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How to Pick the Right Loudspeakers - How to Conduct a Listening Test

If you can compare two models of speakers, follow these time-proven guidelines of how to conduct an A-B speaker comparison that will provide you with truly meaningful information:
  1. Only compare (‘A-B’) two models at once. Human auditory memory is very short, and by time you get to ‘C,’ you’ll have forgotten what ‘A’ sounded like.
  1. Make sure the speakers are played at the same volume level. Again, human hearing being what it is, we invariably think “louder” is “better.” Play them at the same volume.
  1. Be certain that the two sets of speakers are in as close to the same position in the room as possible. Walls, floors, and ceilings influence the sound. Large room boundaries like the floor and sidewall reinforce the bass, so a speaker near these surfaces will sound fuller or heavier. Speakers well away from these surfaces tend to sound thinner or “lighter.” The important thing is to have both sets of speakers under consideration positioned as similarly as is practical.

  1. Listen for a natural, balanced tonal presentation. Play a wide range of music with which you’re familiar. Acoustic instruments and vocals are the best ‘test’ material because people are most familiar with the sound of real instruments and voices. (Heavily-processed electronic synthesizers have no real-life reference of “naturalness,” since those sounds don’t exist in nature. Same thing for movie sound effects—no one knows what an Exploding Death Star is supposed to sound like, because it doesn’t exist in real life.)
  1. Listen for the depth and fullness of the bass. A speaker with good bass response conveys much of the power, weight and impact of real, live music. Even though bass should be strong and powerful, it should always sound clean and articulate, never “thudy,” “boomy,” or like it’s simply one indistinct bass note repeating itself (known as ‘one-note’ syndrome). A good thing to listen for is whether you can follow the bass line in the music in spite of the “busyness” of all the instruments and vocals taking place on top of it. If you can follow the bass, and it’s strong, impactful and clear, that’s a very good sign. Many speakers fall down on this. This test really separates the contenders from the pretenders.

 acoustic bass player.jpg          eletric bass player.jpg

Fig 12. Bass gives music its weight and sense of power

A side note on powered subwoofers: A powered subwoofer is a separate speaker in its own enclosure with its own amplifier devoted to reproducing only the bass portion of the frequency spectrum. Its purpose is to relieve the other speakers in the system of the arduous task of reproducing the lowest bass frequencies, which is very difficult to do from a technical standpoint. However, when evaluating the bass quality of a powered subwoofer, use the exact same guidelines as spelled out above.

  1. Now, shift your attention to the midrange area of the sound. This is the region of sound where most of the things we can actually identify are: vocals, guitars, saxophones, footsteps on the floor, slamming doors, hand clapping, violins, etc. A good speaker will make this sound very realistic. Your favorite singer should sound just like your favorite singer. A speaker that is not accurate in the midrange will make your favorite singer sound like she’s got a head cold or will make a familiar male vocalist sound like he’s singing from the bottom of a deep barrel. Their voices will take on an unnatural “coloration” that is very obvious and quite objectionable.

Similarly, instruments should sound like they do in real life: a tenor saxophone should have that nice reedy “bite,” but it shouldn’t be shrill or annoying. An electric guitar should have a nice sharp ‘twang,’ but it shouldn’t take your head off. Music played loud should sound exciting and detailed, and, well, lifelike. If your first inclination when playing a speaker loudly (assuming the amplifier isn’t running out of power and distorting) is to turn it down because the sound is grating on your nerves, that’s a sign that something about the speaker’s sound is amiss.

 cs21.jpg          Michael Brecker.jpg

Fig 13. Midrange region of music contains vocals and instruments

  1. Lastly, listen to the very highest tones, or what we call the treble. This is the frequency region reproduced by the tweeter. A speaker with good high frequency response has a silky, sparkling sheen to its sound. Again, be on the lookout for sound that’s too “hissy” or edgy. Good speakers deliver sparkle and detail without sounding shrill.

 tambourine.jpg          Dejohnette.jpg

Fig 14. The treble region of music should be detailed but not harsh or shrill

Two things will tell you if the speaker has a good, accurate treble region: 1. The upper-range instruments (like triangle, tambourine, cymbals, etc.) have a sense of ‘air” around them, as if you can visualize them existing in their own three-dimensional physical space. 2. A speaker with good high-frequency response has what speaker engineers call good “dispersion,” which means that you can hear the high frequency sounds even if you’re well off to the side of the speaker. Poor speakers tend to send out their highs like a flashlight beam—pretty much only straight ahead. Good speakers disperse their sound in all directions.

The preceding section on tonal evaluation applies to any kind of speaker, whether it’s a separate component speaker, a soundbar, a docking station, a clock radio, anything.

If you’re in a situation (like the wide-open, noisy sales floor of a big-box store, for example) where a controlled, careful A-B speaker comparison is not possible, then do your best to stand close to the speaker you’re interested in and play it a bit on the loud side. Being closer to the speaker (in what engineers call the ‘near field’) will reduce—though not eliminate, unfortunately—the distracting effects of outside sounds, and playing it a bit louder will further tend to mask extraneous sounds and let the speaker of interest’s sound character come through more clearly.

Many retailers—both brick-and-mortar and on-line—have generous return policies, so it’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that you buy a pair of two different speaker models and then compare them in your home. Use the ‘A-B’ guidelines we’ve listed above. The advantage to this method is that you’ll be conducting the A-B comparison in the actual listening space—your own room—where you’ll be using the speakers, which will give you very reliable results. (Note: As a point of credibility and honor, Audioholics would never suggest that you buy two pairs of speakers from one source under false pretenses and then make your final purchase from someone else. That just isn’t right.)

People are often told to “Trust your ears” when evaluating speakers, but you have to know what to listen for. Being told to “Trust your ears” is akin to someone who has never been on skis before being told to “Trust your legs” as they’re pushed downhill for the first time. Knowing what to listen for helps you make a better choice, one that you’ll be happier with in the long term.

 Ski accident.jpg

Fig 15. You need guidance to evaluate speakers, just like you need instruction before you ski!

We hope this guide gives you a little insight as to how to evaluate and listen to loudspeakers to empower you or a family member / friend with the knowledge needed to make the right purchasing choices.



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Recent Forum Posts:

Mikebiker posts on June 07, 2012 19:09
The title should have had ‘right’ replaced with ‘correct’. Like many others, my first thought was “but what about the left one”.
cpp posts on June 06, 2012 13:37
Picking the right speakers means leaving your home (computer) and doing some in-depth auditioning at more than one place using your music, your ears and your wallet then if married convincing the wife it's a win-win for her as well.
wiyosaya posts on June 06, 2012 13:33
GranteedEV, post: 888762
what about the Left one?
Front or rear?
Adam, post: 888764
Choosing the right loudspeaker is half the battle.
1/4 or less?
Adam posts on June 06, 2012 00:05
GranteedEV, post: 888762
what about the Left one?

Choosing the right loudspeaker is half the battle.
GranteedEV posts on June 06, 2012 00:04
what about the Left one?
Post Reply