Little speakers and big rooms

July 19, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

There seems a common misconception that big rooms need big speakers.

The truth can be very different.

Aesthetically there’s no doubt a small pair of stand-mounted bookshelf speakers may not fit a large room’s vibe, but from a sonic standpoint, it really shouldn’t matter.

The size of woofer and box determines the speaker’s low end, not how loudly it plays in a room.

A 6.5″ woofer married to a 1″ tweeter in a small box plays at about the same loudness as the same driver complement in a floor-standing enclosure. The floor stander has more internal volume from which the woofer can relax more and go deeper, but chances are good it won’t play any louder.

One benefit of a bigger box is room for more drivers. It’s much easier to build a 3-way or 4-way speaker when you have the available real estate.

And its shape and size may be more aesthetically pleasing in a large room.

If you’re not too concerned with the look, then a small speaker in a big room works just fine.

(And there’s always the possibility of sneaking a couple of subwoofers in the room to augment the smaller woofer)

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59 comments on “Little speakers and big rooms”

  1. In general small(er) two way standmounters have an SPL of between 84 – 89 dB/W/m.
    Rare exceptions are loudspeaker companies like ‘Tekton’, & I have it on good authority
    that Klipsch cheat with their SPL claims; if Klipsch state an SPL of 95dB/W/m from one
    of their 2-way standmounters (RP-600M), you can bet your bottom dollar that
    independent testing will show an actual SPL of 89dB/W/m.
    However, large floorstanders generally measure at between 88dB/W/m to 94 dB/W/m,
    so I don’t agree with Paul that standmounters will go just as loud as floorstanders.

    I had 3-way floorstanders (12″ woofers with an SPL of 90dB/W/m) in my 18′ x 13′ x 8.5′
    listening room, then I auditioned a pair of 2-way, high quality, standmounters
    (5″ mid/bass with an SPL of 88dB/W/m) & even after adding a pair of 10″
    powered subs, augmenting the shoeboxes, they still couldn’t ‘cut it’.

    So, now I’m back to a pair of floorstanding 3-ways (91dB/W/m)
    with dual 6.5″ woofers in each box, still in the same 18′ x 13′ x 8.5′
    listening room.

    Suffice to say, lesson learned.
    *Note: I generally listen to Rock ‘n Roll at between 90 – 102dB.

    **Happy ‘Freedom Day’ to all you Pommy bastards**

    1. Freedom Day is a bit of a political stunt.

      We have a high vaccination rate (88% one dose, 69% two doses – the US by comparison is 57% and 49%). So whilst the positive test rate is climbing, there is little serious illness, let alone deaths. 2 days ago we had the same number of positive tests as Indonesia, but we had 41 deaths and Indonesia had 1,092.

      What that shows is that to a large extent vaccination works, even with the D variant. With the mortality rate similar to flu, people start treating it like flu.

      We have track and trace operated by the NHS (National Health Service), you download an app and if it pings you have to self-isolate for 10 days. There were 500,000 pings on Friday, 1% of the population. This is causing real problems for business, especially supermarkets, and a major car manufacturer. Most people, and business, are not happy with it, especially with over 300,000 people at Silverstone for the GP last weekend.

      Mask wearing and hand sanitising for many people is now a habit and even though voluntary from today, most people are likely to continue for a while yet.

      1. Here, about 3% have had both jabs &12% have had one.
        Sydney is 3 weeks into a complete lockdown, even construction
        workers & tradesman, until July 31st, with 105 +ve cases.
        Current daily testing is at about 40k – 50k patients.
        Nationally, since early March 2020, only 959 CoViD deaths
        …4 deaths in the last 3 weeks.
        Now (this week) the ‘Pfizer’ vaccine is starting to arrive in lots of a
        million at a time, so we should be up around 80% fully vaccinated
        (double jabbed) by late February 2021, by my calculations.
        We’ve had a lot of ‘Astra Zeneca’ here over the last 5 months,
        however the population got spooked by the small number of
        resulting fatal blood-clot illnesses.

