Can't get away from the office? Tied to the desk for the weekend? Consider making your surroundings less formidable by adding music. Office stereos fall into four categories:
* A personal stereo system -- such as a Sony Walkman -- plays through headphones. Good headphones sound fine and won't disturb anyone around you, but the cord restricts your movement, and you may not hear the phone ring.
* A boom box is fine for listening to news or a ball game, but not to music; the sound quality is poor.
* Powered speakers connect to a personal stereo unit through a headphone jack. They save space because the amplifier is built into the speaker cabinet. Forget about the small speakers sold by Japanese companies for $50 to $150; they don't sound any better than a boom box. Good amplified speakers, such as the Bose RoomMate II and Acoustic Research (AR) Powered Partners, cost about $300 a pair and sound far better than any boom box. Designed to be left on at all times, the Bose lacks a power switch and volume control. The more flexible AR has both.
* Conventional home stereo components offer the best sound for the price, if you have sufficient shelf space. A decent AM/FM receiver costs about $100; a CD player and a tape deck add $100 to $150 more each. The most important components are the speakers, which need to be compact yet high quality. Good speakers for less than $200 are hard to find. The Pinnacle Loudspeakers PN5+ and Mini-Advent (both about $170 a pair) boast true high-fidelity sound in small cabinets. I prefer the Pinnacle on most classical music, the Advent on pop music. The more modest Pinnacle PN2+ ($130) isn't quite as good, but will fit in narrower shelves. For tight spaces and budgets, the Radio Shack Minimus-7 ($100, often on sale for $60) doesn't qualify as high fidelity, but it still beats boom boxes.
-- Cary Lu
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