Choosing MP3 Speakers

If you've got a good set of MP3 speakers, you can use your MP3 player as your primary source of music. MP3 players were originally designed as an alternative to cassette-based portable stereos, with the main advantage being more music in less space, and no cassettes to carry around.

Small Size, Big Sound
If you're frequently outdoors with friends, a set of portable MP3 speakers is a great investment. They're smaller, lighter and tend to consume less battery life than portable radios or CD players. For home use, MP3 speaker systems are a great alternative to blasting the stereo at one of the end of the house to get the music to another room. In small homes, apartments or a bedroom, MP3 speakers are an excellent alternative to larger component-based systems.

While you're shopping, you may think you have only two choices: iPod speakers and everything else. The iPod's popularity makes supporting it a must for manufacturers, but most of these portable speakers are compatible with other MP3 players, so don't rule them out if you have a Zune or Coby MP3 player. You probably won't be able to recharge your MP3 player with a system built for an iPod, but sound is what matters most.

Portable MP3 speaker systems include a built-in amplifier, volume controls and at least two speakers. Portable speaker systems don't have a tuner, so they can't play anything until they're connected to an audio source. The most common MP3 speaker connections are 1/4-inch headphone jack or a docking cradle that connects to a USB port on your music player. A USB connection will let you charge the battery of your MP3 player while you enjoy your music.

"Portable" can be a relative term with some speaker systems. True portable speakers are small, run on batteries and can be carried easily. These are best for the beach, the backyard or other places where you don't have easy access to an extension cord. Larger MP3 speakers plug into the wall and are a great choice for living rooms, offices and bedrooms.

Comparing Portable MP3 Speakers
Whenever you're shopping for speakers, price determines quality. The more you pay, the better the portable speakers. The old rule that "bigger speakers are better speakers" doesn't apply in this era of miniaturized components, although bass response can still be an issue.

Older stereo speakers were all-in-one enclosures that housed a tweeter for high tones and a woofer for bass tones. Woofers took up the majority of the space and contributed the most size and weight to stereo enclosures. With portable MP3 speakers, you're going to get less bass, because smaller woofers are less efficient at sound reproduction. The quality of MP3 speakers can rival that of larger systems if you're willing to spend more for quality. Separate speakers that handle high, midrange and bass frequencies deliver the best performance.

Some portable MP3 speakers solve the bass problem by including a separate, satellite subwoofer. You can put this subwoofer anywhere in the room because the human ear cannot locate the source of low-frequency sounds.

Fighting Distortion
MP3 speakers have built-in amplifiers that determine frequency response. Amplifiers are the second-largest contributor to the cost of portable speakers, and again, paying more gets you a better product.

Frequency response tells you the range of sounds that MP3 speakers can reproduce. The human ear can hear sounds from 20Hz at the low end to 20,000Hz at the high end, and as we age, our ability to hear higher frequencies diminishes.

Check the frequency range on MP3 speakers to compare performance. For portable MP3 speakers, frequency response from 1,000hz to 6,000Hz is considered good. If the frequency response isn't listed, use your ears. A thin or tinny sound means that you're not getting lower frequencies. Remember that you'll have to sacrifice some bass for the smallest portable speakers.

Stationary MP3 speakers with separate, powered subwoofers offer the most frequency response, ranging from 200hz to 10,000hz for high-end models. Here you should listen for clipping, which occurs when the amplifier sends too much volume to the speakers. Clipping sounds like crunching or paper being torn, and it's a sign that the MP3 speakers can't handle higher volumes or certain frequencies.

Testing the Amplifier
Digital MP3 audio can be encoded at different rates to reduce file sizes, but smaller MP3 files don't have the same loudness and frequency response. You should test portable MP3 speakers with commercial-quality files, since using smaller files may make the speakers sound bad, when it's really a poor MP3 that's the culprit.

To test MP3 speakers, start at a low volume and slowly turn it up to the highest level you're likely to use. Listen for any changes in sound quality. If you hear distortion or static from the MP3 speakers as the volume increases, it's a sign that the amplifier is poor or the volume knob is faulty. Avoid MP3 speakers that don't adjust volume smoothly or that distort at higher volumes.

Features to Consider
Portable MP3 speakers don't include much in the way of extras. You may want a car adaptor or some rechargeable batteries if you'll be using these MP3 speakers frequently. Detachable MP3 speakers will allow you to create a larger sound field.

For stationary MP3 speakers, consider how much sound you need and whether or not you'll be using them to replace a component system. Look for radio tuners, multiple RCA inputs for components and digital inputs in more expensive MP3 speakers. You can find complete 5.1 and 7.1 MP3 speaker packages, but you might be better off with a home theater system if you desire that much sound.

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