A friend just asked me for some advise on buying speakers – should she get Bose or Paradigm? Well, I had a few words to about that, so here's my response:

Here's an answer that's probably much longer than you wanted but you've hit a personal obsession! Maybe I'll turn this into a blog post :-)

I'm going to throw you a curveball with a totally unorthodox opinion. Speakers are funny, there's no trade secrets or patents that big brands have to make better speakers. It's basically heavy metal and the more expensive the components the better the speaker. And the components are all commodity parts, so big companies have no real edge or benefit. Ads will tout the benefit of odd designs and so on but really what you want is a big, heavy box with good metal inside. MDF (yes, fibreboard) is a great material for the case because it doesn't vibrate.

But -- if you get a good pair with a good system, you're going to hear the difference and you'll never go back!

I would stay away from the big brands, because you're paying for marketing, not parts. Bose spends a ton amount of money to convince people that their speakers are awesome, so when you buy the speaker, you're paying for all that marketing. They also use tricks like compression and bass boosting that psychologically make people think it "sounds better" or louder but break down the fidelity of the audio to the original recording. If you want to stick with a known name try B&W.

But you don't need or necessarily want to get a brand name. Instead go for some tiny company in some guy's shed. A friend of mine bought a pair of speakers made by a guy in a shed in Hamilton and they're awesome. My speakers are AudioEngine 5's and they're made by some tiny company in Mississippi and they're very very good. They put the system in my car to shame. Guys in sheds make great speakers because they buy the best parts and have no overhead and there's no magic -- what you want is totally dedicated craftsmanship.

When you decide to invest in speakers the first thing to do is head to a proper audiophile level shop and listen to as many as you can. Check out for example Alternative Audio. Turn the system way up to find out what happens to the sound. There's big difference in how they sound just like different instrument makers (they are effectively instruments). For example here's a comparison of two brands on audioholics.

The audio forums are the best place to get unbiased opinions from people who really know what they're talking about. Most reviewers (like on gadget sites) will be judging based on features which don't matter. What you want to know is, do people who have good ears think they sound good. One fun forum for people who really know their hardware (like which crossover is best?) is diyaudio.

You can also trust true audiophile sites because those people are just obsessed. For example have a look at stereophile.com. They have just reviewed for example a pair of bookshelf speakers from a Canadian company called Totem Dreamcatcher. They loved them and they're about $600.

You should be able to get a really good set for under $1000. Don't go higher because you get into stupid money territory and the law of diminishing returns kicks in real fast. Also seriously consider buying used, because they don't degrade over time. No moving parts, and the good ones have good components. You can save a ton of money used. For example look on Audiogon.

If you want to read a really awesome and trippy description of one person's highly convincing theory, check out Mother of Tone ... it's worth checking out as a musician and makes a lot of sense. Start back at the beginning if you have time.

Regarding surround: first get a good stereo pair, and then add the other three, which don't matter nearly as much, simply to add the surround experience.

Finally, speakers are only a part of the chain. All audio hardware follows the general rules above: there's no special magic, don't believe what brands tell you, it's all about components, heavy metal is good, listen before you buy.

In summary there is no "best speaker manufacturer". Go to a high end shop, listen and find out what you like, and then buy used or online from a guy in a shed.

(Pictured is Altec Lancing Voice of the Theatre -- a true classic)