Decision time: using your ears to make the final choice

It’s time. You’re about to jump into the car and go down to the store to buy your high definition sound system. We hope you have determined to follow our advice: to listen carefully to the items – especially loudspeakers – on your shortlist, in order to make your final decision. How do you go about it? What do you take with you? What do you listen for?

Below, in our GadgetGuy tip, we suggest some DVDs you should consider taking, and what to listen for with them. If these aren’t in your collection, take some movies – and CDs – that you are very familiar with. This will allow you to you best compare the sound of the speakers you are thinking of buying with those you already own. You don’t want to pay good money for speakers that aren’t a clear improvement! If you like action movies, then take some of these; if you like rock music, take a stack of CDs encompassing your preferred sub-genres. You get the idea.

There are specific things you can listen for in auditioning a potential high definition sound system. There is also a less definable ‘feel’ that probably relates as much to our personal preferences as it does to some objective quality. Nonetheless, regardless of any ‘scientific’ validity, it is this very individual feeling that, if satisfied, you will find very pleasing over years to come. So as you’re listening, be alert for a system that just kind of hits the mark for you.

Meanwhile, let us examine the more traditional performance aspects you should judge during your audition.

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Determine whether the speakers you’re listening to are an improvement on those you already own by auditioning with CDs and DVDs you play often at home

Soundstage/imaging

The whole point of surround sound is to envelope you in the movie that you are watching… or in the case of music, make the aural space plausibly real. To do this the system has to locate each element of sound in its correct place in space. That can be at any point around you, or even above you. It can sound close or distant. To achieve this, a sound system’s components must be in superb balance with each other.

Tonal balance

This is the essential quality of the treble, the mid-range and the bass working in harmony with each other at the correct relative volume levels, rather than overpowering each other. As you play your test discs, ensure that the music instruments and the human voice sound natural.

Detail

Detail is a more difficult to define characteristic of high quality loudspeakers. It is a sense of revelation, of removing the veils covering subtle elements in the music, or the movie, that lesser systems fail to disclose. It may be a whisper in the background of a Hollywood scene, or shimmer of the brushes on the snare drum in jazz recording, but some loudspeakers and systems are better at revealing them than others.

Clarity and coherence

When you are watching a movie, much of the time the sound is more important than the picture for understanding what’s going on. That is especially the case when it comes to the spoken dialogue within a movie. Above all, you must be able to understand everything that everyone is saying to everyone else, even when the music is swelling.

Accuracy

The GadgetGuy notes in his tip that male voices sounding a bit ‘chesty’, or bass heavy, can denote problems in the bass. Likewise, sibilance – an ear piercing zing in the spoken voice around the consonant ‘s’, especially when spoken by a female voice – indicates a nasty peak in the upper treble that will recur movie after movie, sapping your enjoyment.

Bass

For music, bass should be tight and tuneful. Unless you are into synthesiser or pipe organ, super-deep bass isn’t an essential for music. Normal floorstanding loudspeakers can do well enough. But for these, make sure that they sound tight and controlled. When it comes to movies, though, a subwoofer that plumbs very deeply into the bass regions becomes more important, because very often really deep bass is used to generate a mood within a movie.

GadgetGuy tip – audition DVDs

We recommend that you take at least three DVDs with you for auditioning surround sound systems.

1. First, take a recent romantic comedy, something with plenty of male/female dialogue. If there is one thing our ears are good at, it is understanding and assessing the human voice. Play this DVD. Can you understand everything that they say to each other? That isn’t much of a test. Turn up the volume a bit. Now, do their voices sound natural? If they have an unnatural bite, then the speakers may get tiring after a while. If the male voice is a bit boomy or ‘chesty’, as we say, then the speakers won’t convince you and will probably have boomy bass on music.

2. Next take the 1998 remake of Psycho. Jump to Chapter 6, where Marion Crane first arrives at the Bates Motel. From the camera’s point of view you are inside of the car, and it is raining hard, with the rain pounding the roof of your car. It should sound like the clatter of the rain is coming from right over your head, not from any particular loudspeaker.

3. Now play the movie 1995 Michael Mann movie Heat. Jump to Chapter 32. Have the staff wind up the volume to the maximum they think the system is capable of delivering, then watch, enjoy. The sound of the shots should punch, the reverberation of the sound up and down the streets should come from all around you. If a system can deliver this satisfactorily, you will know it will deliver on movies.