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Speaker Tests - Methodology

[Italian version]

Reviewer: Scott Faller - TNT USA
Published: January, 2003

Back in October of 2001, Geoff started a series of tests on turntables. Since then I've been reading with fascination. See, I'm a real-live analog freak. I love the sound of vinyl and think it just blows away the digital domain in almost every aspect IMO. From the sound quality to dynamics, vinyl rules. Of course, there are exceptions, but you have to spend so much money it's almost ludicrous. I just wish I could afford one of the decks he has reviewed :-)

Now that I got my little poke at on CD's out of the way, after reading Geoff's turntable tests, I decided to ask Geoff if I could swipe his comparison format and apply it to speakers. Of course Geoff said "Go for it!", so I did.

My thoughts were to pick a bunch of speakers that are (fairly) reasonably priced and start a series of comparison articles. I say reasonably priced for a good reason (bare with me here). OK, I'm going to go out on a limb here and speculate. I'm guessing here but I'd say John Q. Audiophile isn't going to spend much more than $2500 to $3000 on a full system. That's source, amp, speakers and all wiring. Think about it, that's not exactly chump change. Guessing again, John Q. Audiophile represents 70% to 75% of the audiophile consuming public. I may be just a tad high on those percentages but I really don't think I'm off by too much.

Using that same logic, I felt that a large chunk of Audiophile Community probably limits their speaker budgets to about $1000 (or so). So, I decided to do gather as many speakers as I could in that relative price range and do some serious comparisons. Granted, we would all like to have more expensive speakers but most of our budgets (and wives) won't let us. In this upcoming series of speaker comparisons, you will find the majority of them hovering in the $800 price range, with a few above and a few below.

Next came the hard part, I had to pick a reference speaker. I could have used one of my many home brews but nobody other than me and a few select people have ever heard them. I tried to pick my main "reference" speaker on a couple of factors. First, it had to be a speaker that I liked, something that I could live with because it would see more action that the individual pairs that find their way into my system. Second, that same reference pair of speakers has to have decent availability worldwide. Well that narrowed the choices considerably. I decided to settle on a pair of Dynaudio Audience 42's as the main Reference set. They fit my criteria pretty well.

Next, you need to know a bit (a lot actually) about my listening preferences.

First and foremost, I like my music loud. It's not that I'm deaf, (though I might be heading that direction :-) I just like realistic listening levels. I've gone to loads of concerts over the years and I've yet to go to one that isn't loud (with the notable exception of small acoustic ensembles) Besides, there are lots of studies out there that state that musical involvement is greater when it's played above 90dB (or so). I actually prefer it above 100dB (105 if the truth be told and my wife isn't home :-).

Second, I like speakers that have that front row center sound. Big, bold and dynamic. They don't hide anything. That's not to say that I don't like a more a more relaxed speaker, I just prefer one that's in my face. BUT it has to be accurate and not fatiguing. Am I asking for too much? Well, we'll find out together won't we :-)

Finally, just because a speaker doesn't extend down into the lowest octave(s) does not automatically mean that I don't care for it. As far as I'm concerned, if it gets the critical midrange right, you can always add a sub to fill in that need for visceral gratification.

Finally, you need to know about my room. Well, I like a livelier room. I use mattress foam padding to knock down the primary reflections on the side walls. My floor has a heavy throw rug on it and my ceiling is acoustic tiles with reveal edges to break up the ceiling reflections and absorb a bit of the room buildups. My floor and two walls are concrete which really adds to the bass reinforcement of any speaker that I have in there. If you look at my bio, the small end of my basement where my tube setup is, opposite my big system, this is where all of the tests will take place. The room is roughly 10' x 14' and the speakers are placed on the long wall. Behind my listening chair, it is open to my big system.

I'll be doing Bookshelves and Floorstander's in this review. Yea .... I know ..... there are those of you that are thinking, "You can't do that, it's not fair." Well, yes it is. Most floorstander's are EBS designs (Extended Bass Shelf). I've built enough of them to know all the pitfalls of them. These designs become a juggling act of cabinet size, internal damping, impedance spikes, low end frequency response spikes and group delay nastiies that can make or break an EBS design. Just because they provide "deeper" bass doesn't mean that the subjective quality is better. More often than not, it isn't. But again, we'll find out together.

