The Future is Stereo
Why you really need a bookshelf.
Inthe age before the internet, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, there were two reasons to want sound from a computer – for games and computer music. Even so, it was years before sound factored into the design of the PC. Early computers that included dedicated sound hardware, like the Commodore 64, were content to limit audio output to beeps that would indicate system changes and memory access. Beeps that were then incorporated into games. It wasn’t until companies like AdLib, Creative Labs, and Roland released MIDI and audio capable devices for both gaming and early computer music that computer sound became an actual thing.
In this time before tiny, plastic speakers adorned the sides of PCs around the world, early sound hardware connected to a pair of existing bookshelf speakers: the classic woofer and tweeter design pioneered in the 1960s and still recognised today as one of the most versatile options for listening to music. But as the dawn of the multimedia age approached, and the rise of the CD-ROM, DVD, and MP3, Creative Labs and its Sound Blaster line of dedicated sound cards became the go-to option for PC gamers. The single jack meant connecting to small desk-ready plastic speakers, and to add an extra layer of depth to the sound an air-flow subwoofer too. Fine for the time, but nowhere near audiophile grade.
DOWN WITH SURROUND SOUND
So then why didn’t PCs adopt the bookshelf approach? Well, that would come down to two major hurdles – power and connectivity. Traditional bookshelf speakers connected to stereos via two-wire speaker cable. With the stereos then providing amplification and power at a level that consumed as many watts as an entire PC. Also, early computer sound hardware had to be located near a stereo - an unnecessary level of complexity, and one that didn’t make sense.
And so early PC speakers and sound cards adopted a simple approach. One akin to connecting a pair of headphones to a Walkman. Small speakers that didn’t need any extra power or multiple cables. And when they did need dedicated power, a smaller amount than the box they were connecting to. As PCs evolved in terms of power and capability, so did the concept of the PC speaker and sound card combo.
First came 2.1, and then as sound cards evolved to replicate surround and multi-channel audio – 5.1. The only problem with this evolution, was the need for portability and affordability. The same small plastic enclosures, the same rubber cones, maybe a bit bigger, and definitely a few more of them. Frequency response and clarity took a back seat to volume, perceived loudness, and low-end intensity. Even the more expensive offerings, which were still cheaper than a pair of decent bookshelf speakers, failed to showcase depth outside of gaming.
MEANWHILE IN THE WORLD OF MUSIC
As the introduction of the CD saw a boom in the evolution of PC sound and speakers, in the world of music progress essentially stopped. With its 16-bit 44kHz sound, the CD couldn’t take full advantage of the traditional music speaker. But one area where innovation kept moving forward and becoming more accessible to everyday users was the prevalence and rise of the home studio.
Thanks to electronic music, hip hop, and DJs, companies around the world began creating studio monitor speakers aimed at enthusiasts. Various sizes, price ranges, and options, all modelled after the same bookshelf design that became prevalent in homes and professional recording studios. Designs that were built to provide a balanced sound with a wide frequency response and directional stereo depth. Bass handled by actual woofers created with strong and durable material. The result: clarity leagues ahead of the air-flow cone with satellites approach. And when the PC became powerful enough to double as a music studio or DJ tool, the market for these speakers exploded.
WHICH IS WHY YOUR PC NEEDS A PAIR OF STUDIO MONITORS OR BOOKSHELF SPEAKERS
No doubt there has been innovation and progress in the world of speaker design. Companies like Bose, investing in shrinking sizes but not sound, companies like Creative and Razer creating multi-channel and multi-speaker sound-bars specifically for gaming. But even so, these options and variations still fall short of classic speaker design. So then, it goes without saying that gaming in stereo with a pair of studio monitors or bookshelf speakers can be a revelatory experience. And the best part is, unlike other PC components they’ll still be valuable several years down the road.
