Sonic Boom

Published Date
01 - Mar - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2007
Sonic Boom

Multimedia speakers for PCs are more than just boxes that emit sound ; they're trendy-looking, and are available from the basic two-speaker sets to hi-fi quality 5.1 and even 7.1 sets.
This time, we roped in an expert to review our result to make sure you spent your money on the right set.

When it comes to buying a PC, speakers were traditionally bundled with mice and keyboards as the components we paid the least attention to. But that's change a little, and is changing even more. People seem to be getting more interested in quality audio. And if you think about it, that brilliant-looking game is kind of pointless with just stereo speakers, and what's the use of buying movie DVDs if all you have is a 2.1 set?

For this, our annual speaker test, we received 35 sets from eight brands in the 2.1 and 5.1 categories. Though Logitech sent us the entire range of their products-X-230, Z-2300, Z-5300, Z-5450 and Z-5500-only the X-230 worked, and the rest were damaged in transit. Last year's 2.1 Gold Winner, the Altec Lansing MX-5021, shared the same fate. Creative's audiophile sets (the GigaWorks), unfortunately, didn't make it to the test on time.

We brought in an expert from the audio industry for this test, and he took a listen at the best speakers from each category, conducted a few tests, and gave us his verdict. Look for Sunil Karanjikar's comments and results throughout this article for a better understanding of what to expect from your speakers.

Only Music Please: 2.1 SPEAKERS
The most basic speaker sets are the 2.1 category. However, it's a mistake to think of them as speakers that have less to offer. It's more about usage patterns, and if you're more into listening to MP3s and rarely play any games or watch DVD movies on your PC, it's kind of pointless to look for anything more than a good 2.1 set. This is because most of the sound sources you will be listening to have just two channels-left and right. Only DVD movies and newer games have more channels (5.1 or 7.1), whereas all your music collection and any VCDs you might have on your PC are just stereo.

If you decide that you don't need anything more than a 2.1 speaker system, the next thing is to decide on a budget. 2.1 speaker sets range from the lowest-priced sets to some of the most expensive audiophile-grade systems. Most PC users buy the inexpensive, entry-level 2.1 sets, which consist of two satellites and a subwoofer. The subwoofer plays back the lower frequency sounds extracted from the stereo input.

Making it to this category were 16 sets-from Altec Lansing, Artis, Creative, Intex, Logitech, Tech-Com, XFree, and Zebronics.

We attempted to take a look at many aspects of the speakers, and power rating is one of the most important. A speaker set with a higher power rating will produce sound of higher amplitude, since they amplify the sound to a larger degree. All the power ratings we'll mention in this review are in RMS, unless mentioned otherwise. In the case of the 2.1 speaker sets, the Altec Lansing FX4021 boasted of an individual satellite power rating of 11 W, while the subwoofer pumped out 46 W. The Zebronics ZEB-SW8000 was next with satellites rated at 10 W each and the subwoofer rated at 30 W. Xfree's XE222 were the lowest-powered of them all, with a 2.5 W satellite and a 4 W subwoofer.

Driver Size
The size of the driver (speaker diaphragm) is one of the determining factors in the ability of the speaker to produce sound (see box Size Does Matter). Because most of the 2.1 speaker systems were targeted at the budget segment, we did not expect to find anything spectacular in this regard. However, the Altec Lansing ATP3 boasted of a 6.5-inch woofer, while the FX4021 had two 5.25-inch drivers in isobaric configuration (facing each other) to provide double the amount of bass. It was natural for us to expect some rocking bass from these speaker sets. The rest of the speaker sets had woofer sizes ranging from 4 to 5.25 inches.

As far as the satellites were concerned, the Altec Lansing ATP3 had an unusual design, with two 28 mm drivers and a 3-inch down-firing mid-bass. The FX4021 from the same brand had satellites with 40 mm and 18 mm drivers to deal with a higher range of frequencies. The Logitech X-230 also sported dual 2-inch drivers to produce a uniform sound field and to eliminate uneven response.

Other Features
Clamp-type connectors are usually found only in higher-end speaker systems because of the better conductivity and contact, and we were surprised to find them in the Altec Lansing 121i and the Artis S444 and S800. The rest of the speaker sets had the more common RCA contacts, while the Creative SBS-370 was the only one with mono contacts, which are prone to problems.

