Sound Advice

By Cahill, Greg | Strings, July/August 2020 | Go to article overview

Sound Advice


Cahill, Greg, Strings


In 1888, the American Civil War hero George Gouraud presented at a London press conference a then-state-of-the-art Edison phonograph, playing a recording (on wax cylinder) of a piano and cornet version of Arthur Sullivan's popular song, "The Lost Chord"-one of the earliest known recordings of music. The new technology dazzled the Brits, as they listened to the music pouring from the device's tinny brass horn, but Sullivan, whose music had been captured on the phonograph, had reservations about the invention. "I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening's experiments," he said, addressing Edison, "astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever."

For more than a century, the recording industry has sought to improve the quality of sound recordings. In recent years, the audiophile industry has grown exponentially, driven, in part, by the home-theater market and technological innovation in high-end audio equipment. And the sky is the limit-a pair of Focal Grande Utopia EM Evo floorstanding speakers will set you back about $250,000. Fortunately, in this hard-hit economy, innovations in the high-end market have found their way into the more affordable audiophile sector. That's good news for cash-strapped music enthusiasts.

Every link in the audio chain-from the source (LPs, CDs, SACDs, Blu-Ray, hi-def downloads, and streaming services) to disc players or turntables to power amplifiers to digital-to-analog converters to speakers- is important. But one of the best investments you can make when upgrading a stereo system is a better pair of speakers. And some of the most noteworthy innovation-from design to electronics to construction material-has gone into the manufacture of stereo speakers.

Here are just a few options that can improve your listening experience without breaking the bank (unless, you know, you want to break the bank).

Where to Start

First, set a realistic budget (don't set yourself up for disappointment by an endless search for the ultimate sound-after all, you wouldn't test drive a high-performance Porsche when shopping for a Ford sedan). Read the expert reviews in Stereophile, the Absolute Sound, HiFi News, or Gramophone (which routinely offers in-depth information about hi-res recordings and equipment) and check out audiophile forums on Reddit and other online sites. Try to audition the equipment in person, or find an online retailer that allows you to audition equipment at home and return it for credit if it doesn't suit your needs. The Virginia-based Crutchfield Audio offers mail-order sales, online chats, and tradeins for old gear; and Amazon hosts numerous online dealers. Independent audio stores- including ProMusica Audio Specialists in Chicago, Audioarts in Manhattan, and Audio Vision SF in San Francisco, to name a few- can provide personal service from knowledgeable staff and a wide range of high-end equipment. You'll need to consider the type of music you play (orchestral, solo instrumental, vocal, rock, jazz, and so on), the intended loudness of your listening experience, and whether your amplifier generates enough power to drive your new speakers.

Caveat: Speaker placement can be fussy- the listening room in an audio store is designed for optimal sound, but your results will be affected by the size of your room, how far you can place the speakers from walls, the height of the ceiling, the number of hard, reflective surfaces (including walls, bare floors, and windows), and the amount of absorbent furniture or drapes in the room. Still, you can always add soundshaping panels to the room if needed. In addition, keep in mind that speakers may have a neutral sound, allowing the mix of the source material to shine through, or they may be tuned to add warmth in the mid-range or clarity in the treble range. Sound is subjective, and your taste may change over the years (leading you to "upgrade" speakers to suit your taste). …

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