Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Speaker
Buying a speaker should be a fun and exciting purchase, but it’s often frustrating and overwhelming. Here’s what you need to know to sort through the overabundance of options and find the right speaker for you!
It’s quite astonishing how many different types of speakers exist. From “home” speakers to “portable” speakers, “party” speakers to “professional” speakers – for every category in life you can be sure there’s a corresponding speaker for it. As if this didn’t complicate matters enough, you could spend countless hours online searching for the “best” speaker as there are endless top-10 lists ranking speakers – and amazingly there seems to be almost no overlap in these lists.
Based on my recent experience buying a speaker, I found that there are both clear and subtle differences between speakers, and a lot of the subtle variations are buried deep within technical specifications. But it’s these subtle differences that are so important to the quality – and price – of a speaker!
So if you’re in the market for a new speaker and wondering which one is best for your needs, here’s a comprehensive guide explaining everything you need to know before buying a speaker. Since this is one of my longer posts, you can use the following links to jump to a specific section:
- Important Background Information
- Speaker Components
- The Many Different Types of Speakers
- Interpreting and Using Technical Specifications
- How to Compare Speakers
- My Advice and Speaker Recommendations
- Great Sounds/Songs to Test a Speaker’s Capabilities
Important Background Information
Before you dive into the audiophile world of speakers, it’s really important to keep in mind three things:
Knowing this background information will be incredibly useful when we start talking about the subtle differences between speakers and how they affect speaker quality.
1. How Speakers Produce Sound
Inside a speaker, electrical audio signals are converted into sound waves by something called a transducer. The sound waves are created by moving a diaphragm back-and-forth: the diaphragm’s oscillating motion pushes and pulls air, resulting in pressure differentials that travel away as sound waves. The concept of pushing and pulling air inside a speaker has very important implications for speaker design and performance.
2. The Basics of Sound Waves
As a wave, sound is characterized by three key properties: (1) frequency, (2) wavelength, and (3) amplitude.
The frequency of a sound wave determines its pitch. Think of the notes on a piano: the piano keys toward the left sound very low (low in pitch) and the piano keys toward the right sound very high (high in pitch). Pitch is measured in units of Hertz, often abbreviated as Hz. Going back to the piano, the highest note on the piano has a frequency of about 4,200 Hz and the lowest note on the piano has a frequency of about 27 Hz. The range of frequencies that a speaker can produce is one of the most common technical specifications you’ll encounter when buying a speaker, and one of the most useful in determining the right speaker for your needs.
Frequency is inversely proportional to wavelength. This means that low frequencies have long wavelengths, and high frequencies have short wavelengths. Wavelength has a profound impact on speaker design. Again going back to the piano, the highest note on the piano has a wavelength of about 8 centimeters, whereas the lowest note on the piano has a wavelength of about 12.5 meters (yes, meters!).
Remember that the diaphragm inside a speaker has to push and pull air repeatedly in order to create sound waves. You don’t need to move that much air in order to create a short wavelength (like 8 cm), but you do have to move the air very quickly. As a result, the speaker component that creates these high frequencies (a tweeter) is small in size. However, you do need to push and pull a considerable amount of air in order to create a wavelength of 12.5 meters! The speaker component that creates low frequencies (a woofer) is therefore much larger in size than a tweeter. Since it’s comparatively much more challenging to push and pull the air required to generate the wavelengths for low frequencies, some speaker designs don’t even attempt to produce the very low frequencies – instead offloading this responsibility to a subwoofer.
Lastly, the amplitude of a sound wave helps determine its loudness. Sound waves with higher amplitudes have more energy and greater intensity, so they sound louder. The extra energy needed to create waves with higher amplitudes means speakers that are louder require more power. Sound power is measured in Watts (W), and is one of the most useful specifications in determining which speaker is best for your needs. Another way you can make a speaker louder is by having more speakers components (more woofers and tweeters) so that more air can get pushed and pulled, which results in more volume. So in addition to requiring more power, louder speakers are also larger in size. But don’t forget that a larger speaker also means a heavier and less portable speaker, so there will be a tradeoff here according to your specific needs.
3. The Frequency Range of Human Hearing
The human hearing range describes the spectrum of frequencies that can be heard by humans, and spans from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Since a speaker is designed to produce audible sound frequencies, one of the most important pieces of information to know is the frequency range of a speaker. As mentioned earlier, speakers can fairly easily produce high frequencies – so you’ll almost always find the upper limit of a speaker’s frequency range to be 20 kHz. The true differentiator will be the lower limit of a speaker’s frequency range. If you want amazing, deep bass then look for speakers that can hit very low frequencies (below 50 Hz). Some speakers (like PA systems) are not designed to produce very low frequencies, so their lower frequency limit might not look too impressive. However, these speakers usually include a line out for a subwoofer in case deep bass is needed.
One of the main differences between speakers is what specific components they use to make sound. I touched on several components in the above Important Background Information section, but here I’ll list (in alphabetical order) and explain some of the most common speaker components you’re likely to encounter when buying a speaker.
Many people use the terms amplifier and speaker interchangeably, but they are two very different devices. An audio power amplifier takes an input signal – say a guitar signal – and boosts (amplifies!) this signal to a level that will drive a speaker properly. The confusion occurs because many speakers have an amplifier integrated inside the speaker enclosure, therefore it’s easy to think that an amplifier and a speaker are the same thing. Just remember that an amplifier processes a signal before it goes to a speaker driver.
Power amplifiers have different classes, and you might see the class of the amplifier listed in technical specifications or product marketing as a selling point. Class-D amplifiers are the most efficient and don’t require the large heat sinks that other amplifier classes require, making them much lighter in weight and more ideal for use in portable speakers. Class AB amplifiers are also seen in high-quality speakers.
You’re likely to come across the need for standalone amplifiers in two speaker categories: (1) passive PA speakers, and (2) high-fidelity home audio systems. Audiolab is known for making some great amplifiers, such as the 6000A Integrated Amplifier:
A speaker driver is responsible for producing a specific portion of the audible frequency range. Drivers made for high frequencies are called tweeters, drivers made for middle frequencies are called mid-range drivers, drivers made for low frequencies are called woofers, and drivers made for the lowest frequencies are called subwoofers. The term driver is occasionally used interchangeably with the term speaker, which can be a bit confusing at times.
Horns are very efficient at producing high and midrange frequencies, and are also very loud. So you usually only see horns on PA systems or speakers meant for large venues. A compression driver is often used to generate sound in a horn. Occasionally you won’t even see the term horn used in a speaker’s description/technical specs, and instead will just see the term compression driver. You might also see the word neodymium thrown in too, as in the term neodymium compression driver. Neodymium magnets are the strongest permanent magnets known, and are often used in professional PA systems and other professional-grade speakers.
The image below on the left is the JBL PRX825 – a professional-grade PA speaker. The image on the right shows the speaker without its encasing, revealing a 1.5 inch horn above two 15 inch woofers.JBL PRX825 Professional Loudspeaker
Subwoofers exist to more optimally generate the very lowest audible frequencies (approximately 20 Hz to 200 Hz), which can be difficult for traditional woofers. Subwoofers are never used as standalone speakers. Instead, many speakers have a line out to connect a subwoofer, which will then augment the speaker’s low-frequency range. Oftentimes you see the subwoofer design in the product description, such as a bass reflex system or bass radiators. Subwoofers are commonly seen accompanying home entertainment systems and PA systems.
Klipsch is known for making some of the best subwoofers available, and they look pretty cool too. This is one of their most popular 12 inch subwoofers, the R-12SW:
A transducer simply converts energy from one form to another. Inside a speaker, electrical audio signals are converted into sound waves by a transducer. It’s not really something you’d be able to use to compare different speakers, but occasionally it is used in a product description or technical data sheet.
JBL frequently uses the term transducer in its technical specification sheets when it lists the quantity and size of a speaker’s woofers and tweeters. For example, this is exactly how JBL describes its Charge 5 speaker: “Transducer: 52mm x 90mm woofer, 20mm tweeter.”
A tweeter is designed to produce high frequencies (approximately 5 kHz to 20 kHz), and the term is derived from the high-pitched sounds made by birds (tweets). Since a tweeter produces high frequencies, it is much smaller in size than its woofer counterpart (typically one to two inches). Occasionally you’ll also see the type of tweeter used in a speaker’s description, such as a dome tweeter or a piezo tweeter.
