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Loudspeaker Shootouts: Dare to Compare

Everyone loves a good loudspeaker shootout, right? That may be, but it is anything but simple to coordinate one.There are several considerations to be made before selecting a speaker system, including output, room coverage, tonal quality and price, to name a few. In principle, a wellorganized speaker shootout is arguably the best way to make a true side-by-side comparison. If organizing a shootout is the route you intend to take to make your selection, then you may want to consider some of the following ideas to make the process a little smoother.

Let’s say you’ve already come to the decision that the monoliths pumping crackly, brittle sound into your sanctuary (or selected room of choice) are just not cutting it any more. The logical scenario that comes to mind when considering the purchase of a loudspeaker system from one of a series of manufacturers vying for your worthy business, is to have them shoot it out. The true test of audio prowess; where only the strong survive. The victor saves the day, tweeters held high, and the vanquished file back through the door to return to their homes, sub-woofers slumped in defeat. It may sound romantic, but it is actually very complicated. Arranging to have a loudspeaker shootout done at your facility takes a lot of careful planning and organization. You have to be willing to set aside hours (many of them) for study, research and listening- in order to make an educated decision.In some cases you may actually have to leave your facility to go check out another building; even another (gasp!) Church.

The reality is that it costs each manufacturer/installer/contractor quite a bit to arrange to be part of a shootout. You will need to be upfront with them about your expectations, the size of your room, and roughly the amount of product you are planning to purchase. They are taking a chance that you as the client are going to make your decision based on the optimal way in which their product performs. The more you are upfront about making this an above board, realistic and fair comparison, the better the experience will be for all involved.

A big decision to make is whether you have the capability to arrange to hear the speakers in your room, as opposed to somewhere else, for example outdoors. Not to say that you can’t make a decision based on hearing a product outdoors, but you need to be aware of the various characteristics that will change, given that you are listening to a speaker system in an open environment versus in your room.

“There are some speakers made by some manufacturers that sound fabulous outside,” explains R Bob Adams, former acoustical consultant who now works as International Director with SLS Loudspeakers. “You have zero room involvement, the sound dissipates and it sounds crisp and wonderful. That same speaker put inside a reverberant environment might sound like hammered mudfor the simple reason that it can’t cut through reverberation properly.”

If there were a way to calculate an exact measurement of loudspeaker against room type without playing the speakers physically in that room, people would likely be using that measurement to install sound systems everywhere. Of course, if such a calculation existed, you probably would not have nearly the same amount of manufacturers, consultants or contractors competing for business.

In other words, your room is a delicate and beautiful snowflake.There is none other like it in the world. It has a whole litany of adorable characteristics that will change the way sound is reproduced. At the end of the day, having the shootout occur in the room where the system is destined to live is clearly ideal.

Dare to Compare

Let’s say for argument’s sake that you manage to arrange to have a loudspeaker shootout in your facility.This is assuming of course that you have already done the appropriate Research and you have listened to these systems in other environments, either at a trade show, in another sanctuary, or at the manufacturer’s/contractor’s demo rooms, respectively.Now comes the hard part.

How many is too many?

First thing’s first: determine the quantity of manufacturers you want to have involved. This decision is subjective and of course is up to you, however a recommendation would be to keep it at three.

“I would say, never have more than three manufacturers at a time.” suggests R Bob Adams. “I’ve been in shootouts of five and six and it was a waste of time, because your ears start to develop fatigue and you can’t tell what the difference is between the speakers. Three offers a decent variety to listen to at any one time.”

What’s the Path?

For a loudspeaker shootout to be performed properly, you need to understand the signal path running from your source to the system. It is complicated enough to arrange three different sets of loudspeakers to hang in your space. It will be even more complicated if you have to tie in to your existing FOH setup to pull it off. It starts compounding what is referred to as the multiplicity of variables. For example, will you be able to make the signal path the same from microphone (or source CD) into the mixer to the speakers, for all three? If so, where are the amps? Are you going from a mono system to a Biamp system to a triamp system? Are the cable runs going to be the same? All of these (and many more) variables will change the dynamics of the listening. Unless you understand and have taken into account all of these variables, you may not be giving the systems a fair turn.

