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Thread: Sierra 2: As honest a review as I can do.

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Aug 2014
    Pocatello, ID

    Red face Sierra 2: As honest a review as I can do.

    I just tested my new Sierra 2 speakers and would like to review them. First, context:

    Audio equipment reviews suck. It is hard to write a truly honest one -- confirmation bias will convince even the most rigorous fact seeker that the speaker which is supposed to sound better is better, even when it isn't true. From my reading, science has proven:
    • Humans (that's me) have poor auditory memory, so can't easily remember the details of a song played on speaker B when comparing against speaker A.
    • To humans, louder sounds "better", even with inferior equipment. This is why many prefer DTS HD Master audio to Dolby TrueHD -- they are both perfect recordings, but DTS is usually mastered louder. Pure marketing BS.

    Almost all people claiming to "know a thing or two" about acoustics aren't technically lying because they don't know that they have absolutely no clue what they are talking about. You know the old quote, "The more you know, the more you know you don't know"?
    The more I read about acoustics, the more I realize I have no clue, despite having a science background and researching the topic with feverish interest since I was 15.

    My review also sucks. It isn't double-blind. I know the Sierra 2's should sound better.
    I tried really hard to come up with objective tests and comparisons, but I am only human.


    I compared the Sierra 2's to my Klipsch KSB 3.1's by moving the cables back and forth between song segments. I kept segments short -- a few seconds -- to minimize the auditory memory problem.

    1. Loreena McKennitt / All Soul's Night - Cymbals sounded very good on both.
      Voice on Klipsch sounded dampened/muffled on Klipsch. This was surprisingly noticeable, especially since I am used to the song on Klipsch.
    2. Beethoven / Symphony #5 Allegro Con Brio - I can't tell a difference. Not at all (except loudness). I suspect I have a recording from a mediocre orchestra, or a badly mastered CD. Anyone recommend a good recording?
    3. Andrea Bocelli / Con te partiṛ - Vocals on Klipsch sounded sibilant, tinny, and compressed -- like MP3 compressed -- the sort of effect you get from an very low bitrate (~<64KB) file. Tried the test several times.
    4. Dope / Die Motherfucker Die - Midbass was louder on Klipsch. I couldn't tell if it was "better". Strangely, low bass seemed more powerful on smaller Ascend. Details of roughness in vocals were smoothed over or blurred away on the Klipsch -- throat scratching and such. I hadn't noticed these detailed prior.
    5. Fun / Some Nights - Vocals again. They sounded a little smeared on Klipsch, but not as much as previous songs. The instruments as a whole sounded obviously distinct from vocals on Klipsch, but indistinct amongst themselves (that is, instruments seemed to blur together with each-other, but not with the vocals). Ascend did a good job of making each sound separate and distinct each-other, as if they were physically located in different spots rather than all from a point source. The clarity of some, but not all, individual instruments (esp. the higher frequency ones) seemed better, but I am not completely certain.
      The Piano (is that what it is?) played during the lyric snippet, "...That's alright. I found a martyr in my bed tonight." sounded amazing. I lack the vocabulary to describe it, but it made me understand when people say, "it's like hearing the song for the first time!" with new speakers. Put a big smile on my face. I went back and forth a few times to make sure I wasn't imagining things insofar as I can do in a non-blind test.
    6. Bassnectar / Timestretch - Bassnectar makes songs with heavy LFE usage, mostly for subwoofer testing, so I didn't expect much from the Sierra 2's diminutive 6" driver. The track begins with a sharp "hand clap" rhythm which, while not *wooden on the Klipsch as they were in a track I didn't specifically write about in this review, they sounded sibilant and detached. Ascend did this part very well, producing a natural hand clap that sounded closer to ...well, to hand clapping. *Note: By "Wooden" I mean literally "sounds like a wooden broomstick striking a wooden table". I don't know if that is common use of the word.
      Klipsch was louder and provided stronger overall bass probably courtesy of their 8" woofers, but inexplicably the lowest frequencies were louder on Ascend -- again. I don't get it. The couch vibrated -- physically VIBRATED! -- through these little 6" bookshelf woofers 12 ft away. I probably drove them a little hard, but they didn't audibly distort. If my amp lights are accurate, they had around 200 W with spikes at around 250. Still trying to figure this out. Regardless of whether I understand how this happened, it happened. Not bad!
    7. Imagine Dragons - Radioactive - Bass on Ascend was more accurate based on what I hear when I have the Rythmik subwoofers enabled (which I assume is pretty accurate based on Rythmik's reviews). Klipsch overall sounded good, but on Ascend I noticed a few details I hadn't heard before and could not hear even when trying on Klipsch, e.g. a very specific voice cracking that occurs when the singer inhales intentionally loudly after "I'm breathing in the chemicals", about 40 seconds into the song. (Note for those unfamiliar with the song: Despite the lyrics snippet, the song is not about drug use)

