Good speakers are the key to getting the best possible audio experience from your sound system. You can put together the best CD or DVD player on the market and the highest-rated AV receiver, but if you don't have the right speakers, your audio or home theater setup won't be worth much when it comes to actual sound. Your speakers provide the interface between your audio system's electronics and the physical world in which sound is actually played--choosing the right set can make the difference between cramped, muddy audio and crystal-clear concert-hall sound.
You can buy a pair of loudspeakers for $50 or you can spend $50,000 and up. You can buy speakers as small as a baseball or as big as a refrigerator. There are "bookshelf"-sized speakers costing a few hundred dollars and others the same size that'll set you back thousands (and are worth every dollar and then some). There are big speakers that sound anemic and tiny ones with sound that will hit you so hard they'll knock the wind out of you. So, how do you know which type of loudspeaker is appropriate for you?
The "whys" and "hows" of the matter could fill a book, but one thing's for sure: there's a host of misconceptions about loudspeakers we need to dispel before we can talk meaningfully about our subject.
For starters, big speakers don't necessarily play louder or sound "bigger" than small ones, nor do they necessarily have better-quality bass. (Contrary to popular thinking, "more" does not always equal "better.") A three-way, or three-driver, speaker will not necessarily sound better than a two-way design--in fact, chances are, unless you're willing to spend a substantial amount of money, the more drivers in the box, the worse it will sound. A twelve-inch woofer does not necessarily produce better bass than a ten-inch one. Perhaps you've seen ads for "1000-watt" speakers--an all-but-meaningless specification.
It takes a lot more than technical specifications to determine which is the right speaker for you, which is why we perform hands-on reviews of all our speakers. This guide covers the basic issues we consider when we're reviewing and discussing loudspeakers--considerations that might help you choose a set of speakers as well.
Your listening space
The room in which you put your speakers and where in the room you place them will have a profound effect on the sound you get. Where you sit, of course, is also a factor. The best sound can usually be heard from a point directly between the two main speakers. Rooms with reflective surfaces such as windows, bare walls, and wood or linoleum floors will produce hard, "confused" sound no matter how much you spend on speakers. Fortunately, carpeting, drapes or a well-placed tapestry can absorb, reflect, and diffuse sound. Moving a speaker just a few inches can greatly affect the sound--especially for a speaker with strong low-frequency response. It can mean the difference between no bass and too much bass, or just the right amount. If you just want to get sound, and if your speakers are small enough, you can place them on a shelf, but if you'd like to create and experience a "soundstage" you'll need to move the speakers into the room, placing smaller ones on specially designed stands at least six feet apart. This is often not practical in dorm rooms or in small apartments.
Loudspeakers come in several types, mostly delineated by their frequency range. A full-frequency-response loudspeaker is one that covers the full audio band, from approximately 20 to 20,000 Hz. These are always large, usually expensive, floor-standing designs, neither practical nor priced within reach of most consumers. But they can offer incredibly realistic, rich sound.
The majority of loudspeakers, capable of responding from around 45-20,000 Hz, fall in this category. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars a pair. Remember, just because a speaker can cover this range does not mean it will sound good, or that it will have good quality bass. Frequency response is but one tiny piece of the sonic puzzle.
The subwoofer's job is to produce the very low tones of your audio system's dynamic range. A true subwoofer will be able to reproduce a 20 Hz test tone, which will be felt more than it will be heard (making it great for home-theater applications), but 30 Hz will do very well in most listening environments and for most music. Most subwoofers today are "powered," meaning that they contain a built-in amplifier and a crossover network that lets you adjust the sub's upper frequency response so as to more effectively blend in with your main speakers.
While most music is broadcast on two channels (for a stereo effect), home theater (DVDs and laser discs) uses five-channel audio. A home theater speaker set consists of two front speakers (sometimes the same ones you'd normally use for stereo music), two rear or "surround" speakers, a center channel (used mainly for dialogue), and sometimes a subwoofer.
These small speakers work for home theater because the "bass management" systems in most modern A/V receivers permit you to route the bass from all five channels to the subwoofer, which also reproduces the separate LFE (low frequency effects) track added to Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks (the LFE track is the ".1" in 5.1-channel surround sound).
The price range on loudspeakers is incredibly wide. There are bookshelf-sized speakers costing a few hundred dollars and others the same size that'll set you back thousands--and are worth every dollar and then some.
Frequency range and balance
A speaker's frequency range is a measurement of how wide a selection of sounds it can reproduce. Can it reproduce the lowest bass and the highest highs? Here's one of the areas where specs can help you out. Keep in mind, though, that very deep, high-quality bass is usually expensive, and if you're on a budget and not after high-powered home-theater performance, you might be more satisfied with good midrange performance since that's where most of the music is anyway. Extended high-frequency response is somewhat easier to achieve at reasonable cost, but watch out for "peaky," edgy, over-enhanced highs, which can readily induce fatigue.
