Best Budget PC Speaker Systems

JBL Soundsticks II

You’re caught between a rock and the proverbial hard place: You know the crappy little speakers that came with your PC suck mightily, and you’ve heard the grand enormity of your buddy’s PC sound system. Yet you ask yourself if you really have the bucks to burn on an upgrade given these tough economic times.

And that’s where we come in, offering up a dozen options that’ll make your ears feel all happy again, all for under $150.00. We’ll give you a few 2.0 options (two desktop speakers), a few 2.1 options (two desktop speakers and a subwoofer) and even a couple of surround sound 5.1 options (five speakers and a sub). Of course, the more raw speakers in the package, the less quality/power you can expect from each speaker, but that’s the way it is with anything, right?

A Few Precautions

Regardless of your final choice, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind while you shop. First, disregard, or at least don’t rely fully on, the stated wattage outputs. There’s a huge discrepancy in the methods used for obtaining that final number, particularly in the budget-priced marketplace. Some manufacturers will use “peak” watts, a measurement that indicates the level of power an amplifier can generate over short bursts, while others will use RMS (Root Mean Square), which indicates the level of power on a constant basis. RMS is theoretically a far more reliable indicator of the true power of an amplifier, though on some packaging, you can’t tell which method a given manufacturer has used.

For example, we have seen one manufacturer claim its $50 set of speakers (and not a very good set at that) was somehow capable of a brain-melting 5000 watts. Given that some guitar amps rated at a true 50 watts RMS can literally blow out both of your eardrums and your windows, imagine what 5000 true RMS watts could do. Moreover, manufacturers don’t always play by the same rules, using certain grey areas to artificially jack up even the RMS wattage number so their system seems far more powerful than they are.

Second, you need to ask yourself whether you prefer accurate, well-defined sound over all-enveloping, subwoofer-enhanced loudness. Sure, there are a few systems that’ll do their best to give you both (we’ll introduce you to several here), but you’ll generally forsake one for the other. If you foresee using your speakers primarily for gaming or movies, you may well prefer sonic impact over a smooth, honest soundstage.

Third, if you earnestly crave big sound, don’t forget that speakers designed specifically for PC audio are not your only option. We’ve heard awesome setups that incorporate a couple of old bookshelf speakers and a used stereo receiver from the 1980s. And don’t forget – there’s a used market for PC speakers too. Oldies but goldies such as the Logitech Z-560 and Z-680, the Klipsch ProMedia series, and the Altec Lansing MX5021 come from a time when many of us didn’t think twice about dropping $300 on a PC speaker system, and will kick the bejeezus out of most sub-$150 new speakers.

So with that in mind, let’s look at a dozen sub-$150 speaker systems, that, for one reason or another, are worthy of your attention.

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