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My first foray into speakers: Am I expecting too much?

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 

So let me explain my background first.


I'm coming from Hifiman HE-500 powered by a speaker amp, which I really enjoy. Recently, I bought the Emotiva a-100 MiniX since it was on sale, and I wanted to compare with my Baby Sophia tube speaker amp. Ultimately, my tube amp won out, but I decided to keep the Emotiva as an entry point into speakers. Since I live in an apartment and my living room is rather small, it made sense to get a pair of bookshelf speakers. My budget was <$500.


Last week I went to the Magnolia store at Best Buy and demoed some. They only had two pairs of speakers within my price range: MartinLogan Motion 4 and Bowers & Wilkins 686 (I think). I found the Bowers to have a very weird soundstage and imaging, and the mids were recessed, so I really wasn't interested. However, the MartinLogans impressed me. However, the songs played were none I've heard before. Also at first when I was wowed, the speakers were placed far apart in their special isolated listening room. I asked the salesperson if he could move them closer together to simulate what my home setup would most likely be like. He did that, and the results were less impressive, especially soundstage and imaging-wise. I ended up not buying it because it sounded less impressive when placed closer, and also I needed to do more research.


So this week I ended up settling on Focal Chorus 705 V speakers ($350). It was cheaper than the MartinLogans ($400), and they used to be in the $600 range before being replaced by a newer line. Also, the reviews for the Focals weren't bad, and they seem to be a very reputable brand.


They arrived today and I was pretty excited to set it all up. Already had stands so they are at ear level. Since the room is small, they are on each side of my TV, about 4 feet apart, and I'm sitting about 5 feet away. Also one side is less than half a feet from the wall, which could be causing some problems.


I have it hooked up through my Woo Audio WA7 DAC to the Emotiva (50W) to the Focals. I started playing music that I know very well and listen to everyday through my HE-500 or Beyerdynamic T90 at work.


I actually found the level of detail and reveal to exceed my expectations, as I've read speakers to suffer in detail retrieval compared to headphones, especially lower priced speakers. The soundstage and imaging was mediocre but I expected that since they're placed only 4 feet apart. The MartinLogans suffered the same effect when placed closer together. One thing I found pretty impressive was the treble. As for the bass, I knew the Focals rolled off at 65 Hz, so I wasn't expecting sub-bass at all, but I found the mid-bass to be elevated, and not as neutral as my headphones. It seems like they built this speaker to satisfy the mainstream crowd of (mid)-bassheads, and at that price range, I wouldn't be surprised. Overall though, I'm content with the bass, as it has the impact I like.


What I cannot be content with, however, is the midrange. I found it veiled and not transparent at all. Vocals are a bit recessed, but the real problem lies in the quality. Compared to my headphones, the vocals are of lower definition like comparing flac to 128 kbps. Yes it's that much of a difference to me, if not more. It was shocking how different the vocals sounded. I'm not sure the exact word to describe this, but I guess the best word to use would be colored. It was not natural at all, and lacked quality. Definitely sounded like it was played through a poor recording.


Now remember these are songs that I know very well and listen to everyday so I have a fresh memory on how they should sound. I played some songs I haven't heard in a while, and the vocals actually sounded better/fine. So it's most likely just the difference between the headphones I'm used to and the speakers. Later on, I decided to do something for fun, which was use the output RCA ports on the Emotiva and connected it to a headphone amp (Objective2) and then to my Sennheiser HD700, and play music through both the speakers and headphones at the same time. I was looking to merge the side and surround imaging of headphones, and the real distance soundstage of the speakers. It actually turned out pretty well, and you couldn't really tell sound was coming from two sources. However, once again for vocals, there were times when I heard a discrepancy between what was being played by the headphones and what was coming out of the speakers. This difference in quality made it quite noticeable. And I personally find the HD700 to be veiled and grainy compared to my Hifimans or Beryerdynamics.


One last note I want to make is how my progression through headphones have changed my hearing and allowed it to be more discerning. When I first got the HD700, I thought they were amazing, not veiled or grainy at all. This was coming from the HD598. Then I got the T90 and later HE-500, which are both more transparent, which now makes me find the HD700 to be a veiled. I gave away my HD598 to a friend, but I did recently listen to them again, and they sounded pretty terrible, whereas when I first got them, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread as I've never listened to open headphones before. I guess that's what happens to our ears as we listen to better and better equipment.


So while I'm tempted to give the MartinLogans a try at home, I'm wondering if I'm really asking too much. Given how far I am into this audiophile hobby, would all sub-$500 speakers sound pretty bad to me? I guess it's not fair to compare sub-$500 speakers to headphones that are actually more expensive (HE-500: $700, T90: $650, HD700: $850)?


Perhaps the Focals just need burning in?


