Review: JBL Encounter 2.1 PC speakers

I bought the JBL Encounter speakers on a whim a few weeks ago from Best Buy during one of their killer holiday deals. I wasn't really in the market for speakers shaped like alien heads, but they got good reviews (4 out of 5 stars in PC Magazine and a glowing write-up on ilounge.com), the picture on the box didn't look too doofy, and they're for my home office so no one but me is going to see them anyway. Good but cheap sound is all I wanted.

Despite their odd appearance, the Encounters hook up just like any other desktop speakers except the cords into the subwoofer have curved connectors that fit next to each other properly only if you have the right plug in the right jack. It's a decent idea, and the plugs look kind of cool, too. Unfortunately, the design also puts the controls in back with the plugs, keeping them out of easy reach. If you're constantly tweaking, that's a problem. Volume is handled by two accessible, touch-sensitive inset metal discs on one of the speakers. This gets an A+ for aesthetics (because there's no knob) but a C for functionality since you can't see what the volume is set to (you know, because there's no knob).

Then there are the speakers, which are a lot more dramatic in person than in photos. They don't just "sort of look like cute aliens," they look like frightening, shiny white alien heads, with creepy eyes that stare and stare at you. The saucer-like pedestals on glistening silver bottoms add to the disquieting effect. The subwoofer continues the theme with a design that looks like an egg or some sort of pod. If you have even the tiniest thought that this style might not be for you, don't get them. These can in no way be mistaken for ordinary speakers.

Finally, there's the sound: unimpressive. The Encounters are fine for everyday computer noises, but I'd pass if you want them for movies, music, or games. No matter how I adjusted the awkwardly placed controls in the back, the sound was tinny on the high end and didn't go deep enough on the low end. It lacked any presence whatsoever, and I'm upgrading from some cheap old Altec Lansings, so the bar isn't that high.

The Verdict: At $199 retail, these are a ginormous ripoff. For the $60 sale price I found them at, I'd only consider them if you like the look and aren't picky about the sound. Since I don't and I am, these creepy bastards are going back.