After the acoustics of the listening space, loudspeakers (and other electroacoustic transducers) are the most variable elements in a modern audio system and are usually responsible for most distortion and audible differences when comparing sound systems.
 TerminologyThe term "loudspeaker" may refer to individual transducers (known as "drivers") or to complete speaker systems consisting of an enclosure including one or more drivers. To adequately reproduce a wide range of frequencies, most loudspeaker systems employ more than one driver, particularly for higher sound pressure level or maximum accuracy. Individual drivers are used to reproduce different frequency ranges. The drivers are named subwoofers (for very low frequencies); woofers (low frequencies); mid-range speakers (middle frequencies); tweeters (high frequencies); and sometimes supertweeters, optimized for the highest audible frequencies. The terms for different speaker drivers differ, depending on the application. In two-way systems there is no mid-range driver, so the task of reproducing the mid-range sounds falls upon the woofer and tweeter. Home stereos use the designation "tweeter" for the high frequency driver, while professional concert systems may designate them as "HF" or "highs". When multiple drivers are used in a system, a "filter network", called a crossover, separates the incoming signal into different frequency ranges and routes them to the appropriate driver. A loudspeaker system with n separate frequency bands is described as "n-way speakers": a two-way system will have a woofer and a tweeter; a three-way system employs a woofer, a mid-range, and a tweeter.
 HistoryJohann Philipp Reis installed an electric loudspeaker in his telephone in 1861; it was capable of reproducing pure tones, but also could reproduce speech. Alexander Graham Bell patented his first electric loudspeaker (capable of reproducing intelligible speech) as part of his telephone in 1876, which was followed in 1877 by an improved version from Ernst Siemens. Nikola Tesla reportedly made a similar device in 1881, but he was not issued a patent. During this time, Thomas Edison was issued a British patent for a system using compressed air as an amplifying mechanism for his early cylinder phonographs, but he ultimately settled for the familiar metal horn driven by a membrane attached to the stylus. In 1898, Horace Short patented a design for a loudspeaker driven by compressed air; he then sold the rights to Charles Parsons, who was issued several additional British patents before 1910. A few companies, including the Victor Talking Machine Company and Pathé, produced record players using compressed-air loudspeakers. However, these designs were significantly limited by their poor sound quality and their inability to reproduce sound at low volume. Variants of the system were used for public address applications, and more recently, other variations have been used to test space-equipment resistance to the very loud sound and vibration levels that the launching of rockets produces.
The modern design of moving-coil drivers was established by Oliver Lodge in 1898. The first practical application of moving-coil loudspeakers was established by Peter L. Jensen and Edwin Pridham, in Napa, California. Jensen was denied patents. Being unsuccessful in selling their product to telephone companies, in 1915 they changed strategy to public address, and named their product Magnavox. Jensen was, for years after the invention of the loudspeaker, a part owner of The Magnavox Company.
The moving-coil principle as commonly used today in direct radiators was patented in 1924 by Chester W. Rice and Edward W. Kellogg. The key difference between previous attempts and the patent by Rice and Kellogg was the adjustment of mechanical parameters so that the fundamental resonance of the moving system took place at a lower frequency than that at which the cone's radiation impedance had become uniform. See the original patent for details.
About this same period, Walter H. Schottky invented the first ribbon loudspeaker.
These first loudspeakers used electromagnets, because large, powerful permanent magnets were generally not available at a reasonable price. The coil of an electromagnet, called a field coil, was energized by current through a second pair of connections to the driver. This winding usually served a dual role, acting also as a choke coil, filtering the power supply of the amplifier to which the loudspeaker was connected. AC ripple in the current was attenuated by the action of passing through the choke coil; however, AC line frequencies tended to modulate the audio signal being sent to the voice coil and added to the audible hum of a powered-up sound reproduction device.
In the 1930s, loudspeaker manufacturers began to combine two and three bandpasses' worth of drivers in order to increase frequency response and sound pressure level. In 1937, the first film industry-standard loudspeaker system, "The Shearer Horn System for Theatres" (a two-way system), was introduced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It used four 15″ low-frequency drivers, a crossover network set for 375 Hz, and a single multi-cellular horn with two compression drivers providing the high frequencies. John Kenneth Hilliard, James Bullough Lansing, and Douglas Shearer all played roles in creating the system. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, a very large two-way public address system was mounted on a tower at Flushing Meadows. The eight 27″ low-frequency drivers were designed by Rudy Bozak in his role as chief engineer for Cinaudagraph. High-frequency drivers were likely made by Western Electric.
Altec Lansing introduced the '604', which was to become their most famous coaxial Duplex driver, in 1943, incorporating a high-frequency horn sending sound through the middle of a 15-inch woofer for near-point-source performance. Altec's "Voice of the Theatre" loudspeaker system arrived in the marketplace in 1945, offering better coherence and clarity at the high output levels necessary in movie theaters. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences immediately began testing its sonic characteristics; they made it the film house industry standard in 1955. Subsequently, continuous developments in enclosure design and materials led to significant audible improvements. The most notable improvements in modern speakers are improvements in cone materials, the introduction of higher-temperature adhesives, improved permanent magnet materials, improved measurement techniques, computer-aided design, and finite element analysis.
 Driver designdiaphragm, or cone, connected to a rigid basket, or frame, via a flexible suspension that constrains a coil of fine wire to move axially through a cylindrical magnetic gap. When an electrical signal is applied to the voice coil, a magnetic field is created by the electric current in the voice coil, making it a variable electromagnet. The coil and the driver's magnetic system interact, generating a mechanical force that causes the coil (and thus, the attached cone) to move back and forth, thereby reproducing sound under the control of the applied electrical signal coming from the amplifier. The following is a description of the individual components of this type of loudspeaker.
