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No Stupid Questions… Part 2: Speakers

by July 13, 2008
Its really cute how stupid you are...

It's really cute how stupid you are...

As a reviewer (much less the host of AV Rant), I am asked on a regular basis for my opinion. Everyone from the checkout guy at the supermarket to random people at parties want me to tell them which is the best display or speakers or HTiB. Family and friends are no better in that they ask for specific suggestions to the vaguest of questions. Sometimes they want specific answers to specific issues with which I am unlikely to have an answer (what are the best wireless headphones, best VHS to DVD recorder, etc.) and other times they just want to know what is the ultimate, best, "X". Invariably, their eyes glaze over as I wax poetic about the differences between LCD and Plasma, or HTiBs and banging your head on the wall, or how they measure contrast ratios by tossing little plastic Smurfs coated in bacon grease at their dog and multiply the number eaten by 1000 and putting a :1 after it.

Audioholics has put together a number of documents to help people help themselves.

This will probably not really be one of them.

Someone once said that there are no stupid questions. That person was stupid. People who repeat that idiom are either stupid or are looking for material for their blogs. You'll notice that while many of the questions I cover aren't particularly stupid, the lack of thought or the inability for any human to answer them is what puts them, and their asker, squarely in the "I eat paste" camp. This installment will deal with questions about speakers.


Since the name of the site is "Audioholics," we get more than our fair share of speaker questions. We all love speakers and don't mind talking about them all day long. Really. We do. Still, at some point you have to say, "Enough is enough," and just walk away. Here are a few of the questions I'm not answering anymore.

What are the best speakers for under $100

Here's a hint - None! They suck. If they didn't suck, they'd cost more. It's like asking what is the best car for under $500. Sure, you might find something in the Auto Trader or eBay but don't bet on it. There are only so many jilted soon-to-be-ex-wives willing to sell their husband's Jag for $1 in the world. And I've got dibs on the next one. I'm looking to start my midlife crisis early.

But this is really a symptom of a greater problem - unreasonable expectations. Many people out there haven't bought a TV in years and perhaps have never bought a surround sound system - poor fools. They don't know what they've been missing. Their expectations just aren't reasonable. They think they should be able to get a great big display for $500 and speakers for $50. It simply isn't the case.

But even after those expectations become realistic, you run into the problem of over-stimulation. There are so many products on the market, how do you know which is best? With speakers (unlike displays) it is much more subjective. You simply have to listen. Sure, reviews (especially mine) can give you some insight, but you need to be smart about it. Reviewers usually tell you something about their room. I try to in every speaker review though it isn't too hard to collect a little information about my room based on listening to the podcast, checking out my bio, or just reading a few of my recent reviews. If you like what you are reading about a speaker in ANY review, try to find out more about the reviewer's room. Because, regardless if the reviewer admits it or not, the room plays a HUGE factor in how a speaker sounds. If you can find a reviewer that has a room like yours, you should more heavily weight their opinions.

The long and the short of it, however, is that you have to listen. You just have to go out there and listen to speakers. If you are brand new to this hobby, just buy any ol' thing. It really doesn't matter. Everything is going to sound great compared to your crappy TV or computer speakers. You're going to be telling your friends how cool it was that the sound was coming from behind you. But if you really want quality, the only way to do that is to put in the time. Find a good album (no, I don't mean Kevin Federline's greatest hits - something that is well recorded - check out what the reviewers are using and get a few of them) and get REALLY familiar with it. I mean REALLY familiar. Listen to it every day at least once. I don't mean play it in the background while you are doing your taxes, I mean really LISTEN to it. Pay attention. Sleep with it under your pillow. Talk dirty to it. Tell it that it is the only album for you. That way, when you end up at the store listening to speakers, you know if you are hearing a difference.

Lastly, and I can't stress this enough, do "in home" auditions as much as possible. This may mean you pay for a set of speakers, listen to them, and bring them back. It may mean that you ask nice and they let you. It probably depends on your budget. But your room is going to make a difference, auditioning in the home will be the only way to be sure that you will like them down the road.

Floorstanders vs. bookshelves.

While I'm mentioning speaker type, this is really more general. I get questions about driver typology, orientation, number. I get questions about enclosure shape, size, and type. I get more questions that really should sound more like the question above. Who gives a flying crap if the speaker uses 5.25" drivers or 6.5"? Who cares if it is a metal dome or fabric tweeter? Who cares if it is ported or sealed? Who cares if it is MTM, TMM, or MMTMMMMMTMMMMMMM? The question you should be asking (yourself, not me) is, "How does it sound?"

