New speakers in the house vastly improve PC sound


January 09, 1995|By MICHAEL J. Himowitz

The first computer I bought 12 years ago had a one-voice sound generator that played through the speaker of a TV set. With the right programming, it could give a pretty good rendition of a bad calliope playing the melody of the Star Spangled Banner.

A few years later, somebody very smart figured out how to program it to produce four voices simultaneously. The first time I heard it play the William Tell Overture in four-part harmony, I was nearly in tears. I'm sure Rossini would have been, too.

For quite a while, that was pretty much the state of the art. As long as computers could produce music and sound effects that had all the charm and presence of a radio alarm clock, nobody paid much attention to the speakers that were attached.

Today, most home PCs come equipped with sound cards that can produce an astonishing variety of music and sound effects. They can record your voice, play back digital recordings stored on your hard disk, generate their own musical instrument sounds and -- if you have a CD-ROM drive -- even play your music CDs in the background while you work.

Unfortunately, the cheap speakers that come with many multimedia kits are better suited to the William-Tell-Overture-on-a-calliope era. They can't match the performance of the sound boards behind them. In fact, by almost any standards, they're awful.

At first, users were so captivated by the fact that their computers could speak and sing and play rock 'n' roll at all that this didn't matter. But this is America, folks, and where there's a vacuum, the market will rush to fill it.

Now the shelves of computer stores are full of self-powered speakers designed to deliver something resembling real music and voice. Priced between $75 and $150 per set, they certainly provide pleasant listening -- possibly on the order of a decent car radio. I've enjoyed the Yamaha YST-10s on my computer, and my kids like their Sony MCS-50s, both of which sell for less than $100.

But because these speakers have to be small enough to fit on your desktop, competing for space with your computer, monitor, printer, modem, telephone and whatever open real estate you need to do your work, they have their limits. They don't produce much bass. So when you blow up the evil Romulan battle cruiser, it goes kathwop when it should really go KABOOM.

This may not seem like a great loss to you (it certainly didn't to me), but the computer bass gap has caught the attention of the audio industry. So the latest and greatest computer speaker systems now have three pieces -- two stereo desktop speakers and a subwoofer that goes on the floor.

If you're like me, you probably didn't know that you needed a subwoofer. In fact, unless you're an audiophile, you probably don't know what a subwoofer is.

It's great. But we'll get to that later. A little technical stuff first.

Because speakers produce sound by moving air at different frequencies, the physics involved make it almost impossible for a single speaker to produce low, middle and high notes with equal fidelity and volume. Although it's possible to do some fudging with modern designs, it generally takes a bigger speaker to make a tuba sound like a tuba and a smaller speaker to make a piccolo sound like a piccolo. As a result, the cabinets of most speakers designed for home audio systems actually contain three separate speakers -- a large woofer for the low notes, a smaller mid-range for the middle tones and a tiny tweeter for high frequencies.

Some years ago, audio system designers found that they could improve on this arrangement with the addition of a single subwoofer for the very lowest frequencies. Because bass is omnidirectional -- your ear can't tell where it's coming from -- only one subwoofer is necessary, and it can be placed on the floor, behind a couch, almost anywhere. The advent of the subwoofer also made it possible to design smaller bookshelf speakers, since they no longer were responsible for the really low notes.

The same basic speaker design is now available for your PC -- if you're willing to spend the money for Big Bass. Three-speaker systems for computers generally run from $200 to $350, although I'm sure you can spend more if you try. If there's any industry that can match the computer business for expensive high-tech add-ons, it's the audio industry.

What if you've already invested in decent desktop speakers?

You don't have to throw them out. You can add a Yamaha YST-MSW10, a separate subwoofer that sits under your desk, hooks up to your existing speakers, and blasts you right out of your chair.

Although it isn't huge (11 by 10 by 8 inches), the YST-MSW10 produces explosions that literally set the furniture vibrating. Suddenly, the crowds cheering in computer baseball games sound like real crowds. Tinny little melodies sound like full orchestrations, and audio CDs sound like they're supposed to sound.

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