If you hear music, watch movies, or play games through your desktop or laptop pc , you’ll use an honest set of computer speakers. our favourite pair is that the Mackie CR4BT set, which sounds great and is straightforward to line up and use. Plus, these speakers won’t take up an excessive amount of space on your desk and that they pair easily together with your mobile devices via Bluetooth.
We suggest the Mackie CR4BT computer speakers because they give a full, balanced sound, whether you’re listening to bass-heavy rap music, ambient soundscapes, or conversation calls. Intuitive design choices—like placing the volume wheel on the front and allowing either the left or right speaker to connect to the power source—make this system easy to set up and use throughout your day. Though the speakers are a bit larger than others we tested, they’re still small enough that they won’t take over your desktop. We aren’t crazy about the neon green accents on the speaker’s face, though; we would prefer different color options.
How we picked and tested
Computer speakers vary drastically in terms of size, price, and options. We used the following criteria to decide which computer speakers to test and how to evaluate their quality.
Sound quality: the most important distinguishing factor between these speakers is their sound quality. We wanted to find speakers that have a balanced sound that will make everything from music to conference calls pleasant to listen to. We also made sure that they could play loud enough to hear from across a room.
User-friendliness: We preferred speakers with volume controls located on the front so that you don’t have to reach around the back or rummage for a loose remote just to turn down your music while sitting at your desk. We also preferred models with multiple connection options.
Wireless connectivity: Since these speakers will likely remain connected to a computer through the workday, we don’t think that built-in Bluetooth or Wi-Fi is mandatory. But we did appreciate the inclusion of this feature, as it makes the speakers easier to use with more sources, in more situations.
Form factor: We tested both 2.0 systems, which have only left and right speakers meant to sit on your desk, and 2.1 systems, which include an additional subwoofer that goes underneath your desk. We looked for computer speakers that strike a good balance between size and performance. If the speakers are too tiny, they’ll sound weak and absence dynamics. Larger speakers might sound louder and fuller but they aren’t practical to have sitting on your desk. Have you tried working around a large set of bookshelf speakers? Where would you keep all of your knickknacks?
With these criteria in mind, we looked through all of the available models on sites like Amazon and Best Buy. We cross-referenced those with existing editorial reviews of speakers from audio experts like Steve Guttenberg at CNET and therefore the writers at Sound & Vision, and roundups by other outlets like The Strategist. We culled this list further with input from Nuttertool’s other audio experts and ended up with 12 systems to test for this update, including our existing picks (the Mackie CR3, Mackie CR4BT, and the Edifier R2000DB) and several new options (Audioengine HD3, Bose Companion 2 Series III, Creative Pebble, Creative Sound BlasterX Kratos S3, Creative Sound BlasterX Kratos S5).
Before leading blind listening tests, we split in each system with music and video content. Daniel then listened to each system individually, determining its max volume and getting an initial impression of its audio quality. This enabled him to swiftly dismiss various speakers that sounded compressed or lacked bass response. We then separated the six remaining speaker systems into groups (2.0 and 2.1 systems), matched the sound levels of each pair, and covered the speakers with a thin black fabric to keep their identities hidden.
If you’re willing to compromise a touch on sound quality and connection options to save lots of money, consider the Mackie CR3 set. It has most of the same convenient features and design elements as the Mackie CR4BT but in a smaller form with a smaller woofer—which means the speakers can’t play quite as loud or as deep because of the CR4BT. The CR3 also wants Bluetooth, so it doesn’t join as easily to your mobile devices. Still, these are by far the best-sounding computer speakers we’ve tested in this price range and a significant upgrade for anyone who has been using their computer’s built-in speakers.
The Mackie CR4BT speakers play better than anything else in their value range, have an easy-to-use design that doesn’t take up too much place, and combine Bluetooth to conveniently pair with mobile devices. Though you can find computer speakers that look and sound better, you’ll have to spend a lot more to get substantially better performance than the CR4BT delivers.
All but one of our panelists felt that the Mackie CR4BT was the best-sounding 2.0 speaker system in our test; the lone dissenter ranked it second (we did not include the more expensive Audioengine HD3 in our blind listening test). The highs sounded crisp but not harsh, and bass notes were well defined, not muddy. Although some notes in the midrange (like male vocals) sounded a little muted, the CR4BT delivered a pleasant, balanced sound overall.
Achieving this balance is difficult for computer speakers, which often have very small woofers that are incapable of producing a lot of basses. The Mackie CR4BT model’s 4-inch woofers help it perform better in the bass department but also make the speaker a little bit bigger than many of its competitors—but not so big that it takes up too much desk space. Each speaker is about as big as a rectangular box of tissues if you stood it up on its side.
These speakers are easy to add to any existing setup. They have two rear inputs: an unbalanced RCA stereo input and a ¼-inch stereo input that accepts unbalanced (tip-sleeve) or balanced (tip-ring-sleeve) connections. In addition, one speaker highlights a ⅛-inch TRS aux input on the display, which enables you to easily plug in a brief source without disturbing the speaker or having to blindly fumble around back searching for input. Next to the aux input is a ⅛-inch headphone-out jack that mutes the speakers when you plug in headphones. The logical placement of all of these inputs and outputs, as well as the volume knob on the front, make this system much easier to use throughout the day.
