Chinese Components, Amplifier Power/Speaker Damage, Speaker Wire and Acoustic Panels

By Chuck Hawks

I receive around a hundred e-mails per day, on average, and I try to answer them all. Many are budget related, for unless you are a multi-millionaire, high fidelity music reproduction can be expensive. Here are some responses to reoccurring questions about subjects that I thought it might be helpful to share.

Chinese and Other Third World Audio Components

Cheap audio components are not a good investment. Most audio components are sourced from China and other Third World countries for one reason: to minimize manufacturing costs. They are not designed or quality controlled by the importer and low cost, not high fidelity, is the prime consideration. Such components should be avoided by those seeking accurate music reproduction.

There are exceptions, of course, such as the lower priced Klipsch loudspeakers, which are Klipsch designs made in China to Klipsch specification. The upper Klipsch line is still made in the USA. In the case of Klipsch, if the finish on the box is vinyl the speaker is sourced out of China; if the finish is real wood veneer, it is made in the USA.

I strongly recommend purchasing name brand components from reputable manufacturers in first world countries (Japan, Australia, Western Europe and North America) with a long track record in the audio business. There are lists of recommended components on Audio Online

Amplifier Power/Speaker Damage

A low power amplifier can damage a speaker by being driven into distortion (the amp, I mean) on loud passages. Applying too much power can drive the speaker itself into distortion. Either way, distortion can damage loudspeakers. If you hear audible distortion, turn the power (volume) down.

Excessive power can also damage a speaker by over-driving the voice coil, sometimes clear out of its slot. If you hear clicking sound from a speaker, that is probably the voice coil bottoming out, which is a Very Bad Thing. Excessive power over time can actually melt the voice coil. Again, the solution is simple: turn down the power.

If a speaker operates comfortably with 10 watts input, it doesn't matter whether that 10 watts is supplied by a 15 watt amp or a 500 watt amp. There is no upper limit in amplifier power, as long as you don't over drive the loudspeaker by turning the volume knob too far to the right.

Generally, a power amplifier somewhere in the middle or upper part of a loudspeaker's recommended range will work fine. If a loudspeaker is rated to handle a maximum 250 watt RMS input, a 100 to 150 watt RMS power amp should work fine. However, a very efficient loudspeaker rated for 50 watts maximum will not be damaged by a 200 watt amplifier, provided you don't use the extra power to drive the speaker into distortion. For more information, see my article "Loudspeaker Sensitivity and Amplifier Power Requirement."

Speaker Wire

You don't need exotic speaker wire. Wire has no "sound" of its own, despite the advertising hype you may have read. Exotic speaker wire is simply a scam, and a very profitable one.

The rule is that longer runs between amplifier and loudspeaker require heavier wire. Use standard, dual conductor, stranded copper speaker wire (line cord). For short runs, up to 32 feet for 8 ohm speakers or 16 feet for 4 ohm speakers, ordinary 18 gauge (AWG) lamp cord can be used to connect loudspeakers to amplifiers. This is fine for most dorm rooms and studio apartments. For most home installations, 12 gauge line cord is the way to go, economical and efficient. 12 gauge wire will allow runs of up to 120 feet with 8 ohm speakers or 60 feet with 4 ohm speakers.

Remember, wire does not have musical qualities! For more on this subject, see my article "Speaker Wire: Fact and Fiction."

Acoustic Panels, Sound Traps and other Gimmicks

"Acoustic panels," "acoustic baffles" and "sound traps" are passive devices advertised to absorb unwanted room reflections. They probably do, to some extent, as anything you put in a listening room either absorbs sound waves or reflects them. Room acoustics are important, but solutions don't have to be expensive. Covering a reflective ceiling with cardboard egg cartons, for example, reduces sound reflections and is cheap. On the other hand, while some acoustic wall panels are reasonably priced, many passive room devices sold to audiophiles are shockingly expensive. I use carpeting and furnishings to deaden the room, sometimes even nailing small (cheap) area carpets to the walls.

My advice is to invest in better loudspeakers and components, not gimmicks like sound traps and exotic speaker wire. Spend your hard earned dollars on what is most important. The loudspeakers, for instance, are where the sound comes from and are absolutely critical!

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Copyright 2011, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.