Choosing New Speakers: Not Left on the Shelf

Choosing New Speakers: Not Left on the Shelf

Written by Russ Welton

I have recently written a pair of articles about the value of Spinorama speaker measurement data (Issue 156 and Issue 155). Spinorama produces a set of data derived from measuring a speaker’s frequency response from multiple positions, through 360 degrees around the speaker. The resultant plotted charts can assist in making informed decisions about what makes for a great-sounding speaker.

As a result of some listening tests in comparing different brands of speakers at an audio retailer, I came to some revealing observations, which both surprised and enlightened me. We’ll come back to what these were…

Although I wasn’t able to conduct my listening comparisons “blind” or double-blind for ultimate objectivity, I could still close my eyes and just focus on the music for each speaker pairing. Of course, I was dependent on the quality of the listening room and the salesperson’s setup skills.

It reminded me of a child’s party game, where you would be blindfolded and then (usually unceremoniously) be subjected to a blind food-tasting test, which usually consisted of some pleasant-tasting sweet and savory items, and of course the obligatory disgusting combinatory concoctions of whoever had been allowed to run rampant (and hopefully at least confined) within the kitchen as they chose their dangerous delectations. (This all took place after the ingredients had been vetted for not being able to cause any allergic reactions, and to not be truly awful, in the spirit of keeping a “good time was had by all’ experience.)

It’s probably safe to say that most of us may have tasted foods that made us retch, (former president Bush’s dislike of broccoli springs to mind), or alternatively, felt comforted by apple pie in a winter month. Although the strength and immediacy of our reactions to food may be far more pronounced or polarized than those of a listening experience, for some, their taste in speakers is so refined that they can’t bear to be subjected to the torture that is (albeit subjectively) “bad sound.”

Extremes aside, what am I driving at? We may make snap decisions on what equipment we like based on the immediacy of visual “taste” and anticipated expectations, rather than a long-term weighed-up opinion, or one based on purely objective criteria like measurements and specifications. The expression, “the first bite is with the eye,” is a principle that so much marketing and advertising revolves around. One example in the photography world is that of Fuji cameras, a company with a business model of providing visually appealing form factors, offering modern tech in familiar housings.


Appearances are deceiving: the Fuji X-E4 camera. It looks retro, but it’s filled with modern features like mirrorless operation and video capability.


Am I guilty of succumbing to this? Yes, I am. Not many of us relish owning what we consider ugly audio components and speakers, unless perhaps it sounds excellent or gives individuality or exclusivity to the owner. It’s challenging enough to get enough listening experience with different equipment (and here is where expert advice may help you save time, but not necessarily money).

Like me, you may have set out with this thought in mind: “I need to get new stereo speakers, and I want floorstanding towers.” This was in fact my intention when I set aside some time to conduct some in-store listening, armed with my selection of reference CDs.

I went into one of my local stores, (we actually have two different audio retailers’ premises in the city, so I consider myself fortunate that they are still here), and proceeded to ask the sales assistant to demonstrate the products I chose from the showroom floor.

My thinking was that I wanted tower speakers with good sensitivity, with woofers and midrange drivers that were at least 5 inches across, preferably 8, to deliver better midrange punch. I was looking for speakers where the tweeters would be at or close to my ear height when I’m sat down. To this day, it still bugs the heck out of me that some tweeters sit so low off the ground when you really desire better directivity! I have also always been a fan of dual-concentric drivers, although they too admittedly have limitations.

The first set of towers were brought out. They were a famous brand name, relatively inexpensive and sensitive enough according to the specs, and looked like any generic typical black boxes with speakers in them. Nothing to write home about, but functional, I hoped. Listening to them, I found them more than a little bland, dry and lifeless, lacking personality, liveliness and vivacity. It wasn’t they had a particularly laid-back sound either. They were just on the drab side of disengaging, and somewhat sterile.

I was deflated because I had hoped the bigger drivers would provide the dynamics of the musicians on the album I had cued up, which included brass, electric guitar, keys, drums, vocals and other instruments. One of my test albums is Steve Lukather’s Candyman from 1994, simply because I have listened to it so much and it’s a dynamic recording. Luke’s improvisations are insane and Simon Phillips’ drumming is off the hook, not to mention David Garfield’s keyboard gymnastics. Man, I love that album!