Fly Me off the Floor

If at all possible, when setting up for the shootout, the speakers to be demonstrated should be suspended off the floor or placed in a position similar to how they will be installed. While logistically not always feasible, flown speakers will provide for better evaluation of coverage and tonal response throughout the coverage area.

A Source Is A Source, Of Course

Another very important consideration is source material.Chances are, the salespeople who have accompanied system number one will want to blow you away with how well their boxes reproduce the Eagles and Norah Jones. Manufacturer number two will woo you with the lulling, melodious tones of Megadeath and Iron Maiden.Number three will insist on the jarring cacophony of Luigi Boccherini’s Sinfoniaa più strumenti obbligati in reminore No. 3 Op. 37.

However, a recommendation that some may find slightly odd is this: don’t use music. I beg your pardon?

“Music already has characteristics built into it: compression, expansion, harmonics.” explains Adams. “Go get a single source from Syn Aud Con: their Word List CD.It’s somebody in a dry environment speaking words. Is that not the entire purpose of the system: to understand the spoken word? Is it not true that anything you are hearing with the spoken word will also show up in music? Definitely have [the manufacturers] play music later on to show the dynamics of the system. However always start first, while people’s ears are fresh, with the spoken word.”

After listening to dry speech, then a variety of music styles will demonstrate some of the dynamic capabilities of each of the speakers.

The More the Hairier

We’ve all heard the expression about too many cooks spoiling the broth, right? If you haven’t, it’s this: Too many cooks spoil the broth. Well, in a loudspeaker shootout, you may do well to consider the opposite. Think about having different people from different ministries be present for the shootout. Everyone will be listening for different things, for different reasons.

“Have approximately 20 listeners of different levels,” suggests Adams. “As an example, have five people from the music department, five from administration, five from the children’s department, and five young adults.” The idea is that the music people in the group may be able to identify characteristics such as hearing at 40 hertz very well, whereas the folks from the administrative side may be listening for something else. This is one of those cases where the more data you have to draw from, the better. Keep in mind that this is a big decision, and you want to make sure you are looking at it from as many different angles as possible.

Make Your Calculations

Adams suggests that you take this exercise a step further.

“Give them all a chart with four columns on it,” he says. “First column is for your ‘subjects’, and the next three columns are your manufacturers, one, two and three. Your ‘subjects’ would contain certain specific things that they are to listen for. This list is somewhat flexible, but as a guide, you would listen for things like how the system reproduces D’s, T’s and S’s. You would listen for sibilance. You would listen for warmth in the sound. The idea is that each person is listening to the exact same system, and they are listening for the same ‘subject’ in each system. They then calculate each subject on a 1 to 10 scale on their charts. Let’s say for the ability to hear T’s and D’s, speaker number one is rated a three, number two is rated a six, and number three may be a five. Music can be one of these subjects, as well. How does it sound on the low end, is there enough presence at certain frequencies, etc.

“Here’s another suggestion.” Adams continues. “Have those twenty or so people do this exercise as they walk around the room. In other words, while speaker one is on, they are walking all around the room, listening.
No one is really sitting in one place for any extended period of time. At the end of the entire exercise, you can average the chart numbers and come up with an answer.”

The calculation you end up with is certainly not the be all and end all answer. However what it will do is give you a collection of data by which you can make some more definitive decisions.

“Keep in mind that an exercise like this takes time.” Adams sums it up. “It’s not just – go in, listen, and leave.There’s a lot to a true speaker evaluation test.”

Even though setting up a loudspeaker shootout is logistically a challenge, it is a great way to do an honest comparison of different systems. With so many people involved in the decision making process, you should have much stronger (hopefully financial) support for the answer. The overall result can be very rewarding to your church

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