Designing a speaker is as much an art as a science. The designer has the designs that they think sound the best, the arrangement that works for them, and the type the fits not only their needs but the abilities of the components. Who are you to dismiss their speaker out of hand just because they chose a fabric tweeter over titanium or a ported enclosure over sealed? If you know so much about speakers, you should be making them. Otherwise, give the speaker a chance. I'm willing to bet that most of the forum trolls that run around complaining about one type of speaker couldn't identify them in a blind test.

Does that mean that there aren't valid concerns? No. Just today, I was asked if I wanted to review a floorstanding speaker that was 14" deep. I took one look at my room and said, "No." Could I have fit it? Probably. But it would have been tight and probably would have affected the performance of the speaker (or at least my ability to tweak placement). If you have a concern like that (don't want rear ported because your speaker placement is near a rear wall, prefer floorstanders because they tend to be a bit more stable than bookshelves on stands and you have kids/cats/gremlins/Smurfs., etc.), sure, whittle down your options. That's the best for you and the time it will take you to go through all the speakers on your list will reduce. But don’t come to me with the, "What is better, MTM or TMM." Because I'm going to respond, "Personally, I think the STHU is the best."

Which subwoofer should I buy?

The most expensive one you can afford.

Not enough info? Ok, how about: The best performing sub in your highest possible price bracket.

Still not enough? Think of subwoofers like a wedding ring - about 3 months salary. Regardless of what the "pundits" say, the center is NOT the most important speaker in your system. I'd argue (vehemently) that it is the least important. A subwoofer can make or break a system. When I bought my first "real" sub, it cost as much as all the other speakers in my system combined. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb to me. Bad bass will excite room modes, destroy imaging, and basically do little else than fart one note at you over and over. A great sub will give you a tactile sensation that will have you swearing off the theater for good.

There are plenty of good subs out there in almost any price category. Generally, when you go up in price, you are going down in size (unless you are buying on the Internet in which case you're going to have to knock out a wall). This is a good thing. Subs are hard enough to deal with so I say the smaller the better. Also, don't think that just because you bought your speakers from Company A, that you have to buy their sub as well. It isn't the case. For some inexplicable reason, very few companies can both make good subs AND good speakers. Something to do with the fine print on the "Sell your soul to Satan to be Internet famous" contract. Shopping for speakers and shopping for subs are two different things. The same process is used (if you have a track with a bass sweep, you'll have a much easier time with this) but the room is even more of a factor. Looking into room correction systems or room treatments will go a long way to fixing problems with your room.

Subs take a long time to dial in - mostly because - as I mentioned above - sub frequencies tend to interact so well with your room. Be ready to move it around, measure, move furniture, measure again, set up a room correction system or add some absorptive panels, measure again, etc. It probably took me six months to get my bass under a semblance of control and more like two years to get it wired. It just takes time, patience, and a bit of money.

Why can’t I put the surround speakers up front above my TV?

Oh, I don't know. Why can't you put your head up your… um… the editor won't let that through. Why can't you go into work naked? Why can't you smack the butt of a Urijah Faber and call him pansy as you walk by? Why can't you stick a wasp up your nose and inhale deeply? Well, you could but it probably isn't a very good idea. So, if I were you, I'd run up to nearest police officer and shout, "Wooo, Sooey!" before I'd put the surround speakers in the front of your room.

How come I can’t hear my surrounds all the time?

There are tons of reasons; the most probable is because if it isn't within a very narrow frequency range, those little crappy cube speakers you bought for either $100 or $2500 can't reproduce it. It could be your calibration. It could be your wiring or settings. It could be that you're just deaf. But most likely it is because, now listen close, THEY ONLY PLAY WHEN THERE IS SOMETHING TO PLAY! They are not main speaker which 90% of the sound comes from. It is my assertion that half the time the sound mixer just sort of forgets about them until a loud passage or background music comes along. So wait for it or rent a horror movie. They love to use the surrounds.

In closing…

For me, it is all about speakers. I don't know about you but I have deal breakers. Those deal breakers differ from person to person. For some it is the type of car you drive or the party you vote for or the religion you subscribe to. For me, it is speakers. I don't care if you have crappy speakers, I just want you to be realistic about the fact that they suck. I'm tired of all the misinformation and downright hooey surrounding the different speaker types. I'm sick of hearing people expound on the virtues of the center channel. Mostly, however, I'm repulsed by bad speakers in horrible setups.

Want me to jump to a conclusion about you? You could do little worse than to purchase a HTiB, staple them to random walls, and stick the "bass module" on a shelf or in a cabinet. Well, perhaps if you purchased a double-wide in tornado alley I might come to a similar conclusion but little else. Since I'm forced to attend birthday parties with my kids, I can't tell you how many homes I've walked in to just to walk out a few hours later deciding that my son shouldn't be friends with anyone that thinks that is good sound.

The one home I walked into with a Klipsch Reference system? Having them over for dinner next week.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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