Understanding Frequency Response

Frequency response is a measurement in hertz (Hz) that expresses the range of sounds a speaker can produce. Many speakers range from 20Hz in the low, bass end to 20kHz, or 20,000Hz, in the high-frequency end; approximately the range of the human ear. The lower the bottom number and the higher the top number, the better the frequency response range. Some audiophiles believe that having a speaker producing frequencies above the threshold of human hearing (over 20 kHz) helps to enrich the fullness of the sound by resonating with the frequencies we can hear, producing overtones. Regardless of the frequency response range, you cannot determine how well a speaker performs without knowing whether a speaker can produce all frequencies at the same volume.

Volume and frequency response

Volume (more formally called amplitude) is measured in decibels, or dB. The smallest change in decibel level that the human ear can detect is 3dB. Most frequency response specifications include a decibel measurement of +/-3dB, which is considered the industry standard for frequency response. What does that mean, exactly? When a speaker reproduces different frequencies, it doesn't produce all frequencies at the same volume. Depending on the construction of the speaker, some mid-range or high-range frequencies may be louder than low range frequencies. This changes the way a recording sounds, as different speakers play frequencies at different volumes, flavoring a recording and altering it from its intended sound. If faithful sound reproduction is important to you, look for speakers with a frequency response with a very minor volume variation.

Graphing frequency response

The easiest way to compare frequency response performance of different speakers is to graph the frequency versus the amplitude. The ideal frequency/amplitude graph would be a flat line, with every frequency produced at the exact same volume. Unfortunately, no manufacturer has ever created a perfectly "flat" speaker; every speaker includes variations in frequency response amplitude. The best an audiophile can hope for is to get something with relatively minor variation that will be fairly faithful to an original recording. A rating of +/-3dB is a short way of saying plus or minus 3 decibels, which means that the frequency response amplitude varies no more than 3 decibels in either direction from the ideal, flat center line. The higher the number, the more deviation you'll hear from the ideal. Anything with a range of +/-9dB or higher is an extreme variation and not suitable for playing music or audio where it's important to stay true to the original sound of the recording.

What's a good frequency response?

A good frequency response measurement to aim for is 20Hz to 20kHz +/-3dB. Most people would consider this a good sound quality, although true audiophiles may prefer speakers to produce even higher frequencies. If you get much below 100Hz to 15kHz, you're losing out on a full frequency response range and your sound may lack the rich, full quality of a better speaker.

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