How important are speakers?

January 20, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

Everyone one of us has them. Even if they’re the small and sitting atop your head. Without speakers, everything else is useless for making sound.

But I suppose one could make the same argument about sources or AC power. With nothing to pass through loudspeakers, or clean AC to power them, speakers would be little more than collectors of dust motes.

I cannot think of a home fixture with greater personality. Small, medium, big. Beautiful, whacky, obtrusive. Musical, blaring, God awful. In your car, ear, and living room. Honky, boomy, perfect. Low cost, high cost, absurd cost.

Speaker performance is all over the map. None are accurate. Some come close. All are noticeably flawed. There are seemingly endless varieties of loudspeakers built to match our needs and pleasure our senses.

It is continually fascinating how far their cry from perfection is and how deep our love affair with them is. Blemishes and all.

The next time you look at the pair of boxes occupying precious floor space in your home, consider how important they are in your life.

Something most of us cannot live without.

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32 comments on “How important are speakers?”

  1. Isn’t it funny that nobody cares about correct positioning of a pair of stereo loudspeakers than audiophile aficionados? Think of integrated speakers in TV screens, speakers in restaurants, clubs, malls, etc.. Not to mention earphones and headphones being much nearer to the goal of perfection. I expect that wireless headphones with smart DSPs will soon offer bigger improvements for a holographic sound image adding functions as out-of-head localisation and individual HRTF filters.

  2. Paul.
    How far along are you in finishing Arnie’s speaker line?
    Am excited that PS Audio will offer an affordable high-quality line of accurate-sounding loudspeakers. Thank you so much, Paul. You have been, and always will be one of my heros

    1. Pretty far along. Before Arnie passed we had sketched out a line of three models of loudspeaker which potentially would retail for $20K, $10K, and $6k. We needed still a new midrange driver and once that was settled we were going to get down to work. That’s yet to be settled and we’re working on it.

      We just went to his home and retrieved his “IRS Killers” reference system and will be setting it back up in a new listening room as the reference from which we will work to create the models and voice them. Lots more work to do and I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything other than a few prototypes on public display this year.

  3. A long time ago I asked myself: Why the manufacturers of speakers have imposed their criterion that has had the approval of the rest of the audio community, including the manufacturers of the electronic portion of the industry, when manufacturing their products using passive Xovers?

    When the solution, not only technical but rational, is in the use of active Xovers, that when delivering only a part of the spectrum, they do not make necessary the use of amplifiers of great power, increasing like this, the efficiency of the system.

    It seems that the Professional Audio industry is more pragmatic, when using multi-amplification, that of course, since their objectives are completely different, they can not use better quality drivers.

    1. Spot on. I’ve listened through Linkwitz Orion for past 10 years and would not trade. They use an active 3-way analogue crossover so one amp channel per driver. A modest 40 – 60 watts per driver is more than adequate to drive simple loads.

      1. If you read my comments yesterday, you can have an idea of ​​my installation Using analog active Xovers, I use for each channel: 2 amplifiers of 60w, one for the mid-bass and another for the treble, and 1 amplifier of 110w / 4 Ohm for each of the 2 woofer (2 Amps in total for the low frequencies), I use as a reference a unit gain for the latter, and adjusting in the Xover the gain for the mid-bass and the tweeter in order to get the correct tonal balance of the system.

        The 2 woofer have their own cabinet calculated with their TS parameters. The mid-bas and tweeter are in another enclosure to avoid the vibration and coloration that the bass can cause, and it is also aligned with respect to time. The F-3dB of this last enclosure is 55 Hz. And Xover cuts the bass at 60Hz.

        The sound room is neither so alive nor so dead. I also use line conditioners for the AC connection.

        I’m thinking of the DSPs suggested by acuvox for more flexibility.

        1. MiniDSP are inexpensive to buy and many are going this route. I’m too clueless to attempt the learning curve. Curious given yesterday’s topic and todays if PS Audio is going the route of active XO for new speaker line. Not feeling it.

    2. I agree with the concept of active crossovers. I researched into them a while back. What I found was two camps of folks. One just buying speakers with active, fixed crossovers. Basically, buying a speaker like any other speaker. The other group is a radical bunch that want control of every aspect….meaning crossover points, room correction, etc. I found that level of involvement went deeper and deeper the more I read. Many were hacking into speakers, removing their passive crossover modules with the belief they can improve on what the speaker designer voiced. I agree with it if it’s part of the original speaker design. It’s a precarious rabbit hole, however.

      1. I do not share the idea of replacing the existing passive Xover in a speaker that has been designed in this way, sometimes to make up for the deficiencies of the drivers and the annoying resonances of the enclosure.

        Maybe they can be replaced with DPS, by those who have experience with these devices.

    3. “they can not use better quality drivers.”