        Hopefully full steam ahead from here on.

      2. Your US numbers are a little off of what is reported here by the national broadcast news feeds, but it is true that we are a nation of two populations: vaccinated ( ~2/3 ) and unvaccinated ( ~1/3 ). The real problem here is that most of the unvaccinated want to be unvaccinated ( which boggles my mind being a man of science ). The delta variant is ravaging the unvaccinated population and there are breakthroughs ( as they are called ) into the vaccinated population. Some nights it is very hard to listen to the evening news

        1. I compared US and UK as both have effectively had the same largely unlimited access to vaccine from the get go. The 30% double dose difference is without doubt a matter of choice. There were some small ethnic groups in the UK that were also badly hit by Delta, generally unvaccinated elderly people, I think mostly of Indian origin and got it from relatives returning from India.

          For the first time ever I’ve not got a valid passport and I’m in no rush, even though I can do it online. Do I need one to get into Scotland next week? Time will tell.

      3. I’d agree with this assessment of the situation.

        The government is expecting people to take responsibility for themselves and hoping they are going to be sensible but, are people sensible, even when it concerns their own health?

        It’s worth remembering that whilst mortality rates are now similar to flu, in some cases the long term effects of Covid can be much worse.

        I sincerely hope people will continue to sanitise and wear masks but feel that given the choice, some will and some won’t. (Head shaking from side to side emoji, quite a complicated one that).

      4. One of the burdens the unvaccinated put on us vaccinated is that the hospitals are clogged with COVID patients, making it more difficult for people with other illnesses to get hospital rooms. I was in ER two weeks ago for cellulitis in my leg which required overnight hospital stay, IV antibiotics and observation. There were no hospital rooms available, so after six hours in a makeshift hold area they finally transported me to another hospital. The cellulitis turned out, thankfully, to be not life threatening, but what about those unfortunate with more critical conditions? These people who won’t get vaccinated just don’t get it.

          1. Great for Rock ‘n Roll.
            Peerless – ‘Tymphany’ drivers; all 4.
            Very good crossover…quality polycaps.
            I’m happy with their ability for what I paid.
            I’m not fussed about looks; I went with
            the basic black (poverty-pack) vinyl wrap.

    2. Good morning FR!
      I agree with you as well.
      Smaller speakers don’t work too well for me in a large room either.
      I yoost to live in a 6 story house.
      My living room was about 36 by 24 square feet.
      I had a pare of Polk Audio book shelf speakers that were a 2-way design, with 8 inch woofers in them.
      Long story short, I nearly fried the voice coils out of those speakers by trying to get my system to fill the room up with sound.
      The crazy thing about this, is the speakers were specked out at delivering 105DB.
      But I only got 88.5DB out of them.
      I had to upgrade to a pare of floor standing speakers in order to get the kind of volume I wanted in that room without stress and or distortion.
      Smaller speakers are very bad for that.
      Especially if they’re being pushed too hard.

      1. JP,
        I’m guessing that small loudspeakers are ok in a large room if you’re listening to Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Katie Melua or Brooke Miller but definitely not for Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath or any modern day EDM.

        1. They don’t work too well with Van Hellen Lover Boy You Too and Depth Leporid either.
          And my speakers nearly blew up when I cranked up Sweet Child Of Mine by Guns And Roses.

            1. Good afternoon Wutziz!
              His actual given name, is Eddy Van Hellen.
              God rest him, he was a renown guitar player in his hay day.
              He left a lot of good records behind.
              The one that I love most, is Why Can’t This Be Love.
              Look it up on You Tube!

              1. I was just poking a little fun since you looked like you were being facetious with Van Hellen, You Too, and my favorite “Depth Leporid” that just made me chuckle again. I’ve been a core Van Halen fan of the original Roth era since 1979 and a lot of popular hard rock from that era and I was appreciating what I hope was an exhibition of a sense of humor with the adjusted band names you mentioned. Thanks again for making me smile.

                1. You’re welcom Wutziz!
                  I didn’t know Van Hellen was out in 1979.
                  I didn’t get wend of him until 1983.
                  But this was when he teamed up with Mikal Jackson to do a ditty that’s called Beat It.
                  But however, I grew up listening to rock bands like Heart Journey Kiss and Yes and a little of Boston just to name a few.
                  The other ones, I listened to them in between 1983 and 1989.
                  I also yoost to listen to ACDC and White Snake.
                  Poisson was in there too.

    3. hey there Lardy Rat, fanks for the “freedom day wishes”…..and mate its a big Cadbury’s Flake to assume that Smiffy can wear the Leslies in the cricket this year! the Kettle and Hob is counting down to us Poms crossing the Housemaids Knee to kick your aussie Khyber Passes in the Currant Bun at Brisbane in December ……in-fact I would put an Alan Whicker a Deepsea Diver or even a Monkey on it!

      did you get that Jeff Beck (truth) SACD yet?

      1. RAM,
        I resemble that remark!
        I’m loving the Cockney slang…or are you just really drunk?
        Pubs are open again & Mark is legless 😉
        I don’t do SACD’s…sorry mate…too posh for me.
        Brisbane…’The Gabba’…the way that you
        Pommies drop the ball, it’ll be no contest.

  2. The old question, does size matter? And the equally old response, depends what you do with it.

    There are two speaker brands, one of which I’m looking at (Raidho) and the other I used to own (PMC) that both use 6.5″ bass drivers. These are not compromise speakers, the Raidho D5.1 costs $225,000 and the PMC Fenestria £75,000, which is north of $100,000.

    They are tall and slim, so need small drivers for aesthetic reasons. They both feature very high quality wood finishes. Peter Thomas designed the PMC Fact range of speakers to be wife-friendly. They were rather pretty and my wife was very unhappy to see them replaced by Harbeth. They were probably not as good as the range that they replaced, but the older ones were conventionally ugly. The Fact range has been very successful. All PMC have bass enhanced by a transmission line.

    I don’t know about the Raidho diamond bass unit, my speakers don’t have them, but the PMC 6.5″ unit is a state of the art piston driver that will knock your socks off. The 10″ version was first installed in Capitol Studios in LA and apparently went to 132dB, but they limited it to 116dB. It’s not like PMC don’t know bass, their 12″ Radial driver has been an industry standard for 30 years (it was designed for the BBC and was the core of their studio units and their SE consumer range). It is visceral and after a while it gives me palpitations.

    I think the art of all this, exemplified by these two speakers, is the ability to make a big speaker that does not look big. That seems to require innovative driver technology and plenty of cash. The good news is that the wife is unlikely to complain.

    1. I could say that if you manage to remove a reason for partner
      complaint then generally they will find another reason to grumble.
      I could say that: But I wont.

      Happy wife; happy life 🙂

      1. My turntable is large (high mass) and if I could replace it with a P10 I would, but it has very little resale value, it works very well and has the benefit of two arms. My wife likes it and wanted it in the open, so I ordered a unit just big enough for it to sit on top. She then complains the unit is too deep. So you are absolutely correct.

        I now have the counter-argument that a P10 would have to be wall-mounted and that would mean putting holes in the new wallpaper.

  3. Have a pair of Sonus Farber Minima Amator IIs a small bookshelf. The low frequency reproduction is beyond belief. It took proper room placement to get there.
    My musical library has 6 CDs out of 300 that actually go below 40hz, a couple of sound tracks and a couple of Keiko Matsui.
    So, don’t watch TV, don’t watch movies, don’t need Sub.. One less frustration to deal with. 🙂

  4. For what its worth, it has been my experience that while you can get good sound using smaller speakers and subwoofers in a big room you get better sound in a big room with bigger speakers.

