First, never buy speakers online unless you’ve heard them first live and in person with your own ears. Speakers are not like any other sound system component. Ninety-nine percent of people couldn’t hear any difference between a $100 receiver and a $1,000 receiver at normal volumes (assuming flat EQ settings, the same source material, etc.). Likewise with CD/DVD players and just about every other audio component.
But every brand and every model of speaker has unique qualities, and based on the kinds of music you like, your ears, and your own tastes, speakers that sound great to you might sound terrible to someone else. There’s no way to quantify in specifications the differences between different speakers, and no two people’s tastes are identical when it comes to those differences. It’s very, very subjective. So buying speakers that you haven’t actually heard is A Bad Idea.
Because speakers make a bigger difference to the overall sound of a system than any other component, I always recommend that they command largest part of the budget. A system with $1,000 speakers and a $100 receiver will sound immensely better than a $1,000 amp and $100 speakers.
Since speakers are so critical in shaping your system’s sound, and because speaker technology changes much more slowly than electronics, you should look at them as a longer term investment than the rest of your audio system. Once you find speakers you like, it makes sense stick with them even as you replace other components. Good speakers could last you ten or twenty years. This justifies looking at speakers that are more expensive than you might otherwise have considered.
So how to find speakers you like? The only thing that counts is how they sound to you. Not some reviewer, not the sales person, not your friends. So you’ll have to go to your local stereo stores and audition some systems.
Go to all the stores in your area – Best Buy, Circuit City, and more upscale stores – and listen to systems in your budget range. For the reasons I mentioned above, don’t be afraid to look at high-priced models. Take examples of the kinds of music and movies you like to listen to/watch. Try to find the setups where you can switch the output of a single amp to many different speaker sets. Set the receiver’s tone controls to flat (or to something approaching your normal home setup) and put on your favorite music or movie. (It helps if you can go at a time that’s not busy for the store so you can turn down or off all other sound sources nearby.)
Listen carefully to long selections of familiar music on each of the speaker systems you’re considering. Close your eyes, to reduce distractions. Listen for clarity and open, realistic reproduction of the instruments. Don’t be swayed by “sizzle-boom,” a flashy but unrealistic prominence of high (treble) or low (bass) frequencies. The best speakers are balanced. Don’t let the price or the salesman’s pitch or your friends’ opinions influence you. Ultimately you should find that some speakers are just more pleasing to you than others.
Don’t buy them today. Go to other stores, check other systems, make notes. Then, a week or two later, go back and listen again to your top contenders. See if they still sound as good to you as before. If not, go back to the others and see what differences you can notice and what you like or dislike about them. Rinse and repeat. Don’t rush this decision.
But if you do still like your top pick a week later, chances are good that you will be happy with them in the long run. Good luck.