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Speakers May Be The Weakest Link Audio Systems

When you’ve been in the audio business for a while, family friends, friends — and even friends of— assume that you know something, or at least more than they do.

So we get questions — at family gatherings, by phone and by email.

Over the years, a frequent and recurring question runs something like this: “I’ve got an ABC amp and a DEF turntable — or CD player, or another kind of input source device — and XYZ speakers. I know I’m not getting the most out of my system, but what is the weak link?”

My answer today may surprise you. Today, the weakest link in any competent audio system is likely to be the speakers. In days past, this was not so. But for 50 years, since the advent of solid-state electronics, amplifiers and other devices have been reliably accurate and stable. And for the last 20 years, it’s probably been harder to buy a bad amplifier than a good one.

The icing on the electronics cake is that over the last decade, electronics have not only been getting better — they’ve been getting cheaper!

Digital HD technology has also eliminated the problems caused by phono cartridges that were misaligned, damaged or not very good start with.

So that leaves the speaker and its interaction with the room — often the forgotten component. Good speakers, their design, and the sound produced in a real room to a real listener is somewhere between art and science, akin to fireplace construction.

A speaker that measures well may sound problematic when faced with a real-world room and particular music. (Who knows what to measure? That will be for another post.)

It’s well known that a given speaker will sound brighter in a room with a wood or tiled floor, light window coverings and sparse furniture than it will sound in a room with carpeting, heavy drapes and heavily upholstered couches and chairs.  Most audio enthusiasts know and understand the relationship between sound output, frequency and the sound absorption of a room.

But there are less obvious interactions. Room size and dimensions that can generate standing waves and speaker placement relative to walls and corners are just a few.  Listener position is also a factor. Some speakers — even those costing a king’s ransom and positioned in a room specifically designed for them — may sound less than ideal once a second listener has been placed in the room.

 It is more than likely that no two speaker models, even when placed in the same room, will sound and perform identically.

So, where does this leave the audio enthusiast and music lover? Is the pursuit of excellence doomed to real-world failure?

I don’t think so. While perfection may be a long pursuit, strengthening the weakest link is a real-world reality. First, know what kind of sound you like and what kind (or kinds) of music you listen to.

Then do some research, Talk to friends, “experts,” etc., and I suspect that you will discover not just one speaker that might be right for you, but several.

Try to find someplace that you can audition the speaker. And finally, try to get a “home trial.” Remember that the speaker will sound different in your listening room than it did in the store or your friend’s home. The only way to know if you’ve really strengthened your weak link is by living with it.

Enjoy, and good listening.

John Strohbeen has been an important figure in audio for half a century. He founded legendary retail chain Tech Hifi in the 1960s and joined Ohm Acoustics as president in the 1970s.