Picking the right speaker can be tough. There are hundreds of brands –some of which you may never have heard of– and a vast array of sizes, styles and finishes to consider. Oh yeah, then there’s the rather important concern about how they sound. Who has time to visit countless audio stores in search of the right speaker, anyway?
Speaker reviews can help ease the process by separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff. They can also introduce us to those hidden gems that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and give us a clue as to whether we are barking up the right tree with a particular brand or model. It helps, however, if you know where the reviewer is coming from and can take that into consideration when reading their review. To that end, here’s an inside look at how we go about testing speakers.
Out of the box
Though it’s entirely possible a buyer may have seen a speaker prior to getting them home, we think there’s just something special to the un-boxing experience of a new speaker. Also, quite a few speakers are being shipped directly to customers, meaning the un-boxing experience may actually be the first touch-point with the new owner. This first impression can set the tone for years of ownership, so we take note of what the experience is like and do our best to convey that in our review. We look for adequate protective padding, consider ease of removal and take note of any accessories (outriggers, spikes, footers, discs etc.) that are included. We check for quality parts, well-threaded inserts and screws and expect installation of any such accessories to go smoothly. If not, we’ll definitely mention it.
Build and Finish
A speaker’s build quality is a big indicator of its potential performance. We routinely perform the “knuckle test” where we rap our knuckles on the cabinet as we listen carefully. We want to hear a dead thunk and feel the cabinet bite back a bit. This indicates that quality wood was used and that the interior of the cabinet is free from unwanted resonance.
What we look for in a speaker’s finish will depend on what type of finish it is. With speakers that have a mock wood (vinyl) finish, we want the laminate to look convincing and for the seams to be well hidden. With real wood finishes, we check for uniformity of stain and color matching amongst other speakers in the system. For gloss finishes, we keep an eye out for brush marks in either the paint or lacquer.
We perform all of our speaker evaluations in an moderately acoustically treated room that measures 12 by 18 feet. Our listening position sits about 11 feet from the front wall.
Front left and right speakers are generally positioned 9-10 feet apart leaving somewhere between 1 to 2.5 feet away from the front wall (as measured from the rear baffle) as a starting point. When bookshelf or satellite speakers are used, we place them on stands that position the tweeters as close to ear level as possible.
Center channels are placed on a floor stand, equidistant from the front wall and centered between the mains and angled upward just slightly.
Surround speakers are positioned based on the speaker type: Dipole and bipole speakers are placed directly to left and right of our listening position on the side walls at a height of about 6 feet (as measured from the floor to the bottom of the cabinet). Bookshelf speakers are placed about 115° from the listening position (just behind and aimed at the listener).
Rear surrounds, when provided, are placed along the rear wall at 60° angles to the listening position.
A single subwoofer will be placed in the center of the room near the front wall. Dual subwoofers are placed at the midpoint of each side wall.
Before any critical evaluation begins, we break speakers in for about 40 hours with music played at a moderate volume.
All speakers are manually calibrated (when necessary) using an analog decibel meter. Speaker distance settings are measured and input manually as well.
For the purposes of our speaker evaluations, no equalization or tone control is used. This keeps the playing field level and allows us to evaluate the speaker based on the sound it was engineered to produce.
The test bench
Our test bench of equipment currently includes a Marantz SR6005 A/V receiver, Anthem 225 Integrated amplifier, Oppo BDP-95 universal audiophile Blu-ray disc player, Pioneer PL-61 turntable with Ortofon OM-5E cartridge, NuForce Icon uDAC-2, iPhone 4S, and Dell N5110 Laptop.
Our sound quality evaluations are based entirely on listening tests. Therefore, our conclusions are the result of subjective analysis. Some speaker reviewers take a very different approach, placing considerable significance on measurements taken by electronic testing equipment that, among other metrics, measure the frequency response curve of a speaker. Of course, this sort of objective analysis is valuable and has its place in the world of speaker reviews, but it isn’t our bag.
We’ve found that careful listening with a trained ear can reveal most significant bumps or dips in a frequency response curve which lets us know right away if the speaker has been poorly designed. Some maintain that a perfectly flat frequency response curve is the holy grail for a speaker, but we just don’t agree with that. While we do feel that maintaining a relatively flat frequency response allows for balanced sound reproduction, those little peaks and valleys that we see in so many response graphs are the work of experienced engineers and sound designers who know exactly what they want their products to sound like, and we value that a great deal.
This is the most straightforward (and fun) part of the speaker reviewing process. Essentially, we listen to music tracks that we know inside and out, backward and forward. Some of the music we use was even recorded, mixed and mastered by us, which gives us the best possible insight into how the reproduced track should sound.
The first thing we listen for are blatant diversions from what we know to be reality. If a speaker’s high frequency response is thin, metallic and artificial sounding, we’ll hear it right away. Likewise, if vocals sound as if they are being shouted through a thick sheet of velour, it will be pretty obvious. Bloated, tubby bass? We can’t stand it. Speakers that make these kind of egregious errors will not be getting the greatest score.
If a speaker doesn’t do anything horribly wrong, we start listening for more subtle queues. We love solid bass, but if a speaker is trying to produce more bass than is typical for a speaker its size, we listen for any sympathetic issues like muddy midbass or crowded low male vocals. We pay close attention to how clearly vocalists are reproduced, how authentic cymbals, brass and string instruments sound and how dynamic and percussive a speaker is capable of being.
There is also a “feel” to a speaker’s sound. There are speakers that have grabbed our attention and had us bolted to our seat for hours and speakers that made us want to shut the system down after just 10 minutes of listening. Some speakers make us forget where we are and transport us to another place while others make us pay too much attention to what is happening with the sound. This sort of emotional response can be difficult to relay, but we sure do our best because we think it is an essential factor in understanding a speaker’s capabilities.
After scrutinizing gads of minute details, we take a step back and consider whether the speaker will appeal to a broad enough spectrum of listeners. A speaker may not suit our personal taste, but if its signature sound is going to meet the favor of a certain audience, then we must submit that it has its place in the market and we’ll note that accordingly. Conversely, if a speaker does really well in our auditions, but is outrageously priced or requires far more power than most have to feed it, we’ll certainly be mentioning that too.
Writing the review
For us, simply organizing our evaluation notes into something that resembles a narrative is not good enough. We aim to give a little back-story on the manufacturer, describe our experience with the speakers and put their sound signature into a context that is understandable, even for those not familiar with the audiophile lexicon. We hope that by reading our speaker reviews, you will walk away with a feel for whether that particular model is something you should bother to audition yourself or remove from your short list because, ultimately, a personal audition is absolutely essential.