    What is the biggest problem with big speakers? Cost!

    Something like five years ago John Atkinson from Stereophile said that the sweet spot for big speakers ( meaning the most bang for the buck ) was around $50K. You can buy an above average automobile for that much. As Steven commented earlier if you want really good big speakers your looking at $100K +. And as I commented a few days ago the flagship models of both Wilson Audio and Magico cost ~$800K which is more than the majority of houses in the US cost.

    I have to admit that it is becoming harder and harder to use my stereo system as an escape mechanism to cope with the horrible state of the world and the US. Thinking about big speakers versus little speakers just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

  5. Prompted by Steven’s post at 2.34am a couple of thoughts that I have gathered over the years and not seen mentioned here. I’d consider them as facts but they could be myths.

    Smaller drivers generally have a lower mass, certainly less air resistance, so are therefore faster, more agile and responsive which brings improved reproduction.

    Narrow baffle speakers image better. I found this to be true but then the speakers that ‘proved’ this to me, Audio Physic Virgo, were generally better speakers than the ones they replaced, TDL Studio 3, which also incidentally used a transmission line.

  6. Measuring 40,5 inches high, 6,1 wide, 15 deep, in my world the PMC Fact 8 is by no means a small speaker.
    Slim, but not really small.
    For me, small AND at the same time very high end speakers are TAD ME-1, Magico A1 and Boenicke W5.
    In the nearby future I like to compare these speakers at a dealer who has these 3 brands.

    1. Boenicke W5’s are an amazing concept loudspeaker;
      nearly on par with Harbeths when it comes to SQ.
      I haven’t listened to the other two.

    2. For a floor stander, you can’t really do smaller than the Fact.8, as the tweeter has to be around ear level. The smaller Fact.5 was unpopular because it looks top-heavy and pretty ugly on a stand.

      1. “For a floor stander, you can’t really do smaller than the Fact.8”
        You think ?
        Well, a Boenicke W8, absolutely a floorstander, not a bookshelf, is a lot smaller.
        Totally different sound also.
        I listened in the past to some PMC speakers (the twenty5 line), but so far I didn’t have the chance to listen to the Fact8/Fact12.
        Maybe it’s a good idea to put that on my bucket list.

  7. Always nice to have some doomsayers around. That breed of people will never die out.
    Why bother the rest of us with your personal doom and gloom on this site.
    There are other sites more suitable for your predictions of the end of the world.
    Covid : DISTANCING, DISTANCING and more DISTANCING is the only thing that REALLY helps.
    Some time ago in my country wearing masks was not mandatory anyymore, so most stopped wearing a mask, including me.
    Nothing changed. Then some events were allowed again in stadiums, halls (sport, music)…And everything changed…in a bad way.
    I am (and have always been) in the same camp as medical experts who say that, generally speaking, a mask hardly if anything helps. It can help IF a person coughs right in your face from a distance of no more than, let’s say, 25 inches.
    Generally speaking (again) the Covid “particles” won’t be stopped by a little piece of fabric.
    I have seen too many morons who think that if they wear a mask, distancing is not so important anymore.
    Just watch sports events where people wear masks and at the same time hug and touch.
    I wonder what their IQ is…probably 35 or so.
    Okay, more than enough about this as far as I am concerned.
    Fat Rat, Boenicke has 5 models, so actually you have not listened to the other 4.
    I can add to my list the Sonus Faber Electa Amator 3.

    1. I would recommend that anyone who thinks that the only thing that matters in controlling the spread of the coronavirus is distancing, distancing, distancing and also thinks high performance masks such as 3M N95 masks are nothing more than a little piece of fabric that can do nothing to stop the virus particles should not be referring to other people as morons or speculating about their IQ’s. People who live in glass houses should not throw rocks.

    2. jb4,
      The Australian importer/distributor of Boenicke & Harbeth here in Australia,
      Aleks of ‘Audio Magic’, only carries 3 of the 5 Boenicke models & I have
      listened to all three; however, “the other two” that I was referring to were
      in fact the ‘TAD ME-1’ & the ‘Magico A1’ that you mentioned.

      1. Okay Fat Rat, if that’s the case, I take it back.
        And plachy, if wearing mask would really help, then Covid was no longer among us.
        And you don’t read very well. The mask thing is not about what I think, but what medical experts say. That’s what I wrote and something completely different.
        And yes, people with masks and hugging at the same time are morons. Period.
        If you don’t understand that or even wanna deny that, then good luck with that (you’re gonna need it) mr. engineer.

  8. IME, if you remove the low bass from stand mount 2-ways (HP between 50-80Hz) and hand off below that to a powered sub (LP 50-80Hz), the main power amp has much more headroom to drive small monitors, even in large listening rooms! The increase in macro dynamics and room energy can be substantial, offering similar output to that of floor standing, more efficient speakers. Additional, mid-upper bass and even midrange tonality, definition and detail quality improves, along with easier room placement and holographic sound-staging ability, as you relieve their small bass driver (typically 5″ to 6.5″) from the arduous full range efforts of very low bass production!

    Of course, proper integration between the small speakers and sub is paramount to gaining full musical spectrum balance and cohesiveness…not always an easy task, but doable!!

  9. When in search of new speakers to replace my then Infinity Beta 50
    towers with 2 8″ woofers….

    I acquired a pair of Ascend Acoustic raal Tower speakers….beautifully
    finished work of art….yet with only 2 5″ drivers these could hardly
    give me room filling sound…quite the opposite of what Paul said.
    My room is 15′ x 25′ 8′ ceilings…the Sierras sounded thin and lacking
    in my environment…they were dirven by my Parasound A21 a stout amp.

    Acquired a pair of Focal Aria 948s which easily fill my room while yielding
    a much smoother larger and rich soundstage. The Aria 948s have 2
    8″ woofers and the cabinets are substantially larger than the Sierra’s.

    Just gotta tease you some…would you repalce your IRSVs with stand mounted speakers? Gwan…

    Love ya Paul

  10. I agree with Paul. The top of my full-range floorstanders is the equivalent of a small loudspeaker. The bass output is the main difference between the small loudspeaker and the bigger ones. The cabinet volume makes a huge difference in the output of the bass. My loudspeakers are large old cabinets that were completely gutted and rebuilt inside by Albert von Schweikert, who considered it an experimental design. The cabinet volume is what allowed him to successfully tune it to go down to 16Hz without an internal bass amplifier. Many of the current very expensive floorstanders are designed with a visual size scale in mind to better aesthetically coexist with people’s living rooms. Most modern speakers are tall and narrow, or tapered from bottom to top, giving up valuable internal volume which is necessary to develop the low bass. In comparison, my speakers look chunkier but have the internal volume of a subwoofer, making it much easier for bass drivers to go low. So, the main difference in the volume between the big guys and the little guys is, as Paul says, bass, not treble. The bigger the speaker, the more effortless and deeper the bass.

    1. Still I don’t see Paul replacing his IRSV with stand monitors..any time soon
      no substitue for cubes or drivers which is why Arnie Nudel designed
      the IRSV with how many emit and emims? The more of these …the less work each one is burdened with for same SPL ….and the bass towers..

      I’ll agree with Arnie ….

      1. Paul is of course generalizing. There are small speakers of exceptional quality and small speakers of mediocre quality. Who is to say that Paul would not find a particular high quality small speaker equal to the IRSV performance in the mid to high frequency range? He has not heard every loudspeaker. In fact, there are no doubt some small speakers that are superior to IRSV in their holography and pinpoint accuracy by virtue of having viewer drivers. The IRSV may immerse you with more sound due to more drivers but the new speakers with fewer drivers that he is working on may in fact give a more accurate rendition of the original sound. No question the sound will be different, whether it is better or worse is subjective.

