How to buy speakers: A beginner’s guide to home audio

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The audition

The “real” audition happens at your home: As we mentioned before, checking out speakers at a store comes with some advantages, but it is highly unlikely you will be able to duplicate all the work they’ve put into making everything sound its best at your own home. At the end of the day, you need to hear speakers in your room, with your electronics, sitting in your chair or sofa. The unique attributes of your walls, furniture, ceiling, amp, speaker wire… these will all change the sound significantly. If you decide to purchase speakers at a brick-and-mortar location, make sure the company has a solid return policy. You deserve and need the leeway to check out your purchase at home to ensure it meets your needs.

Kicking the tires: When test driving an audio system, it is important to get a feel for what you are looking at and listening to. A lot can still be gleaned from the A/V equivalent of “kicking the tires”. The speaker may look cool and shiny on the outside, but you need to sort out what is happening underneath that glossy exterior.

When looking over a speaker, give it a good knock with your knuckles. It should feel solid and the sound you hear should be solid too, not empty. If you’ve ever searched for a stud in a wall, you already know what to listen for. Once you hit that stud, the sound goes from empty and cavernous to solid and dead. A speaker with a thick, rigid cabinet will bite back at your knuckles a little and that solid sound means that the inside of the cabinet isn’t going to generate unwanted resonances. This ‘knuckle test” will also clue you into how solid the finish of the speaker is. If it is a vinyl mock-up of wood, you’ll feel it.

Pick your listening material: While many electronics stores and stereo boutiques are equipped to accommodate iPods and other portable media devices, these are usually terrible sources with which to judge an audio system’s true capability. Most digital music files are compressed so a lot of the detail and refinement is missing from the music. Instead, pick some songs from a few CDs that you are really familiar with. We suggest a song with some strong bass, a quiet song, perhaps with some string instruments, a song that centers around a vocal performance and anything else you may have listened to countless times. When you have your selections in hand, listen to them some more on your old speakers and take some notes on how they sound and what appeals to you about them.

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When you listen to these songs during your speaker auditions, see if you don’t hear things that you’ve never heard before — an instrument that was covered up previously, the creaking of a piano bench, or the squeaking of fingers sliding across guitar strings, for example.

On the other hand, sometimes it is what you don’t hear that makes a speaker great. Colorations of vocals and instruments, unnatural reproductions of high frequencies, overly bloated bass…these are all things you don’t want to hear from a good speaker.

Relax your ears: Some speakers sound dazzling right out of the gate but, over time, will become fatiguing. Though a speaker may sound very engaging at first, after a while you may find yourself wanting to turn them off. The only way to know is to spend time with them (another reason a home audition is crucial) It is because of this phenomenon that a wise speaker engineer once suggested that we practice relaxing our ears. The idea is to ignore your initial impression and allow your mind’s ear to adjust to the new sound you are hearing. After a while, if you just don’t like what you hear, it is probably time to move on.

This practice is especially helpful when doing A-B comparisons. Jumping back and forth too quickly doesn’t allow your mind time to adjust. You’ll always be comparing the sound you are hearing now with the sound you are hearing just before, instead of trying to compare the sound to what is natural and realistic. A-B comparisons will help you weed out the big-time losers, but they are not an effective way of deciding between two speakers you have already decided you do like.

You are the pilot: In a retail setting, you will do well to remember that you are the pilot and the salesperson is your co-pilot. It’s just fine to get some suggestions from the sales rep but, at the end of the day, this is your audition and if you’ve done your homework, you know what you need to hear in order to make your decisions. It is unfortunate, but if there is some sort of incentive (spiff) for a salesperson to sell a particular speaker, they know how to steer you in that direction. At that point, make sure you communicate what it is you want and see to it that the salesperson carries out your requests. You don’t want to be a jerk about it, but kindly explaining that you have an audition process that works for you should be the queue the rep needs to take a step back and press the buttons when asked.

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