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What is a speaker? - Definition of terms; "loudspeaker," "speaker system" and "speaker" are used interchangeably. A speaker is an enclosure containing "loudspeaker," or "drivers" and the speaker's job is to convert electrical energy into acoustical energy. An amplifier supplies the energy for a loudspeaker cone to move air and sound is motion created by movement of the loudspeaker cone. The speaker system is probably the most important component in any audio system; no matter how expensive and complex. Even the finest CD player and amplifier will produce a mediocre sound if fed to a mediocre speaker. The task of selecting the right speaker is complicated and there are many factors that affect speaker performance.
What is sound?- Sound is described as any air movement or vibration that human ears perceive to be sound. In mathematical definition, a set of vibrations within a specific frequency range. Understanding some of the principles of room acoustics and sound should make it easier for you to select a speaker system.
Behavior of sound is often examined in a so-called “free field”. "Free field" is a condition where there are no obstructions or boundaries, such as walls, to alter the path or content of the sound. An “anechoic” chamber (a room without echoes) is an approximation of a free field, and because the conditions are readily controlled, many loudspeaker manufacturers use an anechoic chamber for a speaker testing room. Outdoors, to a lesser degree, sound behaves as though free field conditions were present, so some speaker systems are tested on the roof, in the parking lot, or in an open field.
In a large room such as a concert hall, reflections become “echoes” (reflected sounds delayed sufficiently to produce distinctly separate sounds) or “reverberation” (a series of short, closely-spaced echoes, which blend together). These time-delay effects generally add to the live-ness or realism of a performance, although excessive echo and reverberation can detract from the sound. Most home listening environments are far from “free field”, yet they are probably not “concert-hall” quality either. Walls provide boundaries for reflections, while furniture, draperies, carpeting and even people obstruct and absorb the sound. Net effect is usually a room that is less “live” and has less reverberation and echo than the concert hall. To help compensate for the acoustic environment of the average listening room, recording engineers may add some artificial echo or reverberation to the “dry” or “close” sound obtained in the studio.
All speaker systems are affected by the acoustic environment in the listening room an some potential acoustic problems can be avoided or eliminated by careful speaker placement and adjustment. Other problems must be treated more directly: “Flutter echoes”, pulsed reverberant sounds, often occur between parallel, hardsurfaced walls and draperies or furniture placed along one wall will reduce the echoes by absorbing the sound reflected from the opposite wall. Exercise moderation, too much absorption (in the form of carpeting, draperies, padded furniture, etc.) can cause the high frequencies to be attenuated, leading to a noticeable loss of brightness.
A more effective remedy for flutter-echoes is to “break up” the echoes by placing odd sharp objects (picture frames, tall furniture, etc.) against one or both walls. In a very small room (600 cubic feet), the low bass frequencies may not have a chance to become fully developed due to standing waves and phase cancellations; careful speaker system placement may reduce or avoid this problem. Resonances of walls, furniture, or lighting (heard as buzzes, ringing, or other noises) can usually be corrected once the offending object is located by moving the object, or brace it so that it cannot vibrate and if necessary, reglaze loose windows, put cloth coverings glassware shelves, tighten up rattling heating or air conditioning grilles, etc.
Psychoacoustics - The average frequency response of the human ear is represented by a set of pilots called the Fletcher-Munson curves. The curves illustrate that sounds, which we perceive to be equally loud, actually vary in level. The perceived loudness depends both on the absolute sound level and on the frequency of the sound (as the sound increases in level, our ears have a more “flat” response). Some amplifiers have a “loudness” switch to compensate for the reduced high and low frequency sensitivity of our ears at a low volume levels and this “loudness” feature equalizes the sound at a low volume control settings. Tone controls may also be used to change the upper and lower frequency extremes, however beware of excessive boosts… particularly bass boost. Boost (equalization) places much higher demands on the power capacity of the amplifier and speakers. If you must use a lot of boost to get the sound you want, be sure both the speakers and amplifier have plenty of reserve power capacity… otherwise distortion may occur. “Weber- Fechner” law applies to all our senses: The amount of additional stimulus needed to produce a perceptible change is dependent on the amount of stimulus already present.