The diaphragm is usually manufactured with a cone- or dome-shaped profile. A variety of different materials may be used, but the most common are paper, plastic, and metal. The ideal material would be stiff, to prevent uncontrolled cone motions; light, to minimize starting force requirements and energy storage issues; and well damped, to reduce vibrations continuing after the signal has stopped. In practice, all three of these criteria cannot be met simultaneously using existing materials; thus, driver design involves trade-offs. For example, paper is light and typically well damped, but is not stiff; metal may be stiff and light, but it usually has poor damping; plastic can be light, but typically, the stiffer it is made, the poorer the damping. As a result, many cones are made of some sort of composite material. For example, a cone might be made of cellulose paper, into which some carbon fiber, Kevlar, fiberglass, or hemp or bamboo fibers have been added; or it might use a honeycomb sandwich construction; or a coating might be applied to it so as to provide additional stiffening or damping.
The chassis, frame, or basket, is designed to be rigid, avoiding deformation which would change critical alignments with the magnet gap, perhaps causing the voice coil to rub against the sides of the gap. Chassis are typically cast from aluminum alloy, or stamped from thin steel sheet, although molded plastic baskets are becoming common, especially for inexpensive, low-mass drivers. Metallic chassis can play an important role in conducting heat away from the voice coil; heating during operation changes resistance, causing physical dimensional changes, and if extreme, may even demagnetize permanent magnets.
The suspension system keeps the coil centered in the gap and provides a restoring (centering) force that returns the cone to a neutral position after moving. A typical suspension system consists of two parts: the "spider", which connects the diaphragm or voice coil to the frame and provides the majority of the restoring force, and the "surround", which helps center the coil/cone assembly and allows free pistonic motion aligned with the magnetic gap. The spider is usually made of a corrugated fabric disk, impregnated with a stiffening resin. The name comes from the shape of early suspensions, which were two concentric rings of Bakelite material, joined by six or eight curved "legs". Variations of this topology included the addition of a felt disc to provide a barrier to particles that might otherwise cause the voice coil to rub. The German firm Rulik still offers drivers with uncommon spiders made of wood.
The cone surround can be rubber or polyester foam, or a ring of corrugated, resin coated fabric; it is attached to both the outer diaphragm circumference and to the frame. These different surround materials, their shape and treatment can dramatically affect the acoustic output of a driver; each class and implementation having advantages and disadvantages. Polyester foam, for example, is lightweight and economical, but is degraded by exposure to ozone, UV light, humidity and elevated temperatures, limiting its useful life to about 15 years.
The wire in a voice coil is usually made of copper, though aluminum—and, rarely, silver—may be used. Voice-coil wire cross sections can be circular, rectangular, or hexagonal, giving varying amounts of wire volume coverage in the magnetic gap space. The coil is oriented co-axially inside the gap; it moves back and forth within a small circular volume (a hole, slot, or groove) in the magnetic structure. The gap establishes a concentrated magnetic field between the two poles of a permanent magnet; the outside of the gap being one pole, and the center post (called the pole piece) being the other. The pole piece and backplate are often a single piece, called the poleplate or yoke.
Modern driver magnets are almost always permanent and made of ceramic, ferrite, Alnico, or, more recently, rare earth magnets. A trend in design—due to increases in transportation costs and a desire for smaller, lighter devices (as in many home theater multi-speaker installations)—is the use of the last instead of heavier ferrite types. Very few manufacturers still use electrically powered field coils, as was common in the earliest designs (one such is French). When high field-strength permanent magnets became available, Alnico, an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt became popular, since it dispensed with the power supply issues of field-coil drivers. Alnico was used for almost exclusively until about 1980. Alnico magnets can be partially degaussed (i.e., demagnetized) by accidental 'pops' or 'clicks' caused by loose connections, especially if used with a high power amplifier. This damage can be reversed by "recharging" the magnet.
After 1980, most (but not quite all) driver manufacturers switched from Alnico to ferrite magnets, which are made from a mix of ceramic clay and fine particles of barium or strontium ferrite. Although the energy per kilogram of these ceramic magnets is lower than Alnico, it is substantially less expensive, allowing designers to use larger yet more economical magnets to achieve a given performance.
The size and type of magnet and details of the magnetic circuit differ, depending on design goals. For instance, the shape of the pole piece affects the magnetic interaction between the voice coil and the magnetic field, and is sometimes used to modify a driver's behavior. A "shorting ring", or Faraday loop, may be included as a thin copper cap fitted over the pole tip or as a heavy ring situated within the magnet-pole cavity. The benefits of this complication is reduced impedance at high frequencies, providing extended treble output, reduced harmonic distortion, and a reduction in the inductance modulation that typically accompanies large voice coil excursions. On the other hand, the copper cap requires a wider voice-coil gap, with increased magnetic reluctance; this reduces available flux, requiring a larger magnet for equivalent performance.
Driver design—including the particular way two or more drivers are combined in an enclosure to make a speaker system—is both an art and science. Adjusting a design to improve performance is done using some combination of magnetic, acoustic, mechanical, electrical, and material science theory; high precision measurements, generally with the observations of experienced listeners. A few of the issues speaker and driver designers must confront are distortion, lobing, phase effects, off-axis response, and crossover complications. Designers can use an anechoic chamber to ensure the speaker can be measured independently of room effects, or any of several electronic techniques which can, to some extent, replace such chambers. Some developers eschew anechoic chambers in favor of specific standardized room setups intended to simulate real-life listening conditions.
The fabrication of finished loudspeaker systems has become segmented, depending largely on price, shipping costs, and weight limitations. High-end speaker systems, which are typically heavier (and often larger) than economic shipping allows outside local regions, are usually made in their target market region and can cost $140,000 or more per pair. The lowest-priced speaker systems and most drivers are manufactured in China or other low-cost manufacturing locations.
 Driver typesIndividual electrodynamic drivers provide optimal performance within a limited pitch range. Multiple drivers (e.g., subwoofers, woofers, mid-range drivers, and tweeters) are generally combined into a complete loudspeaker system to provide performance beyond that constraint.
 Full-range driversA full-range driver is designed to have the widest frequency response possible. These drivers are small, typically 3 to 8 inches (7.6 to 20 cm) in diameter to permit reasonable high frequency response, and carefully designed to give low-distortion output at low frequencies, though with reduced maximum output level. Full-range (or more accurately, wide-range) drivers are most commonly heard in public address systems, in televisions (although some models are suitable for hi-fi listening), small radios, intercoms, some computer speakers, etc. In hi-fi speaker systems, the use of wide-range drive units can avoid undesirable interactions between multiple drivers caused by non-coincident driver location or crossover network issues. Fans of wide-range driver hi-fi speaker systems claim a coherence of sound, said to be due to the single source and a resulting lack of interference, and likely also to the lack of crossover components. Detractors typically cite wide-range drivers' limited frequency response and modest output abilities (most especially at low frequencies), together with their requirement for large, elaborate, expensive enclosures—such as transmission lines, or horns—to approach optimum performance.
Full-range drivers often employ an additional cone called a whizzer: a small, light cone attached to the joint between the voice coil and the primary cone. The whizzer cone extends the high-frequency response of the driver and broadens its high frequency directivity, which would otherwise be greatly narrowed due to the outer diameter cone material failing to keep up with the central voice coil at higher frequencies. The main cone in a whizzer design is manufactured so as to flex more in the outer diameter than in the center. The result is that the main cone delivers low frequencies and the whizzer cone contributes most of the higher frequencies. Since the whizzer cone is smaller than the main diaphragm, output dispersion at high frequencies is improved relative to an equivalent single larger diaphragm.
Limited-range drivers, also used alone, are typically found in computers, toys, and clock radios. These drivers are less elaborate and less expensive than wide-range drivers, and they may be severely compromised to fit into very small mounting locations. In these applications, sound quality is a low priority. The human ear is remarkably tolerant of poor sound quality, and the distortion inherent in limited-range drivers may enhance their output at high frequencies, increasing clarity when listening to spoken word material.
 SubwooferA subwoofer is a woofer driver used only for the lowest part of the audio spectrum: typically below 200 Hz for consumer systems, below 100 Hz for professional live sound, and below 80 Hz in THX-approved systems. Because the intended range of frequencies is limited, subwoofer system design is usually simpler in many respects than for conventional loudspeakers, often consisting of a single driver enclosed in a suitable box or enclosure.
To accurately reproduce very low bass notes without unwanted resonances (typically from cabinet panels), subwoofer systems must be solidly constructed and properly braced; good speakers are typically quite heavy. Many subwoofer systems include power amplifiers and electronic sub-filters, with additional controls relevant to low-frequency reproduction. These variants are known as "active subwoofers". In contrast, "passive" subwoofers require external amplification.
 WooferA woofer is a driver that reproduces low frequencies. The driver combines with the enclosure design to produce suitable low frequencies (see speaker enclosure for the design choices available). Some loudspeaker systems use a woofer for the lowest frequencies, sometimes well enough that a subwoofer is not needed. Additionally, some loudspeakers use the woofer to handle middle frequencies, eliminating the mid-range driver. This can be accomplished with the selection of a tweeter that can work low enough that, combined with a woofer that responds high enough, the two drivers add coherently in the middle frequencies.
 Mid-range driverA mid-range speaker is a loudspeaker driver that reproduces middle frequencies. Mid-range driver diaphragms can be made of paper or composite materials, and can be direct radiation drivers (rather like smaller woofers) or they can be compression drivers (rather like some tweeter designs). If the mid-range driver is a direct radiator, it can be mounted on the front baffle of a loudspeaker enclosure, or, if a compression driver, mounted at the throat of a horn for added output level and control of radiation pattern.
 Tweetertweeter is a high-frequency driver that reproduces the highest frequencies in a speaker system. Many varieties of tweeter design exist, each with differing abilities with regard to frequency response, output fidelity, power handling, maximum output level, etc. Soft-dome tweeters are widely found in home stereo systems, and horn-loaded compression drivers are common in professional sound reinforcement. Ribbon tweeters have gained popularity in recent years, as their output power has been increased to levels useful for professional sound reinforcement, and their output pattern is wide in the horizontal plane, a pattern that has convenient applications in concert sound.
 Coaxial driversA coaxial driver is a loudspeaker driver with two or several combined concentric drivers. Coaxial drivers have been produced by many companies, such as Altec, Tannoy, Pioneer, KEF, BMS, Cabasse and Genelec.
 Loudspeaker system design
 Crossovermulti-driver speaker systems, the crossover is a subsystem that separates the input signal into different frequency ranges suited to each driver. The drivers receive only the power in their usable frequency range (the range they were designed for), thereby reducing distortion in the drivers and interference between them.
Crossovers can be passive or active. A passive crossover is an electronic circuit that uses a combination of one or more resistors, inductors, or non-polar capacitors. These parts are formed into carefully designed networks and are most often placed between the power amplifier and the loudspeaker drivers to divide the amplifier's signal into the necessary frequency bands before being delivered to the individual drivers. Passive crossover circuits need no external power beyond the audio signal itself, but do cause overall signal loss and a significant reduction in damping factor between the voice coil and the crossover. An active crossover is an electronic filter circuit that divides the signal into individual frequency bands before power amplification, thus requiring at least one power amplifier for each bandpass. Passive filtering may also be used in this way before power amplification, but it is an uncommon solution, due to inflexibility compared to active filtering. Any technique that uses crossover filtering followed by amplification is commonly known as bi-amping, tri-amping, quad-amping, and so on, depending on the minimum number of amplifier channels. Some loudspeaker designs use a combination of passive and active crossover filtering, such as a passive crossover between the mid- and high-frequency drivers and an active crossover between the low-frequency driver and the combined mid- and high frequencies.
Passive crossovers are commonly installed inside speaker boxes and are by far the most usual type of crossover for home and low-power use. In car audio systems, passive crossovers may be in a separate box, necessary to accommodate the size of the components used. Passive crossovers may be simple for low-order filtering, or complex to allow steep slopes such as 18 or 24 dB per octave. Passive crossovers can also be designed to compensate for undesired characteristics of driver, horn, or enclosure resonances, and can be tricky to implement, due to component interaction. Passive crossovers, like the driver units that they feed, have power handling limits, have insertion losses (10% is often claimed), and change the load seen by the amplifier. The changes are matters of concern for many in the hi-fi world. When high output levels are required, active crossovers may be preferable. Active crossovers may be simple circuits that emulate the response of a passive network, or may be more complex, allowing extensive audio adjustments. Some active crossovers, usually digital loudspeaker management systems, may include facilities for precise alignment of phase and time between frequency bands, equalization, and dynamics (compression and limiting) control.
Some hi-fi and professional loudspeaker systems now include an active crossover circuit as part of an onboard amplifier system. These speaker designs are identifiable by their need for AC power in addition to a signal cable from a pre-amplifier. This active topology may include driver protection circuits and other features of a digital loudspeaker management system. Powered speaker systems are common in computer sound (for a single listener) and, at the other end of the size spectrum, in modern concert sound systems, where their presence is significant and steadily increasing.
 Enclosuresenclosure, or cabinet. The role of the enclosure is to provide a place to physically mount the drivers, and to prevent sound waves emanating from the back of a driver from interfering destructively with those from the front; these typically cause cancellations (e.g., comb filtering) and significantly alter the level and quality of sound at low frequencies.
The simplest driver mount is a flat panel (i.e., baffle) with the drivers mounted in holes in it. However, in this approach, sound frequencies with a wavelength longer than the baffle dimensions are canceled out, because the antiphase radiation from the rear of the cone interferes with the radiation from the front. With an infinitely large panel, this interference could be entirely prevented. A sufficiently large sealed box can approach this behavior.
Since panels of infinite dimensions are impractical, most enclosures function by containing the rear radiation from the moving diaphragm. A sealed enclosure prevents transmission of the sound emitted from the rear of the loudspeaker by confining the sound in a rigid and airtight box. Techniques used to reduce transmission of sound through the walls of the cabinet include thicker cabinet walls, lossy wall material, internal bracing, curved cabinet walls—or more rarely, visco-elastic materials (e.g., mineral-loaded bitumen) or thin lead sheeting applied to the interior enclosure walls.
However, a rigid enclosure reflects sound internally, which can then be transmitted back through the loudspeaker diaphraghm—again resulting in degradation of sound quality. This can be reduced by internal absorption using absorptive materials (often called "damping"), such as fiberglass, wool, or synthetic fiber batting, within the enclosure. The internal shape of the enclosure can also be designed to reduce this by reflecting sounds away from the loudspeaker diaphragm, where they may then be absorbed.
Other enclosure types alter the rear sound radiation so it can add constructively to the output from the front of the cone. Designs that do this (including bass reflex, passive radiator, transmission line, etc.) are often used to extend the effective low-frequency response and increase low-frequency output of the driver.
To make the transition between drivers as seamless as possible, system designers have attempted to time-align (or phase adjust) the drivers by moving one or more driver mounting locations forward or back so that the acoustic center of each driver is in the same vertical plane. This may also involve tilting the face speaker back, providing a separate enclosure mounting for each driver, or (less commonly) using electronic techniques to achieve the same effect. These attempts have resulted in some unusual cabinet designs.
The speaker mounting scheme (including cabinets) can also cause diffraction, resulting in peaks and dips in the frequency response. The problem is usually greatest at higher frequencies, where wavelengths are similar to, or smaller than, cabinet dimensions. The effect can be minimized by rounding the front edges of the cabinet, curving the cabinet itself, using a smaller or narrower enclosure, choosing a strategic driver arrangement, using absorptive material around a driver, or some combination of these and other schemes.
 Wiring connectionsreceiver). This is usually done using binding posts or spring clips on the back of the enclosure. If the wires for the left and right speakers (in a stereo setup) are not connected "in phase" with each other (the + and − connections on the speaker and amplifier should be connected + to + and − to −), the loudspeakers will be out of polarity. Given identical signals, motion in one cone will be in the opposite direction of the other. This will typically cause monophonic material within a stereo recording to be canceled out, reduced in level, and made more difficult to localize, all due to destructive interference of the sound waves. The cancellation effect is most noticeable at frequencies where the speakers are separated by a quarter wavelength or less; low frequencies are affected the most. This type of wiring error doesn't damage speakers, but isn't optimal.
- Speaker or driver type (individual units only) – Full-range, woofer, tweeter, or mid-range.
- Size of individual drivers. For cone drivers, the quoted size is generally the outside diameter of the basket. However, it may less commonly also be the diameter of the cone surround, measured apex to apex, or the distance from the center of one mounting hole to its opposite. Voice-coil diameter may also be specified. If the loudspeaker has a compression horn driver, the diameter of the horn throat may be given.
