Before You Buy
There are a few things you need to know before buying a speaker. Where do you want your speakers to go? Are you matching them up to an existing system? Do you need wired or wireless speakers? What ohms rating you need? These are the questions you should be able to answer when you're shopping, and having that knowledge ready will let you zero in on the right speaker for your needs.
You will need to determine whether or not you are building a wired or wireless sound system. If you just want to set up speakers and stream music from a device like your smartphone, you'll want a bluetooth wireless system. Of course, you need to make sure that the device actually sending the signal is bluetooth enabled, but generally this is very easy to determine.
If you're buying wired speakers, you'll have to run speaker wire to a transmitter or amplifier that will send the signal and play your music. You can purchase burial-rated speaker cable that will can run underground, or simply have your contractor wire it through the walls. You also have the option of running the wire under or along your trim. Needless to say, it is easy to hide or disguise the cables.
THE TAKEAWAY: Decide upfront, based upon your needs, whether to pursue wired or wireless speakers. Wired speakers require a console, which provides finer control of your audio, whereas wireless typically do not.
Mono vs. Stereo
You've probably heard the terms "mono" or "stereo" before, but what do those mean?
Stereo amplifiers output audio in two independent channels: the left and the right. These two signals are similar but not exactly the same. Sometimes, instruments or vocals are recorded to one channel over the other, and lacking that channel will harshly weaken the music. Some speakers only output mono audio, whereas most of them provide stereo sound, and others still will allow you to play both.
Pay attention to your amplifier, and use that to determine what speakers fit your needs best. If you have a mono amplifier, that is, one that sends the same exact signal to every channel, then mono speakers will work fine for your needs. You can have more than one, but as you're sending identical, single-channel audio, there won't be any sense of depth perception to the music. However, if you utilize a stereo amplifier with stereo speakers, you can utilize additional speakers to space out the sound and really play authentic, realistic-sounding audio.
THE TAKEAWAY: Pay attention to whether your chosen speaker outputs mono, stereo, or both options. This will prevent your audio solution from bottlenecking your sound and stripping out some of the details, which are very important to music in particular.
Let us say that you want to set up sound for your patio area. You have an amplifier, and you want to buy some amazing rock speakers for it (excellent choice, by the way). Every piece of sound equipment has what is called an ohms rating. That number will be on the device and in the manual. This has to do with electrical resistance, but all you really need to know is that, when buying speakers to go with your amplifier, make sure these ohms numbers match exactly. This is pretty easy is to do, since you are almost always going to be either 4 or 8. Why is this so important? Well, if you go too high, you will lose volume - but if you go too low, you could blow out your speaker!
THE TAKEAWAY: Match your speakers to your amplifier by the ohms rating. Otherwise, you run the risk of weak volume or severely damaging your equipment.
These are the three components that actually play your sound. This can get complicated fast, so we'll keep it easy:
Tweeter: Vibrates to sing those crisp high notes. Rule of thumb: the smaller your tweeter, the higher your frequency.
Mid-range Pumps the most significant portion of the audio, the broad middle range between your tweeter and your woofer.
Woofer: Bounces your bass and low notes. Rule of thumb: the bigger the woofer, the further the sound can travel.
We could go on all day about the construction and placement of these three pieces, but this is a Simplified Speaker Buyer Guide! Generally, you'll want a smaller tweeter (because the smaller something is, the easier it can vibrate), and a larger woofer (because the woofer moves air to make those low notes bounce, and the larger the woofer, the more air it can move). For smaller areas, a smaller woofer can do the trick, but just keep in mind that the farther the sound has to travel, the less pop your small woofer will have.
THE TAKEAWAY: Go for a small tweeter and a large woofer for the crispest highs and deepest lows. That way, you really can't go wrong.
Give or take, the average human ear catches frequencies between 20 - 20,000Hz (20kHz). Anything above that is generally impossible to hear. There are various myths about whether or not anything above that is worthwhile, but the consensus among technically-trained audio engineers is that while there is a slight benefit on the technical side, to the average consumer, not so much.
THE TAKEAWAY: For better sound, aim as close to 20,000Hz (20kHz) as you can, but anything higher is basically a waste.
In a very general sense, the sound pitch of your music can be divided into three categories:
Highs: Soprano, violin, flute, etc.
Mid-Range: Most vocals, alto, tenor, cello, oboe, etc.
Lows: Baritone, bass, bassoon, bass drum, etc.
Frequency has the biggest effect on these. If you don't have a large enough frequency range, what will happen is that your higher pitches will be tinny and sharp, your vocals will sound distant or more gravelly, and your bass will be much weaker. Whether you're playing music to entertain guests or listening to your favorite radio show, the last thing you want is compromised audio that waters down the experience.
THE TAKEAWAY: Look for speakers that specifically describe crisper highs, richer mid-range, and deeper bass. If you don't, you could wind up playing your music through sub-par equipment that audibly weakens your music.
Sensitivity is the relationship between how much power your amplifier is putting out and how high a speaker's volume can go at that rate. It doesn't actually have any effect on sound quality, only on volume. With that said, if you ignore sensitivity, you can have the cleanest music in the world, but at a fraction of how loud it can be. Let those deep basses be heard!
THE TAKEAWAY: Sensitivity doesn't affect sound quality, but it does affect volume, and is still very important.
With even the broadest grasp of how the the components of outdoor speakers work, you give yourself the tools to make the right purchasing decision. Educate yourself with this handy guide to make the right decision for your speaker needs.
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