April 2009

One Man's Two Speakers

I have an audiophile friend with good ears who owns two very different pairs of speakers. The brands and models aren't important, but the juxtaposition of the speakers in his life is. One is a medium-sized three-way floorstander that uses dynamic drivers and is ported in the rear. The other is a true two-way studio monitor that's powered internally. It uses a 1" tweeter and 8 3/4" woofer, both of which are driven by separate fully balanced amplifiers. What would interest some about this small speaker is its on-axis anechoic measurements -- pro companies include these as a matter of course for the speakers they sell. They give buyers, who are musicians and recording engineers, a visual representation of the speaker's output and the peace of mind that comes with it.

I've included a scan of the chart that came with my friend's speakers, which shows that they measure incredibly flat from around 40Hz to 20kHz. The chart is small and the vertical scale is 10dB between major increments, so obviously there's some variation over the speaker's bandwidth, but it's notably low -- lower than just about every speaker we've measured at the NRC, and that's a lot of speakers.

The floorstanding speaker my friend owns measures well too, but it's not nearly as flat as his pro monitors. Interestingly, he uses the floorstanding speakers in his ground-level listening room with an array of very good electronics (at least one of which he purchased because of a review I wrote), while the monitors are relegated to his upstairs office, where they provide background music. He can drive them with a preamp, while the floorstanders require a full complement of electronics.

I was thinking about these speakers a few days ago when I talked to him. "Have you used the monitors in your listening room?" I asked.

"Yes, but they can't fill a large space."

"I see. What if they could fill your room like your larger speakers do? Would you sell the floorstanders and use them?"

"No. They have limitations."

"Such as?"

"There is always grain in their sound. Always an overlay of grain."

"So the speaker is grainy. There's isn't anything in the chart that would indicate that, although we'd probably need some kind of distortion measurements to see something."

"I don't think the speaker is the problem. It's the electronics. You'd have to measure the amps to see where that grain comes from."

I continued my line of questioning. "So if the monitors could fill your room and weren't grainy, would you use them downstairs?"

"No. Top to bottom, the other speakers are simply better."

"Why did you buy the monitors then?"

"For the midrange. They are honest to the source in the midrange."

"That's not enough for you to use them in your downstairs system?"

"No. I don't think this translates to realistic instrumental timbre or a three-dimensional soundstage. In fact, it simply doesn't."

Then there was a pause.

"There's no contest for enjoyment," my friend said. "The floorstanders are just more enjoyable."

"Following your bliss, I see." I quipped.


There are many possible interpretations for the discussion I had with my audiophile pal, but the one that I focus on, and the one that I want to make the point of this editorial, revolves around one word he used: "enjoyment." All of us are enjoyment seekers, and each of us is an expert on how we can achieve enjoyment. For my friend, it comes from his larger speakers, even though he owns others that measure much better, at least in terms of flat on-axis frequency response. He's not interested in analog playback, for instance, even after hearing me harp on for a year that he should pull the turntable and records he has stored in his garage and use them. He's happily all digital -- all CD. Yet, paradoxically, he doesn't own an iPod, and he has no interest in buying a computer or media server. "My computer system is upstairs, my audio system is downstairs, and never the two shall meet," he says.

He's stubborn and inconsistent, an audio curmudgeon, but none of that matters to him. What does is enjoyment -- his enjoyment -- and with one of his speakers the line for that is off the chart.

...Marc Mickelson