Audiophilia — Choosing the Right Speakers at an Affordable Price

In previous audiophilia posts we've discussed the vinyl medium, its playback hardware, and amplification. I've attempted to present a basic non-technical primer for those who love music and wish to have the most realistic home sound reproduction paraphernalia within the constraints of an optimal cost/benefit ratio, and have hopefully provided a few interesting tidbits for the seasoned audiophile as well. The literal elephant in this listening room equation is loud speakers, or just speakers. To adequately cover this topic from the physics through room design and speaker placement would require at least a few hundred pages, but here are the basics:

Conventional speakers are electroacoustic transducers consisting of a permanent magnate that receives a low voltage signal from a power amplifier which then sets a voice coil electromagnet into motion that vibrates an attached cone to emit sound waves. Sounds simple enough. But engineering speakers to emit realistic sound waves in the low, mid and high frequency ranges that all music requires continues to be an evolving science and art form. Sound is a mechanical wave and speakers are, in fact, a resonating instrument. Similar to a violin except that they are electrically charged rather than mechanically played. All factors are relevant from the materials used to the design of the baffles or cabinets that hold the speakers. Yes, speakers (plural) as you are likely aware from seeing speaker cabinets with the front grills removed.

When it comes to choosing an appropriate speaker system - usually two matched speaker cabinets - for an audiophile-grade system, most people (or their mates) are concerned with overall size and appearance. This is a handicap, but one that can be worked with. Historically, the most realistic and popular stereo speaker cabinets contain a woofer speaker for low frequency, a mid range speaker for mid frequency and a tweeter for high frequency projection. The power amp signal first runs through a cross-over device that sends and blends the appropriate frequencies to the appropriate transducer, or speaker in the cabinet. Speakers (the entire enclosure) that sound spectacular have also been engineered with just a combo woofer/midrange plus tweeter and other enclosures can have upwards to 8 transducers with very elaborate cross-over designs. And to make all this even more complicated, separate single cabinet sub-woofers have also become popular to emit subsonic low frequencies that are felt more than heard.

It's probably safe to say that there is practically no agreement whatsoever between audiophiles as to the best speaker system. This is truly a subjective science/art form. In the contemporary new retail market Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) has made a huge splash with truly great speakers - they've been in business for decades. The problem is that they're, you guessed it, phenomenally expensive. If you're relatively new to establishing your own system, I highly suggest buying and experimenting with some of the great speakers from the past. They typically have had low hours of play and can sound as good as new. One caveat here is the outer rim of the cone on some vintage woofers and mid-range speakers in the cabinet - called the speaker surround - was made of foam rubber and has dried out over time. Please don't cringe! This is a simple and even fun repair if you have any DIY talent at all and replacement surrounds with full instructions are available on-line from suppliers like SimplySpeakers.

In the vintage speaker market I highly suggest looking through Craigslist as speakers are expensive to ship from  forums like eBay. One primary brand to consider, if you're looking for realism, is Dahlquist. They come in all dimensions and configurations and Jon Dahlquist was obsessed with realism. Look for 905s, 907s, DQM9s, DQM 9 Compacts, DQ 8s, DQ 10s, DQ12s, DQ20s and and DQ30s. Most of these speakers produce a surreal omnidirectional quality of reproduction that will likely not fail to please. Other vintage brands to consider (IMO) include McIntosh, Nola, Advent, JBL, B&W  and Cerwin Vega.

Speaker placement is a whole other matter. Play with it. A good rule is to not place them too close to a wall and for non-floor standing speakers, place them on stands about 6 to 8 inches above the floor. I'm happy to field inquiries about all these Audiophilia topics. Feel free to email wbusch at spendmatters dot com.

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