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1,585 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Part I

Buying speakers is a lot like buying a car. Some people want to go out and kick the tires, take it for a test drive and put it through its paces before they buy. For those types of people, this post is for you. The other option is to buy a car based on reputation, information gleamed from the internet, etc. These buyers will be happy going on to cars.com and buying a car without the test drive. They can get a great deal on a great car. The speaker equivalent would be to buy name brand speakers online or buy custom speakers from someone like a couple of our forum’s sponsors, RAD & SVS. Going the custom route can give you a unique product at a great price/performance point. If you decide on this path, make sure you check out their return policy. It should be relatively "Hassle-Free".

Naturally, which of these options work best for you can only be decided by you.

For those that want to "kick the tires" so to speak, here are some of my general guidelines -- please note, these are all MY OPINIONS and should NOT be construed as gospel.

1. Avoid "Big Box" stores (e.g., Best Buy)
Your best bet is to find a local "boutique" hi-fi shop in your area. The reason to avoid the big box stores are numerous, but include:
  1. Speaker selection is usually relegated to the low end stuff
  2. No properly trained staff
  3. Impossible to truly audition the speakers in the store
  4. You can usually get something better for less at the smaller stores

The one area that the Big Box stores are generally superior at is the return policy. Generally, you can return a set of speakers if you bought them at Best Buy with no hassles and for a full refund. The smaller guys usually can't offer the same refund policy as Best Buy.

2. Audition as many speakers as you can.
Unfortunately, speakers are a very personal item. What may sound good to one person will sound awful to someone else. You will need to go out and find out what YOUR tastes are. Unfortunately, that will take a lot of work on your part; however, I think it is worth it in the end.

Now, you wouldn't be here if you didn't care which speakers you bought. I will also make a general assumption that whoever is reading this is not interested in the low end (they sound like junk) or the high end of audio (prices can be RIDICULOUS in the world of A/V). Based on this assumption, here are a few brands I have seen recommended prospective buyers take a look at -- please note: I've mentioned some specific brands in the following text. Please do not construe these as recommendations or endorsements; they're only the brand names that seem to pop up the most in the various forums I've frequented. There are many other brands that could be included that are just as good, or better, than those listed.
  • Paradigm
  • B&W
  • KEF
  • Monitor
  • Tannoy
  • Klipsch
  • Definitive Tech
  • Dynaudio

2.5 Listen to something in the Ultra-High end
I recommend this so you can know what speakers are "supposed" to sound like. For me it was a reference point when auditioning speakers in the mid-fi category.

3. Bring your own music while auditioning
When you audition speakers at the store, you should bring music that you normally listen to (some speakers sound better with classical vs. heavy metal and vice versa) and that you are familiar with. If you know how a song is supposed to sound, it is that much easier to judge the speaker. What I would further suggest is that you burn a CD of several of your favorite songs among as many music genres as you listen to. In particular, bring as many classical, acoustic or jazz songs as you can. These types of music are easier to judge than say, Rock or Hip Hop. Also, if possible, include a spoken word track. I've heard from more than one source that it's easier to note the flaws in a speaker with just a human voice. I'd also bring songs that emphasize something specific, like one for female vocals, one for bass detail, one for realistic cymbals, etc.

Also, try listening to music at different volume levels. Some speakers can play music at loud volumes without a problem where others begin to distort to the point of being un-listenable.

Note that I didn't say bring a DVD. I feel that it is too hard to judge a speaker while watching a movie.

4. Make sure the speakers are set up properly
The sales person should set the speakers up in some sort of triangle with the speakers and you at each corner. You should be equidistant from each speaker while listening to them. Also, the speakers should generally be set at least 2 feet from any wall.

