High End Stereo Speakers 101: How to Shop for Them
You found this blog article, but who are you? This article is targeted at people who are thinking about getting a high end audio system, not really those who already have one. But even if you do have one, you might learn something, so feel free to read on. Anyhow, let’s begin!
So, you are thinking about putting together an audio system and are at least contemplating getting some serious high end stereo speakers to enjoy music on. By serious we mean something that costs around two thousand dollars and up. That’s not to say there aren’t less expensive speakers out there but at about two thousand you get out of the realm of products that are highly cost engineered and start getting true high end performance. We mean the kind of sound that will make you just want to sit there and put another song on, and before you realize it is 3am! If you are seeking this kind of connection with music there are some things you should know.
There is life beyond Best-Buy.
If you are not an “audiophile” then you might not realize that there is a whole network of independent high end audio retailers and consultants out there. You probably buy all of your other consumer electronics online or from Best Buy, and maybe last time you were in there you saw they had a section of their store called Magnolia, where they had some higher end audio equipment.
That is true, and you could buy your new stereo speakers from Magnolia at Best Buy. They have some decent brands such as B&W and Martin Logan but their range is pretty limited. They don’t have the speakers that Stereophile, Soundstage and Absolute Sound (probably the biggest three audio review sites) rated as “products of the year” or “editor’s choices” in 2013 and 2014 such as KEF’s LS50, ATC’s SCM19v2 or Revel’s Performa 3. If you look at the lists of top products you’ll see that the vast majority are not at Best Buy! So…you should expand your horizons.
You can find listings of audio stores at the back of magazines or you can do a Google search for “audio store, San Francisco” or “KEF dealer, Washington D.C.”
You HAVE to hear them!
Audio review sites such as the ones mentioned above and others are good to read so that you can put together a shortlist of high end stereo speakers. But you should not buy a speaker without hearing it. Would you buy a new car without driving it? So that means visiting your local audio dealer, not ordering speakers online.
Whilst many other high end audio components such as amplifiers and digital-to-analog converters sound similar, speakers could not be more different in how they sound. Even at the very high end, where speakers can cost $20,000, none of the speakers sound the same. Every manufacturer has its own characteristic sound. High end audio is about finding a sound that excites you and that stimulates you to listen to music you enjoy.
Much like whiskey, wine or clothes, what works for one person will not work for another. So if you are going to make an informed decision about which speakers to buy you should make appointments at local high end dealers and ask them to demonstrate the speakers you’ve shortlisted.
If you are still with us, then you understand the role of a high end audio dealer in being able to let you hear different speakers and make a decision. But there are some other things you should know about your friendly dealer. Good ones should act as a consultant more than salesmen. They will want to know what kind of music you listen to and what the room you will put the speakers in looks like.
Will they work in your room?
You might not think the room has any impact on how speakers sound. Aren’t the speakers the only thing that matters? Shouldn’t a high end stereo speaker sound good in every room?Honestly, you could not be more wrong! When you listen to music you actually hear not only the “direct” sound from the speaker, you also hear the “reflected” sound that bounces off your walls, ceiling, floor, couch and coffee table before it reaches your ears. In fact what you hear is about 1/3rd direct sound and 2/3rds reflected sound! So the room you put the speakers in makes a huge difference.
A good audio consultant will ask you questions about your room, and based on that help you determine speakers that would be suitable for your situation. Without going into all the technical details, you should know that some speakers are more suited than others for different rooms. The key things are what is called off axis performance (a subject for another day) and bass response.
I’ll discuss bass response because it is easier to explain…generally if you have a small room you want to put a physically smaller speaker in there with less bass extension. A massive floorstander that goes down to 30Hz won’t sound good if you are listening to it 7ft away and your room is 12’x12′!