Most audiophiles will recognize that of the myriad components in audio playback chains, loudspeakers have always been the subject of the most rigorous, passionate, and inconclusive debates. And there's plenty of evidence suggesting that this trend won't be changing any time soon.
Specifications might weigh heavily in the analysis of other high-fidelity entities, but they take on a whole new significance with loudspeakers. Because we all hear and listen differently, however, there's little room for unbiased assessments, and audiophiles are unlikely to reach consensus. Recently, Jeffrey W. Fritz, editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network, has added more fuel to the debate with two insightful articles: "Do You Always Get What You Pay For?" and "Comparisons on Paper: B&W 803 Diamond vs. Tidal Contriva Diacera SE."
Clearly there must be some sensible approach to evaluating loudspeakers. But because customers are rarely able to audition equipment in their own homes, they're often forced to make purchases in pressure-filled, aurally blind circumstances. Are we forgetting that without patrons there can be no industry? Consumers need to be numerous, nurtured and nourished, and dealers should never treat them like audio neophytes.
A scientific approach to loudspeaker assessment
Before writing this article for Ultra Audio, I had the opportunity to spend two days at Rockport Technologies' facility in Maine, listening to Andrew Payor's awesome products performing in their natural habitat. This experience encouraged me to draw on my scientific background and develop loudspeaker-evaluation criteria that anyone could use to generate a considerably less subjective appraisal.
After considerable deliberation, I chose three criteria: sound, technical, and build quality. Each was further divided into categories that defined overall levels of quality. In due course, these criteria should allow audiophiles to decipher the mysteries that shroud our ability to evaluate high-end loudspeakers.
Loudspeakers: good, better, best, or bad, worse, worst?
The levels of quality spiral upwards in four steps from poor to exceptional. The majority would be deemed satisfactory (entry level) or good. As each criterion is governed by guidelines, an evaluator must simply consider the descriptions in each section. Once it's been assessed, a particular loudspeaker system will fall into a specific rating. Unbiased use of the criteria should result in increased consumer confidence in the buying process.
Carol's sunken cathedral
Loudspeaker designers, like recording engineers, seek to develop a sonic signature over time. But for the former, a range of commodities is created that fits into different price categories. So what criteria do manufacturers use to satisfy and sustain a market with enough variety while simultaneously developing their own sonic signature?
I asked Andy Payor to share his thoughts about what audiophiles should glean from comparing four of his offerings in different price brackets under identical conditions. I chose the flagship Arrakis ($225,000/pair), Altair ($97,500/pair), Aquila ($46,500/pair), and Ankaa ($27,500/pair). Payor's comments should offer insight into proper and unbiased use of my criteria and descriptions.
For this experiment I picked one musical test piece for Payor to use: La Cathédrale Engloutie, specifically track 5 from the Carol Rosenberger CD Water Music of the Impressionists (Delos DE 3006). Carol plays her favorite Bösendorfer concert grand, affectionately named Bösie, in Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, California. Founder of Delos, Amelia Haygood, and recording engineer Stan Ricker, creator of the famous half-speed mastering process for vinyl, selected the venue.
Amelia claimed the hall had "a good music-making ambience" and said that the goal of the engineering was to "create the sensation that you (the listener) are seated in the choice seats -- about ten to 12 rows back in the hall." The digital encoder was the first commercial Soundstream unit that Dr. Thomas Stockham designed and built. The point here is that you should choose your musical reference material carefully, become intimately familiar with it, and use the same selections for each audition.
Andy Payor's tantalizing prelude
"Carol's superlative performance immediately conjures images where the peace and serenity of a Sunday afternoon are rudely interrupted by the awesome power and brute force of a thunderstorm. This irresistible force devastates one's premises, wreaks havoc, leaving nothing but a trail of entropy and destruction in its wake. Thereafter, serenity and finally tranquillity prevail; the thunder pales insignificantly in the distance and eventually fades altogether. Such a predictable behavioral pattern is typical of all other natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanoes.
"Just as nature unleashes energy with limitless abandon and without constraint, the Arrakis reproduces the most complex or meekest musical passages fluently, with aplomb, stealth and panache in a large room. Even though it is a direct-radiator driver design, because of its size, inertia and meticulously created transducer complement, this flagship loudspeaker is not constrained, as most of its smaller counterparts are, by the confines of ineffective coupling to the mechanical impedance of the air/mass load that it encounters.
"The Arrakis reproduces music in much the same effortless manner in which a planing powerboat travels when unrestricted by wave-speed phenomena. Once that barrier is broken, it simply skims the surface as opposed to a sailboat which must always displace water arduously in order to move. The Arrakis reproduces the enriched bourdon special effect described by Carol and the rumbling beat frequencies resonating from Bösie's sounding board in such an uncanny, lifelike manner that it reinforces my eerie comparison of the experience to a thunderstorm.
"On the other hand the Altair would have to work much harder in a room of the same size and could never obtain the same sense of unforced presentation that is the hallmark of its bigger brother, the Arrakis. Even in a space that was perfectly matched to their specifications and performance characteristics, the Aquila and Ankaa would not be able to faithfully recreate Bösie's majestic grandeur either. This is because by definition and necessity, the scale of Carol's huge instrument would have already been minimized to a certain degree."
Clearly the Arrakis meet the criteria of exceptional in every category below. The other, less-ambitious Rockport speakers would certainly be close: the Altair would also be in the exceptional category, and the Ankaa and Aquila would be good, bordering on exceptional, largely depending on the room.