Or could someone recommend me some reasonable priced speakers that sound better? In all honesty though, if speakers are going to replace my HE-500 for my hi-fi music listening, it's gonna have to be a LOT better than the Focals. For watching TV and playing video games, I think it's fine and a way better than the TV built-in speakers obviously.


I guess what I'm looking for in sound is a good midrange and vocals that sound natural and transparent. The fact the HE-500 are planar magnetic and the T90 use a Tesla driver may be reasons the midrange sound so much more transparent.


Well thanks for reading. Hope I didn't sound too negative :D. But I'm still shocked on just how bad the vocals sounded. I think to the average consumer it would sound great. Perhaps these are like the Audio Technica M50 of the speaker world :/

Edited by Sonido - 11/1/13 at 12:41am
post #2 of 5
I think speakers can benefit from a little break-in. And yes. It's probably a lot to expect that spending the same amount on speakers will give you the same audio quality as your headphones. Plus, speakers are like headphones; listener preference plays an important part, too. Finally, your headphones may not be giving you a perceived linear response, either. So you may be used to some amount of coloring from them and the speaker sound may just be different (but colored no more) and take some getting used to.

However, keep in mind that room placement and room acoustics have a dramatic impact on speaker performance. This is one reason why AVRs have become so popular, because of their room correction software which attempts to correct some for room influence at the listening position. Room treatments are ultimately necessary if you really want a linear response. So, for instance, midbass is very much affected by room interaction and can either be boosted or reduced. This is why speaker (and subwoofer measurements) are normally taken with close mic measurements in an anechoic chamber or outdoors. Read more about room acoustics.

Finally, try the speakers both with the grilles on and off. It does affect treble frequency response, and some speakers are designed to sound better one way or the other, but you could certainly prefer it the opposite way.
Edited by cel4145 - 11/1/13 at 12:30pm
post #3 of 5

Maybe the fault lies not with the speakers, but with the amp. Have you tried your tube amp + Focals? Do you get the same results? As cel mentioned, speaker placement plays an enormous role - especially with bass frequencies. As one frequency range becomes emphasized (here, the midbass) it can affect the perceived response, perhaps giving vocals a veiled quality or imparting a darker overall tonal signature to the music. In this case, I would play with the distance the speakers are from the rear and side walls as well as toe-in. If none of these techniques fix the sonic aberrations, then it's probably time to audition other speakers.


Imaging will certainly be affected by room boundaries. Generally you want symmetrical placement within the room for the best stereo image. You also want to experiment with the location of your listening position, if possible. Start with the speakers and the listening position forming an equilateral triangle and then shift from there.

post #4 of 5


And also, since you brought up room boundaries, reflections of the higher frequencies can deteriorate detail resolution.
post #5 of 5
Thread Starter 

Thanks all the input guys. :)


I ended up picking up the MartinLogan Motion 4 at Best Buy today to try at home. I also moved the speakers to my bedroom, which is much larger room, around 20x15 ft. I have the speakers set up 8 feet apart now on the 20 feet face wall and am sitting in an equilateral triangle configuration. Listening to the Focals still sounded pretty bad. The mid-bass was still overbearing. The vocals sounded different, but still in a bad way. Now it sounded distant like it was playing in a large stadium, and there seemed to be a bit of an echo.


Switching over to the MartinLogans the difference in sound signatures was immediately apparent. The sub-bass was much lighter and the vocals more forward and closer to what I'm used to. It sounds much more natural to me and does not have the low quality or echoey problems the Focals had. I did find the treble to be a bit elevated compared to the Focals, but I'm used raised treble coming from the Beyerdynamic T90. Also much more transparent, especially the midrange. All in all I found the Motion 4 to have a very similar signature to my T90. Both have less bass, forward vocals, and elevated treble. With the T90 being my work pair, there is no redundancy with these speakers and its sound signature. While detail, transparency, and PRaT are still not as good as my HE-500 or T90, I did start to notice the wider soundstage from the speakers being placed farther apart. Imaging is wider because of the soundstage, but not as layered as my headphones due to less detail retrieval.


T90 frequency response:

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the Motion 4. It's a good change of pace from my headphones, especially when the HE-500, being orthos, weight over a pound, and strain my neck over long periods of time. I had originally planned to use these bookshelf speakers for my home entertainment center with my TV, but now I think I will keep them in my bedroom exclusively for music listening. I didn't have a subwoofer anyways, nor a surround sound system so it was really no good for movies.


On a side note, I'll stick to using my HD700 for movies and gaming since it has the widest soundstage and most comfortable of all my headphones, and a sound signature that I best describe as "grandeur". Even though it's less transparent and weaker in detail retrieval that the others, that doesn't really matter when it comes to movies and gaming when you're less focused on the sound, and more on visuals. In fact, I'm merely using a Fiio D3 as my DAC for my TV.


Guess I'll return the Focals now.

Edited by Sonido - 11/2/13 at 1:54am
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