Bass as well as treble controls along with volume controls were there on most of the sets except for the Artis, Creative, Logitech and Xfree.

As accessories go, Creative bundled large, heavy power adapters. While Creative had some nice-looking detachable stands, the Altec Lansing FX4021 came with good-looking metal stands, which added to their aesthetic appeal. Speaking of aesthetics, the Logitech X-230 was the most dashing-looking 2.1 set, with a jet-black subwoofer and slim satellites with stands that can also be used as brackets for wall-mounting.

The analysis of the Altec Lansing ATP3 shows that they are pretty bass heavy, and lose out a little in terms of highs, This can be seen in the graph between the 4 to 16 KHz mark

A remote control lets you control the speaker volume and other parameters without the necessity of leaving your seat. The Artis S111R, the Creative duo, as well as the Xfree duo came with wired remotes. The Altec Lansing FX4021 provided both a wired and a wireless remote. Only the Artis S111/FM sported FM radio.

Build Quality
The Altec Lansing FX4021 had a better build than the rest, but was very closely followed by its sibling, the ATP3, and the Logitech X-230. The Zebronics ZEB-SW8000 was decently put together and was the heaviest of the sets, but its knobs weren't the sturdiest. Most of the subwoofers were ported to allow for maximum displacement of air while producing bass. How much of this design

Altec Lansing ATP3

translated into actual performance was verified when we tested the performance.  

The Logitech speaker sets were found to be the best performers with music of every genre. Not only were the highs crisp and clear, the lows were rich, and the mid-range pleasant. The Altec Lansing ATP3 and FX4021 fiercely contested for second place. While the ATP3 faltered a bit with rock, with flawed bass reproduction, it did produce better Bhangra beats and Ektara sounds than the FX4021. The performance of the Artis S444 and the S800 was excellent, yet they come at low prices. Lesser-known brands such as Xfree, Tech-Com, and Zebronics exhibited below-average performance, as did the Creatives. The Artis S-100 was the lowest-performing speaker set with low scores in almost every category.

DVD Movies

While none of the speaker sets could flawlessly render the concussion gun boom in Minority Report, the Logitech X-230 and the Altec Lansing ATP3 and FX4021 came closer to doing it than the rest did. The results were very similar in Behind Enemy Lines, but this time, the explosions were better reproduced by the Logitech X-230, while the Altec Lansing duo did not do badly at all. The engine roar and the insane treble in The Fast and the Furious clip was reproduced better by the aforementioned trio. Again, as in the case of music tests, the Artis S444 and S800 did a great job, but were marginally behind the Logitech X-230 and the Altec Lansing ATP3 and FX4021.

DVD Audio
The Altec Lansing ATP3 was stronger in case of DVD Audio, producing all the fine details in the treble, along with strong vocals as well as bass. The Altec Lansing FX4021, Logitech X-230, and Artis S444 and S800 were just a few steps behind.

Game Performance
The Altec Lansing ATP3 kept us engrossed in the gaming test, and by far proved to be the best gaming 2.1 set. The Logitech X-230 was the next-best,

Altec Lansing FX4021

and was beaten because of the former's superior ability to better reproduce the different sounds and voices-even amidst the loud explosions. The FX4021 had overpowering bass, and as a result, lost quite a bit of the detail.

Frequency tests
The 50 Hz hum is a very difficult sound to produce for most speaker sets, and only the Altec Lansing ATP3 and Logitech X-230 produced respectable results. Overall, the Logitech was better in this test than the other sets, but some others-such as the Altec Lansing FX4021 as well as the Zebronics ZEB-SW8000-also performed well. The ATP3, FX4021, and the Z-230 passed the ultimate bass and ultimate treble tests very well indeed, though none could clear the ultimate bass test at a volume above 75 per cent.

My Home, My Theatre:
5.1 Speakers

Almost all DVD movies and games today boast of
surround sound and 5.1-channel audio

For those of us who don't like to be confined by the shackles of stereo sound, 5.1-channel speaker sets are the answer. Almost all DVD movies and games today boast of surround sound and 5.1-channel audio. To meet these aural requirements, all modern motherboards come with a minimum of six-channel audio. Even HD audio is becoming the norm. 5.1-channel systems enrich the listening experience and create a more immersive audio environment.

