Best budget desktop speakers

  1. Budget desktop speakers group test for the Apple User's Gift Guide, December 2013

Whether you’re into music, movies or games, these desktop speakers fit the bill – perfectly

Best budget desktop speakers, Apple User's Gift Guide, December 2013
I originally wrote this article for the Apple User’s Gift Guide (December 2013)

On test

It wasn’t that long ago that the idea that someone would sit down and listen to music or watch a movie on their computer would be a complete anathema to most people. That’s what ‘proper’ audio gear was for. Thanks to the rise of iTunes most of us now do exactly that, but you shouldn’t have to compromise on sound quality.

Apple has certainly taken steps massively increase the sound quality from the speakers built into the iMac and even the MacBook, but nothing beats a dedicated set of external speakers to really make the content you love come alive. 

The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Makers of external speakers don’t face the same compromises when having to squeeze drive units into super-slim enclosures like the iMac or MacBook, so their speakers can be bigger, beefier and better optimised for desktop listening.

You also get the benefit of better flexibility. Having discrete left and right channel speakers enables you to place them exactly where you need to create a stereo soundstage – that magical effect where vocals and instruments appear to float in front you. You also have the flexibility to choose different systems to suit your needs and budget: 2-channel (stereo) systems; 2.1-channel systems with an extra subwoofer or even speakers with Bluetooth for wires-free listening.

Another benefit is that if your speakers in your Mac break for some reason, you’re going to have to take the whole shebang back the shop you bought it from to get it looked at. If your speakers go boom you can simply unplug them, get them repaired and still carry on using your Mac as before. You also have the ability to upgrade them for a better set at any time. 

To help you choose the right speakers for you we’ve rounded up five of the best budget buys for this test and put them through a series of challenges. Each is priced between £100 and £150, making them ideal gifts for family, for friends and for you.

Test 1: Features

What do you get for your money?

The speakers in this group test are a diverse bunch. Three of them – the Acoustic Energy Aego M, Cambridge Audio Minx M5 and Edifier PrismaB – are 2.1-channel systems, which comprise a pair of tiny satellite speakers that you place either side of your Mac along with a deep-bass generating subwoofer than you can stick either on your desk or underneath it.

The other two – the Logitech Z600 and Creative Gigaworks T40 Series II – are a more traditional stereo pair. Both types of systems have their merits, but there are other factors in play.

Both the Edifier PrismaBT and Logitech Z600 can connect to your Mac wirelessly using Bluetooth; while the others have to be connected to your Mac via an analogue audio output.

The Cambridge Audio Minx M5 and PrismaBT also have wired desktop remotes making it easy for you to adjust the volume, with the others having on-board controls. The Creative Gigaworks T40 SII has the widest range of adjustment options, with bass, treble and volume dials.

Test 1: Results

  • Acoustic Energy Aego M ★★★★
  • Cambridge Audio Minx M5 ★★★★
  • Creative Gigaworks T40 SII ★★★★★
  • Edifier PrismaBT ★★★
  • Logitech Bluetooth Z600 ★★★

Test 2: Design & Build

What do they look like? Will they last?

Of all the speakers in this test, its the Edifier PrismaBT, which is the most striking. Its trio of silver, triangular speakers certaintly look stylish alongside your Mac and has lots of neat little touches – like the illuminated panel on top of the subwoofer. 

Costing just £100, the Edifier PrismaBT unfortunately also feels as if it’s been built to a price. Plastic is everywhere and some of it – especially on the subwoofer – feels pretty flimsy. We also like the quirky design of the Logitech Z600, with its gently tapering towers and touch-sensitive top-mounted volume control.

The Creative Gigaworks T40 SII speakers by contrast are big, bulky almost old-fashioned in their design, but their chunkiness is a good thing, as you’ll discover later.

The final beauty contest falls to the Acoustic Energy Aego M and Cambridge Audio Minx M5. Both are 2.1-channel systems with small, cuboid satellites and a separate beefy subwoofer. Of the two the Aego M edges it. It looks better and feels better made. We also like the way the satellites are aimed at your ears, without the need for a stand.

Test 2: Results

  • Acoustic Energy Aego M ★★★★★
  • Cambridge Audio Minx M5 ★★★
  • Creative Gigaworks T40 SII ★★★★
  • Edifier PrismaBT ★★★
  • Logitech Bluetooth Z600 ★★★

Test 3: Ease of setup

Which is simplest: wired or wires-free?

