IT IS HERE! We are in the midst of the Home Theater Shack $3,000 Speaker Evaluation event, as I write this. Six pairs of speakers are on the premises, and over the next two days, Feb. 21 and 22, we will hear a lot of great tunes on them. There will be lots to report.
This is not a shootout. Each speaker will be set up for its best sound in this room and evaluated on its own merits.
For now, this post (#1) will be used as the summary post and will be updated through the weekend and beyond. Check back often - we will tell you ih later posts when this summary has grown.
The criteria for the speakers used in this event was floorstanding speakers with an MSRP between $2500 ($2499) and $3500 per pair as delivered for the event. Any finish was acceptable. Speakers requiring external DSP or an active crossover did not qualify. Since the emphasis is on 2-channel music use, speakers made for that purpose were favored, although some may be perfectly acceptable for home theater use as well.
Sadly, some of the speakers selected via the readers' poll were not available because the manufacturers chose not to participate. We cannot read minds to know all their reasons, but can only conclude that it is their loss not being included. We go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that each model evaluated gets the fairest treatment possible by three sets of experienced ears. We will not, however, shy from the truth or be edited by the suppliers, even if they are HTS sponsors. In the end, we are confident that this serves all concerned in the best way possible.
We deeply appreciate those who DID choose to participate, some on short notice to fill in at the last minute. We ended up with a great mix, including some noteworthy technology offerings: one RAAL tweeter model and one concentric mid-tweeter model. We were looking forward to hearing every one of them by the time the big event arrived.
Here are the speakers included in the event:
- Axiom M100
- Phase Technology PC-9.5
- Polk Audio LSiM705
- PSB Imagine T2
- Salk Songtower SC
- Tannoy Precision 6.4
Cedar Creek Cinema/Two-Channel Room, Luverne, Alabama. The most recent change to the room is that the equipment cabinet which used to occupy most of the space below the cinema screen has been removed. We deemed that removing the cabinet would improve the soundstage and imaging. Total changes relative to the diagram below:
- Front equipment rack removed.
- Corner traps added in rear corners.
- Additional side absorptive panels.
- Front subwoofer cabinets turned toward front corner traps with 4-inch gap (cabinets at 45° angle relative to the room) with dissipation panels on their backs (toward room center)..
- Cutouts in stage structure allowing Left and Right Mains to be on the main floor within one foot of the front wall.
The room is heavily treated. Some might think the amount of treatment is too much for two-channel speaker evaluation, but I think it is just right. More on this in a summary post below. The measured RT60 is 0,2 to 0.3 second.
The evaluators for this event have proven their ability to work together to provide what some describe as some of the most in-depth and worthwhile loudspeaker reviews on the web. They are:
- Joe Alexander, Madison, Wisconsin. Joe is an avid audiophile and staff writer for Home Theater Shack.
- Leonard Caillouet, Gainesville, Florida. Leonard has installed and set up speakers professionally for much of his life. He is a Moderator and Administrator and one of the chief technical gurus for Home Theater Shack.
- Wayne Myers, Lincoln, Nebraska. A musician and lover of great sound, Wayne has a degree in Audio Technology and reviews speakers and headphones for Home Theater Shack.
We have gone back and forth a bit on how many test tracks to use. In the end. we decided that a certain number of tracks should be common, that all evaluators would listen to each pair of speakers with them. and that each evaluator could then have a number of tracks of his choice. We each have our favorites that we have used many times before and know exactly how they should sound. And each has his favorite music styles to listen with. Each evaluator spent one-half hour with every speaker pair at its ideal setup, plus brief listens close to the wall (zero toe and zero listening angle) and with Audyssey MultEQ.
No code has to be inserted here.
- OPPO BDP-105 Universal Player - We will be using the 105 as the source for this evaluation. All of the tracks used during this evaluation event were extracted using either dBPowerAmp or Exact Audio Copy (EAC) from the original CDs, and were written to a USB flash drive and accessed for playback via the 5509's front-panel USB port. We appreciate OPPO being a sponsor here at HTS.
- Onkyo PR-SC5509 9.2-Channel Network A/V Preamplifier - Our preamp/processor for the event: Onkyos' 5509. It is a highly capable processor and very well regarded as one of the top preamp processors available. We decided in this speaker listening event to include a brief evaluation for each speaker pair with Audyssey MultEQ engaged to see how it affects the soundstage and image clarity and "evens out" the room's influence on frequency response. The 5509, with MuiltEQ XT32 capability, made this a breeze. Of course, its 192kHz/32bit Burr-Brown DACs and specs like 0.05% total noise plus distortion (20 Hz–20 kHz, Half power) ensure it to remain completely transparent. We appreciate Onkyo being a sponsor here at HTS.
- Emotiva XPR-5 Five-Channel Reference Power Amplifier - The XPR-5 is a fully discrete, dual differential, high current, short signal path Class A/B amplifier with a Class-H power supply. The power supply rails are modulated to stay a minimum number of volts above the amplifier's output. This yields an efficient design that will stay cool while driving a pair of 8 Ohm speakers to 500 W or a pair of 4 Ohm speakers to 750 W. Having lots of clean power available is important when evaluating two-channel speakers. With the XPR-5 there is never a question or concern about being able to drive the speakers under test cleanly and reliably. Thanks to Emotiva for being a sponsor at HTS.
