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The State of PC Speakers

Let’s face it, PC speakers have stagnated. Ever since the pre-Creative Labs Cambridge Soundworks developed the original MicroWorks, PC speakers have steadily improved in sound quality. The major PC speaker makers seem to have reached a plateau, while experiments by home audio makers dabbling in PC speakers have been less than successful, with the exception of Klipsch.

Let’s get something straight here: When I talk about PC speakers, I don’t mean connecting your PC to an A/V receiver to drive massive tower speakers. While that can certainly work, be loud, and even offer pristine music playback, it isn’t well-suited for the PC. Most PC audio—especially game audio—is designed to work in the near field. That means that the listener sits fairly close to the speakers.

Creative Labs, Logitech, Klipsch, and others have made some fairly decent PC speakers. My personal favorite is the Creative Gigaworks 7.1, but that’s more a matter of taste. I tend to like my speakers reserved and detailed.

Last year, I bought a set of Paradigm Studio 20s for my office audio system. The clarity and detail offered by the Studio 20s was unlike anything I’ve heard in their price range for a long time. The net result was an eventual disenchantment with the Gigaworks satellite speakers—particularly the center channel, which was no more than a satellite turned on its side. On the other hand, the Studio 20s are large bookshelf speakers, and would be poor choices for PC speakers. Again, my ideal would be speakers that work well in the near field. Continued…

Then it occurred to me that a set of compact satellite speakers used for small home theater setups might be the answer. But they needed an amplifier, and the thought of using an A/V receiver didn’t particularly sit well. Then the idea light bulb flashed over my head.

As I noted earlier, I’m a big fan of the Paradigm Studio 20s. I’ve also auditioned the Paradigm Atoms, which are pretty darned good for inexpensive speakers. So I contacted Meagan Ellis at Caster Communications, who handles PR for Paradigm. Initially, I’d asked for a set of Atoms, plus a CC70 center channel. Paradigm came back and initially suggested the Cinema 70 series, but later thought that the Cinema 90s, with a Cinema Center Channel might be a better fit. That sounded fine to me, so we got the ball rolling.

The idea was to use the Paradigm satellites with the subwoofer that ships with the Creative Gigaworks. The sub has a beefy, 8-channel amplifier. Each satellite speaker gets 70W RMS, while the 8-inch subwoofer is allocated 210W. It’s a BASH amplifier, which has its pluses and minuses, but as it turned out, fewer minuses than I initially thought. I’ll get to that shortly.

Let’s take a look at how the Paradigm Cinema 90s compare with the Gigaworks satellites.

The first thing you notice is the heft. Each Cinema 90 satellite weighs a solid 3.1 pounds, versus 2.1 pounds for the Creative satellite. Some of that weight goes into the cabinet, while the rest goes into the magnet. The Gigaworks satellite uses a 4-inch treated paper cone for the midrange and a 1-inch titanium tweeter. The Cinema 90 uses a 4-1/2 inch polypropylene midrange driver and a 1-inch titanium tweeter, overlaid with a Paradigm-designed high-frequency wave guide.

The Cinema Center Channel offers a pair of 3-1/2-inch polypropylene cones for the midrange, on either side of a 1-inch titanium tweeter. Creative Labs turns a satellite on its side as its center channel, so it’s otherwise identical to the normal satellite.

The connectors on the rear are suited for better quality wiring than the thin, 22-gauge stuff that ships with the Creative speakers. Alas, I couldn’t switch the speaker wires, because the Gigaworks uses RCA connectors to connect the speakers to the subwoofer/amplifier unit. I suppose I could dig out a soldering iron and make new speaker wires, but that’s for another time.

The real test is: How do they sound? Continued…

I set the speakers up in a near-field environment. No satellite speaker was more than 3 feet away, with the rear units being set up just under 3 feet behind me, on speaker stands. The Cinema Center was set up on top of the Sony GDM-W900 24-inch widescreen CRT I use as my primary display.

Next, I fired up the Audigy 2 ZS THX console and spent some time calibrating the speakers, adjusting for the different distances. The subwoofer crossover was set to 80Hz. After that, it was on to listening tests.

