An Adventure In Buying Home Audio Speakers

permalink         categories: technology         originally posted: 2014-12-19 23:43:22

True story: up until five years ago all I ever had were cheap all-in-one stereos that came bundled with speakers. It was all I could afford. Oh, how I dreamed of owning an expensive "component stereo"! That's where you have a separate receiver, turntable, tape deck, eight track, and speakers—gosh, maybe even a subwoofer!

Finally in September 2009 I took the plunge and bought a component stereo. But by then you didn't need all those "components" anymore—all you really needed was the receiver, the speakers, and a computer. I guess I missed out on the golden age of the component stereo. Ah well, I'm here now!

The Modern Speaker Buying Experience

When I bought my component stereo, I did a bunch of research and discovered that the experience of buying speakers had changed. It used to be that you had to buy speakers either:

  • from a pricey high-end showroom,
  • site-unseen (and sound-unheard!) via mail-order, or
  • from the back of a van in the grocery store parking lot.

These days there's a great new alternative: buy direct from the manufacturer, with a thirty-day no-questions-asked money-back guarantee, often with free shipping both ways. The idea is, you audition them in situ as you'd really use them. If you don't like them, it costs you nothing except your time (and maybe the return shipping costs). I suspect this business model relies in part on the hassle involved in shipping the speakers back—a lot of people probably audition speakers and then are too busy or too lazy to return 'em within the 30 days and wind up keeping them. Anyway, trying them out in your home is a great way to figure out what you like. And buying direct from the manufacturer cuts out a whole bunch of middlemen, and the shipping doesn't increase the cost much as shipping has gotten way cheaper in recent years. So this is a great way to buy speakers, and save money at the same time.

Of course, it's also a great way to spend money, too. Speaker prices start at "gee, that's more than I thought they'd be" and go up and up and up—all the way to "that's preposterous". And there are speakers at every price level in-between.

Does spending more make a difference? Maybe! Probably! I can't really say. There's no such thing as a "perfect" speaker; every speaker makes tradeoffs, for cost, or size, or power, or in the extreme high end simply by hitting the limits of sound reproduction technology. Clean frequency reproduction is great, and that's what I want (or at least what I claim I want). But the reality of audio perception isn't quite that simple. Most of your experience of audio happens between your ears. Also consider: the more expensive speakers may be providing features you don't need, higher power limits you'll never approach, or enhanced clarity you'll never notice.

So by all means: read all the online reviews you can. But ultimately, auditioning the speakers where you're going to use them is the only practical approach. I recommend trying the priciest speakers you can afford—but try the cheaper ones too. You might be pleasantly surprised! What sounds perfect to someone else might sound tinny, or brash, or overly bass-y to you. Or maybe you prefer a lot of bass. Or hardly any bass at all! Or maybe the room you're going to use them in sucks out all the treble and you need treble-heavy speakers to compensate.

The only way to really figure out what you want is to try a couple of 'em. So that's just what I did.

Falling In Love With EMP Tek

Back in 2009 I auditioned these three sets of affordable tower floorstanding speakers at home, all with money-back free-shipping-both-ways 30 day trial periods:

I found most of these by reading reviews at Audioholics:

http://www.audioholics.com/tower-speaker-reviews/axiom-m60-v2

http://www.audioholics.com/tower-speaker-reviews/emp-tek-impression-e5tir

(I was surprised when I went back and looked: Audioholics never reviewed the Intimus 5T. Why did I decide to try those? I'm not sure. I think it's because I saw the Audioholics review of the Intimus 6T, but I couldn't afford those. Perhaps I also stumbled across this positive CNet review of its cheaper little brother.)

Audioholics loved the E5Ti speakers. Not only are they very pretty and sound great—I find them pleasingly neutral, commanding, and sparklingly clear—but they were jaw-droppingly cheap. List price was $730 a pair, but at the time they had an introductory sale price of $400 a pair. Nearly half off! Compare that with $990 a pair for the other two brands. A couple months later Audioholics named the EMP Tek E5Ti their 2009 "Product Of The Year" for Affordable Floorstanding Loudspeakers.

I certainly loved mine. To be honest, I wanted them to win through the whole audition process—I was rooting for the underdog I guess. Still, I felt I gave the other speakers a fair shake. Frankly I was underwhelmed by the Intimus speakers. They were much smaller and I felt they sounded thinner. The other speakers I auditioned were all much beefier for the price. I actually thought the Axiom Audio speakers were a bit better than the EMP Tek speakers. But they were also physically much larger1 and the incremental improvement in sound wasn't worth more than double the price. They also seemed like overkill for my living room. The E5Ti speakers looked great, sounded great, and were way cheaper than the others. I spent several happy evenings just sitting listening to music on them, rediscovering old favorite albums and noticing things I hadn't heard before.

