Question: Is it possible to accurately assess the performance of a pair of loudspeakers by analysis of their test data alone, and furthermore, who would attempt such a thing?
Somewhere along the way the above became accepted practice and a segment of the buying public appear to have bought into it.
There’s a speaker designer by the name of Danny Ritchie who runs the loudspeaker manufacturing and design company, GR Research. He also runs a YouTube channel which seems quite popular, and it’s via his channel that I first encountered him. Later, I noted that he also operates a Circle at the popular audio Forum AudioCircle, where he has a number of ardent followers to whom it appears he can do no wrong.
I confess to not having watched all of Danny Ritchie’s YouTube videos, because there are many, and I find his presentation quite difficult to endure for any length of time. But I’ve seen enough of his videos to identify a common thread in his approach to the art of speaker design and modification, and while I respect this person’s ability to engage his audience, I take exception with certain aspects of the way in which he approaches his craft.
Common across the several videos that I’ve actually watched, his presentations begin innocuously enough with Mr. Ritchie showing us a pair of well-known 3rd party manufactured speakers which are about to be modified in an effort to ‘improve upon their stock performance’. Mr. Ritchie has a reputation for crossover design and one of his value propositions is that he can elevate the performance of an underperforming speaker by changing out such things as the speaker’s crossover components. So some of his tinkerings extend beyond XO changes and include new cabling, installing damping materials to alter cabinet resonance properties, and basically indulging in some fairly extensive redesign to the manufacturer’s offspring.
In case this starts to sound like a personal bash on Mr. Ritchie, please try not to read it that way as it isn’t intended to be personal. There are quite a few individuals and companies who are in the business of providing aftermarket modifications to a wide variety of HiFi-related equipment, including loudspeakers. But there’s something particularly egregious about Mr. Ritchie’s approach and it’s difficult to get the point across without saying who, exactly, is ruffling my feathers.
Let’s refer to this video, so you can follow along if you wish. It’s a dissection of the popular KEF Q150 and it follows a common format, consistent with other of Ritchie’s YouTubes. The ‘show’, as I choose to call it, follows a fairly well-scripted routine, a bit like Gordon Ramsey’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’. We see Mr. Ritchie present us with an overview of how his business is performing. Orders are through the roof, we’re slowly catching up with production, we’ve never been busier, etc. Cynics might see this as a clever marketing ruse to implant a sense of ‘better get on board quick, and we’re the real deal’ in Mr. Ritchie’s fan base, but others might see it simply as an indication of the man’s capacity for self-adulation hidden behind a thin veil of false modesty. After talking up his company, he draws our attention to the subject of his video, in this case, the KEF Q150, and he plays his opening gambit by stating “Let’s see how I can help you guys who may have one of these models, turn it into something”.
I find this kind of thing cringe-worthy, to say the least. You’ve shelled out good money on a pair of new speakers and the only way they can become ‘something’ is to let this man have his way with them.
The next step of his pitch is to show us how the speakers measured. As usual, the speakers’ measurements are laid bare before us, and naturally, they’re riddled with frequency response anomalies, which….you guessed it, our Mr. Ritchie is going to fix. We then move swiftly to the post-surgery stage and we’re told what changes were made to the manufacturer’s circuits and designs and we’re shown via the introduction of post-surgery performance graphs how the speaker’s inherent weaknesses have been resolved. The sales pitch continues and Mr. Ritchie hits us with “the other thing that I did, with the kit that I designed for this thing, the quality of the parts have gone up significantly”. We’re told in no uncertain terms that this box, prior to his intervention, was choc-full of cheesy little parts, just as we’d expect at this price point.
We’re then provided with another cringe-worthy sales pitch, “You’re looking at $259 [folks], which includes everything you need, for the pair…. [yes!]….for the pair!”. And so, we find ourselves being not so subtly pumped in the style of a good old-fashioned snake oil salesman, to whip out our wallets in preparation for a prompt dry-flush. After all, it’s the only way to turn our investment into “something”.
