March 1, 2010
When setting up a high-performance
audio system, most audiophiles start with the speakers. The loudspeakers are the
components that must fit in and work with the physical/acoustical space allotted to them,
and will also likely represent the largest percentage of the system budget. Most
important, speakers are the greatest determinant of ultimate sound quality -- get the
speakers wrong, and you may as well have gotten everything else wrong, too.
Not surprisingly, given the above, the subject of
loudspeakers is a polarizing one, and most audiophiles have their favorite brands and/or
preferred speaker technologies. I guess its human nature to want to join a
"camp" of some sort, and audiophiles regularly do this with speakers: sealed vs.
ported, dynamic driver vs. electrostatic, first-order vs. fourth-order crossovers,
time-aligned vs. . . . well, not time-aligned. The list goes on. Some
audiophiles even go as far as to say "I cant listen to a speaker that
isnt [insert favorite speaker technology]."
Doug Schneider, publisher of the SoundStage! Network, and I
love to talk speakers: brands, designs, measurements, prices, you name it -- if its
about speakers, weve probably kicked it back and forth a few times. Weve had
more than a few energetic, um, debates -- most of which, of course, Ive
won. Actually, Doug has made some really good points over the years, two of them being:
among speakers, there is no consistent ratio of price to performance; and to hear the
differences between two different speaker models, its helpful to listen to them
under blind conditions.
My thoughts on loudspeakers (youre about to read many
of them) come from a varied background: Ive owned many speakers, ranging in price
from very little to well into six figures. Ive reviewed many, many speakers over the
years in all price ranges, traveled to audio shows to hear most of the brands, and even
embarked on The Great North
American Loudspeaker Tour, in order to wrap my ears around a sampling of brands from
the ultra-expensive side of the fence. So with all that in mind, I thought it high time
that I try to articulate my thoughts on the current loudspeaker market, and lay them out
as plainly and concisely as possible. Consider this a companion piece to my "The
Worlds Best Audio System" column this month on the Paradigm S2 v.3, in which I
discuss in detail the sound quality you can achieve for far less money than perhaps
you thought possible.
Many years ago, Doug Schneider made an observation that he
continues to discuss in his articles today, and with which I completely agree: There are
some great values in the budget loudspeaker market. Many of these speakers come
from companies with impressive engineering resources and, in some cases, extensive testing
facilities, such as anechoic chambers. Some of these firms are quite large, which means
they have significant resources in research and development; this can translate into
making many of their loudspeakers parts, including the drivers. When you spend a
grand or two or three -- or 500 bucks -- with the right company, you can generally
be confident that youre getting a speaker that has been thoroughly engineered and
competently manufactured. They dont all sound the same, of course, but there are
enough choices to suit most any sonic taste. (For a broad sampling of these, peruse our speaker archives.)
Some of the less expensive speakers actually compete with
-- no, beat -- products in the upper price ranges. Surprised? You dont see
this discussed all that often because of a long-held reviewer tradition: Comparisons
should be made only between products of similar prices, because the customer shopping in a
specific price range will likely make the same sort of comparison in a store. This
approach has validity -- at the SoundStage! Network, we make comparisons that we feel will
be useful to our readers. But the practice can also do them a disservice. What if a
product at a much lower price is actually better? Might that observation fly completely
under the radar? Yes -- and it often does, because such comparisons are so seldom made,
whether online or in print.
Going up . . .
As you ascend into the realm of genuinely expensive
speakers -- for the sake of our discussion, lets say those costing over $10,000/pair
-- the market spreads out in many directions.
Expensive speakers seem to fall into three main groups.
These categories are a bit oversimplified -- there will be some overlap, and some models
that dont neatly fit into any category -- but I think theyre useful in
trying to understand the high end of the market.
The first group comprises bad loudspeakers. These
products have no business being sold. Poorly engineered and/or poorly constructed, they
are often not what theyre claimed to be. Bad speakers dont hold up in direct
listening comparisons with better speakers, whether expensive or cheap, and therefore are
seldom found in places where customers can easily subject them to an A/B comparison. Nor
does their technical performance hold up under scrutiny. Now, objective measurements and
specifications arent everything, but they can tell you whether or not a speaker
deserves to be described as "high fidelity."
Bad loudspeakers are those that I would strike from
consideration altogether. Defining a bad speaker means comprehensively examining
the product: hearing and seeing it, analyzing its design and measurements, talking to
owners and dealers who have compared it with brands and models known to be good, etc.
Voiced loudspeakers are those models that are, or
can be, carefully engineered products. They adhere to certain established design
principles, but deviate from others in order to achieve a certain sound, or a certain
sonic strength in a particular area. Many times these loudspeakers have a specific sort of
sound -- a house sound, in audiophile lingo -- that is very much the personal sonic
vision of the designer. Said sound, and the speaker itself, can also be the result of
sometimes unconventional engineering practices. Such speakers often have a loyal group of
owners whose sonic priorities align with the designers philosophy. Perhaps more than
any others, voiced speakers require very careful auditioning.
The last group is that of neutral loudspeakers.
These products are designed to adhere to what are considered in the industry to be
well-established goals of loudspeaker engineering -- e.g., flat frequency response,
low distortion, good off-axis dispersion -- but can be unique in how they achieve these
goals. These are the speakers that generally fare well in the measurements we take of them
in the National Research Councils anechoic chamber, though by no means does that
mean that their resulting charts and graphs will be identical. Nor will they sound alike
-- sometimes, their sounds wont be anywhere near each other. Within the neutral
loudspeaker camp, the sounds of various models can differ greatly -- theres more
than one way to skin a cat, as they say. This goes to show that the current roster of
standardized measurements cant tell you exactly how speakers will sound -- to know
which sounds best to you, you must hear them for yourself. It also illustrates the fact
that perhaps we arent doing all the measurements we need to do -- or the right ones
-- to reliably predict how a speaker will sound to a given person.
Although neutral loudspeakers tend to be highly engineered,
dont assume that they have been solely designed by measurements and punching numbers
into computers. The best of the bunch are also extensively auditioned in listening tests
that are very much a part of the design process.
I have greatly enjoyed listening to speakers from many
companies. Ive also enjoyed the frank discussions of loudspeaker design that
Ive had with designers from different firms using vastly differing methodologies.
Most of the companies Ive come in contact with are straightforward and honest about
their approaches, and I appreciate that. What bothers me is something I see a fair amount
of in the expensive-speaker market: products that, although perhaps not bad, are
accompanied by technical claims that hold no water -- claims that dont hold up,
either in the listening or the measuring. I understand that companies have to market their
products, but misleading the public with false claims is dishonest.
What this means is that the buyer must do his or her
homework. First, research and listen to the speaker. Then examine the specs and claims
made for it, match these up with objective tests, subjective reviews, and established
engineering practices, and see if all the numbers add up as they should. Are the
companys marketing claims outlandish? Does the company make up technical terms that
dont correspond with any accepted engineering goal? Is the company able to prove
that what they claim in their marketing is true? If they cant, dig deeper, until
youre satisfied with your conclusion. Only then should you plunk down your
money. Or not.
Finally . . .
The loudspeaker is a personal choice for the audiophile. At
the end of the day, whats most important is that you are happy with your
purchase, and that it brings you great pleasure when you listen to your music collection.
Although, in the interest of brevity, Ive surely oversimplified here, I believe that
going into speaker auditioning with a clear idea of what youre seeking and how it
might have been achieved by the manufacturer is helpful. More than is true of any other
audio component, not all speakers are created equal. The more you know about what you like
and why, the better youll be able to shop for a speaker that gives you satisfaction.
. . . Jeff Fritz