The image below on the left is the W-KING T9 – a portable party speaker. The image on the right shows the speaker without its encasing, revealing two 1.2 inch tweeters in the middle (on the left and right) with two 4 inch woofers above and below the tweeters.W-KING T9 Portable Party Speaker
The counterpart of a tweeter, a woofer is designed to produce low frequencies (approximately 50 Hz to 1000 Hz), and the term is derived from the low-pitched sound of a dog’s bark (a woof). Since a woofer produces low frequencies, it is large in size (typically something like four to twelve inches). Woofers also commonly reproduce the midrange frequencies on many speakers.
The below speaker from Audioengine – the A5+ Home Music System – clearly shows a 5 inch woofer toward the bottom of the speaker (below a 0.75 inch dome tweeter):
The Many Different Types of Speakers
The most important thing to figure out before researching speakers is what type of speaker you want. Speakers made for a certain speaker category are engineered with designs and features specific to that category. PA speakers intended for use by singers, for instance, might produce crystal-clear midrange and high frequencies that are ideal for great-sounding vocals – but since they focus on upper frequencies they might not have the best bass response.
If you can first narrow your target research to one or two speaker categories, you can much more easily (and sanely!) compare different speakers to arrive at the best speaker for your needs. Here’s a fairly exhaustive list (in alphabetical order) of speaker categories that you might encounter when buying a speaker. Manufactures and brands tend to use their own wording for speaker types (for instance, all-weather speakers vs. outdoor speakers), so I’ve tried my best to include all the terminology variations you’ll come across.
Hi-Fi speakers are for true audiophiles, where sound quality is of utmost importance and price is a distant factor. You’re most likely to come across these speakers in first-rate home audio systems. They also tend to be artistically designed (I hesitate to say they are aesthetically pleasing as some designs, in my opinion, are too bold and don’t look very nice).
The KEF LS50 Wireless II is something of a legend in Hi-Fi circles, and is often praised as one of the best all-in-one Hi-Fi music systems:
Hi-Fi speakers can cost a lot – as much as a car, or even a house…seriously! Here’s an article ranking the best speakers between $50,000 and $100,000. The Von Schweikert Ultra Reference 11 Loudspeaker costs $300,000 per pair! And some Hi-Fi speakers cost over $1,000,000! Due to their extreme price tag, purchasing these units is usually restricted to high-end audio retail stores (by appointment only, of course).
This category can refer to one of two subtypes of speakers. Sometimes “home” means smaller, portable Smart speakers that are voice-controllable with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. These speakers can also have easy access to AM/FM radio, a visible clock, and tend to look pretty stylish. The Bose Smart Speaker 500 is a great example of a home smart speaker:
Other times, “home” means Home Cinema, Home Entertainment, or Home Theater. These speakers are really part of a larger, surround-sound speaker system (via Dolby Atmos or similar technology). They are designed to be both powerful and stylish, and will immerse you in sound from every direction. Numerous subtypes exist, such as “bookshelf” speakers, “floor-standing” speakers, “sound bar” speakers, and many more.
These speakers are intended for gigging musicians. Floor monitors are located on stage, but are faced toward the band not the audience. When musicians are performing on stage, it can be hard for them to hear their own sound above the overall volume of the band. So speakers directed toward the musicians let them hear themselves and fellow band members clearly.
Floor monitor speakers are typically small in size, often including just a single full-range driver and a single horn/tweeter. They also tend to be “wedge” shaped so they’re relatively inconspicuous and unnoticeable to the audience, like this Peavey PV 12M floor monitor
A loudspeaker is a pretty vague and ambiguous term, and is often used interchangeably with the terms speaker or speaker driver. Usually a loudspeaker refers to a speaker enclosure with multiple drivers, and is typically large in size and tower-shaped. You’re most likely to come across this term when browsing professional-grade speakers.
For instance, the speaker I used to demonstrate what a horn looks like – the JBL PRX825 – JBL refers to this speaker in its product description and documentation as a sound reinforcement loudspeaker.
Bose also has a professional-grade PA speaker – the F1 Model 812 Flexible Array Loudspeaker – that is referred to specifically as a loudspeaker.
We all know that weather can be unpredictable, so outdoor speakers are primarily water-resistant (or even water-proof). The tradeoff for the extremely durable, rugged design is a slight hit in sound quality. Sometimes these are also called All-Weather speakers. Just make sure to read the full product description, as they are often marketed as having excellent weather-proofing but are actually only water-resistant.
The Yamaha NS-AW150 is an example of an outdoor speaker that is often mounted above a porch:
Passive vs. Powered
In the Speaker Components section I talked about amplifiers, and how some speakers include an amplifier in their enclosure, whereas other speakers need a standalone amplifier. Well, this is where that distinction comes in. A powered speaker has a power amplifier integrated into its enclosure. It’s an all-in-one, ready-to-go speaker. Just power it up and start playing music. A passive speaker requires a separate amplifier to be purchased and used in conjunction with the speaker. A power amplifier can cost as much as a speaker, so buying a passive speaker basically doubles your overall cost since you’ll also need to buy an amplifier.
You’re most likely to come across the passive vs. powered distinction in PA systems and Hi-Fi home audio systems. The Klipsch Synergy Black Label B-200 is an example of a passive bookshelf speaker for a Hi-Fi home audio setup:
PA (Public Address)
PA speakers are geared toward announcers, fitness instructors, singers, and other vocalists. These users need great microphones, and great microphones require a special XLR connection (not the more common 1/4 inch jack). So PA speakers will have one or more XLR-specific microphone inputs. Given the context of vocal users, PA speakers tend to tradeoff fantastic reproduction of the human vocal range frequencies for a weaker, more subdued bass response.
The Powerwerks PW50 is a popular PA speaker for small-sized venues:
Party speakers have it all. Because everyone wants to hear great sounding music at a party, their sound quality is excellent (and their bass response is particularly impressive). Partiers also want to be entertained, so these speakers also tend to have captivating lights – often syncing to the beat of the music. And for parties where karaoke is a must, these speakers frequently have some microphone/guitar inputs (but not as many inputs as professional speakers). Last, if the party needs to move your speaker better be able to move too – so party speakers are usually portable.
The JBL PartyBox 110 is one of the best party speakers you can buy:
Speakers in this category will sound phenomenal and will be some of the loudest you can buy. But they will also have a ton of features that the average user won’t care about, such as built-in sound mixers and EQ, sound effects (commonly delay, chorus, and reverb), a large number of input/output connections, and suspension points for hanging the speaker above an audience.
The Bose L1 Pro8 is an example of a professional-grade speaker:
Studio monitors are designed specifically for audio production applications like mixing and mastering. In a sound studio, it is the job of an audio engineer to create the optimal sound experience for the end-listener. So they need to hear the original audio “as-is” – without any tonal embellishment imparted by a speaker. Studio monitors are therefore designed to produce flat frequency responses, meaning that all audible frequencies are treated equally (in contrast to a party speaker, for example, which might emphasize bass frequencies to yield a thumping bass desirable for party settings).
The PreSonus Eris E3.5 one of the most popular studio monitors:
Obviously, the emphasis here is portability. You’ll also see these called Bluetooth or Portable speakers. They are primarily meant for streaming music from your phone or tablet. Size, appearance, and sound quality can vary greatly depending on the specific speaker. A key differentiator in this category will be battery life.
The Bose SoundLink Flex is an astonishingly crisp and balanced wireless speaker:
Interpreting and Using Technical Specifications
Marketing for speakers interestingly assumes you know quite a bit about audio production and technical specifications. Most of us, obviously, do not, and this is sadly where the speaker-buying experience can turn frustrating and overwhelming. Here are some of the most common technical specs you’re likely to encounter, what they mean, and most importantly how they influence the cost and quality of speakers.
Amplifier Class (unitless)
Powered speakers have amplifiers built-in to their enclosures. There are several different types of amplifiers, categorized by amplifier class. The class specifies an amplifier’s characteristics, design principles, and performance. The most common amplifier classes are A, B, A/B (also listed as AB), and D. Most high-quality speakers use amplifiers from either class AB or D. Apart from sounding cool, amplifier class isn’t a particularly useful metric to compare different speaker models.
Driver Size (units: in. or cm)
The size of the individual drivers a speaker uses is always mentioned, and is quoted in inches or centimeters. In fact, many speaker models are named by their driver size (for instance, the Fender Fighter 12 has a 12-inch woofer). Driver size primarily affects bass response: bigger woofers can produce lower frequencies. Driver size can also affect loudness, as larger drivers can move more air and thus create louder sounds. However, for the purpose of loudness it’s more common to see multiple smaller drivers used in tandem than it is to see one really large driver. Increasing driver size will correspondingly increase the overall size, weight, and cost of a speaker.
Coverage Angle / Dispersion (units: degrees)
A speaker’s coverage angle, also known as its dispersion, indicates how broadly or narrowly sound projects from the speaker. It is an angle, and is measured in degrees. Sound from a speaker with a large coverage angle will reach many people in a room clearly. Conversely, sound from a speaker with a small coverage angle will reach a limited/targeted audience in a room.
Speaker type and shape/size determine coverage angle. In general, a large coverage angle is desirable: you want the widest possible audience to hear music coming from a speaker. The one exception is a floor monitor, which typically has a small coverage angle since the audio projecting from a floor monitor is meant to be heard by a single performer.
Coverage angle is usually split into two values: the horizontal dispersion and the vertical dispersion. Example values might be something like 140 degrees for horizontal dispersion and 40 degrees for vertical dispersion.
Frequency Response and Frequency Range (units: Hz with +/- dB)
A speaker’s frequency response (sometimes also called its frequency range) tells you what audible frequencies the speaker can produce. For instance, you might see a frequency response listed as 45 Hz to 20 kHz. Frequencies outside of this range will not be output from the speaker. Since high frequencies are comparatively easier to produce, the more telling number is the lower limit of the frequency response. Speakers that can get below 50 Hz are considered great and don’t need a subwoofer to augment their bass response. In general, the lower in frequency that a speaker can go the more it will cost.
While a speaker’s frequency range is useful information, it doesn’t tell you how accurately the speaker produces its frequencies. Therefore, frequency response is usually quoted with a degree of accuracy, expressed as a +/- variation in decibels (dB). The smaller this number is, the higher in quality the speaker will be. So you might see a frequency response quoted as 45 Hz to 20 kHz, but then see +/- 6 dB in parentheses. Great speakers will have an accuracy of at least +/- 6 dB, and +/- 3 dB is very impressive. The cost of the speaker will scale with its accuracy, so expect to pay quite a bit for incredibly accurate speakers.
Full-range vs. Two-way vs. Three-way (unitless)
A speaker’s frequency response can cover a very large range of frequencies. Reproducing all of these frequencies with just one speaker driver is known as a full-range driver. This design is common for smaller, portable speakers, but usually doesn’t have optimal sound quality (particularly suffering from poor bass response).
Higher quality speakers typically split the frequency response into separate frequency zones, and dedicate certain drivers for reproducing just the frequencies in their designated zone. Splitting the frequency range into two zones is called a two-way speaker. These speakers usually have the lower frequency zone handled by a woofer and the higher frequency zone handled by a tweeter. Splitting the frequency range into three zones is called a three-way speaker. These speakers add a midrange frequency zone that is handled by a mid-range driver.
With two-way and three-way speakers, you’ll also see the term crossover frequency used. Quoted in units of Hertz (Hz), this is simply the point(s) in the frequency range where sound production switches from one speaker driver to another. It doesn’t have an impact on sound quality, but is often listed in technical spec sheets.
Impedance (units: Ohms, also notated as the Omega symbol)
Impedance (also listed as nominal impedance) is the level of resistance to the flow of electrical current, and is measured in Ohms. Lower impedance speakers can produce higher quality audio, whereas higher impedance speakers can allow longer cable runs and more speakers per amp channel. Typical values are approximately 4 Ohms or 8 Ohms. This specification is usually reported only for professional-grade or high-fidelity speakers. In general, a speaker’s impedance is matched to what its power amplifier can handle so you typically won’t see this spec when buying powered speakers.
