What I learnt shopping for decent computer speakers

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I was looking for “decent” budget computer speakers... I’ll be the first to admit that I know nuts about this topic, but, after some research, I landed up getting the Edifier R1280DBs launched sometime H1 2020. Here are some things I learnt while researching my purchase.

What I wanted

My needs are pretty basic - it is all about bang-for-buck, and aside from wanting “decent” sound quality:

  • My primary use case is as desktop computer speakers,
  • I would prefer a small package and fewer bits and bobs and as little wiring as possible,
  • I wasn’t looking for a 2.1 - too much bass for a small room, and could drowns out highs unless properly setup,
  • I figured Bluetooth would give me more usage flexibility,
  • And, no “gamer” aesthetic required.

I initially was more interested in a mini soundbar, but ultimately started looking for smallish, active (powered) bookshelf speakers.

What I bought

These Edifier R1280DBs (photo copyright Edifier): Edifier R1280DBs

If you are here for a sound review of the Edifier R1280DBs, this next paragraph is all I have to say. As always, I have no sponsors.

Short of a side-by-side blind listening test, I have no idea if the Edifier R1280DBs is good or not. I am happy with my purchase. Aside from audio quality (duh), I have a few comments in no particular order:

Pros:

  • Bluetooth 5.0,
  • S/PDIF optical input with fibre optic cable provided,
  • nice remote control,
  • solid build, with a beautiful wood finish and understated design (not plastic-y),
  • front-facing bass ports, which mean they can be placed closer to the wall,
  • physical tone control knobs,
  • subwoofer out for future expansion,
  • no hissing or computer noise when nothing is playing, even at full volume,
  • a hard power off switch at the back and a standby power switch (press and hold the volume knob).

Cons:

  • no automatic audio input switching,
  • no auto power-off which is really annoying, as I have left my speakers on for days wasting power amplifying background noise,
  • no advanced Bluetooth 5.0 features like LE, aptX, aptX HD,
  • not USB audio,
  • optical only supports PCM, no advanced codecs like no Dolby or DTS.

Windows Sound - support formats

What I learnt researching

One: Smaller speakers just can’t push enough air for decent deep bass (though I expect exceptions exist), and that means decent computer speakers are more expensive than I thought they would be!

My original budget was around USD50, and in that range I could only find tiny speakers like the TaoTronics SK027 (with Bluetooth), Creative Stage Air (with Bluetooth) and Pebble v3 (USB audio, without subwoofer) and the smaller Edifier models. After I doubled my budget, there were bookshelf speakers within range, like the Behringer MS-6, JBL PS3300 and quite a few from Edifier. Of course audiophile-focused brands were simply out of my price range.

Note there is limited availability where I live - many Logitech, other Creative models (like the T100 and GigaWorks) and even stuff from Edifier (like the Exclaim) are not simply not available / sold out, except for parallel imports.


Two: Good reviews are hard to find. Many aren’t detailed enough, and I don’t get the impression that the reviewer has much experience comparing speakers.

I found these to be good review sites:

Alas, I couldn’t find much about the R1280DBs, most reviewers were looking at the R1280T, e.g.:

YouTube has too many unboxing and worthless listening tests / comparisons, where I doubt professional recording equipment is used!


Three: Bluetooth will always have a bit of lag, although Microsoft Windows 10 has a revamped stack for Low Latency audio. However, for me, the worst is frequent Bluetooth disconnects with Windows 10. So for my desktop, it’s back to a wired setup for me, but the fewer wires the better!

I figure there are 3 main wired methods:

  • copper (RCA/coax/3.5mm) - analog
  • fibre (S/PDIF) - digital
  • USB audio - digital

Alas apart from the Creative Pebble v3, I didn’t really find many budget speakers supporting USB audio. Strike that.


Four: But! 3.5mm outputs from computers can be very noisy... especially on cheaper motherboards (mine uses the Realtek ALC1200, where as the better model is the Realtek ALC1220). Cheap speakers don’t filter out the computer noise!

Getting a cheap ground loop noise filter / isolator would help if you have this problem, but as mentioned the Edifiers don’t have this issue. Audiophiles of course would invest even more in dedicated sound card or DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and amp - good ones support Dolby Digital decoding, SBX surround spatial audio enhancement, etc. But that would blow my budget.


Five: So instead of 3.5mm, I am using optical S/PDIF. If you want to read more, check out Audio Science Review: Battle of S/PDIF vs USB: which is better?

As I already mentioned, USB audio support is still rare, but I wonder why more speakers don’t support S/PDIF either, as many motherboards and devices like the Apple TV do. This Edifier model has an S/PDIF optical input (PCM @ 44.1/48 kHz), but the higher-end R1700BTs does not!

A digression to gripe, perhaps Edifier will take note:

I consider Edifier a mid-range brand in terms of quality, but it is sad that they have very little real product specifications (except marketing speak) and no feature to compare speakers e.g. for my speakers, the frequency range is specified without 51Hz-20KHz without error numbers (the R1208T is better in this regard), codec support not listed (like in the case of PCM optical above), Bluetooth version or profile support not specified, no mention of amp class though I think this would be a good selling point, etc.

Prospective buyers would really benefit from a table to help us justify higher-end models - e.g. R1280T vs Ts vs DB vs DBs, vs cheaper R1580MB, vs more expensive R1700BT / R1700BTs...

Just FYI: The R1280DBs uses a Qualcomm 3003 which does not support aptX but supports S/PDIF. The R1700BTs uses a better Qualcomm 3031 which supports Bluetooth Low Energy, TWS, aptX HD, and has a programmable CPU and configurable DSP... but alas does not support S/PDIF.


Six: Physical tone controls are great (bass and treble plus volume control knobs in this case), because Windows 10 and macOS do not have a built-in equalizer. There are third party, mostly paid equalizer software, and some music players do provide this feature though (like VLC and iTunes).


Seven: Surprisingly, Bluetooth 5.0 does not automatically mean to better audio! I found this in-depth discussion by ValdikSS enlightening - Audio over Bluetooth: most detailed information about profiles, codecs, and devices. A few excerpts:

  • "SBC: This codec is mandatory for all devices supporting A2DP standard... SBC can produce both low and very high sound quality, but the latter is unattainable without disabling or circumventing the artificial limitations of Bluetooth stacks" and "As it turned out, the artificial limitations of Bluetooth stacks on SBC can be bypassed, so that the SBC will be on par with aptX HD."
  • "To sum up: buying audio devices with Bluetooth 5 only because of the new version of the protocol is meaningless. Bluetooth 4.0/4.1/4.2 in the context of audio transmission will work the same way."
  • "Let me remind you: aptX Low Latency is not supported in operating systems, which is why a lower delay can be obtained only with a transmitter + receiver or transmitter + headphone/speaker bundle, and all devices must support this codec."

The end.