    General observations:
    • "Separation" is the largest difference between the two speakers. When playing voice + instruments, or many instruments together, Klipsch consistently smeared the instruments and/or vocals together. They sounded indistinct, dampened, or blurred. Not sure of the best word. On Ascends, each instrument sounds independent of the others. This was true even compared to my headphones, which are supposed to be among the best in the world and have the advantage of being headphones. If I was reading my own review prior to hearing the Ascends myself, I would think this was a recording quality problem, but it is not -- I can reproduce the effect using the same recording for both speakers. I like the effect, and never knew what I was missing.
    • In most but not all songs I can hear detail that was missing on Klipsch; subtle things which Klipsch (and sometimes headphones) blurs out. I am pretty sure this is objective because I've heard the same songs on other speaker systems but never noticed the same details.
      Even when intentionally concentrating to hear them on Klipsch, many were inaudible and I couldn't even hear a hint that there was something I was missing. This must be one of the abilities that separates quality speakers. To be honest, in some songs I did notice some details even on the Klipsch that I hadn't noticed before, probably because I was actively scanning for them.
    • I don't know the word for this. Soundstage? Music through Klipsch sounded point-sourced. Maybe this is because they are horn-loaded -- I have heard those tend to be more directional. I noticed this from the very first song through the new speakers. Ascend makes music sound "generally in front of me" but I cannot not quite place the location of the speakers. They "disappear".
    • Despite the above, in some songs (e.g. The Cars / Moving in Stereo) the Ascend seemed to do stereo positioning better. I cannot quite explain how this effect worked considering what I just wrote about the sound being difficult to localize. The sound appeared to be farther left or right from my position than the actual location of the speakers. Speaker distance was the same as with Klipsch.
    • Despite the Klipsch speakers being much larger, the Ascends are significantly heavier. I know that heavier doesn't necessarily mean better. It's probably the bamboo enclosure -- that stuff is figuratively as dense as strange matter.
    • The Klipsch speakers were always louder by 1-3 dB, according to my SPL meter phone app played the same music segments (not as good as a real SPL meter, but better than nothing). I was expecting a larger volume difference because the Klipsch speakers have an impressive rated efficiency of 94dB 1W/1M (presumably "in a room") compared to the Ascends at a distant 87. Doesn't this mean that I should have measured about a 7dB difference on average? I don't think the measurement is off much because 7dB would sound more than twice as loud. The volume difference was obvious, but certainly nowhere near a perceived 2x+. Any ideas on why this is?

    I am perhaps a little jaded. I have had several opportunities to listen to music on different systems and got excited but left disappointed, unable to tell much of a quality difference. Volume difference? Usually. If I wanted volume, I'd get PA speakers. I am after quality above all else at a price point. In past auditions, I assumed either that I am personally incapable of telling a difference or that my recordings did not have more detail than I was already accustomed to.

    So, this is it.

    This was the first time that I could not deny I heard obvious differences in sound quality. Not with every recording, but with more than half. Was this confirmation bias? I don't think so. Confirmation bias would have made me more happy with previous auditions where I was expecting nothing short of awesomeness.

    I think have found it. These are the first speakers which made me enjoy music more. I will have to continue to listen to make sure I am going off of observation rather than emotion, each time saying to myself, "cut the crap" (my own personal reminder to force myself to be as honest as possible and not fall prey to common cognitive biases), but these have already taken me farther down the "I swear there really is a real difference" road than any other speaker.

