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How can you tell if a loudspeaker is any good?

So you want to buy a loudspeaker, or a pair of them. How can you tell without listening whether it's going to be any good?


You might think that the best way to tell if a loudspeaker is any good is by listening to it. But this isn't always going to be the best way.

Listening tests don't work if any of the following conditions apply...

  • You lack experience in recording or sound engineering (listening for pleasure doesn't count).
  • The location where you audition the loudspeakers is significantly different acoustically to where you intend to use them.
  • The program material used to test the loudspeakers is significantly different to what you will use them for.
  • You are being rushed or pressured by a sales person.
  • You are unable to perform a comparative test.
  • You don't have the opportunity to live with the loudspeakers for several days.

Oh, there is one more...

  • You think you can always trust your ears!

So even with the benefit of a listening test, buying a loudspeaker, or pair of loudspeakers can be a pretty random event.

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(I mention single loudspeakers because there are all kinds of applications where you might want just one. Or perhaps you are buying several for a PA or theater installation and you are auditioning just one.)

The only reliable way to tell if a loudspeaker is any good is to borrow or hire it, or even buy it, and use it on real work over a period of time. If it stands the test of time in real-life applications, then it's a good loudspeaker.

But specifications can help the decision-making process.

It is very true that specifications cannot tell you whether a loudspeaker is good. But they can certainly tell you if it is bad.

Here are the parameters you should be looking for...

  • Wide frequency range
  • Flat frequency response
  • Low distortion
  • Low level of cabinet vibration
  • Good power handling capability
  • Moderately high efficiency
  • Even, or at least well-controlled, dispersion.

You can compare models from various manufacturers and quite easily see which have the best specifications. You can then narrow down the possibilities towards a short list.

Actually there is a teensy little fly in the soup here. Hardly ever will you see a specification for the level of cabinet vibration, but clearly this is a significant factor.

However, you can judge this from polar response plots at a variety of frequencies, if available.

Plots that show significant output to the sides and rear at mid and mid-high frequencies will be suspect. If the responses are lumpy and uneven in these areas, so much the worse.

Specifications can never tell the whole story about any equipment. But the wise use of objective measurements and listening tests in tandem can help you arrive at a decision you can be happy with over a long period of time.

By David Mellor Monday August 14, 2006