The Color of Sound: What’s Your Favorite Hue?

More than Anything, Your Speakers Make the System

I’m sometimes amazed at what I learn, or am reminded of, as we put to bed each print issue of Sound & Vision. With the bird’s-eye view that comes with crossing t’s and dotting i’s on six to eight product reviews, written by staffers with their own eyes, ears, and perspectives, I get to see themes and patterns that might go unnoticed reading just any individual piece.

One such revelation came as I went to finalize our review of the XTZ Cinema speaker system. Normally, our reviewers submit their raw copy with the Plus, Minus, and Verdict comments in place, and with their suggestions for star ratings and whether to award or deny Top Pick status. In the case of the XTZs, a well-built monitor system out of Sweden, our contributing technical editor Dan Kumin threw the Top Pick decision to me. (For the main system, anyway—the subwoofer was a slam-dunk TP from the word go.)

Dan is among the most experienced speaker reviewers on our staff, with literally hundreds of systems under his belt. He’s heard the good, bad, ugly, and everything in between, and he knows great sound and recognizes solid engineering when he encounters it. But he also knows that speakers, even good speakers, each come with their own personality. The best ones seem to share a mostly neutral frequency balance but nonetheless sound different.

With his trained ear, Dan recognized what the XTZs do right. But, as you’ll see, one aspect of their sound wasn’t quite his cup of tea. He gave the system near-perfect ratings for Performance and Build Quality (which appear as he submitted them), and he had enough experience to know that the “slightly forward tonal balance” he heard was neither particularly egregious nor necessarily a negative for listeners using the speakers in the home theater application they were clearly designed for. In other words, he knew that while this might not be the speaker he would personally choose for his needs and taste, they were well crafted and built, and voiced to sound the way they did on purpose.

So, perhaps without thinking much about it, he instinctively took his personal bias out of the equation and left the decision to the editor-in-chief. In the end, I did a fresh re-read of the review on page as we went to press and looked at the measurements we did after the review was submitted—which were stellar—and I granted the Top Pick with the understanding that Dan’s review accurately described the system’s sonic signature and would allow readers to decide for themselves if it works for them.

The send-up to all of this is that speakers or headphones, typically more than any other component in your system, color the canvas upon which you listen, and almost no two are quite alike or right for everyone. Along with the XTZs, Mike Trei reviewed the Audioengine HD6 powered monitor, which he described as having a laid-back top end (watch for the post). They’re great speakers voiced to be unfatiguing with content of varying quality, but it’s possible they just may not be sparkly enough for some tastes. And in his review of the Moon by Simaudio Neo 230HAD headphone amp/DAC (watch for the post), Mark Fleischmann evaluated with three headphones that all sound different on their own—and with whatever amp or DAC he’s testing.

Our star ratings and the presence of the Top Pick logo will only get you in the game. A careful reading of the review will take you a bit further. But if you’re shopping for speakers, you’ve really gotta ask yourself: What’s my favorite color? And you’ll only really know what’s voiced right for you when you get an audition, either in a dealer’s listening room or, better yet, your own living room—hopefully with a money-back guarantee.

Warrior24_7's picture

One thing that I do to balance for bias is read other reviews, not just one. And I read critical reviews and especially "user reviews". "Anything" made by Apple falls into this category. As people who don't even own or use the products have critical things to say. The main things that I took away from this review were the speakers sounded bright and had a "slightly forward tonal balance". Another review said the same thing about the tonal balance but didn't hit the speakers for it. The reviewer for S&V also didn't feel that he could recommend the speakers for a Top Pick award so he let someone else do it, someone who didn't hear them, but took his word for it. Or not? If the original reviewer didn't/couldn't/wouldn't recommend it, with all of his listening experience, then how could someone who didn't hear the speakers for himself override that decision? What does the "Top pick" award actually mean? Are people actually listening to this stuff?

Another area of subjectivity is the "Value rating". This speaker system received 3 1/2 stars for value! It has comes with a 30 day, risk free, money back guarantee, to include free shipping back to the manufacturer if you don't like it! C'mon! Now, the system is expensive at over $5000 but not out of line with what they review here. There are a few bookshelf 5.1 HT systems reviewed here that are MORE expensive (one twice as much) but have no such guarantee and have a higher value rating. So what does "value" mean? How is it calculated? I've read other reviews where a system was praised for it's value in the review, but hit in value rating in it's overall score. Very confusing. For me, I read these things and do my own research. If I like something I buy it.

hk2000's picture

At least there categories are consistent, they always have performance, value, features and ergonomics. You should check out some of C-net's reviews where 2 products of the same category get evaluated on completely different aspects... even by the same reviewer!!!

On this specific review, I agree with you, considering what you're getting, it's a great value- If you go searching for a subwoofer that can legitimately go down to < 20Hz, good luck finding anything under $2000. And I'm talking about measurement by a 3rd party as in this review, not the manufacturers specs.

canman4pm's picture

I've always read the "Value Rating" as bang for the buck. Perhaps the reviewer felt that at this price point better was available, with his caveat that the system in question was ideal for behind screen, on wall placement.

Warrior24_7's picture

I understand that S&V reviews are consistent in their categories. But are they consistently applied? Are they consistently applied in the same review? How much does product or company reputation factor into the review? "How dare they rate this $17,000 system low"! Do the reviewers feel that pressure? Was it felt here? I'm pretty sure that the "Value" rating is not just based on price alone. It can't be since you have $17,000+ M&K Sound S300 5.1 speaker systems out there, with better value ratings and NO guarantees! I'm pretty sure that the $5000+ XTZ Cinema speaker system has the free shipping and guarantee built into the price.

I also agree about CNET. The recent review of the OCULUS Rift and HTC Vive VR systems are a good example. Readers quickly picked up the reviewer's supposedly Rift bias for continually hitting the Vive on its fit and weight on the face. This was not a concern in other reviews of the Vive quite the opposite even. The bottom line is that reviews are just someone else's opinion and nothing more.