Are loudspeakers that different?

I never get to audition speakers since I have NO dealers near me. This week I was able to listen to Totem speakers while on a trip. I could not believe the difference compared to my Aerials!
The reason I posted this is I wanted some feedback - - I had been starting to get the impression that speakers were different but not strikingly so, like my impression of CD players. This audition changed my mind. Then I began wondering about the differences between modest costing speakers and expensive one (7k plus). Can anyone share their experiences with listening and comparing, who what where...?
Thanks...cause ultimately I thought I had shook the upgrade bug....

Hi, Jimmy:

As I have commented before in these pages, speakers present THE greatest degree of variability of any component in an audio system (I know some will argue this point, but based on 40 years of audiophile listening -- and selling high-end gear -- I stick to my guns).

Phono cartridges and speakers are usually the only two electrical transducers in a normal audio system (transducers being the components that transform mechanical energy into electrical energy (cartridges), or electrical energy into mechanical energy (speakers)). The ideal for a transducer is to perfectly duplicate the original audio signal, without introducing distortion, non-linearities, etc. This is much more difficult to do accurately than most people think.

Over the past 100 years or so, a lot of different approaches to speaker design have been tried: horns, dynamic cones, electrostatic panels, magnetic planar panels, ribbons, ionic drivers, etc. Beyond the obvious differences in the design of the speaker, you must then wrestle with the kind of materials used (there are at least a half-dozen different material compositions being used today in the cones of dynamic drivers alone), the inherent non-linearities of the voice coil or driving element, the effects of the crossover (if one is used), etc. A similar range of problems occurs in the design of cartridges, with the added complexity of extremely small size and incredibly tight tolerances.

Ultimately, once the design of a speaker has been decided, the "art form" takes over from the science, and speakers must be tuned by ear. Given the variability in human hearing, with the differences in acuity -- not to mention that there are probably significant subjective differences in HOW each of hear and translate sound in our brains -- and what each of thinks sounds "good", it should be no surprise that there is a LOT of difference in how speakers sound.

If you read this forum often, you have seen the on-going debates between the adherents of dynamic speakers vs. the lovers of electrostatics vs. the admirers of horns, etc. What all of this demonstrates, in summary, is that only YOU can decide which speakers sounds "best" to you and appeals to your asthetic tastes.

The other aspect of your question addresses the relative performance and value of expensive vs. less expensive speakers. I recently posted the summary of an article about value in high-end audio which was written by Richard Hardesty, wherein he made a number of points about the prevalence of hyperexpensive speakers (and other audio gear) which often carries the implied promise of much better performance than more modestly priced equipment. Hardesty commented that high price is NOT necessarily a guarantee of higher performance. With speakers, there are a lot of really excellent speakers today in the $2500-3500 range (for a stereo pair), such as the Thiel 1.6's, Vandersteen 3A Signatures, Magneplanar 1.6R's, to mention only three. The most salient point that Hardesty made in his article is that you should audition all audio gear, and particularly speakers, without regard to price. You will probably find that many of the mid-priced products offer all of the performance of the higher-priced spreads, although they may lack some of the "status appeal" and appearance of the more expensive competition.

Sorry to ramble on, but speakers have long been, and continue to be (IMO), the most difficult single audio component to buy. You are wise to solicit input from others, but ultimately you will have to do a LOT of listening (remember: put your price prejudices aside), and then trust your own ears.
Jimmy; It seems to me that-- in my limited experience-- what you pay for when buying expensive speakers is 1. deeper and more articulate bass, and 2. a much more revealing character in the mids and treble. In general I would say that this is good assuming you have very high quality source and amplification components driving them. But if you don't, you could be very disappointed. And at this level, component synergy becomes even more critical. Cheers. Craig
...every speaker is designed for a particular listening room. for every speaker the amp must be matched to it's maximum perfection. Larger more expencive speakers are for larger rooms. If one listening room occupies 2 floors and has 2000 sQft area than you'll probably need Genesis 1.1 to fill it with the air. At the same time if you will place the same Genesis onto the 200 sqFt room with low ceiling you might not bring to yourself a desirable result meaning that you'd probably better off with under $6000 speakers for the very very best.

Thus I believe that there is a limit of spending that depends on the size of room and listening position beyond which you will not get improvements.
There are huge differences between all audio components, check out opinions here on Audiogon thread archives and try for more information about the differences between various speakers and cd players.
Sdcampbell is entirely correct. Speakers exhibit by far more variability than any other component in the audio chain. The winds of audiophile fashion have blown from various quarters over the years. Right now the fashion is to say, "The source is everything," which sounds good but just ain't so. You'll hear people say, "A good source can make a cheap speaker sound good," and that is true up to a rather limited point. But the electronics will not change the essential CHARACTER of the sound that the speakers produce. Read the endless threads about single-driver versus multi-driver systems, or about e'statics versus dynamics or about ported versus closed-box versus TL versus horn cabinet designs. Any of these designs, well executed, can produce glorious sound but the character of that sound will tend to be different on the basis of the fundamental characteristics of the designs, themselves. If a horn speaker sounds hooty (the "Winchester Cathedral" sound) with one set of electronics, then it will sound hooty with every set of electronics. If a Lowther design truncates the ends of the frequency spectrum in favor of a delicious midrange, then various electronics might make a little difference, but not a whole lot because the foundational characteristics of the sound of a Lowther system are bounded by the design of the driver, not the electrons coursing through it.

