The Ultimate Loudspeaker Buyer’s Guide 2021


So you’re wondering which loudspeaker you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer’s guide, we’ll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a loudspeaker, a pair of loudspeakers, or a surround sound set.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “which loudspeaker(s) should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.

Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.

With that, let’s get into this comprehensive loudspeaker buyer’s guide to help you in your next loudspeaker purchase!

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Top 11 Best Home Speaker Brands You Should Know And Use
Top 11 Best Car Audio Speaker Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Subwoofer Brands (Car, PA, Home & Studio)

Do Better Speakers Make A Big Difference In Sound Quality?


Table Of Contents


What Is Your Loudspeaker Budget?

The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I’ll keep this section brief.

I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.

Loudspeakers, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.

Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.

Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the purchase of the loudspeaker(s). For example, if the loudspeaker(s) are needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. If, on the other hand, you don’t plan on making money with the loudspeaker(s), perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.

Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your loudspeakers.

Only you can determine your budget. All I’m here to say is that you should consider it.

Related My New Microphone article:
How Much Do Loudspeakers Cost? (With Pricing Examples)

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What Are The Intended Applications Of The Loudspeakers?

There are numerous many styles of speakers and options on the market. When choosing the best speaker for your budget and application, it’s a great idea to first think of the intended use for the speaker.

For example, an optimal set of speakers for mixing and mastering applications will be different from those for a live venue or those for a day at the beach.

If you’re into HiFi audio or are building a home theatre, you’ll likely need different speakers than if you’re investing in your car audio.

Oftentimes, searching for application-specific speakers will narrow down your choices drastically—more on this in the later section Common Loudspeaker Applications.

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Styles Of Loudspeakers

Let’s consider the different styles of loudspeakers we’re likely to come across in our search. Note that these generalized styles have little to do with amplification or the transducer principle (we’ll get to those topics later). Rather, these are the general types of speaker’s we’ll find on the market:

Portable Bluetooth Speakers

Portable Bluetooth speakers are wireless, battery-powered speakers with internal amplifiers that pair with audio playback devices via Bluetooth. The Bluetooth standard is backward compatible, which means that these speakers will work with any Bluetooth audio device (though the functionality will be at the lowest BT version).

Portable Bluetooth speakers are great choices for on-the-go and outdoor activities. They often rate pretty high in terms of Ingress Protection (IP) rating, which measures their dust and water resistance/proofing.

Related My New Microphone article:
Top 8 Best Portable Bluetooth Speaker Brands On The Market

Computer Speakers

Though any speaker can connect to a computer with the right signal chain, there are speakers on the market designed specifically for computers.

These consumer-grade speakers typically connect via USB, 3.5mm “aux,” or wirelessly. They’re pretty well always powered, meaning that at least one of the speakers in the set will have a built-in power amplifier to drive the speaker drivers appropriately.

Computer speakers tend to come in stereo pairs or 2.1 configurations (a stereo pair of full-range speakers and a subwoofer).

Related My New Microphone article:
How Do Computer Speakers Work? (Built-In & External)

How To Connect Speakers To A Computer (All Speaker Types)

Bookshelf Speakers

Bookshelf speakers are designed for placement on shelves, tabletops, or other elevated surfaces and to produce sound in small to medium-sized rooms.

Though these speakers range in price, they’re generally pretty affordable and are usually of decent quality. Indeed, they range from audiophile-grade HiFi units to consumer-grade stereo speakers.

Bookshelf speakers are generally intended for those who want good sound but don’t require the most precise reproduction of their audio.

Related My New Microphone article:
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Floorstanding Speakers

Floorstanding speakers are large speakers designed to stand on the floor. We’ll typically find these speakers in home audio systems.

There are plenty of HiFi floorstanding speaker pairs on the market, though affordable options are also available. These speakers range from the basic designs for home entertainment systems to exquisite marvels that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Public Address Speakers

PA speakers are used for live sound reinforcement and public address systems. These speakers are designed to be loud while maintaining decent accuracy.

PA speakers generally have the largest drivers and highest power handling ratings among this list of speaker styles (especially the subwoofers). These speakers include passive and active options, and PA system speaker needs range from single speakers to multiple line arrays with dozens of loudspeakers each.

Related My New Microphone article:
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Foldback Monitor Speakers

Foldback monitors are generally part of a PA system, and PA speakers generally double as these stage monitors.

Foldback monitors are typically powered and receive monitor sends from the live sound mixer to playback the monitor mixes for the performers to hear themselves.

Subwoofer Speakers

Subwoofers are special speakers with larger drivers designed specifically to reproduce the low-end frequencies. Consumer-grade subwoofers are often tasked with handling 200 Hz and below, while pro audio is generally <100 Hz, and THX-certified systems have <80 Hz subwoofer outputs.

If necessary, subwoofers can be included in nearly all speaker setups, including car audio, home audio, theatre audio, recording/mixing studios, and PA systems.

Related My New Microphone article:
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Studio Monitor Speakers

Studio monitors are designed to be as accurate as possible for critical listening and professional monitoring, mixing and mastering.

Though optimal studio monitors are as flat/accurate as possible, there will be differences in sound from monitor to monitor. Mixing and mastering engineers will often have multiple sets of monitors to toggle between for additional monitoring options.

Studio monitors are typically near-field, but larger control/mix rooms may have far-field monitors in the distance. Depending on the room acoustics and the need for sub-bass, studio monitors may require an additional subwoofer.

Related My New Microphone article:
Top 11 Best Studio Monitor Brands You Should Know And Use

Soundbar Speakers

A soundbar is a style of loudspeaker with several drivers and audio channels designed into a bar-like form factor. Soundbars are typically powered and are used as a convenient all-in-one speaker upgrade for televisions (often removing the need for a receiver altogether).

