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How to understand speaker measurements — and why they matter

How do you know if a speaker is any good?

The answer should be obvious. If you like the way it sounds, then it is good. I’m not here to tell you to stop enjoying what you like. But I am here to help you make more educated purchases.

Speakers don’t exist in isolation; most of us want to know we’re getting the best sound for our budget and setup. So how can you tell if one speaker is better than another without direct comparison? How do you know your impressions — or those of reviewers — aren’t being influenced by expectations about a speaker’s price and reputation? And what do you do when you don’t have a chance to listen to a speaker at all before buying it?

This is where speaker measurements and objective data come in. Knowing how to understand frequency response graphs is one of the most important skill an audiophile can have.

Lucky for us, speaker engineers and psychoacoustics researchers have been studying the nature of ‘good sound’ for decades. This research has led to powerful insights which show that, to a substantial degree, your preference for one speaker over another can be predicted by data — frequency response measurements in particular.

So by the end of this article, you should be able to look at a graph like this…

…and know whether it describes a decent speaker, as well as understand what some of its audible flaws might be.

Most of what I know comes from reading what I consider the most important book for any science-loving audiophile: Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms. Written by Dr. Floyd Toole, perhaps the most renowned expert on the psychoacoustics of speakers, it summarizes decades of research on acoustics and listener preferences.

I’ve since measured dozens of speakers and have found a remarkable correlation between my listening impressions and measurements, which are almost always performed after weeks of hearing the speaker in my own living room. This guide will hopefully help you understand how to correlate that data with your own impressions too.

Okay, so why should I care about measurements? Can’t I just read the review?

Some audiophiles believe listening to a speaker is the only way to know if a speaker is any good. We all have different tastes in music, after all, so surely speakers are the same?

The problem is, when it comes to soundreproduction, not music, you’re probably not that special.

Research suggests that a significant majority of people will rank speakers similarly once you eliminate variables like a speaker’s price, reputation, or aesthetics. The gold standard of this preference research is the double-blind comparison.

Credit: Sean Olive/ Toole & Olive 1984