Understanding Speakers: What Do These Terms Mean?
Posted by House of Marley on Jan 13th 2022
Speakers are everywhere. From our cars, home stereo systems, favorite concert venues and even our phones, speakers play a big part in how we communicate with and experience the world around us. But for things that are pretty central to modern life, they can be kind of misunderstood. After all, what really goes into translating a digital signal into music, podcasts or directions? To get familiar with how it works, it helps to understand what essential speaker terms mean.
Things get tricky when we start diving through complex specifications and concepts that can be difficult to understand at first. To someone who doesn’t buy speakers that often, it can make home audio feel like a science experiment. After all, there are a lot of parts to get familiar with, and not all speakers are created equal.
We’re here to simplify everything for you. This article will guide you through the need-to-know information about basic speaker design as well as different ratings, measurements and concepts. After you read this guide, you’ll be able to read through speaker product descriptions like an expert!
Anatomy of a Speaker
Before you start looking at speakers, we want you to be comfortable with their structure and design. With a better understanding of the “nuts and bolts,” you’ll feel more confident when conversing with other audiophiles or choosing new speakers. This section will explain the core components of speakers and why they’re important.
A transducer is an electronic device that converts energy from one type to another. By design, speakers are transducers because they convert electrical energy into sound.
Speaker drivers are circular components that convert electrical signals into acoustic energy. You’ve probably seen a speaker driver flutter inward and outward when you crank the music up. These subtle movements produce varying air pressure waves that our ears recognize as sound.
A single speaker typically might house multiple drivers to reproduce sound across the entire frequency range, from low to high. House of Marley Get Together Duo speakers feature full-range drivers for big stereo sound.
The diaphragm is the cone-shaped component of the speaker driver that moves air to create sound. Speaker diaphragms are commonly made from paper, plastic, kevlar, metal, wood or composite materials.
Surrounds are the foam or rubber exterior of a speaker driver. The surround is made from a flexible material to allow the speaker diaphragm to push air in a fluid motion.
A tweeter is a type of speaker driver that produces high-frequency sounds, like the wild cymbal crashes heard in the opening of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Without the “airy” presence of tweeters, your music would sound stuffed under a blanket—dull, muffled and lifeless.
Tweeters are the smallest speaker driver, and they’re commonly made from silk. On a traditional speaker design, the tweeter is positioned towards the top of the faceplate.
While the tweeter produces the highs, the woofer delivers the lows. Woofers produce low-frequency sounds at the bottom of the spectrum. The iconic Roland TR-808 kick drum from every hip-hop classic, like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, lives in the low-end of the frequency range. Woofers give you the bass-driven punch that makes your music sound bold.
Typically, when manufacturers specify speaker sizes, they refer to the diameter of the woofer. Woofers are the largest driver in a traditional speaker design, and you can spot them towards the bottom of the faceplate.
If you want your music to really “bump,” consider a speaker with a bass port. Bass ports are structural openings in the speaker enclosure that extend low-end sounds by improving airflow. As a speaker produces sound, excess pressure in the enclosure is channeled through the bass port.
Bass ports are classified based on which direction they face. The three main bass port styles are front-firing, rear-firing and floor-firing. Although rear and floor-firing ports are effective, front-firing bass ports produce a cleaner bass sound with a tighter punch.
The enclosure, or cabinet, houses the internal circuitry of the speaker, including the drivers, crossovers and amplifiers. For the best sound, speaker enclosures are carefully designed to improve the frequency response and eliminate excessive vibrations.
A crossover is a special electrical circuit that divides the audio signal into different frequency bands and distributes the sound to each driver. Crossovers use a combination of low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filters to isolate different frequencies.
You’ve probably come across speakers described as “2-way” or “3-way.” 2-way speakers divide the signal between two drivers using a low-pass and high-pass filter. 3-way speakers are similar, but they have an additional band-pass filter for the mid-range driver.
Grills are protective covers that rest on the front of the speaker to shield the drivers from damage or dust. Metal and plastic grills are the most common style, but other speakers have fabric grills that serve a more cosmetic purpose.
Terms, Specifications and Concepts
When you’re shopping for a new pair of speakers, reading through a list of speaker specs can feel overwhelming. We’re here to clear it up for you and provide some useful advice along the way. This section will give you a strong overview of speaker specifications, measurements and concepts.
Need-to-Know Speaker Terms
Mono refers to a recording that is played back through a single audio channel. Unlike stereo audio, everything from a mono source sounds like it’s coming from one position.
Stereo audio is played back through two audio channels—left and right. Stereo sound allows sounds to be panned to separate speaker channels, which creates a more immersive listening experience. To hear stereo sound, you must have two speakers.
Speakers that are described as “active” have an internal amplifier. Active speakers, like the House of Marley Get Together Duo are great because they don’t require any additional equipment—just plug and play.
Passive speakers don’t have any internal power sources. To listen through passive speakers, you need an external amplifier. When shopping for a speaker amplifier, you have to be mindful of the speaker’s power handling and impedance. Ideally, the amplifier should output at least 50% more than the speaker’s continuous power, or RMS, for adequate performance. This is more common in high-end audio than standard consumer-grade audio, but it’s something to be aware of.
Bass is the deep, thunderous aspect of sound that makes the windows in your car rattle. It’s the deep bassline you feel in your chest. Specifically, bass is a word that describes frequencies below 250 Hz. Sounds from bass guitars, 808 subs and kick drums sit in this range.
Mid, or mid-range, frequencies make up a broad piece of the frequency range—anywhere from 250 Hz to 4 kHz. This part of the spectrum is divided even further into low-mid and high-mid frequencies. Because this range is so wide, several instruments and sources are a part of it, from crunchy electric guitars to mellow keys.
Treble frequencies are high on the frequency spectrum and sit between 4 kHz and 20 kHz. Instruments such as cymbals, strings and flutes are the most prominent in this range. This area also includes the “presence” range where vocals shine through.
Some speakers or audio devices specify a frequency response that extends beyond 20 kHz, which is the limit of human hearing. You might not be able to distinguish sounds in that 20 kHz area, but you’ll definitely notice a lack of detail in the sound recording when it’s missing.
Understanding Speaker Specs
Hertz, abbreviated “Hz,” is a unit for measuring frequencies, or more specifically, the cycles per second of a sound wave. A high-frequency sound can range from 4,000 Hz and above, and low-frequency sounds sit around 250 Hz and below. When describing speakers, frequency range and crossover points are both specified in Hertz.
Frequency response describes the range of sound an audio device is capable of reproducing. A range that reaches as high as 22 kHz and as low as 20 Hz is most common, as that covers the full range of human hearing.
When shopping for speakers, comparing different frequency responses can help you decide which pair is right for you. If you want to get the most from your music, start by finding a pair of speakers with wide frequency response. It’s rare to see commercial speakers that don’t cover the full range of human hearing, but if you do run across speakers that don’t hit that full range, we recommend avoiding them.
Loudness is a subjective term used to describe the intensity of sound. It’s often confused with volume, which is an adjustable quantity of sound controlled by a knob or remote. Although both terms are related, loudness is merely our human perception of how loud or soft something is.
The decibel (dB) is a unit that measures sound level, or the amplitude of a sound wave. When describing speakers, decibels are used to specify details like sensitivity and frequency response.
Sensitivity is a measurement of how loud a speaker can get with one watt of power. This specification is measured in dB while standing one meter away from the speaker. Sensitivity ratings give you a better idea of the efficiency of the speaker. The higher the sensitivity, the better.
See that woofer cone pumping in and out when the bass drops? That’s sound pressure in the wild. SPL stands for “sound pressure level.” The Max SPL is a rating that explains how much sound a speaker will output when pushed to the limit.
Music lovers on the hunt for a new pair of speakers often wonder how loud their speakers should be. The loudest Bluetooth speakers reach above 100dB, but your choice will depend on the setting and what you’re going to use them for. If the Max SPL isn’t specified by the manufacturer, you can use the sensitivity rating to get a better idea of what the speaker is capable of.
If you’re shopping for active speakers or Bluetooth speakers, this specification won’t have much importance because you won’t need to buy an amplifier. Power handling is a rating that explains how much wattage a speaker can handle without experiencing damage.
Impedance is the resistance of electricity measured in ohms. In speaker talk, the impedance rating is important when matching passive speakers to an amplifier. Think of it like a handshake—when the speakers and amplifier have the same impedance, they can communicate more efficiently.
Of course, speaker matching is a lot more complicated than this. Just make sure to do your homework if you’re building a home audio system entirely with passive speakers.
When you imagine the sound of distortion, you might think of Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page—or Marty McFly. Distortion is used musically on countless iconic records, but speaker distortion is something you don’t want to hear.
When you hear distortion coming from your speaker, it could mean you’re pushing it too hard, or it might point to an internal problem. Distortion occurs when the audio signal goes beyond the speaker’s capacity, which causes the sound waves to change shape.
To prevent distortion, some speakers have built in circuits that keep everything in check, even when you push your sound to the extreme.
Dynamics are important in music—we hear loud crescendos, intimate vocals and every detail the artist wants us to hear. In simple terms, dynamic range refers to the ratio between loud and soft sounds. The more dynamic a speaker is, the more nuanced the sound will be.
Having good dynamic range allows the speakers to deliver a wider range of sound, from delicate guitar notes to powerful drum fills. Without good dynamic range, the speaker would have a difficult time reproducing subtle differences in loudness.
Fill Your Space with Great Sound
Use this speaker terminology guide when you need it most, whether you’re buying your first set of speakers or want to brush up on audio knowledge. When you’re ready for a premium listening experience, check out House of Marley Bluetooth speakers and everything they have to offer.