Of course, plugging in a high-end set of cans has been the classic workaround for sub-par notebook speakers. Except that there will be instances when doing so is either not an option, or simply not suitable. The solution? Get external speakers, and the Gigaworks T40 Series II 2.0 units from Creative may just be the best piece of equipment you have yet to plug in to your notebook! Do these speakers satisfy the audiophile in me? Read on for my thoughts.
PROS: Hi-Fi quality sound, separate bass/treble controls, front/rear connectivity, power-save feature, price
CONS: Requires AC power, lack of portability, need to tweak on-board audio, power-resume
Going back to as far as my HP dv4 review, I've been extremely critical of notebook audio and the speakers manufacturers are providing. Fortunately, my X305 is still rocking as are my Sony XB700 cans, so I'm in good shape for the time being. However, many recent and not-so-recent notebooks have what I can only call appalling audio. Movies and games may sound fine, but hit the play button on any quality music source, and the listening experience takes a fast nosedive.
The situation is all too similar with netbooks and (more recently) slates. While I'm lucky I can plug in my Logitech Z305 speaker bar with both the Surface Pro 2 and 210 Mini, it does take up a precious USB port - something that I know a data device will need instead. It's also not a very powerful system, and sadly as well, now discontinued.
Those notebook users looking for a better audio experience are then left with one last option - investing in a set of external speakers they can connect through the 3.5mm audio connector. Fortunately, what has worked for desktops all this time also works with notebooks/netbooks/slates/smartphones, so it's only a matter of finding a speaker set you like. Most 2.0 and 2.1 configurations available will work with any device that outputs via a single 3.5mm jack, and the Creative Gigaworks T40 Series II 2.0 speakers I'm looking at today are just such.
Priced at a reasonable $119 (even lower in some cases) the Creative units are about as high-end as you will get before moving up to a 2.1 configuration with a separate subwoofer. As such, the system comes as just a pair, but each one of those enclosures houses a tweeter, dual 3.5 inch mid range drivers and a bass port. This is pure (but proven) old-school speaker design - venting the mid range drivers through a port allows the enclosures to output the bass frequencies rolling off the low end without requiring a dedicated woofer. Think of it as a two-way speaker with the sound of a three-way.
Examining the specs tells us the units push 16 Watts RMS per channel with a frequency response of 50Hz-20kHz and a s/n ratio of 80dB. That's plenty performance to recreate music in hi-fi quality, albeit without annoying your neighbors. You don't get the floor-shaking bass of a powered sub, but that's a given with any 2.0 PC speaker configuration.
|Size comparison to my 17" notebook|
It's wise as well to attach the stands that come with the package, as they will make the enclosures more stable and less prone to tipping over - important if you're going to be placing these along the edge of a desk. Each enclosure measures roughly 4.25 inches wide, 6 inches deep and 12.5 inches tall.
|I appreciate separate bass/treble controls|
It's also nice that you get extra connectivity around the front. You can easily plug in headphones here, which can be more convenient than a side or front-facing jack on your notebook. Likewise, you don't need to unplug your notebook from the T40 as you can also drop a line-in cable from your smartphone here to freely listen to music you may have on your handheld device. If you do want to use the rear connections, Creative supplies a RCA adapter you can use to plug into traditional audio gear.
|Removable speaker grills|
As a final detail, the cable length between enclosures is a good 4 feet, letting you easily flank these alongside even a 32" 4K display. The 3.5mm audio cable supplied has gold-plated connections on both ends.
So how do the Gigaworks T40 Series II speakers sound? A hell of a lot better than any notebook speaker solution, even my own Qosmio X305. Much like a mini hifi system, you get the full frequency spectrum and dynamic range thrown at you, from deep, rich, full bass to clear, crisp, well-defined trebles. There's also none of that cold, empty character you may find since the mid range is always present, yet never overpowering to create a muddy sound.
Volume is definitely not an issue either as these speakers will fill even a large room with minimal effort. When turned up, bass remains clean and undistorted - one of the benefits of using a ported enclosure. Likewise, since there is no physical woofer, there's no danger of blowing said component.
Fortunately, the T40 provides just as good a listening experience at low volumes, and you still get a very good frequency response including low end bass. It's here where those bass and treble controls can really help, and allow you to set the sound you want without having to keep the volume turned high.
