Speaker Shopping Tips

Loudspeakers may not be the hardest things in the world to shop for (cars win by a landslide), but the search hasn't gotten any easier in the past few years, as the decline in dealers offering serious demonstration facilities (particularly the big-box, warehouse stores) has reduced the opportunities for an ears-on audition.

A good demo remains the gold standard, however, and there are still dealers who offer one. We think it's money well spent if you pay more but get the speakers that are best for you. If you can't arrange for a serious demonstration, your chances of finding a speaker system that meets all your expectations will be sharply diminished.

But before you start visiting dealers, make a list of a half-dozen or so speaker systems that seriously interest you. The list might come from past experience with the brand, hearing the speakers in a friend's system, or product reviews.

Once you find a dealer or dealers carrying the speakers on your list check the store's demonstration facilities carefully. There should be one or more listening rooms resembling typical domestic environments. Listening to speakers on the warehouse-sized showroom floor at Circuit City or Best Buy is pretty much a waste of time. You'll do about as well there in choosing a speaker if you just close your eyes and point.

Assuming you've found a good room and a good dealer, what else is important? Visit at a time when the dealer won't be too busy to give you a leisurely demo. I suggest taking a late lunch on a weekday afternoon. A good audition might take an hour or more, and perhaps even involve more than one visit.

Bring your own program material, including both music and movies. If you don't own a lot of DVDs, invest a little cash and buy—or rent—a few favorites that you know well. When auditioning with movies, don't just listen to those big, sonically spectacular special effects sequences. They're important, of course, because you want to know that a speaker system will perform without obvious distortion or strain at the volume levels you like (though the power available from the amplifier—or lack of it—will certainly come into play here as well). But it's the subtle stuff—the acoustic ambience of various spaces, the soft shudder of deep bass that creates a sense of dread and even panic in a good thriller, the sound of the film's music score, and the naturalness of the dialog—that will mean as much or more to you over time.

With multichannel sound, try moving around to different seats to see how the sound varies. This is particularly important with the center channel. Does dialog remain intelligible as you move as far off-axis as listeners are likely to sit in your home? Or, does it become distant and/or artificially colored? Does the dialog sound unnaturally spitty and sizzly, particularly directly on-axis? Just be sure to use a variety of program material to minimize problems that may be in the material itself, and not the speakers. Dialog quality in particular can vary wildly from one movie to another, or even from scene-to-scene within a single film.

Music can often tell you more about a speaker's quality than soundtracks, or at least more about the quality of the main left and right channel speakers. Most music is recorded in two-channel stereo, and you should listen to such recordings with the receiver or pre-pro in Stereo mode, all processing turned off, any tone controls set to flat (or even better turned off), no simulated surround modes engaged, and no room equalization of any sort. Also listen to two-channel stereo without the subwoofer and with the left and right channels driven full range if you plan to do much of your music listening that way.

Other hints:

  • Make sure the speakers are arranged in a manner that at least approximates a normal home setup.
  • Close any doors to the demo room to keep outside distractions to a minimum.
  • Insist on access to the remote controls for both the source component and the receiver or pre-pro (but don't abuse the privilege by turning up the sound to Space Shuttle launch levels).
  • While it's normally best to buy speakers at a brick-and-mortar dealer where you can actually hear them, a number of speaker companies now sell only through the Internet. Such a purchase can be a good option if the company has an established reputation and offers a reasonable home trial period and paid return privileges. Many such companies do.
  • While you may feel more comfortable with an optional, extended warranty, conventional box speakers (if not abused) are probably the most reliable component in an audio or home theater system. If they work well after the first 100 hours or so, they'll probably work fine for the next 5000 hours—unless you overdrive them and blow something up!
  • Sit down when you audition speakers. Speakers with two or more drivers arranged in a vertical line usually sound best if your ears are at the approximate elevation of the tweeter. Too high a seating position is (usually) worse than too low. If you stand up while listening the audition may be worthless.
  • If you're shopping for a speaker system that costs the proverbial arm and a leg (though we all have different standards for the value of body parts), and can't hear it locally, travel to where you can. If you're seriously considering dropping $20,000 or more for a surround speaker system, isn't it worth a few hundred dollars for a road trip or airfare to where you can actually hear it? But be sure and investigate the quality of the dealer's demo facilities ahead of time, and also be certain that the dealer has the exact system you're interested in set up for demonstration before you travel.
  • Finally, if you take a dealer's time for a good demonstration and decide to buy the speakers you've just heard, buy them from that dealer. You're stealing his time if you go elsewhere—like the Internet—to save a few bucks. If enough potential customers also audition at the same store, then buy elsewhere, the next time you want to hear a product locally the dealer may no longer be in business.