So you?ve decided to purchase some speakers. If you?re like most of us, you visit your local retailer to see what?s available and to get an idea of what sounds good. Then you go home and dig information off the web and shop price. Then back to the store to make the final choice. Once made, you come home with your trophy only to find out that what you thought you liked doesn?t sound at all like what you remember. In fact, it sometimes sounds just awful.
Your research was sound. So, where did you go wrong in the process? It starts and ends with the audition. How can anyone be expected to intelligently pick the right speakers at a retail store? It?s like trying to test Scuba gear in the middle of the desert, or test drive a car from the back seat. You may get some idea of how things work, but you?re not in the right seat or location for a proper evaluation. Trying to evaluate speakers which are wired up to unfamiliar electronics in an ideal listening environment that in no way resembles your own listening room can be just as futile.
The only location and seat that matters for a meaningful audition is in your home. But, if you plan to take advantage of this opportunity, you should know how best to do it. What follows are the ABC?s of how to properly and fairly audition speakers so that you end up with the set that keeps you happy for years to come.
Speaker Placement & Set-up
A good question to ask yourself might be ?What?s going to determine the overall sound quality of my audio system?? You may already know that most audio gurus agree: it?s the speakers that matter most. But you may be surprised to learn that the next most important part of your system is usually your room: both the acoustic nature of the room itself and where you position your speakers.
For example, room boundaries such as walls, windows and hallways have a serious affect on the acoustic performance of a speaker. Sadly, with no commercial interest to explain the crucial role the room plays in audio reproduction, this subject gets neglected by most retailers.
So the first step in a proper audition is to place the speakers where they belong in the room. If you have the manufacturer?s recommendations you should start there. If not, here are some general rules of thumb:
Keep the speakers at least 2? from corners
Tower speakers should be about 2? from the back wall
Bookshelf or satellite speakers should be at ear-level, usually with their backs near a wall.
If you choose to audition two different sets of speakers at the same time, be sure to keep the two left and right speakers you are comparing set side by side with about 6 inches in between.
If this initial set-up places the speakers where you don?t want them, try to find speakers that are designed to work as you?re planning on using them. For instance: if your room won?t allow you to place tower speakers two feet from the wall, maybe you should consider bookshelf or satellite models.
Grills on or off, aimed straight forward or at the listening area. Once in place, some speakers will have an advantage ? others will not. This is a good thing and one of the reasons you want to audition them in your home. A few more details and you?ll be ready to start listening.
Your receiver plays an equally important role in the in-home audition. The loudness button should be turned off, the bass and treble knobs in their neutral positions, and the equalization set to the ?flat? option. If you have a subwoofer, re-set it to where you like it after making these receiver adjustments.
The ?Break-in Period?
A speaker is a motor that moves air to produce sound. Like any new motor, it needs time to loosen up and settle into its true voice. The process of helping a speaker settle into its true voice is called the ?break-in period.? To break in your speakers simply put some music on at normal listening levels for at least 48 hours. Only after a proper break-in will you be able to accurately evaluate the speakers? true sonic potential.
The In-Home Audition Play List
It?s a good idea to audition your speakers with the material that represents what you actually listen to: DVD?s, CD?s, vinyl LP?s, whatever. Of course you?ll want to pick something that pushes the speaker?s limits. However, it?s the virtues of their sonic faithfulness that will put them to the true test. Sure, it?s fun to impress your friends (and yourself) with those hold-on-to-your-seat action scenes, but what good is shake-the-walls sound without intelligible dialogue, or accurate musical reproduction? So don?t overlook the more difficult and subtle task of evaluating the speakers? sonic accuracy. The subtleties found in a great female vocal, classical music or an acoustic guitar will reveal the dynamic capabilities and nuances of your speakers.
As an example, here are a few of my favorite?s discs for evaluating a speaker?s true nature:
Fritz Reiner: Pictures at an Exhibition ?Night on Balk Mountain?
Norah Jones: Come Away With Me
Blood Sweat & Tears: Self Titled Keb Mo: ?Slow Down?
AC/DC: Back in Black ?Back in Black?
Diane Krall: Live in Paris
Lord of the Ring Trilogy: DTS Version
Listening: The Art and Science
Listening may seem like a pretty passive act. However, it demands an astounding amount of brain processing to make sense of the incoming sound waves. The way your brain generally processes sound allows you to hear well but it presents some challenges that need to be respected if you plan on making fair speaker comparisons.
First among the challenges is that your ear will process loud sounds differently than quiet ones. Since some speakers play louder than others, it is critical to adjust the volume knob on your receiver as you move from one speaker to the other so that they play at the same volume level. This is especially important if you?re using the A/B buttons on your receiver to toggle between speakers.
Your ear will play another trick in side-by-side comparisons. When sound is colored in some way, your ear tries to make it ?right? by actively compensating for this flaw. You can think of it as natures built in equalizer. If speaker ?A? has a treble range that?s too bright, your ear will unweight the high frequencies. While usually a blessing, nature?s equalizer takes a short while to adjust back to neutral when you change to speaker ?B.? Even If Speaker ?B? happens to be a perfect speaker, when you first hear it after Speaker A, it will sound ?dull? and deficient in treble for a while. So don?t make hasty judgments when you first switch to a new speaker.
Pre-conceived notions of what makes a good speaker will inevitably bias you. Things like speaker size, supposed technological advantages, what your audiophile friend says about a brand, price, etc. will create a sonic bias that can affect your opinion of the speakers you?re evaluating. If you can?t have someone else do the switching while keeping your eyes closed, try to be conscious of these biases and keep an open mind.
You?ll find it easy to tell which speaker has the most bass or least treble, but balance is the key. If during your in-home audition you describe either set of speakers as boomy, chesty, boxy, hollow, tube-like, honky, nasal, hard, metallic, sibilant or fizzy, there?s likely a balance problem. Other imbalance indicators are male voices that sound overly resonant or too- thin, or female voices that lack body, sizzle or are dull. The ability to reveal detail and nuance is important. While listening, the right question to ask yourself isn?t ?Which speaker sounds the best?? but ?Which speaker sounds the most true-to-life??
Make up a scorecard and create a rating system. Rate the bass for definition, the midrange for clarity and transparency, and the treble for an unaggressive kind of clarity. Above all, relax and have some fun. Invite some friends over for their thoughts.
Remember, the only audition that really matters is the one that?s conducted in your home, in your listening space, with your equipment. When you?re done, you?ll have the confidence of knowing that you?ve chosen the best speakers for you. This confidence will dramatically add to the enjoyment of your listening experience for the life of your speakers.
Win Jeanfreau is the founder and CEO of Aperion Audio, an online direct-to-consumer speaker manufacturer for smart shoppers frustrated with the retail experience. It was out of frustration with his own retail experience that his vision for Aperion was born: To build extraordinary speakers at a remarkably low price by cutting out the middleman, the distribution channel, and all the retail bureaucracy. For additional information about Aperion Audio, visit www.aperionaudio.com, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org