What makes a speaker better than another? Speaker Technology on the surface doesn’t seem complicated by any means. The drivers (which are housed in an enclosure) in the speaker produce sound waves. Additionally, there are some parts and wires that hold everything together. Now, this is the simple way of explaining how speakers work, you can also research a more in-depth explanation.
If you have heard more than one set of speakers, there is a chance that you have discovered something about the universe of audio: some speakers are better than other speakers. Even if you do research and understand more in-depth how speakers actually work, it is still difficult to explain why one speaker sounds better than another.
The quality of sound produced by a speaker is the result of many elements: design, material, and execution– each and every detail matters in the final sound. After doing extensive research, we soon realized just how difficult it is to build a really good-sounding set of speakers. Great sound is both an art and a science. To find out more information about some high-quality speakers, take a look at some of the best home speaker options.
What Makes A Great Speaker?
Many of us may ask, what makes one speaker better than another? The best speakers mirror sound incredibly and accurately. In other terms, they won’t “color” the sound by modifying it. In an ideal speaker, you hear a sound- a vocal run, a guitar riff, a monologue- as it was intended to be heard by whoever recorded it. Unfortunately, there are no perfect speakers in this world, but some of the best ones come really close.
Hypothetically, you can measure how accurately a speaker reproduces sound. With the use of “frequency response charts” you can chart the range of the frequencies a particular speaker is capable of producing. A perfect speaker should produce all of the full range frequencies that human ears can hear. Like we said though, there are no perfect speakers, so the ideal speakers should produce as much of the full range of frequency as possible. (Some experts would argue, that you can’t actually measure how well a speaker can reproduce a sound, but you can only get a slight sense of how far from the “flat” a speaker is.)
Frequency response is not the only factor to consider when you’re looking to buy a top-of-the-line set of speakers. In order to fully comprehend the amount of “color”’ a speaker adds to a sound, the variations in the output of the speaker are arguably as important as the range of the frequencies.
A speaker with little to no variation in the frequency response is a speaker that adds little color.
Every speaker makes specific frequencies that are softer or louder than others. Assuming that the ultimate goal is precise audio reproduction, the less variation there is in the loudness between frequencies (the flatter the frequency response looks) the better the speaker quality. When looking at a frequency response chart, you want to see a flat line instead of a line with lots of ups and downs.
Oftentimes, the way a speaker is built can affect its ability to have a flat frequency response chart.
When you compare the specifications of a speaker, you will likely find that the cones found in each driver are often made out of different materials. You’ll probably see cones made of polypropylene, paper, aluminum, or ceramic/glass fiber polymer. You may now be wondering what there is such a variety of materials used to do the same thing (push the air to create sound waves).
Most cones move out and in like a piston to push air. Tough, at certain frequencies, the cone will instead flex. When the cone is flexed, the sound is distorted. Speaker designers will often use more rigid materials to keep the flexing to a minimum.
Various speaker designers have varying opinions about the best material to use to minimize the flexing. The founder and chief designer at PBS, Paul Barton, uses clay “impregnated” cones when building his speaker because they are more rigid. The founder of Polk Audio, Sandy Gross, and his team use polypropylene for their mid-range drivers because they produce the best low-level resonance and they are fast.
Cone material, however, is just one material that can cause there to be different sound quality. Additionally, the materials used in the wire to the glue used in speakers can have an effect on the overall sound production. Each and every intricate piece plays a part in the sound quality of a speaker. This is why speaker designers select each of these components very carefully.
As mentioned previously, the materials used in a speaker are only one part of the extremely complex puzzle that speakers are. The way each of the elements of the speaker is assembled also affects the sound and sound quality. Barton often compares assembling a speaker to cooking. He says that you can put a bunch of chefs or cooks in the same kitchen with the exact same ingredients, but some cook’s dishes will taste better than others.
Let’s take the enclosure. A speaker needs something to hold the electronics and drivers that produce the sound. If you recklessly design the enclosure, it will have a negative effect on the sound. If the enclosure is too wide, the sound can then reverberate inside of the cabinet, which will create some cross noose that will interfere with the sound waves that are coming directly from the driver. If you don’t brace the driver correctly and securely enough, it then can rattle, resulting in distortion.
Take GoldenEar’s Triton 3 speaker, for example. It has a very narrow enclosure that minimizes the vibrations in the cabinet.
Another key component in how a speaker sounds is the crossover circuit. In speakers with more than one driver, the crossover or crossovers, pick which frequencies are produced by which driver. For example, when there are high frequencies, which are also called treble, they are directed to the tweeter.
When you have low frequencies, which are called bass, they are directed to the woofer. Gross compared the crossover circuit to the conductor of a symphony. She explained that different conductors will make the same group of people and instruments sound completely different. In a similar way, 2 speakers that are built with the same drivers but have different crossover circuits will sound very different.
Every driver encases a range of frequencies that it can produce well. Some frequencies though, it doesn’t produce nearly as well, and others it can’t produce hardly at all. A great speaker design will use a combination of crossovers and drivers to let each individual driver focus on the frequencies it can produce well.
So, here is what speaker sound ultimately comes down to: Designing an enclosure that will produce the best sound quality with the best materials that you can afford. When you put it all together, and you then test the resonance frequency. After you tweak all of those components to get the numbers in the range you want, bad news, but you’re still not done.
Though, at this point, you have built a very solid foundation that potentially could be a great speaker. But as Gross says, there is another element of sound that he says not many people have figured out how to measure. This element is called sound imaging.
Sound imaging is fairly complex. It is the way in which the audio that is produced by the speakers is interpreted by your brain in order to form a cohesive or well image of the audio. If speakers image “well”, then hopefully you won’t hear the individual speakers. Instead, you will hear a full “soundscape”, that includes different voices and instruments that are coming from different locations to your sides or in front of you.
Imaging is the reason a speaker can sound like a voice or an instrument is coming from the middle of a system when what you’re really hearing is a right channel and a left channel. To get the imaging correct, speaker designers have to listen to the production models and change them. It’s not something that can be done by looking at just the specs.
So What Should You, As The Speaker Buyer, Do?
So then, how can you determine if a set of speakers will sound good or not? All in all, you will have to actually listen to a speaker to know if it is top-notch. Optimally, you will want to listen to the speakers in the setting in which you will actually use them, so you can actually get a feel for the quality of sound you will be receiving.
As any product review goes, personal preference plays a huge role in how well you like a speaker or not. You may think speaker A is amazing while your friend may think speaker B is way better. Don’t let this fool you. Go with your gut (and our tips too of course).
Additionally, some companies understand the difficulty of choosing a speaker and will give you a 30 day audition period to try out the speaker to see if you like it. In other terms, you can buy a set of speakers, try them out, and if you don’t like them, you can return them.
Written by Kassidy Palo