When Futurism’s commerce team evaluates a product for our buyer’s guides, roundups, and reviews, we start by asking two questions: “How well does it work?” and “Who is it for?” When it comes to audio, testing gear objectively gets tough.
The biggest challenge is that every set of ears is different, so our tests are limited by both how well we hear, and whether we’re sensitive to certain frequencies. To combat that, our team has invested in the 3Dio FS, a binaural (stereo) microphone that we’ll use to accurately record music played through a set of speakers or headphones. In our product guides and reviews, we’ll include audio clips, which you can listen to in order to determine whether that piece of gear sounds good to your ears.
We understand that listening to an audio recording from a microphone is not the same as getting to demo a speaker or headphone for yourself, but it’ll accompany our evaluation, and give you a sense of what to expect if you pick up one of our recommendations for yourself. All of these recordings will be taken in the same space, and speakers will be set up at the same distance and angle to provide the best comparison.
Our tests also include listening to the same set of songs from a variety of genres — the playlist we use is available here — podcasts, and audiobooks. Because of copyright restrictions, the audio clips we provide when reviewing each piece of equipment will be royalty free (we promise they’ll still be interesting to hear!)
The standards above will be applied to all of the audio equipment we test, but certain gear will undergo additional testing due to the limitations and expectations inherent in its particular category. We’ve outlined all of this additional testing information below.
How We Test Bluetooth Headphones
Beyond audio quality, Bluetooth headphones will be evaluated using the following criteria: size and weight, battery life, noise cancellation (if applicable), and microphone quality. Our noise-cancellation test will include listening to the white noise, vacuum, and heavy rain sounds from the iOS app Dark Noise. This test will be conducted using JBL’s Flip 6 speaker from approximately six feet away, starting at a volume level of 50 percent.
To test the microphone, we’ll create a recording using the Voice Memos iOS app, and include the clip in the product’s evaluation. Some newer headphones support simulated versions of surround sound — like Apple’s Spatial Audio technology — and we will also evaluate these features during our testing.
Evaluating Bluetooth Speakers
Bluetooth speakers will be assessed on three criteria outside of audio quality: portability (physical size and weight), battery life, and durability. In the case of durability, a Bluetooth speaker will be pushed to the limit of the manufacturer's claims. For example, if a Bluetooth speaker is rated as IP67, which means it’s supposed to withstand full submersion underwater for 30 minutes, we’ll keep it in the water (turned on) for that length of time.
If a Bluetooth speaker has smart features — like integration with Amazon’s Alexa — we’ll test that as well. Some companies allow you to pair two of their Bluetooth speakers together for stereo sound, and we’ll try to test this feature if it’s possible to secure multiple speakers for testing. If this isn’t possible initially, we may try to get an additional speaker at a later date, and update our articles accordingly.
Assessing Smart Speakers
We will evaluate smart speakers on two criteria in addition to audio quality: accuracy understanding and accomplishing requests and compatibility with accessories and services. We’ll use the same set of questions during our tests to measure a smart speaker’s intelligence, with the same accessories: a TP-Link Smart Outlet and Philips Hue Smart Bulbs to measure how well the smart speaker works with third-party gear. We’ll also link the smart speaker up to a music streaming service to determine whether it works well with services. If the smart speaker is portable, we’ll also test its battery life, size, shape, and durability.
How We Test Passive and Active Speakers
We will judge both passive (unpowered/non-amplified) and active (powered/amplified) speakers on the same two criteria besides audio quality: size and weight. If the speaker comes with its own cables, those are the ones we’ll use during our tests. If the speaker doesn’t come with any, we’ll use the Rocketfish 16 Gauge speaker cable.
Active speakers will be tested using the amplifier built inside of their cabinet, while passive speakers, which require external amplification, will be tested using a Marantz PM6007. Active speakers will also be tested using a variety of sources (computer, smartphone, turntable, etc.) based on their feature set.
Putting Turntables to the Test
All of the record players we evaluate will be tested using the pre-installed cartridge, as well as an Ortofon Blue cartridge. All turntables come with a cartridge, and in most cases you’ll never need to upgrade, but using one that’s a little higher end allows us to see whether the original cartridge was limiting the overall performance of the record player.
If a turntable’s cartridge cannot be swapped out or upgraded, we’ll mention that in our guide. Likewise, we’ll always use a turntable’s built-in preamp if it has one. All turntables will be tested while connected to a pair of Klipsch “The Fives” powered speakers, which we’ve found to be extremely precise.
How We Assess Soundbars
Soundbars have become a popular alternative to using a TV’s built-in speakers because they provide better-sounding audio without taking up as much space as an A/V receiver and traditional speakers. The three criteria we’ll consider when testing soundbars are size (length, width, and height), smart features (if applicable), and support for Dolby Atmos or virtual surround-sound formats. Soundbars will be tested by connecting them to a TV with an eARC (audio return channel) HDMI port. This is the most common way to connect a soundbar to your TV. We’ll also make note of soundbars that allow you to connect them to a TV using an optical audio cable.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.
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