Related My New Microphone article:
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Installed Speakers

Installed speakers are compact indoor and outdoor designed for permanent installation in walls, ceilings, and other locations.

These speakers are common for intercom systems and multi-room audio systems.

Car Audio Speakers

Car audio speakers are designed for vehicle sound systems. These speakers are typically co-axial for compact installation, meaning their drivers are stacked along the same axis. In addition to the full-range co-axial speakers, car speakers also include subwoofers.

Related My New Microphone article:
Top 11 Best Car Audio Speaker Brands In The World

Marine Speakers

Marine speakers are designed to be waterproof for use with marine vehicles. Like car audio speakers, most marine speakers are full co-axial or subwoofers.

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Active Vs. Powered Vs. Passive Loudspeakers

Loudspeakers require speaker level signals to function properly. Since most audio is mixed, recorded and played back at line level (which is lower than speaker level), amplification is required.

The power amplifiers that drive loudspeakers can either be separate devices or built into the loudspeakers themselves. These differences are clarified in the terms active, passive and powered.

Active Loudspeakers

Active loudspeakers have built-in power amplifiers and, therefore, require power to function (hence the name active).

In general, active speakers are comprised of an enclosure, one or more speaker drivers, an active crossover network, and a separate amplifier for each of the crossover’s frequency bands.

As an example, let’s look at a simplified signal path of a 3-way active speaker:

  • Audio source
  • Preamplifier
  • Active crossover unit
  • Individual power amplifiers
  • Drivers
Simplified Active Speaker Signal Flow Diagram

Active speakers take line level signals from an audio source and/or preamplifier (from a playback device, audio mixer, audio interface, etc.).

The line level input audio signal is first separated into different frequency bands by the active crossover network. We’ll discuss crossovers in more detail in the section Loudspeaker Crossovers & The Number Of Drivers. For now, just know that crossovers divide the full-range audio signals into smaller frequency ranges that are best suited for each of the drivers (tweets handle high-end, woofers handle low-end, etc.).

Each band is then amplified to speaker level before driving its appropriate driver (tweeter, woofer, etc.).

Because line level signals are lower than speaker level signals, these active crossovers do not need to be overly bulky to accommodate high signal power. Rather, they can be designed more precisely to optimize the crossover frequency cutoffs for improved linearity, clarity and overall performance.

Since each crossover band has its own amplifier, active speakers have the added benefit of being tuneable. Some active speakers will have basic EQ sections.

Active speakers are heavier and more expensive than their passive counterparts, but their convenience is much greater. Furthermore, the built-in amp and crossover are designed specifically for the drivers, so there’s no worry about proper amp-speaker matching.

Passive Loudspeakers

Passive loudspeakers do not have built-in power amplifiers and, therefore, do not require power to function (hence the name active). Rather, they depend on external power amplifiers to drive them appropriately.

In general, passive speakers are comprised of an enclosure, one or more speaker drivers, and a passive crossover network (if there are multiple drivers).

As an example, let’s look at a simplified signal path of a 3-way passive speaker:

  • Audio source
  • Preamplifier
  • Power amplifier
  • Passive crossover unit
  • Drivers
Simplified Passive Speaker Signal Flow Diagram

Passive speaker crossovers and drivers are passive in nature, working with passive electrical components.

These speakers receive an amplified speaker level signal from a connected power amplifier. This power amplifier boosts the line level signal from the audio source and/or preamplifier to a speaker level signal.

The speaker level signal is then split into different frequency bands by the passive crossover unit before being sent to the appropriate drivers.

The crossovers are required to split speaker level signals, meaning they must be able to handle higher levels than line level.

The power amplifier and passive speaker(s) must be matched appropriately for optimal performance.

Matching speakers to amplifiers is an art in and of itself.

If the amplifier is too weak, it will be incapable of driving the speakers to their full potential and will distort the signal before the speakers even get close to their loudest output.

Conversely, if the amplifier is too strong, it can overload the passive speaker crossover and driver components, leading to distortion and speaker blow-out.

So we ideally want the speaker’s power handling rating to be close to the amplifier’s output power rating per channel.

Furthermore, we must consider speaker impedance and the amplifier’s rated output impedance.

If the speaker’s impedance (load) is lower than what the amplifier (source) can handle, the speaker may draw too much power from the amp, thereby overloading and damaging it.

If the speaker’s impedance (load) is too high, it won’t draw enough power from the amplifier, which will result in poor speaker performance.

Passive speakers are lighter, more affordable, and more modular than their active counterparts. However, they will require a dedicated power amp, which you’ll need to match and set up appropriately—more on this in the section Loudspeaker Connectivity & Amplifiers.

Powered Loudspeakers

The terms “powered” and “active” are often used interchangeably in audio, though there is a difference between powered and active speakers.

Powered speakers have essentially the same signal path as passive speakers, except that the power amplifier is built into one (or each) of the speaker enclosures. A preamplifier may also be built into the enclosure.

Simplified Powered Speaker Signal Flow Diagram

The “master speaker” that contains the power amp(s) will typically have a speaker cable extending to its passive counterpart (in stereo setups) or multiple cables extending to multiple other passive speakers (in multi-channel setups).

Powered speakers do not have active crossover networks with individual amps for each of their drivers. Rather, powered speaker setups have a single (typically stereo) amplifier built into a master speaker, which then feeds the passive crossovers of all other speakers.

Many affordable computer speakers and low-end home stereos utilize a powered configuration.

Related My New Microphone articles:
What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?
Why Do Loudspeakers Need Power & How Are They Powered?

