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August 4, 2011

The Quest For The Best Home Speakers: What Should You Look For?

Filed under: AV Tip of the Month — Tags: , , — Alan @ 2:53 pm

Silverwood Theater with The Best Home Speakers Small speakers are best suited to smaller rooms; large open rooms and “great rooms” will need much larger speakers to recreate music at natural, loud, undistorted listening levels.

However, in a phrase, the best home speakers are those that “disappear” into the music. In effect they deliver the truest high fidelity to all instruments and vocals so that they are like an open window into the music, neither exaggerating nor diminishing any part of the musical range we all hear. Singers should sound as if they’re in the room. Vocals shouldn’t be harsh or piercing; they should be smooth and natural.

The best home speakers are really neutral and transparent, and they come from companies with a long history of research and testing into how speakers “sound,” both to music lovers and average listeners.

Scientific tests have shown that humans agree on the best and most natural-sounding speakers when they are not influenced by the brand, price, and appearance. (On the basis of sound quality alone, price is not an accurate indicator of transparency and neutrality in music reproduction.)

Speaker companies that do scientific research using measurement and blind listening tests include brands such as Axiom, PSB, Paradigm, Infinity, and Revel, to mention a few. Furthermore, with rare exception, the best home speakers are designed and built by Canadian, American and British companies, simply because the history of research into sound and speaker reproduction is long and detailed in those countries.

Speakers have to “fill” a room with sound, so they must generate lots of pressure waves in big rooms. Tiny ones are not up to the task. The larger the enclosure for the speaker (the box), the greater the deep bass output will be. Deep bass lovers embrace “subwoofers”, sizable boxes with their own internal amplifiers used for the deepest tones in music.

Another myth to ignore: that there are speakers that are “best for music” and others “best for home theater”. Wrong! The most musical-sounding, neutral speakers with music will also sound the best with movie soundtracks.

Try to choose speakers that you can audition in your own home, with your own music, to decide if they are right for you.  If you’re auditioning to find the best home speakers read my guide to judging speaker sound and accuracy.

Alan Lofft was, for 13 years, Editor in Chief of Sound & Vision, Canada’s largest and most respected audio/video magazine. He edited Sound & Vision (Canada) until 1996, when he moved from Toronto to New York to become Senior Editor at Audio magazine.
Lofft has been writing about hi-fi and video professionally for over 20 years, ever since his first syndicated newspaper column, “Sound Advice”, began appearing weekly in The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation daily newspaper. In the late 1970s, he became a contributing editor, columnist, and equipment reviewer at AudioScene Canada, the leading national consumer electronics magazine at the time. Find out more about Alan in his bio.

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  • Fred
    August 11, 2011 at 10:52 am

    What if we have a small room but use the Axiom Epic 80-800 7.1 or 7.2 system? Is there such a thing as “too much” if we use a powerful system in a small room?

  • August 12, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Hello Fred,
    Thanks for your question. It kind of depends on how you define “small room”. If you’re talking about a den or bedroom measuring, say, 10 ft x 12 ft, the limitation of putting such relativelyl large speakers and subwoofer(s) into a small room is the limited placement options. You might find that you got overwhelming amounts of low bass, because of standing waves and the dimensions of the room. A large room will give you more space to try different speaker locations and get optimal soundstage and deep bass performance. You can achieve remarkable performance in a small room from excellent bookshelf speakers like Axiom’s M22s coupled to, say, an EP400 subwoofer and the QS8 surrounds. The sound quality of such a system in a small room comes extremely close to the large M80 Epic system. The main advantage of the big Epic 80-800 system is to fill a large room with extremely clean very loud levels. The smaller Epic Grand Master system with the M22s, and an EP400 subwoofer will produce comparable peak sound levels in the small room. — Alan

  • nickbuol
    August 30, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Just a comment. I originally purchased my M60 fronts and a big sub when I was using a common space in my basement as a theater. After about a year like that, I moved into a dedicated, but small (9.5′ x 15′) space. The speakers were definately more than what was required, however they never were “too much.” In fact, they did quite well. The biggest issue, as Alan mentions, is that placement options are limited. I had a huge limitation with where to put the sub, and it was very much less than ideal, but it was the cards that I was dealt.

    So while the larger speakers aren’t *needed* in a smaller room, I have found personally that they do quite well.

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