Auditioning speakers

April 19, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

If you go to a big box store, or even a medium-sized store, you’re likely to encounter a switch box approach to speaker selling. Multiple pairs of speakers are lined up as if in a forest and the salesperson can play any of the many speaker models at the push of a button.

This same switch box method is also used in the smallest of shops where there’s not enough space for a proper listening room.

The advantage of a switch box audition is its rapidity. While playing the same track of music, one can toggle through speaker models quickly.

The downside, of course, is that none of the speakers are properly set up to maximize their potential. In fact, none are set up at all. Plunked down upon a shelf, typically standing side-by-side like soldiers at attention, one can make accurate gross judgments about tonal balance preferences but not much else.

Contrast that demonstration mode with what used to be called the single speaker audition favored by some high-end audio shops. In this demonstration model (pioneered by UK brand Linn) only one pair of speakers were allowed in the room at a time.

The advantage of this approach is the potential for proper setup without any distractions. The downside is comparisons are more difficult for the inexperienced listener. Those not spending a lot of time auditioning and comparing audio products haven’t yet built the skills necessary to hold in one’s memory what one system sounds like when comparing to another.

Auditioning any products is a challenge.

Speakers are the greatest of them all.

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16 comments on “Auditioning speakers”

  1. “Everything is built to a price”, even loudspeaker auditioning at bricks & mortar Hi-Fi stores.

    Typically, because of the plethora of business overheads, when you are selling loudspeakers with a profit margin of a couple of hundred, or less, dollars you can not invest the sort of time & effort into helping a customer audition various loudspeakers properly, so they just get lined up, as Paul has described above, & quick-fire demos are done until the customer can choose maybe 3 finalists & even then only a really dedicated audio retailer will move those 3 finalists into a proper listening room for the final, & proper, auditions.
    However, when you are selling loudspeakers with a one or two thousand dollar, or more, profit margin, then it is definitely incumbent on the salesperson to spend a day or two in assisting the customer with the auditioning process.
    Ultimately, the best way to audition loudspeakers is to set them up properly, as per The Audiophile’s Guide, in your home for a month & the loudspeakers should be well & truly run/burned in…proper demo ones.
    Only the most dedicated & truly caring audio salesman/business is going to allow you to do that.

    An example:
    You go to a Hi-Fi store & you listen to 8 pairs of loudspeakers all squashed up next to each other, “like soldiers”, & wired up through a comparator.
    After listening to all 8 pairs during a 45 minute period you walk out happy after having purchased the ones that sounded the best to you (that’s not auditioning btw; not proper auditioning)
    A couple of weeks later you are finding that you can’t listen to your new purchase for more than 3 hours at a time because there is something off-putting about the sound, something that you can’t quite explain…you’re starting to discover that these particular loudspeakers are giving you listener fatigue, something that you could never have known would happen from your 5 minute listening session at the store.

  2. As some of you may know from my post here in 2017 I decided to make one last major upgrade to my speakers. I started with a lot of research and developed a short list that included most of the major players ( Wilson Audio, Sonus Faber, Magico, etc. ). Now the speakers I was considering are not sold online, they all weighed several hundred pounds and cost as much as a pretty good automobile does. The good news is I could find the speakers I wanted at a real B&M dealers in NYC. I say this because I live 30 miles north of NYC. The bad news is no two of the speakers on my list were at the same dealer. I say this because of all the places I can think of that make it hard to maintain a sonic image in your memory NYC has got to be one of the worse places. Like most people who live in the NYC surrounding areas I use a commuter train to get to the city and the subway system to get around the city. The list quickly came down to two: Wilson Audio and Magico. To get from one dealer on 24th street to the other dealer on 58th street required a single subway ride from 23rd street to 59th street and a little bit of walking. The subway ride was on a local train so it took about 20 minutes with four or five stops. Every time the train stopped its breaks made a squealing noise that made my ears ring. Every time I went to NYC to audition the speakers I would switch which brand I started with to try to cancel out the subway effect. I took me about eight months of auditioning ( of which I had to take about three months off because I was driving my self crazy ) to decide which speaker to buy.

