Recently I read an article about buying running shoes at home. As an avid runner (now more than ever), I was curious. Buying running shoes is typically a highly personalized process. In a world without COVID-19, you’d go to your local athletic store, learn about your gait/etc. on a treadmill and buy what the employee recommended.
Now that we’re all complying with stay-at-home orders, how do we identify and purchase things just for us, like audio equipment?
The article I was reading tackled this experiential problem by highlighting all the things we could measure and applying those to a purchasing decision. This seemed like a straightforward principle, and it’s something audio enthusiasts have already attempted to tackle at length to make purchasing audio equipment easier. Maybe running as a sport was a little behind the audio scene in this regard?
I found this guide from Digital Trends about how to buy speakers and this guide from Rob Silva at Lifewire about basic audio principles to be great examples of the dozens of other helpful articles out there. All of this content is obviously great for the would-be audio consumer.
But what many of these guides will ultimately say—and what most enthusiasts will generally tell people getting into the hobby—is just listen for yourself.
Going back to the premise of this article, how do we compensate for the inability to test gear in a store? Surely the answer must be to test things out in your own home. While expensive audio equipment isn’t quite as easy to transport as running shoes, it’s still possible to test equipment at home without too much heartburn. This is even more true now since several companies are offering extended return policies to allow people to thoroughly test equipment before fully committing. As an example, Denon, Polk Audio, Definitive Technology and Marantz all doubled their return policies to 60-days.
The good/bad news is time isn’t necessarily our enemy right now. So, put it to good use. Here are four tips for what to listen and look for when auditioning new audio equipment at home:
1. Is it too much? Too little?
At first glance, were you expecting something more, or are you a little concerned you went too crazy for your space? Those tower speakers may not have looked so big on the website, but now that they’re in your living room, do they still work?
Finding well-fitting equipment for your space is of critical importance, especially since we all need to navigate around our homes’ unique aspects. It can be very easy to identify if there will be obstacles to a good-sounding system, like corners, walls, fireplaces, etc.
You can accomplish this prior to purchasing by accurately measuring your space—considering acoustical obstacles—and developing a diagram. Apply this knowledge to your purchasing decisions. This guide from Audiogurus is a great resource to start.
2. So it works with your space. How does it play music?
Assuming you bought a system primarily for music listening (and not home theater, for example), how does it sound? Start with tracks you’ve heard a thousand times (just as you would in-store), you’ll be able to identify aspects of the song you like and don’t like and whether they’re present or not.
A crucial qualifier here is to choose audio equipment that reproduces your favorite songs the way you like them to be played. Audio brands all sound different from one another (including electronics!), explore the way a few things sound and decide what sounds best. This is typically a huge benefit of going to a store, but since we can’t, acquiring and returning audio gear may just be the only true way to capitalize on something that sounds good for your taste.
This guide from Audioholics is a great primer for principles to test audio equipment. It’s geared towards in-store listening, but the basics still apply for at-home listening as well.
3. Did you buy equipment for a home theater? How does it sound?
This is especially important for home theaters as they typically require more audio equipment to fully come to life. However, sound bars are a great workaround to get something that sounds awesome but doesn’t take up much space.
If you’re in for the real deal (AVR, speakers, etc.) then you need to take extra caution when purchasing this equipment. This guide from Lifewire is helpful place to understand the basics of putting together a home theater system.
Pay special attention to how the bass sounds in your home. Bass is a challenging frequency range to get right, so make sure you’re happy with the way that sounds. This home theater bass bootcamp is a great resource to successfully integrate a subwoofer into your system. The next most important channels are your front left/right channels. Do they sound excellent and meet your expectations? Do you need to add a center channel? Listen carefully and ensure this front stage sounds just right.
It’s also helpful to know many AV Receivers and sound bars offer room correction technology, like Audyssey. These technologies will actually measure your room and calibrate your speaker performance to optimize room modes.
4. Did you consult an expert before deciding to return the equipment?
So you’re not totally convinced the equipment is great, but not convinced it’s worth returning. This gray area is surprisingly common for most, and unfortunately a lot of people settle for something mediocre because of it.
An easy way to work around this is to talk to other enthusiasts. Forums like AVS Forum and r/audiophile for Reddit are great places to get opinions on what you’re experiencing and your unique situation.
If you want expert advice, companies are more than willing to talk about your listening situation on their social media channels or by contacting their outward-facing representatives. Hi-Fi shops around the world are also eagerly learning how to better help folks while quarantined. The video “How to conduct effective virtual home consultations” is a good example of how these shops are learning to virtually help their constituents.
One of the silver linings during this time is having the extra bandwidth and capabilities to test and return audio equipment with little-to-no-impact on your pocketbook. A breadth of online resources to learn about what to listen for is also a huge help for the burgeoning audio enthusiasts out there.
Most importantly remember to have fun while auditioning audio equipment at home. The ability to keep audio equipment for an extended period of time without much obligation is something we’ll hopefully see more of in the future, but as they say, there’s no time like the present.