The $3,000 Speaker Derby
The odds of finding a horse for $3,000 that will win the Kentucky Derby are about as good as they are of me hitting the Pick 6 at Santa Anita Race Track—in other words, it ain't gonna happen (although, in the case of the latter, it won't be for lack of trying). Even Seattle Slew, one of the great bargains in horse-racing history, carried an initial price tag of $17,500.
That same $3,000 will get you a proven thoroughbred for the fiercely competitive, mid-level speaker race, though. It was with this idea in mind that we selected four 5.1-channel systems with the pedigree, the performance, and the price to qualify them for our own little Home Theater derby, speaker-style.
Beyond the obvious qualification of proven performance, price was about the only criteria for one simple reason: This is how the vast majority of people shop for speakers at this level. Certainly there are those who pay some degree of attention to form (e.g., tower versus bookshelf, dipole surrounds versus direct-radiators), features, or even aesthetics. However, price is almost always the dominant factor, so it was here, too. I paid little mind to form, function, or whether or not these were the newest models on the shelves; I simply went for what, in my humble opinion, are some of the best systems you can buy right now for around $3,000.
It's also certain that many other systems would have qualified for this Face Off in terms of price—and even pedigree and performance. Unlike a horse race, though, where 10 to 15 competitors still make for a good run, speaker derbies have obvious logistical limitations that force us to be a little less ambitious when it comes to numbers. And thus, I narrowed the field to B&W, Dynaudio, Phase Tech, and PSB—four stalwart names in the speaker world that provide first-rate products at the tops of their lines and have consistently proven that they compromise very little in the lower-priced lines.
Our jockeys for this derby were an eclectic group. First up was the boss, editor Maureen Jenson, who has heard her share of speaker systems during her years in this game and is always a good ear to have around. Next up was copy editor Amy Carter, who impressed us all with her rookie ride a few months back and clearly earned another shot here. Besides, any good horse race should have a Virginian involved somewhere. Rounding out the field were video editor Geoffrey Morrison and contributor John Higgins. Geoffrey may officially be a video guy, but he knows a thing or two about speakers, as well. John is a concert pianist who has a well-trained ear; he also provided a consumer's perspective that's un-jaded by years in the editorial trenches. Yours truly, being of far too generous proportions to be a jockey, attempted to relegate myself only to the duty of switcher monkey and not render any opinions—but then, anyone who knows me knows that that's probably not going to happen.
As with any derby, warm-up, break-in, or whatever you want to call it has to happen first. All four manufacturers gave their respective systems ample break-in time prior to shipment, and we ran everything for 24 hours straight the day/night before the Face Off to get them ready to run.
I set up each system in turn in our medium-sized listening room in the same positions, with the front speakers toed-in roughly 30 degrees and 2 feet away from the side- and rear walls. The fronts that needed stands were situated at the same final height as the PSBs, the only towers in the group. Centers sat atop stands roughly at ear level for the seated position. I placed the surrounds on stands at 120 degrees to the listening position, and the subs roughly three-quarters of the way along the left wall, the best-measuring location for a single sub in our room. Each system operated at the same output level, which I confirmed by using an SPL meter and adjusting volume accordingly.
Source signals came from Onkyo's DV-SP800 universal player, and the electronics combo consisted of the Parasound C 2 pre/pro and Lexicon CX-7 amplifier, which gave these systems every opportunity to show what they could do.
The source material was an eclectic mix. I kicked off each session with a CD: "Katy Hill" from the legendary Three Pickers concert featuring Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs. Officially, I used this track because there's some 20 stringed instruments on stage at once (including guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, dobros, and a bass), and I wanted to hear how well the systems differentiated between these outwardly similar yet harmonically diverse instruments and their various pitches. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm a hillbilly at heart; if you're going to listen to something four times in a row, it better be something that you like.
I also used Holly Cole's "Cry (If You Want To)" from her Greatest Hits, one of the finer recordings of a fine female voice that you'll find on CD. The Stones rounded out the music cuts with an SACD rendering of "Brown Sugar."
The movie tracks both prominently featured artillery (I know—surprise, surprise, right?), albeit from different eras. I started with chapter 12 from Gods and Generals, which is somewhat disappointing from a movie standpoint but not from an audio standpoint. There are some great front-to-back and side-to-side pans in this sequence that clearly give the soundstage a workout. I also used the Omaha Beach assault that kicks off Saving Private Ryan, which to my mind is still one of the best-sounding battle sequences that has ever been created, short of the real thing.