Audio equipment can be costly, meaning that people sometimes have to settle on one or more pieces of gear. Should you buy a high-end amplifier and settle on inexpensive speakers or purchase top-notch speakers and skimp on the amplifier?
Which is more important, speakers of amplifiers? Speakers and amplifiers are equally important for music playback. Speakers (even in headphones) are necessary transducers that convert audio signals into sound waves. Amplifiers are needed to boost phono, mic, instrument and line level signals up to speaker level to properly drive the speakers.
Whether you’re researching to help determine how to spend your budget or are interested in whether improving the amp or speakers will have the most benefit to a given sound system, this article is here to help you out.
Speakers Or Amplifiers: Which Is More Important?
Put simply, speakers and amplifiers are equally important.
Speakers are necessary as transducers. Their job is to convert the electrical audio signals into sound waves that we can enjoy. This is true of the largest subwoofers and the tiniest earphones.
High-quality speakers are typically designed to recreate the audio in the most accurate way possible (particularly with hi-fi speakers and studio monitors). Alternatively, they may be intended to colour the audio in a sonically-pleasing way (popular in hi-fi, bookshelf and home entertainment system speakers).
Related article: How Do Speakers Produce Sound? (A Helpful Beginner’s Guide).
Amplifiers are necessary to drive the speakers with sufficient audio signal levels. This is also true of the largest subwoofers to the tiniest earphones. Recorded audio is typically at line level and needs to be amplified significantly (often by 10-100x) to drive speakers properly. The impedance of such audio signals is also typically converted by amplifiers to better suit the speakers in question.
Microphone, instrument and phonograph (vinyl record player) signals are typically even lower in level than line level and require preamplification before reaching the [power] amplifier.
In short, without speakers, we wouldn’t ever hear the information contained in audio signals. Without amplifiers (including preamps, headphone amps, and, of course, power amps), we wouldn’t be able to drive the speakers to produce adequate sound.
Ideally, the speaker(s) in a system would be able to reproduce the audio with perfect clarity. Similarly, the amplifier should ideally amplify the audio signal without distortion. However, in the real world, there will be inaccuracies. Higher-end amplifiers and speaker are often better suited to amplify and reproduce audio, respectively, for an improved listening experience.
In addition to the paragraph above, the interaction between the amplifier and speakers will also affect how the audio is transferred and reproduced, further complicating matters.
That all being said, any audio signal could cause a speaker to react. So if I had to give an answer, I’d say that speakers are more important. That being said, my argument would be rather weak.
So rather than thinking about which is more important, we should be thinking about matching our amplifiers and speakers in the best manner to obtain the best results. For the seasoned enthusiast, finding the perfect set of speakers is as crucial as scoring a suitable amplifier to the tone and overall sound of the audio system.
As uncomplicated as it may seem, finding an amplifier that will perfectly complement your speakers can be a daunting task. Matching specifications for optimal compatibility is critical in ensuring the devices will deliver a superior quality performance without blowing the speakers or damaging the amplifier.
Although it is no secret that a speaker’s performance depends highly on the amplifier behind it, even the best amp won’t sound half as good if the speakers you use are of low quality. At the same time, a high-quality amplifier can potentially make a substandard speaker sound better.
While speakers of already exceptional quality may do the job, employing a suitable amplifier allows you to enjoy your favourite songs further. It offers features that will let you hear and identify even the most delicate yet exquisite details. Although the best speakers may already be enough to enhance your listening experience, adding an amplifier will undoubtedly enable you to enjoy every sound element at its finest.
Pairing Amplifiers & Speakers
To properly pair an amplifier and a passive loudspeaker, we must take into account the following specifications:
- Impedance: the power amplifier output (source) impedance must be multitudes lower than the loudspeaker input (load) impedance for optimal voltage bridging, damping factor and signal transfer.
- Power ratings: the power amplifier power rating must be rated to handle the expected loudspeaker power output ratings.
- Sensitivity: the sensitivity rating of the speaker must be high enough to obtain the desired perceived loudness without risking overloading the speaker with the amplifier.
It’s also critical that the number of output channels in the amplifier and the number of speakers is adequate for the playback format we want to achieve (mono, stereo, 2.1, surround sound, etc.).
I go into great detail on matching amplifiers and speakers in my article Why Do Speakers Need Amplifiers? (And How To Match Them).
It’s actually quite the science to pick out the optimal symbiotic combination of speakers and amplifiers. However, there are some instances where the choosing is done for us, particularly with active speakers, bringing us to our next point.
• What Is Amplifier Impedance? (Actual Vs. Rated Impedance)
• The Complete Guide To Speaker Impedance (2Ω, 4Ω, 8Ω & More)
• Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings
• Full Guide To Loudspeaker Sensitivity & Efficiency Ratings
A Note On Active Speakers
Active and powered speakers will have built-in amplifiers explicitly designed for the speaker drivers of the loudspeakers.
More technically, active speakers have built-in amplifiers and active crossover networks (if they are multi-way speakers). In contrast, powered speakers come in speaker sets with one speaker, often the subwoofer, having a multi-channel amp.
So then, when buying an active speaker or a set of powered speakers, you’re effectively purchasing a combination of an amplifier (or amplifiers) and a speaker (or speakers). If the units are of high quality, the speaker(s) and amplifier(s) should be perfectly matched to manufacturer specifications.
In these cases, it’s clear that amplifiers and speaker drivers are equally crucial to the unit’s overall performance as a whole.
To learn more about active, powered and passive speakers, check out my article What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?
The Issue Of Budgeting
As I alluded to in the introductory paragraphs, the question “which is more important, speakers of amplifiers?” may very well be brought forth by budgeting restrictions. So then, on a limited budget, should you buy an amplifier or speakers?
My advice on this matter is to buy both an amplifier and speakers and to split the budget 50/50 to 75/25 between the amp and speakers, respectively.
Active speakers can save you money, whether they’re active PA speakers, studio monitors or combo-style instrument amplifiers.
If you’re buying standalone passive speakers and an amplifier, try to follow the budget split while taking advice from my article mentioned above Why Do Speakers Need Amplifiers? (And How To Match Them).
Other Factors That Affect Listening Experience
Other noteworthy factors, besides the amplifier(s) and speaker(s), that affect the overall listening experience are as follows:
- Acoustics of the listening environment: poor room acoustics will negatively impact even the best speaker/amplifier combination. Proper acoustic treatment is crucial for an optimal listening environment.
- Listener position: similar to room acoustics, the position of the listener will play a role in the listening experience. Try to position yourself optimally near the centre of the speaker array.
- Ambient noise: ambient noise, whether it’s from the construction and traffic outdoors, power mains hum, HVAC, refrigeration, or other people and animals will have negative consequences on the listening experience.
- Audio source material: the quality of the recording will affect the listening experience. An old warped record or worn out tape will not sound as good as mint condition copies. Similarly, in the digital realm, a low-res mp3 or streamed audio will not be a pristine as FLAC.
- Cables: though there’s a lot of snake oil on the cable market, the resistance, capacitance and inductance of the audio cables will play an objective role in audio quality.
Do amplifiers improve sound quality? Amplifiers ideally amplify audio signals linearly and, therefore, do not technically improve or worsen sound quality. However, less-than-ideal amplifiers, amp settings and amplifier-speaker combinations may worsen sound quality. Amps are nevertheless needed to drive speakers and headphones properly.
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.