Have you ever eaten in a restaurant and noticed something along the lines of: “Chef’s Special – Deconstructed Steak Pie,” or perhaps, “Exploded Fish Pie?” OK, I admit, I made up the fish pie and imagine it would probably be an aesthetic disaster, even if it tasted good. But I guess that serves the illustration, that the “first bite” is with the eyes, but perhaps, it tastes just as good anyway.
We all like gear and equipment which looks as well as sounds great, but sometimes a truly unattractive monstrosity, a real beast of a speaker, may be far less than visually appealing and yet sounds sublime. Some professional audio PA speakers fit into this category. They fulfil their purpose incredibly well, and yet you wouldn’t choose to purchase something that clunky-looking for your audio or home theater system. It’s the age-old issue of function over form.
Would the Jaguar E-Type have been as popular if it didn’t have those outrageous curves and genius-inspired contours? Those who own or have driven them may be honest enough to tell you that the rear-wheel handling takes some getting used to and that the top speed isn’t particularly spectacular. And yet, there is an undying passion for this car because of its beauty, and rightfully so. It is one of the most iconic car designs of all time.
When we love something enough, we overlook its character flaws. In fact, sometimes the imperfections create even more appeal. Have you noticed that when enough people enthuse madly about a given thing, you may be drawn into a tractor beam-like attraction for it? You could call it a product’s cult of personality, the kind of alluring mystique that marketing people would give their hind teeth for.
The very significant component that makes the experience of ownership truly special, is of course you, the end user. Until you try or buy something in person, a specification sheet is just a series of informative promises.
What can help us ensure satisfaction in our buying decisions, and also help avoid buyer’s remorse? As a former retailer I can tell you that one factor, which sometimes is surprisingly overlooked, is buying something for its intended purpose.
You may think this sounds obvious, and yet, when the purchased item is put to use, an objective third party observer may easily see that the item is either wrong for that individual, or is simply being used incorrectly. One example that springs to mind from my guitar shop days is when I observed how one customer would meticulously go through measuring the string height of an acoustic guitar to check its playability (action). He would produce a ruler, and write down the height of each string at the first fret and the 12th fret – insightful to do for assessing a professional set up. (Even pro guitar technicians who develop a feel for what is a truly correct guitar setup will sometimes check their measurements before a live performance, perhaps in case the stage lighting has heated up the guitar neck and the action has changed.)
I assumed that this customer had exacting standards, knew exactly what he wanted, and was highly discerning in wanting a guitar that would play well.
What was perturbing, however, was that when he started to play, he started to belt the living color out of the guitar! He thrashed it with such force that I thought he was doing it for the shock factor, or for some kind of weird effect. I let him go for a while until he paused, and I asked if he needed any help. He told me that the guitar was beautifully set up, but that it had problems with the strings buzzing in certain positions. He told me that he really struggled to find guitars without this issue and was often disappointed in what he found in guitar shops!
I acknowledged his problem and suggested that perhaps he could consider a guitar with a different setup for his style of playing. Something with a higher action and perhaps even a heavier gauge of strings would help his goal. Every player is different. I had another acoustic guitar customer whose sweat was so corrosive that if he didn’t use heavier fresh 13-gauge strings then he would never get through a gig. I once inspected his guitar after it had been played heavily the same day after new strings had been fitted, and they were actually green and brown with corrosion.
The point is that both individuals needed what was fit for purpose – the right tools for the right job. The former was always dissatisfied because the solutions were not in line with his demands. He definitely wasn’t using the instrument for its intended purpose and sadly, this type of thing can manifest itself quite commonly in any number of cases, including choosing audio gear.
As customers, we can be misled either by salespeople, or the advice of well-meaning friends and reviewers – or more powerfully deceived by ourselves.
A typical example may be a desire for a power amp that potentially delivers an order of magnitude more power than the room size, speakers, or healthy listening habits would ever necessitate. Just as our acoustic guitar friend was physically overdriving the guitar top with too much force, so too, an oversized power amp (taking headroom into account) can be more than what is required. Another example may be the desire for speakers that are so megalithic that they make the rest of the room’s furniture look like something from a doll house. When you see some stereo setups, it’s like playing a game of Spot the Carpet or Find the Listening Seat. Mega-speakers look impressive, but if they’re too big for the room, the drivers won’t integrate into a seamless blend, or imaging and soundstaging may suffer, or the bass won’t be able to properly develop. On the other hand, speakers that are too small for the room won’t have the scale and presence you may desire.
