The 10 Best Computer Speakers
How Zeroes and Ones Become Sound
One look at that diagram can make a lot of people go cross-eyed. I don't blame them, it had the same effect on me, for ages, before I decided it'd be a good idea to at least try to understand it.
If you took the challenge above to create your own little amplifier in an attempt to better understand the speakers you're about to buy, you've actually already assembled a circuit that's similar to this one.
Amplification is a pretty cool thing. One of its pioneers, the co-inventor of the transistor William Shockley once said the following:
"If you take a bale of hay and tie it to the tail of a mule and then strike a match and set the bale of hay on fire, and if you then compare the energy expended shortly thereafter by the mule with the energy expended by yourself in the striking of the match, you will understand the concept of amplification."
Even if all you've ever done is put your cell phone in a cup or bowl to increase its resonance, you've experienced this concept at its most basic analog levels. Also, please do not attempt to recreate the mule experiment.
So, by degrees, any speaker system is designed to take a positive and negative signal (zeroes and ones), and convert it first into a small sound, and later along the stages into louder and louder sounds.
The quality and innovation in design of today's speakers and amplifiers allows for greater jumps in volume without distorting, so these systems can stay small and still provide both punch and clarity. This is especially true when the circuitry is coupled with quality hardware and big, strong magnets.
Sound Quality Starts Long Before the Speaker
I once had a substitute teacher who, for legal reasons, will remain nameless. One day toward the end of an otherwise uneventful class he asked us how many of us pirated music. This was at the height of Napster, Kazaa, and LimeWire, three of the more popular services for sharing music at the advent of illicit peer to peer file sharing.
The only hands that didn't go up belonged to the students who didn't know how to do it. It was so new, it was barely even frowned upon yet. When, after his little survey, he asked us if anybody knew what kbps was all about, no one could answer him.
You see, if you're streaming music, or even if you have your music stored on your computer to play it through iTunes or some other player, that music has undergone a significant amount of compression.
Most applications that play your music (not the streaming services) will show you the quality in the file measured in kilobytes per second, or kbps. The higher that number the better, but for a minimum of CD quality sound, you should shoot for at least 320 kbps.
Now, if you buy a set of speakers with a big subwoofer, and you take them home to a set of 128 kbps audio files, you might be upset at how muddy the low end sounds, even on this big, expensive sub.
The reason is that very low end and very high end frequencies are the first to suffer from digital music compression, which works much like the garbage compactor in Star Wars: Episode IV.
The best way to avoid this? Buy your music. Buy it from artists. Rip the CDs or use the provided download codes (artists consistently offer at least 320 kbps.) Then, and only then, will you get the most out of your investment.
The Sound of One PC Booting
Although Altec Lansing claims on their website to have "Created the computer speaker market," in 1990, their claim is difficult to prove.
Speakers have been part of home computing since IBM introduced its model 5150 in 1981, although these were more beeps and bloops than the kinds of sounds we're searching for from modern models.
Nowadays, whenever you boot up an early PC and and hear those little beep-bloops, a Gen Xer gets his wings!
Initially, these beeps were meant to provide user feedback in the event of errors, but they soon found themselves deeply entrenched in the games that helped amplify (pun intended) sales of personal computers around the world.
As the complexity of available games and the capabilities of computer operating systems expanded, so too did the need for a broader audio profile that could accommodate the needs of a growing industry.
This is when companies like Altec Lansing came along to fill the audio gap, and the race to better audio has been running ever since.