Been hanging around the house more lately? Cutting back on expensive dinners out, picking your concerts more carefully? Did you nix the summer vacation?
Cutbacks like those make your home entertainment system that much more important. So it might be time for an upgrade. There are numerous ways to go, of course, from finally taking the plunge into HDTV to adding that long-lusted-after preamp.
But what to focus on? For audio system upgrades, speakers offer the most instant gratification; they're the components most tailored to your personal tastes. Speakers are the voice of your stereo.
CL convened a panel of experts in the field: George Liu, owner of the high-end stereo store Audio Visions South in Tampa, who organized the session; Brian Flinchum and John Mendes from the home theater department at Best Buy; and Scott Zepeda, CL's resident audiophile.
My role: Act as the music-loving consumer advocate, listening intently without a head full of specs and other technical info.
We gathered at one of the comfy listening rooms in AVS. George picked some of his favorite speakers from the shop, and the Best Buy guys brought over three pairs.
For demo purposes, George punched in a couple of songs form his hand-held Linn DS Music Server: "Trouble in Mind," a slice of white-girl blues/jazz by British singer Barb Jungr, and "Vicarious" by Tool. We listened to parts of each song, then swapped out the speakers, starting with the cheapest ($100), a starter set for boom-box graduates, and working our way up to the most expensive ($1,500).
Our aim with this exercise is to help you get started on a speaker upgrade and offer an alternative to buying the first major-brand pair that's on sale. We've recommended products that offer excellent value at different price points and are readily available in this market.
Polk Audio T-15 ($99.98 a pair, Best Buy)
As the fellas wired up these twin bookshelf numbers, I recalled the wimpy, tinny versions (brand name long forgotten) I had in the dorm room way, way back in the proverbial day. These Polks are less than a foot high and weigh 7 pounds each, I thought: What can they possibly do?
Turns out, much more than I expected.
On the Barb Jungr track, the opening acoustic bass lick was easily recognizable as such — a good start — but most important, the Polks filled up the room.
These speakers fared better with the Tool tune — the highs were a little squishy, but the bass put out some very respectable wallop. The Polks don't provide much sonic detail, but that's a bit too much to ask from a bargain-price product like this. George, whose store doesn't deal in low-end units, said, "They're much better than you'd expect, especially for the money."
Bose 301 ($295, Best Buy)
Ah, Bose. Those infomercials where people talk about how amazed they are by speakers the size of dice. The outlet mall stores. Back in the '70s, Bose was quite the status product (especially the 901s), but its speakers have since been scoffed at by audiophiles as lowest-common-denominator stuff.
But do they deserve their bad rep? It seems our industry panel was prepared to back the 301s, which are not cube speakers, as a good value.
I found them lacking overall. On the Tool song, the synthesizer plinks accenting the intro power chords were vague, suggesting that listeners get short shrift on the highs. The bass was solid, with an 8-inch woofer it should be. The Bose didn't handle Jungr's way-out-front vocals particularly well, making them sound kind of artificial.
But if you want loud and in-your-face, the 301s can certainly deliver. One of the guys called them "bookshelf, stadium-style," an accurate assessment. The best praise for the 301s came from Zepeda, a dedicated Bose hater: He raised his eyebrows and said with a tinge of surprise, "Not so bad."
Klipsch RB-51 ($350, AVS)
On the whole, our panel of experts was high on Klipsch: exceptionally good value for a mass-market brand. The RB-51s aren't much bigger than the $100 Polks — they are proportionally heavier at 12 pounds apiece — but they sound (and even look) muscular. I could immediately detect brighter sonics; Jungr's vocals came across much better (although still a bit shrill). On the Tool track, those synth plinks took on more character, and you could discern details in the song's thick, crowded mix. Highs and midrange earned good grades.
The bass may have not had as much whomp as the Bose, but RB-51s threw a decent haymaker on the bottom end. Brian from Best Buy praised the cabinetry, which "brought out more bass from a smaller speaker."
All told, put out the extra 50 and take the Klipsch over the Bose 301.
B&W 685 ($650, AVS)
More big sound from a small box. But don't disgrace these speakers by putting them on a shelf; they demand a stand of some sort. George explained that these B&Ws, the fourth generation of the British company's highly regarded 600 series, combined the strengths of the previous Bose and Klipsch models.
