After spending more than 70 hours researching 98 active computer-speaker systems and having a blind listening panel evaluate 11 of them, we’ve found that the Mackie CR3 are the best computer speakers for most people. They have all the inputs you’ll need, along with easy-to-use controls, and offer good sound quality for their price.
There are better-sounding speakers that cost much more, and cheaper speakers that sound decent as well, but the Mackie CR3 have the right blend of sound quality and user-friendliness. Their sound profile favors midrange and vocals, but beats most others in the under-$100 price range. We also like that they have a convenient front aux input that’s great for plugging in phones temporarily, and an easily accessible volume knob on the front that lets you adjust output levels without fumbling for a remote or having to access the back panel.
If the CR3s are unavailable, or if you need built-in Bluetooth, the Mackie CR4BT are a solid backup option. The model’s larger 4-inch woofers provide better bass response and they sound great in the treble range as well, but the speakers are held back by a thin-sounding midrange (where vocals and lead instruments live), and some listeners may notice some mild distortion. Bluetooth pairing is easy, but the wireless connection sounds thinner compared with the wired one.
For someone looking for better sound reproduction, even more connection options (like Bluetooth and an optical input), with desktop real estate to spare, the Edifier R2000DB pair is an excellent upgrade. Our panelists all agreed that they had a generally pleasant sound profile and especially excelled in the vocal midrange. Aesthetically, they owe more to classic audiophile bookshelf speakers than desktop computer speakers. The angled speaker front and choice of a cherry wood finish add welcome variety to the collection of black rectangles that permeate the category.
If your budget is under $50 but you still want sound that beats the speakers built into your laptop, the Logitech Z313 Speaker System is the way to go. It’s a 2.1 system, which means it comes with a subwoofer to give it a thumping—sometimes overtly so—bass response. It’s limited by a single input: A 3.5 mm connector that plugs into your computer’s audio-out jack. But this is an acceptable trade-off given its bargain price and decent sound.
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Why you should trust us
I have worked in the audio/video industry since 2003 writing for publications such as Home Theater magazine (now Sound & Vision) and as tech columnist for Channel Guide magazine. I also work as a freelance film sound editor and composer in Los Angeles. I am always searching for the next best studio monitor to augment my home studio.
Our listening panelists, Lauren Dragan and Brent Butterworth, both write for The Wirecutter. Lauren Dragan has listened to hundreds of headphones and speakers as our headphone specialist and writer for outlets such as Sound & Vision, HE Mag, and Home Theater. Brent has reviewed and measured audio equipment since the 1980s. He writes for SoundStage and Home Theater Review, has worked as editor-in-chief for Home Theater and Home Entertainment, contributing technical editor for Sound & Vision, senior editor of Video, reviews editor of Windows Sources, and marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. Brent also conducts all of The Wirecutter’s audio measurements.
Who should get these
If you’ve relied on the speakers in your laptop or computer monitor, you probably notice that the sound is thin and tinny with little to no bass. Accurate sound reproduction is often dependent on speaker size, and the small tweeters that fit in your laptop can produce only a portion of the frequency band that humans can hear. They tend to bottom out around 2,000 hertz (and not in a graceful way), whereas humans can hear down to around 20 hertz and feel even lower than that. By separating the reproduction duties of instrument presence, sparkle, and airiness (higher frequencies handled by the tweeter) from instrument body and boom (lower frequencies handled by the woofer), a set of two-way computer speakers allows you to hear parts of songs that you would otherwise miss from a pair of laptop speakers. For example, a kick drum that sounds like a dull clap out of laptop speakers will sound more like the full-bodied thump you’d expect to hear at a concert.
Active computer speakers are a great solution for anyone who spends any amount of time listening to audio at their computer. Whether you’re listening to music, watching movies, or gaming, a set of speakers will greatly improve your audio experience. In addition to the increase in frequency-range reproduction, adding a pair of external speakers allows for greater stereo separation of the audio—so if you’re playing a shooter, you won’t just hear the gunshots, you’ll know which direction they’re coming from. The two-way woofer/tweeter design of these speakers, matched with a dedicated power source, will increase the sonic fidelity of anything you listen to.
