What's a Speaker? And What's a Driver?

Written by Bill Leebens

You know how annoying it is when you’re surrounded by a group of surgeons or securities traders or physicists or whatEVer and you realize that their conversation is filled with absolutely impenetrable jargon that you just cannot possibly understand? How embarrassing it is to hear mention of “cholecystectomy” and not realize it means “we yanked out the gall bladder”?

The shoe was on the other foot recently as I discussed some audio nuts and bolts with, well, laymen. Normal people. People who want to play music in their house without having the process dominate their existence, or having the gear take over their home sweet home. Y’know, people who aren’t like us?

Anyway: when I was responding to their questions about a certain popular speaker system, I used the term “driver”.

“Wait—what’s a driver?”one of the normal people asked.

“It’s what you call the individual sound-producing elements in a speaker system,” I said, thinking that would be that.

“But isn’t that a speaker?” came back at me.

“Well, yeah. But we“—I said pompously—” think in terms of a speaker as a system. Those ELACs we were talking about have two drivers, two separate sound-producing elements. We generally use ‘speaker’ to refer to a system in a box, an enclosure. The individual thingies that each produce a segment of the frequency range are the ‘drivers’.”

“Okay. Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why does there have to be more than one thingie?”

“Ah. Well, there isn’t always. There are some types of speakers that use what they call ‘full-range’ drivers that try to reproduce everything from the lowest notes to the highest notes, all from the same, uh, thingie. But they’re not really full range. The problem is that if a driver is big enough to reproduce really low bass notes, it won’t be able to move fast enough to reproduce the really high treble notes. That’s why most speakers have a bigger thingie that does the bass notes, the woofer, and the smaller driver that does the high notes. That’s the tweeter. You can understand why they have those names, right?”

“Yeah, sure.  But why ‘speaker’? That’s kind of a stupid name, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so. It’s really shorthand for ‘loudspeaker’, which is the formal name. But the guy who kinda invented modern speakers, Peter Jensen, was trying to create something that would be used with telephone communications, and ‘way back in 1915 he called his invention a ‘loud speaking telephone’. He said ‘the term “loudspeaker” was not used or known at the time. Everyone would have assumed the word described a person. I am not personally responsible for the word “loudspeaker” which I think is an ugly-sounding word.’

“A lot of important development in speakers was done by Western Electric, which was the hardware arm of Bell Labs, and helped develop phone systems all over the world. Weirdly, Western Electric used that term ‘loud speaking telephone’ to describe their speaker systems even up into the ’50s. And they made speaker systems that were used in theaters, radio stations and recording studios all over the world. It’s funny how some old-fashioned terms just stay around, long after the original meaning is lost.

“So: it’s still ‘speaker’, short for ‘loud speaking telephone’.”

A rare Western Electric 596, used as a tweeter on some theater systems. Note the label: “loud speaking telephone”.

“Yeah, that is weird. But I guess it’s no weirder than ‘dashboard’ or ‘glovebox’. Those don’t make much sense any more.”

“Yup. But now let’s talk about where ‘tonearm’ came from….”

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