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Issue #87: How important are the iPad speakers? 🔊

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I have a confession to make: I seldom use the speakers on any of my iPads. That’s true for my Macs over the years, too. It’s not that they’re bad speakers, any of them. On the contrary, Apple is best in class more often than not. Especially the iPad Pro speakers, with their four-point system, is lauded for being enough for most.

Except, I don’t agree.

So, this will be a letter about iPad speakers, and perhaps help you decide if they matter to you, as you consider a new iPad. Because we’re always considering new iPads, aren’t we?

So, what’s the difference?

There are three speaker setups in the current iPad lineup (generations are omitted below).

  • The iPad has two speakers situated at the bottom in portrait mode.
  • The iPad mini and iPad Air have two speakers, positioned on either side in landscape mode.
  • The iPad Pros have four speakers.

Speaker position matters, obviously, albeit less than you’d think for most people. However, there’s no doubt that using the iPad in landscape mode does make the sound come from one side. It’s noticeable if you look for it, for sure.

Likewise, while the iPad Air and iPad mini has balanced audio in landscape mode, thanks to the speaker position on either side, it gets a bit weird in portrait. It’s less noticeable, I’d say, but it’s there, for sure.

Finally, the four speaker system on the iPad Pros means that they can make sure the sounds comes out balanced, no matter the orientation. These speakers obviously sound the best, and the most. Most laptops will struggle to come close to the iPad Pros. In fact, it’s probably just the current generation of MacBook Pros that stand out as clearly better.

Looking at the sound quality from any current iPad model, I’d say you get good value. I’ve never tried a tablet that comes close, although it may very well exist, and you need to find premium gaming laptops (or, again, the current MacBook line-up) to reach the same quality. Given how thin iPads are, that’s remarkable. Apple might not be the pinnacle of sound quality, but they’re always market leaders within their segment.

They’re not good enough

That’s it, that’s why I don’t use the iPad speakers particularly often: They’re not good enough. That might sound controversial, so let me expand on that to include every laptop, screen, TV, and stationary computer I’ve ever had, seen, or tried. Not good enough, for me, isn’t a matter of good or bad, it’s just the way these kind of speakers are for me.

Now, let me elaborate somewhat. If I stumble upon a news clip on Twitter, or just want to get the gist of a YouTube video, I find the speakers good enough. It’s enough to listen to whatever that was, for a short period of time. It’s not a way to enjoy anything more immersive, like a game, a TV show or movie, or music for that matter.

At the same time, I see people using iPads and MacBooks as entertainment centers. They proudly declare that they’re relying on them for all their media consumption, including music. I’m uncertain if I envy them, or am horrified.

Isn’t it amazing that we’re all different?

Look, whatever works for you. I’m not a hater, I’m not going to say that my way to, say, listen to music is better than yours. Maybe I’m especially sensitive due to my tinnitus, or it’s a matter of what you find interesting and important, I have no idea. It really doesn’t matter.

What I use? Oh, right now, I’m listening to music using my AirPods Max, which are decent enough, sometimes brilliant thanks to the Dolby Atmos — sorry, spatial audio — implementation. I like the Bowers & Wilkins Px headphones too, and I’ve got a pair of Band & Olufsen Portal for gaming, too. If I’m out and about, I use the AirPods Pro because I just can’t bring myself to walk around with cans on my head. For more serious music listening sessions, well, suffice to say my audio setup can shatter windows without sounding like shit.

Suffice to say, audio quality, especially when listening to music, is essential to me. It’s less important when I’m watching a movie or a TV show, but I still rely on sound-bars (when space is limited), or a proper system, with a decent amplifier. There’s nothing in a computer of any kind out there that comes even remotely close to any of this.

But, again, if I’m going to watch a short news clip, I can’t always be bothered to get my headphones. If I’m playing a game, and there’s really no sound design to speak of, I might have it on set to very low, but most likely the sound’s on mute.

This is all me. You don’t have to be the same, there’s no shame or value in any of this. If anything, you could argue that I’m shackled to my habits, and anyone who enjoys a TV show on their iPad is better off.

Speakers matter (to some)

What it all boils down to is that yes, speakers matter, if you’re so inclined. To me, I really don’t care if I’m watching a clip on my iPad mini or iPad Pro, despite the obvious difference in sound quality. They’re both decent-to-good, but neither is close to being good enough for That Real Important Experience.

That is, to me, that’s true, and even important. So, to me, the iPad speakers doesn’t matter at all — they can never deliver.

However, if you’re a person who uses the speakers on your tablet or computer, then I’d urge you to consider your usage. Do you have your iPad in landscape mode at all times? The pick the iPad Air or iPad mini over the iPad. If you do a lot of work, and listening, in portrait mode, then maybe consider stepping up to the iPad Pros. The iPad Pros, obviously, always work, thanks to the four speaker setup. I’d go so far that you should possibly look for refurbished 11” iPad Pros, rather than the new iPad Air, if that’s the size you’re after, but you’re worried about the sound in portrait mode. Although, again, I don’t think it matters.

Or, you know, get headphones or a bluetooth speaker, if that fits the bill better.

It’s all so bloody personal, isn’t it?

These are horrible times for some, and even worse for others. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is such a tragedy, I hope you would consider pitching in. This tweet thread has some resources to get you started, or you could just donate to UNICEF through the App Store, as previously reported. I’m also matching any Switch to iPad subscriptions with a donation of my own (up to $1,000). Every bit helps, as they say, and this has the added benefit of letting me help out while still seeing some growth to this very project. It feels better, and donations are well over the hundreds already.

I’m glad you’re a paying subscriber, and I hope you’ll stay subscribed. Thank you. 🙏🏻

What do you think about the iPad speakers? I’d love to know, so either hit reply (if you’re reading this in your email app), or tweet to @tdh.

Until next time, happy listening, no matter how you do it.

— Thord D. Hedengren