Now Hear This Who put the odd in audio? Domed, flat, and twisted, these three new speaker systems are meant to be seen as well as heard.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Even midlevel computers these days are being pitched as multimedia machines capable of playing audio CDs, MP3 music files, videogames, Internet radio stations, and DVD movies. To keep costs down, however, PC makers typically equip computers with el cheapo speakers that look as bad as they sound.

We've found three replacement speakers that offer above-average sound along with anything but average looks--and at below-average prices: JBL's Creature speakers ($130), the flat-panel Monsoon PlanarMedia 9 ($100), and the six-piece Benwin DML-220 ($80).

Yes, there are better speakers on the market, but probably not at these prices, and not with this funky styling. One thing is clear: Speaker makers are beginning to think outside the box.

Stop, look, and listen to the JBL Creature speakers, for example. They look like a cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and Darth Vader's helmet. The Creature system consists of a subwoofer and two fist-sized satellites, in a choice of white, silver, or metallic blue. The speakers plug into the standard mini headphone jack on PCs and Macs, as well as on portable MP3 and DVD players. (If you regularly use your headphone jack for headphones, so as not to disturb a sleeping roommate, the Creature may not be a good choice.) The dinky satellites are impressively loud; among the interesting Creature features are touch-sensitive volume controls and an eerie glowing light. The sound quality is very good, but the beauty here is more in the eye of the beholder than in the ear.

Monsoon's PlanarMedia 9 three-piece flat-panel speakers produced the brightest and clearest sound of the midrange systems I tested. Much of the behind-the-scenes credit goes to a surprisingly good subwoofer (yes, it's ugly, but it can be placed under the desk), which offsets the slightly shrill tone of the satellites. The flat satellite panels create sound by vibrating a ribbon between two magnets, which makes them very responsive, not to mention skinny. One drawback is that the sound is tightly focused on a "sweet spot," which ideally is about where your ears are when you're seated at your computer. Stray, and the music doesn't come together quite so well.

The Benwin DML-220 system threw us a curve--or, more accurately, a series of curves. A quartet of S-shaped tweeters, backed by a conventionally boxy subwoofer, delivered better than average surround sound. Like the Monsoon, the Benwin comes with a handy remote-control doohickey that includes volume and mute controls and a headphone jack. And like the Creatures, these speakers make a statement even when there's nothing coming out of them--and the statement very possibly is "The owner of these speakers is slightly twisted." For gamers, in terms of bang for the buck, they are hard to beat. They also do an admirable job with MP3s, audio CDs, and even DVDs.

Other things to keep between your ears when you go shopping:

--Sound quality is extremely subjective, and a speaker that's crisp and clear to one set of ears may be harsh and tinny to another. It's difficult to properly evaluate PC speakers amid the noise of a computer or electronics store, so be sure to ask about return policies.

--Most PC speaker systems are designed for desktop use, so they tend to distort when cranked up to top volume.

--To take full advantage of a surround-sound speaker system, you'll need a multichannel sound card in your PC.

--Speaker design is destined to get more interesting as companies experiment with new materials. While auditioning speakers, I came across one made of cardboard, another of inflatable plastic, and still another that wasn't a speaker at all, but rather a device that leeches onto windows or desktops and causes the entire surface to vibrate with sound. Researchers are devising thin-film speakers for cellphones and PDAs. It sounds as if there's no limit to the shape of speakers to come.

For more tech advice, see Peter Lewis's weblog at www.fortune. com/ontech.