Understanding Speakers and Speaker Guidelines

When most people shop for home audio speakers, they often come across a lot of information, but don’t know what it means. The purpose of this article is to provide a basic understanding of some of the key elements of loudspeakers and to offer some guidelines for the average audio consumer.

Most home audio speakers purchased today are 2-way speakers. This means that the speaker has a woofer for low or low sounds and a tweeter for high sounds. There are also 3-way speakers that add a midrange and these can sound clearer, all other things being equal. However, for most people, a good 2-way speaker is fine.

Home audio speakers typically come in rectangular or round designs. Round ceiling speakers are ideal for background music, and rectangular in-wall speakers are ideal for surround sound systems. That being said, in-wall speakers are often impractical to install in a given room due to the room’s layout and furnishings. There are certain round speaker designs that can help offset the inherent benefits of rectangular speakers for surround sound.

One of the problems with round in-ceiling speakers is that they basically send sound directly under them instead of out into the room or area you most want. However, some speakers offer angled woofers so you can install them in corners, for example, and still direct sound into the room.

Typical speaker sizes are 5.5, 6.5, and 8 inches. The 8 inch will generally have stronger bass with the larger woofer. 8-inch speakers are recommended for surround sound systems and 6.5-inch speakers for background music. I wouldn’t recommend 5.25-inch speakers except for very small rooms.

A dual voice coil home audio speaker helps handle small rooms where there really isn’t enough room to fit two speakers. The dual moving coil speaker provides both channels from the amplifier and these can be very useful in bathrooms for example.

Speaker power ratings always get a lot of attention, but often too much attention because power is just one factor among many others. The fact is that most people will rarely use the full power of most speakers nowadays because they would soon go deaf if they listened to music at full power. Power is classified in two ways; RMS and peak. RMS essentially means the volume level that the speaker can handle throughout the day without distortion. Peak is the maximum power level the speaker can handle before it blows up. For most people in most homes, 40-50 watts RMS is sufficient. Some speakers only specify their maximum power rating, and as a general rule of thumb, divide the maximum rating by 2 to estimate the RMS rating.

The sensitivity rating should be 89db or more, it is the usual recommendation. This spec is all about the sound clarity of the speaker and below 89 db the sound clarity can be poor.

Range, or frequency response, represents the low end and high end range of the speaker. The bass range is the more important of the two here, and typically 45-50Hz is the lower end of what most of us can hear. At the high end, most of today’s speakers are louder than we can hear, and are typically 20KHz or higher, which is well above what we can hear.

A loudspeaker has to divide the signal that reaches it between the tweeter and the woofer. The crossover is in effect a filter that performs this function, but whenever the sound splits there will be some loss of signal. A 12db crossover is the most common today, and again, it’s fine for most people. Most speakers use passive crossovers, but some higher end speakers use active crossovers which are more sophisticated and allow for adjustments. Few owners need speakers with active crossovers or want to make these types of adjustments.

The materials that woofers are made of are often cited in speaker specifications. Polypropylene is the most commonly used material and is fine, but the bass won’t be as full as with other materials. Kevlar, fiberglass, or aluminum woofers will cost more, but offer stronger bass. For true audiophiles with deep pockets, there are other highly specialized materials available, but again, they’re not necessary for average listeners.

You will also find that some speakers today feature bridge mount tweeters and this can be an advantage. Bridge-mount tweeters do not penetrate the woofer cone and therefore will not interfere with the low-end sound of the woofer. This is not to say that there aren’t good speakers that don’t bridge their tweeters because there are speakers where very few people can tell the difference. However, the difference is there and if you want a superior speaker then a bridge mount tweeter is a consideration.

The price range for speakers today is quite remarkable. The truth is, you can buy a good pair of in-ceiling speakers for as low as $40, and you can buy a great pair for $200. Some people want the best, and you can find them for up to $1,500 a pair. As always, to some extent, you get what you pay for. However, it is also the case that the vast majority of us would have trouble telling the sound of a good quality $100 speaker from a better quality $200 speaker.

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