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The annual equipment directories of Audio magazine and Stereo Review may be useful as nearly complete (some high-end equipment is not included) listings of everything available, but they can also be over whelming. These listings tell you nothing about the equipment other than the specs, which are of very limited usefulness.
Much more informative are the annual recommended listings of The Absolute Sound, Stereophile, JAR, and some of the other “alternative press.” These will provide valuable reference points. It is always a good idea to listen to the best and then work down from there, if you can do this without driving the dealers (and yourself) bonkers.
Following are a few quick pointers on buying components. Read the full chapters on these components in this book before you buy.
BUYING A TURNTABLE, SYSTEM
When you’re buying a turntable system, you’re in search of synergy— how well the stylus is able to release the music from the groove depends on how successfully the turntable, tonearm, and cartridge all work together. Each part directly influences the others—alter any element and you alter the sound.
Mass-market merchandisers commonly offer the turntable and tonearm as a package and may even throw in the cartridge. This is primarily a good marketing, rather than a good sound, decision. With very few exceptions, each of these components should be bought individually. A good builder of tables is not ipso facto an equally good designer and builder of arms or cartridges. Just to design, build, and then successfully market a good table (or arm, or cartridge) takes a great deal of dedicated concentration. Some of the “exceptions” offering very good table-plus-arm systems include the AR ES-1, Rega, Linn and Linn Axis, Well Tempered, and Sonographe.
Keep in mind, when you’re selecting the table components, how the hierarchy goes: The table itself is of first importance because it sup ports, isolates, and drives the record, tonearm, and cartridge; the tonearm is next in importance because it controls the cartridge. Only once you have a good table and arm, with good resolving power, does it then make sense to invest substantial money in an excellent cartridge. Its ability to capture subtle detail will be largely obscured unless the table and arm can provide the right conditions for it to work in.
Only once the three elements of the table system are all very good does their importance then become equal. But until they all get good, observing a certain sequence of importance will yield the best sound all along the way.
Even if it means having to skimp a little on the other components, buy as good a table system as you can afford—a good front end is essential to release all the music stored on the recording. Though this may ‘initially be more expensive, it’s actually a frugal investment be cause you need never replace it (except the cartridge). A component that’s good when you buy it will always remain good. True high-end tables don’t change drastically from one season to the next—outwardly, they can remain unchanged for years. The AR, for example, is based on a design developed in about 1961; the Linn is about 15 years old. In addition, almost all of the top-quality table manufacturers design their upgrades so as to be easily retro-fittable onto earlier tables. When you invest in a good table, you can be confident it will remain contemporary because you’ll be able to add on future refinements for a lot less expense in time and money than it would take to sell your old table and buy a new one.
The best tables are simple, with an emphasis on precision engineering and quality manufacture of parts. The sonic chasm between a poor table and a good one results above all from the mechanical and engineering differences. Getting the music out of the groove is a ticklish mechanical task complicated by the minuscule scale on which playback occurs. A child’s toy microscope and one of laboratory quality work on the exact same basic concept. The major differences between them are in the quality of the optics, the precision of the gear mechanism, and so forth—in other words, the quality and refinement of the mechanical execution. Like a lab microscope, an adult-quality table has a much higher level of resolution, which allows it to discern details in the groove that cruder tables would blur or miss entirely.
Generally, the good tables are almost all made by small companies where pride of craftsmanship and quality of manufacture replace the mass-fi assembly mentality. The finest tables are made either by the designer’s hands or at least under the designer’s constant supervision.
Mass-market table manufacturers mostly attempt to substitute “high tech” shortcuts to circumvent the need for exacting precision. Regard less of slick advertising claims, gizmos such as servo controls and strobe rings cannot be substituted for quality make and have nothing to do with providing good sound. They are marketing ploys. Yes, these may originate from an honest, if misguided, desire to improve playback. Unfortunately, though, what usually happens is the equally honest corporate imperative to make lots of money takes over, and so good-bye, good sound. Often mass-fi equipment will cleverly attempt to imitate the appearance of expensive audiophile equipment. While the outward design of a mass-fi table may visually mimic an excellent table, the quality of the engineering, which makes the real difference in sound quality, is missing. Who would trust a seismograph made of flimsy plastic, how ever many fancy switches it boasted?