Note that impedance is also noted by the letter Z. For a speaker with 1/4 inch input jacks, you might see one listed as hi-Z. This is a high-impedance jack, and is used for connecting guitars to the speaker (you can connect microphones, for instance, to the other low-impedance jacks).
Maximum SPL (units: dB)
SPL stands for Sound Pressure Level, and the max SPL indicates the highest sound pressure level the speaker can generate before undesirable audio distortion is produced. It’s essentially the loudest sound level the speaker can clearly and precisely make. It’s measured one meter away from the speaker, and is expressed in decibels (dB). High max SPLs are commonly seen in professional-grade or PA speakers, but these speakers are also big, hefty, and cost a lot more.
You might see a max SPL such as 129 dB quoted. It’s important to keep in mind the decibel scale and examples of noise levels measured in decibels so you can figure out how loud and audible you need your speaker to be:
|Sound Level (in decibels)||Example Activity|
|130||Jet engine at takeoff|
|90||Hair dryer/lawn mower|
Power Rating (units: W)
It takes energy to move the air inside a speaker in order to produce sound. The amount of energy (power) a speaker uses (before electrical overload and speaker damage occurs) is known as its power rating, and is measured in Watts (W). A speaker’s power rating is also an indirect measure of its loudness, as the louder a speaker needs to be the more power it needs to handle. A higher power rating will also result in a larger speaker, and therefore a more expensive speaker.
Power rating will vary significantly by speaker type and intended use. For reference, my guitar amp (a Marshall DSL40) has a 40W power rating. That is capable of producing incredibly loud sounds, and is more than sufficient for indoor gigs sized for a few hundred people. In fact, when I practice I’m typically at around 5W, and my ears will start to hurt at 10W.
Power rating alone, however, tells only one part of the story. Perhaps more important is whether the power rating is a RMS (root means square) or peak measurement. RMS (also known as continuous) is the power rating measured over a continuous, long duration of time. This is the power rating you want to look at, as it more accurately reflects typical speaker use (you’re probably going to be using your speaker for a few hours straight, right?). Peak power rating is measured over a short duration of time, and will always be higher than RMS/continuous measurements.
Be very careful with power rating and RMS vs. peak measurements! Many manufacturers will either (1) market a speaker’s peak power rating to make the speaker seem more impressive and capable than it really is (and then bury the RMS power rating in fine print somewhere in the technical specs), or (2) not even say whether the quoted power rating is RMS or peak.
Sensitivity (units: dB)
This is the sound pressure level (SPL) produced by a speaker in a non-reverberant environment. Sensitivity is specified in decibels (dB) and measured one meter from the speaker. Speakers with higher sensitivities produce louder sounds, but also cost more. An example value for a speaker’s sensitivity is 99 dB.
Signal-to-noise Ratio (units: dB)
The internal components and signal chain of a speaker add a bit of noise to its output sound. The signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), expressed in decibels (dB), indicates how much greater the output signal from a speaker is over its noise level. Higher-quality speakers have higher SNR values, but also cost more. An example value is 80 dB.
How to Compare Speakers
What’s important in a speaker often differs among people and their budget. That being said, here are the factors and technical specifications I use to compare different speaker models. Note that I’m assuming you want a wireless, Bluetooth-capable speaker to be used mostly for general music streaming (who really wants to be running extension cords all over the place?).
- Technical Specs
- Frequency response (in particular, the lower limit)
- Frequency response accuracy
- Power rating (RMS/continuous only)
- Max SPL or sensitivity (if available)
- Durability & Portability
- Water-resistance/weather-proofing (IP code)
- Battery life
- Wireless speaker pairing
- Overall design and aesthetics
For technical specs, the frequency response and power rating are the only two specs that are always given – so I check these first. Because I listen to a lot of much music on my phone (which has no bass), when it comes to a nice speaker I like to hear deep, booming bass. So I make sure that speakers reach 20 kHz for their upper frequency limit, then use their lower frequency limit as a discerning factor. Next I look at a speaker’s power rating (but only the RMS/continuous measurement) as a surrogate for loudness. If a speaker’s technical docs mention max SPL or sensitivity, I prefer to use those as they’re direct measurements of loudness. These metrics aren’t always listed, though, so power rating acts as a decent proxy.
