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The Beatnik Ponders Buying Speakers

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I’ve been reviewing a lot of speakers lately. To my surprise, every pair has been at least good enough to let me enjoy music. A few have been really exceptional, some have been great bargains, and one pair even made me consider if I could afford them. All of this has led me to do some deep thinking, what we would call in the South “pondering”. I haven’t really set out to look for a new pair of speakers in 8 years, and then it took me two years to finally get what I wanted. Then, about 18 months ago I ran into my current speakers (WGA’s Ikonoklast Model 3) quite by accident. So, I thought maybe it would be worth our while to think about the process of buying speakers. I want to do this by going through a series of questions and warnings I think everyone should ask before buying as well as during the audition process.

Question #1: Why do I want new speakers?

There are lots of reasons why people want new speakers, but if you can’t answer this question, chances are you won’t be satisfied with you new speakers either. I learned this question years ago from Steve McCormack. He said if I didn’t identify why I wanted a new amp, it was doubtful I would be happy with the sound of the new amp unless I was just lucky. I was kind of embarrassed, because at that moment I couldn’t put into words what I wanted a new amp to do for my sound.

Like I said, there are lots of reasons, let’s name a few: you just heard a system that sounded way better than yours and you assumed it was the speakers; something about your system grates on your nerves; you purchased your first system knowing it was a compromise until you could afford better; or whatever your reason. You need to be able to articulate it and be as specific as possible.

For example, when I moved eight years ago, my speakers had way too much bass in the new room. I worked on placement, I worked with room treatments, including tube traps, but I didn’t want to change amps at the time. I felt like the Joule-Electra amp was the strongest part of my system. So, I begin to look for speakers that would be a step-up in every way, that had fast, tight bass, and most of all that sounded good with my amp. Well, like always, I’m getting ahead of myself so let’s go on to question two.

Question #2: What do I Value in Sound Reproduction

This is a crucial, if not most crucial question. The reason it is so important, is if you don’t identify these values they can really come back to haunt you. For example, I value transparency and P R a T above all. Now it’s not too likely that I would pick a speaker that didn’t do these two things well, but it’s really likely I’ll get a speaker that does these two things really well and for listening for other things. The great problem with this is that, in the long run, I will begin to be disappointed.

Of course, the opposite is possible. I once purchased a speaker because it was so balanced sounding, had such great bass, threw an incredible soundstage, and not least, I got a great deal on them. The problem was, no matter how much I wanted to love them, the longer I listened the less they lead me into a emotionally involving musical experience. So, be sure you go into the process of looking for speakers knowing what you must have, but not letting those values make you overlook other faults.

Question #3: Are My Speakers the Real Problem?

I know: Once we decide we want new speakers, our minds are pretty well made up to get some speakers, it’s even worse than new-car fever for lots of us. Yet, if you don’t answer this question, you will certainly be unhappy with new speakers when you get them. I speak from experience, by the way.

You see, we almost always get better speakers, so if the problem is somewhere else they just reveal the problem more. I don’t agree with the camp that says speakers are the most important components in the system. I also don’t agree with those who say the source is the most important, and I certainly don’t agree with those who think the amp and preamp are not as important as the source or speakers. No, I think putting together a system that can occasionally sound like music, and nearly always musically enjoyable, is always a balancing act. Take some time, don’t get into too big of a hurry, because speakers cost a lot and you need the right ones for your amplification and room.

Question #4: Where can I place the speakers?

This question is critical. Way too often people buy speakers because they sound great in the showroom, only to get home and to discover they can’t get them to sound the same. Yes, this could be amplification, but often it’s just room and placement. Have you ever purchased a TV or even a Christmas tree and then gotten it home and said to you wife, “Well, it didn’t look so big at the store”? Well, the same thing happens with speaker, except you say, well I didn’t notice how far out in the room they were at the store.

I think it’s quite obvious to most of us: We can’t use corner horn if your listening room doesn’t have two good corners to put them in, but beyond that it seems most people buy speakers with little consideration of the room they will be put in. I think back to speakers I have owned and what was required to get them to strut their stuff.

Stacked Quad 57 needed to be about six feet out into the room. This was not hard when I was in a 14- by 24-foot room. They were impossible when I moved and they had to go into a 13- by 10-foot room.

Spica Angelus only needed to be about four feet from the rear wall, but they really need to be set up on thirds in relationship to the side walls. When place correctly, these weird looking speakers were simply magic, but when place poorly they were very bright and thin with a very shallow and stretched-out image.

