How to Listen and Compare Loudspeakers in a Retail Store
Shopping for speakers can be a daunting experience for newcomers to home theater, and even some veterans for that matter. There are a myriad of brands, styles, price points, and plenty of people willing to give their opinions. For many, the most exciting part of shopping for speakers is sitting down and demoing them. We have to agree. Unfortunately, walking into a HiFi shop and asking to listen to some speakers probably won’t get you very far. Sure, the sales person will be happy to crank up some Pink Floyd from their iPod to ear bleeding volume levels and ask if it is the most amazing thing you have ever heard (yes, this happens quite often), but how do you know what you are hearing is because of the speakers and not the receiver, room, iPod, etc... A few months ago I purchased new speakers for my 2 channel system. The first time I went in to listen to the speakers I eventually purchased, I thought they sounded awful. Why? They were setup completely wrong in the demo room. I went from shop to shop listening to speakers and found mixed up wiring, crushed tweeters, and improperly setup receivers. Herein lies the problem with demoing speakers: one needs to be educated on how to demo speakers. No one wants to spend time and money shopping for something only to find out there was something better (sometimes for less money!) With that in mind, we hope this guide can help you through the entire auditioning process.
The first topic needing discussion is demo material. That's the music you're going to bring with you so you aren't stuck listening to whatever is on-hand at the store. Choosing the proper demo material can make all the difference. Bose is a great example of this. The engineers and marketing department at Bose are smart people, they know full well what sounds exceptional on their systems and so they cater to that sound. They also seem to require mass-market dealers to dedicate space for Bose products where the Bose system cannot be directly compared to other speakers. But most importantly, they provide specific Bose demo material that will show off the strengths of their speakers, and downplay their weaknesses. These guys know how to demo to sell. Regardless of the manufacturer, don’t be fooled by a flashy demo.
Start with listening to music, even if the main use of the system is for movies. Music has the ability to show flaws in speakers much more reliably and readily than movies. Choose material you are familiar with, or find new material and become familiar with it. If you primarily listen to heavily compressed music, consider bring along an audiophile friend (or his choice music collection) that has a wide diversity of quality recordings so you can use higher quality source material to really appreciate the qualities of the speakers you’re comparing. Take the same song selections from store to store and listen to them on different speakers. Also, choose a variety of songs. Don’t be afraid to try music that you don’t typically listen to. For example, Jazz may not be your "thing", but you may find yourself liking it more when listening to it on great speakers. By listening to the same material over and over you will start to find what speakers you like or don’t like. Also, understand that some music is so compressed or poorly recorded that it simply doesn’t make good demo material (hence why we feel most heavy metal and dance music is usually not appropriate demo material). I remember when I bought my first 2 channel system, I rolled into a shop with my favorite collection of screamo, metal, and hard core music. I quickly found out that just because I liked the music didn't mean it could reveal subtle differences between speakers.
A great starting point for demo material is your own music collection. If you are having some trouble, or want something that is known to be high quality, check out HDtracks.com. They have a free music sampler you can download and save to a flash drive. Simply take the flash drive with you and plug it into the receiver. I particularly like this method because most new receivers have a USB port on front that will read uncompressed audio files. Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about how the store has the transport (CD/DVD/Blu-ray player) hooked up, so one more confounding variable is eliminated. If you have CDs you like, bring those in and try them out. You could also look to see if there is any music you like that is on Blu-ray disc, it will be even higher quality than CDs.
If you are still having trouble finding good demo material, here are a few personal artist recommendations that you may already own: Diana Krall, Pink Floyd (The Wall is a classic demo song), Dave Mathews Band, Adele, Jack Johnson, and Tom Petty. It is difficult to find a high quality version of these songs for purchase online, so we recommend buying the actual CD.
Speaker Set Up
The physical positioning of speakers will have a big effect on your listening experience. Stores have limited space, so they shove as many speakers as possible into a room. Unfortunately, because of the laws of physics, two speakers cannot sit in the same space, so one or two sets of speakers may be in great locations, and the rest of them might be way too close together or too far apart (for satellite and bookshelf speakers, they may be too high). If they are too close together you will have a small sound stage. Too close to the back wall and the bass may be boomy. Not toed in properly and the imaging will not be precise.
When comparing more than one set of speakers they should be placed in as similar position as possible. Ideally, they are symmetrical and alternating. The image below shows an example of this using set A and set B of speakers.
