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Sound Ideas With Mark Wright: Urban Legend – Speaker Size

Meet Mark Wright –

No one escapes the frustration of finding the right tone and gear to  meet their unique requirements. For most of us, whether touring professional or weekend warrior, it has become a lifelong endeavor.  Unfortunately, the results are often prolonged as we shoot ourselves in the foot by relying too much on unfounded assumptions.

These articles will attempt to help in our personal quest as we dispel common myths, theories and preconceived notions about tone and gear.

Let’s begin by tackling one of the more frustrating urban legends: speaker size. We all have our driver of choice. Every day I hear players saying, “I only play 10’s because they’re the fastest”, “12’s are the only drivers with enough punch”, and  “15’s are the only way to go because of their depth.”

Why are we so adamant about speaker size? Why do we dig in our heels so deep about what’s right & what’s wrong? The main reasons seem to stem from our personal experiences and what the current popular opinions are from other players. Of course there’s advertising, magazine articles and current trends as well. All of these combined help determine our belief system about which drivers will work and which ones won’t whether it’s reality or not.

As we filter everything through our past experiences, it only makes sense that this would become a main ingredient in forming our thinking. If every 15″ driver you’ve ever played happened to be slow, floppy, woofy and undefined, common sense would dictate that you do not like 15’s. Our experiences (for better or worse) formulate our prejudices.

What about current public opinion? As a young kid growing up, our family bought and drove Chevys. It was almost like talking politics or religion if a friend’s family drove a Ford. Them’s fightin’ words!  Looking back, it seems ridiculous. I wanted to fit in, so I preached the virtues of driving a particular brand of gas guzzler.

It’s really no different today when we ask opinions on speaker size. Many players will defend whatever they have invested in to the death, even if they have never tried another size driver. No one likes to admit they didn’t make the best choice.

What’s the correct answer? It may be different for everyone, but there are certain truths that can be applied to help us understand speakers to make a better decision.

We all know that a Luthier building a custom bass can change the tone and playability by opting for a different bridge, pre-amp, pick-ups, pick-up placement, frets, neck, bolt-on, neck-through, body wood, strings, etc. This is a fact that we don’t argue with because it’s a no brainer.

In the same way, there are at least 31 plus different physical parameters, component materials and Thiele-Small Parameters that make up the characteristics of a speaker driver. A few examples are power handling, frequency response, impedance, Xmax (Maximum Linear Excursion) and SPL (Sensitivity). An array of building materials can be used for the voice coil, magnet, basket, type of cone edge, etc. Change any one of these and you’ve just changed the tone of the driver and cabinet. Most of the time more than one parameter is changed from brand to brand and model to model which makes a huge alteration.

Manufacturers have been making midrange sounding 15″ guitar speakers for skinny six string guitar players for decades. They’ve been making eight inch subwoofers for years as well. Change a little here and a little there and you can make a 15 sound like a ten or an eight inch sound like an 18.

What does this mean in real life? It’s not the best idea when attempting to solve your tone and gear problems to be so obstinate about what driver size will work for you. Not all tens are the same, not all 12’s are the same, nor are all 15’s the same. Each loudspeaker cabinet manufacturer either orders what’s available from a speaker driver manufacturer’s stock or they have them built to their custom specs. Line up 20 different ten inch drivers and they will all sound completely different.

Again, what many players say is, “I only play tens, I never play 15’s.” What they actually mean is, “From my personal experience in testing cabinets, the limited number of tens that I have played sounded better for my style of music than the limited number of 15’s.”

On a related note, speaker cabinets are actually built around the speaker driver. In other words, the 31 plus parameters of the driver dictate the cubic inches, porting size and length (ported or sealed).  You can’t just stick any old brand of driver in your existing cabinet and expect great results. There are times when a different brand or model may be close enough to work, but remember these specs can be all over the place. The cabinet is built around the driver!

There are many resources online that go into more depth about speaker parameters if interested. The goal wasn’t to do an exhaustive thesis on speaker design, but to simply open our eyes to possibilities that we may not have considered. There may be other speaker sizes out there that might meet your needs better than the ones you have been so passionately defending.

Chevy, Ford? Oh, grow up.

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