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
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
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