Monday, July 25, 2011

Audio Guide Part 3 - Speakers!

Your music will sound this posh.

If you missed them, check out Part 1("An Introduction") and Part 2 ("Amplifiers").

Now that you have an amp, you need speakers! I'm going to give you 3.1 (ha! some audio humor there!) speaker options. All of the speakers we're looking at are what are called "bookshelf" speakers which despite there name, should never be put in a bookshelf. All the monicker means is that they are somewhat small and don't sit on the floor (called "floor standing" cleverly enough). 

Speaker Option 1 - "The Honda Civic" (around $350 for speakers):

In this setup you use two bookshelf speakers with your amp.

In my mind, it's hard to beat the Axiom Audio M3v3's

These are the third incarnation of a much-beloved bookshelf speaker. I own a set of the V2's and have to say they are beautiful sounding. For small speakers they really have a ton of presence a volume. They display a wonderful soundstage, filling the room with very clear, minute renderings of the music. You can hear the feedback from the pick touching the string, the intake of the singer's breath right before the snarl. 

This speaker priced simply at $348.00 for the pair, no shipping, no tax, is a steal. Besides having serious audio cred (read some of those reviews), and not paying a middleman, Axiom is one of the friendliest companies I've ever worked with. One of my speakers got damaged and they had a new diver shipped out to me at a very reasonable price in no time! 

(If you have to be a non-conformist and go with another speaker, though I haven't owned them, I have found that people like in the $300 range is the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1, which has a mature, if not totally exciting sound. The same reviews are often be said of the Mordaunt-Short Aviano 1 and the Polk Audio RTI A1.) 

Speaker Option .1 - "The Doom-bringer!": 

For this setup we're looking for speakers around $350 and a sub for around $300.

Basically, what a subwoofer does is add more bass range to your stereo. It extends the ability of the speaker system to render tones downward, like adding a bass section to a choir made only of tenors, altos and sapranos. Most bookshelf speakers, like the kind we're looking at, are just like that choir without a bass section. Electronic, metal, hip hop, and even most rock benefits from a fuller bass range the most, especially since most of the speakers in part one aren't able to reach anywhere near the lower limits of human hearing. 

To start, you'll pick a pair of speakers from Speaker Option One section. Let's assume you get the recommended Axiom's. 

Now if you want to hear and feel every sludgy rumble of that copy of "Dopethrone" by Electric Wizard ( leap to your ears and touch your bones, you add in a subwoofer. 

Poking around many forums and review sites I found it can be a bit tricky to find a good sub for listening to music, seeing that most discussions focus on home theater, which is mostly raw boom and blast. We need something more nimble and musical. Something that will make an upright bass seem to be sharing our living room. And in our apartment-sized case, something that won't convince the downstairs neighbors that Jesus has descended in the midst of the whole seven-fold heavenly host to split the earth asunder every time you are dancing around in your boxers with a mop when the girlfriend is at work. 

From everything that I researched, the Hsu Research STF-1 ( fits that bill perfectly. And at $299 direct from Hsu, this is a killer deal on a sub that will outperform anything near double it's price at a Best Buy or Magnolia, at least from when I was listening to them to pick mine out. 

The subs we are talking about are called "Self Powered" - which means they have their own amp. You just hook them up to the Sub Out on the amp with a long RCA cable and you're set. 

Also note, while this is only a 150 watt sub, holy hell this is loud. It will easily shake my concrete floors and annoy my neighbors if turned way up. However, it is really naturally integrated even on the most subtle jazz if its set up correctly (I had a listening party when I got my copy of the Vandermark 5's "Four Sides to the Story" and it sounded totally natural), which we'll cover later in the setup sections. 

Option 2 is the option I run *exactly* at home and I am in love with my albums, from jazz to metal to electronic to folk, all over again. 

Speaker Option 2 - "The Ritz": 

If you have some extra money and really listen intently to vocals, singer-songwriter, classic pop, jazz or classical, you can take a more classic audiophile approach (i.e. no subwoofer) and step up your main speakers and get extra precision and clarity which will make you giggle with glee.

So for this setup, we're looking at the same price point as "The Doombringer" but we are looking for a great pair of speakers at around $500-600 (with no sub). The trick is, at this range, matching speakers and amps becomes a much more important deal. Some speakers in this range get picky about their amp preference owing to the individual design tastes of the producers become more pronounced at the upper echelons of audio gear. Frankly, if this is your first system, I'd recommend just going with the basic (Yamaha + Axioms) and then you can step up later if you really love it.  

A couple options in this range:

Price to performance, I like the KEF's Q300's. They usually gets mentioned very positively in comparison to the B&W's and have very high reviews. They are a bit on the "thin" side which means a warmer, fuller amp like the Outlaw or even the NAD would be the best match. 

Bowers and Wilkins 685. These are just solid, all-around great speakers and around $700.  A perfect match for those of you starting out with serious tastes in jazz, classical and vocals. Very full range-speakers which should leave you happy without a sub. The only thing is these technically are a bit "dark", needing an amp that favors treble a bit. The Yamaha is a passable match, but the Cambridge is perfect. 

A bit of cheaper option, that has been called the "Honda Accord of speakers," is the PSB Image B6 at $500. Most reviews point out they are clear and natural with a light touch. This would pair great with the Outlaw or the Yamaha. 

Another option is the M22v3 from the cool Canadian direct sale audio company, Axiom. These are very transparent but maybe not as refined as the other options, but a good deal at $488.00 shipped, and would pair with almost any amp we mentioned. 

As you can see, the budgets range quite drastically in this third section, and it gets progressively more complicated, so novices beware! Any of these speakers would be an okay match with the Yamaha. Any of these setups would happily take an addition of the Hsu subwoofer too if you just have to have the best!

Speaker Option 3 - "On the Cheap":

So let's say you have a small listen room and not much money. But $350 is so much for speakers you say! Well, I'll call you a wuss. Just kidding (no I'm not). To be totally honest $350 is about the cheapest speakers I could recommend that you'll be happy with going in to the future. Remember, this is an investment that will last you longer than just about anything else you'll buy! You'll go through a half donzen cell phones, 4 TVs and 2 or 4 cars before you have to replace this gear. 

Your best budget option is buying the Axiom M3's or such and skipping the sub. 

But I will say, I've heard (but not listened to them myself) good things about the Cambridge Audio S30 which are around $219. They won't sound nearly as full or dynamic as the Axioms but they'll pair well with the Yamaha amp and lower your total cost for your system by $150. 

Now you have an amp and speakers! We're getting close to listening - up next is a selection of input options to get your music to your system. 

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