How we picked
Computer speakers vary drastically in terms of size, price, and options. To narrow the field we set our upper price limit at $250 a pair; our research and buying trends show that most people look for speakers that cost around $100. This time we included speakers down to $30 for budget-conscious buyers. We considered only powered or active speakers (which include a built-in amp) and limited our search to woofers smaller than 5 inches wide. A general rule in speaker design is the larger the driver, the lower the frequencies that can be reproduced, but going beyond 5 inches leads to an unmanageably large desktop footprint. It is possible to use passive bookshelf speakers in a computer audio setup by adding an external amplifier, but it requires more desk space.
Computer speakers should be easy to use and versatile, so we looked for systems that included an accessible volume control and a line input to connect to the audio output of a computer, phone, or other source. The volume control could be built into the front of one of the speakers or a separate remote control, as long as it’s easy to access. Extra features—such as Bluetooth capability, a headphone jack, or additional inputs—add to the overall value but are not mandatory.
After researching all of the currently available models on sites like Amazon and Newegg, I looked through product reviews by audio experts such as Steve Guttenberg at CNET and the writers at Sound & Vision, as well as speaker reviews on PCMag and Engadget. After discussing my findings with two of The Wirecutter’s audio experts, Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison, I narrowed to 11 speaker systems for testing.
How we tested
Before subjecting the speakers to blind listening tests, we broke them in with music and video content over several weeks. We then separated the speakers into groups (3-inch woofers, larger-than-3-inch woofers, and 2.1 systems), matched the sound levels of each pair, then covered them with a thin black fabric to keep the identities hidden.
Wirecutter writers Lauren Dragan and Brent Butterworth joined me for the listening panel using an iPhone connected via an RCA splitter box as our audio source to easily switch between speakers. We discussed each grouping after listening blind, then revealed the models and factored in features and prices in order to make our picks.
With more inputs, outputs, and control features than most speakers, plus solid audio performance, we think the Mackie CR3 pair are the best active computer speakers for most people. Their sound profile favors the midrange and vocals, and they create nice open highs, though the small woofer size limits the low end. Their price makes them an easy upgrade for anyone looking for decent speakers for music, movies, or computer games.
The CR3s won us over with their versatility and accessibility, both of which are important on a crowded computer desk. The speakers have three input options. On the back is an unbalanced RCA input as well as a ¼-inch input that could be either unbalanced or balanced (TRS), depending on your source output and cables. These two inputs are shared. In addition, there’s a ⅛-inch TRS aux input on the front. This allows easy access for plugging in another temporary source, like a phone, without moving the speakers or struggling with blindly fumbling behind the desk searching for an input. Next to the aux in is a headphone-out jack that defeats the internal amp, meaning no audio signal will come out of the speakers when the headphones are plugged in. It doesn’t have Bluetooth built in, but you can add it with an affordable adapter or spring for the slightly larger (and more expensive) Mackie CR4BT, which has Bluetooth built in, but is only our runner-up because of a thinner-sounding midrange.
The volume knob located on the front of the powered speaker controls the volume whether it comes from the speakers or connected headphones. And though there’s a power switch on the back of the speaker, turning the volume knob fully counterclockwise until it clicks will turn off the speakers. We think this should come standard on 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 a powered speaker position switch. 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 the power and audio cables need to run.
The CR3 speakers have a nice, balanced midrange that supports vocals well without being too forward. The low end can get a little bloated and muddy as it approaches the 80 hertz lower limit of the speakers’ range. This isn’t too surprising with only a 3-inch woofer handling those frequencies. There is a nice openness to the higher frequencies, although Lauren said the highs were “a bit coarse” and Brent added they sounded “thin and a little soft on top.” But we all agreed that the Mackie pair sounded better than most in their price range.
