When listening to a Hi-fi system it can sometimes hard to pin point what is different about one system vs another, or why this one made you go “wow, that sounds amazing”. Here’s a list of a few things that might help you out.
Full Range Sound
Listen to the sound at both frequency extremes. At low frequencies, listen for bass extension and bass weight and most of all tightness, watch out for “boom” that “hollow boxy” bass sound… that is bad bass that will get worse with higher volumes. Listen how the speakers handle power (to play loudly), clarity (to differentiate pitches), and control (tightness in the bass and to reproduce transients cleanly). Do they sound harsh? Breaking up and distorting? Then avoid them. At high frequencies listen for treble extension (the “air” surrounding Instruments), clarity (to capture delicate details), and smoothness (freedom from edginess and hardness). Watch out for a too bright top end… initially you think it is clarity but after a while it can irritate you so that you feel to turn the volume down… avoid those speakers!!! Good speakers have the notion that you want to turn it up a little bit all the time! Audition using familar music, whats important is listening to male vocals, many speakers lack midrange due to the manufacturer tuning them for bass. Does the male voice sound thin? Do electric guitars sound tinny? OR does the voice sound powerful backed up by full real sounding guitars?
If you are comparing sub/satellite systems, midrange is where you can easily differentiate an excellent system from an average one (I’m fighting the urge to mention some well known expensive systems here).
Transparency and Focus
Good speakers should reproduce subtle textural and transient details at all frequencies. Transparency is like “taking the blanket off” and focus is like tuning in binoculars. This makes the difference between speakers that sounds “nice” and those that sound breathtakingly “real”.
Imaging and Sound staging
That is painting the picture of the artist on the stage in front of you, in depth and width. Believe it or not, you don’t want speakers that call attention to themselves. Good speakers effectively disappear and create the illusion of musicians performing in real 3D spaces (ranging from recording studios to concert halls). When you are listening, does the music sound like its coming from the speakers OR floating in the air? Do each of the musicians sound like they are mushed together, or can you pick out where each instrument is playing? Imaging & staging is effected greatly by speaker placement, so try playing with the distance from the rear wall & the amount of toe in if the sound stage is flat.
Choose speakers that can play at satisfying volume levels in your listening room. The higher a speaker’s sensitivity rating the louder it will play for a given amount of power. How you define ‘satisfying volume levels” is up to you, but the key is to find a system that can handle loud musical passages gracefully, yet offers enough finesse to catch the finer points of musical performances, sound effects, and dialog. Don’t just audition speakers at a loud volume, listen to them played softly, can you still hear weight in the bass? Does the midrange still come through or are you just left with treble?
Neutral Tonal Balance
This means that all frequencies from the highest highs to the lowest lows must be produced with equal emphasis (volume). A common mistake made by most buyers is that they buy a speaker that emphasizes (color) a particular frequency range like boom in the bass thinking it’s “more” bass, chestiness in the midrange thinking it has more presence or even worse a sharp top end, thinking its clearer. The best speakers offer accurate, neutral tonal balance. Remember in the long run, colouration’s prove fatiguing and neutrality rules.