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Speaking of Speakers

I recently purchased a new vacuum cleaner, and I have to admit making the final decision was the culmination of one of the most confusing shopping experiences I’ve ever had. I mean, there are literally dozens of manufacturers of vacuum cleaners, each turning out dozens of models within an extremely wide spectrum of price points-I could have gotten out for under sixty bucks or been dinged for as much as a grand! But does the fact that a certain model is used on Air Force One make it a winner?

What does this have to do with home entertainment equipment? Well, just as confusing as buying a vacuum is the process of selecting speakers-probably more so because, instead of dozens of manufacturers, there are at least 100 or more companies offering large families of loudspeakers, so the number of choices goes up exponentially.

So if it seems as though speakers claim an inordinate amount of space in this column, it is not only because there are so many to choose from but also because, perhaps more than any other component in the audio chain, the speaker exerts the strongest set of personality traits on the overall sound of your system. That is to say, though the characteristics of amplifiers and CD players can, and do, shape a system’s sound, the speakers, because of the inherent “flaws” in the physics of making accurate sounding music from a piece of vibrating paper or plastic, will usually contribute the lion’s share to the overall character of any particular system.

And just as vacuums must be tested over miles and miles of carpet, I constantly preach in these pages that the only way to shop for speakers is to get out and listen. And listen. And listen. Listen to a stack of your favorite sides, music you know inside and out. Listen to vocals. Listen to solo piano. Do they all sound real? Do vocals sound nasally and thin and does the piano sound like paper has been stuck between the strings and hammers? Listen to cymbals. Do they ping with clarity and musicality, or do they sound distorted with an unpleasant edginess? Is the sound overly boxy and constricted, or does it appear open and transparent, as if the music has taken over the room. Is the sound flat, or do the instruments seem multidimensional, almost palpable? But most important, is the music exciting, does the music grab you, can you allow yourself to be transported by what you are hearing, or do you find yourself fidgeting halfway through a normally scintillating solo, wishing it would end sooner than later? If you start tapping your foot and grooving with the tune, then you are on the right track. Another thing to keep in mind when shopping is to be certain you ask your dealer to power any speakers under consideration with an amplifier similar to what you have at home for the most honest evaluation.

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