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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Speakers

What's the worst sound you ever heard?

It's a wide open question -- the worst music, movie or any sound in real life -- how bad was it?

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Ear plugs can help keep bad sound at bay.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I make my living searching for great-sounding audio gear, music, and movies, but I also have to suffer horrendous sound from time to time. Take for example those wretched tiny Bluetooth speakers that make vocals sound like a small animal struggling to get out of a trap. If you're satisfied with that, good for you, but for the same money you could buy a decent set of dirt cheap headphones that sound 10 times better than those awful pint-size Bluetooth speakers. It's your choice.

In real life we all have to, from time to time, endure the sound of crying babies, squealing truck brakes, or chalk scraping on a blackboard. Two Facebook friends responded to my worst-ever sound query with "The bones in my leg breaking," and they weren't kidding! Another friend sadly volunteered the sound of, "My mom when my Dad passed;" that's heartbreaking. Another Facebook friend noted a lot of live concerts sound worse than run-of-the-mill home-audio systems. I agree.

The single worst-sounding product I ever reviewed was the Gateway KAS-103 home theater audio system in 2003. The receiver/DVD player's styling was pretty impressive, and the sub looked like it meant business, but once I started listening things turned ugly in a hurry. In stereo the satellite speakers and subwoofer didn't blend at all well, the sats sounded like pipsqueak AM radios, and the sub's bass was thumpy and lumpy. Switching over to surround the sound thinned out even more, and instead of sending the sound to all five sats, most of the sound stuck to the center speaker.

Worse yet, with CDs and movies there were annoying static and popping sounds from the speakers that reminded me of the clicks you hear from a badly worn LP. When I played bass-heavy music the little subwoofer rattled and buzzed. Turning down the volume helped, but then I noticed how noisy the receiver's cooling fan was, the whoosh of air was audible from across the room!

I was concerned that the KAS-103 was defective, but for some reason Gateway double shipped review samples, and the second KAS-103 suffered the very same maladies. It was the worst-sounding product I ever reviewed.

As regular readers of the Audiophiliac know, I'm no fan of wireless speakers. But a few months ago I heard a truly ear-punishing offender at the CNET office. The culprit was a Sony SRS-X11 ($70, UK£54, AU$99), it's a 2.4-inch (61mm) cube, and I have to admit this tiny thing makes bass and plays fairly loud. But the SRS-X11's sound is always fuzzy, like a broken speaker. The best thing about the SRS-X11's sound was how I felt after I turned it off.

Back in the 1990s, when I was an audio salesman I demonstrated a pair of expensive ProAc monitor speakers with buzzing/distorted tweeters to a drunken customer who insisted on hearing them, even after I told him the speakers were broken. He didn't care and wanted to buy the broken speakers! I told him I'd order a new pair, but he insisted on taking home the broken ones, so I wrote on the sales invoice that the speakers were broken, and he could exchange the speakers for a new pair in the future, but I never heard from him again. He apparently liked the crunchy sound of his very distorted speakers!

What say you? What's the worst sound you ever heard?