- MiniDSP UMIK-1 Calibrated USB Measurement Microphone, calibration by Cross Spectrum Labs - The UMIK-1 is a high-accuracy calibrated acoustical measurement microphone with a build-in analog-to-digital converter (ADC). It interfaces directly with HTS's Room EQ Wizard audio analysis application and was used for all speaker measurements taken during the event. Thanks to MiniDSP for being a sponsor at HTS.
Most speakers in most rooms will not sound that great when placed close to a wall. Remember that we are talking about fairly serious, discriminating listening, mainly to music, with roughly $3,000 worth of speakers. Our belief is that anyone willing to spend that kind of money on speakers will be serious enough about good sound to find the best possible way to set them up and get the absolute best performance from them, even if it means moving them to that desired location temporarily when said listener feels like getting a serious dose of great music with great sound.
There are speakers that do not sound too bad close to the wall. But none, in our experience, can give a deep, engaging soundstage when too close to the wall. If one has to place a pair of speakers close to a wall, it would be better to save money and buy a pair for a few hundred dollars - check out our Reviews Area for candidates - and call it good. A $3,000 pair of speakers might sound a little better there, but will not sound great and it is highly doubtful you will be getting your "money's worth" from those speakers with them shoved up against a wall.
Having said all that, some readers have expressed interest in doing exactly what we do not suggest, or they are at least curious enough to ask about it, and may place an expensive set of loudspeakers - like the ones we evaluate here - next to a wall. After all, it is their money to do with as they please. So, having made our recommendation, we have chosen to be as helpful as possible and briefly listen to these speakers close to a wall. This information will be included with the individual reviews.
Thoughts On Equalizing High-End Speakers
There was a time when it simply was not done. That time is past. There are numerous ways it can be accomplished these days...
- With pinpoint frequency precision.
- Using exactly the type and amount of correction desired.
- With phase/time correction if desired.
- Without adding noise or distortion.
- Without adding audible artifacts.
In our case, we chose to finish the evaluation sequence by applying Audyssey MultEQ XT32 to see how well it could accomplished the following:
- Lift drooping high frequencies resulting from off-axis listening angles.
- Even out room-interaction frequency response variations.
- Tighten and improve soundstage and imaging.
Our Test Sequence
Here is the sequence that each speaker pair went through:
- Close-To-Wall Evaluations 1 & 2.
- Set up 1.
- Speaker Location - Set close to the front wall, pointed straight at the Listening Position (LP). We used a previously-decided-upon setup location typical of a home theater environment or a general-purpose room where speakers have to be close to a wall for some reason.
- Distance from back of the speaker to wall: 2 ft.
- Distance from center of front baffle to side wall of the room: 5 ft.
- Distance apart: 9 ft 4 in.
- Zero Listening Angle (speakers pointed straight at the LP).
- Run REW Sweeps L & R, check for good matching and proper function.
- Set up 2.
- Same as above.
- Zero Toe In (speakers pointed straight at the back wall).
- Run REW Sweeps L & R.
- Evaluate 2. Three to five minutes listening time by each evaluator.
- Set up 1
- Evaluate 1. Three to five minutes listening time by each evaluator.
- Set up 1.
- Ideal Location Evaluation 3.
- Set up 3.
- Ideal setup location is determined for deep soundstage and sharp imaging. This could take from a few minutes to 45 minutes.
- Run REW Sweeps L & R.
- Evaluate 3. Thirty minutes listening time by each evaluator.
- Set up 3.
- Audyssey MultEQ Evaluation 4.
- Run MultEQ Setup
- Run REW Sweeps L & R.
- Evaluate 4. Three to five minutes listening time by each evaluator.
- Record physical measurements.
As usual, there were some surprises. We heard some soundstage and imaging that were to die for. While we did not expect any of them to sound terrific in a close-to-the wall setting, a few actually sounded fairly good there, and one sounded VERY good. One model sounded downright awful close to the wall, and then had its revenge by giving us one of the better soundstage / imaging performances in its final setup that we heard over the weekend.
We were amazed to see how a very small difference in listening angle - one degree - that's right, one single degree - could transform a soundstage from lackluster ho-hum to WOW.
Some of these are beastly heavy monsters. And some finishes were eye-popping.
It has been invaluable to have the three sets of ears and listening perspectives together for these events. One evaluator will hear a certain quality and be ready to rave about it, making note of some other "minor factor," and another evaluator will have found that "minor factor" to be more like a showstopper, adding in his notes only a mention of what the first evaluator was crazy about. All in all, our perspectives came to rest with a great deal of consensus, but the contrasting views will no doubt stand out in our final write-ups.
One of the early pairs we listened to - I will never reveal which - got a mixed set of reactions initially. A few hours later, one of the group said he thought they might deserve a second listen in a different location. So we investigated further and found that they did, indeed, give a better performance there. We keep each other grounded, providing checks and balances and perspective balancers at every turn.
In the end, loads of fun were had by all. Terrific hosts and savory grilled meats did not hurt one bit. Cheese curds from Wisconsin and chocolate meltaways from Nebraska made their way to the snack bar. I doubt anyone lost weight with all the treats and good food available. The moderate Alabama weather treated us nicely. Gracey, the Cedar Creek Cinema cat, reminded of us her mascot status and insisted on a scratch or two whenever we came out for a break.
And discussions are under way for what our next evaluation event might entail.
In the mean time, stay tuned for our detailed results. We sill start feeding them into the following posts in the next couple of days.