Don’t, by the way, try to base any decisions on table specs—these are about the biggest joke since Pavarotti made Yes, Georgio. Rumble, wow, and flutter can all be heard if you listen carefully. You don’t need a bunch of numbers to tell you if you just survived an earthquake—all the numbers will tell you is how severe the quake was. Interesting if you’re a geologist, or if you’re house-hunting along the San Andreas fault, but otherwise not very pertinent to daily life. Also, the Richter scale is a rigorously defined and universally standardized measurement, whereas table manufacturers have a much broader latitude in how they can come up with their measurements.
You cannot bulldoze your way into good sound. The best tables are uncomplicated, with an emphasis on precision engineering and quality manufacture of parts. In good audio, form normally follows function, whereas in mass-market audio, the exact opposite is the norm. Fancy looks aren’t going to charm a recording into releasing its music (although appearances may well charm people into releasing their money).
The only area where you want to get into something fancy is in the quality of the manufacture itself. Look for economy and insightfulness of design, plus precision parts and construction. When recovering information from a groove modulation a millionth of an inch in size, small, even seemingly insignificant details are critical. You’re looking for a very straightforward, precision-built machine. Stay away from audio cheesecake. Uncomplicated design, minimalist circuits, and precision manufacture will allow good sound to be faithfully “unrecorded” from the record.
How to Choose the One from the Many
There are only about ten really top-end tables, and then perhaps another ten that are a step below. You can drive yourself crazy trying to decide which of these good tables to buy, or you can accept that all the high-end tables are very, very good. Don’t try to figure out which is the absolute “best”—there isn’t one. At most, there is a “best for you.”
So it’s less important which good table you buy than that you buy a good one. It’s good advice to just go buy the best table you can afford and have done with it. All of the good ones are, within their various price points, very good. If you choose to at some point down the road, you can get into the minutiae of differentiating between one top-class table and the next—once your whole system has sufficient resolving power really to be able to distinguish these differences. Good equipment has good resale value, so if you do decide to change tables, you’ll be able to get something for your current one. Mass-fi gear, on the other hand, is generally good only for the trash heap.
For someone just moving into the high end, buy a veteran belt- drive table made by a well-established company and sold by a well- established, knowledgeable dealer. The belt-driven Acoustic Research ES-1 is the minimum point of entry for good sound because it’s the least expensive, established, good table readily available in the United States, and because anything sonically less takes you back down into mass-fi. (The Dual 505-2 is also a good and cheap table, but definitely not as good as the AR.) The ES-1 offers the additional important advantage that it can be conveniently and economically upgraded into a vastly superior table via George Merrill at Underground Sound. After some 20-odd years of existence, the AR continues to be a first-rank table in its price range. With the benefit of Merrill upgrades, its ability to remain current is assured. Merrill makes excellent upgrades for the earlier AR models as well as for all the Linns.
Between them, AR and Thorens, which also makes good tables, have been responsible for just about every major innovation that has shaped the modern turntable—with the exception of direct drive, which has proved largely a dead end.
Two other very well known and highly regarded American-made tables are the SOTA and the VPI. Either one is excellent. Use them as a point of reference or comparison with any other table you’re considering. It’s probably safest to avoid an imported table, unless the company has a very secure presence here.
What to Look for, What to Avoid
As said earlier, the better tables all tend to be very simple—which doesn’t mean simplistic. Great care and thought goes into working out the design concepts and precision engineering—rather than into dreaming up new ways to entice the consumer to buy this product rather than the competition’s. Tables that play the record sideways or where the record pops out in a drawer like a CD player are definitely nekulturni.
NEVER buy a table that is part of another component, sometimes called a console. Likewise, if a table has a record changer, walk on by. This belongs in the same category as an electric carving knife—only worse, as it can badly damage both your sound and your records. The parts in a record changer are a wonderful breeding ground for all the resonances that will spoil your sound. Considering all that’s already been said about the prime importance of the table, no more need be said here.
Automatic and even semi-automatic tables are in the same category, though slightly lesser on the severity scale. Mechanisms that return the arm to its resting position invariably add resonances without adding commensurate value. Fully automatics even put the stylus in the groove for you and then turn the table off when the side is over. Any nonessential mechanisms should be avoided because they will muddy the sound.
You’re a lot better off with a fully manual table, which, by the way, is the only way the best tables come. It’s not so tough to have to get up at the end of each side and manually return the tonearm to its resting place. You want to flip the record over anyway, or change it. Even if you’re clumsy, you really can’t do any damage, providing, of course, the arm has a cuing device—an invaluable feature, even though the cueless Well Tempered Arm has survived much use without disaster. A cuing device is a hydraulic system that, when activated, very slowly lowers the tonearm to the record or raises it up. There are certain instances where a mechanical gadget can be reliably and repeatedly more sensitive and delicate than many a human hand.
