The speakers built into a Mac are small, weak and generally unsatisfying – even the best 17-watt ones contained in the latest iMacs. So if you like your music you need to look at some sort of external speaker system.
If the speakers don’t have to be on your desk you can just stream or hard-wire music from your Mac to your stereo or home theatre rig.
If they do need to be on your desk there are two ways you can go. First, for the best sound, consider a more expensive amp-plus-speakers setup, such as the brilliant Peachtree Audio iDecco amp and Era Design speakers I reviewed in the September issue of AMW, or the very good Fatman Audio iTube from the May issue.
Second, you can go for a set of powered speakers, either as a two-speaker set (2.0) or two speakers plus a subwoofer (2.1). These have some sort of internal amplifier circuit, take mains power and plug directly into the audio-out jack of any iPhone, iPad, IPod, Mac, etc. It’s this group that I’ve reviewed for this Lab Test.
For a level playing field, the speakers were all tested using iTunes 10 on a MacBook Pro, with the equaliser turned off.
I must say, though, that I’m a huge fan of the Digital Power Station (DPS) iTunes plugin from Bongiovi Acoustics. As reviewed in the October issue of AMW, it’s a sound enhancer that analyses the incoming audio signal in real time and optimises it for your internal or external speakers, and headphones.
I kept it turned off for this Lab Test, but there wasn’t a single set of speakers here that didn’t benefit from its presence, so you might want to factor its US$29.99 (about $33) download price into your budget.
For the test music I used a mix of genres: jazz (tenor saxman Ben Webster’s Our Love is Here to Stay); country (Up On the Ridge, by Dierks Bentley); world (The Way You Dream, by Michael Stipe and Asha Bhosle, off the One Giant Leap album); rap (La Vie Est Belle, by Senegal-born M.C. Solaar), opera (The Flower Duet from Delibes, sung by Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbie); and electronic dance (the Pet Shop Boys’ Viva La Vida/Domino Dancing mashup).
All were AAC encoded, as opposed to any lossless formats, as this is what the majority of our readers will be using.
Please note that we’re not comparing apples to apples in this Lab Test. As the products range in price from $60 (for the Cyber Acoustics CA-A3090s) to $1000 (for the Harman Kardon GLA-55s), it would be unfair to compare their sound and build quality. So the mouse ratings refer to how each product performs at its price point.
A final point – though we tested all of these speakers on a MacBook Pro, the fact that they’re all powered means you can also plug an iOS device – or an MP3 player – into them (or into the dock, in the case of the Roth CHARLiEs).
This Lab Test originally appeared in the November issue of Australian Macworld magazine.