We use a variety of listening material here at ExtremeTech. Here’s my list of audition tests:

Type Title Artist / CD or DVD
CD Music Diverse bizzarie Sopra La Vecchie Palladian Ensemble / An Excess of Pleasure
CD Music The Mystic’s Dream Loreena McKennitt / The Mask and the Mirror
CD Music A Place Called Home Kim Richey / Rise
CD Music Roads to Moscow Al Steward / Past, Present and Future
CD Music Do What You Have to Do Sarah MacLachlan / Surfacing
CD Music Born in the USA Bruce Springsteen / Live 1975-1985
DVD-Audio Roundabout Yes / Fragile
DVD-Audio Gold Dust Woman Fleetwood Mac / Rumors
DVD Movie Siege of Minas Tirith Return of the King, Special Extended Edition
DVD Movie Rallying Saving Private Ryan (DTS)
Game Half-Life 2 Half-Life 2

The CD music was ripped onto my hard drive using Windows Media Audio lossless compression. DVD-Audio and DVD movies were played using Intervideo’s WinDVD 6 Platinum version. Continued…

In the past, I’ve been pretty happy with the Gigaworks satellites. They were among the top PC speakers you could get. Others might prefer the Klipsch Promedias or Logitech 5500 satellites, but that’s a matter of taste.

Now, however, I’m completely ruined—or spoiled, take your pick. Now, the Cinema 90s are not in the same league as the Studio 20s, but you can certainly hear the heritage. If the Studio 20s are major league speakers, then the Cinema 90s are a AAA minor league team, while the Creative Gigaworks surrounds are AA at best.

In musical material, I heard details in the music I’ve never heard with the Gigaworks. These include percussion details in Loreena McKennitt’s The Mystic’s Dream, and background instrumentation in Kim Richey’s A Place Called Home. The arena rock of Springsteen’s live Born in the USA performance was thunderous and satisfying. Some of that was the Gigaworks bass unit, but the overall impact was tighter and more solid than the Gigaworks satellites.

The audio artifacts I’d assigned to the BASH amplifier were totally missing. They were just. . . gone. It seems that the Creative satellites weren’t as clean as I’d thought. Audio from the Cinema 90s was as smooth and tight in the near field as I’ve ever heard from PC audio.

Movies fared equally well. The siege of Minas Tirith in the extended edition of The Return of the King brought the battle to life. The audio field from the Rallying scene in the Omaha Beach assault in Saving Private Ryan put me directly into the action—enough so that I had a tendency to duck when bullets would fly from one side of the sound field to the other.

Half-Life 2’s audio is exceptional, and the Paradigm speakers really showed it off. Sound effects, including gunfire and explosions, were tight and focused, making for an unusually satisfying surround-sound gaming experience. Continued…

So we’ve established that a set of small satellite speakers designed by a major speaker company with credentials like Paradigm are better than even top-end PC speakers. But what price is this madness? Let’s take a look at the overall cost.

First, you need to buy the Gigaworks S750. If you want to save a few bucks, you can opt for the S700, which is a 5.1 speaker system, so you’ll also need fewer satellites.

7.1 Channel Option Price
Creative Labs Gigaworks S750 (check prices) $400
3 pair Paradigm Cinema 90s $507
1 Cinema Center $99
Total: $1,006
5.1 Channel Option
Creative Labs Gigaworks S700 (check prices) $310
2 pair Paradigm Cinema 90’s $338
1 Cinema Center $99
Total: $747

If you take a look at the configurations, you’ll see that you’d have to pay $1,006 for essentially two speaker systems. If they were designed from the ground up, you’d think that a high fidelity 7.1 speaker rig for the PC could be built for, say, under $700. So here’s hoping Paradigm — or someone with equally good credentials — will step up to the plate and develop something that’s this good for a somewhat more reasonable price.

It seems insane to buy a perfectly good set of PC speakers and discard the satellites, but we are talking about a sublime sort of madness here. Note that you’ll need to buy the speakers from an authorized Paradigm dealer, so no spiffy Internet discounts are available. Now that I’ve tested this setup, I’m eyeing my credit card to see if it can survive the price of an upgrade, instead of sending them back to Paradigm. Decisions, decisions…

Product: Paradigm Cinema 90 and Cinema Center Channel
Pros: Tight, detailed, smooth audio quality on music and exceptional near-field performance in movies and games.
Cons: Expensive; requires an additional purchase of a Creative Labs Gigaworks set.
Summary: The Cinema 90 and Cinema CC, when paired with the Gigaworks subwoofer/amplifier, make for a sublime—and potentially loud—PC audio experience.
Price: $1,006 (7.1 channel); $767 (5.1 channel)