With sound quality taken care of, I turn to a speaker’s durability and portability. These factors will tell you how practical a speaker is. Some form of weather-proofing or water-resistance (usually given by an IP code) is a must. A nice speaker is a serious investment, so it’s a good idea to make sure that it’s reasonably well-protected. I also like to see ample battery life (at least 6 hours). You want to make sure your speaker can last through an entire party (but it doesn’t need to be able to run for two days straight). Last, I look at a speaker’s weight. Something around 25 or 30 lbs (11-14 kilograms) is an upper limit for me for reasonable portability. My Marshall DSL40 guitar amp weighs 50 lbs (23 kilograms), and it’s a pain to drag to venues.
The next discriminating factor I look at is connectivity. I like to see some basic input/output to ensure the speaker has additional uses beyond music streaming (I use high-end speakers for synthesizer sounds, clean guitar, and drum beats in my band). A couple of 1/4 inch jacks is good enough, but I don’t need a full mixer. Additionally, wireless speaker pairing is a huge plus for me. I am a strong proponent of utilizing two speakers to create better sound coverage and dispersion, and doing so without wires is blissful (again, being in a band I could use a few less wires in my life!).
All of the above factors help determine how a speaker will function, so now I consider the speaker’s style. I really enjoy speakers that have dynamic light shows, and specifically ones that sync to the beat of the music. It genuinely creates a unique, immersive audiovisual experience. Countless adults have commented on how cool the lights are on my JBL PartyBox 110, plus they keep young children entertained too. Finally, I judge the overall design of a speaker. I like to see a more modern, sleek appearance with curved edges and colored trim. I’m definitely not a fan of boxy, old-school looking boomboxes.
My Advice and Speaker Recommendations
A high-quality speaker is an investment – it will probably cost a few hundred dollars, if not close to a thousand dollars. Speaker manufacturers know this, and also know that you’re probably not going to be buying another costly speaker anytime soon. So they use aggressive marketing to try to upsell you a speaker that has way more than you really need. Just take a deep breath and think – do you really need a speaker that can blast music at 130 dB? Because if you even try to get anywhere near that loud, you’ll be fielding noise-complaint visits from the cops.
My advice is to not get the single most expensive speaker you can afford, but to get two really good speakers. If you were going to spend one thousand dollars on a speaker, instead consider spending eight hundred dollars on two speakers. Every bar, club, and venue uses multiple speakers. There are even multiple speakers in your car. If you want something to sound good, you need to use multiple speakers. You’ll be able to cover a much larger area with two speakers, ensuring everyone can hear sublime music. And with wireless speaker pairing, all you have to do is press a button and both speakers will be synced together.
Here are my picks for the best speakers you can buy:
1. Best Overall Speaker: JBL PartyBox (110 or 310)
The JBL PartyBox 110 is unbeatable across the board. It’s sound quality is superb, and features a deep, booming bass (going down to 45 Hz). It has ample loudness (160 Watts RMS, and a max SPL of 100 dB). The JBL PartyBox 110’s portability is perfect, featuring a battery-life of 12 hours and a weight of just 23.5 lbs. Plus it has an IPX4 rating (splash-proof), so you don’t have to worry if someone spills a drink on it. It has two 1/4 inch inputs in case you want to connect a guitar or microphone. You can also wirelessly pair two PartyBox speakers, which I recommend for a bigger and better sound. Lastly, it features a lightshow that syncs to the beat of the music – and every kind of music is better with a lightshow!
The JBL PartyBox 110 sits at a very attractive price point ($400) so that you can purchase two speakers for widespread audio dispersion. It’s a stylish and beautiful speaker you’ll wish you purchased sooner!
The JBL PartyBox 310 is also a phenomenal speaker, and many websites and top-10 lists rank the 310 as the best party speaker. Personally, though, I don’t think the 310 is worth the extra money. It has the same lower frequency limit as the 110 (45 Hz), but with slightly more power handling (240 Watts RMS). It also weighs 40 lbs, with the added weight mostly supporting a slightly longer battery life (18 hours). The 310 also costs $550, making it unrealistic to purchase two speakers.