You can also buy an add-on auto-lift, which will automatically lift the arm off the record at the end of the record side. This is both convenient and minimizes any possible risk of damaging the stylus by leaving it circling in the run-out. The auto-lift is positioned on the chassis so that the tonearm, reaching the end of the record side, will touch its trip lever, setting off a little hydraulic arm-raiser. It’s reputed to degrade sound slightly (far less than a semi-automatic table), but you won’t necessarily notice this.
By the way, it is sonically preferable if the dustcover is not permanently affixed to the back of the plinth but simply rests on top of the plinth. In fact, sound quality will often improve if the table’s dustcover is altogether removed while playing. If the dustcover is an option that costs extra, you can save quite a bit by building your own from foam- core or cardboard. It may not look superslick but will serve its purpose.
DON’T buy a table that doesn’t allow you to change tonearms easily. If the table is designed so the arm cannot be removed and replaced, then it’s almost a certainty you’re dealing in poor company. Also be sure that the tonearm cable easily unplugs from the arm so you can replace it with a better one. Too low a plinth may limit your choice of arms that can be used on the table—there must be ample clearance for both arm and properly dressed arm cable.
There are a few good table companies that sell a decent table/arm package. Minimum standard for a good table/arm combo is represented by the AR ES-1. The arm is OK and can also be readily upgraded to a better one when you’re ready—such as the Premier MMT. The Linn table offers two arms—the Basik Plus and the more expensive Ittok. Then you’ve got the Well Tempered table, which can be paired with the WTA arm, both first-rank choices and forming an all-around excellent team. Two imported table/arm combinations well worth considering, if your dealer handles them, are the Rega 3 with 300B arm (considered an excellent one) and the Systemdek.
Arms tend to have pretty straightforward designs without a lot of frills. You want a rigid tube, rigid bearings, and a means of tightly clamping the cartridge to the headshell and the headshell to the arm. The arm must permit fine-tuned settings for overhang, VTA/SRA, and azimuth. Be sure the weight and size of the arm will mate well with your table. The excellent Dynavector, for example, is big and heavy enough that the only readily available table it really works well on is the VPI. As far as pivoting versus SLT arms, well, the SLT choice is extremely limited and quite expensive, as well as being more finicky.
If you are a devotee of the sound of moving magnets, which as a rule are small, light cartridges with very compliant styli, then your ideal arm might be low mass and lightweight. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of moving coils—heavy cartridges with low compliance—then you’ll want to move in the direction of a more massive construction.
Avoid P-mount arms—these really are all mass-market plastic junk and are unlikely ever to be developed by the good companies. Though the idea is seemingly a good one, it in fact greatly restricts your cartridge choices and limits your flexibility in correctly setting up the cartridge. Allegedly, P-mounts obviate the need for setup as it’s already been done for you, but all they really accomplish is to eliminate your control.
There is just no point in investing in a good cartridge until you have a table and arm worthy of it. It’s quite likely that a cartridge that is better than the table and arm may actually sound worse than an in expensive cartridge with that same arm and table. A good cartridge will be more revealing and critical of flaws—it isn’t designed to ameliorate poor conditions, whereas a decent inexpensive cartridge like Grado’s MTh + 1 is very musical and forgiving under less than optimal conditions. Stick with this until you’ve got your arm/table combo worked out.
If you have a very good table and arm, but are perhaps relatively new to critical listening, don’t start off buying a very expensive cartridge—less expensive ones will give you the lion’s share of performance. It’s the same approach used for musical instruments—you don’t start off with a world-class instrument but first get your feet wet with a lesser though still good one. This way, by the time you do get to the best, you’ll be able to distinguish the subtle differences that make it the best. To enjoy the full benefits of the very expensive cartridges, you really need to be experienced in divining nuances.
A moving coil cartridge can be more finicky than a moving mag net, and all but the high-output ones will require an additional gain stage. If this is already included in your preamp, then fine. If it is not, you must include the purchase price of the gain stage with the price of the cartridge and judge whether it is worthwhile. High-output MCs may not sound better than moving magnets. Again, the particular execution is more important than which design approach was employed.
