Monday, August 27, 2007

5.1 Speaker Roundup: Budget Minded Folks Only

In search of decent sound on a budget

Being the technophile that I am, time and time again my friends have asked me which set of speakers they should look into. Most of them have 2.1 speaker systems that came with their computers, so almost anything is an upgrade. However, a lot of the time my friends are looking for something more impressive, like 5.1 surround sound for gaming and movie-watching. Since they aren't audiophiles, they aren't usually looking to spend over $100 on speakers; they just want speakers that work. That said—and before we get too deep into this article—I have to warn you that this roundup was intended for the non-audiophile readers who might be on a budget and are looking for a set of 5.1 speakers that aren't going to burn a hole in their pockets.

The problem with budget speakers, though, is that it's hard to expect much, and you never really know what you're going to end up with in terms of long-term quality. They often get watery-sounding at high volumes and blow out in a few weeks if played too loudly. So I rounded up three sets of 5.1 speakers that you can typically find in any Circuit City or Best Buy aisle and put them up against each other for a few weeks to find out which cheapo model has decent sound.

The three sets I chose to include were the Logitech X-540, the Creative Inspire P5800, and the Altec Lansing vs3251. I've seen 5.1 offerings from each of these systems at stores nearby and have always wondered how they'd actually sound when matched up with one another. The Altec Lansing set has an infrared remote control, an uncommon feature in budget systems. I'd also heard about the Logitech's ability to "swivel" in order to transform itself from a desktop speaker to a wall-mounted one. Are they sturdy? Would the remote work? Could these systems stand up to long hours of hard-core machine-gunning and maintain volumes loud enough to wake the neighborhood during a party?

From left to right: Creative Inspire P5800, Logitech X-540, and Altec Lansing vs3251

My testing methodology was simple. I set each of the sets up either on my desk in my room or in the living room. The two rooms are virtually the same size, so switching between the two offered very little difference in terms of atmosphere. In both environments, the front three speakers were positioned eighteen feet in front of the two rear speakers. In my living room, the front two speakers were spaced five feet apart, with the central speaker directly in between them. In my bedroom, the three front speakers were positioned similarly, but with three feet separating the left and right speakers. I would have liked to set them at a greater distance apart, but with a short desk and a lack of speaker stands, I was not able to carry out this configuration.

To test speaker performance, I did what any consumer would do: I played the speakers during parties, while watching movies, or just listening to music at my desk. I played the volume at uncomfortable listening levels; just to simulate the moron at every party that turns up his favorite song so loud that the speakers nearly blow. I also looked for unique options on each set of speakers: do they have a headphone jack on them or provide one on a volume dial? Do they have an easily accessible on/off button or volume controls? I looked for things consumers might not always consider when purchasing a set of budget speakers; after all, purchasing such a set can often be shot in the dark when it comes to performance.

My test system includes a Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS, and I used Creative software to tweak the surround-sound settings.

Logitech X-540

Logitech X-540
Logitech (product page)
Price: $99.99 (shop for these speakers)

The Logitech X-540s were the most attractive of the bunch reviewed. The set has four 8.4" tall satellite speakers, one large down-firing subwoofer, and a 7.8" long center channel speaker. Except for the subwoofer, each speaker can be mounted on a wall, and the center speaker can actually be mounted on the front of your monitor, provided the LCD clip fits. In my case, the center channel speaker was able to rest on top of my monitor, but the clip wasn't strong enough to prevent it being knocked off if I accidentally bumped into my desk. Each speaker has a small hole in the back so that it can be hung on a nail or screw on your wall. I tested this and found that all of the speakers were able to hang snugly against the surface without sticking out awkwardly. The coolest part about the X-540's stand is that it doubles as both a foot for the speaker and also as a wall mount. While sitting on your desk, the speaker rests upon its feet and sits vertically; to hang it on a wall, you can spin the feet counter-clockwise so that they rest on the backside of the speaker and work as wall mounts.

I used the X-540s in two environments: on my computer and connected to my television. The X-540s sounded beautiful while being used with my Creative Audigy 2 ZS sound card. I placed the center speaker on my monitor, and the front satellite speakers roughly two feet to the left and right of the monitor. The rear speakers were placed in line with the two front speakers, roughly 10 feet behind me and mounted on the wall. Each of my tests for all of the sets were done in this fashion. The bass was powerful but not too overbearing, and the speakers sounded crisp at high volume levels without breaking out into the high-pitched, ear-burning, watery haze of sound that often come with cheap speaker sets at high volumes. However, at about 75 percent of the speaker volume in Led Zepplin's Going to California, there was a noticeable amount of static-like white noise during the soft opening moments of the song.

The second environment I tested the X-540s in was my television in my living room. I had the speakers set up similarly to my setup above, except that the center speaker sat on top of my television, and the speakers were all mounted about five feet off of the ground and roughly eight feet from me on my couch, in both directions. Again, each set of speakers was tested in this fashion. The X-540s come with a rather interesting option to support 2-channel devices. On the wired Logitech volume control remote, there's an option for "Matrix Mode," which essentially creates the effect of surround sound from 2-channel devices. Unfortunately, while the sound is acceptable, some of the satellites actually sound foggy and unclear in Matrix mode, and the mode actually sounds more like each speaker is producing the same sounds instead of acting in a real bullets-whizzing-behind-you surround-sound fashion. The bass, however, was still deep and thumped as powerfully as it had in full 5.1 surround sound mode.

Although I liked the volume control piece, I did not appreciate that it was hard-wired to the back of the subwoofer. Unless it was literally taped down, the controller would slide around my desk or fall on the floor quite frequently. I would have appreciated a wireless remote much more, and with a set of speakers that sounded this great for $61, it would have really sealed the deal for the X-540s in terms of value for price. It did, however, have a headphone jack on the side, which was very useful when I wanted quick access to one. (I still run a computer where the jacks are in the back, not the front.)

Aside from the small setbacks with the remote, the Logitech X-540s held up for weeks without a quiver, sounded great in full 5.1, and were acceptable in 2-channel mode, although I don't suggest using them with your television if you can avoid it. White noise was an issue at higher volumes in soft tracks but was not noticeable in songs without much quiet time. They mount easily on the wall and sit firm and snug, and they don't cackle or squeal at high volumes over long periods of time. I think one of the more important things worth nothing is that during the review period, I was asked quite a few times by friends and family how much these speakers cost, and it was certainly priceless to see their amazed expressions when I told them they were only $61 on Amazon. Overall, these easily win my choice in the roundup, and the price tag makes them even more desirable.


  • Sound quality
  • Awesome swivel-mount option
  • Center speaker has monitor mount
  • Never blew at high volumes


  • Matrix mode option was watery
  • Slight static at high volumes in some songs

No comments: