The speaker you choose has more of an influence on the sound quality produced than any other element of your audio system, so it’s important to make sure you make the right decision when you choose yours.
These days, more and more people are investing in portable speakers but still want to achieve the best possible sound quality, whilst many more are investing in PC speakers as they begin to watch more TV and listen to music through their computers.
Take our informative tour guide to home speakers, portable speakers and computer speakers to learn everything you need to know to make the right decision for you.
Choosing home speakers
There are lots of different types of home speakers to choose from, including:
Each has their benefits and drawbacks but, as with most things if you are willing to pay a reasonable price then the quality of the sound you get should not be greatly affected by the type of speaker you choose.
Having said that, larger speakers can have a tendency to cause boominess whereas the sound produced by some smaller speakers can be less rich.
However, satellite speakers are small but work in conjunction with a subwoofer, so they produce a great sound quality but take up much less space.
Satellite or wireless speakers are extremely useful if you want to listen to music or audio around your home as they will work in any room without being connected to the device you’re listening to.
Speakers and their components
When choosing a speaker it must be matched with the receiver or amplifier that has the correct amount of power to work best. Usually the range of power needed will be specified by the speaker manufacturer so it’s advisable to follow their guidelines when purchasing an amplifier.
The material that your speaker is made from can make a big difference to the sound quality. Most commonly speakers are made from MDF, but they can also be made from solid wood, fibre glass, metal or carbon fibre. Many cabinets are internally braced to make them more sturdy and some can be stuffed with wadding to help dampen any resonance caused. While it will be hard for you to evaluate the quality of a speaker on its construction, here is a useful tip: a well-constructed cabinet does not vibrate much or at all, even at high volume, so ask to hear the speakers, play some music with prominent bass and place your hand on one side of the cabinet.
Power is expressed in Watts (W), and only the 'RMS' scale should be used for accurate measuring.
Many people mistakenly believe that the higher the wattage of your speaker the louder and better the sound will be, but this isn’t necessarily the case. However, it’s more important to understand the speaker’s impedance and sensitivity.
Impedance represents how hard it is for the amplifier to drive the speaker, and is expressed in Ohms (lower figures are harder to drive).
If your speaker has high sensitivity it will provide a greater volume, ie a 4 Ohms speaker will be a lot harder to drive than an 8 Ohms speaker.
In terms of sensitivity, 90dB or more is preferable, and beware that Decibels are an exponential scale: in other words, a difference of 6 dB doubles or halves the volume. Therefore, a speaker with a sensitivity of 95 dB will sound twice as loud as the same speaker with a sensitivity of 89 dB using the same amp at the same setting. A few dBs does indeed make a big difference in terms of loudness.
This is possibly the most important criteria for choice of a pair of speakers, other than actually listening to them. In a nutshell, the wider the response the better, and bear in mind that humans can hear from 20 Hz to 20.000 Hz.
Frequency response is expressed in Hertz (Hz) and indicates what are the lowest & highest frequencies the speaker is capable of reproducing. Sometimes, an additional figure is mentioned in dB (Decibels), which will inform you of how linear the speakers are, such as for example '-/+ 3 dB'. So in the case of speakers with a response of '43 Hz to 20.000 Hz', this would mean that the speaker is probably at -3 dB by the time it reaches 43 Hz or 20.000 Hz. In other words, the lowest & highest frequencies will not sound as loud as the others, which is perfectly normal and to be expected of just about any speaker on the market. While 3 dB is not a huge amount of Decibels, if you see '-/+ 6 dB' you can expect a rather less linear speaker, ie less neutral. To illustrate this, see the Frequency Response of the excellent and affordable JBL LSR305 monitor, which is very linear and neutral:
Choosing Portable speakers
When looking for portable speakers there are many things that need to be considered, not least how easy the speakers are to move around. However, it’s also important to ensure the speakers you choose produce the best possible sound quality.
When deciding on which portable speakers to buy, you can use the following criteria:
Features: Consider the different features of the portable speakers you’re considering, such as the Frequency response (see above), output power and sensitivity. You should be able to find these specifications on any speakers and directly compare them.
Portability: If you want your speakers to be portable then they need to be easy to store and carry around so look for a compact design that can fit in a bag, backpack or laptop case.
Ease of use: Look for a simple design that makes your speakers easy to use. With portable speakers it’s best not to have too many complex controls.
Choosing PC Speakers
When looking for PC speakers there are a number of features that need to be taken into consideration. The following table illustrates the different configurations you can choose:
2.0/2.1: This type of two speaker system is adequate for basic PC listening and works well in small environments. 2.1 means two speakers plus a subwoofer.
4.1: This system combines four speakers in front and back pairs which is ideal for gaming and movie audio, plus a subwoofer.
5.1: A five speaker system is perfect for gaming and the extra subwoofer can improve sound quality when watching movies.
6.1: This system is usually intended for home cinema systems but if you have a large monitor and use your PC for movies and music regularly then you can create home theatre sound quality. Even larger systems exist but are not common.
Some of the other features that need to be considered when purchasing PC speakers include the power, controls, headphone jacks and remote controls.
If your speakers are fed by an underpowered amplifier you won’t be able to produce as high or as good a level of sound as you would with an adequate amp, so make sure the amp you have matches the speaker you choose. For an average 2.1 speaker configuration you need at least 15 Watts of RMS power.
N.B. Many manufacturers use 'musical wattage' as a means to rate the power of their product, which results in huge numbers that don't mean anything. Unless it's 'RMS', do not trust it. RMS is the only proper power rating, whether we're talking about speakers or amplifiers, so don't be fooled.
Bear in mind that using a cranked up underpowered amp will result in a highly distorted sound, which is tiring to listen to, potentially damaging to the ear at high volume, and is also more likely to damage your speakers. In other words, if your speakers are rated '100 Watts RMS', it is better to have a 200 W amp than a 20 W amp, just don't push the volume too high. Using your amp on lower settings will usually produce a purer sound anyway, since distortion increases with power on pretty much any amplifier.
The speakers you choose could be controlled through your desktop or through buttons on one of the front speakers.
The headphone jack should be located by the controls and should completely mute the sound from the speakers when you put it in. The majority of PC’s and other electronic devices can be used with any regular headphones.
If you want to be able to control your speakers as you move around you can purchase a wireless remote control.
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