27th Jul 2012
Diwali may be the festival of lights, but sound is just as important as visuals when it comes to entertainment gadgets. Therefore, this guide will point you to the best speaker system that fits your budget and listening requirements. You just need to decide how much cash you're willing to cough up, and if you're more interested in movies or music. I have singled out the best solutions into three budget categories. The first two feature stereo (or 2.1) picks for music and a 5.1 system for the movie buffs, while the final one lists the more expensive HTIBs (Home Theatre In a Box).
Budget (Less Than Rs 5000)
Five grand isn't enough to buy most decent gadgets, but it can get you plenty of options in the budget speaker range. Heck, you can even buy a proper 5.1 system as well. However, before you go crazy with the options, here are certain things you should consider:
Pure Stereo Or 2.1: Although discerning audiophiles will scoff at anything with a subwoofer, a pure stereo setup isn't feasible in the budget segment. Budget solutions love to keep the front speakers uncomplicated and leave the lower frequencies to a separate subwoofer. Being cheap, these subwoofers lack proper phase controls, which make bass harder to integrate cohesively with the audio spectrum. Having said that, that still doesn't mean the pure stereo options in this range are any better. Like they say, you get what you pay for.
2.1 Or 5.1: This is purely down to what source material you listen to. If you listen to more music than watching movies, I'd suggest keeping things simple and uncluttered with a 2.1 setup. However, if you live for movies, the superior panning provided by three extra channels will be well worth the extra cash and real estate.
Power: Clean amplification is expensive, so speaker systems in this price range will have limited power. However, that shouldn't be an issue if your listening space is small. Since budget systems tend to lose fidelity at maximum volume levels, make sure you have surplus power to avoid being forced to turn the volume knob all the way up. Speakers in this segment generally pack in between 20 to 50 Watts of RMS power. More importantly, disregard the PMPO (Peak Music Power Output) ratings and only consider power ratings mentioned in terms of RMS (Root Mean Square).
Wire Length: While any stereo speaker will come with a long enough wire to ensure better L-R channel separation and access to audio ports on the soundcard, keep in mind that these types of speakers are designed for small rooms. Therefore, you may not be able to place the subwoofer much further than a few feet away. The problem is worse for rear channels, especially if the rear wall isn't close enough. In this case, you may have to buy expensive speaker stands instead of mounting them on walls. Keep this in mind while choosing speakers.
Volume And Tone Controls: Systems delivering good sound quality at this price point will have features cut down to a bare minimum. However, that doesn't mean you should be deprived of basic analogue rotary adjustment options for volume and tone (subwoofer) controls. Just don't expect auxiliary input and headphone output jacks.
Speaker Angle: High frequency sounds are responsible for soundstaging and spatial imaging, which is quite essential for good music fidelity. However, these waveforms are directional in nature, and therefore they must be fired directly towards the ears. This is no problem for tower (floorstanding) speakers, since the tweeter (high frequency driver) automatically fires at the ear level when the listener is seated. You average desktop, on the other hand, rises slightly above your waist. Therefore, make sure you buy a speaker system that has its driver(s) angled by 15-20 degrees to offset the low height of the desk. Otherwise, the high-frequency sounds will only be fired at your kidneys - and 9 out of 10 doctors agree that kidneys can't hear too well.
Magnetic Shielding: Although LCD and plasma panels are unaffected by magnets, it's nonetheless better to opt for speakers with magnetic shielding. You never know when you, or someone else, may place a portable HDD on top or near a speaker. Like they say, prevention is better than cure.
Sony SRS-D5 2.1ch Multimedia Speakers
MRP: Rs 3500
Street Price: Rs 2600 (Flipkart.com); Rs 2700 (Infibeam.com)
A 2.1 speaker system can be bought for as low as Rs 400, but you're honestly better off with closed captioning (subtitles) instead. Sony's SRS-D5 delivers 40 W RMS power with great fidelity for the price. The power cable might be a bit short, but the good quality tone and volume adjustment knobs and drivers angled at 15 degrees makes them ideal for desktop use. The tiny sub generates 20 W RMS power and sports an MDF (wood) construction for pleasing tonality. The sub may be a bit too light at 2.5 kg, but its ported front-firing design makes it a non-issue.
JBL Creature III
MRP: Rs 5000
Street Price: Rs 4500 (Letsbuy.com); Rs 4700 (Flipkart.com)
The Creature III is the latest addition to JBL's acclaimed range of desktop speakers. The new version features slightly larger satellites rated at 5 W RMS each along with a 15 W subwoofer, taking the total power output to 25 W. These 2.1 channel speakers are known for their excellent sound as well as sturdy build quality. It doesn't hurt that they look just as good.