Ultimately, some simple things that will help steer you in selecting what your room really needs are the following: 1) consider speaker sensitivity ratings (measured in dB) and 2) your listening distance from the speakers. The higher the sensitivity figure rating, for example 89 dB compared to 91 dB, the more easily those speakers may be respectively driven. Or in other words, (if all other factors are the same) our 91 dB speakers will produce a greater output volume at a fixed listening distance than the 89 dB speaker will. This means that if you are generating enough listening volume from your speakers, for example, a standard 75 – 80 dB at 12 feet away, then you may not actually require a more sensitive speaker, or a more powerful amplifier, to deliver adequate volume. On the other hand, if your volume is lower at a given distance (of 12 feet) using an 80 dB pair of speakers (as a probably exaggerated example), then you’d really need more sensitive speakers.
You need a more powerful amplifier to drive less-sensitive speakers to the same volume as more-sensitive ones, but if the speakers are not sensitive enough, your amp might struggle. If, for some reason, your amplifier is already at or close to full tilt, you really should replace the amplifier with a more powerful one to accommodate some “headroom” or “tax-free” working space for it to operate more easily within, and avoid unwanted clipping distortion. You’ll know what this is when you hear it! It’s not pleasant and could damage the amp and/or speakers. In reality, you want sensitive speakers to work easily for you; To do their job and produce beautiful music with grace, power, definition and grip on the bass.
Use a sound meter to measure the volume in dB at your listening position. (You don’t even have to buy one; free phone apps are available.) Bear in mind, you can also move physically closer to your speakers to enjoy greater volume – and you won’t have to spend a thing on new amp or speakers! A practical consideration when deciding on your speaker layout is to place your speakers about one foot into the room from the front wall and in from your side walls according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and work from there.
The beauty of using more sensitive speakers is that any given amplifier can drive them more readily than less sensitive ones, and work within its “comfort zone” to deliver a more accurate audio signal.
Faithful frequency reproduction depends on many factors, but within the speaker specifications, the nominal impedance rating, measured in ohms, will give insight into how easy or hard it is to drive the speaker. A four-ohm speaker is harder to drive than an eight-ohm unit, for example. (By the numbers, it seems counterintuitive, but lower-impedance speakers need more current to deliver the same voltage into the speaker, making the amp work harder. Also, these ratings are for nominal impedance – it actually varies with frequency. In general, most high-quality home stereo loudspeakers are made to operate at a nominal eight ohms.
It may also be helpful to read my article, “Speaker Sensitivity and Room Size” in Issue 149.
Love the Room You’re With
Taking the time to find out what your room really “needs” can produce even better results than anticipated, and avoid the confirmation bias that something is good just because you own it. This is not to say that you should never buy what you want!
It’s also important to think about the general listening (volume) levels you prefer, and your desired seating distance from the speakers. Striking the balance of maintaining simplicity of setup, combined with great looks and audio performance may be more challenging than it appears at first. It may also sometimes be expensive, but unless something is truly overpriced for the componentry, design and performance provided (a subject for another article), keep in mind that you’ll be benefiting from the research and development of the engineers that have already been through this process and done the extensive legwork for you.
What else may help with striking this balance? Last week I was talking to a well-known brand’s service engineer (about replacing the capacitors in my old speakers). He talked about the importance of identifying your intentions for your audio system. He noted that if you set out listening for problems, you will likely find some. But if you just want to enjoy listening to your music, you will likely do just that. Similarly, Sean Olive of Harman has been known to say that critical listening can destroy your pleasure in listening to music, because you are setting out to critique what you hear. With this mindset, next to nothing would be pleasurable to listen to.
Here we are back to our deconstructed pie. If our focus is on enjoying the meal, perhaps it’s better not to scrutinize its ingredients or unconventional nature. Of course, the ingredients must be good in both a meal and an audio system, whether fresh, well-prepared food or high-quality, well-engineered components.
And remember, the magic of the music is in the emotion of the artistic performance, over and above the reproduction of it.