March 1, 2010

Loudspeaker Talk

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 it’s 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 can’t listen to a speaker that isn’t [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 it’s about speakers, we’ve probably kicked it back and forth a few times. We’ve had more than a few energetic, um, debates -- most of which, of course, I’ve 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, it’s helpful to listen to them under blind conditions.

My thoughts on loudspeakers (you’re about to read many of them) come from a varied background: I’ve owned many speakers, ranging in price from very little to well into six figures. I’ve 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 World’s 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.

Values abound

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 you’re getting a speaker that has been thoroughly engineered and competently manufactured. They don’t 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 don’t 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, let’s 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 don’t neatly fit into any category -- but I think they’re 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 they’re claimed to be. Bad speakers don’t 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 aren’t 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 designer’s 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 Council’s 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 won’t be anywhere near each other. Within the neutral loudspeaker camp, the sounds of various models can differ greatly -- there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. This goes to show that the current roster of standardized measurements can’t 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 aren’t 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, don’t 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. I’ve also enjoyed the frank discussions of loudspeaker design that I’ve had with designers from different firms using vastly differing methodologies. Most of the companies I’ve 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 don’t 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 company’s marketing claims outlandish? Does the company make up technical terms that don’t correspond with any accepted engineering goal? Is the company able to prove that what they claim in their marketing is true? If they can’t, dig deeper, until you’re 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, what’s 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, I’ve surely oversimplified here, I believe that going into speaker auditioning with a clear idea of what you’re 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 you’ll be able to shop for a speaker that gives you satisfaction.

. . . Jeff Fritz


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