Finding the best stereo speakers arguably is the most important things an individual interested in high fidelity in general and vinyl in particular can do. Of course, the same claim can be made for the amp, the turntable and the cartridge as well. So I guess it’s best to say that choosing speakers is an important step.
Stereo speakers are a good example of the blizzard of specs that makes it so difficult to see. A very nicely done feature by Phillip Nichols at B&H describes the important specifications for which to look. The challenge is that he lists 11: Passive vs. active; 2-way vs. 3-way; frequency response; maximum sound pressure level; amplifier class; amplifier and speaker power; crossover frequency; woofer size; sensitivity and total harmonic distortion.
He was wise to put it at the end, since it essentially says that much of what he wrote can safely be ignored.
Let’s take a look at two of these (amplifier class will be handled in a separate article).
Stereo speakers are segregated from the rest of the home system by what is referred to as a crossover network. In a passive speaker setup, the output from the amplifier (which already has been boosted by the preamp, which in turn had boosted the original signal from the cartridge) drives the speakers.
The incoming signal is divided into either two or three parts. In some cases, the speaker is a two-way unit comprised of tweeter and mid/bass speakers. The elements of a three-way speaker are a tweeter, mid-range and bass, according to What Hi-Fi? (which should gives its writers bylines).
As the name implies, active stereo speakers are a bit more complex. What Hi-Fi? explains that in an active setup the crossover network has an amplifier and, in essence, runs its own show. It takes the signal from the preamp and processes it at a far lower level than a passive network. This frees it up to more accurately reproduce what is on the record. At that point, the signal is amplified.
Gear Patrol highlights positives and negatives on the topic of active stereo speaker systems in its roundup. In short, the site says that they are loud — indeed, loud enough to overpower small rooms — and come with a variety of feature profiles. They are easier to use because they are self-contained.
There are negatives, of course. The first and most obvious issue is that they are more expensive. However, since they include the amp, these speaker systems lock the owner into a particular sound. This is fundamentally different than passive speaker systems in which changing the amp generates a different sound.
Active stereo speakers tend to be more expensive than passive speakers. Clearly, they are not for beginners. It’s not just for audiophiles either: Folks who like great sound and have the money can go active. All that matters is whether they like the sound better.
Frequency response is the ability of the stereo speaker to accurately reproduce the sound delivered to it. Doing so perfectly is a “flat” frequency response. This is easier said than done. In fact, it seems to be an idealistic goal. Here is how Axiom Audio’s Alan Lofft puts it:
But no speaker is perfect. Consequently, some tones may emerge from a given speaker somewhat softer or louder than others. We measure these variations in the speaker’s output–its frequency response–with the decibel (dB), a unit of relative volume, 1 dB being the smallest change in volume that most of us can detect. A difference of 3 dB is quite noticeable. A difference of 10 dB subjectively sounds like “twice as loud,” or “half as loud” if, for instance, the speaker’s output dropped by -10 dB at certain frequencies.
Luckily, it’s possible to compare frequency responses without really understanding the deeper technology. This post at ABT Electronics website is credited to “Carl P.” Carl (referring to him as “P.” would make this read like an informational article written by Kafka) provides a sort of cheat sheet in how to gauge frequency response:
A speaker’s variation from “flat” can be a useful gauge of its performance. This specification is stated as a “+/- x dB.” The tighter the variance, the more flat, or accurate, a speaker’s response. Typical variances range from +/- .5 dB to +/- 3 dB, with the lower figure usually bounding the frequency extremes. That is, a speaker whose published frequency response is 50-25 kHz, +/- 3 dB, will be -3 dB below “flat” at 50 Hz and 25 kHz. This doesn’t mean that information below 50 Hz will not be heard, only that the drop-off after that point may be steep.
The site will tackle the complicated topic of which class amp to use in a separate story. The bottom line is that there are several choices with trade offs focusing on fidelity and power consumption.
The world of audio equipment is full of rabbit holes filled with hard number specifications and subjective “expert” opinions. Ultimately, however, both are good guidelines. The real question is simple: Do you like what you hear?