On to the next set of speakers. These too were another well-known brand and kicked the first pair into a cocked hat. I’ll keep them nameless because you may not necessarily share my opinions and I don’t want to impose on your own journey of discovery. Suffice to say the differences were markedly obvious. This second set of speakers was getting closer to what I had hoped for, but I couldn’t help but feel that the first pair were so poor that anything played after them would sound better, even if not good!

Next, I asked the salesperson to address this concern and to play me something that would be genuinely impressive if budget was not an issue. He deployed a third set of towers, which I enjoyed, but not as much as I would have done if the price jump hadn’t disproportionately left my wallet feeling like it was about to be abused. The sales assistant was really cool and understood completely, and he could tell I was not getting the desired result that I assumed should be possible for my budget.

Fearing he was losing any traction he may have gained, the assistant then said to me, “wait there. I’m going to get another pair of speakers and you tell me what you think of them.” He promptly set up a pair of bookshelf speakers (on stands) in the same locations the previously demoed towers had been standing in. I pressed play on the remote and wham! What a difference I heard straight from the off. These speakers were clear, articulate, punchy, full of well-extended bass, and harmonically sweet. The vocals on the Candyman track were superbly presentable and Simon Phillips’ hi-hat work was uber-well-defined, but without being harsh or too forward.

I was allowed a good period of time to listen to these speakers and compare tracks back and forth. The salesperson even swapped the speakers back out for the previous towers and let me address any “aural hangover” that was influencing my recall of how things had sounded. I then went back to the bookshelf speakers and again was blown away by the bass extension and overall sonic presence. I couldn’t quite believe how lacking in bass the previous towers had sounded by direct comparison. I was genuinely gobsmacked and asked the assistant to explain what was going on.

His explanation was that they had very well-designed crossovers, and were also efficient, with higher sensitivity. He went on to say that the bigger tower speakers would require more power, and that their larger cabinetry made for a greater challenge in making them seem to “disappear” in the sonic presentation.

The thing is, he already knew these speakers sounded so much better than the other two, as the wide grin on his face attested. He admitted that he thought they were among the best speakers they had in the store.

The fact that they were not the type of form factor I had had in mind when I walked into the store meant there was no confirmation bias going on. Besides this, they sounded superb. It was like I had been let into a new world of sound compared to the other kit.

Now don’t get me wrong; of course there are many fantastic tower systems out there, and the point of this article is not to undermine them at all, but rather to make you aware that you should be open to the possibility that what you ultimately will enjoy and satisfy you the most may be something other than you might have anticipated.

To conclude this story: I had listened to those speakers over a year ago, and since then, in the process of researching the attributes that make for a good-sounding speaker for this series of articles, I came across the merits of Spinorama data.

Lo and behold! I saw that the speakers I liked so much fulfilled much of the Spinorama criteria that identify excellent-sounding speakers. I knew they had sounded stunningly good, and subsequently, I had discovered many of the reasons why this was the case.

To say my faith in Dr Floyd Toole’s insights and the development of the Spinorama speaker testing methods was well-founded is an understatement. I had, unknowingly at first, verified Spinorama first-hand. It was genuinely exciting to come across such a valuable “magnifying glass” for speaker evaluation. Not only that, but I have most recently read on a blog that these loudspeakers had, in fact, been designed according to Dr Toole’s research. Yes, although they were surprisingly brilliant, it could have been, and indeed had been, predicted – something I only discovered late to the party, so to speak.

Now, I must finish off that broccoli in the fridge…

Oh, but wait a minute… what were the speakers that made such a positive impression on me? These were the KEF R3. As a small additional point of note, the R3 not only demonstrate excellent Spinorama data in the main, but also have a speaker sensitivity rating of 87dB, excellent bass extension for their modest size, and would match well with a pair of subwoofers. The fact that they have such a good bass response on their own is testimony to their excellent design execution, not to mention their dynamic presentation and attention-grabbing detail, which is exceptional, but never fatigues.


KEF R3 loudspeakers.
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