If there's one thing Indians love more than watching their cricket team thrash Pakistan's, it's cracking a good deal. Unfortunately, this irresistible urge to score more value than what would otherwise be possible, has driven the market to evolve in a rather grotesque manner. The lower-end speaker spectrum is a stark reflection of the Indian consumers' relentless quest for value and how this demand has shaped the entire product range for the worst.
By this, I specifically refer to the deluge of dirt-cheap 5.1 channel speaker systems that have inundated the market. These Indian manufacturers may have managed to fit multichannel speaker systems in the sub-10,000 bracket by rebadging sub-par Chinese offerings, but at what cost?
More isn't always better. Cheap 5.1 systems invariably sound terrible
A Budget Divided
Buying speakers isn't as straightforward because conventional logic doesn't always hold true in this case. More isn't always better, especially when budget is a major concern. The idea of getting five speakers and a subwoofer for the price of a stereo setup might seem appealing, but increasing the number of speakers and their complexity without proportionately bumping up the price sounds the death knell for overall performance.
The costliest components of a good speaker surprisingly aren't the drivers or crossovers, but the cabinet itself. It's far more difficult and expensive to make a structurally rigid speaker enclosure than to just plonk in the choicest drivers and crossovers. It's all down to simple mathematics: just ask yourself what would be better—a finite budget spent on two speakers or six?
Music or Movies?
It isn't all about the budget either. Unless you specifically want to watch multichannel movies and play video games, a 5.1 setup is practically useless for the primary purpose of a speaker—music playback. You see, the human ear spatialises sound primarily by the time delay it takes for the sound wave to hit each ear. Since all the elements of a musical performance are in front of the listener, you don't really need any more than a pair of speakers to accurately position the entire soundstage. It is, therefore, a cold hard fact that music invariably sounds better on a stereo setup than on a multichannel one.
The M-Audio Studiophile AV40 offers excellent performance for the price
Increasing the number of channels makes imaging and soundstaging of music content even more challenging. More importantly, this is the sort of challenge that definitely isn't addressed in speakers available in this price bracket. This is compounded by the fact that a negligible percentage of users actually mount the speakers in the required way. Even fewer bother to invest in speaker stands, for obvious budgetary reasons. More often than not, rear channels invariably end up being placed on the desk right next to the front channels as a consequence. Forget music, this sort of arrangement isn't ideal for multichannel content either. Tragically, this is the reality for nearly all those who opt for 5.1 speaker systems in this price range.
A Matter of Physics
There is another good reason to opt for a larger pair of stereo speakers over five tiny satellites. It's all down to physics. The amount of amplification necessary is inversely proportional to a speaker's cabinet size. This is especially true for reproducing deeper bass, which requires the most out of the amplifier. Larger speakers require lower amount of amplification, whereas a lot of costly power is needed to overcome the physical limitations of smaller satellite speakers. The natural harmonics of a larger enclosure can effortlessly reproduce deeper bass even at lower amplification levels. What's more, since bass indeed is directional to some extent, a stereo system bearing larger cabinets will afford better infrasonic performance than smaller satellite speakers augmented by a subwoofer.
Two's Better Than Six
Needless to say, a stereo setup will have considerably better fidelity than a multichannel system built for the same price. I don't for a moment imply that a two-channel system is more ideal than a multichannel one for movies and video games. My point is that unless you plan to spend Rs 20,000 on a decent entry-level 5.1 speakers from well-known brands, you simply stand to waste good money on sub-standard local/Chinese alternatives that consistently underperform in every single aspect.
Quality active desktop stereo speakers such as the Audioengine A2 will blow you away
In a pinch, it's always more prudent to go for decent active stereo speakers. The Audioengine A2 or the M-Audio Studiophile AV30/40 are some sublime alternatives you can choose from for a budget of around Rs 10,000. Remember, ensuring a higher sound quality should have precedence over simply panning it behind the listener. On a budget this low, it makes sense to get the basics sorted out first. The idea is to focus on timbre accuracy and detail over superfluous panning of sound that's of no consequence for faithful reproduction of music.