With three wired and two wireless systems to choose from, some kind of frustration seems inevitable, but in fact all of these systems were straightforward to set up and use.

The most complicated was the Cambridge Audio Minx M5, which uses spring clip terminals for the left / right satellites, plus a RS232-style connector for its wired remote, although everything was clearly labelled.

The least complex was the Creative Gigaworks T40 SII, which was almost plug ‘n’ play. The two Bluetooth systems fared very well. The Logitech Z600 emitted lots of helpful beeps and chimes to let you know its pairing status – although connecting the active speaker to the passive speaker using the supplied cables was frustrating – we couldn’t get the two parts of the dovetail joint at one end of the cable to mesh together properly even after several attempts.

The Edifier PrismaBT’s solution was simpler and it paired with our Mac first time. The Acoustic Energy Aego  comes in around the middle – not easy, but not too taxing either.

Test 3: Results

  • Acoustic Energy Aego M ★★★
  • Cambridge Audio Minx M5 ★★
  • Creative Gigaworks T40 SII ★★★★★
  • Edifier PrismaBT ★★★★
  • Logitech Bluetooth Z600 ★★★

Test 4: Audio quality

Ear-strokingly good or chin-strokingly bad?

If it’s sound quality that matters most to you (and it should) then there really is only one winner here and that’s the Acoustic Energy Aego M. Transparent, detailed and beautifully balanced, it makes your iTunes collection come alive in way that’s quite unexpected and you never, ever want the experience to stop. Phenomenal. Especially at £130.

Both the Creative Gigaworks T40 SII and Cambridge Audio Minx M5 come within touching distance, although the Creative has the edge when it comes to sheer musicality.

The Edifier PrismaBT is up next. Despite being the cheapest system here, it put in a very credible performance with a transparent delivery and musical bass, it doesn’t have the power to go as loud as we would like.

This leaves the Logitech Z600 tailing in last place. Despite its many virtues as a 2-channel system, its performance is average at best. The sound is woolly with a muddled mid-range and overcooked – and non-adjustable – bass. And that’s disappointing when its arch-rivals in this test are so much better.

Test 4: Results

  • Acoustic Energy Aego M ★★★★★
  • Cambridge Audio Minx M5 ★★★★
  • Creative Gigaworks T40 SII ★★★★
  • Edifier PrismaBT ★★★
  • Logitech Bluetooth Z600 ★★

The Winner

Is it possible to get a decent desktop speaker set up for the £150 or less? The answer is an emphatic yes. And the Acoustic Energy Aego M proves it. This 2.1-channel system looks right, is beautifully built, has some neat design touches – like the cleverly angled satellite speakers – and sounds phenomenal. If you didn’t know better you’d think it cost at least £100-£200 more.

The Creative Gigaworks T40 Series II is another surprise. Although it’s a basic 2-channel system, the attention to detail displayed in its design and in its sound quality make it worthy of second place. In joint third are the Cambridge Audio Minx M5 and the Edifier PrismaBT.  Both sound good, but are flawed in other ways. The Logitech Z600 brings up the rear, thank to its sub-par performance and a relatively high price tag compared to its rivals.

Final results

  • Acoustic Energy Aego M ★★★★★
  • Cambridge Audio Minx M5 ★★★
  • Creative Gigaworks T40 SII ★★★★
  • Edifier PrismaBT ★★★
  • Logitech Bluetooth Z600 ★★

How we tested

To discover which set of budget speakers sounded the best we tested them with a wide range of musical styles from hip-hop and dance to driving rock, classical and a chunk of Frank Sinatra. Choosing different types of music enables you to reveal how each speaker performs. Bass-heavy tracks can reveal weaknesses in  subwoofers and bass drivers; while songs with strong vocal performances tell you how well or how badly the mid-range performs.

All of the tracks we used were encoded using Apple Lossless, rather than AAC Plus or MP3 to give us the best balance between sound quality and convenience – the extra realism they deliver really is worth it.

We also looked at how easy each system was to set up and use – 2.1-channel systems can be tricky because of the sheer number of cables and connections involved, although wires-free speakers have their challenges too. We also looked design and build quality. Obviously you want  something that’s going to look good parked next to your Mac, but design is also about logical a product is easy to use and whether it’s tough enough to withstand years of (mis)use.

Finally, there’s the question of value for money. We’d rather have a no-nonsense system that focuses on what’s truly important (in this case, sound) than one that’s filled with features that serve little purpose.