Looking for new speakers can be challenging for a number of reasons. Among the issues that face you are the sheer number of speakers makers, the fact that you aren’t auditioning in your room, listening fatigue, the variables that different amps, preamps, cables and sources can provide and the fact that there are only a gazillion different types of speaker types. I am going to try to offer some advice to help you in your quest. My goal is to help you minimize the issues that I mentioned above and to give you some tips on finding a pair of speakers that work for you.
First things first we should talk about listening, I can’t tell you how many times I have been talking to someone about better audio gear and had them say something to the effect that they don’t have “golden ears” or don’t have good ears. At which point I go, “Well, I guess it is time to start training them!” I have sat with many folks and pointed out some things to listen to while auditioning a pair of speakers and have watched a smile spread ear to ear as the realization hits that they CAN hear the difference between two different pairs of speakers. If you don’t think you can all you need to do is work a little bit at learning what to listen for. Granted the reviews you read in the magazines that review Hifi gear can seem esoteric and daunting. But it is REALLY hard to describe sound without sounding completely stuck up. These folks aren’t stuck up they just need to push the English language to its limits to describe what they are hearing. Their hearing isn’t better than yours or mine just better trained and they are paying much closer attention to what they are listening to.
I like to close my eyes, may seem silly but it allows the music to more effectively pull me in and it shuts down visual stimuli. Are we not more visually oriented than aurally? So close the eyes and hear the music open up and you will suddenly start noticing things that you didn’t before.
The second thing I would like to tackle is listening fatigue. Even well trained ears can get tired and confused, especially at higher volume levels. My first tip is; don’t be afraid to listen at a sane volume level. I always ask my clients to let me know if it is too loud, if it is, I want them to say something. One of the greatest professional challenges that we face is that there are normally a lot of other sources playing in the store at any one time. Human nature is to turn it up because you are A. trying to show off a system that you are proud of and B. Trying to overcome all the other sounds in the store. I therefore turn off or turn down other systems when possible and try to talk to the client about the volume levels they are comfortable with and match that level. So that covers volume levels, next is how long do you listen?
I recommend that you take four or five CDs or LPs and listen to one song or part of one song, on each of them. If you are trying to compare two different speakers it gives you a base line to hear what the difference in their performance is. I also recommend that for each song pick out two or three things to listen for, and they need to be specific. For example, there is a Tears for Fears song called Elemental, on the album of the same name that I like to use. It is a very dense mix and most speakers struggle to leave enough space for all of the instruments, so I listen for the space and depth of the three guitar tracks. The second thing I listen to is a very low frequency note around 35 seconds in that most speakers can’t handle. What I listen for is if that note gets reproduced and if it is how loud it is relative to the rest of the frequency range. This is great for testing amps and subs too….. The third thing I like to listen to is a small guitar part that is buried in the mix. On speakers that image exceptionally well it should sound like it is about a foot to the left of the speaker and about 2 feet above the speaker. These three things all happen within the first minute of the track. More about why that is important later.
I also recommend that of the selections you choose try to pick a variety of music, I usually go with a female vocal performance that is as close to a capella as possible, something that is classical, and a live jazz recording. Even if you don’t care about or normally listen to these genres they can offer insights into how well a specific pair of speakers perform. For example female vocals and vocals in general can tell you a lot about how well a cross over works and how good of a soundstage the speakers can produce. In a speaker that doesn’t cross over well it can seem like the vocalist gets taller and shorter as they work through their vocal range and the sound moves from tweeter to mid-driver. It is a small thing but something speaker manufactures have worked incredibly hard to perfect. If you are listening to a classical violin concerto can you hear the cello and viola parts? Is there a sense of depth front to back? There should be….In a live jazz recording can you clearly hear where the cymbals are relative to the snare and the kick drum? Can you pick out where the players are on the stage?
Now back to why you want to keep your song sample short and sweet. I have discovered that I hear more differences if I listen to only a small section say no more than a minute of a few cuts and switch to the other speakers and listen to the same cuts in the same order. By keeping your selections short you aren’t forcing yourself to try to remember every little nuance between the gear you are auditioning. This also allows you to listen to more speakers over a longer period of time without hitting the fatigue wall. And remember we are listening to just a few things on each cut. By listening to the small specific things over several short sections allows you to narrow down an objectively judge what you like and don’t like about a pair of speakers.
This is the way I prefer to narrow down what kind of speakers I like and that my clients like. Once we are down to one or two but aren’t quite sure, that’s when I recommend popping in your favorite album and giving it a good, solid listen. I will typically leave my clients alone at this point as I want them to see if the speakers bring out an emotional response. At the end of the day that is what you are buying. A piece of technology designed to illicit an emotional response. If you put on your favorite album and the speakers take you to the place that album is tied with in your mind then Congratulations we have a winner!
At the beginning I mentioned that one the variables that make a fair audition impossible is that there is a very low chance that the gear will be set up exactly the same in the store as in your home, not to mention the fact that the room plays a huge factor in how a system sounds. And where some speakers are very forgiving with placement some aren’t. The best you can do is talk with the person you are working with and see what their personal experience has been. Where possible, if a client makes an appointment, I will try to set up the audition system as closely as possible to the home system to mitigate these factors. I also offer my clients a 30 day money back guarantee, so that they can really see at home if they made the right choice.
This is certainly not a definitive guide to auditioning speakers but I wanted to offer a solid foundation for setting yourself up for an objective examination of a speaker’s ability to reproduce music. By taking some of these tips to heart you may even find more enjoyment in your current system, or you may find out that you need new speakers because you are becoming a better listener!
And always remember; the proof is in the listening!
Do you have questions, ideas, or products you would like to see reviewed? Let me know what you want to see in this blog in the future! Contact me at JHeld@hifihousegroup.com