What to Look for in Notebook Speakers

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Based on the countless notebooks that pass through our hands each year, we can say with relative certainty that notebook computers, in general, don’t have the greatest audio solutions. In our notebook reviews, it’s not uncommon for us to recommend packing a pair of headphones or a Bluetooth speaker because the notebook’s built-in speaker setup is lacking.

Even if you’re not one to use the built-in speaker setup on your notebook, there are plenty of upsides to having a notebook with a usable set of speakers. If you find yourself on the spot having to play a video for an audience, or your niece or nephew wants to play a video game, you might find yourself being uncharacteristically apologetic if your notebook has subpar speakers.

Let’s sum up the ins and outs of what to look for when it comes to notebook speakers.

Number of Speakers: Quantity or Quality?

Most notebook designs incorporate two speakers; this is known as a stereo setup. A notebook with a single speaker would have a mono setup. The main benefit of a stereo setup over a mono setup is that the stereo setup can produce directional sound by timing the output from each speaker. This allows your brain to perceive sounds as coming from a particular direction.

Panasonic Toughbook CF-20 mono speaker

A mono setup in a notebook is typically used only for devices that are unable to fit two speakers for design reasons. In other words, these devices would typically be small and compact or highly specialized. Regardless of the reason, if you’re concerned about the quality of the sound from a notebook, steer clear of notebooks advertised with mono setups! The last notebook we reviewed with a mono setup was the Panasonic Toughbook CF-20 2-in-1. Reviewer Barney Morisette painfully summed up its audio performance: “As far as audio goes, there’s a fairly loud and clear squawk box in the tablet half of the device and it will function fine as long as it is expected to reproduce beeps and blips. But any attempt at music reproduction should be relegated to a set of headphones.”

Regarding the number of speakers needed for a good-sounding notebook setup, we generally prefer to see two powerful speakers over four less-powerful ones. Properly amplified, larger speakers are able to produce a higher volume of sound than smaller speakers. Moreover, larger speakers tend to have fuller sound than smaller speakers. Their performance potential is simply greater.

Much advancement has been made in making small speakers sound bigger than they really are, especially in smartphones, but this is more due to software trickery than actual performance improvement. The bottom line with audio of any kind is that if you want decent sound, you’ll need to start with speakers of a decent size. In notebooks, that means as big as we can get – which is still not much larger than the speakers used in large headphones.

Speaker Placement

The Razer Blade Stealth features stereo speakers to the left and right of the keyboard

The world’s greatest set of speakers won’t do you much good if they’re facing the wrong direction. A notebook computer is far from an ideal environment for sound reproduction, but designers have to make due with what they have.

Locating the speakers under the palm rest might seem logical, but it’s less than ideal since your wrists will muffle the sound to some degree while you have your hands over the keyboard. We noted this while reviewing the Eurocom Tornado F5 (MSI 16L13) gaming notebook.

In an ideal notebook audio setup, there is a direct line of sight between your ears and the speaker cones themselves. This means the speakers should be located either to the sides or above the keyboard.

The Razer Blade Stealth is an example of a notebook that locates its speakers on either side of the keyboard.

The ongoing demand for thin and light notebooks has resulted in some unconventional developments in notebook sound. An ultra-compact chassis might not leave room for exposed speaker grilles, thus forcing the speakers to reside inside the chassis.

Downward-firing speakers often result in muffled audio.

The Dell Latitude 7480 is one example of a notebook that has speakers integrated within its chassis. They’re located at the middle-front towards the user, and aimed downwards to project sound off of the surface the notebook is resting on. The setup worked better than we expected, though the sound wasn’t quite as clear as it would have been if the speakers were in a direct line of sight with our ears. Downward-firing setups also perform poorly non-solid surfaces, such as a lap, couch, or bed, since they lose much of their ability to project sound.

Are Name Brands Important?

It’s common to see premium notebooks include branded audio solutions. Lenovo is known to use JBL, as it does on its Ideapad Y900 gaming notebook, while HP has used Bang & Olufsen, and Toshiba used Harman Kardon. (The crazy-looking speaker in the image below is from the legendary Toshiba Qosmio X305, which was hot stuff back in 2008!)

The reality of the situation is that these are branded audio solutions. Notebook makers will typically hire a company that specialized in audio to tune the speakers in a given notebook, and then brand them with that company’s name, even if there is no actual hardware from the audio company inside the notebook. We’re not saying that there has never been a notebook that included speakers that were the real deal, but that isn’t typically how it’s done. This same behavior is also common in the automobile industry.

So, is a name brand audio solution in a notebook worth spending extra for? Our experience says not unless it’s more than just marketing hype. We’ve seen more than our fair share of notebooks with branded audio solutions that sounded little better than those with no-name solutions, and no-name solutions that sounded just fine. The Acer Predator 17X is an excellent example of a notebook that doesn’t use branded audio, but still has great sound (for a notebook, that is).

Dedicated Subwoofer

Larger notebooks, especially gaming notebooks, may be advertised as having a “2.1” setup, or a setup with a dedicated subwoofer. We aren’t aware of any notebook currently sold with a real subwoofer, as putting one of those inside a notebook just isn’t practical. The dedicated “subwoofer” in a notebook is usually just another woofer, but one that’s sent lower frequency signals to produce the lower notes. A woofer won’t be able to produce the low notes of a real subwoofer, but it’s better than nothing. A lot of demand is already placed on notebook speakers, given one or two relatively tiny speakers have to reproduce an entire range of sound. Offloading some of that responsibility to a third woofer is usually of benefit.

Our experience says notebook setups with a dedicated woofer for lower notes do, in general, sound more full than setups without. We found the JBL-branded 2.1 setup on the Lenovo Ideapad Y700 to be well above average in terms of volume and fullness.

Conclusion

It’s better to have and not need than the other way around. That’s our mentality on a lot of things, notebook speakers being one of them. Even if you use headphones or external speakers almost exclusively, it’s almost inevitable there will be a situation where you want to show someone your favorite track or the latest video everyone is buzzing about. If your notebook’s speakers are less than optimal, you might find yourself wincing almost as much as those listening.

In the absence of being able to hear a notebook’s speakers for yourself, look for three key aspects of the sound system in a notebook:

  • Number of speakers: a notebook should have at least a stereo setup (two speakers) to produce believable sound. A dedicated subwoofer is always welcome (“2.1” setups). Avoid notebooks with a mono (single) speaker setup if sound output is important to you.
  • Speaker placement: the speaker cones should be in a direct line of sight with your ears. Speakers located above or to the sides of the keyboard are ideal. Ultra-thin notebooks may locate the speakers within the chassis, muffling the sound. Speakers located under the notebook’s palm rest can also be muffled by your wrists while typing.
  • Branded audio solutions: we generally don’t place a whole lot of importance on the actual branding of a notebook’s speakers. We’ll take a well-placed no-name stereo setup over a speaker solution integrated inside a notebook’s chassis any day of the week. Nonetheless, name branding on a notebook’s speakers indicates that the designers probably put a little more effort into the notebook’s sound design than usual.

While there’s no substitute for seeing (and hearing) a notebook in person, the next best thing to do is take a look at a notebook review, and possibly join and ask questions in our community forum.


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