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Get information on speakers and learn about the options available.

The right speakers can enhance your aural experience. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
The right speakers can enhance your aural experience.

Whether listening to music, watching movies, playing video games or mixing tracks in professional recording studios, many people rely on speakers to produce crisp, clear sound. Like televisions, cameras and other entertainment technologies, speakers come in a variety of styles, ranging from booming home theater systems to portable iPod speakers.

Basic Features

One of a speaker's important features is its signal-to-noise ratio, or SNR. This ratio is represented as a number of decibels (dB) and is a good indicator of a speaker's sound quality. In general, the higher the SNR, the less audible a speaker's background will be. For example, a regular household telephone has a SNR of about 40, while recording equipment in a professional studio may have SNRs as high as 120. Personal audio players like iPods and Creative Zen often top out in the mid-80s, which is clear enough for most casual listening applications.

Another important feature of a speaker is its frequency response. This number is represented as a range of frequencies and is given in hertz (Hz). Speakers with large frequency responses can produce a wider range of sounds than speakers with small frequency response, meaning they can play music and recreate dialog with more detail and better clarity. People interested in buying hi-fidelity stereo speakers should look for models with relatively flat frequency response curves or graphs, as these will produce the most accurate sound.

Finally, most home audio users should look for speakers with a maximum output level that is loud enough for their environment and intended use. For example, high-end multimedia surround sound systems can often play music at over 100 dB, which is about as loud as an average-level rock concert. People intending to place their speakers in large home theaters or living rooms may want this volume; for smaller rooms, weaker systems will suffice.

Surround Sound

Many speakers designed for use with computers, video game consoles and home theater systems feature surround sound, or the capability to divide sound into four or more channels that are each routed to a separate speaker. Older stereos and CD players often only had analog surround sound, but most new speaker systems have both analog and digital surround sound.

Digital surround sound tends to be clearer than analog surround sound because the audio is encoded on optical media like CDs and DVDs. When buying speaker systems for a television or home theater, consumers should make sure they support either Dolby Digital or DTS, which are two of the most popular digital surround sound formats. Also, according to Audioholics.com, the overall effect of surround sound systems depend largely on the placement of the speakers, which should account for the position of the listener and the acoustics of the room to produce the best sound.

Computer Speakers

Whether a PC or Mac, a new computer usually comes with its own set of speakers. Sometimes these speakers are housed inside the computer or monitor itself, as is the case with iMacs and laptops, and other times they are freestanding. Computer companies like Dell and HP also make computer speakers for separate purchase. However, they don't normally produce high-quality sound.

Users interested in getting better sound from their computers can choose from a wide variety of add-on speaker systems. Companies like Creative Labs, Logitech, Altec Lansing and Harmon-Kardon make three-, six- and even eight-speaker systems that can deliver high-quality audio from movies, digital music and games. These systems typically have a number of regular speakers, sometimes referred to as tweeters or satellites, as well as a large, box-shaped speaker called a subwoofer that produces deep, rumbling sound. All have inputs for analog sound (RCA or one-eighth of an inch cable jacks), while some even have inputs for digital sound (coaxial or optical jacks), meaning they can decode digital game and movie soundtracks without the help of an external receiver. Not all speakers with digital inputs can decode every digital surround sound format, though many can only accommodate Dolby Digital and Dolby ProLogic.

Home Theater Speakers

Home theater speakers are similar to high-end computer speakers in that they support surround sound formats and deliver sound that is vibrant and rich. As a group, though, they are much more diverse than computer speakers and run the gamut in terms of cost and performance. According to Home Theater Magazine, home theater speakers come in three main designs: floorstanding, compact and in- or on-wall. Floorstanding speakers are the largest and tend to be expensive (many cost more than $1,000 a pair), but they also offer excellent frequency response and accuracy of sound. Compact speakers, also known as bookshelf speakers, are the most popular and reasonably priced. In- and on-wall speakers take up less floor space than either floorstanding or compact speakers, and can be used to accentuate a room's style and design. For the best depth of sound, buyers should look for home theater systems with dedicated subwoofers and the capability to decode digital surround sound (in most cases, this requires an external receiver).

iPod Speakers

Although many computer speakers have inputs accepting one-eighth of an inch headphone cables, meaning they can technically play sound from iPods and other MP3 players, there are better, more stylish options to be had. In general, iPod speaker systems have at least a docking station and a pair of speakers, usually both combined into one unit or box. Some also have clocks, radios and other additional features that expand their functionality. Some are battery powered, but most are powered by 120v electricity and can be plugged into a wall socket. Beyond these basic features, the main differences between different models are their design and sound quality. For more information, read CNET's summary of what it considers to be the best iPod speakers on the market.

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