Buying home speakers…

Posted on May 21st, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

For once this column doesn’t talk much about cars. But the process I went through was eerily similar to sorting the wheat from the chaff that occupies much of my time when testing new cars…

My elderly father had decided he wanted some new stereo speakers. None of this new-fangled home 6-speaker theatre nonsense; what he wanted was a pair of speakers capable of reproducing the full normal listening spectrum – say from 40 – 20,000Hz. Of course, at 84, he wasn’t going to be hearing too many 20,000Hz notes (and nor would I be!), but he wanted to replace the near 30-year-old 10 inch 3-ways that had been serving duty in the lounge room all that time.

His knowledge may be out of date but it’s certainly not lacking in depth: over the very long time that he’s been interested in sound engineering he’s built amplifiers and speakers and has followed the transition from 78s, to 33s, from mono to stereo and thence to CD and DVD. So when I was invited along to participate in the listening tests, I was very much conscious of being a background adviser, rather than any kind of dictator of outcome.

When he’d broached the subject of speakers, I’d reflected over the web discussions I’d been browsing, over the newspaper and magazine accounts of speakers I’d casually read, and thought that a pair of speakers produced by an Australian manufacturer would provide the best value for money. I don’t think any Australian company manufactures loudspeaker drivers per se (Etone excepted), but while many denigrate the companies producing speaker systems as mere ‘box-stuffers’, the matching of woofers, midranges and tweeters to each other and an enclosure is as much an art as a science. And if the locals can get it right, the saving represented by Australian assembly (and so the lack of need to transport bulky and heavy furniture items internationally) is considerable.

And the first name that popped into my head was VAF. Based in Adelaide (convenient, since my parents live within 100 kilometres of the city), the company has carved out a solid reputation and has been widely (and favourably) featured in local magazines for many years. The systems are also available as kits, saving about 10 per cent and giving the purchaser the satisfaction of having done at least some of the work themselves.

VAF has a good web site (see ) and the speakers that looked the most suitable on screen were the Generation Four DC-7s. The spiel went:

The now legendary VAF DC-X loudspeaker is famous for offering the best music and movie sound at a remarkable price. Its advanced acoustic and mechanical technology is implemented to stop problems before they begin, rather than fix the effects of these problems after they occur, as is the industry norm. The new G4 DC-7 now employs much of the DC-X’s legendary technology… All this adds up to a unique combination of awesome dynamics and very accurate sound reproduction. Or put another way, the VAF G4 DC-7 have the capability to fill almost any room, with clean detailed sound at a true to life scale. Exquisitely finished in book matched, crown cut, genuine timber veneers, standard finishes include Black Oak, Jarrah, and American Oak.

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Listed specs included a frequency response of 44Hz – 18kHz (+/- 2dB), 93dB sensitivity and a size of 193 x 1043 x 313mm (WxHxD). In kit form, they cost AUD$1399 per pair.

So, armed with some modern and well recorded CDs, off we went to listen. The showroom is sophisticated and a large window allows potential customers to see the systems being assembled out the back. The salesman was helpful and led us to a well-sized listening room. Once we had the CD playing, he left us to ourselves to listen as long as we liked at whatever listening levels we liked to the DC-7s.

But within seconds I was disappointed. There was just no bass. It wasn’t the amp and player combination (both were NAD); it was the speakers. They simply lacked bass. I’m not talking thumping subwoofer bass; I am talking the rich fullness of sound that comes from having a seamless transition from midrange to lower midrange, from lower midrange to upper bass, from upper bass to lower bass. I listened, I swapped tracks and CDs, I listened again. There wasn’t any bass. The amp had been playing with its tone controls flat, so on a track that I know has huge bass, I turned up the bass to half-boost. And the woofers immediately overloaded, hitting their stops with that characteristic pttoooh! sound.

And it wasn’t just the bass. When seated in the ‘ideal’ listening position, the treble was excellent, unusually both sweet and sharp at the same time. Presence, sound stage and depth, without harshness. But walk away from the sweet spot and the treble fell off markedly – to listen to the treble, you had to stay seated in just the one position.

Forget what magazine reviews said, forget what the reputation and the advertising material said; I didn’t think these speakers were anything special at all. Even my father thought they clearly lacked bass.

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So we asked to listen to the larger – and at a kit price of AUD$1,999, more expensive – DC-X speakers. They sounded better, although only incrementally so. The bass was fuller – but the heavy bass tracks still sounded anaemic to my ears – and the on-axis treble even better than the DC-7s. But again, the off-axis treble fell away. (Oh yes, I should say both speakers showed really smooth and realistic midrange.)

Hmm, this was sooo much like driving a variety of new cars: what you expect is sometimes utterly different to what you find. But was it just that my ears are attuned to lots of bass? Was I listening to a genuinely flat response speaker but years of listening to car sound systems, designing and building subwoofers and always having the bass turned up (at least by just a little!) has changed what I consider to be good? That may be so – and the parallel is in the cars that handle terribly unless you have a brilliant driver at the wheel – but my advice was to leave the speakers right where they were… in the VAF showroom.

So we left feeling rather disappointed; where we’d been expecting the excitement of opening the kits and then putting them together, instead there was just empty space in the back of the Forester.

A day or so later we figured we’d give speaker buying another go. This time we went to the home theatre display room of a large retailer, a place where we could configure the systems to listen to just stereo pairs – but from a variety of manufacturers, not just the one. Again, the salesman was happy to let us do as we want (a rather odd experience for me, when in the past salesmen hovered possessively over the volume control… must be all those grey hairs in their pair of buyers!) and the set-up allowed us to switch in a number of speakers. Many of the speakers were very expensive, but we went back and forth between them, getting a feel for all their sounds. All seemed to have more bass on the same tracks than the VAFs, and none had the directionality of the treble we’d previously experienced. But was the amp set to a flat response? Being a home theatre amp, that was initially hard to ascertain but we eventually figured it out… and some of the bass then disappeared!

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Keeping within about the same price range, we listened longer and with more intensity to a pair of Krix speakers, the Lyrix Gold. They were perhaps not as detailed in their sound as the VAFs, but the bass was fuller and the overall effect more mellow. In fact, they sounded the sort of speakers that you could listen to for a long time, even if the recording was slightly harsh. (Shrug – perhaps that’s another way of saying their treble wasn’t as good as the VAFs?) The price was AUD$1500 but some negotiation brought that down to $1350 – cheaper than the VAFs and already fully built!

My father gave the nod – but there was a snag. The speakers – locally manufactured – were not held in stock. If we wanted them straight away we needed to pick them up from the factory just down the road. Ironically, after entering the listening session with a completely open mind, we’d ended up buying speakers made by the direct local competitor to VAF!

And at my parents’ home the speakers sounded good. Ironically, you could even argue that was a fraction too much bass (the speakers are near walls) but then again, Krix provide foam plugs for inserting into the ports to reduce the bottom-end emphasis. But I liked their sound without the port plugs: smooth and capable of handling plenty of power, and with what I judge to be an excellent frequency response. (It was no surprise to later find out the two 6.5 inch woofers are made by Vifa and the dome tweeter is by Peerless – both very respectable brands.) If anything, it was now the amp that was letting the system down!

Lessons? I’m sure that some of the VAF designs are very good – too many people with educated ears have told me so for it to be ignored. But at the cheap end of their range, I think better results are available from other manufacturers. Well, better results for this particular listener, anyway…

And that’s really like buying cars. Read what reviewers – including me – say and look at the specs… and then for Godsakes go and experience the product for yourself. It’s you (or someone you’re helping) who is spending the money, not the person writing the advertising spiel or the magazine review…

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