Appointed to Apprentice: The Speaker Hunt BeginsSeptember 20, 2013
I don’t recall what was playing in The Sound Lab that day, or even which Audio 101 lecture took place, because the actions of The Spirited Uncle M were so…unusual.
For starters, he actually sat down in one of the three dedicated listening chairs strategically positioned in The Sound Lab, but it was the left-side listening chair. Granted, the “sweet spot” is generally relinquished when the rare guest (me in this instance) is permitted inside The Sound Lab, but never before have I seen him actually sit alongside a guest. After all, “critical listening” cannot be done along the edges of the “Golden Triangle.” Instead, The Music Maestro is usually milling about looking for specific discs he wants his guest to sample, or pointing out the unique features and designs of the equipment in his collection that lines the surrounding walls.
What happened next can only be described as something short of a miracle.
“You know, I was thinking. I have a lot of gear that I’ve moved beyond in my quest for Audio Nirvana (a significant understatement by the way), and I should really start weeding some of it out.”
“You mean you want to sell some of it?”
“Are you nuts Proby?” (The Spirited Uncle M had been calling me “Proby” ever since he witnessed my audio atrocities and sentenced me to in-depth research to remedy the situation.) “No, The Sound Lab doesn’t sell gear. What I mean is that I could build you a nice 2-channel stereo system. You could be ‘The Sound Apprentice.’”
Now, it’s possible hell froze over for a second, or maybe my new-found interest in the pursuit of Audio Nirvana had made The Spirited Uncle M realize that I, his favorite nephew, was truly like the son he’s never had. Although, it’s also entirely possible—and more likely—that this was a simple ploy to vacate the castaways of his collection to free up space for new equipment to experiment with.
Regardless, I was enthused to be The Sound Lab’s protégé. The only caveat… I had to buy my own speakers.
The Speaker Hunt Begins
Whether it was a simple coincidence or a reaffirmation of my destiny to set forth on the path to find Audio Nirvana I can’t say, but it just so happened that The Sound Lab had a back issue of Sound+Vision laying around featuring the article, “Clash of the Minispeakers: Nine under-$400 minis go woofer-to-woofer in a blind listening test.”
Yes, the stars were aligning that day. That $400 I nearly spent on a silly ZVOX would go towards a nice pair of bookshelf speakers instead. Easy. After reading through the first page I realized how naïve the newly-appointed Sound Apprentice could be; choosing a set of speakers was going to be tough—at least for a beginner audiophile that’s prone to over-analyzing the options.
What kind of music is played most? Will the speakers also be for more than just music? What is the budget? What is the recommended positioning for optimal sound? How’s the frequency response? What’s the sensitivity rating? These are just a few of the things to consider when scrutinized speaker selections.
My best bet was to start with the Sound+Vision recommendations that included the Audioengine P4 ($249/pair), Axiom Audio M3v3 ($379/pair), Hsu Research HB-1 MK2 ($398/pair), KEF C3 ($329/pair), Klipsch Reference RB-41 II ($299/pair), Monitor Audio Bronze BX1 ($397/pair), Music Hall Marimba ($349/pair), Paradigm Atom Monitor 7 ($398/pair), and Polk RTiA1 ($324/pair). The Spirited Uncle M also encouraged me to add the highly-acclaimed PSB Alpha B1 ($299/pair) to my list as he had previously auditioned them and was beyond surprised by the performance per dollar.
As a pointer, he also recommended choosing a speaker with a wide, “flat” frequency response chart and a sensitivity rating near or above 90db to ensure accurate, clean sound reproduction even with low-powered amplification.
As I made my way through the reviews, I started narrowing down my list based on the testers’ descriptions and how I thought they’d apply to my room and use. I ended up with a shortlist that included the Axiom Audio M3v3, Hsu Research HB-1 MK2, Monitor Audio Bronze BX1, Paradigm Atom Monitor 7, Polk Audio RTiA1, and the PSB Alpha B1. Not really a short list at all.
My research continued. I started scouring manufacturer websites, studying charts, comparing test results and spending countless hours reading hundreds of forum threads. I ended up replacing the Polk Audio RTiA1 with the larger RTiA3 because of claims that the overall sound quality was the same but with better bass response, and I could find them for close to $400. I also added the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 to my list because of numerous recommendations. This was not going well—my list was growing and the more I read, the more I got confused on what the “best” choice would be.
Narrowing the Field
OK, scratch the Paradigm; it’s frequently described as sterile and bright—that doesn't sound good for music, movies and gaming. Scratch the Monitor Audio Bronze BX1; they’re said to have a “recessed” sound stage compared to some of the others on the list. Scratch the PSB Alpha B1; they’re ugly and small (not really good reasons, but I was getting overwhelmed and had to make cuts). What’s left? Axiom Audio, Hsu Research, Polk Audio and Wharfedale. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Honestly, I could choose any of them and be happy because I had nothing to compare them against in the first place.
Must. Keep. Cutting. The Axiom Audio and Hsu Research were standing out with their rave reviews from audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts alike, and they could be had for about the same price delivered. Despite the Sound+Vision measurements actually being poor and conflicting with other charts for the Axiom Audio M3v3, The Spirited Uncle M had previous auditioned them and claimed excellent low-end response, design, and construction quality. The Wharfedale bumped out the Polk Audio RTiA3 based on the claims of exceptional reproduction of all music types compared to the Polk Audio RTiA3 which seemed to be favored for rock, the genre I actually listen to the least at home.
That left the Axiom Audio M3v3, Hsu Research HB-1 MK2 and Wharfedale Diamond 10.1. The final three. Who’s it going to be? Find out when I unveil my first hi-fi system in my next post.