Another critical factor in choosing your speakers is how loud you like to listen and how a given speaker performs at that level. If you live in a dorm room or an apartment with thin walls, you may be playing your system at low levels much of the time. Some speakers sound surprisingly "alive" at low volume while others need to be played loud to get going. Some speakers start sounding hard, grainy and compressed at higher volumes. A well-designed speaker will sound good at both low and high volumes.
When you're evaluating a speaker, you should also keep an ear cocked for its rhythmic certitude and pacing. Does it "swing"? Does it sound appropriately snappy and fast, keeping pace with the music, or does it sound sluggish and constipated no matter what material you give it? These are qualities you can't measure, though some of what is measurable--sensitivity, for instance--will have definite effects on a speaker's pacing.
Your taste in music
Your preference in speakers will be strongly affected by your taste in music. Assuming you're on a budget, if you listen to a lot of rock, you'll probably be willing to sacrifice some tonal accuracy for more bass. And you'll probably want a speaker that will play loud without compression, distortion and "graininess," or a sense of artificial coarseness in the high frequencies. If, on the other hand, you listen to a great deal of acoustic music--classical, folk, or jazz--you might be willing to give up the bottom couple octaves of bass to get smooth, accurate, or liquid-sounding midrange frequencies.
Your listening space
The room in which you put your speakers and where in the room you place them will have a profound effect on the sound you get. Where you sit, of course, is also a factor. The best sound can usually be heard from a point directly between the two main speakers. Rooms with reflective surfaces such as windows, bare walls, and wood or linoleum floors will produce hard, "confused" sound no matter how much you spend on speakers. Fortunately, carpeting, drapes or a well-placed tapestry can absorb, reflect, and diffuse sound.
Most loudspeakers consist of two cones, or drivers (a woofer and a tweeter), a crossover network, and a cabinet. The cones are the actual producers of sound--thin funnel-shaped pieces of material (usually plastic) that vibrate. Each cone produces the frequencies best suited to its size--the woofer produces bass while the tweeter emits high frequencies. The midrange falls somewhere between the two and is determined by the crossover network, which divides the frequencies between the cones.
What the numbers can and can't tell you
When shopping for loudspeakers you'll usually find numerical specifications along with a written description. Be aware: Measurements and numbers tell only part of the picture, and any one measurement can be more misleading than none at all.
For instance, you might get a frequency-response specification such as "40 Hz-22 kHz," but unless the spec also tells you the variance within however many decibels (+/- 3 dB, for example), the numbers are essentially useless. The speaker may well reproduce 20 Hz, but that tone could be 20 dB "down" from (or below) "flat" response, meaning you won't really hear 20 Hz from that speaker. Additionally, how a speaker is measured can affect the response. Was it measured in a room or in a reflectionless anechoic chamber? Where was the microphone placed to measure the response? Essentially, a frequency-response measurement by itself, unaccompanied by a critical review, is pretty much useless!
The specifications will also usually offer an "impedance" measurement in ohms, which refers to the resistance an amplifier will encounter when trying to drive a given speaker. Today, most loudspeakers are rated at 8 ohms, but this is another essentially meaningless specification since, in reality, the impedance of a loudspeaker varies with its frequency. Without seeing the impedance "curve" you cannot know whether the speaker presents an amplifier with an easy or a difficult load. In any case, today's modern solid-state amplifiers can effectively drive most properly designed loudspeakers. Still, for reasons too complex to delve into here, look for loudspeakers with a "nominal" 8-ohm impedance, though most amplifiers will easily handle a 6-ohm load.
Two more important specs are voltage sensitivity and power handling. Voltage sensitivity tells you how loud a speaker will play for a given voltage. This gives you some idea as to how big an amplifier you'll need to drive the speakers. This measurement is expressed as a certain number of decibels (dB) per 2.83 V input. For example: "88 dB/2.83V." Unless you're using a monster amplifier, you probably want speakers with an efficiency of at least 86 dB, though 88 dB or higher is preferable.
Power handling tells you how much power in Watts the speakers can take without damage. If a speaker is rated at "100 Watts maximum," don't worry too much if you choose or own a 200-Watt-per-channel amplifier. Chances are you'll never put that much power into the speakers. In fact, what usually damages a loudspeaker is using too small an amplifier and driving it to "clipping" (distortion) levels. The loud-level high harmonics in the distortion is what does the damage.
Every computer needs protection. On average, the manufacturers warranty for a computer lasts no more than a couple of years—if you are lucky. So, unless you feel like shelling out a hefty wad of cash for another computer, you should protect your investment. Depending on the warranty, a repair person will either come to you or you will need to take your computer to an authorized service center. There are a few companies that require you to ship the computer to a service center. Save your computer's original packaging because there is a possibility you will have to ship the computer to be serviced.
You should be able to purchase a three year extended warranty through the manufacturer or from the company where you purchase the computer. Computer repairs can be costly. You should consider the "it's better to be safe than sorry" motto in the case of computers.
Frequently, troubleshooting a computer can be done over the phone and many times fixed. Some warranties even include tech support.
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