The experience watching movies is just as good. I fired up a few of my titles with WinDVD and the Dolby Audio soundtrack played back faithful to every detail. That's ideal for folks who want to enjoy their movies but don't want to have to wear headphones to appreciate a great movie soundtrack.
Finally, I also fired up a few games, and was likewise pleased with the experience. The improved dynamic range definitely brings out the best in 3D titles from driving games to first-person shooters and titles that use heavy in-game music. Here's the neat killer feature where you can plug in your smartphone, create your own in-game music, and then listen to both either with the speakers, or plug in your favorite set of cans - you cannot get better versatility and flexibility than that.
The last important thing I need to mention is the power save function which turns the unit off after no sound has been detected for 10 minutes. This not only saves power, but will also prevent unwanted sounds and possibly even static from coming through your system. It's great for those who keep their PC on at night since you don't have to power your speakers on/off or turn up/down the volume every day. It's easy to know the power save feature is working - the blue power LED around the volume dial goes out.
This section isn't so much complaining about the T40 speakers themselves, but about issues I encountered in getting the speakers to work correctly. Properly set up, they provide amazing sound, but getting there I found out will require some tweaking with your notebook's on-board audio software.
I'm going to start with my HP 210 Mini, since that was the first device I plugged the T40 in to. Straight away I noticed it was difficult to get the sound set to where I wanted to using the bass/treble controls - music just didn't sound right, with some frequencies being emphasized more than others. I eventually realized the culprit was the Dolby Advanced Audio settings - they were set to movie mode! Switching over to music mode immediately improved the music playback to the point where having the Dolby music mode turned on was better than having it turned off. That's one of the great benefits of pairing high-end speakers with audio software, since the former can better emphasize the precise sonic improvements the latter is capable of making. Lesson learned - always check your notebook's on-board audio software, since there may be settings there to adjust what's being fed through that 3.5mm jack.
With my Qosmio X305, the situation was far more complex. Since the jacks are auto-sensing, I get to choose from either a line-out option or headphone setting when plugging in the T40. Instinctively I chose line out since it provides a better signal, and because the T40's aren't headphones. Unfortunately, the Realtek audio implementation doesn't disable the notebook speakers when line-out mode is enabled. That meant I was still listening to the notebook's own speakers when what I wanted to hear was audio through the T40. The only way to cut notebook sound and route it to the T40 was to select headphone mode.
That, in turn, lead to yet more issues with the on-board software. Both the Dolby implementation and Waves Maxx software revert to a special setting when headphone mode is selected. This is not something out of place when actually using headphones, but when listening with speakers results in sound having a distinctive boominess, most likely the enhanced bass effect meant to counteract open cans. This didn't impact all music types, but on many music sources came out to what was just a horrible listening experience. My ultimate choice with the X305 was to turn both the Dolby software and Waves Maxx off completely and just feed unfiltered sound to the T40's.
The power save feature also is smart enough to fire the unit back on once it detects an audio signal. The problem, however, is that it will take approximately 4 seconds for sound to start coming from the speakers. There's no way to disable the auto-power-off, so if you want to prevent missing those first few seconds of audio from your movie clip or song, you will need to rewind your source, start playing something else first, or just make Windows perform one of it's sounds. This becomes a bigger issue when dealing with live, streaming content - stuff you can't "rewind". A switch on the back to bypass the power-off circuit would help, or even better, shorten that power-on signal time to under 1 second.
Finally, if there is one very obvious deal-breaker for some, it's that you cannot easily tote these speakers around with your notebook. You would need a decent backpack to stash these units, be wary of not puncturing the grills/cones in the process, and because these speakers are powered, carry the AC adapter with you. That last part may just be the biggest headache - since the unit is rated at a rather unusual 27V DC, it's impossible to even use an external battery to directly power the system. Enjoy packing that AC inverter!
I won't deny the fact that I was expecting a lot from these speakers, and as an audiophile, I have to say I have not been disappointed in the slightest. Aside from the initial hiccups encountered by my on-board audio software, I'm impressed with the performance of the Creative Gigaworks T40 Series II speakers. Music playback, movies and games all perform well. It works with notebooks, netbooks, slates, smartphones, allows you to mix music during gaming, and can just as easily interface with a TV, home theater receiver or external sound card. Changing notebooks? No need to worry about poor notebook speakers ever again. Upgrading to a mini-ITX desktop or dual-Xeon colossus? These speakers will continue to work there too.
Sounds like a Best Accessory Award winner, pun intended.
I'm keeping these guys!