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Wired Or Wireless Loudspeakers

A loudspeaker may be designed to connect to its playback source with cables or wireless (or both in some cases).

Let’s consider the various speaker specifications for wired and wireless connectivity.

Wired Loudspeakers

Wired loudspeakers, as the name suggests, have audio signals sent to them via cables.

As mentioned previously, the signal level a speaker is designed to accept varies from model to model.

Active and powered speakers will generally have line level inputs since they provide their own amplification needs. These input connections (and the compatible cables) include:

  • XLR
  • 1/4″ (6.35mm) phono
  • Combo jack (XLR + 1/4″)
  • 1/8″ (3.5mm) phono
  • RCA co-axial

Passive speakers are designed to accept speaker level signals, which aren’t standardized. These signals can range in amplitude, and the speaker’s power handling rating will give us an idea of how much signal it can accept without any issues of distortion or damage.

When connecting a power amplifier to a loudspeaker, we usually use speaker wire/cable—the gauge of such cable matters. Thicker gauge (lower number) cable are best for long wire runs, high power applications, and low-impedance speakers. Thinner gauge (higher number) cable is typically fine for short runs, low power applications and high-impedance speakers.

As for connectors, passive speakers will generally have one or more of the following inputs:

  • Neutrik speakON
  • Binding post (universal connector designed to accept bare wire, pin connectors, spade connectors, banana plugs, and dual banana plugs)
  • Barrier strip terminal (bare wire, spade connectors)
  • Bare wire
  • 1/4″ (6.35mm)

Related My New Microphone articles:
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Wireless Loudspeakers

Wireless speakers will generally have Bluetooth connectivity (common) and/or WiFi connectivity (less common). These speakers accept digital audio wirelessly, convert it to analog, amplify it, and output it as sound.

There’s a big market for portable Bluetooth speakers, though wireless connectivity is also available in home speakers such as soundbars and bookshelf speakers. There are also some small PA system speakers designed with wireless connectivity.

Related My New Microphone article:
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Loudspeaker Size

The size of the loudspeaker(s) should be considered before making a purchase. The size of a loudspeaker is generally measured in inches and the size specification refers to the diameter of the largest driver.

In terms of the overall physical size of the speakers, including the enclosures, think of where the speakers will be placed and if they’ll physically fit in the intended spots. Also, if you plan on moving the speakers around (from gig to gig), consider how the size of the speakers will affect storage during transportation.

Beyond the physical space limitations you may be faced with, loudspeaker size will also affect the performance of the speakers.

Larger speaker drivers will produce low frequencies more easily since they can push and pull more air. Low frequencies require more energy and have longer wavelengths. The larger the driver, the more apt it will be to accommodate the slow yet powerful movement required of bass frequencies.

Subwoofers are large for this reason.

Before we go out and buy the largest speakers we can find; however, we should also consider the acoustic space in which the speakers will reside.

Once again, bass frequencies have long wavelengths. Therefore, they require longer distances to develop fully. Smaller rooms may not be adequate to allow the low-end sound from the speakers to develop. If the room isn’t acoustically treated, these underdeveloped waves will only act to interfere with other sound wave frequencies.

For example, the lowest frequency on the audible spectrum (though we can barely hear it, naturally) is 20 Hz. If we take the speed of sound to be 343 m/s, then 20 Hz has a wavelength of 17.15 m (56 ft). That’s a long distance to develop!

Without bass traps and other acoustic treatments, the low-end can severely affect the sound of the room. It may be muddy, resonant at certain frequencies (especially in low-mids and mids), and overly reflective.

The speakers may sound great at a defined listening position, but the perceived sound may have too little or too much bass a metre away at a different listening position.

So, as a rule of thumb, bigger speakers will provide more bass. However, more bass isn’t necessarily warranted.

I would suggest getting a separate subwoofer to handle the low-end. That way, you can adjust the low-end output and even turn the subwoofer off if need be.

Related My New Microphone articles:
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Why Do Loudspeakers Need Enclosures?
How Do Small Speakers Produce Bass Frequencies?

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Loudspeaker Power Handling

What is speaker power handling (wattage rating)? The speaker power handling specification (aka wattage rating) is the measured or theoretical limit of electric power the speaker is capable of handling before burning out. The spec is given in watts and can be measured/calculated as a continuous, peak, or root mean square (rms) value.

Power handling applies mostly to passive speakers, which need separate power amplifiers to drive them. It’s critical that we do not exceed the rated power handling/wattage rating to keep our speakers working properly. Exceeding these levels, especially over extended periods, will cause irreversible damage to the speaker’s driver(s).

Unfortunately, there are numerous ways in which the power handling spec of a speaker is given (peak, RMS, average, continuous, program, and nominal power/watt values can be given). Some manufacturers bend the truth to make their speakers look more powerful than they actually are. Do your research to find out exactly what the specification means according to the manufacturer’s datasheet.

Additionally, power handling doesn’t tell us how loud a given speaker will be. That information is to be found in the sensitivity and max SPL specifications.

Related My New Microphone article:
Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings

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Loudspeaker Sensitivity

What is speaker sensitivity? Sensitivity is a specification/measurement of how well a speaker converts amplifier power (electrical energy) into acoustic (mechanical wave) energy. Sensitivity specifications are generally given as decibels of sound pressure level per 1 watt of power at 1 measurement distance of 1 meter.

Put differently; speaker sensitivity is generally given as a dB SPL / 1 W @ 1-meter rating.

Higher sensitivity speakers will produce more volume given the same amount of power. Therefore, if two speakers have the same power handling/wattage rating, the more sensitive speaker will have a higher maximum level.

Note that the sound pressure level produced by the speaker is halved (-6 dB) for every doubling of distance. This is why the 1-meter unit is critical in the sensitivity specification.

