Choosing speakers

For my birthday, I embarked on a new project to build a home theater speaker system. I did a substantial amount of research before purchasing, so I thought I would share what I found out.

The first option that just about everyone is familiar with is these "home theater in a box" (HTIB) solutions that you can find at your typical electronics box store. These systems are very affordable, but you get what you pay for. The sound is okay (sometimes a substantial improvement over built-in speakers on TVs), but HTIBes don't come close to producing the kind of sound available from even similarly priced solutions available elsewhere. By spending the same money, or perhaps a little more, you can get a more neutral frequency response with a broader, deeper soundstage, resulting in a clearer and more detailed sound.

In the sub-$1000 bookshelf speaker market, there are a lot of products. Some standouts include (ordered by price):

  • SVS SBS-01 ($250/pr)
  • KEF iQ3 (a discontinued product replaced by the iQ30, but still available for $250 from
  • Ascend Acoustics CBM-170SE ($350/pr)
  • Jamo C603 ($400/pr)
  • Axiom Audio M22 ($470/pr)
  • Usher S-520 ($480/pr)
  • B&W 685 ($650/pr)
  • NHT Classic 3 ($650/pr)
  • Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 ($900/pr)

I am listing MSRP. Expect most dealers to offer 10-15% off of these prices. Your mileage will very depending on the store and your negotiating skills.

So, I have not actually heard all of these. SVS, Ascend Accoustics, and Axiom Audio are all internet direct stores. Each allows for a 30+ day at home "audition", where you might only have to pay the shipping charges if you want to send them back. SVS and Ascend get talked about a lot on the audiophile forums. SVS apparently makes awesome subwoofers that can only be matched by spending 3x as much, and they just started producing a complete 5.1 system for $1000. I considered this package for a while, but eventually decided that I really wanted to focus on getting a nice pair of fronts for now. The SVS SBS-01s seem to be best when paired with a sub.

The Ascend Acoustics CBM-170SE supposedly sound as good or better than many $1000/pr speakers. Unfortunately, they aren't much to look at: simple, almost plastic-y looking boxes. If you don't care about such things, this might be the best bang for your buck. Ascend's Sierra-1, on the other hand, looks fantastic, and are causing just about every reviewer to glow with praise. Apparently these bad boys are as good as many $2k or $3k speakers. If I were willing to spend $900 on two speakers (I am not), this is where I would have put my money.

The Axiom speakers also get mentioned a lot on the forums. They are compared frequently to Paradigm's Studio 20 speakers. I happen to not particularly like the sound of the Studio 20s, especially with classical music (they are great for rock). So, I decided that these were not for me.

The Jamo's, Usher's, and NHT's have a lot of fans, but there are no dealers particularly close to me, so I could not hear them. Without a similar 30-day at-home audition policy on these guys, I was unwilling to seriously consider them. Still, apparently these are great values (and the NHT Classic 3s used to be considered the best value under $1000 before some of these other contenders came on the scene).

I listened to some KEF iQ30s and liked what I heard. Like the B&W speakers I eventually chose, these have a very neutral sound and produce a large soundstage. They did not seem to have as much low-end, though (not an issue when paired with a subwoofer, but I wanted speakers that could stand on their own) and they have a very unique aesthetic which you will either really like or really dislike. I think they look cool, but Phyllis is not such a fan. Ultimately, the Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF) does count, so I moved on.

To my ear, the B&W 685s are substantially better than the Paradigm Studio 20s (while also costing less!). They reveal an amazing amount of detail and create a huge soundstage. In auditioning these, I heard several things in recordings which were completely hidden from me before. So, these are what I purchased. You can see my new setup in the image at the top of the post!

Everyone has a different taste in speaker sound, so there is no way to say that "these speakers are best speakers available under X dollars!" You really just need to go out and listen to some systems (preferably in similar listening conditions and with the same source material) to find what you like. I hope that my comments here will simply help you create your own audition list if you are ever in the market for some speakers.

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