In mathematical terms, the Weber-Fechner law suggests that our ears respond to changes in a sound level in a logarithmic manner. For a sound to seem twice as loud to our ears, it requires approximately ten times as much acoustic power. To produce a sound that is twice as loud as a fifty-watt amplifier would require a 500-watt amplifier; a 100-watt amplifier, while it will produce twice as much power as a 50-watt amplifier, will not drive the speakers to a level that you would perceive as being twice as loud. Weber-fechner law also suggests that purchasing an amplifier with twice the power of your present amplifier would only slightly increase the maximum perceived sound levels. If its distortion is higher, purchasing a new amp solely for the extra power output may actually be a step downward since the benefit of the additional loudness would be minor in contrast to the higher distortion. If volume levels in your system are inadequate, and if you don’t want to purchase a much larger amplifier of good quality, it might be a good idea to consider purchasing a higher efficiency speaker system.
Stereo separation - Two speakers can simulate the reflections and separation present in an actual performance more accurately than one speaker. We “localize” the source of a sound primarily from “clues” contained in the midrange and upper-midrange frequencies, and not from the low frequencies or high frequencies, so stereo separation is more dependent on midrange energy. It is common practice to aim the speakers straight out from the wall and angling the speakers up to 45-degrees toward a center listener. This can be useful when the speakers are widely separated, or when the listener is very close to normally separated speakers.
The dealer and me - For most people, buying speakers is a one-time affair. So take the advantage to shop in an audio specialty store, even if there are acceptable listening facilities in a departmental store. The departmental store should not qualify as a first choice. Look around to see whether the store carries only audio and related equipment. Remember, the specialty audio dealer's reputation rides on the audio and related equipment he sells, the quality of his displays, and the knowledge of his salespeople. Most fast-talking "mass-market" style audio stores stock only one or two quality lines and a store full of mediocre equipment.
The specialist prides himself on carefully evaluating all available brands, and then carries only the equipment that meets his high standards. For that reason, they are the best place to spend your money. The advantage is that you get to compare with the better brands. Sales help is the most important when speaker shopping. The specialty store dealer has well-informed personnel, audio consultants who are trained by the dealer and by the manufacturers he represents. These people can give you guidance as you need it, and will show you what you want to hear...not just the more profitable "specials" that less knowledgeable sales people may innocently promote. When they talk about "specials", that brings up the subject of costs. Do shop within a comfortable budget. Avoid any temptation to pick up "bargain" speakers that may cost you a lot of money when they later prove to be unsatisfactory.
Speakers deserve extra careful shopping because the speakers you buy now will probably stay with you... even if you later upgrade the speakers, you can always put that first pair of speakers to good use elsewhere in the house. "Fancy listening rooms"? Do not be intimidated. You don't have to pay more to shop in a specialty store. If the "mass-market" type of dealer claims to offer low prices because the store has no frills, remember that a good listening room, a skilled service department, and fully trained audio consultants are not "frills". Shop around, by all means, but shop sensibly.
Buying online - The advent of Internet has made virtually any type of electronic device that you can buy in a store available for purchase online. Since speakers are often relatively expensive, you will want to be sure that you are dealing with a web merchant you feel that you can trust, and you also want to take precautions in how you make payment. Make sure the merchant has a phone number and try calling it to check them out. Pay by credit card to protect yourself from any problems. Be cautious if sending in a money order, since you will not be able to force a refund once it is cashed like you can with a credit card.