Confusingly, the perceived loudness is doubled or halved for every +10 or -10 dB change. Additionally, a doubling or halving of power is defined by +3 or -3 dB. The math is rather complex, but it’s important to note.

For example, a maxed-out 500-watt speaker with a sensitivity of 93 dB SPL / 1 W @ 1 m will be the same volume as a maxed-out 1,000-watt speaker with a sensitivity of 90 dB SPL / 1 W @ 1 m.

Once power handling is known, the sensitivity rating should give us an idea of how loud the loudspeaker can get. Let’s consider the following chart to understand how power and sensitivity translate to perceived loudness.

In the illustration below, we’ll use the examples of Speaker A (sensitivity rating of 84 dB SPL @ 1W/1m) and Speaker C (sensitivity rating of 90 dB SPL @ 1W/1m):

Amplifier Power Vs. Speaker Sensitivity Vs. Distance

Take this information for a single speaker and understand that every speaker added (assuming equal build, distance from the listener, and output) will double the sound intensity, causing an increase of 3 dB SPL at the listener’s position.

Here’s a table to suggest the safe listening times at defined sound pressure levels according to the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration):

NIOSH Standard (dBA)Equivalent Sound Pressure Level (at 1 kHz)Maximum Exposure Time LimitOSHA Standard (dBA)Equivalent Sound Pressure Level (at 1 kHz)
127 dBA127 dB SPL
44.8 Pa
1 second160 dBA160 dB SPL
2.00 kPa
124 dBA124 dB SPL
31.7 Pa
3 seconds155 dBA155 dB SPL
1.12 kPa
121 dBA121 dB SPL
22.4 Pa
7 seconds150 dBA150 dB SPL
632 Pa
118 dBA118 dB SPL
12.6 Pa
14 seconds145 dBA145 dB SPL
356 Pa
115 dBA115 dB SPL
11.2 Pa
28 seconds140 dBA140 dB SPL
200 Pa
112 dBA112 dB SPL
7.96 Pa
56 seconds135 dBA135 dB SPL
112 Pa
109 dBA109 dB SPL
5.64 Pa
1 minute 52 seconds130 dBA130 dB SPL
63.2 Pa
106 dBA106 dB SPL
3.99 Pa
3 minutes 45 seconds125 dBA125 dB SPL
35.6 Pa
103 dBA103 dB SPL
2.83 Pa
7 minutes 30 seconds120 dBA120 dB SPL
20.0 Pa
100 dBA100 dB SPL
2.00 Pa
15 minutes115 dBA115 dB SPL
11.2 Pa
97 dBA97 dB SPL
1.42 Pa
30 minutes110 dBA110 dB SPL
6.32 Pa
94 dBA94 dB SPL
1.00 Pa
1 hour105 dBA105 dB SPL
3.56 Pa
91 dBA91 dB SPL
0.71 Pa
2 hours100 dBA100 dB SPL
2.00 Pa
88 dBA88 dB SPL
0.50 Pa
4 hours95 dBA95 dB SPL
1.12 Pa
85 dBA85 dB SPL
0.36 Pa
8 hours90 dBA90 dB SPL
0.63 Pa
82 dBA82 dB SPL
0.25 Pa
16 hours85 dBA85 dB SPL
0.36 Pa

Here’s a table with common sound pressure levels to get a better idea of how loud certain dB SPL values are:

dB SPLPascalSound Source Example
0 dB SPL0.00002 PaThreshold of hearing
10 dB SPL0.000063 PaLeaves rustling in the distance
20 dB SPL0.0002 PaBackground of a soundproof studio
30 dB SPL0.00063 PaQuiet bedroom at night
40 dB SPL0.002 PaQuiet library
50 dB SPL0.0063 PaAverage household with no talking
60 dB SPL0.02 PaNormal conversational level (1 meter distance)
70 dB SPL0.063 PaVacuum cleaner (1 meter distance)
80 dB SPL0.2 PaAverage city traffic
90 dB SPL0.63 PaTransport truck (10 meters)
100 dB SPL2 PaJackhammer
110 dB SPL6.3 PaThreshold of discomfort
120 dB SPL20 PaAmbulance siren
130 dB SPL63 PaJet engine taking off
140 dB SPL200 PaThreshold of pain

Related My New Microphone article:
Full Guide To Loudspeaker Sensitivity & Efficiency Ratings
• What Are Decibels? The Ultimate dB Guide For Audio & Sound

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Loudspeaker Impedance

What is speaker impedance? Speaker impedance, measured in ohms (Ω), is the electrical impedance (AC resistance) encountered by the audio signal (electrical AC) at the input of the speaker driver. Impedance affects the load a speaker places on an amplifier and is an important spec when matching speakers and amplifiers.

Speaker impedance is a significant specification when connecting passive speakers to power amplifiers. Impedance specs matter less with active speakers, which accept line level or even mic level signals.

A speaker with a lower impedance will require more power to achieve the same voltage (signal level) across its driver.

The power amplifier output driving the passive PA speaker should ideally have less than one-tenth the nominal impedance of the speaker input for proper signal transfer.

Amplifier output impedance specifications are generally given as “rated impedances,” which refer to the speaker impedance(s) the amp can drive properly. The real output impedance of a power amplifier is usually less than 0.1 Ω, but this is rarely specified.

Impedance is also critical when connecting multiple speakers to a power amplifier. Speakers can be connected in series or parallel.

Speakers connected in series are connected along a single conductive path. The same current flows through all of the speakers, but voltage is dropped across each of the speakers (due to the speaker’s impedance).

