Auditioning Loudspeakers



Audition Preparation

Use your own CDs for all your auditions. Choose selections that you know well and have listened to many times. A wide variety is important for judging how speakers reproduce different types of music and different recordings. Speakers are the weakest link in the audio chain except for the recordings themselves. There are many variables in recording techniques and the mastering process that will effect quality. Several different recordings are essential. It can be very misleading if you only listen to a few cuts or types of music. To make reliable evaluations of speakers you need two things, 1) a wide range of music, 2) recordings you know inside and out. The test for great speakers is not how well they sound with any one style of music or recording. It's how well they sound with all styles of music. It's how well they reproduce the information on every recording. A speaker that sounds good with Rock, but not Classical, is not a good speaker. One that sounds good with Jazz and acoustic music, but not percussion or large ensemble, is not a good speaker. Certain weaknesses are not exposed unless you play music that makes specific demands to bring out those weaknesses. A great speaker will shine on everything. Better speakers will also reveal the differences between recordings more clearly, while lesser speakers will tend to make everything sound more uniform. On top notch speakers poor recordings will sound as good as possible, and great recordings will be dazzling.

There are a few inescapable guidelines for auditioning loudspeakers. It's not snobbery or merely tradition that orchestral music is used as a first choice. It's because full orchestra, with dozens of musicians, concert hall reverberations, wide swings of loud & soft, and complex textures will challenge a speaker's ability to resolve all the dense layers, dynamic range, and fine details present. Resolution is a distinguishing characteristic of quality. Many speakers get bogged down when asked to reproduce full orchestra. Solo piano is also a very revealing instrument. Distortion and tonal balance are quickly and decisively perceived with the piano, as well as transients, dynamics, and bass definition. Next in line is vocal music. For checking vocals, A Cappella S.A.T.B. (unaccompanied Soprano - Alto - Tenor - Bass) is recommended. This covers all the vocal ranges and will clearly demonstrate a speaker's ability to render delicate tonality, diction, the unique timbres of individual voices, and the critical balance from mid-bass through upper midrange without the added distraction of other instruments. Percussion is good for checking dynamics, transients, and detail resolution. Of course, all this assumes good recordings. Try to select acoustic recordings made with a minimal amount of processing—simple, unmixed, unequalized, 2-microphone recordings.

Some audiophiles prefer LPs, however, the limited dynamic range and lower signal to noise ratio on LPs will not fully test strengths and weaknesses or push the speakers to their limits. And unless your LPs, the turntable, stylus and cartridge are of the highest quality, reproduction will suffer. You'll be hearing the flaws in the playback components instead of the speakers. See : What's the Skinny on Vinyl?

Your CD list should include the following, preferably DDD recordings, HDCD, and 24/96 or DSD 2.8 or 5.6 mHz (SACD) recordings :

Required :

  1. 1) Full Orchestra
  2. 2) Solo Piano
  3. 3) A Cappella Vocal

Additional suggestions :

  1. 4) Small group acoustic (folk or jazz)
  2. 5) Female vocalist
  3. 6) Male vocalist
  4. 7) Pop/Rock
  5. 8) Percussion/Electronic/or other personal choice

Before the audition, choose one cut from each of the CDs you've selected. Don't necessarily limit yourself to 8 CDs. I'd suggest about 12-16. Make a list of which cut you've chosen from each CD. Select cuts that have something challenging for the speakers to reproduce, such as, low bass, wide dynamics, plucked strings, percussion, or something specific you want to listen for, such as, an individual voice or imaging. Listen to each cut intently a couple of times within a day or two of the audition so that the recordings and their qualities are fresh in your memory. Make notes if you wish. Auditory memory is notoriously poor. Use the same list for all of your auditions.

Listen for these important attributes :

  1. — Tonal balance
  2. — Bass definition
  3. — Midrange clarity
  4. — Treble detail
  5. — Dynamics & Transients
  6. — Soundstage & Imaging
  7. — General listenability

Listenability is a good indicator of distortion levels. The impression of loudness is another good indicator of distortion. Distortion will make a speaker sound louder even if the SPL is exactly the same. Our hearing has its own distortion at very high volumes, so distortion from the speakers makes things seem louder. It's also best to audition a number of different brands of speakers with the same CD list in order to hone your ability to make comparative judgments. The more experience you have with different speakers and their individual characteristics the better prepared you will be for making sound evaluations. If cranking the volume is needed to make them "come alive" or "open up," there's something not quite right. Better speakers will sound as good at low volume as they do at higher volume, and dynamics will not be compressed at either level.

Room acoustics can certainly affect perception. A really bad room can ruin the playback, but a great room will not make a system sound better than it is, in fact, it may even help to reveal flaws. As important as the room is, most of the time it won't override the basic sound of a system. Once we've learned someone's voice, we can recognize that voice in any room, or under any number of various acoustic conditions. Our voice recognition abilities are very strong. Although speakers don't quite have the unique, distinctive characteristics of human voices, they each have their own general qualities. These qualities will come through in all but the worst listening rooms.


The characteristics of omnidirectional speakers are unique. For more on the subject see: Omnidirectional : Soundstage, Imaging, Placement.

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