For most of the 1970s I was on something of a quest to get the best sound I could. I listened to many speakers, amps and sources. Having more time than money at the time, I did more research than buying. The final system, before various moves drove me to downscale, used a Thorens TD-125 turntable, Ortofon MC cartridge, Harman-Kardon Citation 11 and 16 for amplification, and JBL L-100 speakers. In those days no one worried about cables.
By the early 1980s I'd come to the conclusion that no speaker could duplicate the sound of live music. I dialed back my goals to something like 90th-percentile sound. It's that last 10% that gets really expensive.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1984, having left all the equipment behind. Being bereft of music wasn't tolerable. All I could afford was an Aiwa portable cassette player and a pair of headphones. In the summer of 1985 the CD revolution arrived. I nearly went broke buying them, after Rogersound Labs sold me a player. I stayed with the headphones until Cambridge Soundworks came along and sold me a set of Ensemble speakers. That all worked for a number of years, and I really enjoyed not having the inner-groove distortions and other problems of analog records.
Things stayed that way for years. Main listening on headphones, speakers for when I needed to move around or wanted the different experience.
In 2005 I gradually awoke to the elegance of a computer-based stereo system. I used a portable CD player in the bedroom until it quit working; it was replaced with a Squeezebox. That didn't sound very good, which led to research into digital-to-analog converters with headphone amps. I bought a Benchmark DAC-1. Then the cans broke. The ultimate replacement was the Denon AH-D7000.
Somewhere along the line, I realized that the Ensemble speakers, driven by an old Sony ES-line power amp, weren't sounding all that good. I began to think about speakers. I used them mainly to monitor the music I played for some Internet friends on Saturdays. Early this year I had to move out for a few months while my apartment was being renovated, and I had to take the stereo equipment down. When I got back I saw that the speakers were falling apart. It was time to get serious.
I'd been interested in amplified speakers, such as Genelec and others. Went to listen to some and didn't like them at all. There's a high-end audio store here. I figured they'd be out of my price range, but one has to start somewhere so one day I walked in to see what they had. A few weeks later I bypassed the rest of the research process and bought a pair of Vandersteen Quatro speakers, Rotel RB1552 power amp, and, acknowledging the new standard, Auidoquest speaker cables that cost more than most amplifiers.
Buying any audio equipment is a challenge. If you're in a store, you often have a salesman breathing down your neck and other customers waiting. How long does it take to make a decision? In my case, roughly 40 years from the time I first entered a real stereo shop to the time I made a more-or-less informed decision. Sometimes decisions are made for hidden reasons; a big reason I chose the store and the speaker was that both had been in business for years. While not a sure-fire promise, it's a good indicator.
The dealer came out last week and installed the system. The Quatro has adjustments to suit it to the room, which is one reason I bought them. The first song I played was Yo-Yo Ma and friends, playing "Attaboy" from "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." The speakers take roughly 100 hours to run-in, but I noticed them getting better, or my hearing apparatus getting better, after five or six hours. The sound is quite remarkable, by far the best I've ever owned. I didn't know music could sound this good in a living room.
Still, they're not live. They're just really, really good. Entrancing, actually. I was late to an appointment because I got carried away by the music (Brahms chamber works, from Hyperion Records). I think any audio transducer requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in order to sound "real." Every once in a while, I'd find myself realizing that what was in the headphones was a speaker the size of that in a transistor radio. Music, it seems, wants to be felt as well as heard, and I don't mean exclusively massive bass. Speakers fill the room with sound, and that seems to matter to the perception of what's going on.
What do these speakers do that others I've owned don't? I mean, all speakers and headphones play back sound: electrical impulses in, sound out. That some do the job better than others is obvious, but how to describe the differences isn't. One clear difference with these speakers is that they have truly authoritative bass. Not overwhelming, unless that's now the music was made or recorded, but any low frequency comes out as if it really belongs there. Low bass from the L-100 was a kind of sham, and headphones could convince the ears but not the body, which was expecting something. In the rest of the audio range there's detail and elegance, and an ability to integrate all the different threads into a musical presentation. I don't know how it's done, but I like it.
Music is essential. I'm not a Baroque-era prince with an in-house orchestra, so I'm very glad I have the orchestras on a hard disk... and speakers to let them out. And, of course, headphones for when it's late at night and I don't want to disturb the neighbors.
For those interested: Newer Technology G-Max Mini RAID-1 hard disk system, connected to a Mac Mini. Itunes plays the music through USB to a Benchmark DAC-1 HDR. None of which is to say I think any of this is the "best." It's just what I've ended up with in my own decision-making process.