Once in the right locations, you will need to fine tune their positions. Set up the speakers and listening position in a triangle. When the distance between each speaker and the listening position is the same, an equilateral triangle is formed (Fig. A). The diagram below demonstrates this setup, showing a distance of 10’ between each speaker and the listening position, but notice that the listener is really only 8.6’ away. This “golden triangle” is often considered the ideal setup; however, the problem with this arrangement is that the speakers are toed in quite far, which focuses the sound for only one position (‘toe in’ is how far the speakers are angled in). We prefer closer to an 70-80% rule where the speakers are spaced out about 70-80% of the distance to the primary listening position, i.e. you are sitting 10ft from the speakers that are placed 8ft apart (Fig. B). This usually results in less toe in needed and thus more listeners can have a better experience. Ultimately, you will want to experiment with the toe in of the speakers and how far back you sit.
Fig. A - The Golden Triangle
You will also want to make sure the speakers are approximately the same distance from the back and side walls. At the very least, try to make sure they are at least 1 foot from any walls. If you want, bring along a tape measure to position the speakers precisely. People will look at you funny, but what the heck.
Once they are in the right positions, you can put in some music and listen to see how accurate the imaging is. As you sit and listen, you should be able to close your eyes and visualize where the performers are in the soundstage, this is called imaging. You will need to adjust the toe in until the imaging is precise. As you spend more time listening to speakers and demo material you will get better and better at speaker setup.
Reviewer's Note: When listening to bipole speakers like definitive technology’s towers, dipole speakers like electrostats, or omnidirectional speakers like Mirage, speaker setup is slightly different. If you are going to audition a speaker that is dramatically different from typical monopole/direct radiating designs, the manufacturer should have special instructions for setup available. I would start by downloading the owner’s manual and reading their setup guide.
Receiver Set Up
Setting the receiver to the proper sound mode, or DSP, is quick and easy. Most modern receivers have a “Direct” or “Pure Direct” mode. This mode essentially turns off all audio processing on the receiver in an attempt to recreate the source signal exactly as it receives it. While listening to 2 channel music with pure direct mode enabled, no subwoofer signal is output and speakers are set to large/full range. Typically, there is a button on the front of the receiver to engage this mode. If the receiver does not have a direct or pure direct mode, set it to straight or auto.
Once the receiver is set to the proper mode, you will need to level match the speakers. When you are listening to music and switching between two sets of speakers, you will probably notice that one set of speakers is going to be louder than the other set. It is important to set the speakers to the same volume level for a proper comparison. In order to do this you will need an SPL (sound pressure level) meter. In essence, an SPL meter, which you can get at any Radio Shack for around $50, measures the level of sound. SPL meters are touched on in a number of Audioholics articles, so I will just remind you to set it to 'C' weighting and slow response and hold it at arms length with the microphone pointed straight up in the air at the ceiling.
It's likely that in a store you can't use fancy methods like Zone 2 to set the volume level on two sets of speakers so they are the same. Instead, it's likely that a speaker switcher will be part of the setup and you'll need to simply memorize the volume level settings required to balance each speaker. If you can have someone handle this for you, you can often get a fairly quick switch without too much hassle.
if you find you need to adjust the individual speaker level outputs, go into the settings on the receiver and find where you can adjust channel level. There will be an option to turn on test tones if they don’t start playing automatically. Turn the volume up on the receiver up until your SPL meter reads around 75db; then adjust the levels of the speakers so they are the same. If you are unsure how to do some of this you can ask a sales person to help you. After that fails you can Google it on your cell phone, which will often yield faster results. Remember, if you can adjust the volume using a speaker selector, then your life is much easier, simply turn the volume knob up or down until both sets of speakers are the same level.
How to Listen
You may think, “I don’t need to know how to listen, I have been using my ears all my life!” That may be true, but a few simple rules will help you see through phony sales pitches and will make your entire listening experience much more enjoyable and rewarding. A properly set up 2 channel stereo system is a totally different experience than cranking up some tunes in the car or on your speakers from 1972 that the wife keeps trying to sneak out on trash day!