  11. “Why do they wear masks in operating theatres?”
    A totallty different situation than walking in the street.
    A surgeon bent over and up close to a patient who might have a infectuous disease, much more deadly than Covid. And of course to protect the patient, who’s body is cut open, from viruses entering the open wound.
    BTW., those masks medical doctor, nurses etc wear, are not even allowed for non medical persons.
    You cannot even buy those “hi-end” masks (at least not in my country).

  12. Meh. You cant rock a large living room with small speakers let alone a house from a single room with small speakers. It’s not a matter of a critical listening space. When it’s a matter of rocking out it’s a matter of the volume of air moved. With pounding dynamics produced by big drivers. Not just a sub.

  13. Also the larger speaker with more drivers than a simple two way system will play more effortlessly and with lower distortion at higher levels.

    1. The ability of single or double drivers to play at very high SPL in large living rooms without noticeable distortion is a function of the quality and design of the drivers and the quality and power of the amplifiers. Of course, in a large living room deep bass may need, as Paul says, subwoofers. My living room is very large, but with only two treble drivers and two bass drivers per loudspeaker there is plenty of visceral oomph. I don’t ever need to turn the volume setting up much to get ear-damaging SPL. And the two passive bass drivers per speaker are more than enough for the slam rockers crave. It is not so much the number of drivers, but their design and enclosure and the amplification gear. Notice that some of the cheaper taller speakers have an array of drivers, which can be misleading, for higher quality smaller speaker with fewer drivers can have a better, lower distortion sound. Generalizations always, of course, have qualifications and exceptions.

      1. Yes agreed. There are some remarkable mini monitor speakers out there that will have you scratching your head at how good they sound and how loud they will play and produce decent bass while doing so. Add a subwoofer and Wow. Even single small 6 inch drivers in a floor standing transmission line that will produce quality subwoofer like bass reaching below 30hz. It’s all in the magic of the speaker designer.

        An advantage of a two way system with separate subwoofers is you can set up the mini monitors for the best soundstaging and position your subs for the best bass.

        I like the idea of producing a full range speaker meant to be placed against the wall to produce great low end bass without harming imaging. There are some out there that do this well. Vintage EPI, Direct Acoustics Silent Speaker II. NHT to name a few. I hear PS Audio is working on that too. Soon to be released.

  14. Aren’t headphones just little speakers?
    The problem is, you look like a fool dancing in silence with headphones on.
    Unless, perhaps, you’re really into ballet.

    1. My next door neighbor uses ear buds while he’s doing lawn work. He sings loudly along with what he’s hearing and it’s as terrible as any stereotypically bad character doing that sort of thing. But he’s enjoying himself so I’m happy for him.

      1. Personally, I’m of the “Let it grow/Let it snow” club, but the town and my wife insist on keeping the grass cut and my wife enjoys using the snow blower as long as it’s not too cold outside. Neither deep grass nor deep snow affects the sound quality of the system.

      2. Wow, I hope your neighbor is not playing the music into those earbuds so loud that he drowns out the lawnmower. If so he is a candidate for hearing loss. I use 3M 30db over the ear protection when I mow the lawn, use a leaf blower or a chain saw. They are hot in the summer, I sweat like crazy, and I hate them. However, my wife has noticed that on the days that I mow the lawn and blow the grass of the driveway that I turn up the TV volume a notch or two more than unusual that evening when we watch TV. Protect your hearing!

      1. That saying was coined before the establishment of the Surveillance Society.
        These days you never know what your neighbor is going to post on YouTube. 😎

  15. While this argument may sound rational on the surface, take it from someone who has done large rooms for over 4 decades, not everyone can be 1 meter away, and that little speaker will be woefully inadequate at more than 3 meters, in any size room. That’s just the way sound works.

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