Comparing Speaker Manufacturers

How to compare the tech specs of various speakers

When it comes to comparing speaker manufacturers, you may be wondering how to differentiate one product from another. This is particularly problematic when you're shopping online, as you're unable to actually listen to the speaker system before you buy it. Thus, you'll need to learn how to compare technical specifications; this skill will help you figure out how a Bose surround sound system differs from a JBL surround sound system or a Paradigm surround sound system. Comparing vital specs against the price of the system is a good way to determine which company is going to give you the most bang for your buck.

Important Speaker Specifications to Consider

First, you should be aware that, in general, larger and heavier speakers tend to sound better and perform better than smaller, lighter speakers -- even if their technical specifications are similar or identical. With that in mind, here are the four key technical specs you should understand when looking at various speakers:

  • Frequency response. This is given as a range, with the low end of the range indicating the bass output and the high end of the range indicating the maximum frequency the speaker is capable of replicating. However, there are a couple things to be careful of here. First, look for a tolerance rating after the frequency response spec, given as a "+/-" on the range. This tells you how tolerant the frequency response is within specific decibel ranges, and is a good indicator of the speaker's response to subtle changes in volume. As a general rule of thumb, look for speakers with low-end ranges of 50 Hertz or less. Also, be aware that the highest end of the range may be beyond the auditory range of a human being (which peaks at 20,000 Hertz), and thus will have little impact on the speaker's performance.
  • Sensitivity/efficiency. If your sound system is paired up with an AV receiver or amplifier, you're going to want your speakers to be as sensitive as possible. Heightened sensitivity (which is sometimes called "efficiency") means that the speaker is able to compensate for receivers and amplifiers of low or middling power. With this rating, higher is better, and 88 decibels per watt is about average. If you choose speakers with a sensitivity of 90 decibels per watt, you'll compensate for most shortcomings of your amplifier or receiver, but to be completely in the clear, you're best off to go with 92 decibels per watt or higher.
  • Impedance. This is one of the most misleading and difficult-to-understand speaker specifications you'll encounter, as the figure quoted in the specs is an average of the impedance levels. However, at any given time during playback, the actual impedance level may vary significantly from what is stated, depending on the frequency your speakers are being asked to play back. In general, you should choose speakers with higher rather than lower impedance, as higher ratings mean your speaker is able to perform better with less electrical input.
  • Power handling. This specification indicates the maximum amount of power your speakers are capable of handling, and it is given as a maximum of X watts. Essentially, as long as your amplifier's power output is the same as your speaker's maximum power handling input, you're in the clear. Mixing and matching amplifiers with higher or lower power outputs than the speaker is capable of handling could damage the speaker, because of an effect known as "clipping" which alters sound reproduction when power input/output levels exceed these ranges. In effect, you'll risk what is commonly called "blowing" your speakers.

Whether you're looking at Polk Audio speakers, Onkyo speakers or Premier Acoustics' latest offerings, use these guidelines for at-a-glance comparisons when shopping online. Frequency response and sensitivity/efficiency are the two most important specs, but also consider those specs in the context of the speaker's size and weight.

Finally, remember that there is simply no substitute for listening to speakers live. One of the best tips for buying speakers online is this: go visit your local audio retailer, and listen to a live demonstration of the various speakers and sound systems you're considering. Then, based on that information, make your choice and complete your purchase through an online vendor.