Wiring speakers in series requires connecting the positive output of the amp channel to the positive terminal of speaker A, and the negative terminal or speaker A to the positive terminal of speaker B (and so on for more speakers), before connecting the negative terminal of the last speaker to the negative terminal of the amp channel.

The combined impedance of the series speakers is as follows:

ZT = Z1 + Z2 + … + Zn

Two Loudspeakers Wired In Series

Speakers connected in parallel are connected along multiple paths so that the current is split up, but the same voltage is equal across each speaker.

Wiring speakers in series requires connecting the positive output of the amp channel to the positive terminal of speakers A, B, and so on. The negative terminals of the speakers are then connected to the negative terminal of the amplifier channel.

The combined impedance of the parallel speakers is as follows:

1 / ZT = (1 / Z1) + (1 / Z2) + … + (1 / Zn)

Two Loudspeakers Wired In Parallel

Related My New Microphone article:
The Complete Guide To Speaker Impedance (2Ω, 4Ω, 8Ω & More)

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Loudspeaker Frequency Response

What is speaker frequency response? Frequency response refers to the frequency-dependent sensitivity of the loudspeaker. In other words, how well the speaker will respond to and reproduce the frequencies of the incoming audio signal.

Frequency response specifications generally range from the lowest frequency the speaker can produce effectively to the highest frequency the speaker can produce effectively. The tolerance is often given as a plus/minus dB value (±3 dB, for example).

More accurate frequency response specifications are given on a performance graph, where frequencies (Hz) are along the x-axis, and relative output (dB) is along the y-axis. A response line is graphed to show the relative output across all frequencies of the loudspeaker’s response.

These graphs tell us the frequencies at which the speaker will be most and least sensitive and the regions where sensitivity rolls off completely.

In theory, producing the most accurate response possible would mean the frequency response graph is perfectly flat. No frequencies would be over or under-represented, and the speaker would reproduce audio perfectly.

However, as discussed, real-world acoustics must be considered since speakers produce sound waves in an acoustic environment.

The reflections and resonances of the room won’t alter the frequency response of the speakers themselves. Still, they will alter how we ultimately hear the sound from the speakers within the listening environment.

Furthermore, positioning the speakers close to the wall will increase the perceived bass. This is because bass frequencies are fairly omnidirectional (they propagate in all directions at once). A quick reflection off a close wall will effectively add volume to the bass frequencies of the incoming sound waves.

Bass frequencies are also tricky to tame acoustically due to their long wavelengths. The lower the bass frequencies, the longer the wavelength, and the larger the bass traps must be to absorb them. Furthermore, bass wavelengths will often match the distance between two parallel surfaces in a room (two walls, the floor and ceiling, etc.) and cause standing resonant waves.

Even in acoustically treated spaces, bass frequencies can be a nuisance.

For that reason, it may actually be a good thing to choose a smaller speaker with less sensitivity or capability in its low-end frequency response. Pushing this point further, speakers with adjustable high-pass filters may also be worth considering to help tune their bass response to your room.

If the bass ends up lacking, an additional subwoofer can be included to cover the low-end frequencies when needed for mixing.

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Loudspeaker Coverage Angle

What is speaker coverage angle? The coverage/dispersion specification refers to the directionality of the speaker’s sound output. The coverage spec is often given as an angle along the horizontal plane that cuts through the on-axis line of the speaker and another angle along the vertical plane that cuts through the on-axis line.

The coverage can be imagined as a 3-dimensional conical-shaped sound front emanating from the speaker. The coverage limits are often defined as a -6 dB drop from the on-axis (directly in front of the speaker) SPL.

Suppose we’re planning on projecting sound to an audience with our loudspeakers. In that case, we should note the speaker’s coverage angle(s) to help position them for optimal performance across as much space as possible.

To learn about all the specifications related to loudspeakers, check out my article The Full List: Loudspeaker & Monitor Specifications w/ Examples.

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Loudspeaker Enclosures

The enclosure type in the loudspeaker design will also affect its frequency response. These enclosures can be categorized as sealed or ported. This difference is more pronounced in instrument cabinets than most other speaker types.

Sealed Speaker Enclosures

Sealed enclosures, as their name suggests, are completely sealed off. Because the rear sound is completely trapped, sealed speakers are inherently inefficient and only produce half their potential in terms of output level.

That being said, sealed enclosures tend to offer a tighter, more accurate frequency response and a more direct sound, especially at the more directional mid and high frequencies. They’re also easier to design and often cost less.

Ported Speaker Enclosures

Ported enclosures, as their name suggests, are ported in the front and/or back. They allow sound to emanate from the front and/or the rear and are more efficient (louder) than their sealed counterparts.

The acoustic labyrinth design within a ported speaker largely depends on the speaker’s design requirements. However, nearly all ported designs extend the low-end frequency response, making these enclosure types more capable of producing bass.

Placing ported speakers close to a wall or surface can really affect the perceived sound and frequency response, as all frequencies are emitted to the rear of the speaker in addition to the front. Placement of ported speakers, then, becomes an even bigger deal than it is with sealed speakers.

Related My New Microphone article:
• Why Do Loudspeakers Need Enclosures?

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Number Of Loudspeakers

A common question to ask is, “how many loudspeakers do I need?”

The answer, of course, is “it depends on the results you want.”

For portable Bluetooth speakers and stereo soundbars, one unit is often enough.

Two speakers (and potentially a subwoofer) will be required for stereo playback to get the full experience. This is common for studio monitoring and home stereo systems.

Surround sound formats will need at least as many speakers (place appropriately) as there are channels. For example, 5.1 surround will need at least 5 full-range speakers and a subwoofer for a complete sound image.

The number of speakers in your car is largely dependent on the car’s design.