Unlike their 2.1 counterparts, 5.1 channel speaker sets derive sound from six discrete sound channels. One channel goes to the centre speaker, which is responsible for the main functions such as dialogue delivery. Two go to the rear left and right, and two to the front left and right. These are responsible for creating a 3D map of the audio environment around the listener. The last channel goes to the subwoofer, which is responsible for delivering low frequency sounds such as explosions and deep drum beats.

We received a 19 speaker sets in this category-from Altec Lansing, Artis, Creative, Intex, Logitech, Tech-Com, XFree, and Zebronics.

Power rating is the most-vaunted parameter of a speaker set. For the layman, the power rating of a speaker set determines the loudness with which you can play sound. The power rating of PC speakers is generally specified in RMS wattage, but there were three Tech-Com speakers whose power was specified in PMPO. In case of 5.1 speaker sets, the power is the sum of the individual power ratings of the subwoofer, centre speaker, and the four satellites.

The Artis X10 Mini has the highest-powered subwoofer at 100 W and satellites at 28 W each. The next-highest powered speaker set was the Artis S8800, with an 80 W subwoofer and 20 W per satellite. The speakers from Creative and XFree were the lowest-powered, and therefore had problems handling sounds at a volume higher than 40 per cent.

Driver Size
A speaker with higher power usually has larger drivers. This is especially true in the case of subwoofers. An exception was the Altec Lansing FX5051, which was not high powered, but which had subwoofers with dual 6.5-inch drivers in isobaric configuration, thus effectively delivering double the bass levels without taking up additional floor space. High-powered speaker sets such as the Artis S8800, X10 Mini, and the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R have huge 8-inch drivers, and this raised our expectations of getting some deeply immersive bass from them.

The satellites of most speaker sets consist of a single mid-range driver. But as you may be aware, a single driver can produce a limited range of frequencies. Therefore, speakers with more than one driver of different sizes are better, because they can deliver a larger range of frequencies. Such speakers included the Altec Lansing FX5051, Artis 6600R/FM, S8800 and X10 Mini, Intex IT-4800W, Tech-Com SSD-2001, SSD-5001, SSD-5101R and SSD-6001R, as well as the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R.

Other Features
RCA was the most common connector type. RCA has the advantage of being less prone to noise, and it is resistant to damage. Stereo connectors, on the other hand, are prone to noise and damage. The Altec Lansing speakers were the only ones that accepted audio input via triple stereo pins. Clamp-type connectors, which connect directly to bare wires, are preferred by those who are not tolerant to audio noise. These connectors were found on a few models such as the Artis S5200, S8800 and X10 Mini, Tech-Com SSD-5101R and SSD-6001R, and the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R.

The Altec Lansing FX5051 had a connector we didn't see on any other-a USB. Using this connector, you can listen to 5.1-channel audio from any computer with Windows 98 SE or higher. In this case, the audio signal is decoded within the speaker unit using the inbuilt sound chip, and thus is not worth it if you're using an expensive sound card. But we have to admit that it sounds a lot better than most onboard sound solutions we've heard. Apple Macs are not officially supported.

Digital connectors of any kind were non-existent in the speakers we tested. A digital connector ensures a pure audio signal, devoid of noise of any kind, to deliver the highest-quality input to the speakers. Auxillary inputs were there on all the speakers except the Altec Lansings, Creatives, XFrees, Intexes, all the Tech-Coms (except the SSD-5101R and SSD-6001R), and the Zebronics ZEB-SW6900R. An auxillary input lets you connect a stereo sound source such as a CD player or hi-fi music system to the speakers without having to remove an already-connected 5.1 source. The Tech-Com SSD-5101R and Artis S8800 even had dual auxillary inputs, allowing you to connect a second stereo source.

An external decoder decodes audio signals from the sound source if the source contains information complying with audio digital standards such as Dolby Digital or DTS. This is pure digital audio and is preferred by audiophiles. Unfortunately, none of these speakers came with an external decoder.

With the exception of the Creative SBS 580, all the speakers came with either a wired or a wireless remote control. One of the most stylish remotes came with the Altec Lansing FX5051. The wired remote has a smooth control knob and blue LEDs, and the slick, angled wireless remote was the icing on the cake.