I'm from time to time bemused to visit the homes of new or old audiophile friends and find them listening to hideously expensive electronics, cables, and power systems played through cheap speakers, saying as they do so, "Well, you know, the source is everything." Then they come to my house, where they hear good but not splendiferous electronics (Belles, Rega, etc.) played through absolutely fantastic speakers. And their eyes pop out. Not that my system is the be-all-and-end-all of everything by any means, but simply because they discover how much impact on the sound of the system depends on the speakers.

Let me just close on an objectivist note here, because I know some of y'all are itching to get to the bottom of this post and start writing rebuttals. :) The literature is replete with instances in which critical listeners in short-term ABX trials have been unable to differentiate among various amplifiers or preamps or cables or other source-related elements. Now, without going into all the interesting things that could, can, and will be said about the limitations of ABX testing, keep in mind that virtually EVERYONE, in ABX speaker comparisons, can reliably differentiate among different speakers. That's a telling point.

But, hey, when all is said and done do what gives you pleasure and satisfaction. That is, or should be, the name of the audio game.

Good luck and let us know what you choose.

Hi, "Bishop":

It's always nice to find someone else who shares my opinions (grin)...

The one point I failed to make in my original post, which is an important factor in speaker design, is the importance of the enclosure. Every other aspect of a speaker's design can be good, but if the cabinet is too resonant, or has diffractive edges, or etc., etc., etc., then the speaker is not going to sound good.

More money for a speaker usually ensures better cabinets -- but not always. Sometimes, more money just buys nicer cosmetic touches, such as really beautiful rosewood veneer. In a number of audio articles I've read over the past 5 years, various writers have commented that the cost of the speaker's cabinet can account for up to 65% of the overall manufacturing cost.

As a comparive discussion point, consider the Vandersteen line, which spends relatively little money on exterior cosmetics (except for the Model 5). Vandersteen instead spends the manufacturing portion of the budget on top quality drivers, crossover components, and solid cabinetry. The cabinets are made of MDF, with excellent internal bracing, but the jersey sock which covers everything costs very little.

My own experience directly parallels Bishop's: really good speakers driven by competent but not top-of-the-line electronics will -- 99% of the time -- sound better than average speakers driven by very costly source and amplifier electronics.
Another variable...listening room! Jimmy2615, you didn't say where you auditioned these speakers! There are many schlock "high-end dealers" who don't have a clue about proper set-up. And a speaker will always sound different in your own home. I once auditioned a pair of Maggie 1.6's that were powered by a 50 watt amp (way, WAY underpowered) and connected by "zip cord". In addition, there were 20 other speakers in the room, all resonating, and one wall of the room was GLASS!! I bought the Maggies anyway, and with proper set up and power, I really loved them!
Jimmy, Scott and Will are correct, in general, though I might disagree with them about the speakers they prefer,and probably disagree a lot about any notions of "synergy." Well-designed cd players and amps are not hard to find, and if well designed, will not differ by much. Just look at the measurements. The noise floor (distortion components mostly) of electronic components is much lower than that of speakers. Plus, the measured frequency response of almost all electronic components is fairly close to flat, whereas speakers tend to vary quite a bit.

There are hundreds and hundreds of speakers in the market, some of them very poorly designed, and there is not much correlation between price and quality. Look at John Atkinson's measurements of some very expensive speakers in the latest Stereophile and read between the lines of his comments. An "enigma" because they sound good to the reviewer but measure weird, means he doesnt know what his reviewer was smoking.

With respect, and fondness, I believe Craig is incorrect when he says that the big differences in speakers are at the frequency extremes. In fact, the big differences are in the midrange, except for really poor designs showing through in the upper bass (boom) and treble (excessive sibilance or lispiness).

In the $2500 retail price range, there are some very good speakers. I dont think it's necessary to spend any more than that for speakers, and there are some wonderful small speakers at lower price points (e.g., Harbeth HLP3ES's and Epos M12's - neither of which do I own). The Vandersteens are well received by consumers as well as reviewers, at very reasonable price points. At all price points, from $200 to $30k and above, there are some absolutely horrible speakers.

Audition as many speakers as you need to before you find a pair that you like. If they have been reviewed with measurements, take the measurements seriously. Finally, consider the effect of your room. Hard reflective surfaces, like low ceilings, nearby walls and coffee tables, will affect the frequency response at your listening position, regardless of which speakers you choose.

Couldn't agree more SdCampbell, the cartridge and speakers are the most variable, and crucial, elements in the audio equation. And Bishopwill, which killer speakers are you using, 'speakers-first' adherents really want to know!
Fatparrot, you are right on target. The contribution made by the room can make or break even the finest, most synergetic of combinations. That's why I argue that in-home audition is so vital, even if it means paying ghastly shipping charges or driving hundreds of miles. The pain and expense of arranging in-home auditions are as nothing compared to the pain of buying something that doesn't work in your space and not discovering that until too late to return the product.