      You are out of touch. Professional speakers use drivers that literally kill “high end” drivers for dynamic range and they can beat them for distortion as well. It is easier to find a pro midrange and woofer with low inductance motors than the suppliers to home speakers.

      If the frequency response curves don’t look so good, it is because pro driver companies DON’T LIE by smoothing, or optimize the total design by leaving an easy crossover correction for the resonances. With the shift to Neo magnets, pro drivers now cost more than many storied home drivers and they are worth it.

      I hardly bother looking in the Madisound or similar catalogs, and on Parts Express I go straight to the “Pro Audio” section.

      1. The professional speakers that I’ve heard, those that have the midrange and the tweeters based on horns with compression drivers, sound metallic on string instruments, which sound unnatural to my ear. To this type of speakers, are the ones that I referred to.

  4. Maybe things are different here in the UK. Certain speaker manufacturers are held in high regard and have dominated the market for decades with consistently good products. The preference is towards small rather than large, I think that is the case throughout most of Europe, because of the size and cost of property. A few new products turn up from time to time, often not to be seen again.
    With regard to AC power, it seems that the vast majority of people just plug into the wall and don’t give it a second thought. It very rarely gets discussed and hardly any dealers sell power products. There was one recent thread on power conditioners and generally there was complete antipathy towards them. In my slimline audio world, my P3 is the only item I have failed to sell, I’ve not got one offer.
    There seems to be widespread international agreement that speakers are the the most critical item in any system, but there is little agreement as to the relative importance of sources, amplification and whether things like power or cables matter at all.

    1. I agree that clean power (like room treatment) is almost always ignored. I guess it’s just not a “jazzy” thing to buy. The thing about power is that it’s the one thing that all components require and benefit from. Cleaning up power was one of the biggest improvements I made to my system. It’s a equal weight component in my system, not an assessory.

      1. Interesting in British culture the priority placed on the finer things in life such as fashion, high-end clothing, performance automobiles, entertainment, exquisite liquors, wine & champagne, quality cheese, meats and seafood, but as it applies to audio appears to be the land of the integrated amplifier and bookshelf stand mounters due, as you’ve stated, to relatively small living spaces which influence designs from the great speaker engineering companies in Britain, Denmark, and a couple from France, Italy and Switzerland to build high performance compact monitors.

        1. I’ve made the point before that if you live in a major town in the the UK the real estate cost of a music room is likely to far exceed the cost of any high-end system. I’ve never actually known anyone with a dedicated music room.

          I had to get a new coffee grinder today. In the research process, to which I devoted an entire 45 minutes, I found there is a coffee machine culture no less devoted and extreme as audiophilia. Proof here: https://flic.kr/p/DZnLFa I found the product I wanted and then discovered it was not available till June. The reason, and the point being, it was crowdfunded with a target of $150,000 and raised $300,000 in 4 days. Many units also pre-sold with an earlybird discount globally. Could you imagine trying to do that with a new audio company or component? The UK audiophile market is so small and distribution so difficult that it is not surprising that you hardly ever hear of new companies setting up, and I suspect much of Europe is the same. The USA may be completely different. Add to that the general consensus that audio quality hasn’t moved on much in 30 years, so it is no surprise that in smaller markets like the UK the same manufacturers persist as the market leaders for decades.

          Moreover, as housing costs are so high, people have far less disposable income, hence the prevalence of high quality budget integrated products like Cambridge Audio, Rega, etc.

  5. What I find very cool about speakers is the wide variety of designs, and I don’t mean just shape. One design I would really like to try is open baffle. Walter’s Emerald Physics room sounds really good, every time. I would like to try them out with my front end, but they have an active crossover and require 3 stereo amplifiers for the 3-way speaker designs. It’s too radical a departure for experimentation. The open baffle brand peaking my interest is Spacial Audio: http://www.spatialaudio.us. I hope to give those a listen at an upcoming show.

    Another appealing aspect of the Spacial Audio speakers is their high sensitivity. I have always had anywhere from medium to hard to drive speakers. I would like to have a pair of high sensitivity, easy to drive speakers for a change. What aspect(s) of the speaker design that lead to different sensitivity is a bit of a mystery to me.

    Paul, maybe a future post explaining what makes a speaker have different sensitivity…and ohm rating while we are at it.

  6. Paul wrote: “I cannot think of a home fixture with greater personality. Small, medium, big. Beautiful, whacky, obtrusive.”
    Well, when I was a younger man I used to park my motorcycle in the dining room during the winter. It had far more personality. It was far bigger, more beautiful, wacky and obtrusive than any speakers I had at the time. Today, the speakers reign and the motorcycle is in the garage. So much for growing up.

    1. : (. Getting old sucks. At least in some ways.