Installed speaker systems, which cover a wide area and/or several rooms, will require as many speakers as necessary to adequately cover the area.

When designing a mixing studio, perhaps you should consider multiple pairs of monitors. When setting up a live sound stage, foldback monitors are often required in addition to the front-of-house PA system.

When it comes to filling up a venue with an adequate amount of sound, the number of speakers will vary significantly.

Small rooms need less power, and the fewer people in the room, the less power is needed. Though far from standardized, I recommend the following loose power requirements for small rooms:

  • Under 500 square feet: 200 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 1,000 square feet: 800 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 2,000 square feet: 2,000 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 4,000 square feet: 4,000 Watts RMS or less

Speakers in larger setups are often set up in line arrays, which effectively stack several speakers together to output more sound at a wider coverage angle.

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Types Of Loudspeaker Working Principles

Loudspeakers are transducers that convert electrical energy (analog audio signals) into mechanical wave energy (sound waves). There are several methods by which this conversion is accomplished, which we’ll discuss in this section.

The different types of loudspeaker transducer principles include:

Electrodynamic Speaker Drivers

Electrodynamic speaker drivers are by far the most common in speaker design. They work on the principle of electromagnetic induction to convert audio into sound.

If you’re familiar with moving-coil dynamic microphones, electrodynamic speakers effectively use the same process, only in reverse.

Let’s begin our discussion with a cross-sectional diagram of the electrodynamic speaker driver:

Cross-Sectional Diagram Of A Dynamic Speaker Driver

The analog speaker level audio signal is passed through the speaker’s voice coil via two electrical leads. This voice coil is a tightly wound cylindrical coil of conductive wire (often copper) that sits within a circular cutaway in the driver’s magnetic structure.

This voice coil is connected to the speaker diaphragm, which is then connected to the suspension of the speaker driver (spider and surround). The driver should be designed in a way that allows for the movement of the voice coil along the z-axis (up and down within the cutaway) while restricting movement in the x and y axes.

Electromagnetic induction states that an electrical current through a conductor will produce a magnetic field. The alternating current (audio signal) through the voice coil causes an alternating magnetic field.

As the magnetic field of the voice coil varies according to the audio, the voice coil interacts with the permanent magnetic field of the driver’s magnets. Thanks to magnetic repulsion and attraction, this interaction causes the voice coil to oscillate in a way that mimics the audio signal waveform.

Since the voice coil is attached to the diaphragm, the diaphragm will also move with the voice coil.

The movement of the diaphragm pushes and pulls the air around it and produces increases and decreases in localized pressure. These pressure oscillations are propagated outward from the driver and are known as sound waves.

Electrodynamic drivers are relatively inexpensive to construct but are relatively poor at producing the entire range of audible frequencies. This is part of the reason why so many speakers have multiple drivers to cover an adequate frequency range.

Magnetostatic/Planar Magnetic Speaker Drivers

Magnetostatic/planar magnetic speaker drivers also work on electromagnetic principles.

While electromagnetic drivers have a voice coil attached to a cone-like diaphragm, the planar magnetic driver has a thin planar (often rectangular) diaphragm with an embedded conductive wire.

This wire is typically serpentine and passes through the majority of the diaphragm area. Consider the following illustration for a simplified idea of a planar magnetic speaker diaphragm:

Planar Magnetic Speaker Driver Diaphragm

As the AC audio signal passes through the conductive traces of the diaphragm, an alternating magnetic field is induced in and around the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is typically positioned between two magnetic arrays/structures, though some designs opt for a single magnetic structure. This can be envisioned in the following illustrations:

Planar Magnetic Speaker Driver With 2 Magnetic Arrays
Planar Magnetic Speaker Driver With 1 Magnetic Array

As the audio signal induces an alternating magnetic field in the diaphragm, it will be attracted/repulsed by the magnets around it, causing it to move.

The diaphragm is carefully connected to the housing around its perimeter and moves in a near-perfect planar bipolar manner (hence the name). There is little to no banding or wrinkling of the diaphragm except at its perimeter. This yields a very accurate response and low distortion.

Planar magnetic drivers are generally capable of extended frequency responses, though the low-end frequencies may be best produced by a separate subwoofer.

Ribbon Speaker Drivers

The ribbon speaker driver is yet another that works via electromagnetic principles.

If you’re familiar with ribbon microphones, ribbon speakers effectively use the same process, only in reverse.

Consider this simplified illustration of the ribbon speaker transducer:

In ribbon designs, the diaphragm (known as the ribbon) is the conductive element. Unlike the aforementioned driver types, there are no additional materials in the diaphragm (embedded conductive wire or attached coil).

The ribbon diaphragm is ideally corrugated to increase its transverse rigidity and reduce its resonant frequency. It also has a relatively low mass, which makes it easier to move and improves the accuracy of its movement.

The AC audio signal is applied across the diaphragm itself, and an alternating magnetic field is induced via electromagnetic induction.

In terms of amplification, the ribbon diaphragm generally requires less voltage and more current than traditional speaker drivers to keep the relatively fragile ribbon safe.

Many ribbon drivers have a step-down transformer (or an equivalent transformerless circuit) to drop the signal’s voltage while boosting the current.

The magnets are toward the sides of the diaphragm rather than to the front and rear and must be powerful to make up for the lower voltage and less-than-ideal positioning. Ribbon driver designs place the magnets very close to the diaphragm to improve magnetic flux and keep air from passing through the driver.

Ribbon diaphragms/drivers are cherished for their accuracy but are notorious for their low sensitivity/efficiency ratings and fragility. They are often used as tweeters and in conjunction with moving-coil drivers to produce the full range of audible frequencies in multi-way speaker design.

