Speaker audition: a novice’s journey

I am no expert at audio. But I like to listen to music, primarily classical and then a little bit of everything else such as jazz and soft/alternate rock, both at home and concerts. I am looking for speakers that can play classical well, can represent the ‘body’ of a full scale orchestra. That can soundstage and image well. And that can isolate different instruments. Oh yes, my budget is 10-15K.

On this forum I got tremendous help from several folks. Now I have a list of speakers that I need to check out.

So, sooner the better and I decided to take a plunge. Along the way I’ll also learn how to really audition speakers. It’s a little dummy’s guide to myself. I wouldn’t get into technicalities, my head rings when a dealer tries to explain first order network and phase-time coherence. After all it ain’t matters how sophisticated the science is. The speakers need to sound good. Period. My evaluation is purely by how it sounds, caveat being on untrained ears. I am planning to use the same set of music so that I can get a fair comparison.

I decided to write down my experience (coming in the response links below); hopefully someone, someday will be benefited by it. I welcome your inputs/suggestions.
For what is worth, we auditioned the Leonore at a dealer in Atlanta. Overall, I was very impressed by certain aspects of the speaker's performance, plus the appearance and finish of the speaker is quite striking. They really look like a piece of fine furniture. However, like Neal, the width and depth of the soundstage seemed compressed and the imaging was not up to my expectations. Of course, I am accustomed to Audio Physic speakers (Virgo II & III, and Avanti III). When properly set-up, few speakers disappear as well AP speakers do. Of course, few speakers can be as fussy and room dependent as AP speakers which is why I am looking for new speakers. For us, in our room, I do not think the Leonore is the right choice.

I had fallen into a deep slumber. Graham’s mail came as a wake up call. But I was out of town and with blessings from Murphy my computer crashed. To my and many of yours disappointment, I haven’t done many auditions since my move. New place, new job responsibilities and significant travel. And I cant do much where I am.

First of all I want to personally thank all of you (especially Rtn1, Hevac1, Cdc, Mjwpicman, Magnumpi205 or Don, Jayctoy, Goatwuss, Tdavism3 and of course Grahamps or Graham) that care to read these long posts, care about my progress and post your thoughts, inputs and suggestions. There are also several of you who email me directly. It might just sound customary, but I really really appreciate you guys a lot.

And I also appreciate Graham for making an honest and personal effort to explain his side.

One thing I have realized that in the field of reproduced music there is very little right or wrong. In spite of its footing on science, it is a lot about personal preferences. And when that happens, there are points of view, that can be ~very~ contradictory. There are hundreds of speakers (and audio systems), many with their own personalities and characteristics. None is liked universally, none is disliked universally (except probably the real crappy ones). What is nirvana to one can often be a nemesis to another.

I believe, after having been to numerous concerts, that ‘Imaging’ is as much auditory as it is visual and about knowledge. You know it’s the first chair playing the flute because you can see it. You know it’s not the bassoon next chair because you know how a bassoon sounds. If you close your eyes, you can only ‘sense’ the sound coming from a certain section of the orchestra. So in that respect the viewpoint of lack of origin specificity for sound is quite right. But when I am at a concert I am also using my eyes and my knowledge to complete that specificity.

The story, however, changes significantly if I am very close to the stage, say in the fourth or fifth row. I can identify the sources with much more accuracy partly due to the proximity itself (and consequent less loss of sound) and partly due to the perspective (wider soundstage with more directionality).

If we look at its origin, Stereo was conceived to create a ‘constructed’ reality. That is to create an ‘illusion’ of reality. However stereo misses an important element of music which is visual. Also stereo accentuates sound, if you compare with the concert hall. I read somewhere the problem with audiophile systems is if you listen to them too much you start hating live performances. Though largely exaggerated, there is probably some truth in it.

The same imaging logic applies to ‘Soundstage’ as well. From the front of the concert hall (at Orchestra level) one can feel the width and depth. As you go back, both tend to shrink. However (arguably) the best sound and a deeper soundstage you get is from the First Tier, where tickets are usually as or sometimes more expensive than the first few Orchestra level rows. But how many of us like speakers that have a soundstage near the bottom. May be many of us do (think Wilson Beneche). And that takes me back to my point again – there aren’t too many rights or wrongs.

I find superb, subtle details with restricted soundstage and real life imaging without much specificity bit of a paradox. You generally get that kind of soundstage and imaging from back of the orchestra level and from there you do not hear superb details (without amplification) due to the losses as sound travels, no matter which concert hall you are in and how good the acoustics is.

Long story short, I think lifelike stereo is slightly overrated. It finally comes down to your preferences on how you want recorded music be reproduced.

Now couple of points about Graham’s response. As I said before I was impressed with the amount of detail. But soundstage and imaging were by no means what ‘I’ (I repeat ‘I’) was looking for. And not to beat this to death again – there is nothing wrong about what I want from my stereo for my $20K investment (price + tax + cable).

We live in a comparative and competitive world. When I see dealers who tell me that I could come back the next day, if I were not happy with the set up or the room; or tell me I could audition as many times over as many days I want till I am convinced or even offer me to take the speakers home and listen in my setup and return if I am not happy with them; my obvious preference will be for them.

I still think Leonores are in my shortlist and deserve a better audition.
I only would add that, when it comes to speaker placement, few people are as knowledgable as Graham. Regardless of which speakers we end up buying, I will pay Graham to come to our home to help ensure that we realize the value of our investment by properly placing the speakers in our room. Few things annoy me more than not realizing the full value of a sizable investment.

Having said that, we have now auditioned the Verity, Burmester B20(??), B&W 802, and Sophia 2. I was surprised that, of the foregoing speakers, the B&W was my least favorite and, based on listening, that the little Burmester was my favorite overall thus far. Going into this process and having owned several B&W models over the years, I expected to end up with the 802. However, in comparison to the Sophias, the 802Ds, at roughly the same price, just did not stand up. Unfortunately, the Sophias had suprisingly little bass (i.e., none to speak of) which left me both disappointed and puzzled. Although I suspect the lack of bass in the Sophia was the result of placement and electronic matching, it was significant enough for me to pass on a great deal on a demo pair. Nonetheless, I liked everything else that the Sophia did. In many respects, it was amazing. However, I do not want to spend that kind of money and still need to include a sub, such a result would be unacceptable to me.

So, our choice is coming down to the Sophia, Duette (less placement dependent and would add a sub) or the Burmester B25. In an accoustically challenged room such as ours (18 x 30 with 25 foot ceilings and several levels), I am convinced that no speaker will be perfect, but feel fairly confident that one of these speakers can be made to work better than my old AP speakers. (To its credit, the off-axis response of the Sophia was impressive.) Besides, after paying Graham a princely sum to properly place them, they better. : ) Also, from a WAF perspective, all of the finalists are relatively small and attractive. Though, I must say that the fit and finish of the Burmester is quite striking in the Ebony Macassar finish.

Before making a decision, I want to listen to the Focal Scala Utopia and a couple of the Dynaudio Confidence models. However, I have never been a Focal fan and the Dynaudio is a big speaker.

As I look back on this posting, I realize how rambling it became and apologize to those reading it. I am not sure this post made any coherent point and represented more of a stream of random thoughts regarding our selection process.