mega speaker audition (long post)



I posted this early this morning on an American forum but I thought I'd try this here as many more of you will be familiar with B&W speakers.

I had a nine hour speaker audition marathon yesterday. I went to four stores, listened to six brands, almost had a winner but got blindsided at the end of the day. I have a couple more to check tomorrow but I have a few questions/notions to pose before round 2 begins.

A bit of background.

I have a new (haven't had it home yet) Arcam AVR200. On the advice of several in here plus some of my own research, I have, in the last few weeks, auditioned (the bulk of them yesterday) the following speakers.
(in the following order)

Monitor Audio, Bronze series, B4 floorstander w/mid range Yamaha electronics
Impressions: nice mids, smooth highs, warm and polite, an early favourite
Monitor Audio, Silver series, similar size, can't recall the model number, same electronics
Impressions: too polite, like listening through a thick bedsheet
Salesguy very good about letting me play in the room by myself, made few recommendations or sales pitches.

Definitive Technology, bookshelf, don't remember the model number, MacIntosh amplifier, sony cd player
Impressions: too aggressive in the highs, too in your face, was fatigued in 5 mins.
Kef Q series, bookshelf, don't remember the exact model number, same electronics,
Impressions: too muddy, no clear definition, too warm
Energy xl250s, floorstanders, same electronics,
Impressions: nice mids and clear highs, a tad bright, good with acoustic guitar
Salesguy friendly, not pushy, let me listen at my own pace, fairly knowledgeable

Energy C-5, C-9, through Denon 2803, Integra 7.4, Arcam AVR200,
Impressions: too harsh w/Denon, decent w/Integra, came alive w/Arcam, a bit more detailed than my usual preference for warm sound, but tamed by Arcam--helped me decide on the Arcam
Salesguy/owner friendly, reasonably knowledgeable, not pushy

Today's marathon

Paradigm Monitor 5s with and without Reel Acoustic 10" sub (don't know model number) through Rotel DVD/av receiver combo
Impressions: warm sound, strong mids, a touch too relaxed on the highs, successfully tamed some of my harsher cds (Matthew Sweet)
was very impressed with several tracks of O Brother Where Art thou Soundtrack, thought I had a winner
Salesguy pleasant, friendly, patient (spent 3 hours) thorough answers to my many questions, did not push to my budget's limits just to make a buck

PSB Image 5T, through Marantz, don't know model number
Impressions: incredibly bad room (especially since it's dedicated to audition speakers) bare hardwood floor, large glass wall,
Moved to another, marginally better room. At low volume, nice balance from highs to low-mids, mids disappear at moderate to high volume. To be fair, the rooms were horrible.
Salesguy young, apologetic about room, reasonably pleasant

Quick recheck of Energy C-5s through Cambridge Audio amp/preamp
Similar to experience w/Arcam, not as nice as Paradigms
Mission M34s, same electronics
smooth highs, good bass response but mids too reticent, a bit like the PSBs, (though in a much better environment, so less pronounced), a bit more detailed highs than Paradigm but not nearly as well rounded
Salesguy reasonably pleasant, somewhat aloof

By this point, I thought I had a winner. I've been searching for the elusive match to my old beloved speakers, the mid 80s vintage Celestion DL6s and the Paradigm Monitor 5s seem quite close.

I had time for one more store before meeting some friends for dinner and that's when all my assumptions about what in sound I want were unexpectedly and seriously challenged.

I went to the only store on my list that, according to their website, carries both Arcam and a brand recommended to me by several people, Acoustic Energy. On arriving the manager informed me that they no longer carry the brand but invited me to listen to some other speakers. He was somewhat pedantic but this was a different kind of store. Unlike all the others, each listening room was set up with only one system at a time. Speakers are placed one pair or set at a time and removed for replacement with others. The rooms are set up like semi-idealized versions of real world environments, tasteful furnishings, wall hangings, rugs etc. The manager explained that each room had been tested for ideal speaker placement for each speaker set they carry and marked for such (you can sense the attention to detail here, this is not Best Buy).

He then told me something I'd never heard or read about, but provided a demonstration. He asked me if any of the places where I'd auditioned various speakers had any rooms that had only the speakers actually being used for the audition. The answer is no and I asked why. His answer (the short version, I'm not an engineer or technician) was that even speakers that are not active are "driven" by the same soundwaves that are picked up by the human ear and this has the effect of altering the sound characteristics of the active speakers, something to do with phase issues, frequency cancellation and the like. To prove his point, he placed a pair of speakers in the room, played one of my test tracks, added a single speaker to the room without hooking it up, replayed the track, and repeated the experiment with another of my test tracks. There was a detectable, though slight, interference with the sound. (I know that this could be simple psychoacoustics, but I feel pretty certain that the effect is real) His point was if one idle speaker could do this,if only slightly, two to three dozen idle speakers would have a commensurately greater effect. I don't know enough physics to argue this point and cannot imagine an effective way to test for this, at least not in a time-efficient manner. (No I do NOT intend to go back and relisten to everything individually without other speakers in the room. I don't have that kind of time or strength)

I wondered if the effect was noticeable because the speakers were, to my ears, unusually detailed. The speakers in question were the B&W CM2s, a bookshelf pair. I'd auditioned the 300 series last fall, through mid-level Yamaha electronics, in my early stages of speaker shopping and found them too bright and forward for my taste, similar to my experience with Boston Acoustic VRMs (I think that's what they were) and so I'd dismissed the entire B&W collection. However, and herein lies my dilemma, the CM2s have me re-examining my otherwise solid preference for the Paradigms.

