Roaming around a hi-fi store or checking prices on the internet, you’ll likely come across audiophile-grade speakers. Many of these speakers carry high price tags, have odd-shaped designs, and noteworthy marketing. If speakers range wildly in price, aesthetic and specifications, then it makes sense that some speakers would be objectively better than others.
Do better speakers make a big difference in sound quality? High-quality speakers will reproduce audio more effectively than their cheaper counterparts. Improved accuracy, sonically-please colour, decreased distortion, wider soundstage, and other notable improvements are typical. Note that sound quality depends on the entire system and not only on speakers.
In this article, we’ll discuss how better speakers can provide better sound quality and a more enjoyable listening experience.
The Chain Is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link
This is the first statement we need to address whenever we speak about audio and speakers. This is because a prevalent mistake to make, especially when starting, is to get one mesmerizingly high-end piece of gear and expect it to revolutionize the way we listen to music.
For example, you could buy a state-of-the-art pair of speakers and feed them music from Spotify (I only pick on Spotify because it’s a popular streaming service) using your cellphone and a cheap cable. In this scenario, you’ll never enjoy the full potential of your speaker investment. Indeed, what you’ll very likely hear are the not-so-nice nuances of “streaming quality.”
Therefore, to enjoy a high-end piece of equipment, you need to create a high-end chain of equipment. In other words, make sure the path of sound from the playback device to your ear passes through high-end equipment at all times. This includes the analog medium (the quality of the tape, vinyl, etc.) or digital format (FLAC vs mp3, for example), the amplifier, the cables, and even the listening environment.
That being said, upgrading speakers in a less-than-ideal signal chain is still likely to improve sound quality. However, it will also make all the inefficiencies of the audio more clearly defined. You won’t get the most out of high-end speakers if you’re not driving them with high-quality audio. They’ll enhance the sound, sure, but it’s unlikely that they’ll make a big difference.
What Makes Great Speakers?
Now we know that better speakers will improve sound quality, especially when the rest of the signal chain is enhanced; it’s time to define what a “better speaker” actually is.
What makes a speaker great, or at least better than another?
An often-overlooked side of speakers is the enclosure. A speaker enclosure is an enclosed structure (hence the name) that houses the speaker driver(s). The fronts of the drivers are exposed to the outer environment, while the backs of the drivers are contained within the enclosure.
As a speaker driver oscillates, it produces sound waves the propagate outward. As the front of the driver pushes out, positive sound pressure is produced at the front while an equal (practically speaking) but opposite/negative sound pressure is produced at the back.
An enclosure keeps the rearward sound pressure variations from the larger acoustic environment to avoid phase cancellation, which would have an especially detrimental effect on the longer bass frequency wavelengths. This is oversimplified, of course, but it gets the basics across.
Speaker enclosures come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. They range from simple sealed particleboard boxes for small drivers in home stereos to incredibly complex systems with internal baffles, horns, bass reflex ports and acoustic isolation that house multiple large-diaphragm drivers for concert-grade sound reinforcement.
The vibrations of the cabinet/enclosure can create notes that weren’t present in the recording (ghost notes). For example, you could hear an A in the background even when the music is in a different key. This is mainly due to the speaker’s inner acoustic environment and natural resonance (determined primarily by the space and weight of the speaker unit). The enclosure of a good speaker will mitigate these resonances to keep it from vibrating dissonantly when you increase the volume/loudness.
This is because high-end speakers employ bracing, which is a concept coming from acoustic guitars. Like these wooden instruments, the rigid bracing in speakers allows the manufacturers to control the sound of vibrations and stiffen the enclosure.
A pro tip in this sense is to tap your knuckle against one of the sides. If it sounds empty and loud, it is not a high-end enclosure. On the other hand, if it sounds “dead” like hitting a brick, chances are it is a well-designed enclosure.
To learn more about speaker enclosures, check out my article Why Do Loudspeakers Need Enclosures?
Design & Aesthetics
Inexpensive speakers tend to be made the same way mostly. This is due to lower investment in research and development. Why spend money on improved designs and manufacturing when people are buying the products, and you’re making a profit?
On the other hand, high-end companies often invest significantly in research and development to improve design and aesthetics.