    I love my new speakers, however, my advice is think twice before you decide to upgrade your speakers.

  3. No problem auditioning
    some speaker in a line.
    A klipschorn and a quad electrostatic are both great speaker,but for different people.that said,the first round defines the principle character of your preference.And a good salesman than let you hear similar pairs.
    Nevertheless,it remains a compromise.There is no perfect speaker.So i have different set ups in different rooms.You would need a very nice wife indeed.

  4. Thinking about auditioning speakers in today’s US market can make one easily settle on an iPhone and wireless earbuds. Dealers are limited compared to what there used to be. Selections in those dealers are limited, proper set-up may or may not have occurred.

    Take today’s propensity to sell direct. How does one choose? From a review? From a reputation? From a marketing spiel? Do you choose Horns, ribbons, soft dome, dipole, planar’s, electrostat’s, or something else? Do you go to some audio show(s) and try and pick from a multitude of choices that are set up in hotel rooms? When you Order on line with a reasonable free trial period, are they broken in so they can start to be set-up correctly immediately? Or do you have to read a book and become proficient in set-up 1st? Are you taking a month off each time you audition at home so there is fair comparison between short list choices? Are your existing electronics capable of driving them to their maximum potential? (Synergy) The list goes on…..

    From my perspective I’ll never buy a speaker without hearing it first, long before the in home final audition. But then again like most reading / posting here, there’s a large amount of years of individual experience, preferences and bias that have been developed, so maybe the choice is a little easier, or not…

  5. I think anyone who is really passionate about buying a single component or a complete system is not going to shop in a big box store. They will read reviews, listen to a quality system at a friends house, locate an audio salon (with a knowledgeable friend) where they will get proper attention from sales associates that are head and shoulders above big box sellers or do their due diligence and order equipment online or direct from the manufacturer where they have 30 or 60 days to return a component and continue their search. My feeling is that people who purchase audio components in big box stores are not that critical (knowledgeable) about their purchase and will go happily on their way with anything they walk out of a big box store with.

    This comment is based on an audio enthusiasts opinion who really never made a purchase in a big box store but could see what’s going on inside them and overhear the dialog between them and the salesperson when they head into one of these places to make a purchase. For the most part, I think these purchasers are a different animal than we are.

    1. stimpy2,
      I agree with you since 70% of my audio retail years were spent selling & advising in what you guys refer to as a ‘big box store’.

  6. This is a great post and a great window to jump right in. First, while I agree on the brick & mortar shops having speakers lined up against the wall like soldiers, I do understand the constraints of retail spacing. Those store typically have only the “high dollar” items in dedicated rooms and properly setup. For the most part they want to push you to those speakers anyway and will not make time to sale you nor setup the “cheap” ones. Burn in period, proper auditioning, and setup is and will always be a challenge no matter how much money you spend. Playing “Devils Advocate” here for a moment FatRat. You talked about proper setup in your post. What if you can’t afford the proper setup one in the big room? How about this, what if the buyer takes the best listen they can, buy the best speaker of choice, take them home and simply put them down and listen to them for a while. Then get Paul’s book, follow the steps and move those speakers out into the room for proper setup. Paul has even said it in one of his earlier post about allowing him time to properly setup your speakers and he promises that you will here the difference. There aren’t many store salesmen that are gonna put that kind of work into selling you some “medium” speakers. We all have different ears and what my sound bad to you maybe be golden for someone else. I recently went out to the local store here in my area to pick up my cassette deck and yes I still own one. When I got there, I went strait to the back where my friend Steve the tech is located and we exchanged pleasantries because he’s a great guy. Picked my unit up, put it the car, and decided to go back in for a moment and perhaps talk to one of the guys about my next purchase of a streamer. I was apprehensive on doing so because these guy’s aren’t the friendliest. As I knew it would happen, when standing in the room with the Cambridge gear, the ponytailed sales guy walked in and said nothing! I decide to speak to him instead, never turning his head to make eye contact and said this to me, ” I’m on a mission to find something” and left the room! NO AKNOWLEDGEMENT! I’ve spent hard earned money with these folks over the years and this is the second time I’ve been ignored in this store recently! NO MORE! I was in a shop in Winston-Salem my hometown and those folks rolled the carpet out to me and my brother. This was our audiophile weekend with great food music and more. Hour and a half drive and more then worth it. This part of my post go to you Stimpy2 on (knowledgeable FRIENDLY) salesperson. No more purchases from me at that shop! Speakers are key and I followed Paul’s advice and got them first. They were in a line and I listened to them on multiple occasions. I liked them even more when I got them home and after Paul’s book, am now In Love with them. It can work, and you can elevate your purchase at home setup right. Ok, Keep listening.

