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Guide to Speaker Specifications

June 2, 2006 By Sherlock Ohms

Perhaps the most misunderstood of all home theater elements is that of the loudspeaker. With today’s Websavvy, knowledge-thirsty customers comes the challenge of shopping for speakers by specifications and price. And this shouldn’t be viewed as burdensome, but rather as another piece of the puzzle and learning process to make your overall home theater experience even better.

Many argue that buying a loudspeaker without ever personally auditioning it would be quite reckless. However, given the vast number of loudspeakers in today’s market understanding specifications and using them to narrow down the field of search isn’t a bad idea.

The Web can be a valuable resource for such searches, and volumes of information, however beware that not everything you read on the Web is factual. Stick with companies you know and trust and you’ll avoid the snares of creative marketing.

"While many consumers today look first at the “Power Handling” spec of a speaker, this is actually not an important consideration at all."

With this in mind, it is most important to understand the specifications of a loudspeaker, so that you can better gauge where your audition time will be best spent.

While many consumers today look first at the ―Power Handling‖ spec of a speaker, this is actually not an important consideration at all. The two most important specifications (and often the least understood) are the Nominal Impedance and Sensitivity Ratings. PSB Speakers takes the Sensitivity Rating a step further by including the Voltage Sensitivity Rating.

Sensitivity Sensitivity is most easily defined as the speakers’ ability to effectively convert power into sound. The traditional way of measuring a speakers’ sensitivity is using the standard of 1 watt/1 meter. Meaning a microphone is placed 1 meter away from the speaker to measure the sound output (in decibels) with 1 watt of sound played through it.

There is much room for error (or imposed error) with this type of measuring system and some manufacturers today take advantage of this.

Voltage

Sensitivity

(see more on impedance below) 2. but how it’s measured is also important to know. While many of today’s mass-marketed loudspeakers range closer to 84 dB. Here again. [Note: 2.83 volts are inputted and measured at 1 meter. many companies consider this as their standard of measurement. the input sound is 1 kHz.83 volts.) A typical PSB loudspeaker has a minimum Sensitivity Rating of 87 dB and this is considered quite efficient.83 volts into an 8 ohm load is equal to 1 watt.) and 2 watts at 4 ohms — a 3dB increase. This means the speaker will produce sound at the volume of 87 dB. Basically Sensitivity is the speakers’ ability to efficiently use the amplifiers energy to create sound. This spec is rated in decibels (dB). it takes twice the amount of power to produce an increase of only 3 dB in sound .) Now let’s look at the Sensitivity Rating of a speaker. since many speakers are still rated this way today.83 volts becomes greater about 1. Consider a speaker with a Sensitivity Rating of 87 dB. The standard for achieving this rating is 1 watt/1 meter.Because today’s solid state amplifiers do a good job across the board of maintaining a voltage output of 2. 2. then what are other common volume levels of sound? A Whisper: Home or Office Background Noise: Normal Speaking Voice: Orchestral Climax: Rock Concert: Pain Threshold: Jet Aircraft: 15-25 dB 40-60 dB 65-70 dB 105 dB 120+ dB 130 dB 140-180 dB Think about this for a moment. measured by a microphone placed 1 meter away when it’s given the input power of 1 watt. PSB speakers ―average‖ Sensitivity is quite high and some PSB speakers boast a Sensitivity Rating of up to 90 dB which is quite rare and quite good! Consider this: If 0 dB represents the threshold of hearing. Ohm’s Law: Power (watts) = Voltage (V) x Current (I) or Power = V_/R (impedance in Ohms)] Because a speakers’ efficiency in transforming (transducer) power into sound is greatly determined by the impedance of a speaker.5 watts at 6 ohms (as many PSB Speakers are rated. (Typically. (Read more on the importance of a 3dB increase below.

