Also, most stores let you compare only stereo tower or bookshelf speakers. To hear a range of 5.1-channel speaker rigs, you'll probably need to shuttle between a few rooms with semi-permanent home theater systems installed. To execute a spot comparison of various stereo speaker packages in the same room, you might have to request a special demo that goes beyond the store's normal procedures. They might be reluctant, but don't be shy about asking. It's your money, after all.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR
|TONAL BALANCE The speaker's overall character - the clarity and smoothness of its midrange, fullness of its bass, and relative sharpness or softness of its high frequencies. Listening to acoustic folk or jazz CDs is a good starting point in determining these qualities.
DYNAMICS A speaker's ability to respond quickly and easily to rapid changes in loudness. Good rock CDs are recommended for this test.
IMAGING The sense of three-dimensional space a speaker pair projects, and their ability to localize voices and instruments accurately between them. Classical orchestral or live jazz CDs are your best bets here, although well-recorded rock or pop can also work.
SPACIOUSNESS The overall depth a speaker can convey, as well as its ability to create a sense of sound happening in a real space. Basically, any genre of music is fodder for this test, although CDs of live performances can cue you in more quickly.
• If you're buying a surround sound system to use in a home theater, you'll also want to listen for these qualities:
CENTER-CHANNEL CLARITY Pay close attention to the performance of the center speaker, which conveys most of the information in a movie's soundtrack. Dialogue coming from it should sound natural and crisp, and it should remain that way when heard from both center-screen and off-center seats.
SURROUND-CHANNEL AMBIENCE When auditioning surround speakers, the rear-channel effects in a movie soundtrack should blend smoothly with the front channels and deliver a realistic sense of envelopment in the scene. Avoid surround speakers that sound unbalanced and thin compared to the front speakers, or that consistently call attention to their location in the room.
You probably won't puke if forced to listen to Diana Krall or watch Eric Clapton play a medley of his classic hits "unplugged" during a demo, but if the music isn't something you listen to regularly, it won't give you a good idea of what the speakers sound like. So bring along CDs and DVDs you're intimately familiar with, and insist that you get a chance to spin a few of them. If you're not quite sure what qualities you should be concentrating on during the audition, check out "What to Listen For" (at right).
Other Considerations If you're buying speakers to go with a bigscreen flat-panel TV, you might want to check out the store's on-wall speaker options. Many speaker companies have come out with high-quality on-wall systems that rival the performance of their freestanding models. You might also want to check out the in-wall and ceiling speakers. These usually require professional installation and typically don't sound as good as freestanding or on-wall models, but they'll blend in with your home's décor much better than traditional speakers.
Some stores have a "try before you buy" policy for regular customers - you can bring the speakers home and check them out before you fork over any money. If your local A/V emporium is cool enough to let you do this, then you're in luck. If not, inquire about the store's return and exchange policies. Any speakers you buy should sound as good in your home as they did in the store. If they don't, you should be able to return them or exchange them for a different set.
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