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Refine Your PC's Sound With the Right Speakers

Check out these reasonably priced, yet hi-fi, self-powered options.

You know it and I know it: Audio from that computer of yours stinks.

Pretty much every one of the countless personal computers I have dealt with over the years -- and this includes all the name brands from Apple (AAPL) - Get Free Report, Dell (DELL) - Get Free Report, H-P (HPQ) - Get Free Report and the rest
-- comes with only bare-bones audio support.

"It's tough to get a computer with great components built in," says Enno Vandermeer, CEO of New York-based Sooloos, which makes a high-end digital audio system. "Computer makers really don't like to spend money on audio for their boxes."

If you've wanted higher fidelity, you've traditionally had to invest in a pricey sound card. So-called PCI Audio interfaces, from companies like

M-Audio or

EMU, start at about $75 but easily reach into the hundreds of dollars for even decent sound.

But now there is an alternative to getting better sound out of your computer: a new generation of reasonably priced, yet hi-fi, self-powered speakers.

Self-powered speakers are just that -- they come with amplifiers already built in, so they can run from audio outputs with little or no power behind them, just like the lower-quality audio output found in a computer.

Self-powered speakers are popular in the professional audio world since they can provide excellent quality in a cramped studio. But they are usually too pricey for the mainstream consumer. Affordable self-powered speakers aimed at consumers, like the

Altec Lansing XA 2021 ($50) and the

JBL Duet ($60) may be cute, but they hardly offer quality sound.

But with more and more professional music being made on computers, better speaker makers like M-Audio are coming to market with higher-quality audio speakers aimed at PC audio workstations. And some of these units are within reach of even moderately financed audiophiles.

I have recently been testing a pair of the new $200 self-powered units from M-Audio, the

AV-40 Desktop Speaker System, and the results are impressive.

The units are made with only the best components: 4-inch polypropylene-coated woofers, very nice 1-inch shielded tweeters, up to 20 amps per channel of power and -- most importantly for desktop environments -- a variety of inputs perfectly matched for computers. There is a 1/4-inch stereo input, an RCA input and a 1/8-inch stereo input, as well as several outputs and other connectivity options.

Simply plug the speakers into your computer's audio outputs and you're good to go.

The effect on the sound from my lame old Dell was immediate. Crispness was very good. Details, particularly in vocals and higher-end instrumentals, were restored. I was particularly impressed with the imaging these speakers achieved from very ordinary iTunes and MP3 burns; selections from Massive Attack and Arcade Fire were both clean and dimensional.

To see just how good the sound out of the AV-40s could be, I set them up in my media room. I then ran a pure optical audio output from my Sony CD/DVD player into a Head-Room Pre-Amp to optimize the signal. Though I missed the really rich sound of a larger enclosure in a better speaker, these small AV-40s more than held their own.

Heavily mastered material such as U2's

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were reasonably accurate, and thinner analog music like Billy Holiday's Decca recordings were acceptable. The rich lower tones and the perfect balance that I have heard on a state-of-the-art Linn system or a set of Joseph Audio speakers were missing, but those systems are 10 times the price, at least.

Imaging was also excellent with movie soundtracks.

Children of Men

had an almost surround-sound feel on the AV-40s.

For the money, if you are looking for a fast, relatively cheap way to improve the sound in your study or office, you can't go wrong with these speakers.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.