The single most important thing about a cartridge is something only you can control—the physical condition of the stylus itself. Per haps the very most significant point to make about cartridges is that they should be replaced regularly and sooner rather than later. A stylus will generally last around 1,000 hours (some say only about 500 hours), depending on how roughly it is used and also on its shape. For example, the micro-linear profile is thought to have a relatively longer life.
A worn or damaged stylus can literally “re-groove” the record, gouging out the grooves, shaving off some of the musical information, and chipping the groove walls. These are no longer record revealers but record erasers. A strong magnifying glass will help you see dirt, but wear can be revealed only by a very high power optical microscope. By the time you can see the wear yourself under a magnifying glass, it’s far advanced and undoubtedly causing significant damage.
Cartridges, incidentally, have a shelf life, regardless of whether or not the cartridge is being used. The cantilever’s damping material ages through magnetic effects, mechanical wear, and chemistry, causing the compliance to stiffen. Shelf life may be around 18 months. If you’re a regular listener, the stylus needs replacement by then in any case, but if you keep several cartridges lying around, be advised that they are aging as they sit in their little boxes. Also be sure to buy from a dealer who has a regular turnover in cartridges.
The second most important thing about a cartridge is also some thing you control yourself—and that’s how well it is set up. The best cartridge, poorly set up, can sound like fingernails on a blackboard. This may be the primary advantage of the Shure V15-VMR—it comes with its own special setup gig, which really is idiot-proof. (Regrettably it will NOT work on any other cartridge.) Sonically, though it is well liked by many, it may not be by you.
Essentially what you’re looking for in any good cartridge is a strong non-resonant body, preferably one that is absolutely flat on top for maximum mechanical contact with the headshell to transmit resonances; probably a relatively low compliance stylus, so it tracks well and stays out of the groove gunk, probably with a fixed stylus assembly and a line-contact stylus profile. You also want a tip mass resonance well above the audio band and do not want the high frequencies rolled off. High frequency roll-off may be an easy way to prevent a cartridge from sounding overly bright, but you will also lose much of the subtle detail of the music, which provides the sense of ambience and air. Definitely stay away from P-mount and integral headshell cartridges.
Be sure to match stylus compliance with arm mass, and cartridge impedance with your preamp. Matching arm and cartridge can be a tough job. There’s an equation available, but often one doesn’t have enough or the right information to plug into it. That’s one advantage of the Linn combination—it comes all matched. A test record may tell you, but at that point you’ve already invested a lot of time and money in buying the cartridge and setting it up on your arm.
Generally what it all boils down to is that it’s best to rely on the experience of others with that particular combo—just be sure to solicit a number of opinions; Call both the tonearm and the cartridge manufacturers—a small company will generally share its experience with you, providing it has the experience to share and also providing that you make it clear you’re not asking for an endorsement of a particular arm or cartridge, but just for advice on good matches.
Many cartridges provide a sense of detail by emphasizing one aspect of the frequency spectrum over another. Few, however, provide definition, which is the ability to provide all the information on the record over the entire frequency band, across the entire range from the loudest passages to the softest detail, all properly balanced in a musically natural and convincing way. This musicality is what you want to listen for.
When auditioning cartridges, be aware of two factors: They benefit from a break-in time (how long depends on the cartridge—you can hear the cartridge’s sound changing as it breaks in) and, if you’re listening in the summer months, the heat and humidity induce high-frequency resonances that can make a cartridge sound unpleasantly shrill and screechy.
Some cartridges are sold with replaceable styli. Instead of replacing the entire cartridge, the body of which may be perfectly fine, one can replace just the stylus and cantilever at usually half the full retail cost of the cartridge. While this is an economical design, such styli introduce more resonance because they’re not permanently bonded to the body. In addition, many cartridges are discounted—at discount price, it’s often not much more expensive to replace the entire cartridge rather than just the stylus alone, which is rarely discounted. On the whole, it’s better to replace the whole cartridge and not buy cartridges with user replaceable styli.
Some manufacturers will replace the stylus/cantilever assembly for you, which generally gives better results. Joe Grado, for example, will not only replace a stylus but will often at the same time upgrade the cartridge to the next level or the most recent modification (for a charge, of course). The Garrott Brothers in Australia will re-tip any cartridge— they are especially well known and respected for their upgrades and modifications on the English Decca cartridges.
The two most widely well regarded manufacturers of reel-to-reel decks are Tandberg and Revox. Tandberg is historically considered to have better electronics, Revox to have a particularly good transport mechanism. The Revox is therefore often chosen for modification because, once the electronics are improved, you end up with an overall better deck.