Best of all, the Mackie CR3 speakers usually cost less than $100. That’s only two-thirds of what our previous pick, the M-Audio AV 40, cost at its lowest price. They even come with acoustic pads to help with noise isolation and limit the low-frequency vibrations from transferring to your desk (these typically cost at least $20 as a separate purchase). The utility you get from these speakers at that price is fantastic.
MusicTech also liked them, finding that “the overall sound was open and transparent with a nicely airy treble” and that the speakers “offer sensible features for a range of uses.” Edd Harris of The Pro Audio Web Blog referred to their build quality, saying they “are exceptionally well built for such an ultra affordable retail price” and gave them a full five-star rating.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As mentioned earlier, the sound reproduction does leave something to be desired. There isn’t a direct way (or an adjustable crossover) to add a subwoofer and take some of the load off of the woofers. Playing at high volume can also accentuate the coarseness of the high end.
There’s a ring of light around the volume control—in this case green. If you plan to watch movies on your computer in low light, this could get distracting. Similarly, the green rings surrounding the drivers aren’t the most subtle design choice.
There were some Amazon complaints of units that stopped working after a few months. The speakers come with a one-year all-inclusive, nontransferable warranty in case those issues crop up.
If our pick is sold out, or if you need Bluetooth, the Mackie CR4BT speakers are a fine choice. Their styling and features are similar to those of the CR3 pair, including the green accents around the drivers and volume knob. The back-panel inputs of the powered speaker are identical, and they look nearly the same from the front—save for the addition of a Bluetooth button. However, the CR4BT speakers have a slightly larger footprint than our pick due to larger, 4-inch woofers compared with the CR3 model’s 3-inch woofers (they share the same 50-watt amp), and the CR4BT pair costs a bit more. If you’re more interested in bass than the sacrifice in the vocal warmth, the Mackie CR4BT speakers are worth a listen.
The CR4BT model’s larger drivers produce a nicely formed low end without overpowering the upper range. Both Lauren and I found the bass to have more depth and space than that of the smaller CR3 speakers. But in the midrange, where the CR3 pair excelled, these fell flat. It sounds like there are possible crossover issues that result in a weirdly dry and lispy vocal range. Additionally, Brent also heard some bass distortion that could affect the pitch of higher overtones. Lauren and I didn’t find it as distracting as Brent did. When listening over Bluetooth music sounds more compressed, losing some of the bass oomph and getting a bit tinny in the highs.
Bluetooth-device pairing is quick for the CR4BT speakers, and you can easily reconnect a previously paired device by tapping the button on the front of the speaker. However, every time you turn it on, it will connect to the previous two devices that were used. Being able to connect to two devices simultaneously is a nice feature, but we wish it didn’t automatically connect to both when it’s powered on. Hearing undesired phone notifications through the speakers gets irritating if you don’t remember to manually disconnect it.
The Edifier R2000DB speakers cost more than twice our pick, but that extra money pays off in substantially better sound, some added functionality, and two nice finish options—piano black and cherry wood. These are solid speakers built to be around for a long time. They are also the largest of the speakers we tested at 11.34 by 6.89 by 9.06 inches (HWD) with a slant to the front that angles the drivers up. Ideal placement is below your head so the drivers are aimed toward your ears.
The five-inch woofers on the R2000DB pair were the largest we tested and they handled the bass expectedly better than the 3-inch and 4-inch competition, but there was still some boominess to the bass. Brent found them to be “a little bloated on the bottom” and Lauren commented that the “lows are a little woofy.” The rest of the frequency range was delightful. The midrange was nice and open and the highs were crisp. Brent also noted they had low distortion. You can also adjust the treble and bass levels with two knobs on the back of the powered speaker.
In addition to two RCA line-in connections, the Edifier speakers also sport Bluetooth connectivity and an optical input, and even throw in the cable. The optical connection allows you to send a digital PCM signal to the speakers. The speakers accept sampling rates of 44.1, 48, and 96 kilohertz over the optical connection. Pairing with Bluetooth is easy, and we didn’t run into any connectivity issues. They use Bluetooth 4.0 and unlike the Mackie CR4BT pair, they sound just as good over a wireless connection as they do over a wired one. The only real bottleneck will be the quality of your digital files. Unfortunately, there isn’t any input or headphone jack on the front of the speaker. So if you have a device that doesn’t have Bluetooth you will need to move the speaker to access the back-panel connections.