- Rated Power – Nominal (or even continuous) power, and peak (or maximum short-term) power a loudspeaker can handle (i.e., maximum input power before destroying the loudspeaker; it is never the sound output the loudspeaker produces). A driver may be damaged at much less than its rated power if driven past its mechanical limits at lower frequencies. Tweeters can also be damaged by amplifier clipping (amplifier circuits produce large amounts of energy at high frequencies in such cases) or by music or sine wave input at high frequencies. Each of these situations passes more energy to a tweeter than it can survive without damage. In some jurisdictions, power handling has a legal meaning allowing comparisons between loudspeakers under consideration. Elsewhere, the variety of meanings for power handling capacity can be quite confusing.
- Impedance – typically 4 Ω (ohms), 8 Ω, etc.
- Baffle or enclosure type (enclosed systems only) – Sealed, bass reflex, etc.
- Number of drivers (complete speaker systems only) – two-way, three-way, etc.
- Crossover frequency(ies) (multi-driver systems only) – The nominal frequency boundaries of the division between drivers.
- Frequency response – The measured, or specified, output over a specified range of frequencies for a constant input level varied across those frequencies. It sometimes includes a variance limit, such as within "± 2.5 dB".
- Thiele/Small parameters (individual drivers only) – these include the driver's Fs (resonance frequency), Qts (a driver's Q (more or less, its damping factor at resonant frequency), Vas (the equivalent air compliance volume of the driver), etc.
- Sensitivity – The sound pressure level produced by a loudspeaker in a non-reverberant environment, often specified in dB and measured at 1 meter with an input of 1 watt (2.83 rms volts into 8 Ω), typically at one or more specified frequencies. This rating is often specified by manufacturers to be impressive.
- Maximum SPL – The highest output the loudspeaker can manage, short of damage or not exceeding a particular distortion level. This rating is often specified by manufacturers to be impressive, and is commonly given without reference to frequency range or distortion level.
 Electrical characteristics of a dynamic loudspeakerThe load that a driver presents to an amplifier consists of a complex electrical impedance—a combination of resistance and both capacitive and inductive reactance, which combines properties of the driver, its mechanical motion, the effects of crossover components (if any are in the signal path between amplifier and driver), and the effects of air loading on the driver as modified by the enclosure and its environment. Most amplifiers' output specifications are given at a specific power into an ideal resistive load; however, a loudspeaker does not have a constant resistance across its frequency range. Instead, the voice coil is inductive, the driver has mechanical resonances, the enclosure changes the driver's electrical and mechanical characteristics, and a passive crossover between the drivers and the amplifier contributes its own variations. The result is a load resistance that varies fairly widely with frequency, and usually a varying phase relationship between voltage and current as well, also changing with frequency. Some amplifiers can cope with the variation better than others can.
To make sound, a loudspeaker is driven by modulated electrical current (produced by an amplifier) that pass through a "speaker coil" (a coil of copper wire), which then (through resistance and other forces) magnetizes the coil, creating a magnetic field. The electrical current variations that pass through the speaker are thus converted to varying magnetic forces, which move the speaker diaphraghm, which thus forces the driver to produce air motion that is similar to the original signal from the amplifier.
 Electromechanical measurementsFully characterizing the sound output quality of a loudspeaker driver or system in words is essentially impossible. Objective measurements provide information about several aspects of performance so that informed comparisons and improvements can be made, but no combination of measurements summarizes the performance of a loudspeaker system in use, if only because the test signals used are neither music nor speech.. Examples of typical measurements are: amplitude and phase characteristics vs. frequency; impulse response under one or more conditions (e.g., square waves, sine wave bursts, etc.); directivity vs. frequency (e.g., horizontally, vertically, spherically, etc.); harmonic and intermodulation distortion vs. SPL output, using any of several test signals; stored energy (i.e., ringing) at various frequencies; impedance vs. frequency; and small-signal vs. large-signal performance. Most of these measurements require sophisticated and often expensive equipment to perform, and also good judgment by the operator, but the raw sound pressure level output is rather easier to report and so is often the only specified value—sometimes in misleadingly exact terms. The sound pressure level (SPL) a loudspeaker produces is measured in decibels (dBspl).
 Efficiency vs. sensitivityLoudspeaker efficiency is defined as the sound power output divided by the electrical power input. Most loudspeakers are actually very inefficient transducers; only about 1% of the electrical energy sent by an amplifier to a typical home loudspeaker is converted to acoustic energy. The remainder is converted to heat, mostly in the voice coil and magnet assembly. The main reason for this is the difficulty of achieving proper impedance matching between the acoustic impedance of the drive unit and that of the air into which it is radiating (at low frequencies improving this match is the main purpose of speaker enclosure designs). The efficiency of loudspeaker drivers varies with frequency as well. For instance, the output of a woofer driver decreases as the input frequency decreases because of the increasingly poor match between air and the driver.
Driver ratings based on the SPL for a given input are called sensitivity ratings and are notionally similar to efficiency. Sensitivity is usually defined as so many decibels at 1 W electrical input, measured at 1 meter, often at a single frequency. The voltage used is often 2.83 VRMS, which is 1 watt into an 8 Ω (nominal) speaker impedance (approximately true for many speaker systems). Measurements taken with this reference are quoted as dB with 2.83 V @ 1 m.