Some speaker manufacturers sell direct on the Internet only. And because they sell direct to you, they are not beholden to the middlemen, there are no dealer markups, nor is there the overhead of a thousand-acre superstore. Instead, they pour everything they have into their speakers. The benefits of this direct selling are that you get a price that is as much as 50% less than the electronics retailer, you can audition their speakers for 30 days in your own home with your own equipment, then return the speakers risk free should you have a change of heart. You also get free shipping to your home, you have direct contact with the manufacturer so answers to your questions are instant and dependable and you pay zero sales tax. Ideally, we want all speaker/electronic retailers to offer these benefits. Online electronic retailers will post their return policy on their site. There are no hard and fast rules that apply, but the larger merchants generally will accept returns if made within a short period of time. Just make sure the speaker box is complete with all included accessories when you return it.
How can you find the best speaker when there are so many to choose from online? Well, you can’t! The best way to evaluate a speaker is to listen to it. But perhaps there are people who just don’t have the time to visit the audio store. If you are one of those people, try searching the Internet for a comparison of the speakers you are interested in. There are many websites that will compare the features of speakers, and even post consumer reviews of them. Many of these sites will try to sell to you directly as well, or may refer you to affiliated retailers. The obvious risk of buying speakers online from electronics retailers is that you will be stuck with speakers that sound horrible to your ears. If you can’t return the speakers for any reasons you will have to keep them. The advantages of buying online from electronics retailers are ease of product comparison and better pricing. By showing you so many offerings in a short period of time, the Internet can make buying speakers much easier. The bottom line is, do some research before buying. When you find a speaker system that you like online, go to a local audio store to audition the speaker system. If you are happy with the sound then you may decide which sellers give you the best deal.
Final buying decision - Before making the final decision to buy, one is plagued with "what if" and "I wonder" and a lot of similar feelings. A typical and good question to ask yourself is “Does the speaker system provide accurate reproduction?" To recognize good sound reproduction, you have to know the true sound of the original program.Take time to really hear how the speakers sound. Subtle distortion and inaccuracies in response may only begin to be audible after five minutes, yet, after ten or fifteen minutes, may become so annoying that you feel like turning off the music. Distortion is a subjective factor, and spec sheets or sales pitches have no real bearing on how your ears react to any given pair of speakers. If the speakers you’re considering still seem attractive after initial listening tests, then try to place them in positions within the listening room that are similar to the intended locations in your home. Adjust the tone controls to “fine tune” the sound to your tastes, and listen some more. If they still sound good, the price is right, and the styling appeals to you, then you’ve probably found your speakers. Still speakers will always sound somewhat different at home, usually better than in the dealer’s listening room. Should you have any problems, the reputable audio specialty dealer will work with you because his reputation depends on keeping his customers satisfied.
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"If you are tempted to leave the decision of buying speakers to a friend or a trusted salesperson, remember this; nobody knows better than you what sounds good to you! Speaker preferences are personal, and you should make the selection. If you do leave it to a friend, you may end up owning what your friend likes and not what you like!"
"You would not be losing much music program by purchasing less costly speakers whose frequency response falls off at the lowest and highest ends of the spectrum; as long as they are "flat" through the range of frequencies they do reproduce, the sound will be quite good...in some cases, indistinguishable from speakers with wider response. Compromise is a better way to save money than purchasing speakers that claim response from "20Hz to 30kHz", but give mediocre performance throughout the range they actually reproduce."
"The best way to evaluate a speaker is to listen to it but there are those of us who insist on thoroughly examining the specs and if you're going to read the specifications, make sure you know what they mean."
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"Surrounds and spiders are kind of like shoes, they're not very flexible at first but with use, they become much more flexible and as the surrounds and spiders in your speakers become more flexible, your speakers will sound better."
"Before you rush out to begin frantic listening tests with a dozen of speaker systems, you might want to spend time preparing a few questions you might discuss with the audio consultant. What kind of amplifier or receiver will power the speakers? What is the maximum budget, and what budget is comfortable for me? Where are the speakers to be located, and what if anything, limits their placement? What kind of furniture, walls, and overall size describe the room?"