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An introduction to loudspeakers

An introduction to loudspeakers, as used in the recording studio and other sound engineering environments.

As mentioned earlier, there are four main usage areas of loudspeakers: domestic, hi-fi, studio and PA. We will skip non-critical domestic usage and move directly on to hi-fi. The hi-fi market is significant in that this is where we will find the very best sounding loudspeakers. The living room environment is generally fairly small, and listening levels are generally well below what we call 'rock and roll'. This means that the loudspeaker can be optimized for sound quality, and the best examples can be very satisfying to listen to with few objectionable features, although it still has to be said that moving coil loudspeakers always sound like loudspeakers and never exactly like the original sound source.

Recording studio main monitors have to be capable of higher sound levels. For one thing, the producer, engineer and musicians might just like to monitor at high level, although for the sake of their hearing they should not do this too often. Another consideration is that the acoustically treated control room will absorb a lot of the loudspeaker's energy, so that any given loudspeaker would seem quieter than it would in a typical living room. It is generally true that a loudspeaker that is optimized for high levels won't be as accurate as one that has been optimized for sound quality. PA speakers are the ultimate example of this. There has been a trend over the last couple of decades for PA speakers to be smaller and hence more cost effective to set up. This has resulted in an intense design effort to make smaller loudspeakers louder. Obviously the quality suffers. If you put an expensive PA loudspeaker next to a decent hi-fi loudspeaker in a head-to-head comparison at a moderate listening level, the hi-fi loudspeaker will win easily.

The most fascinating use of loudspeakers is the near field monitor. Near field monitors are now almost universally used in the recording studio for general monitoring purposes and for mixing. This would seem odd because twenty-five years ago anyone in the recording industry would have said that studio monitors have to be as good as possible so that the engineer can hear the mix better than anyone else ever will. That way, all the detail in the sound can be assessed properly and any faults or deficiencies picked up. Mixes were also assessed on tiny Auratone loudspeakers just to make sure they would sound good on cheap domestic systems, radios or portables.

That was until the arrival of the Yamaha NS10 - a small domestic loudspeaker with a dreadful sound. It must have found its way into the studio as cheap domestic reference. A slightly upmarket Auratone if you like. However, someone must have used it as a primary reference for a mix, and found that by some magical an indefinable means, the NS10 made it easier to get a great mix - and not only that but a mix that would 'travel well' and sound good on any system. The NS10 and later NS10M are now no longer in production, but every manufacturer has a nearfield monitor in their range. Some actually now sound very good, although their bass response is lacking due to their small size. The success if nearfield monitoring is something of a mystery. It shouldn't work, but the fact is that it does. And since so little is quantifiable, the best recommendation for a nearfield monitor is that it has been used by many engineers to mix lots of big-selling records. That would be the Yamaha NS10 then!

By David Mellor Monday March 31, 2003