First things first, if you have never experienced a good 2 channel system, and most of the public hasn’t, then you are in for a treat. The goal of any system is to recreate the sound how it was recorded. If the speakers you want to listen to aren’t in a demo room, I would ask the sales person to move them. A typical sales floor will not allow you to have a proper demo. Sit down in the listening position (remember the 80% rule?). While you won't always be able to turn off the lights, you can at least close your eyes. This takes one of your often contrary senses out of the equation. Have the sales person start the music, and don't let him start telling you how it should sound - that's called bias - you can determine what you hear all on your own! The two speakers should not call attention to themselves, instead, you should be able to hear an almost three dimensional soundstage in front of you. If everything is set up properly and the demo material is good, you should hear separation between different musicians or instruments. Typically, the vocalist is in the middle of the soundstage. By following the steps outlined previously in this article, over time you will become familiar with your demo material and where each musician is supposed to be. Take your time, listen to multiple songs, try different volume levels, move around a little bit, play with the positioning of the speakers. This part is supposed to be fun! This part is also time consuming, so don’t make any judgments right away.
A common mistake that people make when listening to speakers is assuming that more bass equals better speakers. In fact, many manufacturers purposefully add a bump in mid-bass to their speakers to make people think the speaker has better bass. Another problem to watch for is when music to too “bright” or “harsh”, this may mean a speaker has a bump in higher frequencies and although initially the speaker may sound more detailed; eventually it may hurt your ears or give you a headache. Learning how to pick out flaws in speakers will help you decide on a speaker that will keep your ears happy for a long time. Training your ears properly can take a lot of practice, luckily, Harman International makes a phenomenal piece of software that can speed up the process considerably, and it’s even free. It is called “Harman How to Listen,” and works by manipulating songs in a specific way so you can learn what is good and bad sound. For example, it might have you flip back and forth between a clip of music that has coloration in the sound and one that doesn’t, then ask you to identify which track has coloration. The software will allow you to go from a casual listener to a more critical listener. Downloading and using the software isn’t required to being able to pick out which speakers you like, but it will help you identify flaws in speakers that you would have otherwise missed.
Below is a link to the software.Harman 'How to Listen' Software
The Sales Pitch
Ah, yes, sales people. You are going to have some interesting experiences in this realm, from the person who says "Everything is garbage except brand X", to the person who can’t figure out how to turn on the speakers you want to listen to. Luckily, some sales people are genuinely interested in getting you the speakers that suit you best, and they have the knowledge to do it. The goal here is to be able to pick out what information is correct, and what is just smoke and mirrors. The sales person should know everything that has been covered so far in this article, if they are unfamiliar with terms like toe in, SPL, imaging, etc., just turn and run. Unfortunately, many sales people typically only have experience with the brands they carry, so much of what you hear will simply be regurgitated information, so be wary. Right off the bat, don’t expect them to have the speakers positioned and leveled properly, the key is that you find someone who is willing to take the time to help you and listen to your needs. Gather information from them, but take it with a grain of salt. You will probably hear a story behind why one brand is better than other, or why the technology in one speaker is better than the other. Sure, there are different technologies that manufactures utilize to make their speakers stand out, but often these technologies reveal more of a marketing strategy than audible performance benefits.
Below is a link to an article that goes into more depth on this topic.The Insanity of Marketing Disguised as Science in Loudspeakers
Don’t let yourself get strong armed into a particular brand by a pushy sales person. Also, find out the return policy for the shop. If you don’t like the speakers, how long do you have to return them? Can you bring in your own gear to demo the speakers? Hopefully you find someone who is helpful. Finally, be upfront about your intentions. If you are just going to look, let them know. This should help relieve some of the sales pressure and at the same time show respect for their time. Their job is to sell products, not be your personal slave, so allow them to help customers with money burning a hole in their pocket. If you become friends with a sales person, they might just be able to hook you up. When shops get rid of display speakers, they tend to cut the prices drastically to get them out the door. Who knows, maybe you could get a friendly phone call letting you know when that will be?
Auditioning speakers is only one facet to deciding on what to buy, but it is a fun experience. For someone who loves audio, perhaps one labeled as an "audioholic", the opportunity to listen to as many speakers as possible is a dream come true. Take your time, keep listening, and have fun! For more information on shopping for or demoing loudspeakers, take a look at the articles below.
Reviewer’s Note about ID Companies
One topic that this article passed over is purchasing Internet direct speakers. There are a lot of great speaker companies that you will not find in any demo room (Axiom, Emotiva, EMP, SVS, etc..) Most of these companies offer some sort of return policy to make auditioning them in your home easy to do. We have put together a comprehensive list of the policies of many Internet direct companies, which you can reference to ensure safe shopping online.