Best budget Mac speakers
Michael Ansaldo’s audio upgrades won’t break the bank
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.