5. Take note of the room
The attributes of a room can make an ENOURMOUS impact on the sound quality of a speaker. The best speaker in the world will sound just plain awful in a poorly set up/treated room, whereas a more modest speaker can sound amazing in a properly treated/setup room. The obvious question is "what's a good or bad room". The answer is complex and subject to much heated debate -- as are most issues in A/V. That being said, you want to minimize reflective surfaces without smothering it. If you have too many sound waves bouncing off the walls, it plays havoc with the stereo imaging, but an over treated room is even worse. In general, you want to have some absorptive objects in the room. Most people will want some sort of carpeted floor and acoustic treatments on the side walls. For the last word in room acoustics, you should visit http://www.ethanwiner.com/acoustics.html. Some argue the information might go a little too far, but I think it should give you a good idea of all the subtleties regarding this issue.

Don't forget the "size" of the room. If you audition speakers in a small demo room they WILL sound different in your huge 35'x35' family room with vaulted 18' ceilings.

6. Take notes
You are going to be listening to a lot of speakers in (hopefully) several stores. Unless you've got some sort of superhuman sonic memory, there is no way you're going to remember the details of each speaker you listen to. Taking notes is the only way you have a chance of remembering this kind of information. One method might be to rank, on a scale from 1-10, each song on your test CD for the following characteristics:
  1. Quality of the high notes
  2. Quality of the mid notes
  3. Quality of the low notes
  4. How low did the speakers go
  5. How "natural" did they sound
  6. How wide was the sound stage
  7. How deep was the sound stage
  8. How "big" was the sweet spot
  9. How did they sound when you were off axis
  10. Song specific subtleties (for example, could you hear them stamping their feet in song X. could you hear them taking a breath in song Y)
  11. How loud could you play them
  12. Overall impression -- leave a lot of space for this one.
7. Turn lights down while auditioning
It just helps you “to listen" if you aren't distracted with your sense of sight.

8. Don't be in a hurry
Unless you're a founding member of Google, buying speakers can be a major cash outlay. Spend the time to pick the right speakers and you won't have to spend more money later.

9. In-home audition
Once you've narrowed down your selection to a couple of speakers, try to get an in-home audition from the store(s). As I stated in item #6, the room makes a HUGE impact on how the speakers sound, so knowing how they sound in your room is important.
Listen to them for extended periods of time. Trying to do a quick A/B comparison of the speakers is just too hard. For that to really be an effective test, at the very least you have to be able to precisely match the sound levels when listening to the two sets of speakers. If one set of speakers plays even just a little bit louder than the other, you almost always equate that to 'sounding better'.

1,585 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·

Other issues surrounding the speaker buying process

Bookshelf vs. Floor standing speakers
Some argue that a bookshelf type of speaker is the way to go. They'll argue that you get better performance at the same price point with a bookshelf simply because of the additional cost to build and store a bigger box. They will also argue that they're easier to position in your ultimate listening area. If the room is small, the bass output from a floor standing speaker could very well be too much and give you a boomy low end.

Those in favor of floor standers will counter that the additional cost of a floor standing speaker can be offset with the cost of speaker stands needed for a bookshelf. They will also argue that, generally speaking, the floor standing speakers sound "fuller" especially with today's homes tending to be very open and with high/vaulted ceilings. In a similar setting, the mid-bass could be lacking with a bookshelf speaker.

I won't tell you which theory is correct -- I'm just not that smart/courageous!

How many to buy
This is another issue that is plagued with often heated/extreme opinions. Given that, I'll go ahead and throw out mine. Even with movies, a good 2-channel system will sound better (and therefore be preferred) than a mediocre 5-speaker system. The difference is even more pronounced when listening to music. If you were on a budget, I'd be inclined to start with a 2 channel (or 2.1) system. Then, as funds permit buy the surround speakers and lastly, the center channel.

Center Channel
A lot of the typical center channel speakers are laid out in a horizontal manner. This can create some undesirable sonic issues including a problem called lobing. Some (passionately) argue that you should have the same speaker for (at least) the front three speakers and that you have the speaker vertically (as opposed to horizontally) aligned. The problem here is that a vertically aligned speaker has a low WAF and can sometimes be problematic to set up. However, a regular bookshelf speaker makes a better center channel than a so-called center-channel speaker with a mid-tweet-mid arrangement. If you’re getting floor standing speakers, then try to choose one that has a bookshelf speaker in that model line. It might be a problem getting just one extra speaker for the center, but if you’re going with a 6.1 system you could use the extra one in the back.

