Tower speakers vs. small speakers, Digital SLRs vs. superzoom cameras

Week of July 24, 2005

Q: I have some large-sized tower speakers purchased in the late 80s-early 90s. I am out of it as far as new speakers, except that I see that people now seem to buy small speakers. Has technology advanced so that now you get the same performance out of smaller sized speakers? Which are the good but affordable speakers to buy now?
-Dana Handbury, Oxnard, CA

A: When you see the tiny speakers, you are only seeing part of the speaker system. The speakers are teamed with a subwoofer or bass module to provide something resembling full-range sound.

The main reason you see people buying tiny cube or box-shaped speakers just a few inches tall is because- they are small. In the audio hobby, there is a term called WAF, or Wife Acceptance Factor. Speakers that are small and disappear into the room’s décor have a high WAF. Monstrous, refrigerator-sized speakers such as Klipschorns and Ohm Model As have a WAF close to zero (though they sound great!) The high WAF, combined with some sonic trickery employed by some of the manufacturers and retailers providing the demonstration, has led to high sales of the tiny speakers.

When it comes to performance- these tiny speakers can’t hold a candle to tower or even bookshelf-sized speakers. It takes surface area to move air to reproduce sound, and the tiny driver’s don’t have enough surface area in their woofers to accurately reproduce midrange or upper-bass frequencies well. This leads to a sonic flaw inelegantly referred to as “midrange suck-out”.

What’s more, many of these tiny speakers don’t even have a tweeter! Relying on a single tiny cone to reproduce the midrange as well as the treble usually results in a mediocre to lousy job on either. Check the frequency response of the speakers, as provided by the manufacturer. Look for a specification of 20,000 hz +-3 db, showing that the highest frequencies are reproduced accurately. If the manufacturer is unwilling to provide frequency response specifications, they are probably hiding something. Almost all manufacturers are upfront about the performance of their speakers and provide this important specification.
The best compromise of sound and performance is bookshelf-sized speakers teamed with a subwoofer. Some of my favorites in reasonably priced (under $400) bookshelf speakers are the Axiom Audio M2i and Monitor Audio Bronze series. An excellent subwoofer for only $125 is the Dayton 10″ powered subwoofer, available from www.partsexpress.com.

Q: I’m in need of a new digital camera. I’ve seen your recommendation of the Panasonic DMC-FZ20 and have been saving up to buy one. I like to take nature pictures (including landscapes). And it drives me crazy, for instance, when I’m trying to take a picture of a Pelican in flight and I have to focus & shoot way in front of the bird, just to make sure at least part of it gets in the picture. While it’s true I’ve gotten some rather interesting pictures doing this, I’d much rather not have to “lead the bird,” or anything else. I also like and do macro photography. And, I’d rather not have an DSLR where I have to carry lots of lenses to do what I want to. With the kind of shooting I like to do in mind…which camera do you think will perform the best for me?
-Sharon Fields, Oxnard, CA

A: You won’t want to hear this- but the best camera is definitely a digital SLR. When it comes to action photography where quick response and accurate framing are critical, nothing else really compares.

If you definitely won’t buy an SLR, check out Panasonic’s new DMC-FZ30, a new model above the FZ20. The FZ30 has 8 megapixels and has a mechanically driven zoom ring, rather than a powered one. (It’s the way pros use zoom lenses on their SLRs- it’s much faster and saves battery power.) The FZ30 has a great many other improvements over the FZ20 such as a bigger LCD screen that swivels and tilts, and the ability to create images using RAW format rather than JPG, which allows more flexibility in tweaking your images as well as potentially better quality. You can see the DMC-FZ30 at www.dpreview.com. It’s priced at $699- a little more than an FZ20, but well worth it!

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