Logitech Z506 5.1 Speakers
MRP: Rs 7150
Street Price: Rs 4100 (Flipkart.com)
If the ultra-low street price didn't convince you, let this review reassure you of the Logitech Z506's credibility. Packing in a total output of 75 W RMS, the 5.1 channel system includes two sets of inputs to connect auxiliary devices, in addition to multi-channel PC input. What's more, the Z506 features satellites with 2-way drivers. It's little wonder why these speakers not only excel at movies, but also perform admirably with music. That's unbeatable quality and value for the price.
Mid-Range (Less Than Rs 10,000)
This is an excellent price segment for stereophiles, because it opens up two of the best audiophile desktop solutions in the market - the Audioengine and M-Audio Studiophile. If music is your passion, nothing and absolutely nothing, even from the high-end segment, can come close to the fidelity provided by these speakers. Multi-channel enthusiasts are in for a treat because you can find some decent entry-level HTIB systems in this budget. The inclusion of a DVD drive and amplifier gives you the freedom of using the HTIBs along with a computer or as a standalone system in your living room. Here are the parameters one must consider while buying mid-range audio systems:
2-Way Drivers: Most budget speakers feature a simple full-range (one-way) driver, but the separation of the tweeter and woofer \ squawker is essential for better fidelity. Anything beyond 2-way drivers is a waste because the complexity and cost of crossovers needed for such separation will make it counter-productive at this price range. Only choose 2-way drivers in this segment, because entrusting the mid-bass duties to either a full-range satellite or subwoofer is the best way to ruin audio quality.
Pure Stereo: 2.1 channel systems are a definite no-no if your listening needs are primarily geared towards music. Decent-sized bookshelf speakers can reproduce enough bass for music, while avoiding the problems due to crossovers and muddiness associated with all but the most expensive subwoofer systems. Remember, you need a subwoofer's bass extension to recreate explosions and the deep bellow of dragons, which aren't found in music.
Subwoofer: It's impossible to find non-ported (acoustic suspension type) and active subwoofers in this price range, but that is for the best since these implementations are costly and easy to screw up. The driver placement makes a big difference in a sub. Down-firing configurations need a hard surface, because carpeted flooring will absorb most of the energy. My recommendation in this category features a down-firing driver, but includes its own plinth. Thus, you may use it on a soft surface with impunity. Side-firing subwoofers should be kept at least a few feet away from the walls to prevent excessive bass resonance.
Construction: Since this segment includes good-quality stereo solutions, it is wise to pay attention to the speaker construction. MDF enclosures are the norm for better acoustic signature, but that isn't enough by itself. A good pair of bookshelf speakers needs tight internal bracing to prevent cabinet resonance and provide a liner frequency response. A sharp rap on the enclosure with the knuckles should emit a dead thud. Any sign of ringing or hollowness is a sign of a weak speaker cabinet.
Audio I\O Ports: Speakers at this price point should feature headphone outputs and auxiliary inputs for convenience. This makes it easy to connect MP3 players directly to the speakers and quickly transitions to private listening, without having to bother with the audio ports at the back of the CPU.
M-Audio Studiophile AV40
MRP: $230 (Rs 11,500 approx)
Street Price: Rs 10,000 (Bajao.com)
If you are going to spend big bucks, it's better to invest in good quality components from manufacturers who cater to musicians and studio engineers. M-Audio is a brand synonymous with studio-quality gear of exacting standards, and its entry-level desktop speakers are no different. The AV40 employs high quality ferrofluid-cooled silk dome tweeters for smooth, colour-free highs and 4" polypropolene-coated woofers for deep bass. Unlike expensive passive speakers, these have their own power source, which is good for 20 W RMS per channel for a total power output of 40 W. You can't possibly go back to your Logitechs, Altec Lansings, and Creatives once you have tasted the high fidelity offered by these puppies.
MRP: $200 (Rs 10,000 approx)
Street Price: Rs 9500 (Bajao.com - Currently out of stock); Rs 14,100 (eBay.in)
An alternative to the M-Audio, the Audioengine A2 features handmade cabinets and speaker drivers built in-house for better cohesion and quality. Just like the AV40, the A2 features silk dome tweeters, but its woofer is fashioned out of kevlar. This provides an amazing strength-to-weight ratio, allowing the speakers to deliver mids and lows with amazing speed and tightness. They are rated at 15 W RMS per channel and come with all the necessary cables and interconnects needed to hook up your PC, audio system, or TV.
Panasonic SC-XH10 DVD Home Theater System
MRP: Rs 7000
Street Price: Rs 7000 (Flipkart.com)
Value doesn't get any better than this. A full-blown HTIB at this price is just downright amazing. The Panasonic SC-XH10 features a DVD-equipped A\V receiver, five discrete speakers, and a subwoofer. The HTIB delivers a total power of 330 W RMS through its one-way satellites and down-firing sub. Apart from standard home theatre goodies such as Dolby Digital and Pro Logic decoding (DTS isn't available - not at this price), the SC-XH10 also incorporates USB playback of DiVX and MP3 file formats. Being an HTIB, the system comes with its own IR remote.