    1. Sorry that you had these negative experiences. I can only say that high quality audio salons usually have sales reps that are quite knowledgeable and are supposed to give you the time you need to answer all the questions that you may have. Many times they will leave you alone in the listening room for as much as a half hour or more depending on how busy the store is.

      I am not putting down big box stores because at this point in time they are bringing in better quality lines of equipment but I don’t think you can ever get the service from their sales people that you can in a high-end store. If you don’t like one store that you go into find another. I’ve spent so many hours of my life in audio‘s salons that I can’t even keep count but these shops are few far between in the past10 years. Purchasing quality audio equipment is not an easy task and requires a lot of due diligence on the buyers part. I started my journey at the age of 14 and I have been to so many Audio stores and became a fixture in the ones that I liked that the owners and sales people knew that I was always in the market if I found a piece of equipment that I liked. They would spend lots of time with me even when I didn’t buy which was most of the time because they knew one day I’d be back and probably find something that I wanted. That’s the only answer I can give you. When you make connections with these knowledgeable people you’d be surprised over the years how much knowledge you can gain.

  7. Hey Paul…. Back in the day, I was at a local audio retailer and they did have that wall of speakers with the quick switch… I sat with my back to the speakers to not be biased by brand name (or price)… The clear winner was Genesis… I bought them… Awesome little speakers… Years later I heard a pair of Ohm Walsh 4’s in that same store… Those were my first introduction into highend audio… I wish I still had them.


  8. When I worked at the hi-fi shop in the 70’s… We carried speaker brands like Dahlquist phase array… Fried….. Yamaha…. KEF….. B&O… hand made full range Koss Electrostatics, and, other esteemed brands of that time. I was granted permission to take home and audition whatever I chose over the Sundays we were closed.

    I tried various ones and was never impressed … And, always sounding dramatically different from what we were hearing in the sound rooms. One day I decided to try a pair of KEF 104 AB’s. Hooked them up. Let down the tonearm. And… my jaw dropped. Never sounded like that in the dedicated sound rooms! The only way to know is to be able to audition at home.

  9. Regarding the dreaded speaker selector switch box I also recall a local dealer would often claim the speakers would sound better without this piece of hardware in the chain which makes sense. The cynic in me thought this might also be a seller’s trick to make you believe the sound would improve after you got them home and setup in your own space. And if the perceived volume levels are not matched the above commenter is quite right that the louder speaker “wins”.

  10. Not to mention resonances from all of the other speakers you’re not listening to. Even though they are not on they still produce resonances passively from the speaker that is on. You might get an idea of the speakers sound but imaging will suffer.

  11. I am waiting for the pandemic imposed travel restrictions so I can go to Purité in London to hear the speakers that are in my wish list. No urgency, as I don’t need new speakers now. But still, it takes time to make the right decision.
    It is deplorable that I have to think of flying to London in order to hear what I want. Crazy retail world.

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