Educate Yourself

Get Turned On: A Woman's Guide to Purchasing Audio Gear

By Sarah Knight

Three years ago if you had asked me the difference between a tweeter and a woofer I would have probably answered a bird tweets and a dog woofs. Ok, maybe that's a little exaggerated but at that time I was as audio illiterate as they come. In my defense, there are a lot of other women out there who could not answer that same question. And the irony behind it all is that today I am working for a leading loudspeaker manufacturer and writing about things like titanium compression drivers and square Tractrix® Horns.

Prior to being hired by Klipsch as a public relations specialist, I would have laughed if someone had told me I'd land a job writing about audio products. After all, my communications degree was designed for the technically challenged. Plus, I never found myself the least bit comfortable with technology and the industry seemed to have a male-dominated ring to it, which to me just screamed the word intimidation. But here I am loving what I do and enjoying the fact that I now know more about loudspeakers than my boyfriend. Not to mention, the industry employs more females than you think. The gist of it all is that had I let my fear take over, I would have overlooked one very cool opportunity.

In terms of actually experiencing high-performance audio, I think a lot of women are missing out and depriving themselves of the way music and movies should sound. This probably happens for a number of reasons.

First of all, a woman might recognize and appreciate good sound but feel intimidated and overwhelmed by all the choices at electronic stores. Secondly, a woman who has not heard truly good audio might think sound is sound and be perfectly content purchasing a low performance stereo system simply because she doesn't know any better. Or a woman flat out typecasts audio as a man thing and avoids the thought of realistic sound reproduction all together, which is a shame.

Before coming to Klipsch, the thought of me walking into an audio retailer was unheard of and I was perfectly happy with my small boom box. However, after hearing Klipsch loudspeakers for the first time, I could have smacked myself for not holding more of an appreciation for sound. Up until then, I loved listening to music and watching movies but never gave any thought to the audio source. And to my dismay, I found that I had been listening to the low performance versions of my favorite songs and movies for years. But now that I have a taste of the good life, I listen to everything with a more discerning ear.

Women should not typecast audio as a man thing. Don't let the thought of buying speakers frighten you.

Whether you're a single woman or the primary shopper for your household, you should do yourself a favor and get the most out of your favorite music and movies by bringing high-end audio into your home. To clarify, high-end refers to a product's performance, not its price. High-end means getting all the power, detail and emotion out of an entertainment experience. The better a loudspeaker sounds, the deeper your connection with the music or movie. For instance, imagine watching classic love stories like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind and being completely drawn into the intense passion between Humphrey and Ingrid or Vivien and Clark just because the movie sounded good.

Now, if you're convinced you need high performance sound in your home but have no clue where to start, I hope to arm you with enough basic information that will leave you feeling confident when purchasing audio gear. Before you get nervous and think I am going to start dropping words like high frequency response, bandwidth and power handling, don't worry because I plan to avoid all the technical mumbo jumbo. After all, if you are like me, you probably care more about what the speaker system will do, rather than how it works.

Starting off, you need to know your environment and survey the room where you plan to hook up these bad boys. In order to get a speaker system that meets your lifestyle and performance expectations, you need to know the size of the room and consider how you want things to look and where everything will be positioned. Believe it or not, how well your system performs also depends on your room's setup. For example, too many bare surfaces can cause reflections that add harshness to the sound or muddy the dialog. It is also a good rule of thumb to avoid rooms that are perfectly square or have one dimension exactly twice the other. Furniture placement also plays a major role in your room's acoustics.

Make the pledge to bring high-performance audio into your home. Women can handle anything so buying speakers should be no sweat.

Next, it's important to determine everything you want this system to do. Will it be used to listen to music, watch movies and TV, play video games or all of the above? For instance, if all you want to do is listen to music, a 2.1 system (two speakers and a subwoofer) should suffice. But by adding movies and TV into the mix, you might consider a home theater system that includes 5.1-channel surround sound, which means three speakers positioned in front, two for surround speakers at the sides and a subwoofer placed in the front corner to capture those deep-driving sound effects you feel and hear.

As a side note, you can even go as far as a 6.1 or 7.1-channel setup, but when building any surround sound system make sure you don't skimp on the center channel. This speaker, positioned front and center, is the most important and most often overlooked, component of a surround system. More than 60 percent of all the soundtrack material is reproduced through the center channel. Plus, with today's multi-channel digital soundtracks it is also necessary to get surrounds that can carry their weight. No longer relegated to ambient noise reproduction, surround channel speakers must act as high-performance, full-range speakers delivering both superb envelopment and excellent localization of specific effects.

After evaluating your room and deciding what you want from a system, it's important to determine your price range. To get an idea of what speakers cost, I suggest reading audio publications such as Sound and Vision and Home Theater. These magazines will also familiarize you with the speaker brands on the market and give reviews of the latest products, which could be very helpful to you.

Always evaluate the room that will contain your speakers. Have a budget in mind before entering a consumer electronics store.

When you're ready to buy, you need to decide where to purchase your speakers. There are several options, which include purchasing from a mass consumer electronics retailer, specialty audio/video retailer or a custom installer.

At a mass retailer, you will find good products that target the average consumer. Because these stores operate on a very large scale, you typically receive limited consultation services and have to go home and set the system up yourself. The bonus is that the prices are generally lower.