And then some. The difference was aurally evident from the git. Tool's "Vicarious" became a more engulfing experience, with warmth, depth and brightness added to the tensile power. The 685s couldn't quite bring out the character in the Jungr tune — I was beginning to wonder if there was any — but the acoustic bass had a real vibrancy missing in the prior products. Brian remarked, "If you heard these blindfolded, I'd bet you'd think they were a tower speaker."
We'd reached a level where amplifiers come into play. A weakling receiver is not going to push these B&Ws well enough, so you could be looking at an upgrade. The experts shied away from recommending a minimum watts-per-channel, saying it was a bad measuring stick. Brian suggested seeking out a "high-current receiver," which would start at around $250.
Klipsch RF-62 ($800, AVS)
Our first set of tower speakers. While the smaller units had acquitted themselves surprisingly well, the sheer mass of the RF-62s enables stronger bass and clearer sound at high volumes. When the guys played the Tool, I felt my ribs rattle for the first time (very pleasurably, I should add). The listening experience was more visceral. The changes in the song's dynamics were presented in far more dramatic fashion. The swells building to crescendos came with extra excitement. In all, these towers enabled me to better tap into the song's emotional tenor. And even Jungr started to take on some character and nuance.
"These speakers can convey a full symphonic orchestra, a singer/songwriter or something like Tool," George said. "Back in the '70s, you would've paid multiple thousands of dollars for such a package. Today, it's 800."
In terms of total bang for the buck, I'd have to say that these Klipsch beauties topped our survey.
Magnepan MG-12 ($1,195, AVS)
For grins, and for folks not ballin' on a budget, we decided to sample a couple of specialty products on the lower high-end. Magnepan, whose headquarters and manufacturing plant are in Minnesota, uses a whole different paradigm: The MG-12 is a flat-panel speaker that stands (on a slight upward tilt) 51 inches high, is 17 inches wide — and just an inch and a half thick. This means no standard woofers, tweeters etc. There's no way I can describe the technology here other than to paraphrase George and say that it uses wire-embedded magnets and ribbon tweeters. "You're getting lots of definition and fidelity," George said. "It takes a lot of power to get them going, and they won't play real loud."
Translation: This is not a speaker for Tool heads. Yet I thought the Magnepans repped the band pretty well. No gut-punch bass, of course, but the speakers gave "Vicarious" a sensitivity that I found appealing. The music was heavy but not an assault. During the louder, more intense choruses, the MG-12s sound tended to flatten out, just like their shape.
The flat-panel was the first speaker in our test that made the Barb Jungr song appealing. The subtle breaths, inflections and other nuances in her vocals came through. Zepeda summed it up: "The shrillness is gone."
Footnote: After the survey was over, George played some Miles Davis and Bill Frisell at a relatively low volume on the Magnepans, and it was a pretty euphoric experience.
Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand ($1,500, Best Buy)
We'd reached the top end of our speaker session, and when the guys started to hook them up, I was taken aback. Another small box (roughly 14 inches high, 7 inches wide, and 10 and a half inches deep). Definitely do not put these on a shelf. The Haydn Grand gets it done with just a 5-inch bass/midrange driver and a 1-inch dome tweeter.
How? Hell, I don't know. But I do know that these things were extraordinary. They made Jungr's "Trouble in Mind" damn near pleasurable. The delicate mix of instruments achieved new clarity, while her singing emerged with more warmth than it had via anything previously.
Though these speakers are named after 18th-century Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, they seemed quite accepting of modern-day art-metal. The Tool was loud and physical, but it did not blare in the least. "You can hear the tighter, quicker bass response," George said, "and the rhythm changes, those little stutters, are very clear."
If I were to have stuck up the joint that night and walked out with one pair of speakers, the Haydn Grands would've been my choice (and not just because they're easy to tote and hide in a getaway car).
This showed me that, with stereo speakers at least, you get what you pay for. That said, if you choose right, you can still get quite a bit if you only spend a little.
After the Best Buy boys left, George, Scott and I enjoyed a brief after-party. We adjourned to the home theater room at AVS and tumbled into some comfy padded chairs, whereupon George played Frisell's "Good Dog, Happy Man" and Tool's "Vicarious" in its entirety through an Ayre Electronics amp and preamp, and a pair of Wilson Audio Alexandria X2 speakers that cost ... $150,000 a pair.
Did the music sound better still?
Audio Visions South, 3655 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, 813-871-2989, avsouth.com.