How To Buy Speakers (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Listen for the Music) By
you've worn out that crummy college boombox. Or perhaps, after hearing
a friend's high-end, multi channel rig, you realize that your world,
jazz and classical discs deserve better than tiny computer speakers
or plastic boxes stuck in a "home entertainment system."
Whatever the reason, choosing a new set of speakers to play your
valuable and beloved tunes is not an endeavor that should be entered
into lightly. With hundreds of brands and styles to choose from,
from the garbage sold at electronics superstores to the ritzy speakers
sold at high-end stores, separating the wheat from the chaff is
not a task for the ill equipped nor the undereducated.
seems like there are more speakers being made then ever before,
from car stereos to multi channel systems to speakers that can play
underwater in your pool! A good way to begin your search for speakers
is to read audio reviews in such publications as Stereophile and
Sound and Vision, as well as audio websites (FREE!) like 6Moons.com,
Soundstage.com, and Stereotimes.com. Audio reviewers generally do
it for the love of the music and a few high-end discounts, and are
not paid off as many think. Reviewing gear is hard work and only
the best products achieve any level of notoriety, hence the popularity
(among audiophiles) of speakers made by such companies as Quad,
B&W, Triangle, AES, Tannoy, Martin Logan, Audio Physic, Von
Schweikert, Magnepan, and Proac.
The Great Match Up
You wouldn't drink fine wine with a Big Mac right? Neither should
you drive quality speakers with cheap electronics. You will never
hear all your speakers have to offer unless your system is balanced
from top to bottom. Even if you are slowly upgrading your system,
try not to overspend on one component only allotting chump change
for the rest of the rig.
Another thing to consider is whether you want a floor-standing speaker
or a smaller monitor, which must be placed on a rigid metal stand
to cancel vibration and connect the speaker directly to the floor
(which helps improve bass response). While floorstanders can offer
truly realistic bass reproduction and life-size images, smaller
monitors are often more detailed, cleaner, and easier to place in
a small apartment. For what you lose in absolute bass response you
gain in dynamics, accuracy and pinpoint information.
Check a speaker's sensitivity rating, or how much power it takes
to easily drive a speaker to satisfying listening levels. If a speaker's
specs claim they are rated at 100 watts or some such nonsense, be
very afraid. Sensitivity is rated in decibels or dbs, typically
from the mid 80s to the mid 90s. Speakers are also rated by their
load, or Ohmage. Suffice to say, if your speaker is rated at 8 to
16 ohms and its sensitivity rating is 90 db, you will have no trouble
running it with almost any amplifier. Lower rated (80db) speakers
with 4 ohm loads are a harder task for almost any amp, especially
low powered amps offering under 30 watts per channel (the domain
of the single ended triode amplifier brigade).
And don't go for overkill. A speaker with multiple drivers divided
between two woofers, two midrange, a port and three tweeters is
sure to sound horrible. As in all of high-end audio, the simplest
design is often the most effective. If you can find a good two-way
or three-way speaker, you will most likely be satisfied for years
Don't be intimated by high-end audio stores, they are your friends.
Though some will try to sell you speakers beyond your price range,
if you walk in with a good idea of what you are looking for (read
those reviews!) the salesperson will usually be more than happy
to let you listen as long as you like to determine your choice.
If they pressure you or try to force a particular brand or will
not let you listen for extended periods, leave and find a store
that will. These are tough times for high-end audio so most retailers
will treat you with kid gloves. Changing people's attitudes about
high quality components can only come from dedicated customers and
equally dedicated retailers.
Shop various stores and listen to many speakers. You won't know
how good one pair sounds till you hear a second pair.
And of extreme importance is to always bring two or three CDs that
you know very well. Listening to the store's CDs will tell you nothing,
expect perhaps that you are listening to a well-recorded CD. Take
your favorite CD, the one where you know every solo, vocal line
and drum kick by heart. Only then can you determine the nuances
between different speakers. Focus on individual sounds and also
how the music sounds as a whole. Is the bass tight and clear, not
boomy and muddy? Do vocals sound rich and lifelike? Do cymbals sound
silky and shimmering or hard and brittle? Ditto for piano. After
listening for a long time do your ears hurt? (This is called listener
fatigue.) A speaker can sound great for the first few minutes but
the real test is how it stands up over the course of one or two
CD plays or over an entire evening. Finally, for your audition,
listen in a chair that places your ears at the same position as
you would at home, which most agree should be with your ears roughly
level with the height of speaker's tweeters.
Here we get into the meat and potatoes of the listening experience.
Bass, midrange and treble are the three defining characteristics
of any speaker. Words that should come to mind when listening to
quality bass reproduction will include deep, clear, taut, sonorous,
extended, rich and tight. If bass is boomy, exaggerated or if every
note sounds like the same bump-bump-bump, quickly avoid. Likewise,
the midrange, or middle frequencies have their own range that is
often very important to vocals, guitars, drums, piano and strings.
The midrange is where most of the musical information lives. When
listening to these frequencies you should consider traits like velvety,
lush, balanced and smooth. A solid midrange also helps the speaker's
sense of soundstaging (or size and depth of the performance) and
dynamics. Since much of the music is happening in the midrange,
it is also responsible for its overall depth and presentation. Finally,
a well-produced treble can turn a good speaker into a great speaker.
If the speaker sounds hard, brittle, etched or grainy, sounds that
can hurt your ears, blame poor treble performance. Treble traits
to listen for include silky, smooth, sweet, layered, and liquid.
This should all result in a coherent performer that simply makes
music, not a combination of booming bass and shredding treble. A
good speaker should be an all round performer.
How fast can a speaker react to treble and bass information? Does
Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Metallica's Master of Puppets move
as fast as greased lighting? Can the speakers jump from a whisper
to a scream and sound totally natural doing it? This is represented
by a speaker's dynamics, or how well it can handle both soft and
loud passages. Try the Gladiator soundtrack for a tortuous test
of pounding dynamics, from bombastic orchestral moments to gentle
A good pair of speakers should reveal new music in your old CDs.
That could be a vocal harmony you never heard before, or perhaps
a high hat accent or guitar riff. A speaker shouldn't be so analytical
that is lacks life, but it should reveal and combine every note
coherently, and as a connected flowing performance.
Finally, the true test of any speaker is does it make you tap your
toes and get into the music like you were a kid? Does it enable
you to forget the speakers and enjoy the music? This should be the
first and final test of any speaker, because ultimately the music
is what matters most.
THANKS TO Robert Harley's invaluable Complete Guide to High-End
Audio (Acapella) in assembling this piece.
Taken from the pages of Stereophile Magazine's
Recommended Components and Soundstage.com's Reviewer's Choice, this
highly selective list of speakers offer serious bang for the buck
and come with just as serious kudos. They are a place to start in
your quest for audio excellence.
Triangle Titus XS
Triangle Zerius 202
Schweikert Audio VR-1
Technologies Audition AS-B1
Athena Technologies AS-F2
Audio Millennia M2i
$255 per pair.