Audio Note E speakers are an interesting speaker in that you can place them basically two completely different places. First, they were intended to be placed in corners, or at least within a few inches of the back wall.

You could also place them about 5 feet out into the room. They do not work very well though from about 6 inches to three feet.

I could go on and on and talk about different speakers, but the point is you need to take this into consideration before you buy. It’s kind of like the person who helped me select my high definition television. I was just about to buy the 50-inch Pioneer Elite Plasma when he ask me about the windows and lights in my room. He talked me into taking the Sony XBR LCD home. It came with the assurance I could bring it back and get the plasma if I wasn’t happy. I may have given up a little in picture quality, but not having glare on the screen makes me think I probably have the best picture in my room. (It takes a truly knowledgeable salesperson and a trusting customer for this to work. Looks like you were lucky that your salesperson was truly knowledgeable. May we all have the same kind of serendipity. Naturally, Doug Schroeder would call it a blessing. –Ed) This is the kind of thinking that is good when picking speakers also.

Warning #1: Be careful about speakers that sound incredible on first listen.

This is one of the most important things I can say about buying speakers. When I was looking for speakers, and now when I review speakers, I have learned to be careful about with speakers that blow me away right off the bat. There are a lot of speakers that sound spectacular all the time. I begin to find these speakers boring. There is music that is spectacular, then there is music that is anything but spectacular. In fact, some music is meant to be slow and methodical. I have discovered that speakers that I can love for a long time like Quad 57, WGA Ikonoklast, and Audio Notes to name a few, are speakers that are more like chameleons. By that, I mean they sound like what they are playing; sometimes they are lively, sometime they are smooth, sometime they are strident, and sometimes they are spectacular.

Warning #:2 Be Careful about Bass

Some people cannot enjoy music if the bass doesn’t go down into the 20Hz range. Other people seem to enjoy music just as much with speakers that only go down into the 60Hz range, but most people can have a perfectly emotionally and musical satisfying experience from a speaker that goes into the 40Hz range.

You really need to sort this out before you buy a speaker that you plan to keep for long. I have known many people who have been wowed by bass response to only latter discover their room or amp couldn’t handle it. Likewise, I have known people who purchased speakers for their midrange or even soundstaging, only to discover they could live with so little bass.

I personally fall into that middle group, and I want to tell you if you do you’re blessed. (No. Not you too, Jack. –Ed) Why? Because it costs a lot and you have to give up a lot to get that last little bit of bass. For example, you need a lot more power if you are trying to get down into the low 30Hz and a lot more to get down into the low 20Hz range. Not only do you need more power, you need a lot of current and you need a room that can support such bass. This kind of bass almost rules out my favorite kind of amp; a great SET with WE 300B tubes. You can try a sub, but you can hardly ever get the sub and the mains to be coherent and, again, we are talking lots of money.

Thank goodness for me, as long as I have good, quality bass into the mid to low 40Hz area, I don’t even miss the rest. I just never think about it. When I hear better bass I notice it, but I never sit around listening to my system wishing I had more bass. Just the opposite is true, I sit around and I am amazed at the quality of bass the Ikonoklast Model 3 can get out of a 5-inch driver in a transmission line. You will have to make your own decisions about where to compromise, but make it before you spend your money.

One last comment about the bass. Did you hear what I said about speakers needing to be like chameleons, well that means if the recording has no bass, then on that recording your speaker shouldn’t either. Most speakers produce their own warmth and this can be quite euphonic, but once you hear a speaker that can be warm when called on, and have no added warmth when not called for, I don’t think you will want the added color of the speakers for warmth.

Warning #3: Be Wary of Crossovers

Now let me say right off the bat that my favorite speaker of all time, the Shindo Latours, have a crossover. So do the incredible Harbeths and Spendors. So, obviously I’m not saying you can’t do a crossover right. I am saying the less simple the crossover, is the harder it is to get music out of the speaker. I find two-way speakers with no crossovers are almost always where I find the transparency and P R a T I am looking for, that enables a speaker to be emotionally and musically involving to me.

Last Warning, be Careful of what Everyone is excited about at the moment

This is really important. The hype was, and still is true with Voice of the Theater Speakers, a few early JBLs, Quad ESLs, Vandersteen 2s, Lowthers, Audio Notes, Harbeths, Spendors, and a few others I’m forgetting, but I could fill a page with speakers that were the best thing going and everybody wanted over the last 40 years, and most of them you would have never heard of or would laugh at. Trust your ears after you do your homework, and be careful of the latest fad. Good luck if you are shopping for speakers now or in the future.

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