Anatomy of a Speaker Test Report

Have you ever looked at one of our speaker test reports and wondered what that funny-looking graph with the squiggly lines is for? Or have you ever thought about how the information conveyed by that graph relates to what a reviewer hears? Given the many, many new speaker systems that get produced each year, maybe you've wondered what methods we use to differentiate between them. If you've found yourself pondering any of the above, then read on, because we're about to lay bare the rudiments of our speaker-testing procedures. Once you've finished this article, you'll see how evaluating speakers isn't as much about having golden ears (although we've got those) as it is about having keen observational skills - and the right test equipment.

The Introduction The first thing you'll see in an S&V speaker test report - once you get past the clever quips about FedEx delivery guys and the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) - is usually a bit of backstory on the company and its position in the speaker-making galaxy. (Unlike TV manufacturers, which are gigundo corporations, many speaker companies are tight-knit outfits with dedicated audiophiles making the design decisions.) Next, we go into the particulars of the system at hand. Is it a compact satellite-and-subwoofer package aimed at tight spaces and budgets? Or a no-holds-barred rig with tower speakers augmented by matching center and surround speakers? Or an assortment of sleek on-wall models meant to blend into the background?

Once upon a time, most speakers looked the same: boxy, monolithic, and wood-veneered. But the popularity of wall-hugging flat-panel TVs has spurred an exciting new wave of sleek speaker designs. Since looks now matter more than ever when it comes to speakers, we dwell on those details to give you a sense of how a particular system will fit in with your other gear, as well as with your room's decor.

Another key part of our speaker reviews is a discussion of construction and components. Different driver types get used in various speaker designs, and the number, size, and arrangement of those drivers all have an impact on performance. There's also a range of technical approaches to consider: direct-radiating, dipolar, bipolar, and omnipolar, not to mention two- and three-way designs and sealed and ported boxes. Finally, there are exotic technologies such as planar-magnetic and electrostatic that move beyond typical box-mounted cones and domes.

The subwoofer that comes with the average speaker system usually has a number of features that merit discussion. After examining the sub's relative heft and its driver configuration, we then move on to amplifier power. Next, we get into such features as crossover controls, limiting circuits, and auto on/off switches. Rest assured that these will be covered in detail before we get into the nuts and bolts of installation in the report's next section.