A specialty retailer is a boutique-style setting that caters to more of an audio enthusiast. Because their sales people usually make commission on what they sell, they tend to be more knowledgeable about their products and are willing to spend the time with you. But before you think, "Oh no, commission," these people rely heavily on referrals and your repeat business, so in most cases they will work hard to service your exact needs. The prices may be higher but the products are usually a step above the mass retailers. What's really great about these stores is that they will often deliver your system and set it up for you.

Compared to the retail experience, the custom installer route takes you further down the primrose path. In essence, they are a contractor who comes to your house and designs your home theater system for you - it's actually not much different than hiring an interior designer. Installers don't usually have a showroom so you might not be able go in and see, hear and touch the product. But by showing them your space and telling them what you want, they will make solid recommendations.

A good way to find a reputable custom installer is by contacting the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association. CEDIA is a global trade association of companies that specialize in installing home electronic systems. After narrowing down your choices, you should contact each prospective installer and ask to speak with at least three former clients to get a sense of their work ethics. This is such an important step because you don't want to hire someone who leaves messes behind or doesn't show up on time. And if you haven't already guessed, this is probably the most expensive avenue when buying speakers.

Take a diagram of your room when shopping for speakers. You don't need a trained ear to evaluate a speaker. It's whatever sounds good to you.

If an installer is out of the question and you decide to go to a retailer, choose a day where you can devote a few hours to the cause. Be sure to take your favorite movie and CD with you because when evaluating how a speaker sounds it's important to listen to something that's familiar. As you demo several different speakers, you will discover that the things you enjoy sound different on each model. To be sure the retailer can accurately service your needs, it is also a good idea to take a diagram and the dimensions of the room that will house the speakers. This information will help determine what speakers will work and how much sound is needed to fill your area. Just like walking into a bar, when entering the audio store the first thing you are going to do is scope out the most attractive choices. And that is ok, because I know women usually want the good-looking version of anything they buy. And for those of you who think speakers only come in huge, clunky boxes, you'll be happy to know that nowadays high performance audio, like apparel, comes in a wide variety of styles. In fact, some speaker companies use all-female engineering teams to design some of their speakers. Klipsch, who has always been known as a big box speaker company, has also started targeting women by developing products that are more stylish, compact and very lifestyle oriented. I personally think the new Klipsch Reference Series Satellites are as elegant as they are high performance.

When you're ready to speak with a salesperson, you should be very detailed with your needs and present your budget up front, but be willing to understand you may have unrealistic expectations. Keep in mind, a good salesperson will let you get comfortable, not be pushy and steer you in the right direction. If at any time the salesperson starts to get technical and confuse you, be very blunt and ask for the information in everyday-people terms. If he or she can't, ask to work with someone else or go to another store. This may seem harsh, but it's your money and satisfaction on the line.

After weeding out the speakers that are too expensive or don't complement your décor, you need to start listening to potential candidates. Keep in mind that speakers are not like bathing suits. If you are building a home theater system, it is NOT a good idea to mix and match between the brands because speaker companies typically design their products to work together to produce sounds at the same levels and tones. When evaluating how a system sounds you don't need to have a trained ear, it's whatever sounds good to you. However, it is important to pay attention to things like: Can you understand what is going on? Is the dialogue crystal clear? How dynamic is the speaker?

When buying audio gear, there's no need to rely on a man to get the job done. After purchasing your ideal speaker system, your friends will be jealous and want advice.

If you're wondering what the heck I mean by dynamic, it is the ability of the speaker to go from a very quiet passage to a very loud passage very quickly without sounding muddy or strained. A good way to test a speaker's dynamics is by watching the train wreck scene from the Harrison Ford movie, The Fugitive. As you watch Ford running from the derailed train, you hear the faint sound of his shackles clanking, then as the train gets closer and closer the sound slowly begins to get louder and louder. Most speakers are able to handle this because the sound level goes from quiet, to modest, to loud at a very slow rate. But then when the train finally crashes, the sound goes from a fairly subtle level to "Holy Cow!" loud in a split second and most speakers will crush at that point, in other words, they fail to bring the scene to life. Once you have found speakers that make you feel as good as a new pair of Prada shoes, you will need a receiver to drive everything. A receiver is a tuner, preamplifier and amplifier all packed into one box. The tuner receives the AM/FM signals, the preamplifier acts as a traffic cop and routes all your connections to the amplifier, and the amplifier strengthens the signals. The more input connections you have, the bigger and more powerful your receiver will be. For example, a home theater system made up of a DVD-player, VCR, CD player, tape deck and TiVo will require a much larger receiver than a system that just has a DVD-player.

When selecting a receiver, be sure to leave yourself some expansion room because as new innovations (like TiVo) hit the market, you may want to add to your system. If your receiver can't handle these advancements, you will have to scrap it and start over. A good salesman will make sure your system can grow and change with you.

Since I'm almost positive you don't need (or give a hoot) to know about driver topology, crossover networks or enclosure types to purchase good speakers, I'll spare you the agony and stop my speaker lesson now. After all, if I can learn and write about advanced speaker technologies, you should have no problem on your quest for high performance audio.

And if you are reading this article on you're already well on your way.

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