Speaking of the volume knob, although there’s a power switch on the back of the speaker, you can also turn off the speakers by turning the volume knob fully counterclockwise until it clicks. We think this should be a highlight of every computer speaker. The less you need to access the back of the speaker, the better. One last feature that helps with cable management is the inclusion of a switch that determines which speaker is left and which is right. This allows you to place the powered speaker on the side of the desk that is closest to your outlet and/or computer, minimizing the distance that the power and audio cables need to run.
You might not need your office speakers to have Bluetooth since you’ll likely keep them plugged into your computer for the entirety of the workday, but the CR4BT has it anyways. We could hear a slight degradation in sound quality caused by the data compression used in Bluetooth, but it wasn’t much of a distraction. Bluetooth-device pairing is quick, and you can easily reconnect a previously paired device by tapping the button on the front of the speaker.
For the music lover who demands better audio quality—and is willing to pay more to get it—the Audioengine HD3 set is the closest thing, we’ve found to a perfect set of computer speakers. It has considerably better sound quality and a tinier, more refined design than the Mackie CR4BT. Plus the HD3 has a more comprehensive connection panel, with both analog and USB inputs and a subwoofer output for people who want to add a subwoofer. Bluetooth with aptX HD is also built-in. However, the HD3 costs twice as much as the CR4BT.
If you want a clear upgrade in performance and design, the Audioengine HD3 set has substantially better sound quality and a more elegant aesthetic than any speaker pair we tested—but it also costs a lot more. The HD3 has a tiny footprint and includes connectivity choices like USB and a subwoofer output that you won’t see on many lower-priced computer speaker systems. It lacks a couple of the utility features that the Mackie CR4BT gives, alike the front-panel aux input and speaker-selector switch. But if pristine audio quality is your top priority, this is the pair to get.
We first tested these speakers for our wireless powered bookshelf speakers guide, and they defeated many larger bookshelf speakers. The HD3 speakers use smaller 2¾-inch woofers, yet because of the way the speakers are tuned, the reduced bass doesn’t make them sound thin. We found that the system offered a really great balance between sounds across the frequency range. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”—which has a lot of little details that can get lost in less powerful, less balanced speakers—sounded as exciting through the HD3 as it did through the larger systems we considered. The HD3 doesn’t play quite as loud as some other speakers we tested, like the Mackie CR4BT, but it’s certainly loud enough to fill a bedroom or office.
The system includes stereo RCA and 3.5 mm analog inputs (but no aux input on the front), plus a stereo RCA output and bass-reduction switch that makes it easy to connect an optional subwoofer. There’s also a USB digital input for use with computers and smartphones; however, we are aware of a bug in the USB input that can cause you to lose the first second or two of sound (such as the ding of a notification) as the speakers come out of sleep mode. We did not experience this problem with our review sample, but a colleague who purchased the HD3 did. Audioengine is aware of the issue and is “actively investigating a way to eliminate this in future productions.”
The HD3 combines aptX HD, an enhanced version of Bluetooth that nuttertool staff writer Brent Butterworth, who originally tested this speaker, says offers a notable performance improvement over the standard SBC Bluetooth codec if you’re using an aptX HD-compatible source; no variant of aptX has yet been made available for Apple iOS devices. It also includes AAC, a codec used by Apple iTunes and some streaming services; Apple phones and tablets are compatible with AAC, so this feature could deliver a slight improvement in sound quality for Apple fans.
The HD3 set’s artistic is a vast improvement over that of the Mackie CR4BT and CR3. These compact speakers (7 by 5½ by 4¼ inches) have a very clean design, with a simple rectangular shape, a small metal accent plate, and no bombastic color accents. The system is available in four finishes (black, cherry, walnut, and white). Overall, the HD3 has elegant neutrality, much like a black dress or well-fitting navy suit. It won’t necessarily catch your eye, but when you see it you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.
Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 THX
If you watch a lot of movies or play cinematic video games at your desk, you might prefer a computer speaker system that includes a subwoofer to reproduce deep bass notes. Of all of the 2.1-channel systems we tested, the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 THX set had the best sound quality, about as full and balanced as the Mackie CR4BT but with more potential bass response. Dialogue and acoustic instruments sounded clear and crisp, and the subwoofer effectively filled in the low end. The speakers have a very small on-desk footprint and sport a subdued but stylish design, but the connection options are limited.
You probably don’t need a subwoofer for home office use. (Has anyone ever thought that their conference call could use more bass?) But if you watch a lot of movies or play action-heavy video games through your computer system, the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 THX system, which arrives with a 6½-inch subwoofer, could improve your experience. These speakers had the best sound quality of all of the 2.1 systems we tested, they have a very small on-desk footprint, and they don’t feature any garish design elements. But the connection options are limited.
Many of the 2.1 systems we tested sounded great at the lower end but struggled to clearly render sounds in the middle and high end of the frequency range. The ProMedia 2.1 THX system didn’t have this problem. All of our panelists agreed that these speakers had a balanced, pleasing overall sound. Will, the musician, mentioned them as “warm.” Klipsch wisely chose to place a subwoofer level control on the front of the left speaker, so you don’t need to crawl underneath your desk to adjust the balance if it feels off. Once you’ve figured out that balance, the system sounds as good as the Mackie CR4BT and CR3 but it might take you a little time to dial incorrectly.
The ProMedia 2.1 system doesn’t have as many connection options as we’d like; in fact, it offers only a 3.5 mm mini-jack input and a headphone output, located on the side of the left speaker, and no Bluetooth. You can easily control the speaker’s main volume from the tiny left speaker.