So you want to add some sound to your layout, but you don't want to break open the piggy-bank to pay for speakers. Well my advice is "save your money" there are plenty of speakers available that won't cost you that new PRICOM DCC Tester that you have been saving for. Ok, maybe that was too self-serving, but you might want to consider a DCC Companion. There, I feel much better now...
What speakers to buy? I had the same problem when we endeavored into Layout Sound. After some research, and looking around at the computer speakers we already had around here, I decided that the only way to do this right, was to buy some more. My good friend Jim Wells from Fantasonics Engineering loves the JBL Creature speakers. Since he is a real musician, I think he just likes anything made by JBL, but so would I, if I were a real musician, or could afford it for my layout.
The JBL Creature, or Creature-II that I bought are sure nice speakers. Can't argue with Jim about that one. Most everyone here at PRICOM had to look at the speakers like a new-age art museum exhibit. They would tilt their head, squint their eyes, and one guy tried looking upside down. Well they aren't quite that strange, but they do have a special aesthetic value to them. Oh, and Jim is right, they do sound great. My biggest dilemma was how to duct-tape, hot-glue, bondo, or just plaster these things into my layout. It was a puzzlement. I thought maybe I should buy some 'cheap' speakers to experiment on before I attacked the 'Creature', I was afraid they might just fight back.
Being a tried and true PC-Clone guy (which just means I don't buy computers already put together, I put them together from pieces-parts) I had to look at the 'clone' speakers. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a PC vs. MAC thing, we can have that discussion later. But I do buy a substantial amount of PC-Clone parts, and I have a 'regular' place to buy them, New Egg. They are my favorite cheap computer parts place, I've tried the rest, but always end up back at New Egg.
After visiting New Egg, and having a virtually full virtual shopping cart, I came to the shipping and handling screen. A whopping 25% was to be added for those speakers just to ship them. They also didn't have the JBL speakers. So I had to go to my alternate favorites, Buy.com and Provantage.com. Then there is always a quick visit PriceGrabber.com to make sure a newer New Egg hasn't appeared while I was sleeping. One real big advantage to Buy.com is that they have a 'free' shipping option. I like 'free shipping' and will gladly wait one or two extra days to save $25 in this case. Placing four orders like that and I can pay for another DT400, well almost.
The following descriptions are the result of plowing though many different speakers at several on-line sellers. I did not visit any stores, but that would probably be a wise move if you don't want to buy these ones I already tried for you. A speaker is a strange beast, and all the falsified specifications in the world will not tell you what it sounds like! It is sound, so the best analysis tool is your ears. Of course going into Best Buy, Fry's, or Circuit City with a CD and sticking it in a computer will probably get you fast assistance, or a slap from a sales associate. But you should take some music, or better yet, a Fantasonics Scale Magic CD, since you really won't be listening to music on these speakers anyway.
All the speakers I tried were of the "2.1" computer type. What does that 2.1 mean? Well it means there are 2 speakers, and a 1/10th one, the woofer. I suppose this 2.1 term was somehow grafted from the "5.1" surround-sound terminology, which of course is not the same. In 5.1 the "5" are all full-range full-frequency channels, and the ".1" is a reduced bandwidth 'effect' channel, or usually a sub-woofer. Not a woofer to cover the audible frequencies, it is a sub-woofer to make your heart pound when the Saturn-5 rocket takes off in Apollo-13. Here in our 2.1 speakers, neither the "2" or the ".1" are full-range or full-frequency, it takes all of them combined to come even close to "full-range". But alas, that is the way they call these things, so we have to live with it I suppose.
For each speaker tested, I have listed the model number, Buy.com SKU number, and the price as of this writing.
I have to admit, these are my favorite ones. Most of the cheap speakers have troubles in the mid-range. Seems logical since they are using a little tweeter and a sub-woofer and no midrange speakers. However, these speakers had a pretty nice sound anyway. The satellite speakers went much lower in frequency than their cheaper cousins below, and the sub woofer had enough power to make sound without distorting (a rarity). The best feature of these speakers is the remote volume control on the wires you can see in the picture. Might not seem so slick at first, but burry these speakers in a rock-wall, or behind trees, and you will wish you could reach the volume control from under the layout! And as luck would have it, Buy.com today shows them as "temporarily out of stock". Provantage has 216 in stock today, and their price is $24.48, the manufacture part number is 51000000AA355.
If you look closely at pictures of my workbench, you will see these speakers. Why? Well, the good ones are on the layout, and the really bad ones aren't good enough for my bench. Maybe strange logic to you, but maybe it was more just pure dumb luck. These speakers aren't all that bad, but they do suffer from a lack of midrange that most of these 2.1 speakers have. The woofer in this guy is pretty good, not as good as the JBL, but I don't think any woofer could be as good as JBL. These speakers feature a nifty blue LED in the power button, which lasted about one day, but it was cool until it met an untimely death. The volume and power switch are inconveniently located on the right speaker. Maybe that is handy for a computer, but under a forest of trees on my layout it would be a pain. The controls are nice for Bob's Bench, so maybe they will stay there.
Well what can you say about 'real' JBL speakers! The woofer is great. Interestingly it does suffer a little from the midrange 'sag' that most 2.1 speakers do, but not as bad as the cheap ones. Jim made the point to me that this 'sag' does help correct the frequency response when running at low volumes. I do have to admit that the name JBL made these speakers compete to a higher standard than the others. But they are cute! They sound good! The bass and treble controls are on the woofer? Maybe since the left and right speakers are so small, they had to put the controls on the woofer. We should be glad these controls exist, as most speakers don't give you the option to adjust such things. Because usually you 'tuck' the woofer out of the way for a computer, this would prevent accidental bass adjustment instead of volume adjustment. For us this might actually be quite handy since the woofer shoots down. If you mount it in your layout bench-work upside-down that puts the controls under the layout. The only strange one is the volume control buttons on the right satellite speaker. So be careful about burring the satellite since you will want to get to the volume control.
Well these are my least favorite of the bunch. The satellite speakers are very small, so that is nice. They have a wired remote control, that is nice too. One problem, they don't sound that good. Since we buy speakers to make sound, having a speaker that doesn't sound good is not a very good thing. Since I am the proud owner of these speakers, and they have to go somewhere useful, I'm going to put them at our seaside port. The ocean is primarily surf and low wave rumble, oh and if you listen really careful to our free download "Seaside Day" track, you can hear a seagull or two (that was a joke).
Yes the old adage that you get what you pay for is still alive and well here in the USA. We have some $7 to $10 really cheap speakers on some of the desktop computers here at PRICOM, and no we don't mix audio with them. I tried a couple of them for this review, but I didn't bother mentioning them because quite frankly, they weren't worth mentioning.
My advice is to listen to speakers before you buy them. Avoid the under $20 speakers, but you do not need to spend $100. For me the $25 to $39 range is just the right balance of cost and sound. Of course this only works because I keep the volume low so my scenes don't trample on each other. If you have the money available, really nice speakers only need to cost $70 like the JBL's.
Sure we will probably spend more hours listening to our layout than anyone else, but for me the ultimate goal is to make someone so intrigued by the total atmosphere of a scene that they loose track of time. My plaster carving skills are a bit on the lacking side, and I don't have any cool scratch-built shanty's to offer, so for me the sound ties it all together in a beautiful way.
If you happen upon a nice set of speakers, please do let us know. With the 5 sets I have now, I can build scenery for a while and not run out of speakers. As the layout progresses, there is always room on my layout for more "good" sound. The only way to get good sound is from good speakers.