2. Runner-up: SOUNDBOKS (Gen. 2 or 3)
As far as sound quality and loudness, both the Gen. 2 and Gen. 3 versions of the SOUNDBOKS speakers are excellent: they both go down to an impressive 40 Hz and can blast music at over 120 dB. While they are water-resistant, their larger weight (35 lbs) hampers portability. Most of that weight goes to a battery that lasts 40 hours, which is just excessive. There’s also no lightshow, and they don’t look attractive (just a big, black box). These speakers also start to break the bank, costing $700 for the Gen 2. and $1,000 for the Gen. 3.
3. If Price Didn’t Matter: DiamondBoxx (L3 or XL3)
DiamondBoxx is a relatively unknown speaker manufacturer, but they make the best portable speakers you can buy. Specifically, their L3 and XL3 models boast the most impressive technical specs you’ll find. The L3 goes down to 38 Hz and the XL3 goes down to 35 Hz, with both models having +/- 3dB frequency response accuracy! Both models are also durable and robustly built, and have a 30-hour battery life. They are pretty ugly in my opinion, but I guess sound quality beats aesthetics and design for some. Just be prepared to pay for that deep bass and superb sound quality: the L3 costs $1,000 and the XL3 costs $2,000!
Great Sounds/Songs to Test a Speaker’s Capabilities
You’re probably going to be making a speaker-buying decision without the opportunity to listen to the speaker. However, if you can test the speaker first, here are my recommendations and what to look for!
1. THX’s Deep Note
The iconic THX sound theme – known as Deep Note – was literally designed to blow you away. It features a distinctive, synthesized crescendo that starts off as a low rumble and proceeds to a deafening roar. In particular, the bass gets enormous – ground-shaking, window-rattling loud. It’s the perfect soundscape for testing speakers. If a speaker doesn’t blow you away with this, then it isn’t a quality speaker.
Fun fact: THX was founded by George Lucas in 1983. Coincidentally, the first feature film he directed was titled THX 1138.
2. Muse’s Madness
The first three minutes of Madness contain a super-synthesized, super-deep bass. It’s a great song to test a speaker with as the bass line contains some quick, staccato notes followed by a few notes of longer duration. You’ll easily be able to tell whether or not a speaker is struggling to switch between the shorter vs. longer bass notes.
Fun fact: Madness is the second track from Muse’s sixth studio album, The 2nd Law. Written by Matt Bellamy about his then-girlfriend Kate Hudson, it’s the song he’s most proud of from that album.
3. Katy Perry’s Dark Horse
The main hook of Dark Horse features a deep, steady bass that drives the song forward. While you’ve probably heard the song before, a good speaker will let you hear the low-end in a way you’ve never heard before.
Fun fact: the music video for Dark Horse became the first video by a female artist to reach 1 billion views on Vevo and 1 billion views on YouTube. As of this writing, the video has received over 3.2 billion views on YouTube, making it the 2nd most viewed music video of all time by a female artist – just behind another Katy Perry song, Roar (3.5 billion views).
4. Placebo’s Post Blue
An infectious guitar riff that’s accompanied by a grooving bass line, plus some electronic rock and synthesized sounds. What’s particularly nice about this song is that the guitar riff comes in and out during the verses, so when the guitar riff ends and the vocals come in you should still be able to hear the bass! If all you hear are the vocals, then you need a speaker with better bass response! And when the guitar riff comes back in, you can hear how balanced the speaker is as the guitar’s midrange frequencies are added back in to the mix.
Fun fact: While Placebo founders Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal both attended the same school (the International School of Luxembourg), they didn’t really know each other as they were part of different social circles. The two met by chance in 1994 at the South Kensington tube station, quickly forming the band Placebo.
5. Frequency Sweep
This is a simple sinusoidal wave going trough entire human audible hearing range, starting at 20 Hz and ending at 20 kHz. It’s not the most fun way to test a speaker, but will definitely reveal its bass response and low-end frequency capabilities (especially if you can’t hear anything below 50 Hz!).
Did this guide help answer your questions about speakers? Want to know anything else about speakers? Let me know in the comments below!
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