Any speaker set played alone will probably sound good. But we wanted to hear four of the most popular brands side by side in a cruising boat. That’s the way to compare speakers. In a nod to science, we engaged Brent Butterworth of Sound & Vision magazine to lab test them too. So read this and feast your ears (And be sure to check out Brent Butterworth's blog about the testing procedures).
Our On-Water Test Platform
Clarion, Fusion, Jensen and Sony provided a pair of two-way speakers and one subwoofer. We used a restored 1978 Glastron GT 150 — yep, the James Bond boat from Live and Let Die — but we powered it with a 90 horsepower Honda. No point in muffling the sound with a 1978 two-stroke, eh?
We mounted our speaker sets in a half-inch plywood test panel with biaxial speakers flanking a centered subwoofer. Foam insulated the speaker flanges from the wood. All wiring from amp to speaker was 16-gauge copper. A Radio Shack speaker-selector switch let us alternate between speaker sets quickly. A Clarion CMD8 stereo head was connected to a hot-off-the-line Clarion XC6610 amplifier with standard RCA jacks. To maximize power of the subwoofer channel, we bridged the two subwoofer channels.
Sound & Vision’s audiophiles recommended intense, repetitive listening to a variety of tracks that we knew well for the subjective component of testing. Therefore, we chose a variety: rock that was heavy with bass, jazz, New Age and mellow vocal music. You can check out Boating’s playlist, plus our test list, at boatingmag.com/boatinglab/playlist.
We played each track while traveling at 30 mph. Our boat driver could not tell which speakers were playing. We replayed the tracks repeatedly, switching between speakers and listening for distinctions in clarity, detail and tone. The process was a little like taking an eye exam: Is this better or worse?
Playing the subwoofers alone was like having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the PBJ, so we played each woofer with our favorite two-way speaker set. We awarded a point to the speaker set or subwoofer that stood out on each track. If our blind tester couldn’t distinguish between speakers, each got
Lab testing by Brent Butterworth measured what audiophiles consider the most important data. Many speaker companies list relatively useless data in marketing materials, experts like Butterworth say. To get the inside track on choosing speakers by the correct criteria, visit boatingmag.com/boatinglab/playlist.
Here are our test specifications and what they mean to you.
Frequency response to 10 kHz (speakers only): Evenness of response across the audio frequency spectrum measured with the speaker mounted in a 0.5-cubic-foot box. The lower the decibels, the better. A smoother graph is better. A 10 kHz limit focuses on the frequencies most important to human ears.
Frequency response to 20 kHz (speakers only): Same as above, but covers the entire audio spectrum.
Bass extension (-3 dB): Measures low-frequency reproduction. The lower the number, the deeper the bass you’ll get.
Impedance (average): The load the speaker presents to the amplifier. The lower the number, the more output delivered, but the greater the demand on the amplifier.
Sensitivity (2.83-volt signal at 1 meter): How much output you get for a given amount of power. More is better.
CEA-2010A average bass output 40 to 63 hertz (subwoofers only): The usable bass output of the subwoofer (mounted in a 1.0 cf box) without exceeding set distortion thresholds. This focuses on the second octave of bass; i.e., “punch.”
CEA-2010A average bass output 20 to 31.5 hertz (subwoofers only): Same as above but focuses on the lowest bass notes; i.e, “shake.”
Test Receiver: Clarion CMD8
Our test receiver is water-tight and resistant in a “salt-fog test.” I’ve used an earlier model in seven years of ocean boating. Hitch your iPhone to it and rate your Pandora tunes to refine your list. Play MP3s or CDs. Accessorize with Wi-Fi or wired remotes. $399
Test Amp: Clarion XC6610 Amp
Our 1,000-watt amp was hot off the line and easy to adjust for boost, decibels and gain. Removable trim allows access to mounting hardware. Circuitry is coated and connectors are corrosion resistant. Ideal for flat mounting. $649