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Attention, speaker buyers: Is sound quality really the top priority?

Be honest, is sound quality that big a deal?

KEF Reference 1 speakers KEF

Come on, it's just you and me, how do you rate it? Is sound quality the main thing, or is price, features, size, styling, name brand or scoring the best possible deal? It's probably a combination of all of those things, but how high does sound quality rate for you?

Ten years ago at a press luncheon when I was seated next to the president of a large, mainstream American speaker company, I asked (off the record) about his priorities, where sound quality fit in relation to design and material costs, marketing, advertising, dealer relations, styling and so on. He practically choked on his food and turned away and talked to someone else. There was no way I'd get an honest answer out of him. Even then, most of his customers never heard his speakers before they bought them. So, sure, all speaker companies pay lip service to sound quality, but their real top priority is selling product.

It's different for many, but not all, high-end speaker companies, and not just the ones selling really expensive speakers. These companies succeed or fail based on the sound quality of their speakers, and their speakers are usually auditioned by customers in brick and mortar stores. Not only that, the companies know their speakers will be compared with other speakers in the store. High-end brands like Bowers & Wilkins, Dynaudio, Focal, Harbeth, KEF, Magnepan, Quad, Sonus Faber, Spendor, Totem, Vandersteen and Wilson take pride in building the best-sounding speakers they can. They must be doing something right; with minimal advertising or marketing they've all managed to stay in business for many decades.

So if you're seeking great-sounding speakers try to find a way to hear them, and compare them with other speakers in their price range before you buy, and if that's not possible, buy with return privileges.