The primary reference electronics for this series of tests be my Korato KVP-20 the Pre-Amp and the ASKA Aspen 55 watt amp. I will be using my Njoe Tjoeb CD player with the Upsampler as the source (look for the review soon). Here's where it gets a little different. I'm going to use a pair of Response Audio RAM 301 amps (again, look for the review soon). Why a pair? Simple (well, sort of). I thought about just using the ASKA amp but this led to some serious compromises in my opinion. When I wanted to hear the minute differences between the Dynaudio's and the review set of speakers, I'd have to get up, unplug one pair of speakers, move them, move the other pair into place, plug them in, go over and sit down, then listen. Pretty typical of any reviewer. Well, I complicated matters. In that whole transference, I'm (along with anybody else) is going to miss some of those miniscule differences between the two different speakers.

So what I've done is, decided to use my NEC AVX-910 Audio Video Switching Unit downstream of my Tjoeb and ahead of the RAM 301's. For those of you not familiar with the NEC, it is nothing more than a switching relay with a remote control. The signal is not amplified by this unit, just switched via high quality relays. So, what this allows me to do is place the speakers side by side and from the comfort of my listening seat switch back and forth to do a micro comparison of the speakers.

OK, I see your antennas going up. You're thinking if I have the speakers side by side it will destroy the soundstage. One of them will turn into a Helmholtz resonator and foul up the speakers true bass response. Well, you're right but, keep in mind that when they are side by side, it will only be for a short period of time, just enough to do some micro comparisons. The rest of the time the review speakers will play all alone in my room.

As for cables and interconnects, they will be my home brew Silver Plated Copper with Teflon. I have several sets of really expensive cables and interconnects hear for review (currently) but I haven't decided if I like them yet. I'm afraid they might end up skewing my opinions of the speakers performance. Therefore, I decided to use my own cables. I know them well.

Now, what I've done to cover all the bases is to set up a similar grading system to Geoff's turntable comparisons but tailored to speakers. In each of the reviews I'll give you a table with all of the manufacturers specs and hopefully and impedance curve when it is available. Here's what it will look like.

Model Name

Dynaudio Audience 42

Type

Bookshelf, 2 way, Bass Reflex

Driver Compliment

28 mm Tweeter, 15 cm woofer

Frequency Response

53 Hz to 23 kHz

Sensitivity

86 dB

Nominal Impedance

4 ohms

Power Handling

150 watts (long term power handling)

Size

170 x 282 x 246 cm

Weight

4.8 kg

Crossover Frequency

1800 Hz

Then I'll give you a grading scheme similar to the one Geoff developed for his turntable reviews. This (hopefully) should give you a pretty good idea of what the speaker sounds like.

Here's a reprint Geoff's explanation of the rating system (exchanging turntable for speakers obviously)

So in the end I did the obvious. With a fixed reference, all I needed to do was to mark everything relative to that. So I chose a system whereby in a series of categories the Dynaudio's would be marked as 0. The test speakers would then be marked relative to that, therefore a speaker that gave the same soundstage width as the Dyn's would get a 0 for that category. One that gave slightly better soundstage width would gain a +1, slightly worse would gain a -1.

The smallest difference i.e. + or -1 would be a difference that was only just apparent but of no real importance, a 2 would be a difference easily spotted in an A/B and the sort of thing that might, over a long term, become significant. A 3 would be noticeable enough to identify which turntable was playing blind. Higher numbers are less specific but allow further and further improvements to the scale. With each mark comes a comment to explain why if necessary. Obviously the categories that don't deal with aspects of sound will not be marked in exactly the same way but I try to keep them equally balanced.

And, as always, I'll type loads about what I hear and how the gear moves me.
This is what the table will look like. (look for the Dynaudio 42 review in the coming weeks)

Objective Ratings

Category

Mark

Comments

Fit and Finish

0

 

Dynamics

0

 

Treble - Extension

0

 

Treble - Clarity

0

 

Midrange - Clarity

0

 

Bass - Clarity

0

 

Bass - Extension

0

 

Soundstage - Depth

0

 

Soundstage - Width

0

 

Soundstage - Height

0

 

Imaging - Focus

0

 

Subjective Ratings

Overall Coloration

0

 

Row

0

 

Weirdness

0

 

"Miss You" Factor

0

 

Ok, a couple of these need some explanation.

Overall Coloration. This category has more to do with timbre than anything. If a speaker is too colored, the illusion of the live event is lost. If a Bosendorfer ends up sounding like a Roland electric piano, it's not a good thing. Sometimes the Objective ratings can't fully relate if the timbre is off, hence, Overall Coloration.

Row. I like to equate the sound of a speaker to the row in a venue during a live performance (as opposed to a dead performance :-). A speaker that has a big, bold, robust sound, I would consider to be 1st or front row speaker. If a speaker has rolled off treble and is midrange forward, I would consider that speaker to be 25th row.

Weirdness. Maybe this isn't the most politically correct term I could have chosen but it sure seems to fit the best :-) This is a category that I lump anything that I just can't put my finger on. Sometimes, no matter how hard we listen and try to figure out the strange things we are hearing, we just can't fully describe it. Enter the Weirdness factor.

