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Sound decisions

The best audio card bears little value without quality speakers to reproduce the sounds it emits. And although some inexpensive sets are out there, it’s still going to be a spendy endeavor.

In our last column, we turned our ears to audio cards. This time, we sound off on speakers which require equal attention; the best audio card bears little value without quality speakers to reproduce the sounds it emits. Remember that “you get what you pay for” definitely holds true here. Though some exceptional values exist, expect to pay $150-$500 for a high-quality set.

Most audio adapters offer 5.1 Surround Sound support, allowing you to employ 2, 2.1, 4.1, and 5.1 speaker systems (“.1” refers to the subwoofer). From low-end to high, 2-speaker systems include just two front speakers, referred to as “satellites.” Moving up a step, 2.1 systems add a subwoofer. Next in line, 4.1 offerings, replaced for the most part by 5.1 models, feature a pair of front and rear speakers and a subwoofer. The 5.1 alternative includes the same contingent as a 4.1 configuration, but adds a front center channel. By far, the most popular choices today are 2.1 and 5.1 systems, with THX-certified models offering improved audio quality.

Those, however, aren’t the only options. Some newer audio cards support 6.1 and 7.1 speaker systems. While a 6.1 configuration includes the same speakers as a 5.1 system–adding an extra rear center channel–7.1 speakers provide another pair of surround speakers for a setup that consists of three pair of satellites, front, side, and rear. Currently, the selection in 6.1 and 7.1 speakers is limited. Creative Labs offers two 6.1 and 7.1 options, a low-end and high-end alternative for each, and Logitech has one 6.1 configuration, a budget offering.

Speakers connect to audio cards in one of two ways–analog or digital. With analog, two or three speaker cables are employed; one cable carries the audio signal for the front satellites, one for the rear satellites, and one for the front center channel and subwoofer. Digital hookups utilize a single optical or coaxial cable. For full DTS and Dolby Digital Surround Sound support, a digital decoder is also required.

There’s another consideration. If your PC speakers will serve double duty with a game console, you’re advised to choose a set that offers multiple analog and digital outputs, incorporating a digital decoder. Currently, this includes offerings from Klipsch and Logitech, the ProMedia GMX D-5.1 and the Z-680, respectively. Moreover, Klipsch’s ProMedia DD-5.1 Digital Decoder (shown above) can be mated to any 2.1, 4.1 or 5.1 ProMedia system for full DTS, Dolby Digital, and Dolby Pro Logic support.

Finally, if you’re looking for 5.1 Surround Sound but don’t want to irritate your own ears or those around you, Sunnytech’s USB-based Mentor Brand 3D 5.1 Surround Sound Headphones ($139) feature a patented six-chamber speaker system designed to reduce high bass levels while creating an accurate 5.1 experience. They can’t match a top-notch sound card and speaker system, but they do work better than traditional headphones at producing positional magic.

A 5.1 or better Surround Sound speaker system is de rigueur for PC audio reproduction, especially for those heavily into movies, music, and games. Unless your PC is in a home theater environment, I highly recommend sticking with a 2.1 or 5.1 arrangement based on space constraints. If you do elect a 6.1 or 7.1 alternative, avoid low-end models. In most cases, quality 2.1 speakers sound better than budget 6.1 and 7.1 models.

In addition, when making your selection, the highest-quality offerings currently come from Creative, Klipsch, and Logitech. With Creative, its MegaWorks line is preferred. Logitech’s top offerings today are the Z-2200, Z-5300, and Z-680. The best Klipsch has to offer are the ProMedia GMX D-5.1 and ProMedia Ultra 5.1.

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