      If you have a small spare room, you should put the bike in it, and mount some good two-ways on the handlebars, with a sub underneath. The ultimate one-seat, whacky and obtrusive system ; )

  7. At one point I thought about the question what is the best thing a pair of stereo speakers could do when you can’t recreate the acoustic space of a large performance? I thought about it for awhile and concluded that they could potentially reproduce the sound of musical instruments as they’d be heard performing in you room. This is what I call the “they are here” problem. It will rely almost exclusively on the acoustics of the room it is in. I studied how musical instruments make sound. They are all different. But there is one thing practically all of them have in common and that is they direct very little of their sound energy at the listener. Most of it is directed elsewhere so that even in a small room practically all of what you her from it is due to reflections within the room. Acivox’s solution recognizes this and creates a surrogate for each source. But that is not practical using commercial recordings and so I had to settle for a compromise.

    Hi FI speakers don’t do this. They aim most of their sound directly at the listener. The greatest failing of virtually all loudspeakers is that they direct far too much sound at high frequencies directly at the listener although they blow it at all other frequencies too. And so my first efforts were aimed at improving high frequency dispersion….drastically. Instead of engineering a speaker systems from scratch I re-engineered speakers I already had. and I got very good results improving every one of them I tried it with. Ultimately I took on “the beast,” the Bose 901. It directed almost all of its energy away from the listener. But its frequency response was crap. No deep bass unless it was played very loud, a huge hump in the upper bass, and nothing in the top octave. Is it any wonder audiophiles didn’t like them? But a lot of other people did, not for what it lacked but in spite of it. So I set out to see if I could re-engineer it. The first two problems were just a matter of re-equalization. The third problem was much harder. The first not too serious attempt in the 1990s failed. The second try was much more serious taking from 2004 to 2008. A complimentary array of tweeters were created to extend and flatten the frequency response of both the direct and reflected sound. The radiated reflecting to direct sound of the 901 is 89%. The tweeter array is over 95%. Not only that the FR of the indirect array is equalized differently from the single direct tweeter. That array has a boost with increasing frequency to compensate for the absorption of high frequencies in the room before it reaches the listener. The goal was to get the sound field that reaches the listener flat both from the direct and reflected sound. And it worked.

    Each system has to be adjusted for its overall FR and then again for each recording as they are all different. Separate equalizers are used for each function. Hard to believe but this setup is the best of its type I’ve heard.

    1. There have been numerous variations of omni-directional speakers over the years. I’m not sure why you feel the reflected sound has to be equal in amplitude with the directly radiated sound.
      Perhaps because that’s the way you perceive it to be in symphony halls?

  8. The best thing I ever did when it comes to speakers, was changing to transmission line design. Smaller speakers, more bass and easier to position. Going from a traditional rear ported speaker to a transmission line speaker made the biggest jump in SQ I’ve ever had. I guess I finally found a good match for my room.

  9. My latest (and excellent) experimentation is with Audience 1+1V2 speakers. Full range.. crossover-less. Their main weakness is the lower bass. They disappear, and the sound appears to be coming from behind them. I enjoy nearfield, so lots of volume is not needed…. If I can only lick the bottom end situation perfectly I may have found the ideal nearfield speaker. I am presently using bass enhancement that uses linear dynamic EQ. Its not regular EQ, and its sounds very good…. Next possible move? To see what happens with a REL Tzero sub.

    There have been other speakers that have sounded very good. Both reflex, and acoustic suspension having first order crossovers. Always needing bass boost in my nearfield situation. Phase coherency is what “real” sounding is all about.

    1. Hi Gene, you’ve shared photos of your nearfield rig in the past. Let us know how the small sub works for you in the nearfield if you get around to trying one. I’d be interested in hearing how it works out for you.

      1. Thanks Longplayer…..

        I might take a bit of time to move on this one. But, then again? Maybe next week. Things can happen that way. 😉 I hope if it goes as I imagine it might, that the bass will simply sound like its coming from the speakers and will not overwhelm the walls to cause a neighbor problem.

          1. Longgy…. 😉 I am the one who is curious here. Feel free to join in.

            I noticed that REL’s cable hook up is offered from different companies as well. I am a stickler for litz wire in my system, so I am taking my time about this possible change. Litz and standard stranded cables are two different effects on the sound.

            1. Never got that deep into cable construction. One might surmise that at such low frequencies, it would not make a difference…then, maybe it would make even more of a difference. Keep us enlightened if you do a comparison, Gene.

  10. To Paul’s initial point , my speakers ( B&W 802D’s ) are part of my family.

    My two little overweight R2D2 wannabes that brighten my life with their every sound. They share my ( musical ) feelings and are well fed ( by my amp ) and very well cared for. They take a very prominent position in my home with their system relatives. And the benefit of being single is I can put them where I want in lieu of a lamp or planter as most significant others would prefer sight over sound.

    And in closing and sharing always remember my phrase, ” Freedom of speech includes volume ! ” in your own home . ( Or , ” I am the master of my own remote control. ” )

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