Subjective Testing And Conclusion
Even the cheapest LCD television will look great when it’s all by itself. But when you put it beside the premium model and play the same content, that’s when you’ll see a difference. It’s the same thing with speaker systems. I prefer quantitative testing over general opinions any day of the week, but subjective benchmarking can expose weaknesses and strengths of audio and video equipment, as long as you have a number of products to compare.
I played a number of songs and games on all four of these speaker systems. Comparing songs is easy, as I simply listened and quickly swapped the auxiliary jack between them to make comparisons. Games are a little harder to test side by side, so I recorded some Call Of Duty gameplay and compared the speakers, as I did with music.
The following are records of my subjective observations and conclusions:
Altec Lansing Expressionist Bass FX3022
My first impression of the Expressionist Bass FX3022 speakers is that they sound very good. Careful listening suggests that the high end of the spectrum is probably overemphasized. The frequency response suggests a sharp peak at 15 kHz, but these speakers sound like they’re enhancing the upper range more than the chart suggests. People tend to like this sort of sound, since it sounds less muddled to many folks. While audio enthusiasts might not appreciate this effect, I admit I like FX3022's output. Despite an unquestionable emphasis on the highs, music and games have a surprisingly notable bass presence, too.
On the negative side, these speakers lack a feeling of strong, sub-bass power. Because of this, game explosions and noises don’t have the punch I’d like to feel. Aside from this there’s not much to complain about, except for those '+' and '-' volume button controls. Our biggest concern here doesn't involve the FX3022's sound, but the set's lack of headphone output. Nevertheless, for the $105 purchase price (the lowest in our two-channel speaker roundup), there’s undeniable value here. We have no problem recommending the Altec Lansing Expressionist Bass FX3022 to people who want great sound reproduction on a $100 budget.
Bowers & Wilkins MM-1
The Bowers & Wilkins MM-1s have good depth, great presence, and impeccable highs. The frequency is the flattest of the four speaker systems we’ve tried overall, when you consider the sub-bass range.
There’s only one thing missing, and that’s a dip in the audible bass spectrum. As a result, important bass and rhythm notes are noticeably muted in music, and game explosions don’t deliver a solid punch.
Yes, the MM-1s boast amazing build quality, a full-function remote, and an integrated DAC. The USB audio functionality is unique in our roundup and certainly offers advantages, especially for folks who want to use the speakers on a system with lesser-quality audio hardware. But the $499.95 price tag demands solid fundamentals, and without them, the MM-1s are a hard sell, even to elitist audiophiles who might otherwise swear by the Bowers & Wilkins brand.
Creative Gigaworks T40 Series II
Creative’s Gigaworks T40 Series II has a good, even sound. It tends to perform well with hard-hitting rock and dance music, and is a great gaming companion with good bass and detail. What’s great is that you can trim treble and bass to taste with the best controls available in the test group.
Our only complaint is the speakers’ lack of real sub-bass punch—probably due to the plentiful but relatively small 2.5” drivers—and because of this some music will feel stronger than other selections. But the result isn't bad, and on the whole these speakers sound quite good.
They look great, especially with the speaker grilles removed and the orange drivers shown off in all of their 2.5" glory. The $149.99 price tag is high compared to the Altec Lansing FX3022 speakers and quite close to the M-Audio AV 40s, so you should take a close look at the competition before making a decision. Creative’s Gigaworks T40 Series II speakers are certain to appeal to some tastes, though.
M-Audio Studiophile AV 40
The M-Audio Studiophile AV 40s do what reference speakers should: they sound rich and solid, without too much bass or much high-end boost. According to our ears, they offer the flattest and most accurate response in our test group, even if the MM-1s show a flatter sub-bass curve in frequency response tests. Put simply, the AV 40 is the best-sounding system in our test group and probably the best two-channel system we’ve ever heard.
What’s the downside? I suppose some people might not find the traditional look appealing, but that’s subjective at best. Our main concern is the size and price. The AV 40s are quite large and heavy, and one of the strengths of a two-channel PC speaker system should be how easily it fits on a desk. For the $179.99 price tag, you could purchase a 2.1-channel config with smaller satellites for the desktop and a nice bass-emphasizing subwoofer hidden inconspicuously.
To be fair, professionals would likely put the AV 40s on speaker stands behind the desk where they belong, so this might not be a fair complaint. But this is a consumer-level review and it has to be mentioned. Aside from this, the AV 40s offer indisputable sound quality and pro-level connectivity options that make them an attractive product for enthusiasts.
A Final Note
The price spread between premium two-channel and 2.1-channel products is not much at all, yet a subwoofer can add a lot of bass presence. With very good 2.1-channel PC speaker systems starting in the $150 range, you really need to define your PC audio goals to understand which product is right for you. Are size and convenience your primary concerns, or can you you can spare the space and love your bass? Whatever you choose, you should try these options out at a local electronics outlet before you commit to a purchase.