Making Sense of Speaker Specs

Choosing a good loudspeaker is pretty much the same as choosing a good woman. Obviously, they come in all shapes and sizes, and you want the model that's perfect for you. Looking for a speaker that's rich, or perhaps a woman with a wood-grain finish? Don't forget to consider the size of the woofers (or whether, in fact, they are tweeters).

Overall, measurements are extremely important. I like a woman who's about the same size as me. We can economize by sharing clothes and shoes. On the other hand, you might want a woman who's much bigger than you, so she can carry you to safety during floods.

A speaker's technical measurements are a different matter, and trickier. Let's consider these individually:

• Frequency response. This shows the lowest and highest reproduced frequencies and, more important, the variations in between. A spec such as "20 Hz to 20 kHz" is useless without the ± tolerance. Flat is best, but don't fret about narrow peaks and dips; the ear is amazingly slack at hearing those. But do worry about broad frequency variations and rolloffs. Also check that the combined frequency responses of the subwoofer and the satellites dovetail smoothly.

• Sensitivity. Speakers, like women, are indeed sensitive. A sensitivity rating (in dB) reflects how efficiently a speaker converts an amplifier's electrical energy into sound energy. For a given amp output, a speaker with higher sensitivity will produce louder sound. That's important if your amp is low-power. Higher sensitivity doesn't mean higher sound quality, but for a big room, you'll need loud speakers, literally.