Well, I think that should just about do it. Between my diarrhea of the fingers and these tables, this should paint a pretty good picture of what a speaker sounds like.

So what is the purpose of doing all this?

By using a "main reference speaker" and comparing all others to it, this removes as much of the subjectivity as possible. All you have to do is go out and give a listen to the Dynaudio 42's, decide what you like or dislike about them, what you would like to hear differently about them, then take this series of reviews and you can use it to narrow down your next (or first) speaker purchase.

Here's a bit of commentary on this entire process.

First, many, many manufacturers detest this type of review or comparison. They like to have their speakers reviewed on a stand alone basis without reference to any other speakers (this really applies to any type of gear).

Since we at TNT lay it all on the line, coupled with the fact that I am doing what the manufacturers term a "Speaker Shootout", not many wanted to participate. Only the most confident manufacturers agreed to send speakers. I personally, applaud them for that.

In soliciting the manufacturers over the past few months, some responded to my emails with static, some never returned repeated phone calls or spoke to me once then avoided me like the plague. I even had one that wanted to actually fly to my house and listen to his speakers in my room before he would agree to submitting a review pair. Now that is going a too far. Needless to say, I found another more willing manufacturer :-) Some of the manufacturers just flat refused stating that they would have "nothing to gain" by a review at this time. Go figure :-)

I have about ten speakers manufacturers teed up right now, with four in house and breaking in. The others are either, on the way, or I will be pulling them out of stock from my local dealers. I've tried to pick (in decent proportions) speakers that are available worldwide with a good distribution base, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, speakers that are hard to find or are mainly available over the "web".

I'd like to take this opportunity to personally thank all of the manufacturers who have made this series of reviews possible.

Reference Gear

Gear

Manufacturer and Model

Distributor

CD Player

Njoe Tjoeb, Upsampled

Upscale Audio - Kevin Deal

Pre Amp

Korato KVP-20

Midwest Audio - Patrick Cunningham

Audio Switching

NEC AVX-910

NLA My personal gear

Amplifier

ASKA - Aspen 55 watt Amplifier

Aspen Amplifiers Pty. Ltd.

Amplifier(s)

RAM 301 - 30 watt Modified Jolida

Response Audio - Bill Baker

Amplifier

HH Scott 299A Integrated - EL84 PP

NLA - My Personal Gear

Interconnects

Silver Plated Copper, Teflon Insul

Home Brew

Speaker Cables

Silver Plated Copper, Teflon Insul

Home Brew

Speakers (ref)

Dynaudio Audience 42

Dynaudio USA Michael Manousselis

Speakers (review)

X

X

Geek Toys

Sencore SP-295c

Sencore

Just a few words about the reference gear.

As you can obviously see, I like tubes :-) The Tjoeb has tubes, the Korato Preamp has tubes, the RAM 301 has a tubed preamp section, and the HH Scott is all tubes. See the recurring theme here :-) Not to belabor the point, I like my solid state warmed up a bit by sound of tubes. I find it gives a more musical presentation, but that's just me, YMMV.

When you combine any one of the systems above, including the speakers being reviewed, the total cost of the system is less than $3000 (hopefully :-). I tried to pick source gear that I felt does a really good job of providing lots of detail yet it's still very musical and involving. Each of the pieces (source, pre and amp) I'm using are very good quality. You already know my love of the Njoe Tjoeb CD player. The Upsampler for this unit literally puts this player into completely new class. The Korato KVP-20 has great sound at a reasonably affordable price, especially for a quality tubed preamp. The AKSA Aspen Amp can't hardly be beat. It's a true dual mono design. It's accurate, clear, concise and one of the best deals going. The RAM 301's sound fabulous. For a small wattage integrated with a tubed pre, these things are very musical while retaining all of the detail we live for. As for the HH Scott 299A, well, I threw that one in just because it's fun. It may not be the most detailed amp on the face of the planet but it sure makes listening more inviting. It has a warm, lush presentation that you just don't get from modern day amps.

When it comes to my Sencore SP-295c meter, don't worry, I'm not going to publish charts and graphs :-) I just plan on using it to spot check frequency response. Primarily for the bass and treble extremes. Sometimes (in room) low and high frequency roll off points can be a bit tough to estimate so I plan on supplementing my ears with a quality meter that has a Real Time Analyzer. Basically, it's a reality check to make sure I'm not misstating something.

Well, I guess it's time for me to stop writing and start listening.

I hope you enjoy the reviews :-)

[spaz]


© Copyright 2003 Scott Faller - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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