Designers working on speakers try to make the most appealing, eye-catching products while also making them sound amazing. For example, modern internal bracing and exterior design should work together.
Innovative products need a significant investment in R&D before they can hit the market. This means that if you see an innovative product that looks right out of an alien ship and sounds terrific, it probably has an astronomical price tag attached to it to pay for the R&D invested in it.
Aesthetics and design are more important to some people than others. Thus, you could put them in any order on the list.
A good speaker doesn’t colour the sound as much. Or, if it colours the sound, it does it in a controlled, musical way. To pull this off, companies need to know the properties of each material they use in the speaker construction.
Just as we discussed vibrations and resonances, the same thing happens with colouration. For example, you’ll see speaker cones and drivers made of a wide variety of materials. In high-end speaker design, these materials are carefully selected to achieve an intended outcome of world-class sonic performance.
From the coil and magnet to the cone and surround to the enclosure and internal electronics, material matters!
Some hi-fi speakers are designed differently than the typical moving-coil/dynamic speaker. Alternative speaker transducer types include Magnetostatic, Electrostatic and Ribbon.
The alternative speaker types mentioned above have their advantages and disadvantages but are nearly all in the high-end class of loudspeakers. The designs and materials used in the designs will be different than the typical dynamic speaker type.
I write more thoroughly about these other speaker types in my article What Are Speaker Drivers? (How All Driver Types Work).
In this case, craftsmanship means accuracy and consistency from speaker to speaker.
A common scenario in the world of inexpensive speakers is to have a poorly matched pair. One of the speakers in the pair responds differently to music than the other. The result is a mismatched, unbalanced stereo image.
On the other hand, premium craftsmanship can take, for example, internal bracing to perfection, making the sound of every speaker pair a dream come true.
The final step in manufacture is also the final step in this list: quality control. A good quality control policy can prevent the unbalanced speaker pair from leaving the factory, for example. Moreover, when done thoroughly, quality assurance will help the company find the root cause of the issues and fix them on both broad-scale and specific cases.
Thus, big-name brands in audio continually invest big in quality assurance. After all, most companies depend on their satisfied customer reputation to grow.
For my opinion on the best speaker brands in the world, consider checking out any of the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top Best Loudspeaker Brands (Overall) On The Market Today
• Top Best Home Speaker Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top Best Studio Monitor Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top Best PA Loudspeaker Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top Best Subwoofer Brands (Car, PA, Home & Studio)
What Can An Audiophile-Grade Speaker Give You?
Have you ever experienced an audiophile-grade sound system? Again, the term “system” rather than a pair of speakers since the sonic performance of the speakers is a combined effort.
Let’s pretend for a minute that you are sitting in a perfect acoustically treated room and listening to a vinyl record in a state-of-the-art system with audiophile-grade speakers. What can they give you?
Fuller sound with nuances: one of the main takeaways of having a great pair of speakers is that they can reproduce the entire frequency spectrum with no biases. This means that the subtleties, harmonics, notes, and nuances of the recording will become audible. As a result, you’ll hear a more faithful and detailed reproduction of the original recording.
More precise, fuller bass frequencies: the material of the speaker cone will have a given rigidity. Speakers utilizing stiffer materials will likely reproduce lower frequencies at a higher volume without distortion. Such materials as titanium, for example, usually cost more but make the sound out of the speaker clearer, punchier, and fuller without any distortion.
Buying a great pair of speakers for your audio system will always enhance the resulting sound. That being said, overlooking the sound source and the rest of the sound chain will ultimately lead to lacklustre results.
If you play, for example, Spotify music through state-of-the-art equipment, you may realize just how much information is missing due to the streaming quality. Moreover, the overly-compressed audio may sound great in your earbuds but won’t push high-end speakers to their full potential.
Playing a mint condition vinyl record through a high-end preamp and power amp, on the other hand, will allow your speakers to express the full sound of the recording. You’ll suddenly hear nuance and frequencies you hadn’t noticed before. It is not that they were missing; it was just that lower-quality speakers couldn’t reproduce those frequencies as faithfully.
In other words, make sure you are ready for a speaker upgrade with a matching sound system. Remember, the sound chain is as strong as its weakest link.