There are really no good, inexpensive cassette decks, with the exception of the Sony Pro Walkman. The Nakamichi Dragon is very well regarded for sound quality—but beware that just because the Dragon is good, you cannot therefore infer that other Nakamichi decks are comparably good. The Tandberg 3014 is really very good, with excellent midrange and good controls.
A basic consideration is that a deck is as much mechanical as it is electronic. In this sense, it combines all the complexities and requirements of both a turntable and an amplification stage, and both elements must be equally good to result in a good deck. For recording, you will get much better results with three heads than two. It’s best to avoid autoreverse unless you are using the deck only for background sound.
Avoid decks that allow you only “automatic” settings for bias, equalization, noise reduction, and. so forth. Like a digital turner, what “ought to be” as determined in the lab does not always conform to “what is” out in the world. You gain slight convenience from all the settings being automatically chosen for you, but you also are likely to get less good sound. Automatic cameras may take better snapshots than nonautomatics, but they will not take better photographs—the same distinction holds for decks.
If you want a tuner, it is definitely worthwhile to buy a good one, even if it is not your primary source of music. It is an invaluable aid in hearing new music, but one to which you will not listen much unless it sounds good.
Tuners usually are better at some aspects of capturing the radio signal than at others. Decide which you need most in your area and then select from among the tuners that are best at this. The antenna is also a critical aspect of how well you receive signals.
A very useful and quick test for a tuner’s sound quality, aside from its ability to capture the signal, is to listen to a voice talking. We are all sufficiently familiar with voices to be able to identify readily whether or not one sounds “natural.” Voices talking cover a much narrower range of frequencies than music, but then the FM signal has a very narrow bandwidth anyway, so a voice does not represent much of a limitation. In any case, it falls right in the all-important midrange. You can also turn the dial all the way to one end or the other. Listen to the white noise and determine whether certain areas of sound are emphasized—you want overall balance across the frequency band.
The Marantz 10B is probably the classic tuner; Mclntoshes also look and sound good; Quad FM4s and even the Dynaco, Scott, and Fisher tube tuners are also very good. A lot of the Dynacos are pretty banged up so make sure the one you’re looking at is in good condition—it will probably cost you around $50. Of current production tuners, the Magnum Dynalab is highly regarded and its front end is widely used by other high-end audio companies for building their own tuners. Onkyo has some good tuners—the T-22, considering its price of around $100, is remarkable.
The good-sounding CD players come from a handful of high-end de signers, most of whom modify Sony or Philips players. Unfortunately, the quality of the players they have to work with is deteriorating as competition increases and the value of the dollar decreases.
You should test the player with a wide selection of CDs of different kinds of music and from different labels—don’t just use the dealer’s CDs, which have already been hand-picked to sound good in that player. Also, because digital sounds different from analog, you will need ex tended listening time to adjust to digital’s sound and so be confident that you are really distinguishing between players and not just between analog and digital.
Most specs and testing for error correction are done with a purposefully damaged disc produced by Philips. This disc is very undemanding so just about any CD player, even the cheapest, will pass the test with no problem. A better test you can easily perform is to buy a CD, scratch it up—use curved scratches as these are harder to play through than straight ones—and play it on each player you are considering.
Player weight and solidity of construction are being downgraded. Whether or not the laser system alignment is correct affects both tracking and error correction—a heavy, sturdy construction protects against vibration and physical shock and thereby reduces the risk of misalignment. Excessive heat degrades components and can cause failure of the semiconductor lasers, so good heat dissipation is important.
Despite this mechanical deterioration, the longer you wait, the better are your chances of buying a good-sounding player. CD players are continually evolving. Some recommend buying the cheapest player you can find to listen to your CDs now and waiting till things settle down a bit more before investing a lot of money. The problem with this approach is you probably won’t spend much time listening to your cheap player, in which case it will actually turn out to have been an expensive investment.
THE AMPLIFICATION STAGE
The American audio establishment—despite the evidence of many ears— persists in claiming that all amps that measure the same will therefore sound the same. Don’t be misled—no two amps sound alike.
The preamp must be matched with the cartridge (or other front end); the amp must be matched with the speakers. This matching will alter the sound of both components involved.