The sound pressure output is measured at (or mathematically scaled to be equivalent to a measurement taken at) one meter from the loudspeaker and on-axis (directly in front of it), under the condition that the loudspeaker is radiating into an infinitely large space and mounted on an infinite baffle. Clearly then, sensitivity does not correlate precisely with efficiency, as it also depends on the directivity of the driver being tested and the acoustic environment in front of the actual loudspeaker. For example, a cheerleader's horn produces more sound output in the direction it is pointed by concentrating sound waves from the cheerleader in one direction, thus "focusing" them. The horn also improves impedance matching between the voice and the air, which produces more acoustic power for a given speaker power. In some cases, improved impedance matching (via careful enclosure design) will allow the speaker to produce more acoustic power.
- Typical home loudspeakers have sensitivities of about 85 to 95 dB for 1 W @ 1 m—an efficiency of 0.5–4%.
- Sound reinforcement and public address loudspeakers have sensitivities of perhaps 95 to 102 dB for 1 W @ 1 m—an efficiency of 4–10%.
- Rock concert, stadium PA, marine hailing, etc. speakers generally have higher sensitivities of 103 to 110 dB for 1 W @ 1 m—an efficiency of 10–20%.
It is not possible to combine high efficiency (especially at low frequencies) with compact enclosure size and adequate low frequency response. One can, more or less, choose only two of the three parameters when designing a speaker system. So, for example, if extended low-frequency performance and small box size are important, one must accept low efficiency. This rule of thumb is sometimes called Hoffman's Iron Law (after J.A. Hoffman, the "H" in KLH).
 Listening environmentresonant room modes), thus changing the timbre and character of the sound at the listener's ears. The human brain is very sensitive to small variations, including some of these, and this is part of the reason why a loudspeaker system sounds different at different listening positions or in different rooms.
A significant factor in the sound of a loudspeaker system is the amount of absorption and diffusion present in the environment. Clapping one's hands in a typical empty room, without draperies or carpet, will produce a zippy, fluttery echo which is due both to a lack of absorption and to reverberation (that is, repeated echoes) from flat reflective walls, floor, and ceiling. The addition of hard surfaced furniture, wall hangings, shelving and even baroque plaster ceiling decoration, will change the echoes, due primarily to the diffusion caused by somewhat reflective objects with shapes and surfaces having sizes on the order of the sound wavelengths being diffused. This somewhat breaks up the simple reflections otherwise caused by bare flat surfaces, and spreads the reflected energy of an incident wave over a larger angle on reflection.
 PlacementIn a typical rectangular listening room, the hard, parallel surfaces of the walls, floor and ceiling cause primary acoustic resonance nodes in each of the three dimensions: left-right, up-down and forward-backward. Furthermore, there are more complex resonance modes involving three, four, five and even all six boundary surfaces combining to create standing waves. Low frequencies excite these modes the most, since long wavelengths are not much affected by furniture compositions or placement. The mode spacing is critical, especially in small and medium size rooms like recording studios, home theaters and broadcast studios. The proximity of the loudspeakers to room boundaries affects how strongly the resonances are excited as well as affecting the relative strength at each frequency. The location of the listener is critical, too, as a position near a boundary can have a great effect on the perceived balance of frequencies. This is because standing wave patterns are most easily heard in these locations and at lower frequencies, below the Schroeder frequency - typically around 200–300 Hz, depending on room size.
 DirectivityAcousticians, in studying the radiation of sound sources have developed some concepts important to understanding how loudspeakers are perceived. The simplest possible radiating source is a point source, sometimes called a simple source. An ideal point source is an infinitesimally small point radiating sound. It may be easier to imagine a tiny pulsating sphere, uniformly increasing and decreasing in diameter, sending out sound waves in all directions equally, independent of frequency.
Any object radiating sound, including a loudspeaker system, can be thought of as being composed of combinations of such simple point sources. The radiation pattern of a combination of point sources will not be the same as for a single source, but rather will depend on the distance and orientation between the sources, the position relative to them from which the listener hears the combination, and the frequency of the sound involved. Using geometry and calculus, some simple combinations of sources are easily solved; others are not.
One simple combination is two simple sources separated by a distance and vibrating out of phase, one miniature sphere expanding while the other is contracting. The pair is known as a doublet, or dipole, and the radiation of this combination is similar to that of a very small dynamic loudspeaker operating without a baffle. The directivity of a dipole is a figure 8 shape with maximum output along a vector which connects the two sources and minimums to the sides when the observing point is equidistant from the two sources, where the sum of the positive and negative waves cancel each other. While most drivers are dipoles, depending on the enclosure to which they are attached, they may radiate as monopoles, dipoles (or bipoles). If mounted on a finite baffle, and these out of phase waves allowed to interact, dipole peaks and nulls in the frequency response result. When the rear radiation is absorbed or trapped in a box, the diaphragm becomes a monopole radiator. Bipolar speakers, made by mounting in-phase monopoles (both moving out of or into the box in unison) on opposite sides of a box, are a method of approaching omnidirectional radiation patterns.
p0 is the pressure on axis, a is the piston radius, λ is the wavelength (i.e. ) θ is the angle off axis and J1 is the Bessel function of the first kind.
A planar source will radiate sound uniformly for low frequencies whose wavelength is longer than the dimensions of the planar source, and as frequency increases, the sound from such a source will be focused into an increasingly narrower angle. The smaller the driver, the higher the frequency where this narrowing of directivity occurs. Even if the diaphragm is not perfectly circular, this effect occurs such that larger sources are more directive. Several loudspeaker designs have been built which have approximately this behavior. Most are electrostatic or planar magnetic designs.
Various manufacturers use different driver mounting arrangements to create a specific type of sound field in the space for which they are designed. The resulting radiation patterns may be intended to more closely simulate the way sound is produced by real instruments, or simply create a controlled energy distribution from the input signal (some using this approach are called monitors, as they are useful in checking the signal just recorded in a studio). An example of the first is a room corner system with many small drivers on the surface of a 1/8 sphere. A system design of this type was patented by, and actually produced commercially, by Professor Amar Bose—the 2201. Later Bose models have deliberately emphasized production of both direct and reflected sound by the loudspeaker itself, regardless of its environment. The designs are controversial in high fidelity circles, but have proven commercially successful. Several other manufacturers' designs follow similar principles.
Directivity is an important issue because it affects the frequency balance of sound a listener hears, and also the interaction of the speaker system with the room and its contents. A speaker which is very directive (i.e., on an axis perpendicular to the speaker face) may result in a reverberant field lacking in high frequencies, giving the impression the speaker is deficient in treble even though it measures well on axis (e.g., "flat" across the entire frequency range). Speakers with very wide, or rapidly increasing directivity at high frequencies, can give the impression that there is too much treble (if the listener is on axis) or too little (if the listener is off axis). This is part of the reason why on-axis frequency response measurement is not a complete characterization of the sound of a given loudspeaker.
 Other driver designsOther types of drivers which depart from the most commonly used direct radiating electro-dynamic driver mounted in an enclosure include:
 Horn loudspeakersHorn loudspeakers are the oldest form of loudspeaker system. The use of horns as voice-amplifying megaphones dates at least to the 17th century, and horns were used in mechanical gramophones as early as 1857. Horn loudspeakers use a shaped waveguide in front of or behind the driver to increase the directivity of the loudspeaker and to transform a small diameter, high pressure condition at the driver cone surface to a large diameter, low pressure condition at the mouth of the horn. This increases the sensitivity of the loudspeaker and focuses the sound over a narrower area. The size of the throat, mouth, the length of the horn, as well as the area expansion rate along it must be carefully chosen to match the drive to properly provide this transforming function over a range of frequencies (every horn performs poorly outside its acoustic limits, at both high and low frequencies). The length and cross-sectional mouth area required to create a bass or sub-bass horn require a horn many feet long. 'Folded' horns can reduce the total size, but compel designers to make compromises and accept increased complication such as cost and construction. Some horn designs not only fold the low frequency horn, but use the walls in a room corner as an extension of the horn mouth. In the late 1940s, horns whose mouths took up much of a room wall were not unknown amongst hi-fi fans. Room sized installations became much less acceptable when two or more were required.
A horn loaded speaker can have a sensitivity as high as 110 dB at 2.83 volts (1 watt at 8 ohms) at 1 meter. This is a hundredfold increase in output compared to a speaker rated at 90 dB sensitivity, and is invaluable in applications where high sound levels are required or amplifier power is limited.
 Piezoelectric speakersPiezoelectric speakers are frequently used as beepers in watches and other electronic devices, and are sometimes used as tweeters in less-expensive speaker systems, such as computer speakers and portable radios. Piezoelectric speakers have several advantages over conventional loudspeakers: they are resistant to overloads which would normally destroy most high frequency drivers, and they can be used without a crossover due to their electrical properties. There are also disadvantages: some amplifiers can oscillate when driving capacitive loads like most piezoelectrics, which results in distortion or damage to the amplifier. Additionally, their frequency response, in most cases, is inferior to that of other technologies. This is why they are generally used in single frequency (beeper) or non-critical applications.
Piezoelectric speakers can have extended high frequency output, and this is useful in some specialized circumstances; for instance, sonar applications in which piezoelectric variants are used as both output devices (generating underwater sound) and as input devices (acting as the sensing components of underwater microphones). They have advantages in these applications, not the least of which is simple and solid state construction which resists the effects of seawater better than, say, a ribbon based device would.
 Magnetostrictive speakersMagnetostrictive transducers, based on magnetostriction, have been predominantly used as sonar ultrasonic sound wave radiators, but their usage has spread also to audio speaker systems. Magnetostrictive speaker drivers have some special advantages: they can provide greater force (with smaller excursions) than other technologies; low excursion can avoid distortions from large excursion as in other designs; the magnetizing coil is stationary and therefore more easily cooled; they are robust because delicate suspensions and voice coils are not required. Magnetostrictive speaker modules have been produced by Fostex and FeONIC and subwoofer drivers have also been produced.
 Electrostatic loudspeakersElectrostatic loudspeakers use a high voltage electric field (rather than a magnetic field) to drive a thin statically charged membrane. Because they are driven over the entire membrane surface rather than from a small voice coil, they ordinarily provide a more linear and lower distortion motion than dynamic drivers. They have the disadvantage that the diaphragm excursion is severely limited because of practical construction limitations; the further apart the stators are positioned, the higher the voltage must be to achieve acceptable efficiency, which increases the tendency for electrical arcs as well as the increasing the speaker's attraction of dust particles. For many years electrostatic loudspeakers had a reputation as a generally unreliable and occasionally dangerous product. Arcing remains a potential problem with current technologies, especially when the panels are allowed to collect dust or dirt, or when driven with high signal levels.
Electrostatics are inherently dipole radiators and due to the thin flexible membrane are less suited for use in enclosures to reduce low frequency cancellation as with common cone drivers. Due to this and the low excursion capability, full range electrostatic loudspeakers are large by nature, and the bass will roll off at a frequency corresponding to a quarter wavelength of the narrowest panel dimension. To reduce the size of commercial products, they are sometimes used as a high frequency driver in combination with a conventional dynamic driver which handles the bass frequencies.
