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Quality vs. Quantity

Oh my, this is the part that I must refrain from typing 10 zillion pages. Differences exist in speakers that are so large that they can be heard in seconds--especially at the sub $150 level. Also, ridiculous specs like 1000W PMPO (peak music power output) boggle the mind. Yeah, like you should believe that some wall wart labeled as 10W can pump out 100 times that to your shiny new $49 boomers. PMPO is not a verifiable spec in any way shape or form, that's why over 20 years ago, the FTC developed strict standards for amplifier claims.

Because 99% of all computer speakers are BYOA (bring your own amps), power ratings are essentially meaningless. Since one can't be evaluated without the other, only the end result (total output) holds any significance. But do you need something that can make your pants/skirts flap? Some of the highest quality sound can be had with less power than you might think. It all depends on the total efficiency of the system, not just a wattage printed on a box side panel.


This is where SPL rears its head. Speakers have a particular efficiency. When a set amount of power, say 1 watt, is fed to the device, output is measured at a certain distance, say 1 meter, and SPL can be calculated. If a certain midrange produces 90dB SPL @ 1W @ 1m, then we have a known reference from which to base further calculations.

But most computer speakers have their own internal amplifiers, so individual efficiencies can't be measured easily. Total SPL can be measured and these output specs are becoming the defacto standard--you can find max SPL's quoted on an increasing number of speakers boxes. Here's a quickie guide to how loud is loud; every 10dB increase is a doubling of perceived loudness.

Sound Level
Threshold of perceivable sound
Quiet country night, breath sounds
Smooth running car engine
Average conversation
Background music
Average music listening level
Loud music
Most rock/pop concerts
Threshold of pain over time (e.g. hours)
Rapid hearing loss over time (e.g. minutes)
"WHAT! I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" <---deaf in seconds
Heart attack possible

If you enjoy your hearing, don't subject yourself to more than 110dB for an hour, some say even less. If the speakers you just purchased actually reproduce sustained levels of 110dB, please set an egg timer or something. Ringing ears and headaches are not cool.

Subjective Listening Tests

The conundrum: who's right? With an ever growing base of review sites, who's subjective opinion matters? With other hardware like motherboards and chipsets, all is needed is objective data and practical tests. Very little is actually subjective. It's impossible to review speakers without amps and a sound source. Therefore, the believability of the reviewer must come directly under fire. The crux of the argument is this: only those with studio recording experience can really know what certain instruments (including the human voice) sound like.

All my subjective listening sessions include a wide variety of tunes to be sure, but they also included several selections that I personally multi-tracked using my own analog/digital gear. I still periodically master or re-master various types of radio/TV ads and personal material when the situation arises. Because tube microphone pre-amps can run into the $1000's, I designed and built my own hybrid class A, no feedback pre-amp in 1996.

Merely saying, "I cranked 'em up with Q3 'til my ears bled" doesn't hold much water. What does that mean? Were the test units just loud? Measurements can, most of the time, shed some light as to why a particular set sounds weird in certain areas. On a rare occasion, tests cannot reveal why a speaker sounds good or bad. Transient analysis is still under development and besides, some of that high end evaluation gear is only available to the high end mags, like Stereophile. At $25K and up, I won't ever have the golden opportunity to even touch one...

If you glean nothing else from this article, remember the following: listen extensively for yourself. After all, whether I recommend something or not, you may have vastly different requirements. I only get excited when I hear "audio truth" or accuracy and emotion in the reproduction chain. I have one overriding rule: the midrange (200Hz-3kHz) must be neutral sounding. If voices and the vast majority of woodwind (unamplified) instruments sound like other instruments, I personally can't stand to listen for long.

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