What to Look for When Choosing a Loudspeaker

With today’s technology, it’s possible to put together a fantastic portable loudspeaker system, without breaking the bank – manufacturers today have created loudspeakers for just about every need imaginable. Begin your search for the best fit for your church by making a list of features you need. Here are traits that you might wish to look for:

  • Lightweight
  • Pattern Control
  • Integrated Electronics
  • Budget
  • Subwoofers

Once you have created your list, prioritize it by placing the traits you ranked highest at the top. Let’s unpack some of the common loudspeaker features, and see how they may benefit you:

Lightweight

Manufacturers have put loudspeakers on a diet in many different ways – one of the most popular has been injection-molded plastic design. “Plastic box” speakers are usually about as light as a loudspeaker can be, usually much lighter than a comparable loudspeaker with a wooden enclosure. There will always be weight to a loudspeaker, because the magnets that are a main component in loudspeaker design have some weight to them. More expensive loudspeakers will still use Neodymium – an alloy of metals that results in a much lighter magnet than a typical ferrite magnet. Neodymium magnets are considered “rare earth” magnets due to the scarcity of some of the components that comprise the alloy, and as a result they are more costly. However there’s no real difference in audio quality between the two, it’s merely a factor of weight. There is a weight versus performance tradeoff. Plastic speakers are mass produced and not typically associated with high-performing systems. Design tradeoffs include that plastic is not as good as wood for acoustics (especially when it comes to low frequency reproduction). Plastic enclosures, perhaps counterintuitively, are also not as durable as those made of wood.

Powered loudspeakers have become lighter as well, with the introduction of digital switching power supplies that don’t use the heavy power transformer required to support a high wattage amplifier. Also, as efficiencies go up, smaller and lighter heat-syncs (metal cooling fins) are needed for the actual solid state amplifier component. It is now possible for a manufacturer to add an amplifier to a loudspeaker for only a few pounds penalty.

Pattern Control

Pattern control is how sound radiates into space. Any speaker can sound good on axis, but you really want a speaker that maintains its fidelity throughout its pattern. One of the most important items to consider is a loudspeaker’s coverage – what type of pattern control do you need to reach all of your seats – both left to right and front to back. Any coverage and placement could be another article in and of itself (oh wait, it was! See TFWM, May 2015.) Select a coverage pattern that covers your seating area, with as little as possible of the high frequency energy reflecting off of surrounding walls and hard surfaces, and with a minimal amount of overlap of coverage between loudspeakers. You will see loudspeaker coverage noted in degrees, such as 60 x 40, which means 60 degrees horizontal coverage (left to right) and 40 degrees vertical (up/down.)

Most loudspeakers available at local music stores are 90 x 60 or greater, which works well for shallow, wide rooms. For tighter pattern control (more narrow coverage) you will need to look to some of the brands that are used by audio consultants and professionals – these are often available in many more pattern options, because they are built to order based on your needs. Typically, loudspeakers with larger horns maintain pattern control better than those with smaller ones, which may offer pattern control but only at certain frequencies.

If your room is more deep than wide, you may require “delay fill” speakers. They are called delay fills, because they must be delayed to match the arrival of sound from the main loudspeakers. Sound travels at the speed of sound, and that’s not extremely fast (compared to the speed of light.) If you place one loudspeaker 20 feet in front of another, and provide the same content to both loudspeakers – the loudspeaker in the front must be delayed (using DSP) so that the sound from both speakers reaches the listener at the same time.

Active / Passive

Active loudspeakers are those with amplifiers and/or DSP inside and conversely, passive loudspeakers require external amplification. As a very broad rule, installation loudspeakers are more often passive, and portable loudspeakers are more often active, although the lines are blurring quite a bit in this area. The most important thing to remember is that one is not better than the other – they both have their merits, and their weaknesses. Active loudspeakers require only the application of power and signal – they are (not usually) dependent upon external racks with amplifiers and signal processing. Many active loudspeakers have DSP built in as well, so that creating a crossover point between the loudspeaker and a subwoofer is a matter of throwing a switch.

In contrast, passive loudspeakers require external amplifiers, and often a loudspeaker processor (DSP) device. For a portable church, this often means a small portable rack with amplifiers (or amplifier/DSP combination.)

There are merits to both, it’s simply a factor of your needs. An active loudspeaker requires both power and signal cables to function – this often means running both an XLR mic cable, and an extension cord to each loudspeaker. Passive loudspeakers require a speaker cable to be run from the amplifier to the loudspeaker – but that’s only one cable – which even though it involves a separate rack, might just be easier to setup for your team.

Subwoofers

There are loudspeakers for different frequency ranges – some are optimized for the full spectrum of frequencies while others, such as subwoofers, are optimized for specific ranges. The real question of subwoofers becomes, “do we need them or not?” In simple terms, if your worship style involves a full band with drums and bass guitar, you will be happier with subwoofers. If your church is small, you may find that the bass guitar player can use his/her amp to fill the room, and the kick drum may be OK without being mic’d. If these conditions work for your church, you can probably get by without subwoofers. Also, if your music is pure acoustic, or choral in nature, subs may not be required. But if you can afford them, get them – it will make your system much more versatile going forward.

Once you have made your “short” list of candidates, try to hear the top contenders live. If you are planning on purchasing small portable system, most of your choices will be available to hear at local music stores. For some of the higher end and installation models, the manufacturer’s representative may have demo units in the field that you can hear.

And what about cost? It really is one of the last traits that I address; once you understand your requirements, the “right” choice usually makes itself clear. If you don’t have the funding for the “right” choice, then you will have to make compromises – and that’s where the prioritization becomes helpful – review your list, and as a team determine which features you can do without. Re-evaluate your choices based upon your shortened list, and you will be that much closer to a selection.

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