Damaging a speaker is one thing audiophiles, musicians, or audio enthusiasts can all agree upon as a terrible occurrence. Speakers can sustain damage in several ways, and in this article, we’ll investigate whether playing music too loud will cause speaker damage.
Is playing music loud bad for speakers? Playing music/audio too loud may cause damage to speakers due to excess heat in the drivers or even mechanical failure of the driver suspension. Speakers have power ratings that, when exceeded (by increasing the amplifier/volume control), will burn/melt the driver coil and damage the speaker.
In this article, we’ll discuss the potential heat and mechanical damage that may arise from overloading the speaker with too much voltage/overly loud music. We’ll also go over the signs of a damaged speaker to further our understanding of speakers and loud music.
Is Playing Music Loud Bad For Speakers?
To understand how loud music can damage loudspeakers, we should understand that to produce louder sounds, a speaker must be driven with greater audio signal levels.
The loudspeaker’s perceived loudness will increase as the audio signal driving that loudspeaker is also increased in electrical power/voltage (though the two are not linearly related). This is, of course, assuming the distance between the listener and the speaker, and the acoustic environment, remain the same.
To simplify even further, the greater the audio signal voltage/power, the louder the speaker becomes.
I delve into the study of the relationships between the perceived loudness of sound and audio signal levels in the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Are Decibels? The Ultimate dB Guide For Audio & Sound
• What Is The Difference Between Sound And Audio?
This is due to the way speakers work. For this article, we’ll focus on the typical moving-coil/dynamic speaker design, which accounts for the vast majority of loudspeakers on the market (though there are other types of speaker transducers).
A typical [dynamic] speaker works on electromagnetic principles. The speaker driver(s) has a coil of conductive material (typically copper) suspended in a magnetic structure. As audio signals (electrical signals) pass through the coil, the coil experiences a changing magnetic field coinciding with the AC voltage audio signal.
Since the voice coil is suspended in a magnetic field, it moves according to its own magnetic changes. The coil is attached to the speaker cone, which moves inward and outward, thereby producing ripples in the pressure of the medium, better known as sound waves.
Here is a simple diagram of a basic loudspeaker driver:
So more technically, a loudspeaker is a transducer that converts electrical energy (voltage/power) into acoustic energy (sound waves). As is the case with practically any conversion of energy, some energy is lost as heat. The rate at which energy is lost as heat is sometimes distinguished in a speaker’s efficiency rating.
As we turn up the volume/loudness of the amplifier driving the speaker, we simultaneously increase the heat inside the speaker. If too much heat is produced within the speaker driver(s), the voice coil can burn or melt. Either way, the damaged voice coil will underperform, creating subtle to significant distortion.
The audio signal level a speaker can handle is given as a sometimes-confusing power handling or wattage rating/specification. These ratings are often based on peak or RMS values.
Peak power handling refers to the maximum power the speaker can handle for any instant in time. If, at any point, the speaker draws more than power the peak power rating, the speaker will sustain damage.
RMS (root mean square) is technically a measurement of the square root of the mean square (the arithmetic mean of the squares of a set of numbers). It [erroneously] refers to the “AC average” of the signal, taking into account the fact that audio signals have both positive and negative voltage values at different points in time.
If these values are exceeded, especially over an extended period, the speaker will likely become damaged. Therefore, playing music too loud can certainly damage the loudspeaker(s).
To learn more about speaker power/wattage ratings, check out my article The Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings.
While several factors can lead to a blown speaker, playing music/audio too loud is one of the most significant reasons. Playing music at a high volume makes listening more engaging and fun, though going overboard may result in speaker burn-out/blow-out.
Understanding the signal level (typically given in electrical power/watts) your amplifier is capable of outputting will help you determine how “loud” you can drive the speakers by adjusting the amp’s output.
To learn more about matching amplifiers and speakers, check out my article Why Do Speakers Need Amplifiers? (And How To Match Them).
Note that there is a great advantage, in this case, in using powered/active speakers, which are designed with built-in amplifiers. Manufacturers of quality powered loudspeakers are likely to put safety measures in place to ensure that, under normal circumstances, the built-in amplifier will not overload/burn out/blow the speaker driver(s) it’s driving.
