Hi-Tech 101: Your music – loud and proud

Whether you use an iPod or a ‘Brand X’ device to listen to music your device has long demanded the opportunity to make itself heard.

311_rock speakers (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_rock speakers
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There’s a whole new raft of iPods out there, smaller, prettier, and sharper sounding than ever. On the other hand, there’s a small, nascent backlash out there against iPods, and Apple products in general. Recently, for the first time, Sony Walkman devices outsold iPods in Japan, and Internet chatter against Apple seems to be at an all-time high. And then there’s http://anythingbutipod.com/, which purports to be a rallying point for the anti-iPod crowd.
But whether you use an iPod or a “Brand X” device to listen to music – or just like to listen from your desktop computer – you must have realized by now that your device has long called, nay demanded, the opportunity to make itself heard. Not just to you, but to a whole crowd. For that you need a good sound system – mainly speakers – that will allow the music your device plays to “express itself.” Technically, you can hook up an MP3 player to any set of speakers – but without an amplifier or receiver, the sound will probably be very weak. If you have an existing stereo with a headphone input, all you need is a 1⁄8” miniplug (headphone sized) connector on the player side, with an appropriate connection on the other side (usually RCA connectors). The sound passes from the music player to the speakers through the sound system, so you just get to sit back and enjoy.
The “fun” (see below) begins when you don’t have an existing sound system; now you have the opportunity to do things “right,” to pick up the speakers that will fit right in with your needs, décor etc. For just a few dollars to a few thousand, you can outfit your living room, bedroom – even your garden or pool! – with speakers that will broadcast the super-sound you know your iPod or mini-MP3 player is capable of producing. The same goes for a desktop computer music collection: A good set of speakers can really make things come alive.
In a stereo system, of course, signals are separated into two channels, and broadcast separately by the two speakers in your system – the better to give you a feeling of “being there.” But new developments in the speaker world have gone a long way to improving the stereo experience: Besides plain stereo, there’s now “Stereo 2.1,” as well as “Surround Sound Stereo.” Unlike regular stereo, these two implementations include a built-in subwoofer, which covers deeper bass frequencies – with two speakers in a 2.1 set, and five (usually) in a surround-sound system. However, you want a 2.1 or surround set geared for home entertainment, not specifically for PCs, which are usually designed to enhance computer gaming (the wires, connections and ports are usually the same on all speakers nowadays). The more drivers in the system, the better.
Controls – bass, treble, a remote – that are built into the speaker system can be important, depending on how you use them. For example, if you are using a PC to play the music you’re pumping through the speakers and you’ve set up playlists and chosen equalizer presets (as described last time), you might not need to adjust anything on the speakers – but it might be nice to have those controls anyway.
What device you use to play your sound system music is an important consideration as well: If you are just plugging an MP3 player into the system, you won’t need anything more than a 3.5-mm “mini plug” audio output connector. If you are dedicating a computer to music output and plan on connecting directly to your speakers, you might need USB connections on the speakers as well. And if you are connecting remotely – i.e. without wires – you should seek out a system with built-in Bluetooth or wifi. And then there’s style: If you plan on planting the speakers in the living room, you might want something that can double as an “objet d’art.” And then there’s the issue of power – the watts per channel – which determines how powerful the sound you hear is. An excellent primer on all things speaker – from enclosures to impedance to subwoofers – is available at http://tinyurl.com/3yekv8k.
As mentioned last time, there are two ways of listening to music – objectively, or the nongeeky way. Not to dismiss the importance of subtle differences in the range of kilohertz broadcast by speakers, but most of us are not in a position – either in terms of skills, time, or desire – to undertake extensive tests on how speakers perform. Like with many other products, buying a set from one of the big names in the industry – JBL, Polk, Altec, Bose, Kilpsch, etc. – at the various price points they offer competing products will most likely guarantee you a certain level of quality, a feature set, etc.
So what should you buy? Considering the plethora of speaker systems out there, I would suggest piggybacking on the experience of others who have plunked down money for speakers and learning from them. One good place to undergo that learning experience is at Amazon, which has meticulous reviews for products like speaker systems. Currently, there are 1,880 products under Amazon’s “Home Audio and Theater Speakers” category, and that doesn’t include wifi or Bluetooth speakers! And as you’ll see as you browse the page (http://tinyurl.com/2c5uuuk), the prices on some of the top rated products range between $30 and $300! For my money, though, you can’t do better than a set of rock speakers (http://tinyurl.com/37vs36j) – perfect for the garden or patio, full of music power that is at home outdoors or indoors. And what could be more appropriate than listening to “rock music” through a set of rocks?