When you are looking for a new speaker it can be tough to know what speaker to buy. What makes one speaker sound better than the other? For most people they rely on brand recognition or their friendly neighborhood audio expert for direction. 😉 So how can we tell the difference between a good speaker and a great one? Obviously its easy to tell the difference between a shower radio worth about $10, (available at you nearest Bed Bath and Beyond) and a Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic which will set you back a measly $930,000. So how do speakers work and what elements make up a truly great speaker?
Well, basically all speakers work in the same way. Electrical signals are sent from an amplifier through the electrical circuits of the speaker where a “crossover” diverts those signals to drivers that are designed to handle them. Low to mid-range frequencies are sent to the woofer and high frequencies are sent to the tweeter. A crossover can be described as the conductor of the speaker. Compare the crossover circuit to the conductor of an orchestra, as different conductors will make the same orchestra sound completely different. In the same way, two speakers using the same drivers with different crossover settings will sound entirely different. After the signal is sent to the different drivers the magnet on the back of the speaker pulls and pushes on a copper coil depending which in turn vibrates the woofer or cone of the speaker. This action produces air flow and when that air reaches our ears our brains interprets it as sound.
In short the very best speaker produces “accurate” sound. You want your speaker to sound as if Miles Davis is putting on a private show in your living room. Every speaker produces certain frequencies that are louder or softer than others. Assuming that your ultimate goal is accurate audio reproduction, the less variation in loudness between frequencies—in other words, the flatter the frequency response chart is—the better the speaker quality. In a frequency response chart, you want to see a flat line instead of a line with peaks and valleys. The chart below shows how well a particular speaker reproduced a given sound. A perfectly flat line means perfect reproduction. The three main elements that make up a speaker are material, design and execution.
Material is in my opinion the most important aspect of a speaker with design and execution in a very close second. Speakers are made up of all kinds of materials pertaining to the electrical components and the driver materials. As I mentioned earlier there are big differences in the quality of different crossovers. The same is true for the rest of the electrical components but we will focus on the driver itself. The driver is mainly made up of the magnet in the back of the speaker, the coil and the woofer or tweeter. Woofers come in many different materials including paper, polypropylene, carbon fiber, Kevlar and a few others. The major differences between these materials is there ability to recreate accurate sound waves. The more rigid a material the more it can be pushed without flexing and creating distortion. There is some debate on what material is best to use for the most accurate sound but generally speaking you will see paper and polypropylene on cheaper speakers and materials like carbon fiber and Kevlar on higher end speakers.
Design refers to how a speaker is put together with the most variance being on how the cabinet is designed. The best cabinets reduce the amount of reverberation inside the cabinet which reduces distortion. Generally cabinet speakers are as vacuum sealed as possible to reduce airflow inside the cabinet. Sub woofers are ported or sealed depending on their application. Ported sub woofers are designed to relieve air flow inside the cabinet and are able to produce deeper base with more efficiency that a sealed sub woofer. However some contest that a ported sub woofer is not as accurate as a sealed sub and others say they are not as aesthetically pleasing.
Execution comes down to a few elements. Tuning, placement and preference. Depending on your goals you will want to set up your speakers in a particular array. For straight forward audiophile music listening its best to buy the best stereo speakers within your budget paired with a great amplifier and Hi-Fi audio source. Throw in a sub woofer if you need help with the low end frequencies. For home theaters there are a number of different surround sound configurations and its best to consult with your local expert. A sub woofer is almost always a must.
Your configuration is what effects your sound imaging, sometimes referred to the “sound stage”. Imaging is how the audio produced by speakers is interpreted by your brain to form a cohesive, well, image of the audio. If speakers image well, you don’t hear the individual speakers. Instead, you hear a full soundscape, with different instruments and voices apparently coming from different locations in front of you or to your sides. Imaging is the reason it can sound like a voice is coming from the middle of a speaker system when all you’re really hearing is a left channel and a right channel. To get imaging right, speaker designers have to listen to the production models and tweak them. It’s not something that can be done by looking at the specs alone. That’s part of the art of speaker design.
For more helpful tips stay tuned for upcoming news letters and be sure to reach out to us for your next project.
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