Reaching a consensus
So what design parameters contribute to the overall cost of building audiophile loudspeaker systems? The answer most likely involves a comprehensive assessment of drivers, crossovers, and cabinet, as integrated into an overall design ideal. These are the factors that ultimately determine a loudspeaker's ability to produce accurate sound. But we also have to consider the loudspeaker-room interface, and because consumers must buy according to what they can house and power, manufacturers should assist customers by proposing appropriate room sizes for their wares.
My Criteria for Evaluating Audiophile Loudspeaker Systems:
- Deft interplay between voices and instruments in three dimensions
- Hyper-finely delineated, coherent, balanced, layered soundstage
- Total absence of coloration and any tendency for listener fatigue
- Seemingly unconstrained dynamic range, lightning-fast transient response
- Intrinsic ability to resolve micro detail and complex passages fluently
- Quantitatively visceral, oomphy reproduction of bass and percussion
- Unforgettable, serendipitous aural memories for the listener
- Surreal, palpable articulation and ruthless delivery of the musical truth
- Uncanny ability to teleport the listener to the original event
- Dexterous interplay between voices and instruments in three dimensions
- Finely etched, balanced, coherent, heterogeneous soundstage
- Noticeable absence of coloration and any tendency for listener fatigue
- Extremely wide dynamic range and crisp transient response
- Ingrained ability to resolve micro detail and complex passages
- Qualitatively visceral, vivacious reproduction of bass and percussion
- Explicit, opportune, aural memories for the listener
- Unblemished articulation and impeccable delivery of the musical truth
- Inherent potential to sustain heightened listener interest
- Nimble interplay between voices and instruments in three dimensions
- Clear, balanced, coherent, blatant soundstage
- Barest minimum of coloration and the tendency for listener fatigue
- Limited dynamic range and a tendency for transients to overhang
- Reasonably competent at resolving micro detail and complex passages
- Meek reproduction of bass and percussion in the final octave
- Impressive, pleasant aural memories for the listener
- Cogent articulation and concise delivery of the musical truth
- Distinct confirmation of encouraging signs of listener enthusiasm
- Veiled interplay between voices and instruments in three dimensions
- Imprecise, constricted soundstage, not sufficiently coherent or balanced
- Verification of coloration and the tendency for listener fatigue
- Evidence of constrained dynamic range and sluggishness
- Some difficulty in resolving micro detail and complex passages
- Non-testicular reproduction of bass and percussion in the final octave
- Pleasant, satisfying aural memories for the listener
- Lucid articulation and pleasant delivery of the musical truth
- Arbitrary illusions of unfulfilled listener interest
- Unhindered, substantially linear frequency response
- Unmitigated low-frequency extension (last octave)
- Seemingly unrestrained acoustic output reserve capability
- Vanishingly low harmonic and intermodulation distortion
- Ethereal transient response and reproduction of sibilants
- Innately compatible with all high-end amplifiers
- Extended, generally smooth frequency response
- Generous low-frequency extension (last octave)
- Abundant acoustic output reserve capability
- Ultra-low harmonic and intermodulation distortion
- Superb transient response and reproduction of sibilants
- Substantially compatible with most high-end amplifiers
- Trends toward flat frequency response
- Partial low-frequency extension (last octave)
- Limited acoustic output reserve capability
- Audibly low harmonic and intermodulation distortion
- Crisp transient response and reproduction of sibilants
- Primarily compatible with most high-end amplifiers
- Corrugated, nonlinear frequency response
- Restricted low-frequency extension (last octave)
- Truncated acoustic output reserve capacity
- Audible harmonic and intermodulation distortion
- Insubstantial transient response and reproduction of sibilants
- Moderately compatible with most high-end amplifiers
- Unblemished design and engineering, robust packaging
- Impeccable workmanship and trendy, tasteful, tangibly tactile finish
- Comprehensive, preferably multi-lingual owner's manual
- Blanket or unconditional warranty and after-sales service
- Entrenched, prestigious, universally recognised brand name
- Highly proficient, motivated, professional distribution network
- Excellent, frequent reviews from renowned audio journalists
- Price range unequivocally accepted by all stakeholders
- Brilliant design and engineering, solid packaging
- Immaculate workmanship and stylish, superb, solid finish
- Thorough, preferably multi-lingual owner's manual
- Extensive warranty and after-sales service
- Established, high-profile, universally recognized brand name
- Well-organized, enthusiastic, professional distribution network
- Commendable, timely reviews from renowned audio journalists
- Price range universally approved by consensus
- Competent design, engineering and packaging
- Refined workmanship and classy, proficient, elegant finish
- In-depth owner's manual in at least one language
- Universally accepted standard warranty and after-sales service
- Well-known, hard-working brand name
- Competent, eager, professional distribution network
- Favorable, occasional reviews from renowned audio journalists
- Deemed aptly suitable for price range
- Undemanding design, engineering and packaging
- Neat workmanship and conservative, basic, trim finish
- Non-detailed owner's manual in one language
- Limited warranty and after-sales service
- Low-profile, questionable brand name
- Diminutive, unreachable distribution network
- Sporadic or poor reviews from renowned audio journalists
- Considered overpriced
My hope is that these criteria for judging high-end loudspeakers will help you find your perfect transducer.
Dedicated to my fondest memories of Amelia Haygood, Neil Lau, Edward Mc Dowell, and Lionel Seemungal.
. . . Simeon Louis Sandiford