While a stereo system is only as strong as its weakest link, and while the quality of the source signal is the most important thing to get right, it is the last piece in the chain that will provide the greatest variable in your listening satisfaction. Speaker systems vary wildly in their design, execution, and sonic properties and are generally considered the most personal of choices in a stereo system.
It is true that, while there are differences in amplification and CD players, for instance, these differences are extremely minor when compared to those of various speakers. Certainly personal listening habits, and aesthetic concerns will vary from person to person but there are some fundamental things that speakers should get right, which is why I have found some speakers to just be bad, and others to be good regardless of the listener.
This discussion about fundamental correctness in speakers is based on the assumption that readers of this magazine are primarily music enthusiasts desiring to really listen to music. While it would seem obvious that anyone purchasing stereo gear would qualify for this category, sadly, it is not the case, and it is even less so as one moves toward the niche of high end audio where musical knowledge and enthusiasm is clearly second to the stereo gear. Of course there are exceptions, but that cliché exists for a reason and over the years the two sides seem to have grown further apart. The group I am addressing has, in large part, given up on high end audio as they are less and less impressed by the end result of huge expenditures of money on systems which fail to deliver an honest musical experience. In general, I too, am left feeling underwhelmed by most of what passes for high end audio these days, but chalk that up to a much larger manufacturing base than existed in the past, all making more or less the same thing with very little attention paid to the fidelity of high fidelity. As I have often stated here, most of the attention is in the marketing department and the efficacy of the products show this. However, like many other niche markets, there are products out there that, for whatever reason (generally, a steadfast vision by the designer who is willing to trade market share for quality of product) do serve the music well. Not many, but many are not needed, and there is no entitlement that says all buyers should have everything they want within an arm's length of their house. This is the long way around to the topic at hand, but it is important to understand that there is a fundamental difference here which will go a long way toward understanding why your listening/buying habits appear to be at odds with the market at large. They are. Don't change, just look harder.
Back to speakers. The biggest disappointment with most speakers is the current trend to remove the 'presence' region of the midrange in speakers. I suspect this is done to make showroom listening more 'palatable' to harsh sounding video soundtracks and other recordings. It is this lack of presence that makes the midrange sound 'recessed'. This creates the urge to increase the volume in order to get the sound to 'break free' of the speaker. Making it louder generally does not help as it also makes the bass and treble louder, creating the same imbalance in louder form. You should search for a speaker that has clarity in the midrange as most of the music you hear is midrange heavy. A veiled midrange sounds like a sheet or curtain has been placed between you and the music. A clear midrange is much more transparent. A good speaker will start by getting this range correct and build upon it with the frequency extremes. All the bass in the world will not make up for a bad midrange. This is one reason why a small speaker system can be so musically satisfying. Small, simple designs are easier to get right in this department and musically satisfying bass is dependent on many things, not just the size of the woofer.
Bass tone and clarity follow quickly behind the midrange in importance and are both areas that are often glossed over as well. Many speaker systems exhibit what I call a 'one-note' bass. That is, everything in the bass region begins to morph into a single sound: the low end of the piano, acoustic bass, and bass drum all start to blend as one. A good speaker will have bass clarity as well as midrange clarity. Bass clarity is often passed over for bass 'boom' or 'bloom' as 'big' bass is easier to sell during a hurried listen on the sales floor and few people selling speakers seem to have any understanding of what bass instruments actually sound like. Generally, if you take a speaker that achieves a certain level of refinement in the midrange and want to keep that same sound while adding a few octaves of bass, you are going to start spending a lot more money. This is one of the reasons that overall speaker value can be so high for smaller speakers. That last 2 or 3 octaves of bass can cost a lot more money if you want it done well. Don't let a boomy bass fool you into thinking it is a quality bass. Less bass boom and greater bass clarity will be more rewarding in the long run.
The top end of the speaker should exhibit clarity without brittleness. Good tweeters are expensive and an often underrated area of speaker design. Tweeters provide the 'attack' of the bass and midrange frequencies, as well as handling all the other standard high frequency fare, which is why it is critical that this part not be skimped on (as so often happens). Sometimes, in an attempt to mask a veiled, midrange a manufacturer will make the tweeter overly bright sounding. Combine this overly bright tweeter with the boomy woofer and you have what is generally called a 'boom and sizzle' speaker. This used to be what divided high end audio from low fi audio, but this type of speaker now seems to exist at all levels.
The bottom line: Don't be afraid to call a bad speaker a bad speaker, regardless of its pedigree. You may very well have a greater understanding of what music sounds like in real life than many of the so-called experts in the field, and certainly more than the average person selling speakers. Don't be surprised if much of what you hear leaves you wondering what happened to the music. The exceptions, while rare, are worth searching out.
© Cadence Magazine 2001