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How best to audition loudspeakers?

  • A bitter pill to swallow: every single piece of a loudspeaker system adds colour to the sound. Adding the most colour of all is the room — it’s the lens through which we hear our loudspeakers. Its colour isn’t fixed. By adding/removing furniture, acoustic panels and bass traps, we can shift its audible impact. And for those with uncorrectable shortcomings, time allows us to get to know the room’s characteristics – the lens’s optics – to better mentally separate its colour from the loudspeaker’s. With complete control over the loudspeaker position, supporting electronics and music choices, this familiarisation process is accelerated.

    Maximum time and control over the listening environment make the home the best place to audition a loudspeaker.

    The room (viewing lens) changes once we move our loudspeaker audition to a high street dealer. The dealer’s prescription, no longer our own, distorts the loudspeaker’s performance into unfamiliar shapes. Only through multiple dealer visits can we familiarise ourselves with the show room’s audible influence on loudspeaker sound to better understand how the loudspeaker might perform at home. And just as it does at home, our brain needs time to adjust to a new normal. Helping us along the way is control. A good hi-fi dealer will allow us to experiment with loudspeaker position, conduct A/B comparisons, swap out amplifiers and source components and play our own music.

    At a hi-fi dealer, time and control aren’t as abundant as back at home. This is the second best place to audition a loudspeaker.

    The disturbance in the high-street force is the dwindling number of hi-fi dealers that, over time, has seen more distance put between many would-be customers and their nearest store. This leads many to spy their local audio show as a loudspeaker audition venue. And like the local dealer’s showroom, a show exhibition room isn’t the same as our room at home. Its size and acoustic make-up differ.

    In shorter supply at shows are control and time. A double whammy! In optimising their own temporary setup, exhibitors lock the loudspeakers into place and hold any iPad remote control tight to their chests. Attendee music choices rarely get a look in. Further, the supporting cast of electronics is also fixed for the show’s duration making it impossible to separate the loudspeaker’s audible quirks from the upstream electronics. These limiting factors are many times compounded by shorter audition times to pull the rug out from under even the most earnest attempts to form an opinion, myself included:

    Also stepping into the void left by dealers are virtual auditions: YouTube recordings of loudspeakers, sometimes nearfield but mostly with the microphone/s positioned at the listening position. Added to the mix is the lens distortion of room, the microphone, its placement, video editing software tweaks, YouTube data compression, the viewer’s playback hardware and, in the absence of headphones, the viewer’s room. We have time aplenty to listen but zero control over the variables: the microphone used and its position; demo music choices narrow sharply once YouTubers factor in copyright clearance.

    Imagine being asked to compare two paintings – say a Renoir and a Picasso – but when wearing numerous pairs of prescription glasses. How do we separate the painting from the lens distortion? Even if we still claim to have sight of each painting’s fundamentals, the lenss will erode (at least) the last 10% of differences. For loudspeakers, that last 10% of performance is where purchasing decisions are made. And how do microphones capture audible qualities such as soundstage depth or dynamics? I experimented with the Klipsch RP-600M. Listen to the results here:

    The most reliable loudspeaker audition location remains the listening room at home. There are no shortcuts. In detailing their own audition process, reviewers can only point us in the right direction; but with so much subjectivity at stake, they cannot make the final call on our behalf. We must do some leg work of our own. We have to step out from behind our computers. For high-end loudspeakers, a dealer or manufacturer might arrange for us to try them at home with a security deposit or money-back satisfaction guarantee. That’s what dealer margins are for. Things get trickier once we shift our focus to more affordable loudspeakers where dealer margins are smaller. Factory-direct brands offering satisfaction guarantees of their own suddenly look more attractive. Otherwise, we have to buy and try (at home) and then resell if necessary. And that takes effort. It takes time and it takes money. Another bitter pill to swallow but, in the long run, a more reliable medicine.

    This methodology of buy/try/resell is how I started reviewing audio gear. Nowadays, the majority of hi-fi hardware comes to me on loan from the manufacturer or, in rare circumstances, via a local hi-fi store. My commentary – written and in video format – is just me sharing my own audition process. All loudspeakers are coloured by my room: presently, a 6m x 5m apartment lounge room with 2.8m-high ceiling, concrete walls and floors, with windows down one side. My findings won’t ever be definitive but if your room is similar to mine and you listen to indie rock, dad rock, techno and electronica (as I do), they should help you narrow your speaker shortlist.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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