Tubes and transistors, being imperfect, each have their own sonic "thumbprint"—you will likely prefer one over the other, though you will have to make tradeoffs with each. Listen to both as much can before assuming tubes to be as “old-fashioned” as the “old” Coke. More and more new tube equipment is being designed at reasonable prices and there is also the used market to turn to for classic tube de signs. These include the Quad tubes; the Dynaco Stereo 70 and Mark III and IV amps (all excellently modified by GSI) and PAS III preamp; the Marantz 7C and 8B.
Separate vs. Integrated
There’s a lot to be said for buying an integrated amp, though integrateds have long inhabited the no-man’s-land between mass-fi and the high end. (Receivers are quite another story—there are probably none being made now that achieve sound beyond mass-fi, so buy your tuner separately.) Historically, integrated amps have been clearly less good than separates, though some integrateds are changing this reputation. Because both preamp and amp are contained in a single chassis and share the same power supply—both expensive items—you can get a good sonic value and convenience for a lower price than with separates. There is also a sonic benefit to eliminating the colorations of interconnects, plugs, and jacks. Compatibility is assured (at least with a well-designed unit) and you need not fuss about which interconnects sound best with your components. On the other hand, sharing a single power supply is a drawback, there is greater chance of hum and cross-talk, and overall quality is often lower.
Among separates, there are an increasing number in the “low end of the high end,” an area that nearly went defunct some years ago, leaving a chasm between high end and mass-fi. That gap is being bridged once again, often by companies that also cover the “high end of the high end,” with components from PS Audio and Superphon, as well as the Adcom 555 transistor amp and the Lazarus tube preamp.
One of the benefits of buying separates, in addition to the opportunity for better sound, is versatility. If you want to start upgrading, you can do it one piece at a time rather than replacing the entire stage. You can buy your preamp from one designer and amp from another— often a company is more inspired with one than the other. You can gain all the benefits of mixing a tube preamp with a transistor amp. The preamp can be positioned close to the turntable (where it must be because of the shortness of the tonearm cable) while the amp can be placed close to the speakers, thus taking advantage of short speaker cable runs, which generally sound better than longer ones.
The quality of the execution of the design—power supply, passive parts, circuit layout—is at least as important as the particular design approach of tubes or transistors, separates or integrated. Listen before you judge.
As for specs, it’s all very well to take a lot of measurements, providing you know what you’re measuring and how to interpret the data once you have it. An electronic circuit may function fine as an electronic circuit, but this doesn’t ensure it is working as a musical circuit. Frankly, no one has figured out yet how to measure music or really has even a fairly good grasp of how the human mind understands music. Anyone who suggests they have a lock on the knowledge of which measurements are definitive in terms of music is a charlatan, a fool, or both.
The best “expert” you can rely on is your own ears. Rather than listening to the barbershop pundits, listen for yourself to the differences between amps. If you’ve tasted only frozen apple pie, perhaps you wouldn’t be able to distinguish whether nutmeg or cinnamon or mace was used for flavoring, and whether in the right proportions and combinations. But as you come to taste a wider variety of apple pies, then you have enough information and experience to become more discriminating in your taste. Some people consider the tastes of apple pie to be inconsequential—apple pie is apple pie. Others can’t tell the difference, however much pie they taste. If either of these cases applies to you, then go with convenience, price, reliability, and resale value.
There are more different speakers on the market than any other component. Twelve hundred—plus different models, produced by more than 200 manufacturers, fill the pages of Audio magazine’s annual equipment directory. This is a staggering quantity, but only a handful of them are musically special. Among these few, there seem to be basically two categories—the good enough and the very good.
Price does not serve reliably as a guide. For example, the economically priced Spica TC-50s have been compared by Stereophile and JAR to much more expensive and illustrious speakers like the Quads, which are almost five times the price. Until you really get into the stratosphere of high-end listening, you may do very well to settle on speakers such as the Spicas. Then invest your money further upstream where it will have a more salubrious effect on your ears.
There is an absolute basic minimum standard of quality that many speakers fail to meet and that therefore eliminates them from further consideration. Cabinet and driver configuration are easy problem areas to spot. Rap the cabinet with your knuckles—it should be solidly constructed and non-resonant, responding with a nice tight nick-nick sound to it, rather than the more common boink-boink of an undistinguished speaker. Look at the front of the speaker for baffle diffraction problems. Preferably, the grille covers are removable. Even the quality of the terminal posts used can be revealing—a simple screw should generally alert you to the existence of other problems hidden from view. The drawback to a screw is not that it isn’t “fancy” enough, but that it provides a less good electrical connection with the cable.