Unsurprisingly I kept the EMP Tek speakers and sent the rest back. I didn't just get the floorstanding speakers; I got a whole home theater setup. Naturally EMP Tek has a whole line of Impression speakers, all on the cheap. And Audioholics loves 'em all:

http://www.audioholics.com/bookshelf-speaker-reviews/emp-e56ci-e55wi

http://www.audioholics.com/recommended-systems/6k-home-theater-system

Still, I felt like the Axiom Audio speakers were just skoch better. I vowed that someday, when I had loads of money and an enormous home theater, I'd trade up to a beefy Axiom Audio setup. Now... I'm not so sure. Y'see, EMP Tek no longer makes the E5Ti. They only make its new big brother, the EMP Tek Impression E55Ti, later rechristened the RBH Sound Impression R55Ti. Like its little brother the E55Ti is also startlingly cheap. List price is $700 a pair, but it often goes on sale (particularly at Christmas) for $560 a pair. (Compare that to Axiom's M60, now nearly $1500 a pair!)

Happily Audioholics also loves the R55Ti:

http://www.audioholics.com/tower-speaker-reviews/emptek-e55ti

http://www.audioholics.com/tower-speaker-reviews/2010-1k-faceoff/copy_of_1k-faceoff-comparisons

http://rbhsound.com/images/pdf/AH_Top_AV_Gear_Guide_for_2014.pdf

What's it like? It's the same as the E5Ti only moreso. The actual drivers are unchanged, but it has two midranges instead of one, three woofers instead of two, and some requisite internal structural changes. It's taller but doesn't sport an appreciably larger footprint. Yet it has an appreciably improved sound. I just bought some of these for my home office as a Christmas present to myself. They'll be an enormous improvement over the bookshelf speakers I've been using!

Would I still prefer the Axiom Audio M60? I don't know—but then I'm too lazy to find out. Also I'm already invested in the EMP Tek Impression series, which is relevant because of...

Tonal Matching

When you buy speakers, it's important that they "tonally match". I don't understand the finer technical points of it. Part of it is the speaker's impedance: how much electricity does it take to drive the speakers, and therefore how loud do they get when fed a particular signal. Part of it is the speaker's timbre: how much / little do the speakers color the sound. Bottom line, I have a brilliant audio researcher friend, he says it's important, I'll stick with that. So as a rule you shouldn't mix-and-match speakers from different manufacturers, or even different product lines from the same manufacturer, unless they specifically say the speakers match well. Otherwise if you mix-and-match they won't sound quite right.

Subwoofers

Sadly EMP Tek no longer makes the two subwoofers in the Impression line. Rumor has it they'll have a new Impression subwoofer in March 2015. But the bass on the R55Ti's speakers is fine—it only starts to fall off around 55Hz, which is all you really need. As a rule, if you've got good speakers, you only really need a sub for that thump-in-your-chest feeling.

And it turns out subwoofers are the one place where you actually can mix and match. Powered subwoofers usually (always?) have an adjustable crossover frequency that lets you set the highest frequency the subwoofer will play. So all you need do is set that to the bottom cutoff frequency of your main speakers (e.g. 55Hz for the E55Ti) and they should match just fine. (Well, okay, you may also need to adjust the "phase" of the subwoofer too.)

What about unpowered subwoofers? Well, they do exist, but they're much rarer. Receivers generally don't have amplified outputs for subwoofers, I suspect because they use so much more power than the other speakers. So you'd wind up buying a special amp just for your unpowered subwoofer, and that would provide the adjustments you'd need to fiddle with.

We Undercut Our Dealers And Pass The Savings On To You

One final note. I knew that EMP Tek was a brand-new division of the well-established RBH Sound. For years I wondered... why? Why create this new division? Why not just sell your speakers under the RBH Sound brand?

My guess is, this is why:

UNAUTHORIZED DEALER WARNING!

RBH Sound home audio products are sold world-wide through a network of authorized dealers carefully selected by RBH Sound. Some of these dealers may have Web sites on which they also promote RBH Sound products but are not available for sale through the internet. There are no authorized RBH Sound dealers who offer to sell, or actually sell, new and current RBH Sound home audio products from an Internet or auction-type Web site. [...]

In short, they were honor-bound (perhaps legally bound?) to not undercut their distributors and authorized dealers. But this new age of Internet speaker retailing was passing them by. Maybe that's why they set up EMP Tek: to sell direct to their customers over the internet, sidestep all the middlemen, and pass the savings on to you. But they couldn't do it with their existing speaker lines. Thus the all-new EMP Tek brand and speaker designs were born. This is all supposition of course. But as with many things in life: follow the money.

These days the distinction between EMP Tek and RBH Sound seems to be less distinct. They still sell the speakers through the EMP Tek website, but they're now branded as RBH—the shipping box says RBH, and the speakers have an RBH logo on them, and RBH's web site links directly to them. Maybe the dealer network didn't give them as much flak as they'd feared?

[1]My sonic ranking of 5T < E5Ti < M60 is, by no small coincidence, the same as ranking them from smallest to largest. I guess my brain automatically thinks "bigger speaker = better sound". I'm probably dumb and wrong.

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