Appointed to Apprentice: The Speaker Hunt Begins

September 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.

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  1. I have the same problem when I buy speakers. Im currently looking for some big floor standing ones to pair up with my Pass Labs x350.5, now im stuck between the JBL Array 1400 and the Klipsch palladium p-38f.
    As i see alot of movies and listen to metal/rock im leaning towards the JBL, but I haven't heard any of them in person and you just cant get the quality with youtube. do you or The Spirited Uncle M have any advice?

    im norwegian, so im really sorry for the bad english. nice blog by the way

    1. Kristoffer, thanks for reading and the comment.

      After a brief glance, I like that the Klipsch has a much higher sensitivity, and the build/looks are phenomenal. Unfortunately, I have no real-life experience with either of those speakers, and The Spirited Uncle M is NOT a home theater guy at all (he hasn't even entered the world of HDTV yet!).

      Do you have the opportunity to listen to either of them locally? I'd also put a lot of consideration into the quality and price differences if you are buying used.

      One floorstanding speaker that has caught my eye for home theater and music is Axiom Audio's LFR1100 Omnidirectional speakers. Something well below your budget probably considering the Klipsch debuted around $20,000, but these Axioms are said to rival speakers in that range. Check them out:

    2. Thanks, those actually look pretty nice, and to be able to costomize the speakers like you want them was great. The taxes for importing to norway are sky high, so there is almost no point, unfortunatly.

      the store I usualy buy my gear from is selling both the klipsch and the JBL at roughly the same price and they recomended the JBL
      I have a chance to listen to the JBL array 800 tomorrow, but thats only the "small" bookshelf speakers. that at least gives me a chance to hear the tweeters.

      I'm not really a Home Theater guy eigther so i will be going for a 2ch stereo setup and i would like something that gives me a kick in the chest, thats why im going big.

      Thanks for the advice, if i dont like what i hear tomorrow i might consider the LFR1100, but if i do like what i hear, you may notice instagram will be littered with pictures ;)

    3. The Sound Apprentice5:07 PM, September 20, 2013

      Those are definitely big! Did they give you a reason why they like the JBL over the Klipsch? I really like the looks of those over the JBL. You should see if they will let you demo both in your home. Since you're going to buy one of them I don't see why they wouldn't give you a day or two to test. That would be the best because they'll sound totally different at home than in their store.

    4. my guess is that they recomended the JBL becouse they have a pair of Hegel H30 monoblocks with Hegel P30 Preamp, which were tailored for the JBLs, in the store.

      I really like the looks of the klipsch speakers too, thats the ones i wanted at first, but they conviced me to hear the JBL horns first.
      with a 45khz super tweeter I was told they had a much softer sound, should be able to listen for hours without getting a headache, compared to the klipsch which i think use the same tweeter as the RF-7 just difrent horns and thats very sharp and uncomfortable in the long run.

      the problem is i cant compare the klipsch and JBL head to head as the klipsch are on display in Oslo 6/700km away and the JBL in Bergen and they dont want to send the speakers around the coutry just so that i can compare them.

    5. I don't know... If it were me, I think I would go with the Klipsch.

      Amazing looks. Slightly more low-end extension. High-end reaches 30kHz, so it should be smoother than the JBL @ 40kHz. A bigger mid-range driver, and the three 8" woofers should give you really tight, fast mid- and low-end coverage compared to the JBL's single 3" driver and 14" woofer. Substantially better sensitivity. Oh, and did I mention that they look good? =)

      If you wanted the Klipsch first, you'll probably kick yourself for changing your mind. I don't think you can go wrong with it. Paired with your Pass Labs, you'll be in AUDIO NIRVANA! Haha.

  2. That's what i thought aswell, but i was told otherwise AND on the diffrent Hi-Fi forums here in norway some of the guys actually compare the JBLs to the bigger palladium P-39f. that just makes choosing so much harder in my opinion.

    But i had to just pick one now, without listening to any of them first, i would go for the Klipsch too.

    hehe, i wont be in audio nirvana just yet, i still need a decent pre amp, CD-player and some new interconnects i think.
    Musical Fidelity M8PRE, M6CD and Nordost Heimdall 2 should do the trick i think ;)

    1. All I can say is good luck! Haha, you have a big decision to make. But, with components in that quality-range, I don't think you can really go wrong. But when you finally have the components picked you're going to have to scrutinize all of the different cabling options too! Power, interconnects, speaker... it never ends. You're going to have an amazing setup though. If I am ever in Norway I'll have to stop by for a listen =) I'll be on the lookout for pics on Instagram.

    2. I think it's funny that, on a post about sub-$400 speakers, we're talking about $6,000+ speakers and $4,000+ components. Ahh, the world of Audiophilia is an interesting one.

    3. Sure, that shoulnt be a problem. I just hope om done with my basement by then, building a bigger room for my setup as we speak :)

      The thing with audiophiles is that we always want to improve on the setup, and every little upgrade is juat a tiny bit more expensive.
      I was very happy with the setup I had before i had to get a car. Rotel RC-1580 preamp with Rotel RB-1582 paired with System Audio Explorer Master using Nordost Red Dawn cables, the sound was beautiful.
      After i bought my car i tried something new without reading up on it first, the cheaper Emotiva. Big monoblocks with lots of power, balanced inputs and outputs.
      It just didnt sound as nice as the Rotel. I guess thats just one of the many mistakes Ill make.

      Life as an audiophile ;)

    4. Hey Kristoffer, you may want to contact Pass Labs via phone or email and ask them what speakers they suggest pairing up with your amps. They might have some directions to Audio Nirvana =)





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