Radio functionality is usually not seen on expensive speaker sets, and is very rare in the case of 5.1 sets. Only the Artis S6600R/FM came with this functionality. We were very pleased to see that not only did it have FM radio, but also AM radio so you can play your favourite medium-wave regional channels.

5.1 speaker sets are always accompanied with a huge bundle of cables. We would like to note here that most of the Artis speakers came with colour-coded cables, which eases the effort required to connect different sound channel pairs from the sound card to the correct inputs on the speaker sets / amps. Bare-ended wires were also bundled with quite a few of the speaker sets that featured clamp type connectors. While some of these cables were of inferior quality, such as those which came with the Tech-Com SSD-5101R, the ones that accompanied the Artis sets, especially the X10 Mini, were of superior quality. An advantage of bare-ended wire audio cables is that in case the contact wire at the end gets damaged, you can always remove the insulation further to replace the damaged contact.

Build Quality
The knobs of a speaker are generally the most-handled mechanical moving parts, and these need to be durable. We didn't have too many complaints with any speaker set for badly-put-together knobs. The Altec Lansings and the Artis sets (except the S7500R) have knobs that will last long after the speaker sets are dead and buried. Notably, the Artis' had servo knobs, which do not produce static when rotated.

The veils of a speaker protect the driver from damage, but they have to be such that they do not obstruct the sound path. Most of the speakers had veils, barring the Intex IT-4800W, Tech-Com SSD-5001, and the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R, all of which did away with the veils. Some speakers such as the Artis X10 Mini had veils with grilles behind them for extra protection. Others, such as the Tech-Com SSD-6001R, did not have grilles.

Stands help elevate the speaker to the level of the listener, and also provide stability. The Artis X10 Mini came with sturdy steel stands for the rear speakers. Most of the speakers came without any stands at all, while a few, such as the Altec Lansing FX5051, came with aesthetically designed stands-diamond shaped in this case.

Wood and plastic were the two most common materials used in the building of the speakers. Subwoofers are seldom constructed using any material other than wood, because of the high quality of resonance wood exhibits. Of the speakers we tested, the Artis X10 Mini, Intex IT-4800W, and the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R have subwoofers that do not attempt to hide the wood. The wood grains are clearly visible on the exterior surface and give them a classy look. The ZEB-SW13100R, in particular, has one of the most ruggedly-built speakers, but these are also the biggest, and it would be difficult to place them near a PC.

Subwoofers are seldom constructed using any material other than wood,
because of the high quality of resonance wood exhibits


Our test music was stereo (two sound channels), and we had a few problems playing bass in certain speaker sets, when the source was connected to the 5.1 input. We therefore had to connect to the 2.1 input and switch to 2.1 mode.

The Artis X10 Mini was remarkable in audio fidelity. It reproduced bass and treble very well. The good thing about this was that its strong bass never drowned the treble, and we could hear every detail, even with the bass playing at full throttle. Cranking up the volume and bass levels did not seem to do any damage: the treble was still clearly audible.

The Artis S6600R/FM was next-best. The only problem we had was that in the Indian classical vocals, the speaker sets could not reproduce the vocals as well at the highest pitch as the X10 Mini could. The Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R, Artis S8800, and the Altec Lansing FX5051 were the other speaker sets that played some good music.

The Artis S6600R/FM fails a little at reproduction of higher pitched sounds-between the 4 and 16 KHz mark

A peculiar thing we noticed was that the Tech-Com SSD-5101R and the Altec Lansing VS3251 could not reproduce piano sounds in 2.1 mode. When we switched to 5.1 mode, only the centre speaker reproduced the piano, but the bass was lost.

DVD Movies
The Artis X10 Mini and the S6600R/FM and S8800 were very good in the DVD movie test. The bass, treble, and mid-range were all just about perfect. But once we plugged in the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R, we found that the set possessed the power to edge past the former speaker sets, and we had to raise the bar we had set for the benchmarks. The explosions seemed earth-shatteringly real-we could feel the shrapnel flying around us! The engine roar was surreal, and the concussion gun almost gave us a concussion! 

Other brands such as Altec Lansing and Tech-Com were decent, but the Altec Lansing FX5051 produced overwhelmingly overpowering bass, which eclipsed some sound detail.