 Ribbon and planar magnetic loudspeakersA ribbon speaker consists of a thin metal-film ribbon suspended in a magnetic field. The electrical signal is applied to the ribbon which moves with it, thus creating the sound. The advantage of a ribbon driver is that the ribbon has very little mass; thus, it can accelerate very quickly, yielding very good high-frequency response. Ribbon loudspeakers are often very fragile—some can be torn by a strong gust of air. Most ribbon tweeters emit sound in a dipole pattern; a very few have backings which limit the dipole radiation pattern. Above and below the ends of the more or less rectangular ribbon, there is less audible output due to phase cancellation, but the precise amount of directivity depends on ribbon length. Ribbon designs generally require exceptionally powerful magnets which make them costly to manufacture. Ribbons have a very low resistance that most amplifiers cannot drive directly. As a result, a step down transformer is typically used to increase the current through the ribbon. The amplifier "sees" a load that is the ribbon's resistance times the transformer turns ratio squared. The transformer must be carefully designed so that its frequency response and parasitic losses do not degrade the sound, further increasing cost and complication relative to conventional designs.
Planar magnetic speakers (having printed or embedded conductors on a flat diaphragm) are sometimes described as "ribbons", but are not truly ribbon speakers. The term planar is generally reserved for speakers which have roughly rectangular shaped flat surfaces that radiate in a bipolar (i.e., front and back) manner. Planar magnetic speakers consist of a flexible membrane with a voice coil printed or mounted on it. The current flowing through the coil interacts with the magnetic field of carefully placed magnets on either side of the diaphragm, causing the membrane to vibrate more or less uniformly and without much bending or wrinkling. The driving force covers a large percentage of the membrane surface and reduces resonance problems inherent in coil-driven flat diaphragms.
 Bending wave loudspeakersBending wave transducers use a diaphragm that is intentionally flexible. The rigidity of the material increases from the center to the outside. Short wavelengths radiate primarily from the inner area, while longer waves reach the edge of the speaker. To prevent reflections from the outside back into the center, long waves are absorbed by a surrounding damper. Such transducers can cover a wide frequency range (80 Hz to 35,000 Hz) and have been promoted as being close to an ideal point sound source. This uncommon approach is being taken by only a very few manufacturers, in very different arrangements.
 Flat panel loudspeakersThere have been many attempts to reduce the size of speaker systems, or alternatively to make them less obvious. One such attempt was the development of voice coils mounted to flat panels to act as sound sources. These can then be made in a neutral color and hung on walls where they will be less noticeable than many speakers, or can be deliberately painted with patterns in which case they can function decoratively. There are two related problems with flat panel techniques: first, a flat panel is necessarily more flexible than a cone shape in the same material, and therefore will move as a single unit even less, and second, resonances in the panel are difficult to control, leading to considerable distortions. Some progress has been made using such lightweight, rigid, materials such as Styrofoam, and there have been several flat panel systems commercially produced in recent years.
 Distributed mode loudspeakersA newer implementation of the flat panel speaker system involves an intentionally flexible panel and an "exciter", mounted off-center and located so as to excite the panel to vibrate with minimal resonances. Speakers using such techniques can reproduce sound with a wide directivity pattern (paradoxically somewhat like a point source) and have been used in some computer speaker designs and bookshelf loudspeakers.[not in citation given]
 Heil air motion transducersOskar Heil invented the air motion transducer in the 1960s. In this approach, a pleated diaphragm is mounted in a magnetic field and forced to close and open under control of a music signal. Air is forced from between the pleats in accordance with the imposed signal, generating sound. The drivers are less fragile than ribbons and considerably more efficient (and able to produce higher absolute output levels) than ribbon, electrostatic, or planar magnetic tweeter designs.
ESS, a California manufacturer, licensed the design, employed Heil, and produced a range of speaker systems using his tweeters during the 1970s and 1980s. Radio Shack, a large US retail store chain, also sold speaker systems using such tweeters for a time. At present, there are two manufacturers of these drivers, both in Germany, one of which produces a range of high end professional speakers using tweeters and mid-range drivers based on the technology.
 Plasma arc speakersPlasma arc loudspeakers use electrical plasma as a radiating element. Since plasma has minimal mass, but is charged and therefore can be manipulated by an electric field, the result is a very linear output at frequencies far higher than the audible range. Problems of maintenance and reliability for this approach tend to make it unsuitable for mass market use. In 1978 Alan E. Hill of the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM, designed the Plasmatronics Hill Type I, a tweeter whose plasma was generated from helium gas. This avoided the ozone and nitrous oxide produced by RF decomposition of air in an earlier generation of plasma tweeters made by the pioneering DuKane Corporation, who produced the Ionovac (marketed as the Ionofane in the UK) during the 1950s. Currently, there remain a few manufacturers in Germany who use this design, and a do-it-yourself design has been published and has been available on the Internet.
A less expensive variation on this theme is the use of a flame for the driver, as flames contain ionized (electrically charged) gases.
 Digital speakersDigital speakers have been the subject of experiments performed by Bell Labs as far back as the 1920s. The design is simple; each bit controls a driver, which is either fully 'on' or 'off'.
There are problems with this design which have led to it being abandoned as impractical for the present. First, for a reasonable number of bits (required for adequate sound reproduction quality), the physical size of a speaker system becomes very large. Secondly, due to inherent analog digital conversion problems, the effect of aliasing is unavoidable, so that the audio output is "reflected" at equal amplitude in the frequency domain, on the other side of the sampling frequency, causing an unacceptably high level of ultrasonics to accompany the desired output. No workable scheme has been found to adequately deal with this.
The term "digital" or "digital-ready" is often used for marketing purposes on speakers or headphones, but these systems are not digital in the sense described above. Rather, they are conventional speakers which can be used with digital sound sources, as can any conventional speaker, (e.g., optical media, MP3 players, etc.).