Enjoy the Music.com
The Absolute Sound
November 2007

Your Long-Term Traveling Companions

  This issue focuses on loudspeakers the last component in the playback chain and the part of a system that is by far the most difficult to choose. Selecting a loudspeaker is much more of a personal decision than choosing, say, a digital source or amplifier. Although digital sources and amplifiers are important, we don't have quite the same relationship with those components that we have with a pair of speakers. We sit face to face with the speakers in intimate proximity. It is the speaker that opens the window through which we discover musical expression, and the speaker that seems to nourish our musical hunger. Of course, the loudspeaker is incapable of this magic trick without source components, electronics, and cables. But it is the pair of boxes or panels in front of us that converts the intangibility of electrical currents traveling silently through those boxes and wires into the counterpoint of Bach, the heart-wrenching stab of a Joni Mitchell lyric, the spontaneous flow of a Sonny Rollins improvisation, or the melodic and technical brilliance of an extended Zappa guitar solo. The loudspeaker makes tangible the inchoate.

The loudspeaker is an electromechanical contrivance that colludes with our brains (in more-than-willing cooperation) to convert a pair of electrical signals into a three-dimensional soundstage populated by virtual individual objects (instruments) in an acoustic space a space that is different than the acoustic space we actually inhabit. That's quite a trick when you stop to consider that the signals driving the speakers are merely two voltages that vary over time nothing more. These voltages contain no decoding key to tell us that, in a piano and voice recording, the piano's harmonics are attached to the piano's fundamentals, and the voices harmonics to the voice's fundamentals. Yet we don't hear the recording as an incomprehensible miasma of fundamentals and overtones; we experience a fairly close approximation of two distinct instruments piano and voice separated by space.

But the loudspeaker simply makes the air move; the brain gets credit for the rest of this improbable conjuring trick. Movement by the loudspeaker diaphragms creates cycles of compressions and rarefactions (pressure above and below normal atmospheric pressure) that strike our eardrums. This sets off a chain of events which we perceive as music and in which we find meaning, expression, and sometimes elation. For whatever reason, our brains are programmed, at the most fundamental level, to understand and find joy in certain combinations of sounds. It's a great, but wonderful, mystery.

Our special relationship with loudspeakers extends to their physical presence in our homes. Loudspeakers are more like parts of our furnishings and our lives than are the black or silver boxes of source components and amplifiers. Sources and electronics go in a rack, but we share our living spaces with a pair of loudspeakers. Consequently, we must choose them for long-term aesthetic compatibility as well as for sound quality. Fortunately, loudspeaker manufacturers offer a wide range of sizes, styles, and finishes, from no-frills utility boxes to lavishly sculpted shrines. Some loudspeakers even rise above the merely elegant to become works of art in themselves.

Loudspeaker designers are a special breed. They painstakingly meld paper, aluminum, wood, wire, glue, steel, and even more exotic materials in a process akin to alchemy. The wide range of variables in materials and design choices is why we see such diverse products in the marketplace, and why a loudspeaker reflects the designer's intent, skill, aesthetic, and musical tastes to a greater degree than, for example, an amplifier.

Like silent sentinels, a pair of loudspeakers waits patiently to transport you to a moment of music-making that might have taken place before you were born. The best loudspeakers are those that continue to surprise and delight you years down the road. Choose your loudspeakers carefully and they will become your long-term traveling companions in exploring the world of music.





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