How to Audition Loudspeakers
By Clay Hankins
With the arrival of the New Year, many people are starting to plan upgrades to their home theater systems. Because of the plethora of excellent manufacturers available, choosing new loudspeakers for your theater can be a daunting task. But, with a little time and patience, you can find the ideal speakers for your space. In this series of posts, I will outline a step-by-step process for auditioning loudspeakers for your system.
Calibrate Your Ears
Ideally, your speakers should reproduce music and movies in such a lifelike way that you feel as if you are at a live performance or in the middle of the action. So, the first step to finding great speakers is to research the sound of live performance and excellent theater. Fortunately, the D/FW area offers plenty of opportunities to do so. For music lovers, I suggest buying tickets to a favorite group when they pass through on tour. Alternatively, you could attend a concert by one of the areas excellent local ensembles, such as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Wind Symphony, or the North Texas Wind Symphony. Those three groups would be particularly good choices because they all have produced audiophile quality recordings that are readily available (more on that later). For movies, I suggest seeing a screening at one of the area’s smaller art theaters (they often offer Hollywood titles as well as art films). These theaters generally have sound systems that are better calibrated and maintained than those in larger theaters. Finally, while you are listening, take notes: What do you hear? Where in space do you perceive the musicians when you close your eyes? How many individual instruments and voices can you identify? What sounds can you also feel (for example, kick drums often will “thud” in your chest)?
Find a Great Recording
Now that you know what ideal sound reproduction would be, it’s time to find a reference recording. This recording will be your faithful companion as you begin to audition candidates for your new speaker system. It would be in your best interest purchase a CD, SACD, Audio DVD, or download high resolution FLAC or ALAC files for this purpose. Compressed MP3 and AAC files will only distort your ability to make an informed decision. Choose two or three contrasting tracks, and become very familiar with the music. Listen on your current system, on friends’ systems, and with good headphones. Again, make some notes: What elements of the live performance does the recording reproduce well? What elements does the recording reproduce poorly? If you chose to attend a performance by one of the three D/FW ensembles listed above, you might consider using one of the following recordings as your reference:
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos / Paganini Rhapsody
Stephen Hough performing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Andrew Litton, cond.)
This live recording of the Rachmaninov piano concertos is widely hailed as one of the best available. It would be a fun experiment to compare a live performance of a piano concerto in the Myerson Symphony Center to the performances on this recording.
Lincolnshire Posy: Music for band by Percy Grainger
Dallas Wind Symphony (Jerry Junkin, cond.)
Percy Grainger composed some of the most timeless music in the wind band repertoire, so you should have no trouble finding a DWS concert with a little Grainger on the program. Moreover, Grainger’s music is filled with tiny details – perfect for putting new speakers to the test.
North Texas Wind Symphony (Eugene Migliaro Corporon, cond.)
This recording includes music by some of today’s most important composers, including Joseph Turrin and Michael Colgrass. The NTWS often performs works by these composers, and tickets to their concerts are very affordable. The recording engineer, Bruce Leek, does an excellent job of capturing the acoustics of Winspear Hall.
Now that you have completed your homework (and I hope you had fun in the process), it’s time to begin auditioning your new speakers! More on this process in my next post.
By Clay Hankins, the CEO of The Audio Guy, LLC.