Electrostatic Speaker Drivers

The electrostatic loudspeaker transducer/driver is the first on this list not to use electromagnetic induction as its primary transducer principle. Rather, these drivers work on electrostatic principles.

If you’re familiar with condenser microphones, electrostatic speakers effectively use the same process, only in reverse.

The electrostatic speaker diaphragm is typically larger and thinner than other speaker diaphragms and is typically rectangular in shape. It is coated with a conductive material across its entire area.

The diaphragm must hold a positive electric charge for the speaker to work properly as a transducer. It is generally charged via a high-level DC biasing voltage or a strong electret material.

The electrostatic speaker diaphragm is sandwiched between two large perforated stator plates that act as a parallel-plate capacitor.

The stator plates and the diaphragm are electrically insulated from each other by using spars around the perimeter of the diaphragm and the plates.

The electrostatic speaker driver can be visualized in the following illustration:

Electrostatic Speaker Driver Illustration

To better visualize the electrostatic speaker driver/diaphragm, check out this simplified cross-sectional diagram:

Cross-Sectional Diagram Of An Electrostatic Speaker Driver

The audio signal is sent to the stator plates, which act as a sort of parallel-plate capacitor.

A specialized amplifier must crank up the voltage of the intended audio signal while knocking down the current. This is to properly charge the high-impedance “capacitor” that is the stator plates.

Once connected to an audio source, the stators, at any given time, will be equally but oppositely charged.

The positively charged diaphragm will be pulled toward one plate while being pushed by the other plate at any given instant. This causes the diaphragm to move back and forth and produce sound waves as it does so.

These sound waves mimic the audio signal and escape the driver through the perforated stator plates.

The diaphragm of the electrostatic transducer, like that of the planar magnetic driver design, moves in a bipolar fashion and produces little to no distortion.

These speakers can produce the entire range of audible frequencies though some are enhanced with a dynamic woofer/subwoofer to cover the sub-bass and bass frequencies.

Related My New Microphone article:
What Are Speaker Drivers? (How All Driver Types Work)

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Loudspeaker Crossovers & The Number Of Drivers

As we’ve touched on in this article, speakers often require multiple drivers to produce an adequate frequency response. Furthermore, additional subwoofers are often required to produce the low-end frequencies of the audio.

Before we get to each of the driver types, let’s quickly discuss crossovers.

Crossover networks split up the full-range audio signal into smaller frequency bands that each speaker driver can accurately produce. To do so, crossovers use filters. There are 3 types of filters that we’ll find in a speaker crossover network:

  • Low-pass filter: a low-pass filter (also known as a high-cut filter) allows the low frequencies to pass unfiltered while it filters out or “cuts” the high frequencies.
  • High-pass filter: a high-pass filter (also known as a low-cut filter) allows the high frequencies to pass unfiltered while it filters out or “cuts” the low frequencies.
  • Band-pass filter: a band-pass filter can be thought of as a combination of a LPF and HPF. It allows a particular band of frequencies to pass by filtering out frequencies above the high point of the band and the frequencies below the low point of the band.

Active crossover networks split line level signals into separate bands, with each band having its own amplifier.

Passive crossover networks act to split speaker level signals (which are already amplified) into separate bands.

Fortunately, most speakers have their own internal crossovers that are designed specifically for their drivers.

However, standalone crossovers also exist, which are often adjustable. These are more common in pro audio and large PA systems than in other audio applications.

Perhaps the most common crossover is the subwoofer crossover, which effectively splits an audio signal into two bands: the low-end, which is sent to the subwoofer, and the rest of the audio signal, which is sent to the other speakers in a system.

Speakers are typically constructed with multiple drivers. They are known as:

  • 2-way speakers: these speakers have 2 drivers (typically a woofer and tweeter) and rely on a 2-way crossover (lows and highs).
  • 3-way speakers: these speakers have 3 drivers (typically a woofer, mid-range speaker and tweeter) and rely on a 3-way crossover (lows, mids and highs).
  • 4-way speakers: these speakers have 4 drivers (often a woofer, mid-range speaker, tweeter and super-tweeter) and rely on a 4-way crossover (lows, mids/low-mids, highs/high-mids, highs/super-highs).

With that primer on crossovers, let’s consider the various driver types we’re likely to encounter when searching for our next loudspeakers:

Subwoofer Speaker Drivers

Subwoofers are a popular addition to audio systems and are designed to produce the lowest frequencies (typically from 20 Hz to 80, 100 or 200 Hz depending on the setup).

  • THX-approved system subwoofers: ≤20 Hz – 80 Hz
  • Professional-grade live sound subwoofers: ≤20 Hz ~ 100 Hz
  • Consumer-grade subwoofers: ≤20 Hz ~ 200 Hz

Subwoofers require a relatively large amount of power to produce their low-end sound frequencies. Low-end frequencies require slower speaker movement and greater speaker excursion. In addition, we naturally feel these low frequencies more than we hear them, and, therefore, the subwoofer must produce higher levels if we are to hear the low-end.

For powering reasons, many subwoofers are powered. This means they have their own dedicated built-in amplifier and crossover (essentially a low-pass filter).

Woofer Speaker Drivers

The woofer is the larger, bassier driver in a multi-driver speaker.

Woofers are often tasked with producing frequencies from 20 Hz – 2,000 Hz. Note that the midrange speaker driver may take some load off the woofer’s high-end frequency production. Similarly, a subwoofer may very well ease the production of the very low frequencies in a woofer.

Nonetheless, woofers are included in speaker design to produce the low-end and are typically joined by a tweeter (in 2-way speakers) or a tweeter and midrange driver (in 3-way speakers).