    Even my Rythmik F25's made me merely shrug rather than grin, but these tiny bookshelf speakers really put a big smile on my face. I can't tell you how valuable that is, and I can't wait for the Sierra Towers to arrive.
    Last edited by Sivar; 11-03-2014 at 02:26 PM. Reason: Added my "wooden" definition.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2005

    Default Re: Sierra 2: As honest a review as I can do.

    Great user review, Sivar.

    Not to feed into any unwanted confirmation bias, but your observations are very similar to mine.

    The word I tend to use when it comes to being able to clearly separate one instrument or one voice from another is "delineation". I particularly listen for delineation in bass frequencies where it is often extremely difficult to avoid "ringing" or "smearing" that essentially "blends" one bass note into another.

    I also completely agree with you that the Sierra-2 and Sierra Horizon RAAL do not create an audible difference with every single recording. The recording still matters! Very much so. And poor quality recordings with no dynamics don't tend to sound significantly different from speaker to speaker.

    But with better quality recordings, the thing that stood out to me with the Sierra-2 and the Sierra Horizon RAAL was something you also described, which was a better sense of realism. There is just that uncanny, even occasionally eerie sensation that you are hearing a real, live voice or instrument as opposed to a recording being played back through a speaker. Like you mentioned, it doesn't happen all the time - it does depend on the recording. But with the Sierra-2 and Sierra Horizon RAAL, that sense of the sound being closer to real occurs more frequently than with a lot of other speakers. That has been my experience, anyway.

    As to why the Klipsch speakers were rated as being 7dB more efficient and yet only measured around 3dB more efficient in actual use - one potential reason (and this is just a theory from me) could be because the sensitivity might have been measured by using full range pink noise. In other words, when ALL audible frequencies are being played simultaneously, there's a chance that the Klipsch speakers would produce greater output vs. when you are only listening to real world content where only a handful of frequencies are being produced simultaneously.

    There is also the possibility that the power being used for the sensitivity rating is not actually the same between the Sierra-2 and the Klipsch. Some companies measure by holding the voltage steady at 2.83 Volts. Other companies use a rating of "1 Watt". Since the impedance of the speaker is not equal at all frequencies, the actual amount of power being used can vary.

    There's also the question of whether it is an anechoic measurement or something more like a ground plane measurement. And there is the question of whether the microphone was actually placed at 1 meter away, or perhaps at a greater or shorter distance which was then compensated for mathematically to give a "1 meter" distance rating.

    So there are plenty of ways in which the sensitivity of a speaker can be rated differently depending on how it was actually measured. But the bottom line to me is that your real world measurement and observation - even though it might not be as precise as a lab measurement - is still a good indication of the true results. The Klipsch speakers do not sound "twice as loud". It's as simple as that

    Anyways, this is just one man's subjective opinion, but my own observations closely line up with what you've written here. Consensus is certainly no "proof" of things being correct, but in anecdotal terms, you might just like to know that I certainly do not think you are "way out to lunch" or anything

    Furthermore, there are the actual objective measurements that indicate the superior transient response, impulse response, and evenness of dispersion across all audible frequencies of the Sierra-2 speakers. Correlation is not causation, but I find it reasonable to correlate objectively faster transient and impulse response with audibly better delineation between sounds.

    I'll be very interested to read your thoughts on the Sierra Towers RAAL when yours arrive! I certainly have my own opinion regarding the Sierra-2 vs. the Sierra Horizon RAAL speakers that I own. But I won't share those here so as not to influence your listening too much before hand. I've written my observations elsewhere, so I suppose I could still "taint" your results. But at least you'd have to go looking for those, so the "blame" would shift back over to you -- haha

    Thanks for the great write up!

    - Rob H.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Nov 2003

    Default Re: Sierra 2: As honest a review as I can do.

    Great review, Sivar! Really informative. I perked up when you wrote "The sound appeared to be farther left or right from my position than the actual location of the speakers." That is exactly what I have heard as well, and my wife noticed it. It's as if the music has "bent around" the walls of our room on occasion. An amazing effect I never heard before.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Aug 2003

    Default Re: Sierra 2: As honest a review as I can do.

    Awesome review, Sivar! I really enjoyed reading it -- honest, descriptive -- and I am very happy that you are enjoying the two's.

    Just wait until you experience the towers

    Thanks again!
    Good Sound To You!

    David Fabrikant

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