Rear Surrounds: Mono or Di-pole?
My experience has been that properly setting up a di-pole surround speaker is much more problematic than a direct radiating (i.e., regular) speaker, so I generally recommend direct (mono) speakers for surround duty.

To Sub or Not to Sub
Some will claim they don't want a subwoofer in their system because it includes an additional crossover (where one speaker driver stops and another begins) to the system that degrades the overall sound of the system. They'll also argue that there is a lot of music out there that DOES NOT include much information falling below, say, 40-60Hz and that their speakers are rated to go down to 60Hz or 50Hz anyway.

I would counter that, although a speaker is rated down to 50Hz, the speaker probably won't do it well and will also put an additional strain on the speaker at the higher frequencies. Results will include more THD (distortion) and other degradations of sound quality. Also, a sub is almost MANDATORY for watching a movie.

Most members of the various AV forums will suggest that you buy one of two brands of sub: SVS or Hsu. Both offer outstanding value for the money. The reason these companies are such a "bargain" is that they sell only over the internet (at least in North America). Of course, this requires a little bit of faith on your part, but trust us, you won't find a better deal anywhere else.

Cables: Speaker wire, interconnects, etc
There is a lot of snake oil in the world of A/V, none more apparent than in the "hi-end" cable industry. Some will claim HUGE improvements with some boutique brand of interconnect. I've actually read someone who seriously stated that the most important part of any system is the cables used. I'm a little (ok, a lot) skeptical.
Probably the most common/well known "hi-end" cable maker is Monster Cable. They do make quality cables; they're just overpriced -- by a lot. Once again, this is only my opinion. One internet company that I've heard that makes reasonable priced quality cables is www.bluejeanscable.com. Another company I'd look at is www.apature.com.

Another area that brings out the passion in many A/V enthusiasts is the electronics in the sound system. Should you buy tube or solid state? Receiver or separates (i.e., pre-amp and amp)? How much to spend? What brands to buy? Etc, etc, etc. The following should NOT be construed as the "best" advice; it's simply my OPINION.
I recommend spending about 1/3 of the total budget on the electronics (including cables) for any particular system. Generally speaking, that means buying a solid-state receiver. Some of the brands that get mentioned most often around here include Denon, Yamaha, Marantz, NAD and Outlaw.

Do they sound different? Is any one better than another? The answer to the first question is "probably", the answer to the second question is "I don't know". Some have argued that the smaller brands (like NAD and Outlaw) sound better than the "big boys" at the same price point. Others will tell you any difference is negligible.

If I were to go out and buy a <$1,000 receiver right now, I'd probably be more concerned with the remote and relevant feature set of the receiver rather than purported sound quality of the unit. Some will hear a relevant difference, others won't. Once you get into the >$1,000 area of electronics, I think it makes sense to look into buying "separates". Outlaw Audio is an internet only company that has generated a great bang for the buck reputation. Other brands (albeit not all inclusive) that I would look at include:
  • Rotel
  • Parasound
  • Bryston
  • Adcom
Again, do NOT construe this as an endorsement or recommendation, simply as the brands that get mentioned most often.

As a final note, spending more money on your system will generally bring you better results; however, spending more brings diminishing returns. In other words, a $2,000 set of speakers will not sound twice as good as a $1,000 set of speakers. This law of diminishing returns is even more extreme with electronics and is a cliff dive with cables.

For those that fall into the "I just don't care, tell me what to buy", here is a one setup I'd recommend:
For ~$3,500:
  • 5 Usher S-520 speakers
  • SVS Sub (e-mail SVS for their recommendation based on your room and listening habits)
  • With the remaining going to whatever receiver you like the feature set/remote of.
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