To learn more about active speakers (versus passive speakers), check out my article What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?
In the majority of cases, playing music too loud will cause the voice coil to burn out. However, there are rare instances where a strong peak in the audio signal may cause mechanical damage to the speaker.
There are two main thresholds of mechanical movement in a speaker driver:
- Maximum linear movement: the point in which the voice coil has moved far enough outside of the magnetic gap that the coil no longer experiences the total magnetic flux density of the motor.
- Maximum mechanical movement: the point past the linear threshold to the point at which the speaker can no longer move.
Though rare, exceeding these mechanical thresholds may cause physical damage to the speaker suspension, spider, cone, magnet, and more.
Keeping the volume at acceptable levels, combined with proper care for your audio equipment, will keep your speakers playing wonderful music for a long time.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
As mentioned above, the audio signal level a given speaker can take is determined by its power handling/wattage rating.
Looking at a volume control, it can be nearly impossible to determine exactly how much power you’re sending from the amplifier to the speakers. So here are a few tips to keep you safe:
- Use powered speakers when in doubt
- Match the amplifier and speaker(s) appropriately
- Buy quality loudspeakers with quality components
- Buy an amplifier with a safety fuse (protection mode) to save the amplifier and, by proxy, the speaker(s)
- If you hear distortion in the speaker, turn the volume down
- If you smell burning or see smoke, it may be too late, but definitely turn the volume down
What Are The Symptoms Of A Blown Or A Damaged Speaker?
Perhaps you’re reading this article because you’re concerned you’ve already damaged your speaker by playing music too loud. Let’s consider the symptoms of a blown or otherwise damaged speaker to help you figure out if the speaker is damaged or not:
Distortion Even At Normal Volumes
Hearing a slight hiss, a hint of static, or a constant touch of fuzz are potential signs of a damaged speaker. You could either have a loose or worn-out voice coil or possibly a torn cone which could sound more evident as you turn up the volume.
Inaccurate Frequency Response
If you get a hankering to play window-rattling bass music and end up failing to make even the slightest jiggle, then it is a sign of a damaged woofer. Insufficient frequency response is often most apparent in the bass range.
Unpleasant Rattling Noises
Popping tweeters, rattling cone fabrics, and a flopping voice coil are undeniably symptoms of a run-down speaker.
To learn more about speaker blow out, along with strategies on how to avoid or fix the issue, check out my article Loudspeaker Blow-Out: Why It Happens & How To Avoid/Fix It.
What Other Factors Lead To Damaged Speakers?
While it is natural to crank up the volume when your favourite song comes on and potentially risk damaging the speakers, other factors may lead to speaker damage as well. Here are some of the other, more rare, ways by which speaker damage may occur.
Setting Them Down Next To Magnets
Keep speakers away from any magnetic sources such as iron, nickel, aluminum, and gold to avoid the small (bot potential) risk of damaging the in-built electromagnetic driver.
Static electricity can inadvertently bring harm to your system, which is why anti-static sprays and floor mats are widely used by seasoned audiophiles, musicians, and enthusiasts.
Like most electrical devices, speakers are prone to overheating. Keeping them away from direct sunlight, as well as providing adequate ventilation, particularly during heavy use, can help maintain and lengthen your speaker’s lifespan.
By keeping such components in mind, you can effortlessly increase the life and performance of your speakers. Although high-quality units are often designed and crafted with the most reliable and durable materials, ensuring your system is placed in the most strategic spots allows it to perform at its best without the fear of misuse and burnout.
Leaving Them Unkempt And Dusty
Cleaning your speakers regularly and placing them in a spot where there is not much dust helps preserve your sound system’s health. By occasionally using the vacuum to get rid of dust and other small particles, you are making sure that such unfavourable elements do not get inside the speaker’s net as they may affect speaker performance and, in rare cases, lead to damage.
Playing music too loud may cause irreversible damage.
Not only can it leave you suffering from permanent hearing loss, but it may also lead to the devastation of your equipment.
While some speakers can effortlessly handle both high and low levels of audio, excessive volume increases the risk of impairing the speakers in your sound system. As lame a suggestion as it may be, perhaps turning the music down is a good idea.