How to: Auditioning speakers

In the final analysis, just as there is no one “best” speaker, there is no one way to audition speakers. In your personal quest for audio nirvana, you’ll ultimately seek out the speaker that best suits your aesthetic tastes, your personal music preferences, and most of all, your ears. Whether it hits you with the first pair of speakers you hear, or the fiftieth, when it’s right, you’ll know.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions to, perhaps, make the process a bit easier…though no less fun!

First of all, come to the audio retailer of your choice armed with music that you know and love. Even if you’ve listened to it a thousand times, different speakers will reveal the recording in different ways. Whether it appears as a richer vocal, a deeper, fuller bass line or a wider, more realistic soundstage, great speakers have the ability to bring out the best in your favorite songs…and not-so-great ones will ultimately disappoint.

Even if you have a specific—and smaller—budget in mind, it doesn’t hurt to start by listening to the store’s flagship speaker line. In fact, it may help you establish a baseline for the lower priced models you might subsequently audition.

Remember, whether you’re on the sales floor of a giant electronics retailer or (preferably) a small, intimate listening room, the speakers you select will most likely sound different in the confines of your home. Once you’ve narrowed your choices, you might want to determine the retailer’s return policy and consider an in-home test as well. It can be a minor (or major) pain unpacking and repacking speakers, let alone shuttling from home to store, but a purchase this significant certainly justifies it.

If you’re not an audiophile, you’ll discover that a lot of the language you read in trade magazines or hear at retailers is somewhat esoteric. An understanding of some basic terms should make it easier to establish a dialogue with your salespeople and help them help you.

TREBLE: We’ve all experienced speakers that overemphasize the treble—the result is a sound we often refer to as “thin” or “tinny”. Well-defined treble integrates with the rest of the sound, providing fullness. If the treble lacks power, the sound is dull and lifeless.

MIDRANGE: What we tend to hear most clearly and distinctly occurs in the midrange. It stands to reason that imperfections here will generally stand out. Clear, powerful vocals will generally indicate a good midrange; if you’re uncertain, it might pay to listen to a spoken word recording and listen for a muffled or nasal sound quality, which would come from poor midrange response.

BASS: Despite what you may hear on the city streets, good-sounding bass should not overwhelm treble and midrange. Clarity is the key; the bass notes should not be too heavy or too thin. Remember, though, that, if you like the sound of the treble and midrange on a given speaker, a weaker bass sound can be enhanced using a subwoofer.

A couple of other considerations enter into the mix…and you’ll get bonus points for being able to discuss them intelligently with your salesperson!

SOUNDSTAGE: The best thing about great speakers is that they give you the sense of listening to the music in a concert hall, arena or coffeehouse. If the speakers accurately reproduce the soundstage, you should be able to pinpoint the location of the individual musicians from left to right…and even derive a pretty accurate sense of depth.

DYNAMIC RANGE: Virtually any speaker can play loudly. Excellent speakers can play loudly—or at a whisper—without losing the clarity of each instrument. That ability defines its dynamic range.

Using these categories, the more obsessive of you might develop a “cheat sheet” that would allow you to rank the speakers you hear as you audition them; the advantage is that it will increase your recall as to what you liked from each and allow you to quickly narrow your choices from a potentially large field.

Armed with this set of tools, terms and goals, you should be able to successfully audition any number of speakers and select the ones that best suit your taste. Best of all, the process is a great way to rekindle your love of music and, perhaps, take it to new levels.