Also missing from the front of the speaker is any volume control knob, but the speakers do come with a remote that allows you to adjust volume, select the input, or change listening modes. The remote also allows you to sit back away from your workstation and still control the audio. Both the buttons and the remote itself are on the small side, and anyone with above-average-size hands or fingers could find it frustrating. The buttons aren’t backlit either, so you’ll need to memorize button placement if you’re in low ambient light. And if you misplace that remote you’ll need to reach around to the back of the speaker for any adjustments. None of this is ideal, but the overall sound quality and feature set make them a good upgrade for those willing to spend a bit more.
Edifier has a two-year limited warranty for defects in materials workmanship from the purchase date. If you run into problems and parts are defective you can ship it back or bring it to an authorized service provider for a repair or replacement.
Anyone looking to spend less than $50 on computer speakers will like the Logitech Z313 Speaker System. The sound quality is nowhere near what you can get compared with that of the Mackie CR3 or Edifier R2000DB pairs, but the system costs less than the latest Mass Effect release. The options are extremely streamlined, and the curved plastic look is reminiscent of computer speaker systems from the 1990s with a more modern aesthetic.
The Z313 model is one of the few 2.1 systems that we tested, and it’s very apparent that the subwoofer makes a difference. The bass is a bit boomy, and at high volumes the pitch gets wonky, but at moderate volume the boomy bass is something we could live with, especially when watching movies or playing games. The mids are a bit thin-sounding and the highs have a harsh edge to them.
The system has a control pod remote hardwired into the sub and connects to your computer’s headphone jack (or line-out, if you have it). There you’ll find a volume wheel, an on/standby button, and a headphone jack. The two passive speakers get plugged into the sub, and there’s one power cable that’s hardwired into the sub. That’s it. The Z313 system is about as plug-and-play as you can get.
Logitech’s Z625 model is a THX-certified 2.1 system and delivered more bass than most of the speakers we tested. The top could be a bit strident at times, but not enough that it turned us away. If you’re looking for a bass-heavy system that has an optical connection for under $200 this is definitely worth a listen.
The PreSonus Eris 4.5 system’s low end was a little muddy and the mids were a bit covered. There are controls on the speaker back to adjust the frequency bands, so there is a possibility to fine-tune the sound more to your liking. But they are double the price of the CR3 pair.
Samson’s MediaOne BT3 is one of the few stereo computer speaker systems under $100 that has Bluetooth. Their sound, though, is very muffled and the mids sound a bit forward, like cupping your hands around your mouth.
Creative’s Sound BlasterX Kratos S3 was surprisingly lacking in its bass response, especially having a separate subwoofer. The mids were a bit forward and the highs were sibilant and a little fatiguing.
Having the most unique design of our listening panel, JBL’s Jembe are another pair of sub-$100 Bluetooth speakers. We liked the sound for the price, as long as the volume wasn’t up too high, otherwise the bass fluttered and the highs were tizzy. Also, its Bluetooth connection was unreliable.
We brought in the Micca PB42X speakers after reading some favorable reviews. Unfortunately, we found that the bottom end produced extreme port noise. There was also a big midrange peak that added a twang to the sound. Our sample also had the left and right channels reversed.
After having the M-Audio AV 40 as our previous pick, we had high hopes for the company’s AV 42 model. We were disappointed. Lauren called the excessive bass “ridiculous” and Brent said it “obscures everything else.”
(Photos by Kyle Fitzgerald.)
- When will we have perfect speakers?, CNET, May 30, 2012 ,
- What’s the Ideal Speaker Driver Configuration?, HomeTheaterReview.com, July 11, 2016 ,
- What’s the Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced?, Aviom Blog
- What Is the Optical Audio Port, and When Should I Use It?, How-To Geek, February 10, 2016 ,