Now Hear This! (All About Speakers)

Whether your listening to streaming audio though your computer powered speakers, or a pair of B&W Nautilus’ (if you are, I’d love to come over for a listen ;-).  It helps to know a little bit about speakers.  Speakers come in all varieties of sizes, shapes, materials, tonal qualities, dynamic ranges, and can create different Sound Pressure Levels (spl’s) in your listening area depending on the size of the room, size of the speaker, and amount / quality of amplification.

If you’ve got all the speakers you need, I’m happy for you.  I always want more!  If your in the market for some new speakers and/or your new to the audio listening ranks it may be worth five minutes to read through some of my experiences, common vocabulary, and tips/hits for selecting your speakers.

A wise audiophile once told me,

“One thing is for certain, the technology of receivers, amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, and digital to analog converters (DACs) will constantly change.  However, if you find a set of speakers with a sound that you love, they can last you a lifetime if you take care of them.”

That sentiment resonated with me (no pun intended) and I haven’t forgot it.  In fact I still have my first set of big boy speakers that I got while I was in college (Mains: NHT – Super Two’s, Surrounds: NHT Super One’s, and of course my M&K MX 105 MkII Dual 12″ Subwoofer (oh how that 14 year old sub still make’s me smile).

So what makes a good speaker?  Frankly… That decision is up to you.  If you like the sound comes out of your $15 Dollar Computer Cube Speakers, that’s great!  If you are a music nut like me then perhaps you would want to explore your options a little more.  I feel a “pieces of flair” Office Space moment coming on.  Apologies if you don’t understand that reference.  You need to watch Office Space right now!

As you explore your options, I hope this post will drop some that ideas will make your speaker search a little easier and more fruitful.

Tip #1 – Bring your own music to the demo!!!

Most better quality retailers will allow you to demo different speakers while listening to your own music.  I’ll focus on music here because movies are a bit different in my mind.  Having a CD (or two) is often the easiest route…but if you have your music on an MP3 Player…bring a patch cable (3.5mm to RCA Plug) and most sales staff will accommodate.

This accomplishes two key things.

1) You get to listen to music you like while conducting the demo.

2) Most importantly you get to hear the speakers playing the types of music that they’ll pushing out for years to come.

Tip #2 – Understand what type of equipment is attached to the demo speakers

If your prospective $500 pair of speakers are being demoed while attached to a $10,000 Tube Amp / Pre Amp combo… you’ll likely have a different experience when you get home and hook up to your $500 Home Theater Receiver.

Tip #3 – Understand what some of the basic technical spec’s mean.

There are some basic relationships that will be helpful when fitting your speakers to an amplifier / receiver / your listening area.  There are two basic stats (Theory’s) you should understand.  Nominal Impedance (typically represented as 4-8 Ohm) & Sensitivity (typically shown between 82-94 decibel) Ratings.  The Power Handling stats (Watts) don’t really matter that much to be quite frank (assuming your are buying a decent quality speaker).

Nominal Impedance (ohm) – The basic theory is here is resistance to power (current).  A speaker rated @ 8 ohms “resists” power more than one that is rated at 4 ohms.  To think of it another way, the 4 ohm speaker draws more power (current) from the amplifier and therefore requires a more powerful amp to drive the speakers.  If your interested in a 4 ohm speaker… make sure your power source can handle it.

Sensitivity Rating (db) – The basic theory here is that sensitivity (db) is the measure of a speakers efficiency in converting power into sound.  The traditional measurement is obtained by measuring the sound pressure level (db) with a microphone 1-meter away from the speaker after having been supplied with 1-watt of power.   The bottom line is that some speakers are much more efficient then others in turning power in to sound.

The key relationship you’ll want to remember is the 3 decibel rule:  For every 3 db decrease in the sensitivity rating it will take double the power to drive the speaker to the same volume.

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