Yamaha HS Series (pictured above, from $450)
Yamaha, creators of industry leading reference and monitor speakers from way back in the 1970s, offer the HS line perfect for any budget. With the entry level HS5 referring to the lowest woofer size – 5 inches. A size that still provides surprisingly punchy bass in addition to the clear and detailed stereo sound one expects from monitors. And like with any great pair of speakers, no additional EQ or parameter changes are required. Perfect for gaming, streaming, and listening to music.
Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers (around $579)
Audioengine has taken a different approach to other speaker manufacturers. In keeping with the traditional bookshelf design, the approach is to combine that with modern hardware and applications outside of music production. Hence you get a great balanced and rich stereo sound perfect for music, additional input options like optical, and only a single power source requirement. Also, the Audioengine A5+ offer a wonderfully rich sound, with exceptional low-end and midrange clarity and high-end detail.
KRK Rockit 8 G3 (around $799)
Big sound, exceptional build quality, frequency separation and stereo depth, the KRK Rockit 8s have been the focal point for many a home studio for well over a decade. Like the HS line from Yamaha you get biamplification for both the woofer and tweeter and the larger size of the Rockit 8 means they’re great for large rooms. So much so that they can even easily double as loud speakers for a house party or get together. On the other hand, fire up DOOM and you’ll not only be impressed with the intensity of the experience, but your neighbours will too.
You’ll Need a ProPer SouNd Card
When it comes to gaming in stereo with a pair of studio monitors or bookshelf speakers, speakers only represent half of the story. Thanks to studio monitors requiring balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA inputs. Plus being able to, you know, handle high audio bit-rates with relative ease. And so, to take full advantage of these features, and connect them to a PC you’ll need an external USB powered sound card or audio interface (with a 24-bit DAC).
Focusrite Scarlett Solo (less than $150)
Although limited to RCA outputs the Scarlet Solo from Focusrite has been designed as an affordable solution for computer music enthusiasts. Coupled with the compromise-free 24-bit 192kHz capabilities of the card, you get a simple, stylish, and rugged design. It’s no wonder that it’s one of the best sellers when it comes to external sound cards.
Yamaha AG03 (around $200)
Outside of the excellent audio quality one of the best things about the AG03 from Yamaha is the fact that its design is modelled after old school mixing desks. Which means you get separate volume knobs for overall audio, speakers, and headphones. Plus, the ability to connect speaker via both RCA connections and XLR, in addition to multiple headphones inputs. A versatile and excellent choice for any pair of studio monitors, and great for injecting a retro feel to any modern PC build.
Audioengine D1 (around $250)
Like the A5+ speakers from Audioengine, the D1 offers a sleek modern approach to design, great audio capabilities with its 24-bit DAC and the ability to double as both an audio interface for the A5+ speakers and a portable headphone amplifier. As the smallest of the options listed here, due to it missing any music production features, the D1 instead does one thing. And does it extremely well.
fire up DOOM and you’ll not only be impressed with the intensity of the experience, your neighbours will too
FINALLY, ADD IN STUDIO MONITOR HEADPHONES FOR AUDIOPHILE IMMERSION
It’s no secret that most gaming headsets tend to focus on the low and high-end frequencies. And so, as logic would dictate, studio monitorgrade balanced headphones offer a more accurate response with added clarity. And ultimately, a more enjoyable gaming experience.
Audio Technica M50X (right, around $199)
Perhaps the most popular studio monitor headphones available today, and with good reason. The lightweight and impressive M50X from Audio Technica offer the sort of clarity and soundstage where you can easily tell the difference between compressed and lossless audio. The clean balanced sound also lends itself exceptionally well to games. Because how the sound engineers and designers mastered the audio - that’s how it will end up sounding. Uncompromised and untainted.
Blue Lola (below, around $450)
Although better known for the creation of excellent microphones, the Lola from Blue offers premium sound to match its sturdy and robust design. With exceptional frequency response and clear channel separation and stereo depth, the difference compared to most gaming headsets is of course night and day. Proof that if they’re good enough to handle everything from classical music to jazz they can also handle everything from The Witness to GTA V.
AdLib and Creative Labs Sound Blaster cards powered a range of dinky plastic speakers