DVD Audio
The Eric Clapton song was rendered beautifully on the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R and the Artis S6600R/FM and X10 Mini. The ZEB-SW13100R and X10 Mini produced richer bass, while the S6600R/FM produced crisper highs. The sets from Altec Lansing and Tech-Com also gave decent performance and are worthy mentions.

Game Performance

Artis S6600R/FM
Everything you ever needed-its all here

The Artis S6600R/FM, X10 Mini, and the S8800 were very good in the game test and could create an almost-real virtual environment around us. But the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R was in a class of its own. 

It could brilliantly create bullet sounds and explosion ricochets. We could go so far as to say that this set provides a better surround experience in gaming than any other.

Frequency tests
The Artis S6600R/FM ruled when it came to frequency tests. It performed exceedingly well in all the frequencies. The Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R produced harmonics in a few of the frequencies, and had to remain content with second place. While most of the brands were average performers in this test, the Creative exhibited dismal performance. The Altec Lansing VS3251 and the Tech-Com SSD-5101R missed the 250 Hz altogether. This was evident in the music test, where we found that these sets could not produce piano sounds in 2.1 mode.

The ultimate bass and treble tests were won by the ZEB-SW13100R by a narrow margin over the Artis S6600/FM.

And The Grammy Goes To…
The Logitech X-230 was the best performer amongst the 2.1 speaker sets. The Altec Lansing ATP3 was only a whisker behind it as far as sheer performance goes, but with its comparatively lower price of Rs 3,400, it managed to edge past the Logitech and secure the Digit Best Buy Gold in the 2.1 category.

Artis X10 Mini
Music with style

The Altec Lansing FX4021 was also not far behind in the performance, in third place. But it is rich in features compared to the other sets. Not only does it sport stylish looks, it comes with wired as well as wireless remotes. It is also the only speaker set with dual woofers, and can be connected to the USB port of a PC to listen to crystal-clear 5.1-channel audio. The Altec Lansing FX4021 is therefore the winner of the Digit Best Buy Silver in the 2.1 category.

For the 5.1 speaker sets, the performance king was the Artis X10 Mini, closely followed by the Zebronics ZEB-SW13100R. While the ZEB-SW13100R was better at recreating a movie environment, the X10 Mini was better when audio fidelity was compared. In the end, the Artis X10 Mini, with its good looks and great music performance was adjudged the winner of the Digit Best Buy Gold in the 5.1-channel category, despite being the most expensive at Rs 12,000.

The Artis S6600R/FM has almost everything that you need in a speaker set, and more. It is the only one amongst the 5.1 sets to have not only FM but also AM radio. In terms of performance, it came in third-not bad. The affordable price-Rs 8,500-leaves us with no option but to award the Artis S6600R/FM the Digit Best Buy Silver in the 5.1-channel category.

Summing It Up
You might have noticed that the test process we deployed was carefully devised to present an idea from the layman's point of view. Indeed, an audiophile would have tested speaker sets in a markedly different way. Such testing involves a studio and various electronic gadgets that can bring out the minutest of details in a speaker set, and over the entire audio frequency range. However, this is not the kind of environment where PC speakers are generally deployed, and therefore we chose a different path that helps us better identify with you, our readers.

That said, we decided to bring in an audiophile and have him take a look at some of the speakers that stood out in the tests. This review is peppered with his comments; this we did for those of you who want hard evidence and want to see frequency response graphs of some real audiophile tests.

Send feedback at readersletters@jasubhai. com if you want to see a more extensive audiophile test the next time we look at speakers!

Contact Sheet Speaker Sets

 BrandCompany Phone E-mail 
 Altec Lansing Rashi Peripherals Pvt Ltd 022-67090909
 Artis Kunhar Peripherals Pvt Ltd 022-66345758
 Creative Creative Technology Ltd 9821455590
 Intex Intex Technologies (India) Ltd 011-41610224
 Logitech Logitech Electronic India Pvt Ltd 022-26571160
 Tech-Com Shree Sagarmatha Dist Pvt Ltd 022-26428541
 Xfree Transtek Infoways Pvt Ltd 0250-3250072
 Zebronics Topnotch Infotronix (I) Pvt Ltd 044-26616202

Jayesh LimayeJayesh Limaye