The buying of speakers is difficult for many consumers. Because buying loudspeakers means that in addition to choosing a suitable appearance of the loudspeaker, you also have to take into account the specifications of the loudspeaker and whether it fits well with your amplifier or receiver. The last thing you want is a bad sound or defects. We’ve listed all the important things you need to know.
All about speaker specifications
There you are, searching the internet or in shops for speakers that suit your taste and – not unimportantly – your budget. Maybe you have a size or color in mind and you let it guide you, or you have been surprised by a friend or acquaintance listening to a reproduction that you have not heard before. Music and film respond to your emotional experience and with a balanced hi-fi set and matching speakers, that experience becomes more intense and therefore more pleasant.
“Speakers with a lot of Watts can be louder!”
The above statement is heard a lot and is easy to explain, but makes no sense at all. Let me start right away to clear up a persistent misunderstanding: The Wattage quoted on speakers says nothing, absolutely nothing about the maximum volume they can produce. The Wattage also says nothing about the quality of that display. Later in this article I will come back to the Wattage stated in the specifications of loudspeakers, but it is more important to know the exact technology behind a loudspeaker.
How a loudspeaker works
There are many types of loudspeakers on the market, which can be divided into active and passive loudspeakers. A active speaker has its own built-in amplifier, a passive loudspeaker relies on external amplification. Then there are separate speakers, such as electrostatics or magnetostats, and there are various types of material that are used for the transducers: the components that actually reproduce the sound you hear. Furthermore, there are many ways to design a loudspeaker, of which the bass reflex construction with a classic driver arrangement is the most well-known and generally available.
Because an entire article can be written about all those types and versions, I will not bore you with that. I will start here with the most common loudspeaker model: an electrodynamic passive speaker. In fact, all loudspeakers also do the same thing: converting an electrical audio signal (current from the amplification) into corresponding sound, which reaches the listener’s hearing via air waves.
Those sound waves come from transducers (literally translated: converters), which are made to vibrate in the frequency of the pitch by current. There are loudspeakers with a single transducer or driver and models where as many as three or more drivers reproduce different pitches. Those speakers contain so-called crossover filters, which determine which driver can reproduce part of the entire frequency range. The tweeter provides the highest range, a possible midrange driver for the middle range and a woofer for the lowest frequency range, or the basses. Most passive loudspeakers work with a driver system that consists of a magnet, a voice coil, a diaphragm or cone and its suspension.
As I wrote earlier, the specified Wattage of a loudspeaker is not an indication of its power, but a recommendation for the power of an amplifier that should drive the loudspeaker. That still has nothing to do with how loud a speaker can play, but is just a recommendation. More important to the result is the combination of several factors, including speaker sensitivity, efficiency, resistance and frequency range. It is certainly possible to connect a 300 or even 500 Watt amplifier to a loudspeaker with a specified advisory power of up to 200 Watts. In fact, this often results in extra control over the drivers and you therefore experience a tighter display. Only with audible distortion do you know that you have reached the maximum volume level of the speaker and you have to turn the volume knob back. And believe me, it is very hard.
However, the chance of damaging your speakers is much higher when you use an undersized (too weak) amplifier to drive your speakers. This results in too little control, causing too much heat and distortion and you often damage the speakers or your amplifier beyond repair. This phenomenon is also called clipping, in which DC voltage is supplied to the loudspeakers instead of AC voltage due to excessive power demand. Always take the size of the listening room into account, because driving 100 Watt speakers with a 40 Watt amplifier is asking for problems if that entire room must also be filled with sound.
With impedance, the speaker manufacturer indicates the alternating current resistance of the speaker. This does fluctuate as a result of the supplied frequency (pitch) in the sound and therefore a stable (power) amplifier is always recommended. Usually the rule applies that a difference of 2 Ohm leads to a doubling of the amplifier power. The better the loudspeaker is built, the less erratic the impedance will be, resulting in more control and better reproduction.
With the specified Sound Pressure Level, the loudspeaker manufacturer states the maximum sound pressure delivered at 1 Watt power at a distance of 1 meter. This indicates what the loudspeaker does with the indicated power: produce sound or just convert the power into -unwanted- heat. This is shown in Decibels (dB) and roughly speaking, 3 dB more efficiency results in a doubling of the volume (and therefore requires half the amplifier power to play just as loud). An example: a loudspeaker with a specified efficiency of 90 dB/1W/1m plays just as loud at 50 Watt power as a loudspeaker with a specified efficiency of 87 dB/1W/1m with 100 Watt amplified power.
Another not unimportant specification for the final choice of loudspeakers is the frequency range that the loudspeaker can reproduce. Due to its limited cabinet space, a monitor speaker (also called a bookshelf speaker) is rather limited in being able to reproduce low tones tightly and the reproduction often starts at about 45 Hz or higher. Those who want deep bass reproduction will have to seek refuge in an added active subwoofer. Floorstanding loudspeakers are able to produce a deeper bass (a lower frequency) and the larger the housing, the deeper that reproduction can be. There is one limitation to mention in this specification, because often loudspeaker manufacturers add a margin (usually indicated in +/- x dB) which makes it impossible to compare this specification precisely with that of another loudspeaker. However, it is a nice indication of the capabilities of a loudspeaker.
Tips for buying speakers
Purchasing speakers seems difficult, but with these tips you will hopefully get a lot further. And luckily there are hi-fi shops with well-trained staff or a skilled customer service that can always provide you with advice. When looking for new speakers, make sure you know which amplifier you have, what the (actual) power of that amplifier is and how large the room is in which you place the speakers. And if you keep these tips in mind, you’ll be well prepared!
- The most useful way to know which speaker is better finished (and probably has a better sound) is the weight of the speaker. A high weight indicates that no savings have been made on components and the enclosure (cabinet) of the speaker.
- A sound pressure of more than 100 dB seems nice, but keep in mind that listening to music at a higher volume for a long time leads to listening fatigue and in worse cases even hearing damage. You want to continue to enjoy good sound for longer!
- Do you have little space but still want to place better speakers? Then consider purchasing a speaker with a closed housing or one with the bass port on the front.
- Avoid placing speakers at an angle.
- The acoustics of your listening room (often the living room) change the reproduction more than you think. Place the speakers with care and avoid too many reflections due to a room that is too tight and bare. A rug often already provides a significant improvement in the reproduction if you experience too many reflections.
- Make a listening appointment where you can bring your own amplifier or ask the seller for an amplifier that is very similar to your own amplifier. Only then will you have an idea of what the final result will be.
- Invest in good speaker cables. There used to be a belief that thicker was always better, but thanks to thorough research, that rule no longer applies. After all, it is about the conductivity, the resistance and – not unimportantly – the shielding of the loudspeaker cable to prevent microphonics and RF radiation. The golden rule usually applies: reserve about 10% of your loudspeaker budget for cabling.
- And finally, bigger is not always better! Match the speakers to the listening room to enjoy good sound without any problems.