The Future is Stereo

Why you re­ally need a book­shelf.

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents -

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.


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.


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.


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


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

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