"The best way to evaluate a speaker is to listen to it but there are those of us who insist on thoroughly examining the specs and if you're going to read the specifications, make sure you know what they mean."
"Surrounds and spiders are kind of like shoes, they're not very flexible at first but with use, they become much more flexible and as the surrounds and spiders in your speakers become more flexible, your speakers will sound better."
"Before you rush out to begin frantic listening tests with a dozen of speaker systems, you might want to spend time preparing a few questions you might discuss with the audio consultant. What kind of amplifier or receiver will power the speakers? What is the maximum budget, and what budget is comfortable for me? Where are the speakers to be located, and what if anything, limits their placement? What kind of furniture, walls, and overall size describe the room?"
Listening test preparation - Before you rush out to begin frantic listening tests with a dozen of speaker systems, you might want to spend time preparing a few questions you might discuss with the audio consultant. Time invested in examining these questions will help you narrow the choices and "zero in" on the right speakers to audition when you enter the listening room.
Consider these questions:
What kind of amplifier or receiver will power the speakers? Speaker and amplifier must be compatible. If you plan to buy a new amplifier or receiver, the speaker system should be compatible with the new unit. Consider the power rating and other performance characteristics of the amplifier in order to select the suitable speaker system. Speaker efficiency describes its ability to convert amplifier power into acoustic sound power. More efficient speaker produces more sound from a given amplifier although not necessarily better. If you have a 60 Watts RMS per channel amplifier, an average sized listening room of about 1000 cubic feet, your speakers can now be low or high efficiency. On the other hand, if you have a 30 Watts RMS per channel amplifier and a large room about 2000 cubic feet, or if you enjoy high sound levels in a small room you may want to consider high-efficiency speakers. Amplifier rated at just 10 to 20 Watts RMS per channel will reproduce reasonably high sound levels with most speakers. Real differences become noticeable when you turn up the volume. The less powerful amplifiers, particularly with less efficient speakers, will quickly generate distortion. More powerful amplifiers or more efficient speakers may not be all that much louder during the average program, but they should be capable of higher peak levels with lower distortion.
What is the maximum budget, and what budget is comfortable for me? There is no reason to let yourself "fall in love" with speakers that are out of your price range. Budgets are a fact of life; so let your audio consultant know what you expect to spend. Knowing your budget, he can suggest systems that you can afford. There's no strict rule to calculate what percentage of the cost of your system should be allocated to the speakers, but you can balance the cost of performance of all components. Generally, you get what you pay for. As a guide, if you have a $300 amplifier, match it with a similar priced speaker. You might have to consider buying a speaker stand if you are in the market for bookshelf speaker. A good speaker stand will cost you at least 1/3 of your speaker system budget.
Beware of unknown speaker brands because mostly are produced by small, local companies that may not have the research facilities, engineering resources, or quality control testing of larger companies. Know that a warranty is only as strong as the company that backs it. If you are "sold" on the sound of a particular speaker system, and it turns out to be too costly, try auditioning some less expensive speakers manufactured by the same company. Often, they will have comparable sound balance, and the lower cost may represent somewhat reduced power capacity, slightly less output at the extremes of the frequency spectrum, or merely a less costly cabinet finish.
Where are the speakers to be located, and what if anything, limits their placement? What kind of furniture, walls, and overall size describe the room? Room acoustic and size affects the speakers. Some speakers may be more than adequate for a den or small office, but are incapable of "filling" larger rooms with high sound levels. On the other hand, many larger speakers cannot develop their full potential in smaller rooms, nor would they sound "right" at close range if they were made to be heard at a greater distance. If a speaker must be placed on a bookshelf, table or elsewhere, this limits its size. Certain speakers are made to be used in corners, and if you cannot provide two relatively symmetrical corners, the sound reproduction may be impossible to balance. Certain speakers are made to reflect sound against walls, and if you have to place them away from walls, they may be unusable. Some speakers have styling that is quite attractive, but may be totally out of place in your room. While these factors may appear to be obvious, it is surprising how easy it is to overlook them when you stand in an unfamiliar listening room and concentrate only on what you hear.
The listening room - Find the right store. The audio consultants should be willing and able to answer your questions. There should be a quiet, isolated area designated as the "listening room", so you can audition a pair of speakers without distracting background noise or conversations. Also, in a listening room you can turn up the volume to a loud setting without fear of bothering other shoppers. Though you may not prefer to listen at a high sound levels, the speakers ought to be put through their paces... louder tests can help you find problems faster.
