Different Music, Different Speakers?

A question I am frequently asked by consumers considering purchasing a pair of Ohm speakers is: “Well, I listen to rock – or classical, or vocal – music, are your speakers good for me?” In other words, are there speakers that are better for specific kinds of music?

Rather than thinking about it as “better for a specific kind of music,” I tend to think about the question in terms of the demands of different kinds of music.

The frequency response is one of those demands that vary. For instance, if you listen to organ music, you need a speaker – or a system with a subwoofer – that reaches down to 16 Hz accurately. However, most of the music – and other things – we hear are pretty firmly planted in the mid-range. We’ll define that as from about 110 Hz to about 3,500 Hz. If you’re having trouble getting an idea of what frequencies like that sound like, if you’ve got a faulty audio circuit, the hum produced is 60 Hz – the frequency of the AC circuit. A piano’s Middle C is around 261.6 Hz. A range of a cello goes up to about 1,000 Hz (1 kHz)and a violin’s top note is about 3,500 Hz.

So, why do speakers and other audio components spec out to 20,000 Hz? The answer is overtones, harmonics and – as we talked about with amplifiers – headroom. Much of what we perceive as music are sounds not produced directly by the instruments but a perception of sound made indirectly. A “harmonic” is a naturally occurring part of a sound wave that is a multiple – in its frequency – of the actual note being played. While there are technical differences between harmonics and overtones, in music they are often used interchangeably. Generally, the needed range for Rock music is about 60 Hz to 8,000 Hz, with Classical extending at both ends from 40 to 12,000 Hz.

The “dynamic range” of the genre listened to is another area where the kind of music may make a difference. Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and softest passages. As we have discussed previously, many recordings are made with the end user and the end user’s system in mind. For instance, if the expectation is that the recording’s major play will be in a car, or other high-noise environment, compression may be applied in the recording process. That will limit the dynamic range and assure that the soft passages will be heard and the loud passages will not be painfully loud. Percussive instruments – piano, drums, etc. – have a very wide dynamic range. String instruments – violins, guitars, etc. – have a much narrower dynamic range. Voices usually have very limited dynamic range to keep them intelligible.

Frequently, speakers have a minimum and maximum power listed as part of their spec sheet. The “minimum” meaning the least watts required for acceptable results with the speaker. The maximum, sometimes called “power handling capability” is the delivered amp power just short of serious trouble – massive distortion (clipping) or outright damage. Again, headroom is the key. If you listen to music with a wide dynamic range or at high volume levels, choose a speaker that can handle the stress you will provide.

OK, so much for the music or listening requirements for a speaker. Ultimately, high fidelity speakers are reproducers of instruments. The speakers should reproduce the sounds that the performers and engineers desired; not an “improvement”.

If two speakers with similar dispersion can reproduce the frequency range and dynamic range of the music, they should sound similar. If they were both perfect, within their limitations, they would sound the same – the way the recording was engineered to sound; but no loudspeaker is perfect – yet. And remember, that even with the most carefully chosen speakers, the room in which they are located and the final speaker positions have enormous impact on the final sound delivered.

Listening is the ultimate arbiter of the “right” speaker.

Enjoy & Good Listening!

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John Strohbeen Author

John Strohbeen was the President and Chief Engineer of Ohm Acoustics from 1978-2023.

John Strohbeen

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