The Playlist: Speakers for Music Lovers
Nothing in the tech world ever comes with the right speakers. Most PCs either ship with lame, $30 stereo speakers, or an expensive surround-sound system that would sound great if only you had the desk space to set it up properly. If you care enough about music to keep 10GB of MP3s on your PC or tote around a portable MP3 player, you owe it to yourself to upgrade your speakers or headphones. This month, I'll show you some of my favorite options--from $60 desktop speakers to $200 headphones.
For a few years now, PC speaker manufacturers have been pushing surround-sound sets--focusing their efforts on building the best five-, six-, and seven-speaker combinations to fill a room with sound. We've reviewed a bunch of those systems, and many of them sound great. But if you can't properly set up a full surround set in your home office, why spend the money for speakers you won't be using? And besides, you don't need surround sound to listen to most music anyway.
My favorite stereo speaker set, the Klipsch ProMedia Ultra 2.1 system, runs about $200 and pumps out impressively detailed highs and strong, crisp bass. Unfortunately, it's also on back order at the moment. Klipsch's more gaming-styled ProMedia GMX A 2.1 system doesn't sound quite as good, but it's widely available for about $150 and features cool, hyper-articulated speaker stands and a great subwoofer.
The cost of good stereo speaker sets hovers around that $150 price point. Creative's MegaWorks 250D system is my favorite at that price. It has both analog and digital inputs for easy connection to a PC, and it's THX certified. To my ears, the MegaWorks speakers sound slightly more detailed than either of the Klipsch sets, but the trade-off is that the Klipsch speakers have a bit more punch on the low end.
I've also had a chance to check out Logitech's $150 Z-2300 and Altec Lansing's MX5021, which are available online for about $50 less than their $200 list price. The Altec Lansing speakers, in particular, produce some impressive sound.
If you don't want to spend quite that much money, take a look at Altec Lansing's VS3121, which you can find online for about $60.
Before you buy anything, try to find a retail location where you can give the speakers a quick listen. Bring a couple CDs that you're familiar with, or burn a mix of your favorite tracks, and ask if you can play your own music as a test. Ideally, you want to listen to speakers both above and below your target price range. If you can't hear the difference between $60 speakers and $150 ones, why spend the extra money?
Another great option is to invest in a solid pair of headphones. They're office-friendly and portable, and a good pair can improve your listening experience whether you're tethered to your PC or out and about with your MP3 player. To get into all the different types of headphones would take a whole other column, so I'll just mention a few of my favorites for now.
Grado's $80 SR-60 Consumer Headphones and $100 SR-80 Professional Headphones are renowned in the audio community for their ability to outperform much more expensive models. Most people don't find them very comfortable, though, so a fitting test is strongly recommended.
A company called Shure makes sound-isolating in-ear phones that sound absolutely amazing. The plastic or foam earpieces fit into your ear canal to block out ambient sound and let you concentrate on the music. I highly recommend the $179 E3C earphones; but if you don't want to spend quite that much, consider the $90 E2C earphones.
Of course, if you don't mind forking over a bunch of cash, you could check out Sony's $200 MDR-900 headphones. I've owned a pair for about a year now. While they're too big to be right for everybody, I've been impressed with their noise blocking, comfort, and general sound quality.
Photo IPods: By now you've probably read all about Apple's new Photo and U2-themed IPods. I haven't had a chance to try one of the Photo IPods out yet, but I'm anxious to see how the photo browsing interface works when hooked up to a TV. Once photo capability becomes standard on these devices, we'll all have another reason to gather around the TV instead of the coffee table.
In Heavy Rotation
Behold the Power of Pitchfork: This one's gonna be tough to find in stores for a while, thanks to a 9.7 out of 10 review from normally reserved Pitchfork. Still, I should add my voice to the chorus proclaiming that Funeral by The Arcade Fire is just about the most interesting new album of the year. Imagine Jeff Buckley songs filtered through another ten years of progressive rock.