Like a display, it’s important to try your audio system before you buy. In many ways, audio is much more personal and nuanced than vision – a high end HDTV with an excellent video processing engine will produce a picture that the vast majority of people will agree is good. But two speaker systems of equal quality will appeal to very different listeners.
It’s because audio can be ‘biased’ toward a particular kind of music, or movie sound. Some systems excel at the crisp and fairly uncompromising sound of electronica or albums that have been recorded exclusively with digital equipment. Other speakers are better at bringing across the subtleties of an analog recording, even if it’s been since transferred to CD.
Choosing a speaker system is 80 percent about features, power and quality, but there’s that vital 20 percent of your personal enjoyment.
Determining the speaker system that is most likely to impress your ear is assisted by first looking at some key speaker characteristics. For music, speakers with bigger drivers that push more air tend to provide better bass performance. For movies, where deep bass is important for generating mood, a dedicated subwoofer is often the better choice.
The ability for a speaker to play loud doesn’t just mean volume levels that will deafen the neighbours. A speaker capable of putting out high decibel levels (89-93 dBSPL or higher) often reproduces sound with depth and detail as well.
When you listen to music, does it just sound like a CD player? Or does it sound like you’re really there, in the concert hall? Can you close your eyes and picture where the musicians and instruments are on the stage in front of you? Can you locate which surround sound effects are coming from where when watching a movie? Are the sounds close or far away?
Are they coming from the correct place, and supporting the action on the screen?
Audio turns a good HDTV experience into a sublime one, so spending time with your speakers is vital. Don’t be afraid to tell the salesperson that despite all your research, you just don’t like the way speakers sound. There’s always another set in the storeroom!
Know your own ear
The proof of any speaker is in the listening. Only you know if you like the sound that comes out of your prospective speakers. Do you prefer sharp treble, or lots of boomy bass? A complete flat, balanced sound? Or something on the almost limitless spectrum in between?
Listen for elements of the audio that could irritate you. When characters in a movie pronounce ‘s’ or ‘t’ sounds, is the system very harsh, almost staticky? When they say ‘b’ or ‘p’, is the bass level too extreme?
What to take
Auditioning an audio system? Here is some handy content to take along:
a DVD or Blu-ray of a very recent, action heavy movie
a DVD or Blu-ray of a movie with lots of dialogue
a CD of your favourite music
a digital music player such as an iPod
The action movie will give the system a thorough workout, the dialogue-heavy movie will let you see how clear speech is, your favourite CD will let you hear how the speakers deal with your preferred music, and a digital music player will let you test compressed audio.