are mod­est, and the lack of bass re­sponse isn’t a deal-breaker, they are a de­cent up­grade for the cost. But If you can squeeze an­other £5 or £10 out of your bank ac­count, slightly more ex­pen­sive mod­els in our buy­ing guide that will give you much more bass for the buck.

Run­ner-up: Ed­i­fier R19U Mul­ti­me­dia Speaker Price: £37 from fave.co/2qo2hj0

Typ­i­cally, the lower you go un­der the £50 thresh­old for bud­get Mac speak­ers, the more the re­turns di­min­ish. Ed­i­fier’s RU19 2.0 sys­tem is a rare

ex­cep­tion. These speak­ers sound great, look great, and at just £37 they leave your bank bal­ance largely un­scathed. It’s one of the bet­ter buys here, which is say­ing a lot when they are all so af­ford­able.

The R19U will bring a lit­tle style to your desk­top. Each 105x85x175mm speaker has a matte-sil­ver base with a black faux-wood en­clo­sure that gives it a warm vin­tage vibe. Its 2.75in driver and port­hole is cov­ered with black mesh grill. They are con­trolled by a large black power/vol­ume knob on the left chan­nel, which also has a 3.5mm head­phone port. On the back is a 3.5mm AUX socket, where you can con­nect your mo­bile de­vice or other au­dio player with the sup­plied cord.

To set up the R19U, you first plug the RCA con­nec­tor ex­tend­ing from the left speaker into the jack on the right one. Next, plug the USB ca­ble into your com­puter. As the speak­ers draw the au­dio as well as the power from this USB con­nec­tion, you’ll

then need to ac­cess your op­er­at­ing sys­tem’s au­dio set­tings and change the out­put to the R19U.

The speak­ers de­liver ex­cel­lent, bal­anced sound, with rich mids and crisp highs. Even with­out a sub­woofer, they have a good con­trolled bass re­sponse. It won’t rat­tle your win­dows, but it has a sat­is­fy­ing punch.

As is com­mon with USB speak­ers, the vol­ume out­put is a lit­tle low. Even with the source vol­ume maxed, I had to push the speak­ers’ vol­ume knob past the half­way point to get to a lis­ten­able level when I was sit­ting in front of them. When I wanted to lis­ten to mu­sic while mov­ing about the room, I’d have to turn them up all the way. The good news is that they didn’t dis­tort even at the high­est vol­ume.

Ver­dict

Put the Ed­i­fier RU19 on the short­list of sub-£50 speak­ers worth buy­ing. They brought the best out of any given au­dio, whether it was an al­bum, a film, or a Youtube video. And the sub­tle de­sign nod to the wood floor stand­ing speak­ers of home au­dio’s golden age was en­dear­ing. If you can live with the bass and vol­ume lim­i­ta­tions in­her­ent in Us­bpow­ered speak­ers, you won’t be dis­ap­pointed.

Best over­all bud­get speak­ers: Cre­ative Peb­ble Price: £40 from fave.co/2qntvwr

Cre­ative says its Peb­ble speaker set was in­spired by a Zen Ja­panese rock gar­den. This Usb-pow­ered

2.0 sys­tem has a sim­ple, sparse de­sign with a sub­tle aes­thetic ap­peal. Still, I won­dered how much au­dio en­hance­ment they could bring to a Mac for a measly £40. It turns out, quite a bit, even com­pared to pricier bud­get Mac speak­ers we’ve tested.

Avail­able in black or white (the price for white may dif­fer slightly on Ama­zon, each speaker mea­sures 114x13x116mm – about the size of a grape­fruit. The space-sav­ing size makes it easy to find room for them on even the small­est or most clut­tered desk. The rub­ber ring on the flat­tened bot­tom of each en­clo­sure keeps it from slip­ping on your desk­top.

Peb­ble’s 2in far-field driv­ers – which com­bine for an RMS of 4.4 watts – are an­gled at 45 de­grees. This de­sign is op­ti­mal for di­rect­ing the au­dio at your ears when you’re sit­ting in front of your com­puter. Built-in pas­sive ra­di­a­tors ex­tend the low-fre­quency re­sponse for beefier bass. A power/vol­ume knob on the front panel of the right speaker works in con­junc­tion with your

Mac’s au­dio con­trols to man­age Peb­ble’s vol­ume.

With Blue­tooth speak­ers be­com­ing more the norm, con­tend­ing with ca­bles can feel like a has­sle.

For­tu­nately, Peb­ble keeps the wires few and tidy. The two speak­ers are hard­wired to­gether, so all you need to do is plug the USB cord into one of your Mac’s ports, and the 3.5mm in­put into your head­phone jack. Each of these ca­bles is at­tached to the back of the right speaker, so you don’t need to worry about los­ing them.

Peb­ble de­liv­ers sur­pris­ingly rich, im­mer­sive au­dio. Usb-pow­ered 2.0 speak­ers tend to suf­fer in sound qual­ity com­pared to their Ac-pow­ered coun­ter­parts, but that wasn’t the case here. Highs were crisp and clear, and the bass had plenty of pres­ence. Over­all, the au­dio had depth and de­tail no mat­ter what type of mu­sic I ran through the speak­ers. The tip­ping point for speak­ers this size is usu­ally at higher vol­umes, where dis­tor­tion be­comes an is­sue. But even when play­ing bot­tom-heavy gen­res like dub or dance mu­sic, Peb­ble re­tained crys­tal clar­ity at high vol­ume.

Ver­dict

De­cent sound in £40 stereo speak­ers is as rare as gold. Peb­ble sets a new bar with its well-aboveav­er­age au­dio. It’s not au­dio­phile qual­ity – noth­ing at this price point is – but it’s fuller and more bal­anced than you find in Mac speak­ers that cost twice as much. Peb­ble of­fers an in­ex­pen­sive au­dio up­grade that’s tough to re­sist.

Cre­ative Peb­ble

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