Sdcampbell and Grandpad (BTW, is that "Grandpa D" as in I have really nice grandchildren or "Grand Pad" as in I have a really nice house?) also hit the nail on the head when they pointed out the sonic contribution of the phono cartridge. Your prelate gave up vinyl years ago but can still remember moving from a BIC giveaway turntable to an NAD "floppy arm" with a Shure V15. Wow! What a difference.

Happy listening. Do let us know what you decide.


My HT system uses Paradigm Studio 100v2s as mains and I could not be happier with them for that purpose. Decried as they are for being "mass produced" few if any speakers at their various price points have garnered as many positive reviews from every corner of the audio spectrum as have Paradigms.

My 2-channel system uses JMLabs Utopias.

And you?

Oops! Let your prelate not be accused of exaggerating his system.

I use JMLabs MEZZO Utopias.

Thanks folks, appreciate the insight. If I can redirect however, and get your additional input, I should have been more clear perhaps. Since I can not audition speakers I was hoping to do so through anyone willing to offer their experiences - - by proxy if you will. I have been exposed (through reading and experience) to most of the previous posts' philosophies.
I prefer my Aerials by the way. The Totems I listened to were great, hooked up to Myriad electronics and in what I thought was an excellently prepared room. I have a Sony SCD player and the Rowland integrated. Debate over quality of electronics may be pertinent, but I thought the Totems really sounded great - just not my taste, though I will confidently say female vocals sound more realistic through my system.
The Totem sound was holographic (I wondered what people were talking about before I heard these) without any irritants, and decent bass. Somehow the whole thing seemed less solid though. (Similar to Soliloquy? - have not heard them).
So, if anyone can tell me what they have auditioned and what it sounded like, compared to something else, that would be great (every review in a magazine should do this I think)! I realize speaker timbre is a matter of taste, but there can't be more than a dozen general "types" of speaker sounds, if not less, and within each group the "better" performers. For example, in a post I just read, someone said that the Avalon Eidelons had a very open soundstage compared to the emphasis on center focus of B&W's best offerings. This is a very similar comparison I have made between the Totem and Aerials, respectively. It would be nice for those of us who can not audition them to know the sound of, and differences between, for example Utopias, Eidelons, Salons, etc. etc., and even as compared to 2k speakers.
I realize that's a lot to ask and brings about some question of ambiguity and generalization, so thanks if you care to offer your words....!
Hi Paulwp; The point I was trying to make is that it is expensive and difficult to design/build a speaker that has "high quality" bass below say 30-35 HZ. There are many inexpensive speakers that will produce deep bass, but it's typically loose, boomy, and uncontrolled.

My Vand. 3As had "good" bass into the mid 30 HZ, but they absolutely cannot compare to the bass of the Vand. 5s which have excellent bass into the low-mid 20 HZ-- but it cost quite a bit to get this quality bass. But the 3As had an excellent mid-range, ie much like the Vand. 5s. Inexpensive speakers with a very good mid-range are common among "high end" speakers, ie the Vand. 2Ces-- all IMO of course. I do agree that it is not as much of a problem with tweeters. Cheers. Craig
Hate to burst your bubble, Jimmy, but there are a lot more than a dozen speaker "sounds." You're looking for the easy way out, and there ain't one. Seems to me you want to choose a speaker based on other audiophiles' reactions to them. There are three problems here:
1) Every speaker sounds different, often vastly different.
2) Every listener's subjective reation to a speaker is different (and probablt different from yours).
3) A speaker in one room won't sound the same as a speaker in another, even to the same set of ears (and room size is only one reason why).

If ya really wanna be an audiophile, ya gotta get the speakers home, and set up in your room. That's doable, if you have dealers (including online dealers) who are willing to cooperate. You'll pay in shipping costs, but that's the price of admission to this sickness--I mean hobby.

That said, folks here can help you narrow the field (though you need to take every comment with several grains of salt--see #2 above). It would be helpful if you would tell us what price range you're interested in, room set-up, musical tastes. Even better, shop around a bit, find out what's available to you, and then seek out opinions on the most plausible candidates.

Just remember: Your ears, nobody else's.
You got a lot of solid advice in a very short time, Jimmy. Excuse me if I am wrong, but it seems to me you have already decided on the Totem, and what you may need is a pat on the back. No?
Will, sources Oracle V/Graham 2.2/Helikon SL & Koetsu Onyx; and AA Captiole Mk I. Speakers Von Schweikert VR-5HSEs.

Don't have a true HT system, but augment video sound with Spendor S3/5s and Sub3 (no center)- very enjoyable for audio too.
Grandpad: Nice!

Bomarc: Excellent advice. It's a damned shame when one lives a zillion miles from good dealers but you're absolutely on target here. If Jimmy wants the gain he's gonna hafta bear the pain: shipping speakers in and out, driving lots of miles to hear them, making his significant other and everyone else around him crazy. Making himself crazy. Perhaps the definitive test for certifiable audiophilia will be whether or not he finds this process pleasurable. :)