Measured: 10 Desktop/Computer Speaker Systems

01
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A Technical Look at Today's Top Computer Speakers

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Brent Butterworth

The Wirecutter recently asked me to conduct an extensive test of powered, 2.0-channel speaker systems designed for desktop/computer audio. In the test, I and a panel of listeners compared several eight models; there were three more I excluded because I thought they had zero chance of being picked as the best, second-best or even fourth-best. And on The Wirecutter, once you're past fourth-best, you're out of the running.

With so many systems in my house, I couldn't resist putting them up on my measurement stand and seeing how they perform in lab tests.

I measured the frequency response of each system, which gives you a good indicator of how well-engineered a system is. Ideally, the frequency response of the blue trace in each chart (which corresponds to a measurement from 0 degrees, directly in front of the speaker), would be flat or close to it. And ideally, the green trace in each chart (which shows the average of responses at 0, ±10, ±20 and ±30 degrees horizontally) would be slightly downturned at the right side of the chart, as the test frequency approaches 20 kilohertz, which is the generally accepted theoretical limit of human hearing.

I did these measurements using quasi-anechoic technique, with the speaker atop a 2-meter-high stand and the MIC-01 measurement microphone at 1 meter, using the gating function on my Clio 10 FW audio analyzer to eliminate the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. I adjusted the microphone height, within reason, to try to get the optimum response from each speaker. Bass response was measured using ground plane technique, with the microphone on the ground 1 meter in front of the speaker, then splicing the result to the quasi-anechoic curves somewhere between 160 and 180 Hz. Quasi-anechoic results were smoothed to 1/12th octave, ground plane results to 1/6th octave. Results were normalized to 0 dB at 1 kHz.

Incidentally, when I calculate the plus/minus dB numbers, I discard everything below 200 Hz because the scaling of the bass response to the quasi-anechoic response relies to some degree on guesswork. I calculate the bass response limit by taking the peak output below 200 Hz and subtracting -6 dB.

02
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Audioengine A2+ Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±3.3 dB from 82 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±2.4 dB from 82 Hz to 20 kHz

Although the A2+ has a substantial hump in the bass response centered around 140 Hz, the response overall is admirably flat. Because I normalize everything to 0 dB at 1 kHz, it looks like the A2+ has an elevated upper midrange and treble response, but really what it has is a midrange dip of roughly -3 dB between 400 Hz and 1.5 kHz.

03
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Bose Companion 20 Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±6.2 dB from 56 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±6.6 dB from 56 Hz to 20 kHz

The measured bass response of the Companion 20 goes really deep -- but this measurement is at low level, so don't expect big bass power from this speaker. The frequency response looks pretty ragged. As usual, Bose doesn't reveal the driver complement in its marketing materials, but this looks like the tell-tale response of a single, full-range driver.

04
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Creative GigaWorks T40 Series II Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±4.7 dB from 90 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±4.9 dB from 90 Hz to 20 kHz

Although the GigaWorks T40 has a fairly flat tonal balance, with approximately even amounts of energy in the mids and treble plus a bass boost to keep it from sounding thin, the response between 1.4 and 5.5 kHz looks pretty rough.

05
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Edifier Eclipse Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±5.4 dB from 57 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±4.5 dB from 57 Hz to 20 kHz

Here's a speaker that measures just like it sounded to me. While the Eclipse's bass response goes impressively deep (thanks to its dual passive radiators) and the midrange is smooth, the elevated response above 3 kHz is what gives this speaker the rather "sizzly" sound I noted in the test.

06
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Edifier Spinnaker Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±2.5 dB from 61 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±2.6 dB from 61 Hz to 20 kHz

Now we're talking. The Spinnaker measures just about dead-flat. Most high-end speakers don't measure this well. Of course, the Spinnaker has digital signal processing inside that allows it to achieve such an excellent result.

Incidentally, small speakers like the ones tested here should measure flat because the broad dispersion of the small woofers can blend better with the tweeters. The reason so many of them don't measure flat is either that the engineers they didn't have enough budget to put an appropriate crossover network in the speaker, or perhaps in some cases that they didn't try real hard or didn't have the time to really nail the design. With the Spinnaker it's even easier because it's a three-way design with a 3/4-inch tweeter, a 2-3/4-inch midrange and a 4-inch woofer.

07
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Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201 Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±5.0 dB from 72 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±4.8 dB from 72 Hz to 20 kHz

As I noted in my original review, the GDI-BTSP201's measurements look pretty smooth up to 3 kHz, but pretty ragged above that.

08
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Logitech Z600 Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±5.8 dB from 71 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±5.2 dB from 71 Hz to 20 kHz

The Z600 has a gradually rising treble response up to 5 kHz, which would like give it a bright sound, and it doesn't have the bass response it needs to counterbalance the hot treble.

09
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M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±4.2 dB from 78 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±3.9 dB from 78 Hz to 20 kHz

The AV 40 doesn't measure as smooth as I expected, nor does its bass go as deep as I expected -- although its relatively large woofer should allow it to play louder at low frequencies than some of the smaller speakers here can. Still, the overall balance of bass to midrange to treble is fairly even, with maybe a little bit of excess energy in the upper mids and lower treble, between 1.8 and 6 kHz.

10
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NuForce S3-BT Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±5.4 dB from 68 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±6.4 dB from 68 Hz to 20 kHz

Except for that scary-looking but probably not-all-that-audible sharp peak at 1.1 kHz, the S3-BT has a fairly flat frequency response through most of the audio range. The tonal balanced is down-tilted and treble-shy, though, and the treble really falls off above 9 kHz.

11
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PSB Alpha PS1 Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response
On-axis (blue): ±4.0 dB from 76 Hz to 20 kHz
Average (green): ±2.9 dB from 76 Hz to 20 kHz

The Alpha PS1 has a very smooth response except for that octave-wide peak centered at 1.6 kHz. Yeah, there's a big tweeter resonance at 18 kHz, but unless you're young and female, you almost certainly can't hear it.