Speaker Measurements Vs. Subjective Speaker Reviews: Which One Is Better?

Some people disregard speaker measurements and build their setup solely based on a reviewer's recommendations. But is this the best way? We dive into the importance of both reviews and measurements.

Speaker Measurements Vs. Subjective Speaker Reviews: Which One Is Better?

Many people go out and blind buy audio equipment and construct their systems based on X, Y, Z reviewers’ recommendations. They pick the top components in each category, put together a system, and think that they've arrived at audio nirvana. But is this really the best way to build your setup? Should you trust reviewers or speaker measurements? 

What Are Subjective Speaker Reviews? 

Subjective reviews could be on any audio or video equipment. The product is given to reviewers. They stick it into their reference system and they listen to it. Then, they write a subjective review, subjective because it's their opinion. 

And one thing that we have to keep in mind is that's all it is.

It doesn’t matter if you've been a professional reviewer for 40 or 50 years - what you are offering is your opinion. You are not speaking fact. The fact is only in the context of your system, your listening preferences, your musical choices, and your own set of ears.

What Are the Problems With Subjective Speaker Reviews? 

Many reviewers and publications have almost become gods. In some countries, they're revered so heavily that people will blind buy equipment with an A-plus, a five star, recommended component, reference component status, or whatever the accolade.

Long-Term Exposure to Their Reference System Can Form a Bias 

Reviewers have a reference system. They might even have multiple setups for different price ranges or criteria, but at the end of the day, they are plugging a new component into a system that they’ve been living with. That means they are used to the sound of that setup. 

That long-term exposure is going to form a bias. Your brain becomes used to that sound, and if you insert anything that is significantly different than that, it’s going to stand out, initially at least, like a sore thumb. 

It’s going to be different.

Short-Term Use 

Now, what if the reviewer only has that component for a month or two and is only able to listen to it for a day here or a day there? Are they ever going to build up that "I got used to it and my ear brain system has got used to it?" 

Probably not. 

So, the reviewer may be focusing more on what's different between the sound of that component than what they're used to, and that benefits nobody - unless you have the same room. 

When we're talking loudspeakers, which are dependent on the room acoustics, do you have exactly the same component set up? Again, highly unlikely.

What Are the Importance of Subjective Speaker Reviews?

Now, subjective opinions are still important.

If you have multiple professional reviewers with vastly different systems and the subjective opinion trends towards this being a fantastic sounding, performing, and operating component, then that's a, "Hey, you know what, I should give that component a listen, if I'm in the market for that particular type of product, because there's now becoming some sort of consensus going on."

But still, it's your ears and the context of your system that's most important.

What Are Speaker Measurements?

Speaker measurements level the playing field if you will. They take out all of that "I've inserted something into a system I'm used to and I'm just hearing differences." 

You can actually put things on a level playing field and compare them to other products that the magazine or publication has reviewed. What do I mean by that? 

Let's say a reviewer mentions that a phono preamp is noisier. There's more hiss or background noise than their reference phono preamp. Well, does that necessarily mean that that product they're reviewing has a bad noise floor? Not necessarily.

What you need to do is look at measurements of the noise floor and compare them. Maybe the component in the reviewer's reference system is extremely low noise, so much so that it's way better than average in that respect. So that's then nothing necessarily to say that the component, the phono stage they're reviewing is bad. Just that it's maybe not exceptional in that case.

What Is the Importance of Speaker Measurements? 

Speaker measurements can point to compatibility issues or things that you need to watch out for. 

For instance, if a power amplifier has a very, very low input impedance, certainly some preamplifiers or processors may not anymore have a flat linear frequency response driving that low input impedance into the power amplifier. 

And, the measurements on both sides will tell you that. If the preamplifier is measured into very low loads and performs well, then maybe we don't have to worry about the input impedance of the amplifier. 

But let's say many tube preamplifiers are not happy driving a low input impedance amplifier, and you'll get ripples in the frequency response or get an early roll-off at high or low frequencies. You certainly don't want that. You want the system to be linear.

Also, we've got loudspeakers and power amplifiers, and this is another major thing. Is the amplifier capable if you measure it at full power, at 8 ohms, 4 ohms, and 2 ohms, and the amplifier shuts down when you try measuring it at 2 ohms? 

Well, there's a declaration. Don't use this amplifier if your loudspeaker load is lower than 4 ohms. So, this is where this data is crucial and will actually help.

Should You Measure Your Speakers and Why? 

Now you may say, "well, okay, but the manufacturer publishes all of this information." You'll sometimes see multi-page specification sheets, particularly for a complicated component like an audio/video processor (AVR) or a preamp that's got digital and analog inputs and outs, and things like that.

What's to say that those measurements that the manufacturer provides are actually true? 

There have been many cases over the years where marketing specifications look good on paper but don't necessarily meet those specs. 

Pick any publication that actually does some measurements and look at 20 or 30 power amplifier reviews and see how many of them actually met their noise, distortion and rated power. 

Now, in many cases, a good electronics company actually under-rates, or under-specifies, the power. So, a 300-watt channel amplifier will actually give you 350 watts a channel, but that's not always the case.

So, all of these things have to do with interaction, and frankly, it’s good to double-check to make sure that what the manufacturer is telling you is actually true is a very good thing.

What to Do if Speaker Measurements Are Uncharacteristic? 

One other thing. If you've got a magazine or publication that perform measurements and they see something that's uncharacteristic (like a lift in the response measurement of a loudspeaker at high frequencies), you can go and look at the subjective side where the reviewer has not measured the component, but sat down and listened to it. 

What exactly am I going to hear? Or what am I seeing in that review that may point to that deficiency pointed out in the measurements?

If the reviewer says, "Hey, on many of my recordings, they sounded a little brighter, a little bit spitty, and I had to do some things with placement, to get the speaker's sounding more linear," you can now make a direct correlation to those measurements and potentially say, "Well, that lift is maybe why the reviewer felt that these speakers were tipped up." 

Again, speaker measurements are important to level the playing field and put into context exactly what the subjective reviewer was hearing and why they were hearing it. Remember, it's a good point to do a double-check on the manufacturers to make sure that what they're telling you is true.

Final Thoughts 

We have to think about multiple things when putting an audio system together. It’s not impossible to achieve audio nirvana based on a reviewer’s subjective recommendations, but there is a likelihood that it's not going to be fantastic. Measurements and multiple reviewers hearing the same good points are the best way to go.

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