Windows XP / Beginners

Hooking up speakers and headphones

To get sound out of your computer, you need either speakers or a set of headphones. Audiophiles spend a great deal of attention (and money) on these choices, but most folks do quite well with something considerably less, uh, precious. Here are a few pointers to help you choose something appropriate.

Decide how much quality you need. For casual gaming or music listening, almost any equipment will do. Yes, you can even haul out that old stereo and plug the "line out" output from your sound card into the AUX connector on the stereo. That's what I do on all my less-endowed systems.

If sound quality is important to you, you need to be more selective, and the inexpensive speakers packaged with many computer systems probably won't satisfy you.

Look for the following things in a good speaker system:

  • Broad, flat frequency response for reproducing high and low frequencies accurately. (Your sound card must have a comparable response, or the best speakers in the world won't help!)
  • Low total harmonic distortion (THD). If the THD figure is below 1 percent, you won't notice any distortion at all unless your hearing is unusually sensitive.
  • More than enough power to produce the amount of sound you want. A healthy surplus of power lets you avoid turning the volume all the way up, minimizing distortion.
  • Magnetic shielding. If you intend to place speakers near your CRT monitor, this prevents the speakers' magnets from distorting the monitor's image.

Tip When you compare frequency response and harmonic distortion, try to get numbers from an impartial source - preferably all of the numbers from the same source. There are many ways to measure these things, so comparing measurements of different products that come from different places is not very useful.

A four-speaker or six-speaker system, augmented by a subwoofer (a separate speaker that reproduces very low frequencies), often called 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, can give the sound a stronger feeling of coming from a particular place. Good games make extensive use of this. When a race car whizzes by on the screen, the game designers make sure that you can hear it coming up on your left and speeding away to your right.

Surround sound can also make a significant impact in rock music recordings and movies. For most other types of recordings, it makes less difference if it's used at all.

Remember Headphones are a good alternative to speakers for some users. Not only do they let you enjoy your music without disturbing your friends and neighbors; they also let you get primo quality sound for a lot less money than a set of top-of-the-line speakers.

If you go with headphones, decide whether you want open-back headphones, which sit on your ears, or closed-back headphones, which enclose your ears in padded cups. Closed-back headphones shut out most ambient noise and tend to have better bass response, but they are heavier, and for some users, less comfortable. If you want surround sound, look for headphones that are closed-back.

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