Whether it’s for music or the foundation of a surround set-up, when it comes to speakers it takes two. Thomas Bartlett reviews five pairs of note.

These days we are all about home entertainment. And that has almost come to be a code for home cinema. But prior to the DVD, it really meant music, which in turn meant stereo.

So we’ve decided to turn the clock back a few years here, and look at a bunch of stereo loudspeakers. We haven’t gone back irreversibly in time, though, because each of the stereo pairs we examine here have suitable surround and centre channel speakers, plus subwoofers, available from their manufacturers, able to deliver the full surround sound experience.

Think of it this way: if you are a lover of stereo music, why not make your decision about your home theatre sound system primarily about choosing a pair of stereo speakers that will deliver the goods for you? Once that decision is made, decisions on the other parts of the surround system fall into place.

Of course, you may not be interested in surround sound at all, and simply want fine stereo music.

Here we decided to choose a tight price band that we reckoned would allow you to buy some pretty decent speakers, and then examine five of the options available.

While all fall within a $101 price spread from $1,399 to $1,500, they are not strictly comparable.

Big and small

Part of the reason for that is our collection includes both floorstanders and compact models. Normally one chooses between these two categories for reasons unrelated to performance. Another part is that loudspeaker choice has to be the most subjective, individualistic part in assembling a sound system. Your most treasured CDs can often sound much better on one pair of loudspeakers than they do on an equally good alternative pair simply because of the choices made in optimising their respective designs. That other pair could well sound better with a different genre of music.

So if music is what you are after – with home theatre either figuring behind that, or not at all – be prepared to spend some time with your favourite high fidelity store’s staff, listening to a range of loudspeakers. Take with you your favourite music. If you enjoy several genres, take examples of them all with you. If you love bass, don’t forget to include some CDs containing some of the more thrilling bass elements.

And then listen.

How to audition

Listen for a natural balance in the tone of the speakers. Listen, also, to how the various instruments and voices array themselves between the two speakers. Are they precisely located? Focused? Do they have ‘body’?

If you already have an amplifier or home theatre receiver that you will be using, ask the store to connect candidate speakers to a similarly powered receiver so that you can be confident that it will provide adequate volume for your needs.

Remember that the higher the ‘sensitivity’ of a loudspeaker, the louder it will go for a given amount of power. The differences can be dramatic. A loudspeaker rated at 84dB sensitivity will need four times as much power to achieve the same volume as a speaker rated at 90dB sensitivity.

But that may be a trade-off that you are prepared to make in the pursuit of sheer quality, as we will see with at least one of these five pairs of stereo loudspeakers.