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Best Bookshelf Speakers With Big Sound for Few Bucks

Best Bookshelf Speakers
A reader asks: I just moved in with roommates to my first dorm room and realized we need speakers. (Three dudes listening to headphones in the same room is just creepy.) We don't have a ton of space, so a 5.1 system is out of the question, and a booming subwoofer would probably get us written up anyway. High-quality audio matters to me, though, and all the computer speakers I've seen sound crappy or are too pricey. Do a shallow-pocketed student a favor, and Just Tell Me What To Get!

Dear Reader:
It's always heartening to hear when some young go-getter -- presumably raised on low-quality MP3s and even lower-quality earbuds -- stands up for audio fidelity. We salute you, sir! (Of course, you're also expecting top quality on the cheap, but we'll forgive your sense of entitlement and chalk it up to youthful exuberance.)

Anyway, we've done the stroll down desktop speaker row ourselves, and have found that the selection generally isn't to our liking. While certainly there are plenty of great 5.1 and 7.1 surround systems, and even 2.1 systems that provide pretty good boom for the buck, when you get into the self-powered computer speaker realm, the pickings get slimmer; cheap plastic bodies and alternately tinny or flat sounds saturate the market. But, as you might guess, we do have a winner for you, and, in case you have a severely limited budget, we've included a cheaper runner-up (as well as a top-shelf pick, should your roommates step up and chip in).

Best Under $100

M-Audio AV30 SpeakersOur pick for best overall buy is a set of swingin' M-Audio Stereophile AV30 speakers, priced nicely at a penny less than 100 bucks. The first thing you'll notice when picking up a pair is that these puppies are husky -- just under 10 pounds to be exact. This is a good thing, and, since the speaker housings are made of sturdy medium density fiberboard (MDF) for vibration elimination, they allow for better audio output than their plastic equivalents.

Put to the test against our iTunes playlist, the AV30s pump out appreciably fuller, cleaner sound with more bass kick than any comparable speaker we've tested. Listening to a genre-traveling mix that took us from Kanye, Mos Def and The Roots, to Radiohead, classic Bowie, Air, Desmond Dekker and a little Shostakovich (among others), we were literally and figuratively blown away by the ample distortion-free volume -- even when using the 'bass-boost' switch. While we're sure you'd notice the difference between the AV30s and a system with a dedicated subwoofer, there's still plenty of clean bass "thump." Think of it as enough to boogie down without getting a noise violation. Besides the RCA input on the back (as the speakers nicely come with an RCA-to-1/8-inch cable), the AV30s also have an auxiliary input up front, in case your roommates tire of your musical stylings, and want to plug in their own iPod or laptop without fiddling with your connections.

M Audio AV30

Best Under $50

Logitech Z320 SpeakersShould you not be able to muster 100 clams, our low-budget pick is the Logitech Z320 speaker system, widely available for $50 or less. Slick and stylish and solidly made (for a plastic speaker housing, anyway), the Z320s don't have anywhere near the bass thump as the AV30s, and feature much lower power, but still perform well. They also have a unique, rear-facing driver in each unit, so that sound is omnidirectional, which, depending on how you set them up (i.e., not inches from the wall), can make for a fuller overall sound. The only real downside, besides a lack of bass oomph, is that at full volume you may get distortion. So, keep it light, okay?

Logitech Z320

Best Under $200

Audioengine A2 SpeakersShould you find that you have a little extra scratch to play with, well then, you'll want to skip the above, and invest in a $200 pair of Audioengine 2 (A2) speakers. Think of them as a souped-up version of the AV30s. They have a wider frequency response, more powerful bass, more volume power and pricier components (such as a kevlar woofer) -- all despite having a smaller footprint. They're also slicker-looking to our eyes -- if that sort of thing matters to you -- and are worth the price if your student's budget can allow it. So splurge, and think of them, like ECON 101, as an investment in your future.

Audioengine A2

Tags: audio, Audioengine2A2, ComputerSpeakers, features, justtellmewhattoget, LogitchZ320, M-audioAv30, speakers, top