The Paradigms were like my old speakers, only better. They were comfortable and reassuring. The B&Ws were like meeting someone who challenges some of your most cherished assumptions but persuasively lead you to consider changing them. When I listened to the a capella choral spiritual (Track 4 on the O Brother... soundtrack) on the Paradigms, I heard voices that I didn't know were there and I was very impressed. On the B&Ws, the singers seemed to be right in the room with me. There was a whole new level of detail and realism. My first 30 second impression of them was like the 300s, too bright, but unlike the 300s, they didn't become harsh, just revealing. Perhaps the Arcam is much better suited to the B&Ws than the Yamaha, perhaps the CMs are significantly better, likely both. Over the next hour, I found myself more and more drawn to the life-like quality of the sound. Brubeck's Take Five, an old favourite, which I've etched into memory, sounded (and I know this is a cliche) almost like a brand new song. Certainly the tape hiss became more apparent, but that was more than made up for by the increased clarity of each instrument, the nuances I'd never noticed in the drum solo. I think I finally understand what is meant by soundstage and imaging, whereas before I really only guessed at it. Even Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend (title track), was much more detailed than I'd ever heard and this is an extremely unforgiving recording of high frequency music, sounding harsh on much more laid back speakers like the Missions (and so harsh in my crappy car speakers that I can't listen to more than two or three tracks at one sitting).

I know that I'm sounding like some gushing, easily swayed listener (it is 4am) but those who know me and my preferences would/will likely be shocked at my comments about such a "clinical" speaker. Has anyone, assuming anyone reads this far, ever had such a conversion in sound preference? If so, were you satisfied to be on a new path or did you regret it and go back to your first love? Am I crazy? Do so many speaker auditions in such a short span make people nuts? All I know is that I was relieved to have found a familiar, comforting sound but now all I want to do is run away with the new player.

If anyone has the stamina to read through this and respond, thank you in advance. Otherwise, thanks to this forum for letting me get this off my chest.
Nice post.

I know the kind of sound you are talking about with the CM2, I was similarly impressed with the CM4. One thing to consider though is if that is a sound you can live with day in, day out. When paired with the right electronics B&Ws can be great, but if not they can be somewhat bright and/or harsh leading to fatigue.
I auditioned a load of speakers when I wanted to upgrade from my initial mission M71 set up. I went to a dealer who didn't have my make of amp and bought the B&W DM602S3's and matching lrc60 centre based on his set up (can't remember what it was as it was a while ago). When I got them home and matched them to my yamaha ax620 (i had at the time) they sounded very bright some would say harsh and I couldn't listen to them for any length of time. I initially put this down to the fact that they needed running in but over time they didn't lose there brightness.
I upgraded my av receiver to the denon avr3802 which tamed it a little but not enough. I was a little frustrated with the stereo performance of the denon too so looked at adding an integrated amp and designated cdp. Again I ventured out and auditioned all the usual suspects and came home with an arcam CD72t and the matching A75+ integrated amp.
The difference was quite remarkable the Arcam did a great job of making the B&W sing. There was no harshness just unparrelled detail, clarity amd imaging that had never been apparent with all my previous kit. It only goes to show you should only listen to kit with a similar set up to your home kit:) I did get there in the end though only to be bitten by the upgrade bug again and replaced the B&W's with Linn Ninka's.
Correct placement of equipment is essential to hear things at their best and a home demo is the most desirable once you have chosen your primary equipment. Excessive auditioning I have found can be more confusing than helpfull as your system can get overloaded trying to process all the variables. Still the only real way to find what suits you is to listen to as many makes as possible and familiaries your self with their sound character creating a smaller and smaller short list until you end up with your ideal choice.

Hope you find what your looking for (I'm still looking but getting nearer at every upgrade:blush: )
Originally posted by Ovation
If anyone has the stamina to read through this and respond, thank you in advance. Otherwise, thanks to this forum for letting me get this off my chest.

I wish that more people would post reviews like this instead of the more usual "I listened to XYZ and it blew me away" The only shame is that most of the speakers that you listened to are either not available in UK or very rare so most of us won't have heard them.

It was our annual hifi and AV show last weekend and by the time we had spent 4 or five hours listening to loads of different speakers it was difficult to remember which was which at the end.

I assume that which ever you decide is your preference will get a second listen before you finally decide and you can't really do much more than that unless you borrow a pair for a few days as you can from many dealers in UK.
Some good points made here.

Single speaker pair auditions are more high-end independant retailer than chain store. This has been the case for decades and is nothing new.

Remember there are firms that actually sell sound absorbers based on reflex loudspeaker designs but without the driver! (Helmholtz resonators) How can a speaker fighting shoulder to shoulder with a mass of others work well?

Trying to listen to particular speakers while standing up and facing a long row of different boxes won't teach you anything except frustration. At least ask for a chair or a stool. Choose a quiet time when people aren't getting in the way.

Trying to audition speakers with alternative amplification & sources to your own is a complete lottery.

Most speakers in the shops haven't been exercised enough to be properly run in. The bass and midrange should improve over time. But if they make your teeth ache in the treble that might not change.

Above all make simple notes on a pad when auditioning. Make & model numbers, amps, DVD/CD player. Take you own music for reference.

The best result when auditioning equipment on previously unknown software is a warm feeling that you really must go out and buy that CD/DVD the moment you leave the shop! That may well be a good indicator of some kit that suits your taste and is doing things right. Not the super impressive kit with all the bells and whistles. But the one that makes you feel really interested in the software. :)


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