A good electrical connection is dependent on two factors: ample contact surface area and contact area pressure. You want a “gas-tight interface,” meaning a good solid connection that will keep the air out and so slow down oxidation problems. A nut and bolt with two 0-rings provides good contact; a small screw on a terminal strip will strip out or buckle before you can really tighten it and also provides the mini mum of contact area. Curling a length of bare wire around it does not help either—use large-size spade lugs.
Buying speakers requires that a number of broad decisions be made right from the start—to buy dynamics or dipoles; if dynamics, whether two- or three-way; with or without subwoofers; directional or dispersed. These choices should be considered in combination with your amplifier. Read “The Loudspeaker System” and “Speaker Setup” so you have a good understanding of what is involved.
The music you most often listen to will affect which is the right speaker for you (see “The Loudspeaker System”). You really have to choose between hearing the subtle differences in tone between similar instruments or the power for playing rock and full-scale orchestras at, live volumes—the two are rarely combined in the same speaker, any more than in the same amp.
Here’s a rough guide to the amp power needed to drive your speakers: If you listen mainly to something like chamber music in a small room, then 30 watts with medium-efficiency speakers should be fine. In a full-size room, and playing pretty much any music, 50 watts driving high-efficiency (90- to 100dB) speakers should be fine; for mid efficiency (90- to 85-dB) speakers, use anywhere from 50 to 200 watts of amp power; inefficient speakers of 85 dB or less will probably benefit from 200 watts to get the most out of them.
Choosing any new component is time consuming, frustrating, aggravating, mind boggling, hair tearing—and speakers can be among the worst because they are so affected by their environment. Be patient and don’t let it get you down—the rewards are immeasurable. Regrettably, there is no single answer, nor even a limited combination of answers. The variables involved in the specifics of equipment, room, listening habits, preferred music, volume, sensitivity to certain equipment colorations, and so on permit of no set solutions. Remember also that, pro viding you choose a quality speaker, if you end up not liking it after a period of time, or find that you have become more discerning, you can sell it at a fair price and look again. How often does one get something right the very first time? The search can be fascinating and will almost certainly teach you a great deal about listening.
You may want to listen to some of the classic names in speakers to orient yourself. A number of top audiophiles and designers around the country listen on the Quad electrostatics, both the originals and the ESL-63s. They are particularly known for their very natural sound and good texture—what they do, they do excellently. They don’t go down very low and cannot play very loud—people have sold off their Quads for these reasons, only to go out and buy another pair again a few months later. Among dynamics, the Vandersteens and Thiels are long time good speakers. In the less expensive world, the Spica TC-50s really stand out. The Rogers SL3/5A BBC two-way mini-monitors have spawned a plethora of variations in the last couple of decades, and have really now been superseded, though they remain very good in their own right. Celestion SL-6s are also to be checked out.
Listening at a Store
The difficulty with buying speakers is that they just plain do not sound the same in the store as they will at home. A speaker’s sound is greatly determined not only by its associated equipment but also by its acoustic environment. Yours will be grossly different from that of the dealer’s showroom.
There are some other points that can also substantially change the sound, of a speaker. If you’re comparing two speakers, the one that is playing at a higher volume, even if it’s not perceptibly louder, will almost always sound better. Be sure to match volume levels meticulously—check this for yourself, don’t just assume the salesperson has set it right. Loudness is also a function of distortion—the more distorted a system is, the louder it will be perceived to sound. However, it will not necessarily be perceived as sounding more distorted. Also be sure the tone controls on both amp and speakers are set to neutral. A system with a raised treble will sound livelier, at least in the store.
Check that the amps you’re auditioning the speakers with are about the same power as the one you’ll be using at home—again, this can significantly change the sound. If your amp at home is less powerful, it may not be able to drive the speaker properly. All the components in the dealer’s setup should be of at least comparable quality to yours or you won’t be able to separate speaker distortion from the other equipment colorations. (The better the equipment, the more neutral its sonic thumbprint.)
If need be, bring your own amp with you. Any store that finds that difficult to accept is not a store dedicated to good sound. On the other hand, be sure to ask first and bring it only if you have made an appointment for a listening session. The salespeople will have to take time and trouble to substitute your amp for theirs and this should be done when it is convenient for them and will not cost them other sales.
