How to Shop for Speakers

You want to get the best "bang for your buck" when shopping for audio speakers. But it can be overwhelming when you get to the store and don't know what you're looking for. Finding something that will serve your purposes and will be in your price range is possible with a little planning and forethought.


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    Only regard the power ratings on a speaker as an indication. They don't mean much, as they can be measured many different ways, making baseline comparisons very difficult. Even RMS numbers can be quoted differently. and, in any case, they are primarily intended to give some idea of how much amplifier power the speaker can withstand without damage, and that depends on the sound being played. Quiet solo acoustic guitar music is unlikely to cause damage even if a very large amplifier is used, while very loud thrash or electronic music requires more power, even from a small amplifier, and so will more strongly drive the speakers, perhaps alarmingly so. In addition, overloading an amplifier produces distortion which is more strain on a speaker and its components and is much more likely cause damage, even from a small amplifier. The sort of equipment used for professional sound is almost always quite different in intent and detail from good home equipment, perhaps especially speakers.
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    Make sure that the speaker has a good frequency range. A theoretically ideal system should reach down to 20Hz and up to 20000Hz -- this is the nominal human hearing range, but in practice this is very difficult to do. The type of system, (1-way,2-way,3-way) is much less important than the quality of the speaker design and drivers used. A speaker can have one driver and sound great, or it can have 5 drivers and sound great. Or not.
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    Rap on the speaker enclosure; if it vibrates or rings, or sounds flimsy, it is probably of poor quality, and you should look even more carefully. This is most important at low frequencies, so the enclosure for the bass drivers should always be solidly constructed. 'Satellite' enclosures for higher frequency drivers should also be, but may give good performance if more lightly built.
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    By far, the most important issue is what you hear. There are several design approaches which can give good performance, so the best test is sound quality at your ears. Take some music you know well and has been well-recorded to the store, and listen critically, not merely 'to the music'. Do drums (especially the bass drum) sound like they do in real life (it will likely help to go to a concert or three to calibrate your ears beforehand, jazz or acoustic is best as the sound at most performances is from the instruments not only through the sound system). Can you hear the bass guitar play actual distinct notes or does the performance sound like a series of undifferentiated thumps? Do voices sound like actual voices or like electronically changed ones? Beware that human hearing adjusts over time, and if you've been listening to a $10 clock radio (or a fantastic sound system), your standards for what sounds good will have changed. It's harder to make sensible judgements in such cases. Taking along an acoustic musician friend may help, but caution is needed as some instruments are quite limited (flautists are unlikely to have as good an ear for violin sound quality or organ performance as they are for their own instrument).
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    Because they are the most variable part of an audio system, it is very difficult to make a good choice between speakers you've never heard personally.


  • It is almost impossible to judge speakers based on their rated specs on the box. It's best to find someone who owns speakers that they like or listen to them in the store.
  • When testing speakers in a store, bring a CD with you to compare apples to apples. Also be careful to make sure that the speakers do not have any equalization settings enabled (bass and treble controls set to 0 or flat) when you are demoing them. Most listeners prefer the sound of speakers with bass and treble boosted, at least initially, but it doesn't give a good comparison of speakers in normal use.
  • Some stores will allow you to take the speakers home to demo in your listening area. Take advantage of this if possible, as speakers can sound completely different from place to place.


  • Make sure your amp has enough power to run the speakers. Inefficient speakers that can truly handle 600 watts RMS, and need to to reach adequate levels, will likely sound unsatisfactory with a small amplifier, which will likely, in any case, be overloaded (ie, driven into distortion) before the speakers reach an adequate loudness. This is dangerous, as a frequently distorting amplifier is far more likely to cause speaker damage. But, power handling capacity isn't a sufficient indication since some efficient speakers (capable of producing more than adequate loudness in your room and with your music) are also rated for very high power handling. Not often, to be sure. Inadequate amplifier power for your speakers will prevent you from turning up the volume beyond a (perhaps too severely limited) level.
  • Watch out for deceptive marketing. Amplifier power should be rated in RMS from over this frequency range (typically 20-20000Hz) with at most that much distortion (anything higher than a fraction of a percent is too much). 'Music power', or 'peak music power', is essentially meaningless, and is a clue that the marketing folks are in control. Power ratings for speakers are equally indeterminate and often misleading. They certainly do not mean that the speaker requires an amplifier that large. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, and especially if it's inexpensive, it probably is. Thus far, good audio equipment requires substantial design effort and high quality components and construction; it's not easy to manage. there have been no miracles to date.

Things You'll Need

  • Amplifier (this is what you're looking to buy.)
  • Source(CD,DVD,LP,etc.)
  • Cables (buy these at Radio Shack, Walmart, etc.)

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Categories: External Components