Now in case you’re wondering, the KEF Q150 can be had from Crutchfield for a penny under $600, shipping included. So factoring for the free shipping, and knowing that there’s no such thing as ‘free shipping’, you’re looking at a $560 speaker that’s just risen in cost to $820.00. Oh, and don’t forget, this is a kit, so you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and get the soldering iron out, which is an unknown variable in how your particular set of doctored/butchered Q150’s are going to sound.
This takes us to the main point in all of this, the sound. How should we expect the modified speaker to sound in comparison to the unmodified speaker? What audible gains are likely to be realized from our investment? What are the enhanced performance attributes that we can expect; expressed in the typical audiophile vernacular?
Let’s go back to the video and see what the good doctor has to say….
Hang on a minute (scratching my head). Let me go look again….
….nope, I was right – there’s no mention of how this ‘upgrade’ improves upon the sound of the pre-butchered speakers. In fact, there’s no mention anywhere in the video about the good doctor having consulted with the patient before or after their life-altering surgery. That can’t be right, it must be an oversight, or maybe there’s a ‘follow-up’ or something.
Nope. No follow-up.
Watching a couple more of his ‘pitch-a-kit’ videos, it seems that sound quality isn’t something that’s considered worthy of comment, by Mr. Ritchie. Remember, (in case you’re a newbie to the hobby), a loudspeaker’s primary function is to produce sound, and in the case of our hobby, quality sound. The sound-producing function of this particular device is something that is alluded to when the transducer was originally named.
I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth, so let me make it clear that the following statement is mine, it’s my interpretation of this situation expressed as succinctly as I can: “Buy my kit and it will turn your budget speakers into a more expensive pair of budget speakers, just do it”.
Let’s be fair and try to make a steelman argument for the person attempting to sell a sound-enhancing performance kit, without referring to how anything pre/post modification might actually sound –
We’ve started with a box that, when measured in a test environment, exhibits some non-linear responses through the frequency range; some peaks and troughs where they might not, in an ideal environment, be desired. So surely, by removing some of these unwanted ‘anomalies’ in the FR, the speakers simply must sound better after the modifications, than before. What need is there for further explanation? Case closed.
In my opinion, there’s an underlying arrogance in the strategy of providing speaker upgrade kits while making no attempt at describing what audible benefits the purchaser might expect to receive for their money. There’s no mention of improved bass response, tighter imaging, heightened sense of transparency, smoother highs….none of it. Now again, in my humble opinion, only an arrogant person would assume, de facto, that such things might be acceptably inferred upon the purchaser by virtue of the seller’s name, his standing within the industry, his reputation, his previous body of work. Conversely, a fool might not need any assurances, he might be happy to be led to the stagnant water whereupon he’ll freely and readily quench his thirst. So who’s the real problem here?
Looking at this from the perspective of the original equipment manufacturer, might it be reasonable to suggest that a company with significant design resources and marketplace experience [such as KEF, but not only KEF], would have knowledge of how these budget speakers might be used in a typical home environment? Might it be reasonable to suggest that in designing the speakers, and deciding upon their frequency response performance, some factoring is made by the designer for ‘typical in-room performance’, factoring borne from data accumulated over many years of supplying speakers to thousands of happy customers around the world?
Could it also be asserted that converting a perfectly good speaker in such a way that it now performs with a flatter frequency response, and adding materials internally to alter the specific way in which the cabinets resonate when making music, is essentially changing the fundamental characteristic of how the speakers sound? If such change is accepted and desirable, the question has to be asked of the customer – why buy them in the first place?
So a loudspeaker from a reputable manufacturer is basically neutered, and we’re to pay somebody in hard cash for access to the parts and the neutering process.
Okay, I get it. You bought one of these kits and your doctored/butchered/neutered speakers have never sounded so good. It was worth every penny and I’m an idiot. Fair enough. But a couple of pertinent questions need to be asked of you – did you actually listen to your speakers before you bought them? If you did, was there something about the way they sounded that factored into your buying decision? If yes, good so far. Now, did you listen to them, dislike how they sounded so much that you went ahead and bought them anyway, and now you’re happy to pay another 50% on top of your initial investment to make them sound better? If so, are you f*cking nuts?
CAH – 2022