The speakers must also bear at least some semblance of being set up decently. Just try disturbing your own speaker setup at home and you’ll hear how much worse the sound becomes. The Linn people (of turntable fame) claim that having any other speakers in the same room will destroy the sound of the ones you’re trying to listen to—they were the originators of the “single-speaker demo room.” A number of people who are not Linn followers—”Linnies,” as some call them—agree there is something to this.
Don’t compare more than two pairs at a time—this is a surefire way to become first confused and then thoroughly lost. Additionally, be aware that speakers need a break-in period before they sound their best. If you are auditioning a pair straight out of the box, this will not do them justice.
Also, don’t try to do quick A/B switches. You have to give your self a few minutes to adjust to the sound and then some more time to think about it and react to it. Play a record side. Play half of one record side and then some of a different kind of music. Don’t rush. Some people are faster than others at pinpointing what they’re hearing. When listening to live music, your mind may not need to adjust to the sound, but with recorded sound, it needs a chance to adjust itself to the distortions, the “unnatural” aspects of the sound. Even if you listen only to recorded music, the distortions on a system new to you are quite different from the ones you have become used to. Even at a concert, there is a minute or two while you focus your attention and compose yourself for listening. You need to allow yourself at least this much time to make even a preliminary judgment. The more time you have, the more accurate your assessment. The more experienced your listening, perhaps the more quickly you will be able to reach an evaluation.
Bill Seneca suggests listening to a single speaker initially, rather than the pair (switch to mono and preferably use mono recordings). One speaker sounds less impressive than a pair and it’s also easier to focus in on just one channel to hear the colorations. If you like the one speaker, then proceed on to listening to the pair. Dr. Floyd Toole also reports that good speakers seem to be as well liked by listeners when heard singly as when heard as a pair, whereas poor speakers are liked more when heard as a pair.
The other advantage of listening to a single speaker is that you can more easily compare two different ones using the preamp balance control, switching between the left and right channels (be sure the preamp is switched to mono). This eliminates the need to use a switching box, which degrades the sound, or alternatively to hook up and unhook the speakers, which is a nuisance.
As with all equipment buying, try to listen to the same speaker in a number of different stores so you can get an idea of how it sounds in different rooms and different systems. When you’ve finished a session of critical listening in a store, go home and listen to your own system and consider again what it is you like and don’t like about it—this will help you tremendously in focusing your thoughts. Though obviously the goal is to listen to music, you sometimes have to listen to the equipment first to make sure it’s revealing the music as well as you’d like it to. Critical equipment listening not only brings you better equipment but can also help train you to be a more musically perceptive listener as well.
What to Listen For
What you’re looking for in speakers is a neutrality, or lack of coloration, so that the inherent colorations of the musical instruments and voices can be clearly heard, without the addition of such speaker colorations as boxiness, a metallic treble, or a honky midrange. Some coloration is inevitable. Rather than trying to pull the sound apart and analyze the individual sound qualities for accuracy of reproduction, listen to the overall experience of the music. A speaker that can give you the emotion of the music is more important than one that can give you all the detail, accuracy, definition, and other attributes in the world. Having all the right parts doesn’t necessarily mean that, when put together, they work well. Frankenstein’s monster had all the necessary parts but, when they were put together, something was still just not quite right somehow.
Overall tonal balance, also called spectral balance, is essential, with neither punched-up bass nor glaring highs—all parts of the music should be naturally balanced, with no part either exaggerated or diminished. It’s far easier to design and build a speaker that emphasizes the bass or treble but, while this may sound superficially attractive when first listened to, the ear soon tires of it. Speakers with a genuinely wide frequency band are usually very expensive. So remember the heart of the music is in the midrange and focus your attention here. It is also where the speaker should be focusing its best qualities. Once the mid range is solid, you can turn your attention to the bass and treble.
Many speakers that have a measured wide dynamic range will, when listened to, turn out to have a narrow one. Others with a narrow measured range will sound good. This is not a measured specification but a perceived, or heard, characteristic. A perceived good dynamic range is expensive to develop; a measured spec “proving” wide range is not.
Good dynamic contrast is really more important than range. The better a speaker can render the differences between loud and soft, loud and very loud, soft and very soft, the more musically satisfying the performance will be. This has no connection with how loudly a speaker can play or how much power it can handle.
Ambience, imaging, time and phase coherence, definition, and de tail all go hand in hand. The result is that the speakers can reveal all the individual instruments and performers onstage, in their precise locations, in a three-dimensional space. A excellent system will permit distinctions to be heard between a Stradivarius and a Guarneri.