Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stereophile Reviews - The Data Doesn't Lie

Update September, 2016:  The story has now grown to include the very short but biased review for the Crystal Cable Arabesque Minissimo which you can read here.



For a long time I've had trouble matching up Stereophile reviews with my experience of the same speakers. I think I've found the reason why. They aren't reviewing speakers at all. They are reviewing hearing aids pretending to be speakers. This is why they are so expensive.  What I mean is that the speakers Stereophile praises would only sound good to some one with hearing loss between 7kHz and 15 kHz, which I lack.  It's clear that completely different manufacturers have taken advantage of this  "trick."

I'm calling this trick the "Stereophile Curve" and the more I go back in time to look at megabucks speakers rated highly, the more apparent the truth of this curve becomes. Of course, the alternate, benign explanation is that the reviewers have all bought the B&W studio heritage hype, and they have become accustomed to thinking of the B&W 800 series speakers as a neutral reference, which, objectively, they can't be.

The Stereophile Curve

 A recent review in Stereophile for the B&W 802 D3 speakers prompted a reader (AV OCD I think) to post pictures showing just how similar the frequency response of the D2 was to the D3, despite the glowing reviews from Kalman Rubinson for the D3's superiority. The reader was right, the frequency response aligned nearly identically. Mind you, that's no proof of anything except that it's hard to match up the comments with the data. But as I looked more closely at AV-OCD's charts I realized that I had seen nearly identical measured response curve elsewhere, in the review for the Golden Ear Triton 5!

Several of the most highly touted speakers Stereophile that reviews not only have pretty ragged and, in my humble opinion, substandard frequency response, they are also ideal speakers for the hearing impaired. That's the nice way of saying, they are deliberately tweaked in the same way. Shenanigans say I!

Let's compare the B&W 802D, 802 D3 and the Golden Ear Triton 5:

See the dip around 6 kHz and the bump around 11 kHz? To me, having heard 2 of the three speakers in the chart above, this looks like the Marquis DeSade's setup. It also explains what the reviewers at Stereophile are raving about. There is no reason for this by the way except deliberate mis-tuning of the crossover from neutral or ideal. It also tells me this:

If you are using B&W 802 series speakers as references for record mastering or post-production, please stop it, stop it now! They aren't going to match most home speakers or any well-calibrated cinema.

Listen, if you like the sound of any of these speakers, and can afford them, you should go buy them, especially if you have complementary hearing loss but what you won't be able to do is to convince me that I'll like any pair of speakers Stereophile recommends, I just don't have the hearing loss in the same place that they seem to.

The Sony SS AR1 Review

The Stereophile review of this speaker was the most lukewarm review I've seen them publish for a $20,000 speaker.  What happened? The frequency response is not what is in vogue. Take a look at the Sony vs. the B&W 802 D3 measurements:

The B&W 803 D3 measurements are in red. I've circled all the important parts of the "Stereophile Curve" in red. As you can see, the Sony AR1 misses all the key parts. From the left, the 2.4kHz dip i s a known imaging/depth enhancment. It makes speakers appear to have better imaging than the recording actually has. Several Wilson's are tuned with this as are the Focal Sopra 2s. After that it seems to be a trait of the B&W's, regardless of their midrange. By the way, that Golden Ear was able to match B&W's curve so well is a testament to the versatility of AMT diaphrams. Being mostly resistive, creating an EQ curve to match other speakers is much easier.

Mind you, I'm not really happy with the Sony AR1 response anyway, it's not neutral but more of a party tuned speaker.  My point is that Sony did not know about the current fads in the high-end, and if they had they would have had a much warmer reception.

Exceptions to the Curve

There are exception to the Stereophile Curve, such as the Wilson Audio speakers, which just have terrible and inconsistent high frequency response. The Wilson XLF did seem to follow this curve though. YG Acoustics is one of the rare exceptions that proves the rule. Exceptionally good frequency response. Never heard them.

Explanations? Not sure, but they seem to correlate well with the number of full page ads. Take a look through any show report in the last 5 years at Stereophile. I'll let you punch me in the arm for any show report that doesn't include a painfully boring picture of both a Wilson AND YG Acoustics demo room. 

Alternatives to the High End Speaker Hype

The speakers that I like to listen to neutral and gimmick free, at least until my hearing gives out. If you feel the same way, please help stop the madness by buying from custom makers or by building your own speakers.

Please feel free to take a look at any of the good kits mentioned in this blog or my blog page which focuses on Custom Speaker Making, here.

Hearing Loss

By the way, if you do have hearing loss, building speakers, or adding equalization to make speakers sound better for you is quite easily and cheaply done! Dan D'Agostino, founder of Krell and now  his own company has had hearing aids specially tuned for him for years. He seems to have coped quite nicely! There's no reason why you can't remain a music and audiophile in the 21st century even with moderate hearing loss. miniDSP is your friend!

This blog post is not out to berate some one for a health condition. It may however berate an entire industry for selling hearing aids masquerading as loudspeakers for tens of thousands of dollars or more. Hearing aids, whether the kind you wear in your ear, or when disguised as loudspeakers should be affordable for all, and reviewers should know better. 


  1. I have also noticed that flat FR curves aren't as common in high end audio as one would think. I don't want to high jack the blog but I would like to hear if you have worked with both the Behringer DCX2496 and a miniDSP. I am using a DCX for crossover and EQ currently. I am considering changing to a miniDSP. I also would like to hear your thoughts about using more expensive drivers if one has the ability with digital crossovers and EQ to make the FR whatever they desire. I have $5000 speakers that have $600 worth of drivers and probably not much spent on the passive crossover between mid and high frequencies. I bypass all internal wiring and passive crossovers and connect speaker cables directly to drivers. Between the processing power of the DCX and the room EQ with my pre/pro I have them sounding like I prefer. I read an article about the Yamaha NS-10 being in many recording studios and designed my system to resemble the FR of them. Any thoughts are welcome.

  2. HI Amateur! Great points of discussion, but I suggest you ask in the Multi-Way speaker forum on Diyaudio: