Last Updated March 26, 2012
This is intended to be a reference list of speakers with higher sensitivity, capable of higher SPL, and more importantly yield great dynamics, which are some of the desirable traits for home theater speakers. I use "low distortion" as a term here because many people are experiencing clipped peaks and distortion without realizing it. They'd never think so, because they don't play near reference level. So this document can be helpful in showing what different speakers will output with what watts.
This is borne out of my own quest for such speakers, and there appears to be rising interest in this category. I often see a few makes and models thrown out as options in threads, but inconsistently, and the thread often dies with people wanting more.
What It Is
This is mainly an aggregate of manufacturers' own specs allowing one to compare speakers in the context of their output and the watts required for reference level at 12 feet, and how loud it'll get with the typical 100w receiver. It's more of an educational tool than a shopping tool. Hence, I've included many speaker that people have asked to be included, such as speakers that were known for high output but may be discontinued and difficult to acquire today. There are also "gray area" speakers that almost
achieve reference level. There's another list of speakers that I had initially included for comparison sake, but are not reference level capable.
The list is also filtered through my editing and weighting in the scoring columns, and some specs have been corrected for comparison purposes or where reviews have consistently found the manufacturer data to be wrong or misleading.
What It's Not
This is not a definitive list, as every speaker cannot be included. I add them as I come across them or people recommend them.
This is not a definitive shopping tool. The pricing might sometimes be average new prices, or reported dealer prices, or MSRP. Your own shopping will likely find different prices.
It's not always perfectly accurate; just as professional publications print corrections every month, I too make copy-paste mistakes or misinterpret data. I try to ask where I have questions, and I try to add comments on individual cells to qualify the data (e.g. where the sensitivity was dropped 3dB to get from a reported in-room to anechoic).
This is not a list of speakers by quality. Maximum output and dynamic capability at higher output are only a couple attributes of speaker among many. And even those may be meaningless to many people, in the same way that an automobile's top speed has no bearing on one's car purchase if one will never drive it that fast, except as bragging rights. If you never listen louder than -15dBFS from reference level, then most speakers of middlin' efficiency and limited power handling will work fine, because you'll only send the speakers a few watts of power.
EDIT: You can't always trust the published spec data. Did they play games with speaker placement? What frequencies are included in the sensitivity rating?
The term is often mentioned as a benchmark of output. It's really just what it says, a reference level. It is not the "ideal level" or the "best level." Although this is a gray area, as supposedly many commercial theaters are supposed to be calibrated and capable to play at this level, and film soundtrack mastering is performed at this level.
Reference Level, 0dBFS (0dB Full Scale (digital), is the maximum level the soundtracks can be recorded at for any given channel. It equates to SPL peak output
for each five or seven channels of 105dB and 115dB for the LFE channel at the listening position
. The soundtrack will rarely reach this level, but it's a reference point. Even if people rarely play at this loud level, it's good to calibrate so that you know where your volume is at for comparison purposes. This is loud, but in a better-treated room with better equipment, it sounds more natural. The dynamic peaks are loud enough that it the sounds will affect you at a more instinctual level. It also ensures that the softest sounds are above the system's (which includes the room, HVAC, etc.) noise floor.
The requirements to reach reference level, or any volume, differ from speaker to speaker, amp to amp, room to room, and with different seating distances.
It's also a benchmark elsewhere, such as for THX certification.
Isn't that insanely loud?
Remember that the 105dB is for peaks, not average levels, which are 85dB. The peaks are brief, transient spikes, and they don't harm hearing.
In the real world:
- the dishes clattering might be 90-ish decibels (1 meter)
- a roaring passenger car might be 100dB (1 meter).
- standing next to a grand piano 109dB.
- a rock concert 111dB (40 feet away)
- drum set (at moment of strike) 125dB
You can see it's not outlandish in an action movie to have brief peaks of sound of 100 or 105dB to simulate at a much lower level the sounds of the action.
The other issue is perception of loudness. Much of the time, when we say a theater system is "too loud" we at least partially mean, "It sounds bad!" As typical weaker systems are tasked with trying to play beyond their limits, they produce bad sound, in the form of distortion. We don't like distortion, so we say, "it's too loud!" What we're really judging is the system, not the SPL per se. Picture driving in a poorly-built vehicle at too high a velocity for the vehicle and the road
. All the smoke, vibration, skidding, bad engine sounds, the out of control feeling, add up to a bad experience. An automobile that is more capable would yield a much better experience at the same speed. And a better road (theater room) would make it better still.
Why is this a big deal?
Most home systems cannot approach this level. As stated above, -15dBFS (15 decibels below reference level) is fairly easy to achieve. The relationship between watts and SPL is not linear. 3dB increase of SPL requires twice the watts. Twice the loudness is 10dB, and that's ten times the watts. Fortunately, even a few watts into an inefficient speaker will produce enough sound for casual TV watching, background music, or critical music listening in a quiet environment.
Unfortunately, the requirements are exponentially higher when you want to listen closer to reference level, where typical speakers will require hundreds or even thousands of watts! When the speakers and amps are not up to the task, we get reduced output and distortion.
I'll be pasting the list of speakers and what data I can in a more limited format, but I'm maintaining the master as a Google Docs spreadsheet
which has the most information.
I used conditional formatting to come up with color coding. Dark red = bad, oranges less bad, yellow almost good enough, greens are good, blues are better, and dark blues are superlative. Lots of subjective thinking here, as I realize that sensitivity is neither bad or good, but rather a design decision. However, it plays such a huge part in speakers' ability to output high spl with low distortion, that I'm willing to judge it. The colors have been "normalized" when I saw huge gaps in the colors or a cluster of a lot of numbers using the same color.
Fields / Columns
: Floor, Stand, Center, Surround
: Indicates what the speaker was originally manufactured for. Monitor (studio or stage monitor, usually for near to midfield. Maybe I should break that up into near, midfield, and farfield monitors?), Home, Stage
Price Used (each)
: When the speaker has been discontinued.
Price New (each): I either take the manufacturer's MSRP, or find it on dealer websites and try to take an average, or at worst I have to dig through forum posts.
Active / Passive
: Active speakers have built-in amps, or are intended to connect to rack-mounted amps with tailored DSP. Has implications for all the numbers, because I usually have to extrapolate the sensitivity, for which I use low frequency (amp, woofer, SPL, etc.). I need more guidance on how to treat these.
Sensitivity dB (half-space)
: These numbers are given with different or no qualifiers by manufacturers. Anechoic, in-room, in-corner, two speakers, 1m, 2m, half-space, 1w, 4ohm 1w, 2.83v 4 ohm... Fortunately, pro speakers usually list the max peak SPL, so using that and their stated peak watt handling, I can extrapolate what the sensitivity is (this is required for active speakers) or whether they meant half space or full space. Some manufacturers are anecdotedly known in forums, and tested in reviews, to be off on sensitivity by 3-4dB. For those known lines, I simply reduce the number by 3dB. But if people could come forward with more reviews on specific speakers reporting the tested sensitivity, I'll correct numbers.
For 4 ohm speakers with sensitivity given as dB @ 2.83v/1m, I have normalized for comparison to the 8ohm speaker by dropping sensitivity 3dB. Ideally, manufacturers give sensitivity as dB @ 1w/1m.
EDIT: Again, note that sensitivity can be a tricky number to pin down. Some manufacturers list a sensitivity only over a limited frequency bandwidth. Others put the speaker in a corner, or even measure two speakers! Some extrapolate based on other data.
Sensitivity dB (in-room)
This column was added later to better correlate with the levels one would get in their own indoor space. Expect lower levels if used in an outdoor environment. Expect higher levels of bass if in a corner. I add 3dB to the half-space/groundplane number, unless the manufacturer lists their own in-room sensitivity.
Watts to Reach 105dB 12 ft LP
: Gives you an idea of what kind of power would be required for reference level peaks. This is "The number of watts you'll need to send the speaker to reach a 105dB peak with a listening position 12 feet away, in a room, using the in-room sensitivity." So, three parameter assumptions: desired level of peaks, distance, and type of room. In the Calcs sheet I can change those numbers, and some day I'll figure out how to present this data and let YOU override those numbers.
When you see that Speaker X would need 1,000 watts to reach reference peak, you can judge whether you'd ever have that big of an amp.
% Watts Program 105dB
: This is the percent of the speaker's program
power handling that is required to reach the 105dB from 12 feet. EDIT: I changed this last year from peak power, as program power better represents what the speaker can do when it's not fed power that's at its thermal/mechanical limits.
100 watts dB
: The SPL you'll get from the speaker 12 feet away, when you feed it 100 watts. This is another number that educates, because 100 watts is such a typical number for receivers.
Program Watts: Usually between continuous and peak power handling. I don't even include continuous, because most of these speakers will handle 85dB continuous output just fine. Continuous is with a sine wave with a 3dB crest factor, so maybe it is representative of the worst compressed music out there. But generally Program is more representative of real material. Many pro speakers give this datum. JBL, Danley, etc. When they only give continuous and peak, I split the difference.
Program Watts dB (12ft)
: SPL you'll get from the speaker fed program watts @ 12 feet. Again, some day the 12 feet will be a distance variable that the public can change and tailor the numbers for their own needs.
: Usually 4x Continuous, 2x Program, so when not given, I extrapolated.
It's not the average output levels that most speakers struggle with; it's the peaks. The amp either clips on them, softly (not noticeable) or harshly. As FOH says, this is "insidious" when you don't realize it, but it makes the music / program less dynamic, less real, less scary, when you're missing those transient from plucked strings, piano notes, drum hits, or the gun shot. Or the speaker can't handle the peak watts required and distorts, bottoms out, or leaves the magnetic gap a big and doesn't give us the volume we should have (if just the woofer does this, then the sound gets more bright).
Some manufacturers test to give this number. This is difficult to test, as we're not talking about a continuous signal (which would be continuous power handling). The peak power handling is so much higher because the voice coil has time to cool between peaks. Sometimes the number means "this is where the speaker might be destroyed." Other times it means "this is where the distortion is unacceptable (whatever that means)." Others: "This is where this type of distortion reached 10%, with this type of signal," which is obviously a much better qualification of the number (this is rare, unfortunately).
EDIT: Don't overdrive your amp. And try to keep the levels a fraction of what the speaker can handle, and you'll keep distortion down.
If that peak limit is 200w, then even sending 200w is not ideal, because you're at the limit of what the speaker can handle without melting. While the speaker will make noise, it will probably be distorted and sound "too loud." This example 200w peak limit is best fed just 20-40w.
: The SPL you'll get when sending quick peaks to the speaker at the level of the Peak Watts. Lately this is how the list is sorted.
These are different scorings with different weights for sensitivity, price, power handling, etc. EDIT: Not sure how to use this now so I've hidden these columns.
For active speakers, which include amplifiers, or require specific outboard amps with DSP, the watts for each driver are listed: Low Frequency, Mids, High Frequency.
The -3dB point of the speaker, which is the frequency range. I used to list just the lower point, but then I noticed some pro cinema speakers rolled off a 16kHz. Sometimes this point is interpolated for speakers where only a -6dB or -2dB point is given in literature.
I wish this was given more often, and I wish it was given at a higher output level stressing the speaker more. This column was added later, so I intend to return to many of the speakers' literature, or search for lab tests, and present distortion numbers. Soundstage has such measurements.
More applicable for horn speakers. The horizontal dispersion is given first. Generally one wants to limit dispersion to the floor and ceiling. Depending on application, you may want more horizontal dispersion (like for a center), or less horizontal (if you're trying to minimize side wall reflections).
Number and size in inches of the low frequency drivers.
Number and size in inches of the mid frequency drivers.
Number and size in inches of the high frequency drivers.
Short description of the wave guide (horn), e.g. "ellip CD" = Elliptical wave guide with a Compression Driver.
Web page address of specs.
Notes / Misc:
Other ocassional information.
Range of Speakers
Included are the common highly-touted reference level speakers, and pro-audio speakers, and also some that simply are often mentioned as great for theater.
Many speakers will not be horns. Many will be ugly. Some we find will never have been considered for home theater, and some of those may be new-found gems (hopefully!), while others will be found to be completely unsuitable for home theater. We may want to keep them in the list with explanation of why they're inappropriate. Some will be capable of reference level with outboard amps. Some will clearly not reach RL at 12 feet, but may be suitable for someone wanting -5db without distortion, for example.
Speaking of which, I started off using the SPL calculator here
and I'm calculating with one speaker, away from walls, at 12 feet.
Later, as the errors mounted in having to calculate each speaker manually, I incorporated formulas, such as =(10^((Calcs!B$3-(I25+(20*log(3.2808399/Calcs!B$2))))/10)).
A Work in Progress
- I don't have all of the sampling of commonly suggested theater speakers yet. Sometimes I'm aware of a speaker, but I don't have data on its specs yet. Write in recommendations. Point me to reviews! Correct my mistakes!
- While I'm listing the manufacturers' recommended input wattages, I'm unsure about how to translate different manufacturer's specs, such as continuous, program, and peak. Of course they're all inconsistent, even within the same make!
- The types of attributes are in flux. I'd like to add others like Directivity Factor and Directivity Index, but I'm still learning on how to incorporate these.
- Ideally this should become a database-driven web application, like Ricci's. In time I hope to trick co-workers into giving me some development time.
So this list is only a few months old. With help and suggestions and education it will get refined. I welcome lots of input!