Best Sounding Notebooks: Good Enough To Be Your Stereo?

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Every time we review a notebook, we test out its speakers by playing a few tunes and videos--and usually come away unimpressed. But laptop makers are now paying a lot more attention to both volume and fidelity, in some cases touting sound quality as a reason to buy their wares. With that in mind, we rounded up four systems that boast enhanced audio capabilities. While we’ve listened to enough notebooks to know what’s good and what’s bad, we don’t have the practiced ear of an audio pro. That’s why we enlisted Jamie, a sound engineer with more than 10 years experience working for major labels, to come take a listen. He played a number of tracks on each of the machines, ranging from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to Guns n’ Roses “November Rain,” and then weighed in with his expert opinion.

ASUS NX90Jq (Starting at $1,699)

This 18-inch metallic monster features side-mounted speakers and ASUS SonicMaster Technology developed by sound engineers at ASUS and Bang & Olufsen ICEpower. Of all the systems we tested, the ASUS NX90Jq speakers had the best placement. They’re aimed directly at the user—like a real stereo—and not directed upwards, like most notebooks.

While Bang & Olufsen is known for its high-end speakers, the ones on the NX90 "sound like a cheap Casio keyboard from the 90s," according to Jamie. Although they were very clear, they weren’t very bright; even after tweaking the equalizer settings, high and mid-range sounds tended to drown out the bass. However, increasing the vocal clarity setting helped a bit.
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Dell XPS 15 (Starting at $799)

Far and away the best of the bunch. The 15-inch Dell XPS 15 has stereo JBL speakers on the deck, a subwoofer on the bottom, and Wave MaxxAudio sound enhancement technology. While the notebook's speakers are pointed upwards, they’re large and angled somewhat toward the user, and away from the screen, which tends to reflect sound. Out of the box, music sounded great, although audio was a bit flatter without MaxxAudio enabled.

The subwoofer made a huge difference. It really rounded out the overall quality—the bottom end wasn't lost, as with other systems. While we could make some tweaks using the control panel, it wasn't really necessary. "While all of the notebooks had improved sound [over a typical laptop], this is the only one I would say had really good sound," Jamie said.
Score: 5 out of 5

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MSI GT680R (Starting at $1,499)

MSI worked with Dynaudio, a Denmark-based audio company, to determine the best location for the speakers, as well as design the audio software for this 16-inch gaming notebook. Also, the GT680R comes with THX TruStudio Pro sound enhancement technology. However, the end result isn't optimal. Having the speakers so close to the screen resulted in sound waves bouncing off the display, which created a cluttered sound. High and mid-ranges were overly bright, so bass was lost, and the GT690R lacked the clarity of the ASUS.

While the dynamic range of the speakers was better than the average notebook, the lack of a subwoofer and the poor speaker position left it sounding "thin and washy," especially in the mid range. Making adjustments using the THX control panel helped somewhat, though its settings are a little obtuse. “What the hell is a crystallizer?” asked Jamie.
Score: 3 out of 5

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HP Pavilion dv7t (Starting at $1,099)

Unfortunately, the HP Pavilion dv7t brought up the rear. This 17-inch system with Beats Audio technology was designed in part by Dr. Dre, and it features an HP Triple Bass Reflex Subwoofer with virtual surround sound. Regardless of how well Beats Audio performs with headphones, the speakers and subwoofer on the HP’s latest multimedia machine were no better than a typical netbook. Music became distorted at the max volume, and no amount of adjustment to the control panel helped. "All the programs in the world can't same those speakers," Jamie said. "It’s just differing levels of not really good."
Score: 2 out of 5

Add a comment
  • Cole Hintermeister Says:

    I'm surprised the Lenovo Y series laptops aren't here. JBL speakers on the top back corners, top-facing. Plus a 2" (maybe 2.5") subwoofer on the bottom to really bring out the bass.

  • Victor Turcanu Says:

    I own this beautiful piece of art or I can call it even diamond, or sometimes Bentley ;) I'm very satisfied with it, the performance, design, sound, size, everything is great. Every time someone sees it on my desk, they are like "Wow, this is serious" yes it is indeed, I'm not even thinking to sell it soon, and it's 2015 here. You know that feeling when you leave the room and you have to look back for the last time? I'm not listening at all to other opinions, everybody has his own taste, If you want to feel and know what is like to have an NX90JQ, then you have to own it. Thank you Asus and Mr.David Lewis.

  • vishal Says:

    before you all give your comments,just check samsung np550

  • m Says:

    I wonder if he let the speakers break in.

  • Robi1 Says:

    Well listen ... I had the opportunity to compare the sound system of the two machines side by side, in live, and I fully back on my words (the adaptive nature of the ear is probably something !)

    The JBL system on the Dell XPS (17 "in my case L702X) is actually really impressive. The sound once equalized, is incredibly clear, aerial, and the bass is deep, clear too, and really present. Which also surprises this is the perfect separation of instruments, and voices centralized.

    MSI Dynaudio system is not bad, but is much less realistic compared to the JBL of Dell, which for its part, is much closer to the Hi-Fi. Even my old Toshiba Qosmio X300 which has a system harman / kardon 4.1 (same parent company as JBL), and which has an even greater power (2 additional speakers), can not claim such clarity and precision that has the Dell XPS, even after adjustments. This shows well the good performance of the latter...

  • GD Says:

    Though I didn't heard about XP15 ,somehow I agree with Robi and Ares
    I dont know about JBL,but Dynaudio seems put the most effort with MSI,even GT660R is worse, I dont think it will be 3.5 against 5

    And,You guys making a big mistake here...GT660 and 680R both got a subwoofer...
    If you guys didn't heard bass...then I dont know what to say

  • Ares Says:

    Well I must say that you are an utter fool,and you don't know anything about speakers.The Dynaudio speakers in GT680R are at least 5 times better than the JBL speakers in XPS 15.You must have got a faulty GT683R because anyone can tell that.

  • Robi1 Says:

    Humm, compared to the MSI GT680R, i do not agree... I have a MSI GX660 (same audio than GT680R), I am musician, and for me, the onboard Dynaudio sound is better than the JBL system on a Dell XPS 15...better medium, sound more deep, louder...and by contrast to what you say, the "THX" traitement denaturalizes completely sound and it is best to disable.

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