Sensational Sounds :: An EDGE guide to superb speakers

David Andrusia READ TIME: 7 MIN.

Once upon a time - oh, about ten years ago - we used the speakers that came with our computers and marveled at the technology (which seem so charmingly quaint today). But given the present technology, the range of elective computer speakers - and the sound they produce - amazes. How to choose the right pair for your computer?

The best news is that compatibility issues, once a thorn in every computer owner's side, are well-nigh a thing of the past. (A few years ago I bought a used pair of top-shelf speakers from a friend, then spent the better part of a day downloading programs and drives, trying in vain to make them work). Happily, if you buy new speakers today, it's only a question of where the port in your computer or laptop lies.

But what kind to get? Many of the super-bargain sets are not much better than the ones that came with your computer - and, in the case of the lowest priced models, could be worse. Spend less than $40 on a pair of speakers, and you're likely to be severely underwhelmed.

Starting just above that price range, however, you can get a pair of speakers with subwoofers that will have you taking your stock speakers to a thrift store pronto. The Cyber Acoustics tested below, for example, offered sound that belied its low price tag and offered a quite pleasing experience for those who want better-than-standard speaker output without breaking the bank. At the upper end of the price spectrum - as in the case of the Altec Lansing and Klipsch products that made our favorites cut - are speakers that can easily form the nucleus of your sound system, unless you live in a large enough residence that booming floor speakers are acceptable. (Both of these high-end speakers fill average-sized rooms; their subwoofers provide more than enough bass to bother our apartment-house neighbors, and we live with creative types.)

We tested ten pair of speakers, and these three were our price-point favorites (along with one conversation piece for gadget heads):

Altec Lansing Expressionist Ultra

I admit it: I was taken in by the cool chick (a kind of edgier, smarter looking Kelly Osborne type) and the mixed-race couple on the box. (Once upon a time you'd never see that in marketing materials; here's hoping we start seeing g/l pairs soon. Hint hint!) The space-age design of the speakers and conic subwoofer didn't hurt, either. But it was the sound that really amazed; sometimes, size really doesn't matter.

The precision-engineered 2" speakers and the 5.25" space-saving desktop subwoofer of the Expressionist Plus from Altec Lansing provides deep bass without sacrificing the mid-range or highs. (The subwoofer can be placed under your desk or on your desktop.) We found set-up to be a snap and immediately edged Sun Kil Moon's "Ghosts of the Great Highway" (Mark Kozelek is our god) and stopped work to listen. Then we tried Blondie's "Maria" for some punk-pop push and started dancing. Now back to work...

$199 at Fry's Electronics and at

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Cyber Acoustics CA-3080

A value-priced 3-piece flat-panel subwoofer system, the sound of Cyber Acoustics' CA_3080belies its price tag- and then some. The two 2.5-inch magnetically shielded satellite speakers are mighty mites: space saving speakers that deliver big-time sound. What's best, they can be placed alongside monitors or other video devices without causing distortion. The 4-inch, 14-watt high-excursion subwoofer provides excellent bass performance, too.

We're not gamers, but we have no fear that this system delivers boffo sounds for enthusiasts. For us, it's all about music, so we tested Suzanne Vega's 99.9 F album, a '92 release full of industrial touches that proved the best counterpoint ever to the more cloying aspects of her postpunk folk sound. All of the weird clunks and highs were there, as were the pure, midrange melodies that are Vega's stock-in-trade. At the price, we found nothing that delivered the range and loudness of sound of this system.

With a low price, with performance to spare, this one rocks.

$40 at Office Depot and Staples stores nationwide, and at

Klipsch Pro-Media 2.1 Wireless

We thought Dad's early-70's Klipsch stereo speakers were the bee's knees, so we were looking forward to hearing the sound the company's computer speakers produced. Their top-of-the-line wireless 2.1 pair is certainly powerful, at 35 watts/speaker, 50 for the subwoofer, and maximum output of 200 watts (for, say, thunder/explosions in movies); forgive the clich�, but room filling these are.

The setup was easy once we looked at the video on Youtube- though we had to watch it a couple of times, as it was more promotional than instructional. The wireless function was certainly a boon for us: our home office is in an alcove in our apartment, and we like the speakers in the main room of our pied-�-terre (recession speak for "studio."). Our only qualm is that the midrange, especially vocals, have a tendency to recede as they competed with the pumped-up bass and drums.

We tested the Police's "Synchonicity"; when played on our stereo system, Sting's tenor can almost seem screechily in your face, but here he sounds somewhere down the hall. Likewise, the ethereal sopranos of Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson of Lush on "Gala" are muffled just a bit more than Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, who produced, intended. On the plus side, Madonna's "Ray of Light" and Bob Mould's clubby "Modulate" fared well, with both albums' techno bells and whistles well represented. (It's also worth noting that wall-of-sound albums, like Pete Yorn's "musicforthemorningafter," sounded super-exciting pumped up high.) Perhaps this is all intentional, since so much of today's pop music is rhythmically based, but we do hope the next generation of Klipsch's top-of-the-liners puts mid-range front and center where it belongs.

$199 at

IceTech IceKube

We were intrigued by the small (but not tiny) IceKube from IceTech: portable, yes, but how great could its sound be? Not very, is the answer. Don't expect a Bose Acoustic Wave-type clarity or the power of Bose speaker cubes; indeed, the sound was bright but small, with minimal bass. A conversation piece, perhaps, but we just weren't convinced that this first-generation item of techno-exotica - its point of difference is a vibrational sound technology - is worth anything near its price.

$99 at

by David Andrusia

David Andrusia writes on food, travel, style, and beauty. Author of the bestseller BRAND YOURSELF, he is a career consultant in Los Angeles. Visit him online at

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