Why is a very expensive word.
I like listening to western classical music. I like rock, alt. rock, pop and all that jazz. But it hardly ever moves me like songs like Nella Fantasia, and Albinoni's Adagio do. Those songs bring tears to my eyes nearly every time I listen to them.
Now, I've had my current set of speakers for a while now, and they sound pretty decent to me. My Creative 5.1 speakers are connected to my computer, and really shine when it comes to games and movies. However, music doesn't always sound good on them. They do an adequate job with rock music, but classical music sometimes just sounds like noise.
I never gave it much thought until recently, when I asked myself the question, why can't my music sound better.
I thought about it, and then realised that there was no reason why it shouldn't. All I needed was the right equipment.
Ignoramus that I was, I'd assumed that stepping into the world of high fidelity audio would mean going into a shop, shelling out about Rs.20,000 and walking away with something that was literally music to my ears.
The first shop I walked into was located in a mall, and the guy began giving me a demo, and was enthusiastically auditioning speakers and telling me about the features of various AVR's. He asked me what my main purpose was, and I said listening to music, and watching movies. (I'd decided by then that I'd build an HTPC, and use it to playback music in the living room.)
He showed me a few speakers, a few AVR's and they sounded f***ing fantastic. He didn't have any western classical music, but he played some movies, and some jazz, and the experience blew me away. After listening to music for about 20 minutes, we started to talk about the price. And that's when I realised that 'why' is a very expensive word.
A Few Auditions
I visited a few other shops, and realised that most of the audio stores targeted really big spenders. There was a shop on M.G. Road in Pune that had speakers that cost a crore!! A freaking crore!! Most of the other shops had book-shelf speakers that cost Rs.20,000 plus. Floor-standing, or full-range speakers began at Rs.30,000. Add to that the cost of the audio-video receiver which began at Rs. 25,000 for the most basic model, and I was looking at spending more than twice the amount I had in mind, and still not being satisfied.
I auditioned an amazing pair of book-shelf speakers, the Tannoy's (some model number or the other), and they were fantastic. They had great sound-stage, and very precise imaging. The shopkeeper played back some orchestral music, and I could almost picture the orchestra in front of me, and point out where each instrument was located. And it didn't sound as if the sound was coming from the speakers. I was blown away.
But the music was missing something. The lows. Bookshelf speakers are great. They're compact. You can place them almost anywhere, and they're much cheaper than their full-range bretheren. Unfortunately, they don't have the depth to play back low frequencies, and need a sub-woofer to complement them.
I liked the Tannoy's, but wasn't satisfied.
The Internet to the Rescue!
I needed help, and turned to the world wide web. I came across a few audio forums, and spent a few days going through them. Most of the posts asking for advice about what to buy got standard answers, the jist of which ranged from if you can't afford it, then don't buy it, to buy second-hand, to buy something that's good, but won't satisfy you today, but will when you add an upgrade later.
I read dozens of speaker, AVR and amplifier reviews, and had almost come to the conclusion that I'd have to either quad-ripple my budget and buy new, or double it and go the second-hand route. That's when I came across a review for speakers that had been recently released, but weren't available in India yet.
Pioneer had released a set of speakers that were designed by a legendary audiophile speaker designer, some guy called Andrew Jones, who was famous in the rarefied world of audioholics. The speakers had really positive reviews, and were said to punch above their weight, and to sound as good as speakers costing 3-4 times as much. They were reported to have great soundstage, and precise imaging. In short they were the common mans audio nirvana.
The Speakers and Buying Them
I decided to buy them. I just had to get them. The Pioneer SP-FS52.
Floor standing speakers. Great sounding floor standing speakers.
Not very expensive great sounding floor standing speakers!!
Unfortunately they weren't available in India. Shop-your-world, and other importers had them listed at about Rs.20,000 for a single speaker. 40,000 a pair. I called various dealers whose ads I found on Quickr, but they seemed very shady.
I kept googling “Pioneer SP-FS52 India”, till one day a result from Avenue Sound showed up. They had the speakers listed at Rs.20,000 a pair! A pair!