Home Theatre Systems (Rs 20,000 And Above)
Home theatre systems are generally popular with consumers willing to spend big bucks. While there are 6.1, 7.1, and even more intimidating multi-channel options available, it makes little sense to own one since the source material (movies and music) that makes full use of such configurations is quite rare. For those seeking more quality and setup flexibility, there are better quality HTIB solutions available sans a DVD \ Blu-ray player. This leaves you free to choose a better optical player or use the system with your PC. The more aesthetically inclined amongst us who prefer a relatively more discreet home theatre setup can find solace in SoundBars, which pack in all the features of a HTIB in a diminutive, clutter-free package. Here are a few things to consider before diving into the HTIB market.
HT Formats: Well-priced HTIBs should not only include standard HT codecs such as Dolby Digital and DTS, but also the next-generation Blu-ray formats such as DTS-HD and Dolby Digital True HD. Upscaling modes such as Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS-ES Matrix are meant only for those who fancy multi-channel steering from standard stereo content. However, that is something I do not recommend.
USB Playback: People download movies off the internet. That's a cold, hard reality for the corporations. The electronics industry has lately acknowledged this fact and has responded with entertainment devices incorporating USB media playback. What you need to ensure is the device's capability to play 720p and 1080p video content across popular formats such as MKV, MP4, DiVX, XvID, WMV, et al. Support for subtitles is also a must.
Connections: Make sure the wiring is sufficient to spread the speakers across the listening area. A few thousand bucks extra will even get you systems with wireless speakers. However, the loss in audio quality and issues with wireless connectivity are best avoided. You may want to try them though if you pathologically hate wires.
Floorstanders Or Bookshelf Speakers: I would pick floorstanders any day, because elementary physics says that a larger enclosure will produce cleaner, richer, and tighter bass than a smaller one. Moreover, the latter will need additional expensive power to make up for its lack of heft. If space and budget aren't an issue, floorstanders are the way to go.
Wall Mount: HTIBs in this price bracket ship with either proper floorstanding speakers or pseudo-floorstanding satellite speakers with stands. If it's the latter, make sure they have an option to detach the stands and use them in a wall mount configuration. This gives you the option to clear up precious floor space whenever needed.
3D Capability And Upscaling: It's a gimmick all right, but Blu-ray HTIBs generally feature 3D capability. You may want to make sure that's the case before making a purchase decision. Upscaling of regular content to 3D and HD, as well as Full-HD formats is a necessary feature these days.
Interconnects: Connectivity is paramount to keep an HTIB future-proof and for it to interface with more devices as and when you purchase them. Digital inputs and outputs such as coaxial (S\PDIF), optical (Toslink), and HDMI are important to accept pre-processed bitstream from audio \ video sources, or to output the same to higher quality external DACs, computers, displays, and video playback devices.
Remote Control: An ergonomic remote controller with comprehensive controls is a bare minimum for this segment. It's an added bonus if the programmable remote can control the rest of your entertainment gadgets as well.
Sony BDV-E980 Blu-ray Home Theatre System
Street Price: Rs 36,000 (infibeam.com); Rs 39,000 (Flipkart.com)
The Sony BDV-E980 won't sweep you off your feet with its aural performance, but it includes a very rich feature set that is unbeatable at this price. It incorporates Blu-ray playback, 3D capability, internet TV, an awesome XMB interface (found in most Sony devices), and USB playback, all at a modest street price of Rs 36,000. That isn't a bad deal considering the excellent movie performance it offers. Its claimed 1000 W RMS power figure is a bit tough to swallow, but the HTIB is loud enough to fill up a reasonably large room.
Harman Kardon BDS 700
MRP: Rs 60,000
The Harman Kardon BDS 700 costs a whopping sixty grand, but that's money well spent. It includes four 2-way satellites with high quality tweeters and 3" squawkers, while the centre channel is equipped with two squawkers. The active subwoofer is powered by its own 200 W class-D amplifier for better infrasonics. The system is well-equipped with a Blu-ray player and USB playback as well. Get this one if you don't mind paying for better audio fidelity. You can buy it directly off the manufacturer's website (given above).
Philips SoundBar HTS9140/51
MRP: Rs 72,000
Did you spend a bomb on interior decoration, only to ruin your decor with cherry-finish floorstanders straight out of the 1950s? Don't sweat it, because Philips' SoundBar provides almost the same quality and features of a full-blown HTIB system while looking like a million bucks - for a premium, of course. Yes, it won't deliver the convincing panning effects that a true 5.1 system is capable of, but its relatively wire-free nature will keep the missus happy. For 72,000 bucks you get Blu-ray playback with full HD 3D capability, all manner of HD Dobly and DTS decoding, USB playback, and DLNA streaming, all in an aesthetically pleasing package. Choose this if you value form over function.
Diwali Special Buyer's Guide: Speakers And HTS
Speakers and home theatre systems for pockets of all sizes.
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