Wall Writings – My Mac Magazine #49, May ’99

Adventures in Computer Audio

Last month I offhandedly mentioned that I was converting many of my compact discs into MPEG format and storing them on my hard drive. The endeavor has been a great success, and I now have access to my favorite songs whenever I’m using my computer, whether I’m at the library, on a bus or car ride somewhere, or in my dorm room late at night while my roommate is sleeping. I no longer have to carry numerous CDs or a portable CD player around with me, and I’m not limited to listening to one artist at a time; it’s like having a huge CD-changer in my Mac. In that regard, it even beats the pants off the 3-disc stereo system I have in my dorm room.

That’s the only regard that my computer beats my stereo in, however. You’ll notice that all of the examples above involve relatively quiet volume levels or the use of headphones. Very few computers have the audio equipment necessary to compete with even a low-end stereo system, and trying to pump up the volume on my PowerBook 1400’s tinny built-in speaker is a big-time joke.

It wasn’t long before I began to see ways to attempt to remedy this. Would it be possible to turn my computer into a lean, mean audio system? With less than $200 to spend and a month to get the job done, I decided to find out. (If I spent any more than $200 I’d be broke, and if I took any more time than a month, I’d be too late to write a column about it for this month! 🙂 Even though I’m not about to throw out my stereo or my Discman, the results of my experiment were pretty positive, enough to convince me that one day–with a few minor advancements in technology and a major advancement in my budget–the goal would be easily achievable.

That Speaker Has Got to Go!
The first thing I wanted to deal with was my most glaring problem: getting a good set of speakers so I could actually get respectable sound out of my PowerBook. There are a ton of multimedia speaker options, and the huge number of choices was a little overwhelming at first. With my budget in mind, and armed with a handful of magazine reviews, I decided to go with form over function in making my purchase, and bought a flat-panel speaker system from Benwin http://www.benwin.com for $99. Although they can’t match my stereo speakers, the Benwins sound good, and they look incredible. The subwoofer is small and unobtrusive, and the wafer-thin speakers look like they came from the set of Star Trek.

I’m still amazed that manufacturers can make flat-panel speakers and have them sound anywhere close to big, boxy, traditional speakers. They do it, though, and at times the sound quality even surpasses that of traditional speakers. A recent issue of Macworld had a flat-panel system from a different company (I forget which) that received a very high rating; they cost more than my $200 limit, though. To my knowledge, the Benwins are the only flat panels that retail in the $100-$130 price range, but don’t be mistaken by that fact: they are still very high-quality speakers.

Playing audio CDs and MPEG files from my computer sounds great now, and the included subwoofer really adds depth and bass to the tone. The speakers also make games shine; Unreal is more unreal than ever now that I can experience it in stereo sound with added bass! Even the sound effects in older shareware games like Swoop sound impressive. I hooked up the speakers to my family’s LC 575 while I was home over Easter, and they sounded great. However, when I brought them back to my dorm room and hooked them up to my PowerBook, they sounded amazing! I’m sure that the reason is the location of the computers: the LC 575 is in a corner in a rather large room of our house, while my PowerBook resides on a desk in my dorm room, which isn’t nearly as big. With the smaller room dimensions, the speakers can really shine and fill the room with sound!

By no means is this meant to be a formal review of Benwin’s three-piece flat panel system, but it is a recommendation. If you want a set of low cost multimedia speakers that sound good and look out of this world, I suggest you surf over to Benwin’s website and give them a look-see. There are probably better sounding speakers, and there are cheaper speakers, but for the average computer user/music fan/game player, these should be more than satisfactory.

Before I change topics, as a side note, while I was shopping for the Benwins on-line, I stopped by eBay and picked up a cheaper pair of multimedia speakers for my family’s aforementioned LC 575. I only paid twelve bucks for them, but they also sound like twelve-dollar speakers. After listening to the Benwins, there was no comparison! Since I bought them on an auction, I can’t help but wonder what they would actually retail for. Oh well, I guess it just proves that you get what you pay for…

OK, The Speakers Are Cool… Now What?
Now that my computer was sounding good, I had to have some stuff to listen to so that I could take advantage of that fact. In no particular order, these things are immeasurably more enjoyable with my new speakers:

* Games: Pick one. Any one. The more intense, the better. If you’ve ever played a PlayStation or other video game console when it was hooked up to a stereo TV or entertainment center, you know what I mean. They sound so cool, you get hooked by the music and sound effects alone.

* MacAMP/MPEG files (and audio CDs): As I said earlier, my computer isn’t about to replace my stereo just yet, but it sounds so much better than before that I’m no longer hesitant to play some tunes from my computer instead of my stereo every now and then. Especially if I want to play a few MPEG files on my computer that I don’t own the CDs for… oh, wait, I don’t have any of those. Honest. I forgot… 😉

* MacTuner: This is one cool app. Even if I had the most expensive speakers money could buy and a hard drive large enough to hold every single audio CD track I own in MPEG format, my computer still couldn’t totally replace my stereo because I wouldn’t have a radio to listen to. Not so with MacTuner. MacTuner has a database of literally dozens of radio and TV stations that broadcast their content over the Internet, sorted by content type and genre. Very, very cool! But MacTuner needs some help in order to be truly enjoyable, and that one app is…

* RealPlayer: Will they hurry up and get the final Mac version of the RealPlayer G2 already? I’m getting anxious for the new version, now that I can listen to Internet audio and video content with my new speakers!

If QuickTime 4.0’s streaming technology is as good as its supposed to be, I may just have to add another item to this list, but since I’m writing this in early April, I don’t have any concrete information on it yet. Sigh… the best things come to those who wait, I guess.)

Anyway, one of my favorite uses for the RealPlayer is to listen to my favorite baseball team’s radio broadcasts that are too far away for “normal” reception. (Go Cardinals!!!)

So, that’s how my PowerBook went from a tinny-sounding featherweight to a audio heavyweight. Or something like that. Neat story, huh? See you next month!

Mike Wallinga

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