Sunday, April 1, 2007

What to look for in a pair of speakers.

First, much apologies for the lack of a Saturday article. My bad.

Anyway, most people don't want to build a pair of speakers themselves. For some, it's too daunting a task; others don't have the time and energy or simply have no place to do so.

Well, there's no shortage of commercial speaker offerings, some better than others. But what to look for?

1. Weight. While hardly an accurate measure of quality, a speaker with thin walls, cheaply-made drivers, small magnets, and a simple crossover will weigh much less than a well-made speaker. If you can comfortably juggle speakers, they're probbably not very good.

2. Driver type. Cheap speakers often use mylar speaker cones, and have obviously shoddy construction from a cursory glance. Better speakers generally use drivers made by major OEMs, or in-house drivers of obviously good quality.

Things that should be looked for are proper dome tweeters instead of mylar or piezo tweeters, and quality-looking woofers - it's not hard to tell the difference with the grille off. Remember, paper-cone drivers aren't necessarily better than aluminum- or kevlar-coned drivers - just different.

In addition, many cheap speakers will often use a single driver. While functional, these speakers are generally inferior to proper 2-way designs, and I do not reccomend them.

3. Cabinet resonance. If the cabinet is poorly made and resonates like a drum, it will give sub-par performance. Conversely, a well-made, well-braced cabinet can positively affect sound quality.

4. Sound quality. If you don't like the speakers, you don't like the speakers - they won't magically sound better with more expensive wire, or a new reciever. Just because a speaker costs more or is "better rated" does not mean you will enjoy it more than a less expensive speakers.

And now for a few tips on buying speakers:

1. Bring your own CD. Many vendors - especially Bose - will use CDs especially tailored to bring out the best in their speakers. Your own music, however, may bring out faults, like rough frequency response or low-quality bass, which are disguised by the salesmen. If your choice of test music uses very high and very low frequencies, so much the better.

2. Test in your own environment. If you're using speakers in a tiny room, they'll sound very different from in a huge concert hall - and vice versa. Wall-mounting speakers can vastly alter frequency response, as can using different types of stands.

3. Compare directly. An A-B speaker switchbox can be had for $12 at RadioShack, and will let you compare directly one variety of speaker against another. Many vendors allow in-home trials, and this is a good way to compare one speaker against another.

4. Ignore the manufacturer entirely. It's easy to be swayed by slick marketing and fancy design, but a good, solid 2-way will often come out on top in the end. Remember, it's not what's "best" that matters, but what you enjoy listening to the most.

A few brands which I can reccomend:

-Paradigm. They have a well-deserved repuation for solidly-built speakers at a reasonable pricetag. The Paradigm Atoms are not the most attractive speakers, but they use good-quality woofers, tweeters, and crossovers, making them superior to speakers far more expensive - you can't go wrong with Atoms.

-AV123. This is a vendor of high-end speakers good for both home-theater and music, most notably the $1,800 a pair Strata Mini, a 3-way planar-hybrid with integrated subwoofer. While not cheap, you get what you pay for.

-Bowers and Wilkins. Strictly speaking, this old-school manufacturer started making monitors for the BBC, and have been in the buisness longer than just about anyone. While nothing they make is strictly speaking bad, all of it tends to be very expensive - the 800 series will cost you almost as much as a small car.

-Hsu Research. While their HT speakers are nothing special, the Hsu line of subwoofers are very well made, and not unreasonably priced.

-Velodyne. Another good manufacturer of subwoofers.

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