04 Jun 2016

Why you need different loudspeakers for different listening modes

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Speaker graphic by www.shutterstock.com Speaker graphic by www.shutterstock.com Shutterstock / RedShark Sound

We explore why you may want to stray from relying on an all-in-one loudspeaker solution.

I've been testing a very wide variety of loudspeakers recently and have started to realise that no one speaker is ideal for all listening situations.

This is quite obvious when you think about sound reinforcement at a concert hall versus listening to a chamber orchestra in your living room. However, even at home, I believe you listen in different modes and, when you do, you want different things from your loudspeakers.

Actually, there are exceptions to this rule, but they're going to be expensive. Companies like B&W have taken the art of multi-driver speaker design about as far as it can go, but things can get very expensive at the top end.

Accuracy mode

I listen to speakers in several distinct modes. Some of them overlap.

When I'm in Audiophile mode, I want to have the most accurate experience possible. Ideally, all the instruments in a recording should sound as if they're in their own place and the space between them should be as obvious as if you were looking at them. This applies to big orchestral recordings or smaller acoustic sessions. Vocals should be pure and clear and not edgy or artificially enhanced. They should also be intelligible (if they were intended to be!).

Drums and other rhythm instruments should be tight and accurate. Phase issues can give the impression of lag – or just a little sense of confusion in drums and this is much more noticeable in some speakers than others. When I say "tight," I don't mean "dry" in the sense of having little or no reverb. Drums can still sound tight even if they're in a "wet" environment, as long as the reverb is faithfully reproduced. Where the recording was made in a "live" room, the room itself should be clearly audible.

Piano needs to be full and rounded. Piano notes are immensely complicated, because the instrument itself is a complex object. The sound comes not just from the strings vibrating, but just about everything else in the piano to varying degrees. All of this results in a swirling tapestry of sound that has to be recorded and reproduced sympathetically or it will just sound generic. Even a single note has a structure that modulates and morphs as it dies away.

Bass talk

Bass is difficult. The problem is that low notes have a lot of energy and, because of this, loudspeakers have to move a lot of air. To do this, they typically have to be big. But there's more to bass than volume. This is a clear example of where I like to listen in two modes, on two different types of loudspeaker.

I really like electronic music, a lot of EDM and more experimental stuff. I also like drum and bass and jungle. There are all sorts of modern genres where the aim is to create energy and, basically, to make you want to dance. A lot of this music is mixed in the knowledge that it will be played loud, probably on the sort of speakers you'd find in clubs. There's little expectation of quality in the sense of accuracy and purity. What's far more important is that the energy and the groove come across. In fact, most electronic musicians' toolkits include various ways to distort, as well as to record cleanly. That's not to say that it's therefore OK for the reproducing equipment to distort as well, but just that priorities lie on a different axis.

Quite obviously, listening to classical music or "unplugged" pop and jazz needs a different kind of setup. This is where you need accurate music and – here's the crunch – less bass, at least arguably. And this suits the type of speaker that is designed for accurate sound.

Typically, these speakers will be smaller, with pin-point accurate imaging. If they're well-designed, they'll have a smooth bass tail-off so that while the lowest notes won't rattle the windows, they'll still be there, and quite probably in proportion to the original performance.

Inexperienced listeners often mistake a lot of bass for quality. This is also the mistake made by a lot of subwoofers. When you slam a door, you don't hear the low frequencies separately; they're fully integrated with the overall sound. And – get this – they're much, much less obvious than you'd think.

It's the same with a double bass, a cello, an unprocessed bass guitar and male, bass singers. They're actually not so obviously bassy.

So if you can live without stomach-shaking bass, you're going to have a better audiophile life. Go for the smaller, more accurate speakers, an amp with plenty of guts (which essentially means a big, heavy power supply, to grossly oversimplify) and use good speaker cable.

And if you need that club or rave experience, then just buy some loud speakers. Some of the computer gaming loudspeakers out there, self powered with a sub-woofer, are ideal and very cheap.

Graphic by Shutterstock


David Shapton

David is the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications. He's been a professional columnist and author since 1998, when he started writing for the European Music Technology magazine Sound on Sound. David has worked with professional digital audio and video for the last 25 years.

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