Therefore. you will require 40 watts (10x) which will equal an SPL of 103 dB. if you are listening to a speaker with a Sensitivity Rating of 87 dB. Just think about that. That means. Here’s a simple chart to give you an idea of how power relates to speaker volume. to perceive twice the volume. using the chart below. Power in watts 1 2 4 10 20 40 100 200 Volume in dB 87 90 93 97 100 103 107 110 . an amplifier with 100 watts of power would need 200 watts of power to increase from 84 dB to 87 dB! All this time you must temper your requirement for amplifier power (and therefore.volume. For example. Perhaps an even better illustration (as stated before) is that many home theater speaker systems today have a Sensitivity Rating of 80 dB to 84 dB and some are even worse. PSB Speakers tend to average around 87 db (with some as high as 90 dB). you’re going to need a fair amount of power to achieve a reasonable sound level. when played with 4 watts of power. If you’ve got a speaker with a Sensitivity Rating of less than 85 dB. These numbers aren’t based on any particular manufacturer amplifier or speaker. it will produce 93 dB. This knowledge sheds some light on the needs for a speaker/amp combination that plays loud enough and sounds ―true to nature‖ – the way it was intended when the music was recorded. most people will say that they think they hear a doubling in perceived loudness or volume when the amplifier power is turned up 10 dB (=10x). but rather just to give you a simple point of reference for a speaker with a Sensitivity Rating of 87 dB. given the example of the PSB speaker above. when asked. the maximum potential output level) with the knowledge that.

And this is the standard specification for which many amplifiers are also rated—meaning their power delivered into 8-ohm loads. That said. and materials which inhibit or enhance sound. listed in Ohms. and so on.‖ Sound power is the sum of all energies combined. reflective and non reflective sound. Consider that nearly every single room. Impedance Quite simply. However. the majority of today’s loudspeakers are rated at an Impedance of 8 ohms. And some are better than others. you can get a fair amount of volume (dB) out of as little as 32 watts of power (continuous) for a speaker with a Sensitivity Rating of 87 dB. This is done (in part) to isolate the speaker during testing. is different. when coupled with their outstanding Sensitivity Ratings. which on their own make them quite efficient. . Understand that some amplifiers cannot drive speakers at less than 8 ohms for any sustained period of time. You will notice as you look at amplifier specifications that some offer variable power ratings based on the Nominal Impedance. This will eventually cause the amplifier to fail. This is just one of many factors that make PSB Speakers some of the most critically acclaimed. it is still more of an art than a science. PSB speakers all bare a Nominal Impedance rating of 6 ohms. let me again stress the importance of auditioning speakers in person before you buy them.400 113 As you can see from the chart above. including amplifier power. the measurements we discussed cannot account for an anomaly known as ―Room Gain. Impedance is the speakers’ resistance to power or impeding the flow of power. A New Understanding Now that you understand some of the basics as to how specifications relate to a speaker. Direct or reflective sound (reverberation) or sound reflecting off the boundaries of a room is often described as ―sound power. volume. No room in any home meets this criterion. While there are many factors in which manufacturers account for when designing loudspeakers. shape. Generally speaking. Several factors will affect a speaker’s performance which cannot be accounted for.‖ Speakers are tested and measured in anechoic chambers—rooms that are sound proof and have little or no sound reflections whatsoever. at home. Many higher-end speakers and amplifiers are rated at 4 to 6 ohms. including size. speaker volume. Additionally. highly sought after brands on the market. your ears are now the microphone. Here again we are revisiting the idea of efficiency from another perspective. this makes for an incredibly efficient loudspeaker with headroom far greater than most speakers offered today. this does not take into account the abilities of the listener—remember.

this is the music or movie(s) that you are most familiar with and will. but not how it should sound to you. therefore. provide the most revealing demonstration. their answer is almost always ―more power. it is in your best interest to bring your own source material. Now that you understand some key loudspeaker specifications. if at all possible. Take your time and audition as many speakers as you wish until you feel comfortable with your choice.‖ Now that you understand that the perception of more power can be directly related to the ability of the loudspeaker itself. you will be better prepared as you shop for and audition loudspeakers. the real question is ―what should I expect out of my sound system?‖ "Expect a sales associate to tell you what to listen for. but not how it should sound to you." The answer is simple—nothing but the best for your personal tastes and needs. Good luck and good listening! . Expect that the speakers will sound better in the comfort of your own home and be sure to make your purchase with a retailer who has a return policy that will allow you to audition them in your own home. Good speakers will last you a couple of decades and should be considered an investment. This will also help you to understand the working relationship between speaker and amplifier and better equip you to determine your needs. buying loudspeakers should be a fun process for you. When auditioning speakers.When most people are asked what they want or expect out of a premium sound system. Remember. Expect a sales associate to tell you what to listen for. After all.