HOW TO UNDERSTAND SPEAKER SPECIFICATIONS (& ARE THEY IMPORTANT?)
I want to help you make a better choice when shopping for new speakers.
Here you’ll find what you need to understand those speaker “specifications” — like impedance and sensitivity — and how they should influence your decision making.
(Should they even?)
Read on to find out…
- What Do Speaker Specs Mean?
- Speaker Specs To Look For
- How To Choose The Best Speakers For You
What do Speaker Specs Mean?
The most common speaker specifications are:
- Power (or Power Handling)
- Frequency Response
Let’s go through these main specs one at a time.
If you studied electricity at ANY point during your school years, you might remember a little something called resistance.
Resistance is how much a material resists electrical flow. Aluminium resists electrical flow MORE than copper does — that’s why electrical wires aren’t made from aluminium.
Since speakers reproduce SOUNDS — vibrations, which are in constant motion — they need a signal that’s in constant motion too. That signal is a form of “alternating current.” (Maybe you remember that also.)
Impedance is the measure of resistance to alternating current.
So in essence… unless you’re doing some technical work… you can think of a speaker’s impedance as it’s resistance.
It’s also measured in “Ohms” (Ω).
So if you’re wondering “What do speaker ohms mean?,” know that the higher the number of ohms the harder it is to push electrical current through the speaker.
(In the next section I’ll explain how to use this spec to judge speakers.)
Power (Power Handling)
Power handling is the right way to think about this.
When I was selling hi-fi on the sales floor, a LOT of people would ask me what the “power” of a set of speakers was. The truth is… passive speakers (most of them) don’t have “power.” They need an amplifier to supply power to them.
What they have is a ‘recommended power rating.’
This gives you a guideline on what power the amplifier should be to get the most out of the speakers. It’s measured in “Watts.”
This is given as a range between two numbers. For example the frequency response of our flagship in-wall speakers is…
“40 Hz - 21 kHz”
That’s 40 Hertz to 21,000 kilohertz. Hertz is a measurement of frequency and it refers to “how many times per second.” E.g. 40 Hz is 40 cycles per second.
This spec should be based on a “frequency sweep” the engineers did. The speaker is played using nothing more than a test tone that runs through one frequency at at time.
The dimensions, materials and components of the speaker will cause it to “roll off” at both ends of the spectrum. When it rolls off to 3 decibels less than the set volume, those points are used to mark the frequency response.
So in the example above the speaker stayed near the set volume for 40 Hz to 21 kHz.
Perfect human hearing ranges from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
That doesn’t make it the “ideal” frequency response… the extremes at both ends of the spectrum are hardly audible. In fact, many people lose the ability to hear them due to minor hearing loss.
Speaker Specs To Look For
Now that you know WHAT those three main speaker specs are…
How do you use them?
How To Use Impedance
A higher impedance speaker requires more current to get loudness and dynamic sound.
A lower impedance speaker will pull more current from your amplifier at a given volume level.
Those are two things you can keep in mind.
But… the fact about impedance is…
Most speakers on the market today fall within a range of impedance where you don’t need to worry about it!
That’s 4 ohms to 8 ohms.
Almost everything — unless you get into super high end — will be designed to “play along.” That means both amplifiers / receivers and speakers.
8 ohms is well known as “robust.” It might take a bit more ‘volume knob’ to get them to perform, but they’re difficult to overdrive and distort.
4 ohms is “easier to drive.” You get better performance and volume at a lower output level from the same amp. (Think of this as efficient.) It’s important to avoid turning the knob too far on lower powered amps because they can heat up quite a bit.
When you find 6 ohm speakers, you’re looking at a balance of both worlds. An efficient speaker that responds well to a wide range of volume levels, while not threatening to overheat your amplifier too much.
How To Use Power Handling
Remember: The “wattage” of a set of speakers is actually a suggestion for what power your amplifier should be.
This guideline may not be 100% necessary to follow. Often you can still get a great sound through speakers that are rated higher than the amplifier you’re using. But keep in mind…
Power handling should tell you how to get the best performance.
High quality speakers will be tested and spec’d appropriately. If it’s within your budget to get an amplifier that will supply at least the amount of power your speakers are asking for, it’s worth going for. You’ll see “every inch” of performance that’s in the speakers.
As an example… our performance range of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are rated at 140 W per channel because they’re capable of a lot of dynamics and control. This doesn’t mean they won’t sound great with a lower powered amplifier — quite the opposite, because they’re lower impedance and therefore efficient — it just means our engineers guarantee the best performance at that power.
How To Use Frequency Response
Don’t be surprised to find most speakers have a similar frequency response as well. But this one can be a little more useful.
You can pretty much ignore the upper limit. Cymbals ring in at upwards of 6 kHz, and that’s nowhere near 20 kHz. But they’re high pitched, no? I’m not saying it’s not good to have highs — they support harmonics. Just know that most of the action in your audio will be covered at lower frequencies.
Also, I’ve never seen a speaker fall too far from 20 kHz in the upper limit.
Should you mind the lower number? Bass is good, right?
Bass IS good. I agree. If you’re buying front speakers or a single pair for music…
You might want to check that they can extend below 100 Hz.
Otherwise you WILL need a sub.
Most of the awesome bass action is between 40 Hz and 80 Hz.
It’s time to be frank.
People want to use specs to make a decision because it FEELS like the decision will be well informed. The issue with that is…
Specifications have almost no bearing on the sound you’re going to get.
Like I said, most audio products are designed to play nice together. They all have VERY similar specs.
So how should you choose which speakers to go with?
How To Choose The Best Speakers For You
Concern over specifications is 5% of the game. It FEELS like it should be more, but the truth is it’s not.
You can glance at the impedance to see if it’s 4-8 ohms…
You can check the lower frequency response for less than 80 Hz…
But neither of those will GUARANTEE you get a good sound.
If speaker specifications don’t matter, what does?
How the speakers sound to YOU in YOUR home.
Maybe that sounds too simple, but it’s the reality of the situation. Specs and performance aren’t linked.
One of the ACTUAL best ways to choose a good speaker for you is to view its track record.
Look through real user feedback and reviews. Read HOW the users describe them. Look for emotions and specific stories that illustrate how good a set of speakers sound.
Do this and you’ll quickly start to get a feel for whether or not a speaker can perform…
A clear, rich sound that brings emotions and goosebumps is what you’re after!
Also note that I’m saying REAL reviews. That’s because professional reviewers who review for blogs, YouTube channels and magazines can sometimes be swayed by commissions and free gear.
Since this is one of the best ways to judge a set of speakers, we keep a wealth of kind feedback about our speakers published on our website. Scrolling down on each product page reveals TONS of listener feedback and opinions.
That means you don’t have to take it from us — you can see how real users feel.
If you’re looking for an awesome new set of speakers, you can check it out here and browse what people are saying.
Thanks for reading! If you have any other questions, contact us here.
To learn more, check out these related articles…
5 reasons to go in-wall or in-ceiling for your next home theatre
The Best Speakers For Your Outdoor Alfresco Area
5.1 vs 7.1 vs 9.1: Which is best for you?