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Deciding On Which Loudspeaker To Use In An Audio System

Paul Wilson takes a look at the wide range of speaker options…

An audio system is, at the lowest common dominator, merely nothing more than a collection of parts. Specialized parts to be sure, but regardless, a total systemic approach is needed to complete the intended task – play music. 

What remains as the most difficult in the decision-making process is deciding on how to go about assembling the various components, speakers, cables and storage solutions required to sit in a chair and enjoy a song. Needless to say, there are many opinions, disagreements, and confusion surrounding which component to choose, how best to partner that choice with something else, and well, just about everything. One of the more difficult choices are speakers – the only part of an audio system that converts an electrical signal into music. 

When we look at the width and breadth of available choices in selecting speaker systems, how anyone ever decides on anything seems incongruous with the actual decision making process. With so many choices, options and sonic presentations, actually saying “I want that one” belies the difficulty in reaching any measured conclusion. 

Overwhelmingly, dynamic speakers are the most popular type of speaker system. They offer relatively easy set up and excel in a cost to performance ratio. Most dynamic speakers will perform very well in a wide variety of component variations – such as pairing them with tubes, solid state, low wattage, high wattage and so on. 

However, forgiving though they may be, dynamic speakers are often not correct for the room in which they are housed. Most commonly, small stand mount speakers are put in a room whose dimensions are too large for the speaker’s capabilities. This may easily result in poor performance and the always dreaded blown driver. 

This is the opposite of another condition – placing a large set of floor standing speakers in a room decidedly too small for an adequately employed set up methodology. Large, floor standing speakers prefer large rooms. It is always a wise suggestion to pair the speakers to both the system and the room as well. 

There will be those who will eschew dynamic speakers in favor of another popular type – ribbon type speakers better known as planar transducers. 

Rather than using the cone and magnet type construction used in dynamic speakers, ribbon speakers use two strips of a material, normally thin aluminum, suspended between the north and south poles of different magnets. When the signal electrifies the magnets, the aluminum strips vibrate, thus moving air and producing sound. 

Because of much lower mass, ribbon type speakers are normally capable of producing exceedingly clean, low distortion, less congested, and accurate musical presentations. They are not, however, without their faults. 

Because of low mass, ribbon type speakers normally require significant amplifier power. Because they are di-pole designs, or they radiate sound from the front and back of the cabinet, planar speakers are very often difficult to position in a room. Additionally, to sound their best, ribbon speakers like to be placed well into a large room.

If the listeners available space is a small great room requiring the speakers being placed close to, or against the front wall, getting the most from a ribbon speaker may be difficult. Proponents of ribbon speakers will always side with the amazing clarity they are capable of producing and find little fault with their shortcomings. 

Somewhat closely related is the electrostatic speaker. Rather than using thin aluminum ribbons, electrostatic speakers typically use strips of a plastic material such as Mylar® stretched between two stators. The membrane is charged with high voltage, relative to the stators, and when a musical signal is applied to the stators, an electrostatic field results. These electrostatic fields cause the membranes to vibrate thus moving air and producing sound. 

Like planar speakers, electrostatic speakers can be amazingly clear and accurate. Proponents of both planar and electrostatics very likely appreciate this fact the most. 

On the downside, because electrostatic speakers do require voltage to energize the plastic strips, they must be plugged into an AC wall outlet. Like planar speakers, electrostatic speakers are bi-pole and are typically more difficult to optimize in the room for the best sound. 

Also like planar, their low sensitivity generally requires high wattage amps and they too like to be placed in large rooms. Lastly, bass response is very often compromised because the plastic strips and stators simply cannot generate low, powerful bass. As such, it is very common that electrostatic speakers augment low bass with a subwoofer. Very often the sub is housed in the bottom of the cabinet. 

There are numerous other types of speakers. Horn speakers, for instance, are very efficient and can play obscenely LOUDLY. There are dynamic speakers with both ported and sealed enclosures. Plasma drivers and all different types of hybrid designs. 

In short, all speaker systems do certain things extremely well. Some are easy to use, others are amazingly clear. Some are an absolute nightmare to correctly position, others still are far simpler. 

Another fact is when a speaker system, regardless of the design, creates an “oh wow” moment, the higher degree to which that is accomplished usually means one thing – increased cost. 

Choosing a speaker system is best done in an all-encompassing manner. Everything must be considered – attributes and shortcomings as well. If a very clean, superior transient response speaker is desired, understand what is required to make that happen. If a more user friendly, one size fits all speaker best fits the bill, know that some sacrifices may be expected. 

Speakers are the most personal part of the audio system. They are the most visible and very often the first part of the system seen when entering the listening space. Having the right speakers based on the type of sonics produced, complemented by an appropriately sized room and speakers large or small enough to optimally fit will greatly enhance the listening experience. 

We all have our own preferences. Whether dynamic, planar, electrostatic, horn, whatever the choice may be, all audiophiles should welcome the wide availability of speaker designs. While an absolutely perfect speaker does not exist, the wonderful part of the audiophile hobby is there is something to please almost everyone. 

The trick is simple, deciding which one. 

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