I danced around like Gollum for a bit, wringing my hands in delight, alarming my fiancée and causing an untold amount of harm to our relationship.
I still hadn't decided on an AVR at this point, but remembered seeing a listing for a Pioneer VSX-323k on Snapdeal selling it for about Rs.16-17,000.
I called up AvenueSound and told them I wanted to order the speakers. They said fine, but it'll take a couple of months to import them, as they bring them in by ship. And they needed a 50% advance. They didn'thave them in stock so I couldn't audition them. While I was still wondering if I was being scammed, he asked me what AVR/amplifier I wanted. He suggested going for a 2 channel amp instead of a 5.1 channel AVR, but I wanted the option of adding extra speakers later. I told him about the Pioneer VSX-323k I'd seen on Snapdeal. He told me that he'd see what he could do, and would call me back. He called me back a few minutes later, and offered me the Pioneer VSX-523k plus the Pioneer SP-FS52 speakers for Rs.36000. (This was during the Black-Friday week, and they had some specials).
I'd inquired about AvenueSounds reputation in the meanwhile, and they were given a big thumbs up by an online audio community. So, I placed the order, and paid half the amount, and went back to surfing speaker porn online. (I really pity my fiancée- really honey..why are you still with me? )
Disappointment and then Nirvana!
I was told that I'd get the speakers in about 6 weeks, but as usual there were delays. I was really upset, and my enthusiasm was fading. The speakers finally reached India 3 months later. But I had planned a holiday then, and was away from home for another two months. Luckily the places I went to were amazing enough to make me forget about the speakers. I came home, and wondered why I'd wasted so much money on a pair of speakers.
But I had made a commitment, and picked up the speakers. AvenueSound, on their own volition, offered me a further discount, and some free cables to make up for the delay.
I picked up the speakers, and brought them home, and the moment I played my first song, I stopped wondering why I'd spent all that money.
I'd found Nirvana.
Critical Listening and Afterthoughts
After listening to these speakers for a few months, I can be more critical than I was in the beginning.
Am I satisfied with the speakers? YES! I've gotten so used to them, that I no longer want to listen to music unless it's played through good speakers. Believe me, you can get used to good sound, and your ears can tell the difference immediately.
Movies, you say? They can't sound as good on a 2.0 system as they did on a 5.1.
You'd be wrong! Even though the speakers are only 2.0, they've got deeper bass, much greater dialogue clarity, and the speakers can 'throw' sound making you think that you've got something akin to surround sound, even though you can't hear those creepy horror movie sounds behind you.
Any other take-aways?
First off, while the speakers sound great, good sound can only be produced in a room that has good acoustics. Buying good speakers is a good start, but treating your room so that sounds don't echo, diffuse, etc, etc, is essential if you want your speakers to sound as good as they did in the demo room. I haven't been able to do this, but the few things I did do, like adding a carpet, and putting lining on the curtains helped. But I know for a fact that my system sounded 10 times better in AvenueSounds demo room (where I tested it before taking delivery) than it does in my house.
Secondly, for most people buying floor-standers doesn't make sense. Floor-standing speakers need room to breathe, and should be kept about 2-3 feet away from a wall if you want them to sound their best. Not everyone can do this. I can't. I keep my speakers about 15 inches from the wall on a regular basis, and move them another foot forward when I listen to music. Bookshelves are definitely more practical.
Third the audio-source matters. The 192kbps mp3's that used to sound great on my Creative 5.1 speakers sound terrible on the Pioneer SP-FS52's.
Listen to everything that you can in the demo rooms. But remember that unless you put in a lot of time, effort and money into sorting out the acoustics in your room, it's not going to sound the same.
For that reason, I don't think doing a blind buy is a bad idea. If it fits your budget, and it's got universally good reviews, especially by people who've taken it home, then it's probably good.
And lastly. Anything's possible. You can get great sound on a budget. Just keep looking.
My Quest for High Fidelity Audio - on a budget
Why I decided to take the plunge into hi-fi audio, and how I managed to get great sound on a budget. Why I decided to trust reviewers, and ignore my ears. And how I learned to distrust demo-rooms.