How to Rate Speakers

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What the numbers mean.

The ratings come from a subjective view on the objective measurements…what?  That means that certain measurements in speakers are important and others are simply informational or insignificant when planning a purchase.  Some of the measurements get larger overall importance and others get less of a spread between the numbers.  We are also open to suggestions!  If you have an opinion on these ratings, send them in!

One thing these ratings are NOT are listening tests.  But with that said, you can still get a great feel for how these speakers will sound because of the importance given to the things that matter most.  Significantly, the materials that the speakers are made out of.  The materials account for 30% of the overall index!  There are also no “0”s available to rate.  All speakers have some purpose and some factor of value.  The lowest score possible would be a 51 and the highest would be a 100.

Another great thing about this rating scale is that YOU can use it on any model out there as long as they supply the numbers.  WARNING, if you can’t determine one or more of the categories from their literature or by calling, they’re hiding something!  Maybe it’s a red flag or just a yellow flag, but it’s a WARNING flag to ask more questions.

So lets get started!  The items we review will be listed in order of importance.  The most important first.

1. Woofer Material

The woofer is the larger speaker in the array.  It’s responsible for all the lowest frequencies up to and through some of the vocal ranges.  The ability of this driver to move fast and resist flexing directly corresponds to how low and how rich the music will sound.  The stronger and stiffer and lighter a driver can be made will determine how fast the driver will respond and recover during the audio cycle.

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2. Tweeter Material

The tweeter is the small speaker in the array.  It’s responsible for some of the vocals up to the highest delicate ranges.  Again, the ability of the tweeter to move fast and recover corresponds to how high and crystal clear the music will sound.  These drivers can be capable of moving 30,000 times per second!

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3. Lowest Frequency Response

First off, there’s A LOT of misinformation about frequency out there.  MISLEADING in fact.  The number you’re looking for when looking at frequency is HOW the frequency is determined.  This is expressed in decibels (dB) above or below the mean level of ALL the frequencies that the speaker is reproducing.  The industry standard of speaker companies that are serious about sound is (+ – 3dB).  The industry standard of speaker companies interested in “marketing” their speakers is (+ – 9dB).  In audio terms, that’s a magnitude of 3 times the amount of power (dB) expressed.  In short, it’s lying, but rationalized.  It’s that their speakers CAN reproduce those frequencies.  If a company doesn’t say it’s (+ – 3dB), then they’re not being completely honest with you.  However, since we can’t make them all comply, we will play by their “rules” and give you the “Lowest” frequency possible in our ratings (+ – 9dB).

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4. Highest Frequency Response

Same as above in terms of the accuracy of representation of numbers.  The scale will be considered (+ – 9dB).

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5. Crossover

The crossover is probably the hardest concept to grasp of any component in a speaker assembly.  In short, it’s the traffic cop for frequencies.  It divides the frequencies up, sending the low frequencies to the woofer and the highs to the tweeter.  But it would be unfair to say that’s all it does.  There are volumes written on crossovers and their tweaks that can be done to the music curve.  However, most of these tweaks happen in the high-end audiophile range of speakers.  Speakers that we’re not really rating here on “objective” standards.  These audiophile speakers are “art” to the ears.  Only certain ears can hear these details.  For our conversation we’re keeping it simple and showing the different “major” design elements that you’ll find in “consumer” grade speakers.

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6. Special Features

Here’s a free form category.  We’ll give ’em one point for each “distinctive” feature they have.  Some might be important to you, so we’ll try and list them as best we can when we see them:

  • Trimless grills
  • 4/8 ohm switch
  • Auto-protect circuitry (over-power protection)
  • Pivoting tweeters
  • Fully angled speakers (both woofer and tweeter… = better)
  • Compression binding posts (helps wire stay secure)
  • Some special mounting system that helps ease of install
  • Cures cancer…it could happen!

7. Warranty

This is often overlooked as you make a choice only later to find out the return period is too short.  Many speaker makers are going to lifetime warranties.  It’s fairly easy to make that assurance with a well made speaker though.

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8. Sensitivity

Now we’re getting pretty low on the importance scale.  Sensitivity is just the efficiency rating.  How many watts does it take to make how many decibels.  Most consumer grade speakers fall within 5 dB of each other and most of us don’t take our speakers to the highest levels of power.

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9. Wattage

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me something about wattage, I think I’d have a couple hundred bucks!  Almost everyone asks about “how many watts does it have?” or “what’s the wattage?”.  How many?!!  There’s not nearly enough space hear to get started on what wattage really means.  So we’re going to go with the short answer for the 21st century…it doesn’t really matter.  In 1985 it might have mattered, because everybody was selling 300 or 500 watt speakers…or were they?  For some reason wattage has become the #1 deciding factor for buying a speaker.  It’s also the EASIEST thing to increase on a speaker.  Overall wattage is essentially a factor of how much heat a speaker can dissipate over time before it fails (there are other factors less significant to ratings).  But all a speaker maker has to do is slap a larger magnet and thicker voice coil inside (that’s a wire wrapped around a toilet roll on a cheap speaker) and you’ve got a 200 watt speaker.  Now…how does it sound?  How low does it play?  How do those voices sound?  Doesn’t matter to the guy who looks at watts!  Settle down buyers…it matters a little, but not as much as you think.

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