The human ears do not remember the exact sound of a speaker system for more than a few minutes, or so. Therefore, to critically compare different speakers, it should be possible for you to instantly switch from one pair of speakers to another. One other way is to use the so called "A/B" switching using a speaker selector box. If you listen with an "A/B" setup that allows you to switch directly between two pairs (or suites) of speakers, proceed with caution. It is a psychoacoustic fact that if one speaker is more sensitive than the other, and thus plays even slightly louder, it will be perceived as "better." While making the comparison, using an A/B "switcher" or not, make sure that the comparison is carefully balanced so that both candidates play at the same volume. If necessary, you can use a SPL meter to set for same volume (the dealer might be able to provide you with one).
To avoid confusion, be selective; trying to hear every pair of speakers in the store is pointless because only a handful may fit within your range of tastes, available space, and budget. Generally, properly set up A/B testing divulges more discernable differences to the less experienced listener. Additionally, listening to a speaker over a long period of time gives our ears time to acclimate to its characteristics and become used to its colorations. Then it starts to sound "right" even if it didn't to begin with.There are a fair number of people who believe the differences many listeners attribute to speaker break-in are actually more a result of our hearing adjusting to the speaker over time.
Always use an excellent amplifier and a high-quality source component to minimize the variables in what you'll hear. But you can rest assured that the immediate audible differences even between similar speakers are likely to be worlds greater than those between properly operating amplifiers and disc players. A good dealer should have the convenience for you to adjust the amplifier for equal volume when comparing speakers. Volume adjustment is important because some speakers will be louder than others due to differences in sensitivity. Valid listening test requires speakers auditioned at the same sound level.
If you already have a system at home, try to use similar set up or at least similar balance of sound. Or perhaps you like the sound of your neighbour or friend's system. Ask the dealer if they have the system available for you to use. Do not spend your valuable listening time switching between a dozen pairs every 3 seconds. If you are shopping at a quality store, the dealer will, from the description of your room, your size requirements, your musical tastes, and your budget, be able to show you a couple of pairs that will be close to what you want. Spend several minutes listening to each. When you think you're close, don't be embarrassed about spending half an hour or more listening to the speakers. You're going to have them in your home for a lot longer, and many speakers will cause "listening fatigue" after a short time. Make sure you really like them before you hand over money.
Bring along a few of your favorite CD albums. Use variety of CDs to make speakers reveal their true characters. For example: hip-hop and rock music with heavy bass explores the bottom-end response, operatic and jazz solo female vocals examine the midrange response, jazz horns and orchestral strings test the upper-mid and high frequency response, and piano tests overall response and "naturalness". Why bring your own? They are your point of reference. Your CD albums will make it easier for you to compare the performance of different speakers in various listening rooms, and to compare that sound to stereo system you already know quite well. If you use music you are not familiar with, you won't really know if you're hearing the true difference in speaker performance.
Tone control settings - When a suitable CD player and amplifier are ready for playing your CDs, and you have selected several pair of speakers for A/B comparison tests, check equipment settings. Examine the amplifier tone controls, make sure the amplifier tone controls are “flat”. While you may feel the sound would be improved by some tone control adjustment, this is not what the controls are for. They are for fine-tuning the speaker, once installed in your home, to properly match the speaker to the acoustic character of the room. If you were to adjust the amplifier tone controls to complement each new speaker, it would be nearly impossible to isolate the real differences between speakers. Listening comparisons can give more useful results if “flat” settings are maintained.
Listening levels - When you begin listening tests, adjust the amplifier for moderately high to maximum sound levels. This serves to overcome ambient room noises, to highlight most types of speaker deficiencies for easier detection, and to allow your ears to operate in the range of “flattest” frequency response. Never audition the speaker at low volume, even the least expensive speakers can sound very good. At the maximum loudness point, every speaker begins to produce significant amounts of harmonic distortion. Also, be sure to adjust the amplifier volume control to maintain identical sound levels as you switch speakers. Unequal levels can be deceptive; the loudest speakers usually give you the illusion of sounding better, even if they are inferior. To give yourself the best chance of choosing the right speaker, keep the listening levels matched.
A= most bass
B= strong bass
C= strong bass
D= moderate bass
E= least bass
placement - Speaker
placement affects the sound in the listening room, as well as in your home.
Corners increase bass output over mudroom placement, and speakers at ear-level
usually provide more high frequency response than speakers at floor level.
This is not to suggest that you move all the speakers in the dealer's listening
room. However, once you have narrowed your choice of two speakers, you might
ask to have them moved to comparable (adjacent) positions. Remember, in some
situations, a small difference can substantially change the sound balance.
For good stereo separation, you'll want the speakers to be far enough apart
(5 feet minimum) for a full soundstage to be heard, but not so far apart that it sounds artificial or "hollow". Manufacturers or dealers can often give you good advice as to speaker placement, so consult with the dealer. You might even want to take a diagram of your listening room into the store with you to help with the dealer's recommendation.
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