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I have a reasonably small desk with minimal space behind it, and I am in a reasonably small room. I don't crank music very loud (but once in a while I enjoy something high volume), and I am far more concerned with the quality of sound rather than max volume or aesthetics (although aesthetics are always a delightful plus.) I have a MacbookPro and I either stream from my iTunes or I just plug in one of my cds. I listen to all types of music from Opeth to Metallica to Rage Against the Machine to Alan Jackson to Armin Van Buuren to Zero7 to Vivaldi to Liszt to Muse etc etc etc You get the point.

What do you suggest is best for my situation and hopefully why?

what characteristics should I look for in a set of speakers that would help make my decision easier?

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The shopping recommendation part is off topic, so I edited to leave the question about characteristics. –  Rory Alsop Dec 31 '12 at 13:19
    
Is this a studio production question, or is this just for recreational listening? The answers will be different (in production, clarity is often more important than "sound quality," for example). Non-production questions are generally not on-topic here. –  Warrior Bob Dec 31 '12 at 16:31
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If sound quality is at the top of your list, I would first be looking for speakers that are powered. That is, look for a set that has it's own wall plug rather than allowing the MBP to push the speakers. The laptop's headphone amp will not be sufficient to push any speakers very loud.

There are many 2.1 systems (left, right, and sub) that fit this bill. Many of these are quite inexpensive, though as a rule, you get what you pay for. If you can find a set where each individual speaker has its own power source, all the better. Otherwise, often you'll find that the sub is powered, while the left and rights are not.

If you're willing to spend a bit more (sometimes quite a bit more), you could look into powered studio monitors. You'd undoubtedly be getting the best quality sound with this approach. They're typically, full frequency range (or nearly full, save some low end), capable of much higher volumes, and otherwise just higher quality materials.

If you go this route, do pay attention to the variety of audio inputs on the studio monitors though. As they're primarily geared for a studio setup, they'll often have 1/4" jacks, XLR jacks, or a combination. You would just have to get the proper adapter for your laptop's audio out.

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