How to test the audio quality of your laptop speakers

The mattmaldre.com blog is all about how to use media better. Mostly I write about tips on using social media better or about using software better.

Media also includes hardware—how can we use our audio speakers better?

Ever wonder how good are the speakers in your laptop?

Generally, we know the speakers on laptops are bunk, but how bad are they? I have a MacBook Pro. Shouldn’t this “pro” laptop have somewhat good speakers? Who knows?! Maybe the MacBook Pro speakers are awesome!

Apple’s official tech spec page doesn’t list the frequency range of the speakers. Booo! Are they trying to hide something? Try googling “Frequency range” “MacBook Pro”. You won’t find any easy results.

I did my own little test to find out the range of the MacBook Pro speakers. Here’s a quick shot demonstrating that the internal speakers in my laptop aren’t as good as my desktop counterpart.

MacBook speaker vs desktop speaker JBL flip 4, recorded with Marantz

How to read these charts

On the left is the amount of bass. The right is the high notes. And the middle, well, is the middle tones. The more blue, better the speaker is with producing the sounds.

The desktop speaker outperforms the internal MacBook Pro speaker. No Apple magic here for audiophiles listening on their laptops.

Where does the MacBook Pro sound fail?

Starting at the left of the chart for the MacBook Pro. The very low bass is almost missing. The bass starts to appear at about the 84 Hz mark. (Sorry, these charts don’t have specific numbers). The bass does ok for a while, but then it totally dies out right before the midtones. The lower midtones do ok, but then they even fizzle out pretty quickly.

You can run this test on your speakers. Find out which ones are better.

How to generate a visual graph of your laptop speaker performance

What you’ll need to test your Mac speakers

  1. AudioTest (MacOS app $5)
  2. Audio recorder device (could also be your phone)
  3. Audacity (MacOS & Windows app, free)

1. Play the audio signal with AudioTest

You can get a general feel for how the sound on your MacBook by just playing music. However, let’s go a step further and test your speakers with a very scientific sound—a sine wave. Here’s what the test signal sounds like:

How do you get this test signal? A MacOS app, AudioTest, generates these test sounds. You’ve got all sorts of knobs and controls. I set the app to make a 60-second sine wave from 10 Hz to 20,000 Hz (aka 10 Hz to 20 mHz). So from very low bass to very high pitch.

The control panel has so many options, it feels a bit like sitting in front of an airplane control panel. Here’s the settings you’ll need to use:

  • Wave type: Sine
    There are other fun options, but Sine is the only one that really works for what we are doing
  • Length: 60 seconds
    The default is 10 seconds. This absolutely must match the “cycle” setting—which I’ll explain in a moment.
  • Frequency: Sweep from 10 Hz to 21,000 Hz
    10 Hz starts off as a very low bass that quickly gets higher in pitch until it reaches this extremely high pitch that you might have your dog howling!
  • Cycle: 60 seconds
    Two points on this.
    Point 1. If you set the cycle to 10 seconds, it’ll be way too fast. You want your test to run a good amount of time, so you can hear the differences.
    Point 2. Whatever setting you for the cycle, please make sure the length to be longer than the cycle. If your length is shorter than the cycle, your sound will cut off! e.g. if you set your cycle to 60 seconds, and your length is the default 10 seconds. Your test signal will only play for 10 seconds.
  • Level: Fixed at -24 dBFS
    The default setting will be set to “Sweep”. Whatever you do, don’t use “Sweep”. You want the sound to be at a level consistency.
  • Fade in/out: OFF
    We are doing a scientific test here. Please don’t fade the sound in and out.

2. Record the test signal with an audio recording device

When you play this sound, record it with an external device. I use a handheld Marantz PMD620 recorder. You could also use your iPhone. (If using your iPhone to record, I like the iOS app “Recorder”).

With my recorder sitting on my desk next to my MacBook, I recorded the test signal sound.

Once you have your laptop’s sound recorded, next is to try your desktop speakers.

Connect your desktop speakers to your laptop, play the sound again from the app, and record it.

3. View the visual results in Audacity

Copy the digital audio files from your recorder to your laptop. My Marantz recorder has a flash card that lets me transfer the .wav files. If you are using an iPhone to record, the “Recorder” app will let you transfer your audio files via Airdrop.

Now that you have the audio files on your computer, let’s open them in Audacity.

Now we can visually see how well the sound fills out in the low, middle, and high frequencies. Here again is that screenshot of the two recordings. The top is the MacBook. The bottom is my desktop speaker.

MacBook speaker vs desktop speaker JBL flip 4, recorded with Marantz

You can see how the desktop speaker has a much more full sound throughout the frequency spectrum.

This test is really handy to visually see how your laptop compares to your desktop speakers. These results come from my Marantz recorder—which is a higher-end recorder (thanks to the great podcaster Leigh Hanlon for giving me this).

You might not have a fancy handheld recorder. What happens if you recorded with an iPhone?

Here are the results, recording with an iPhone

As can be expected, the iPhone doesn’t capture the dynamics of the sound as well as a dedicated recorder. But you can still see the desktop speaker is a little more full.

How this test doesn’t work

This test doesn’t really capture the bass. I tried changing the frequency to be just 10 Hz to 100 Hz. A good bass range. My microphone couldn’t really pick up the nuances in the bass.

Also, this test doesn’t work for headphones. You can’t really stick a recorder by your headphones. But you can at least listen closely with your ears. Doing that, you’ll see how the bass performs on your headphones.

How to test the bass on your laptop speakers and headphones. A blog post coming soon.

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