Think Like A Pro To Get Big Sound At Your Desktop

High quality audio through your computer’s mini-jack? Yes, it is possible. Examples include, from top, Beyerdynamic closed-ear headphones, Audacity streaming software, Logitech self-powered speakers and subwoofer.

DIGITAL – You may be surprised that you can enjoy great musical sound from your computer. But to get there, you first need to address some basic questions, ranging from what you expect to hear to the space available on your desk.

For instance, do you use a laptop? If you have a desktop, what are the footprints of your monitor and your keyboard? The answers will determine the size of the speakers you will want to consider. Will you be satisfied with conventional stereo from your computer, or do you want to go for stereo with a sub-woofer? Let’s look some of the options:

Self-powered stereo computer speakers

Unless you travel extensively and are content with the most basic sound performance, avoid the ubiquitous, cheap speakers that plug into that mini-jack (also called headphone jack) on your computer – they rely on the computer’s built-in electronics to amplify the sound. The quality isn’t good enough for serious listening. Look instead for a set of self-powered speakers, with a low-frequency “woofer” and high-frequency “tweeter,” that use an AC-powered amplifier built into the speaker enclosure to drive the sound. Powered speakers generally provide better bass response and some come with sub-woofers for deeper bass. A good example is the Logitech z533 – pictured above – with a sub-woofer ($99). Click here to watch a video showing how the system hooks together.

Audioengine’s A2+ speakers plug into the USB port.

If you feel that you want still better sound from your computer, look at a set of AC-powered USB (Universal Serial Bus) speakers, which receive the audio signal in digital form from your computer’s USB port instead of the mini-jack. Unless a sub-woofer’s deeper bass is a critical criterion, it’s best to increase your spending on the standard stereo speakers themselves to get better bass response from them alone. Examples of high-end models include Audioengine’s A2+ USB powered units ($249.00), which have a built-in digital-to-analog convertor (DAC) and an optional output for connecting to a subwoofer if you want one. Another excellent choice is the similar, slightly less expensive, Kanto YU2.

Going pro: the mini-monitor

Rokit 5 studio monitors have separate high- and low-frequcncy dials.

Pro speakers, or mini-monitors, are designed for the close-listening and low-volume environment of home recording studios working with sound on a PC or a Mac. Minis are intended to come sonically neutral from the factory. They are designed not to color or enhance the sound in order to allow accurate music mixing; they emphasize even response over their entire frequency spectrum. Prices of minis range upwards from $200 per pair. Due to the dimensions of the woofer, minis will tend to be larger than computer speakers. The 11-inch tall KRK Rokit 5 Generation 3 studio monitors are a good example at $300 per pair. Each speaker has a 1-inch soft dome tweeter and a 5-inch glass-Aramid woofer. On the back are dials to customize volume, high-frequency, and low-frequency – for testing and personal preference. (This explanatory video offers additional detail.)

Better quality head gear

Beyerdynamic DT 770 studio headphones are widely used for high-end listening.

We use earbuds all the time with our portable devices, with our Roku streaming receiver and who knows what else. It’s easy to accept the sonic limitations of the portable devices we hear through our ear-buds, since they aren’t really intended to be high-fidelity.

But what kind of head gear is appropriate for listening from our computers? The sound from today’s PC is limited only by what we want to hear, from standard Spotify quality to high resolution, DSD-encoded HD audio files.

One good example of a manufacturer of high-end headphones is Beyerdynamic, which has been around for decades. The popular DT770 model is used by many professional engineers. It’s relatively expensive ($179), but it has pro-quality sound with a closed-ear design to minimize outside noise, and it can be connected directly to the computer mini-jack. (More technical specs here.)

Streaming classical music live

Hamburg’s Norddeutscher Rundfunk streams its classical programming.

Streaming isn’t the ultimate in fidelity sound your computer is capable of reproducing, but it can be surprisingly satisfying.

Hundreds of radio stations in the U.S. stream classical music, but the better sources for streaming audio – and often streaming video, too – are found in Europe, beginning with the BBC’s streams of its Radio 3 channel. Stations on the Continent include the German regional public stations, such as WDR and NDR, the French public radio channel, France musique, several stations in the Netherlands, and public broadcasters in Scandinavia. (Here’s a partial list.) Some of these stations also have YouTube channels where older programming can be viewed or downloaded.

Remember that these stations are five to eight hours ahead of U.S. time. And non-English stations can always help you brush up on your languages!

Recording high-definition classical music

Internet Download Manager is great for new releases and latest versions of golden oldies.

With terabytes of storage readily at hand, your computer can be used to capture and store available music through a streaming or download-grabbing service. One of the most reliable and highly rated audio-stream recorders is Audacity, which also has a component that lets you edit audio files – as for a podcast. Audacity is freeware.

HD downloads were designed for PC users – the quality is several steps above CD. If you’re interested in newly recorded performances by lesser-known artists, jazz, or the latest iterations of the golden oldies of the 1950s, these HD downloads are where it’s at. The premiere audio capture software is the Internet Download Manager, which makes downloading a breeze, not just for audio files, but for other media and video files. A 30-day free trial period is available.

Hold onto that older computer!

Whether you just listen or download or both, your PC can deliver surprising sonic pleasure, regardless of what you’re doing on the screen. But don’t assume your new computer will play your CDs. If your computer is a few years old, you should have an optical-disc drive that plays CDs. Newer laptops increasingly will eliminate the drives entirely to make them slimmer.

Michael Gray is editor-in-chief of He has contributed to High Fidelity-Musical America, The Absolute Sound, Classic Press, and Stereo Sound, and has written liner notes for Universal Classics, Sony Classical, Angel Records, and others.

In addition to capturing audio, Audacity can be used for post-processing – for example, to make a podcast.