Sonically speaking, what does a great speaker sound like?

It's a complicated question, because all of the best speakers sound very different from one another -- which one is right for you?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Quad 57 electrostatic speaker. Quad

It comes up again and again: "Steve, please recommend a great speaker." Good question, but there are a lot of factors to consider before coming up with a definitive answer. A lot depends on what you're looking for and how you define "great." Nailing down the price is the first step, but if there's one thing I've learned about audiophiles, it's that taste always plays a big part in evaluating sound quality. That's why, in my reviews, I describe how a speaker sounds with different kinds of music.

There's no such thing as a speaker that does everything well and works in any situation. They are site- and application-specific. One reader might have a 1,000-square-foot loft, where they sit 25 feet from the speakers and mostly listen to hip hop, and another could live in a tiny apartment and listens to chamber music. They both want great speakers, but they need very different speakers. For close to the same budget, the first one would do best with the PSB T6 towers ($1,298/pair), while the chamber music fan would be better off with a pair of GoldenEar Technology Aon 3 bookshelf speakers ($1,000/pair).

Gallo A'Diva SE speakers Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Some general guidelines apply: bigger speakers, and ones with more drivers, play louder with deeper bass and lower distortion than small speakers. If those qualities are important to you, don't buy small speakers. Here's a quick rundown of some of my favorite speakers, and why I love them.

The two Tekton speakers I covered previously, the M-Lore ($650/pair) and the Enzo ($2,000/pair), may not be the last word for folks seeking ultimate detail resolution, but they can play loud really well; they have deep, highly articulate bass; and they work with a wide range of electronics, anything from cheap receivers to expensive tube amps.

The greatest pure electrostatic speakers (without cone woofers) sound remarkably vivid, transparent, and clear with most types of acoustic music, but they're not well suited to rock. The Quad 57 is, perhaps, the pinnacle of electrostatic design. It was introduced in the late 1950s and remained in production through the early 1980s. Used Quads in good condition aren't hard to find, and the next generation model, the ESL 63, is also worth seeking out.

Flat panel speakers, like Magnepans, are frequently confused with electrostatic speakers, but unlike 'stats, Magnepans don't have to be plugged into AC power outlets. Maggies can play fairly loud, they're highly transparent and clear, but they don't make a lot of very deep bass. Electrostatic speakers and Maggies need to be placed a few feet away from walls to sound their best and tend to be fussy about power amps. Magnepan prices start at $600 a pair.

Vandersteen Model 2 speakers. Vandersteen

The Vandersteen Model 2 towers, introduced in late 1977, have been revised again and again over the years and are still in production as the 2Ce Signature II. These speakers produce a big, laid-back sound; terrific, wide-open imaging; and full bass. Nowhere near the clarity of the Quads, but the Vandersteens play louder, have more and better bass, and work in larger rooms than Quads can handle.

Klipsch "horn" speakers are highly dynamic and can play super loud with ease. Teamed with a good subwoofer, horn speakers make terrific party and home-theater speakers, but they work best in large rooms.

For the folks who need the tiniest possible speakers yet still want audiophile-quality sound, I recommend the Anthony Gallo Acoustics A'Diva SE ($658/pair). It's a five-inch steel sphere, but it projects a huge, vivid sound in small to midsize rooms. The A'Diva SE must be used with a subwoofer.

The Emotiva Pro Stealth 8 is a large bookshelf speaker, but it can play really loud, and really well. For a moderate size bookshelf speaker, the Stealth 8 makes a lot of high-quality bass. It's equally well suited to home theater and high-energy music; less adept for classical or acoustic jazz.

The Adam Audio F5 is a desktop, self-powered monitor speaker -- just hook it up directly to your computer's analog output, or to a USB digital converter. It will delight your ears with a high-resolution, yet easy-on-the-ears tonal balance.