Hear For Yourself

June 1, 2005

While we'd love to think you could just buy any of our speakers sound unheard and live happily ever after, we'll certainly understand if you want to know how they sound in comparison with each other and those of other manufacturers. Since you're going to have to find that out in an audio-video showroom rather than some speaker heaven where all systems automatically sound the way they will in your home, here is some simple advice to help make a showroom listening session as indicative as possible.

First of all, and critically, take along any recordings you may have that you know well and like. It's just easier to get an accurate impression on musical material that both reflects your tastes and is familiar to you. If you don't have anything you want to take along, or want to rely on the dealer for musical and — very likely — Home Theater examples, you'll probably do well as long as you try to listen to a range of material rather than just one kind (especially only one recording that sounds hyped-up).

If you're interested in a particular speaker, and simply want to know whether it sounds good enough for your tastes and needs, you won't really need much more than that first piece of advice. Just add the one we give in our fourth entry below, which is to make sure that a speaker is placed pretty much as its manufacturer specifies — and be willing to listen for long enough to make sure you're going to be satisfied with the range of musical and other material you like. That may be a short time for you, and if so, we wish you Godspeed and much enjoyment.

If you're definitely interested in comparisons, and this is to be your first showroom listening session, we suggest that before you ask a dealer to jump through hoops setting up exactly the comparisons you may want in exactly the way you want them (per the following suggestions and your own bent), it's helpful and considerate to "lurk" a while, as in Internet newsgroups, just doing some preparatory listening to, say, other people's listening comparisons. If a dealer has time on his/her hands and is willing to educate, fine. But please, we ask on behalf of PSB — and all — retailers, don't ask for all-out speaker comparisons customized to your desires if you have no intention of buying at the store in question. (Bad audio/video karma.)

After you've read through what follows, you can look up your nearest PSB dealer in Canada or the United States on our dealer locator or, if you are elsewhere in the world, find retailers with the help of our distributors in other countries.

For the best, most indicative and predictive comparisons between speakers, keep these four basic pieces of advice in mind:

    Compare only two pairs of speakers at a time (an A-B comparison). Listen to the two pairs until you pick the pair that seems righter to your ears and your requirements, then go on to pit the winner, if any, against the next pair you're interested in (if any). Trying to switch back and forth between three or more pairs of speakers for an A-B-C-or-more contrast is an exercise in frustration; you can't keep the distinctions firmly enough in mind to make a secure comparison.

    If at all possible, make the comparison through a speaker switchboard that allows both speakers to be heard at the same volume. When you switch rapidly between two speakers of different brands that have different efficiencies, the louder of the two almost always sounds better — irrespective of quality — because it jumps out sonically. Not every dealer has an equal-volume board to level the playing field between speakers, but it's definitely the most objective way to go when choosing between competing brands. (When comparing systems of the same manufacturer's, audible efficiency differences may have important significance. We'll get to that.)

    Instead of just switching back and forth frequently between speakers, listen to sustained passages of varying kinds of music. Listen for long enough that you have a sense, first, of which speaker of competing brands seems more transparent to the source, and which one continually colors the music. (A kind of coloration to be wary of is a false spatial effect, with which a speaker diffuses sound so wantonly and indiscriminately that you have a hard time getting a sense of the position of instruments on a recording's soundstage.)

    When you're comparing between good speakers, like different models of ours, you're going to be listening for subtleties in overall definition and impact rather than coloration vs. none. If anything, sustained listening then becomes even more important. If you're going to pop for a one- to several-hundred-dollar price difference between speakers, only some sustained listening is likely to tell you whether the audible difference is worth it to you. Listen for detail and "open-ness" — not fake breadth of sound as just warned against, but the fuller sense between two speakers of the "ambiance" of the hall or studio where the recording was made.

    Try to listen to speakers that are placed equivalently and according to the maker's instructions.
    Speakers meant for placement out in the room rather than against walls should be so placed, and each of a pair of competing speakers should be where it ought to be for best (or at least equivalent) results. This is where a dealer is going to have to feel you're really serious before going the extra mile. Lugging speakers around is not generally fun.

If you listen for the basic triad of speaker virtues that we hold most important — wide, undistorted frequency range, transparent tonal balance, and precise spatial imaging — you won't go far wrong with any speaker you choose. But if you're trying to decide where your point of diminishing returns (or no further ones at all) lies as you go up the price scale in speakers, then you'll be listening for the following as you go upward:

Bottom bass. Take the most revealing recording you know of for low frequencies (we're going to have a list of those on this site before long), or ask the dealer for his/hers. It's almost always deep organ pedal tones, or Home Theater effects like thunder, jets, stampedes and the like, that will reveal the most, rather than drum thwacks. So listen — and feel — for the speaker that really stirs some air. And while you're at it, tune to an FM or TV station and listen to a male speaking voice to make sure there's no mid-bass boominess.

Power-handling. At the bass frequencies you're listening for, speakers in ascending order of price should generally produce greater maximum amounts of sound and be usable with higher-powered electronics. Try to listen to a speaker for a short time at something approaching the maximum output you're going to be asking of it. Listen not only for the bass impact, but for any sense of undue strain. (There obviously will be a point, especially in the smaller rooms many dealers have established for serious listening, where sound cranked up simply becomes obnoxious because it's out of scale or just too #### loud. That's strain on you, not on the speaker.)

Efficiency. In part, the added sense of open-ness or airiness that you're looking for as you go up the price scale in speakers is a function of increasing efficiency as well as increasing detail of sound. The more efficient a speaker, the greater reserve an amplifier or receiver driving it will have. The more "headroom" a particular combination of speaker and amplifier provide, the more untaxed the sound quality that comes of equipment not being used near its ultimate limits. So, while you may want to be wary of liking a speaker simply because its greater efficiency than its neighbor's makes it jumps out at you in a listening session, efficiency can become a major virtue if all other things are equal. (That may be even more so in comparisons between budget speakers. If two of them sound equivalently good, the louder one may give you either the choice of lower-powered equipment at lower cost, or more unstrained performance with a given piece of electronics. Because showrooms are generally bigger and more people-filled than your living room, you may not be able to determine whether a particular modest-powered amplifier or receiver will drive a budget speaker satisfactorily, but you should definitely look for assurance in a budget speaker that it will work with an amplifier/receiver in its price class.)

Our final admonition, for now at least, is that you do some of your most critical listening with simple but demanding material like the sound of the human voice. small-group recordings with voice are sometimes the most telling indication of a speaker's subtleties, and may reveal spatial and other exaggerations more clearly than complex music. And the human speaking voice is also a good benchmark, not just for the avoidance in male voices of the obnoxious "chestiness" or boomy quality of a speaker with exaggerated mid-bass, but for a harsh or flat quality that may not fully reveal itself with music. And an annoying aberrations to listen for is a female singer who you know isn't smoky-voiced sounding that way because the speaker's response in the "psychoacoustic" octave around 1,200 Hz is deliberately depressed somewhat for an unnaturally "rich" (read "fake") sound quality.

With that final admonition, we sign off for now. This is an open subject we're dealing with, and we expect to hear from people on it. We'd be happy, of course, to hear from you.

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