Single Driver vs. Multiple Drivers: Which Is Better?

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Q I’m still using my first system that I bought in the late 1960s. Time for an upgrade! I’m thinking of buying a new pair of speakers in the $3K-$4K range. I’ve seen speakers with four drivers and speakers that use only one driver. Even speakers priced in the five-digit range will sometimes have only one driver in a tall tower. Can you explain the advantages of one design over the other? What I basically want to know is if it’s possible for a tower speaker with a single driver to sound better than one with three or more drivers? —Michael Oleson, Fort Worth, TX

A It depends on who you ask. Some audiophiles like single-driver designs because they eliminate the need for the crossover that’s used to filter the audio frequency range in multi-driver speakers. Crossovers, the audiophile argument goes, create phase shifts and dynamic compression as they divide up the audio frequency range and route signals to the woofer, midrange, and tweeter, respectively. A single driver design, they say, can deliver greater dynamics and a level of “immediacy” that brings the listener closer to the experience of hearing live music, and since it’s a single point source, there are no time alignment issues created by the offset of multiple drivers.

Downsides often cited for single-driver speakers include rolled-off bass and treble, plus a “beamy” quality due to poor dispersion at higher frequencies. Also, by making a single driver handle the bass, mids, and highs, you’re asking a lot from it, and the competing needs of those frequency ranges can result in compromises and distortion.

One speaker type that some might mistakenly consider to be a single-driver design are models that use a coaxial driver array (right in photo). In this case, the tweeter is mounted directly in the center of a woofer or midrange driver, allowing the speaker to deliver the same “time-coherent” advantages of a single-driver design. KEF is perhaps best known for speakers that adhere to this principle with its Uni-Q models, though there are others.

The big benefit to multi-way speakers — coaxial or otherwise — that use a tweeter and one or more drivers to handle the midrange and bass, is that each individual driver can be optimized for a specific frequency range. This allows for better power handling, and the speaker can also be engineered for smooth off-axis frequency response — an important factor since, along with on-axis sound, a good amount of what you’re hearing when listening to speakers is sound reflected off surfaces in the room.

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jeff-henning's picture

One of the greatest speakers ever are made by Quad. Unfortunately, they have no low end.

The best I've owned are by Paradigm & KEF. Both were/are fantastic in their day for what they are.

They both needed subs to render music as it was. For the Paradigm's, it was a pair of Paradigm's Servo 15 subs. For the KEF's, it's 4 Rythmik servo 12 inchers.

One thing I do know as a bass player is that the only way you can produce really great bass is by moving a lot of air. That means drivers that can cleanly have a lot of displacement.

Oh, and let's not forget about Doppler Distortion.

No single driver speaker can produce the full music spectrum or do it well. That is a myth.

I could go on explaining all of this to you, but, if you don't know why, you should do a good bit of research. Me, giving you a few sentences is not going to convince you.

brenro's picture

These were a 15" woofer with a coaxially mounted sectoral horn and compression driver made from the 1940's through the 1970's. Not my cup of tea but Model 17's and their ilk are still sought after and revered by vintage audio aficionados.

jvonl's picture

I'm still using the Time Windows I purchased more than 40 years ago. Powered by Harman Kardon Signature Series pre-amp/tuner and power amp, they retain their natural, open, and balanced sound, especially for live recordings. $800 then = $2500+ now, and still worth every penny.

jeff-henning's picture

Do you also want to talk about Bose 901's?

Perhaps we can talk about the first speakers I ever owned by Marantz.

If you are in love with 40 year old speakers, you no longer understand what Hi-Fi is.

But, hey, enjoy your delusion.

hk2000's picture

I guess people crazy about classic roasters are delusional as well?

jvonl's picture

Nope, never really cared for 901's. Too finicky with placement. But, really, look down your nose much? Listening to McCartney's Band On the Run now. My delusions never sounded better. With unlimited funds I could have $100,000 speakers and a $50,000 turntable. But oh well, that's not to be. By the way, I spin discs on an Oppo BDP 95. Want to bust on that as well? Never thought building myself up by knocking down others was a good look, but, hey, you be you.