To produce the lowest frequencies, woofers need to be big. A woofer of 12-inch diameter or more is likely capable of reaching down to 20 Hz. This is why many subwoofers are generally larger.

Mid-range Speaker Drivers

The mid-range speaker (sometimes referred to as a squawker or mid-woofer, to keep with the animal noise theme) is responsible for producing the mid-range frequencies.

As the name suggests, mid-range drivers are designed to produce the mid-range of the frequency spectrum—the frequency response of mid-range speakers ranges, roughly speaker, within 150 Hz to 5 kHz.

Of course, different midrange drivers will have different frequency responses, and different speaker crossovers will send different frequency bands to these drivers. Therefore, it’s difficult to state any specific range with confidence.

Because mid-range speakers are tasked with producing the mids, we’ll generally only see them in 3-way or 4-way speakers. To produce the full range of audible frequencies, a speaker containing a midrange driver would also require a woofer to cover the low-end (which we’ll get to in a moment) and a tweeter to cover the high-end.

Tweeter Speaker Drivers

The tweeter is the smallest driver unit in a speaker design and is responsible for reproducing the highest range of frequencies. This range is often within 2 kHz to 20 kHz though some specialty tweeters can produce sound waves as high as 100 kHz.

Note that when super-tweeters are used in the speaker design, the tweeter will have a smaller band and not have to produce frequencies up to 20 kHz.

Remember that the audible range of human hearing is universally known as 20 Hz – 20 kHz.

The overwhelming majority of tweeters are 1-inch (25 mm) in diameter. These small-diameter lightweight tweeter drivers are capable of vibrating very quickly and reproducing treble frequencies with great detail.

Ribbon drivers are sometimes used for tweeters.

Super-tweeter Speaker Drivers

A super-tweeter is an additional driver that helps take some of the load off of the tweeter.

It is responsible for producing the highest frequencies of the audio signal and allows the tweeter to “focus” on producing a narrower band with greater precision.

Super-tweeters are generally found in 4-way speakers along with a tweeter, mid-range speaker and woofer. However, there are also cases where a super-tweeter is used in conjunction with a tweeter and woofer in a 3-way speaker.

Co-axial Speaker Drivers

Co-axial speakers (sometimes called full-range speakers) are speakers designed to produce the full range of audible frequencies.

Co-axial speakers, as the name suggests, have multiple drivers that share an axis of movement. Like the speakers mentioned above, the full-range speakers can be 2-way, 3-way or even 4-way. However, they share a single axis and are essentially designed on top of or within each other.

The woofer, midrange (if applicable), tweeter and super-tweeter (if applicable) are built into concentric circles.

Many automobile manufacturers use co-axial speakers since they are cheaper and easier to install.

Related My New Microphone article:
What Is A Speaker Crossover Network? (Active & Passive)
Differences Between Mid-Range Speakers, Tweeters & Woofers

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Common Loudspeaker Applications

Let’s consider a few common applications for loudspeakers and discuss what we should look for in each:

Critical Listening

Critical listening requires the most accurate speakers possible. This is typically the goal of studio monitors and HiFi speakers. Read into the speakers’ frequency response and understand the frequencies where the speakers may over-exaggerate or under-exaggerate the audio.

Note that speakers alone may not be enough for optimal listening. The acoustic environment will likely require treatment to reduce flutter echo and natural resonances to reach the speakers’ true potential for critical listening.

HiFi Listening

The high-fidelity audio market has plenty of speaker options. Hi-Fi speakers are generally set up in home listening environments, and the speaker styles include floorstanding, bookshelf, and installed speakers along with subwoofers.

Ensure you’re working within your budget (HiFi systems can get expensive), and opt for speakers that sound great to you. I highly suggest trying before you buy.

Live Sound Reinforcement & Public Addess

PA speakers are generally among the most rugged. After all, they generally live in live venues and “on the road.”

For small PA systems, active PA speakers are likely more convenient. Wireless connectivity may also be something you’re interested in.

For medium-to-large PA systems, it’s typically best to choose passive PA speakers and connect multiples in series and parallel formations to their dedicated power amplifiers.

Monitoring

Monitoring can mean several things.

If you’re monitoring recording and playback in a studio, you’ll want accurate studio monitors.

Foldback monitors for live performances need to be rugged, somewhat directional, and loud enough to be heard by the performer in question.

Monitoring sound from another acoustic space (as is the case with baby monitors, for example) doesn’t require a great deal of accuracy. It can be accomplished with a cheap single-driver speaker.

Car Audio

Car audio requires speakers. These speakers are often co-axial and subwoofer units, and it’s common for each speaker to have its own channel driven by the car’s power amplifier(s).

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Know The Additional Costs Of Loudspeaker Accessories

Loudspeaker Stands

Some speakers benefit from dedicated speaker stands, which effectively hold them in place and help mechanically isolate them from the environment. Stands are often adjustable, allowing users to select the ideal height for the speakers. They also work, to some degree, to mechanically isolate the speaker from the floor, thereby minimizing the transfer of mechanical vibrations to and from the speaker.

Loudspeaker Covers

A speaker cover is a protective jacket that goes over the speaker during transportation and storage to help keep the speaker from getting wet, scratched or otherwise damaged.

Speaker Cable

Speakers require speaker level signals. These signals require thicker gauge speaker cables to safely transfer them from a power amplifier output to the speaker input (if the speaker is wired).

The specific gauge of the speaker cable/wire is dependent on the intended speaker level signals. Use thicker gauge (lower number) cable for long wire runs, high power applications, and low-impedance speakers. Thinner gauge (higher number) cable is typically fine for short runs, low power applications and high-impedance speakers.

Consider the speaker cable connectors as well, ensuring the cable will connect to the speaker and amplifier properly.

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This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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