everyone, are you ready to open up a giant can of worms? Of course I’m only joking, but this is going
to be a somewhat touchy subject as speakers have a HUGE impact on the overall
sound of a circuit. Please remember as
we are going forward that this is absolutely not an attempt to tell you what
speakers are going to sound best in your setup, and that all matters of sound
quality are completely subjective.
Let’s start with one of the easier factors:
speaker size. Typical speaker sizes for
guitar rigs are 8”, 10”, 12”, and 15”.
Generally speaking, you can tend to count on larger speakers having more
low end and being slightly louder.
Larger speakers also tend to break up later, but this all has to do with
how you drive them, how many speakers are in your cab, etc. So, how do you decide what size speakers to
go with? Luckily, most of us are bound
by the size of the speaker cutouts in our baffles, so don’t think about this
too hard unless you’re willing to get extremely creative. Another good thing to remember is that,
whether you’re aware of it or not, I’d be willing to bet a ton of your favorite
recordings feature a HUGE sounding guitar tone that actually came from an 8”
Fender Champ rig and a really mean guitar player.
Next, we are going to talk briefly about power
ratings. Things get a bit more tricky
here as we need to be aware of the power rating of your amp and how it may or
may not interact with the power rating of various speakers. This is also where a bit more of your
personal preference comes in as we start getting into the idea of speaker
breakup. If you prefer the sound of your
amp to be reproduced in the cleanest way possible, it is recommended that you
allow the total wattage of your speakers to exceed the wattage of your
amplifier. For example if you are
playing a 50 watt amp and you want a super clean tone with as little speaker
breakup as possible, you’ll want to choose at LEAST a 50 watt speaker, but
preferably something more along the lines of a 75 watt speaker. Choosing a lower wattage speaker, in general,
will increase the amount of speaker breakup present in your signal. This tends to “flub out” a bit in the low end
of your tone but has also historically produced some desirable sounds for many
guitarists across different genres.
Overpowering a speaker has been known to create some cool and unique
sounds, but is also known for reducing the life of a speaker over time, so keep
that in mind when making a selection.
For the sake of time we are only going to
focus on voice coil size for now. In a
separate article, however, we will address the use of different materials in
the construction of the voice coil and how they affect sound and integrity of
To put it plainly, we often find that larger
voice coils will be louder with more mids and lows, but slightly dialed back
treble. Smaller coils are often used in
speakers that tend to break up sooner but are often very tactile and bright. These are good for players whose are very dynamic
with their attack as they open a clear dialog between the player and their
To date, there have been three types of
magnets used in guitar speakers. The
first is AlNiCo, which is an iron alloy composed of Aluminum, Nickel, and
Cobalt. Traditionally, AlNiCo speakers
tend to be more expensive and often have a lower power rating. They are also said to be a more “musical”
speaker than those made with ceramic magnets.
Again, sound characteristics are completely subjective but most users
refer to AlNiCo speakers as being chimey and glassy with intricate highs and
The production of AlNiCo speakers experienced
a heavy exodus when the cost of cobalt shot through the roof and many
manufacturers moved over to ceramic magnets.
Even today, ceramic magnets are a well-revered, affordable alternative
to AlNiCo and have been used by some of the most renown tone hounds on the
planet. Ceramic magnets tend to have
less high end bite than AlNiCo with tighter lows and a nice fat punch in the
Lastly, we come to neodymium speakers. It might surprise you to learn that neodymium
magnets are the strongest type of natural magnet in the world. For this reason, they can pack a ton of
magnetic power without a great deal of the physical weight needed for AlNiCo or
ceramic. This produces an adequate
amount of magnetic energy to create quality sound without making your speaker
cabinet weight-prohibitive. As a result,
these speakers have become popular with many touring musicians especially those
using larger speaker cabinets. Many
players believe the neodymium speakers are not as refined sonically as ceramic
or AlNiCo speakers and that their sound is not as smooth as some. With this said, it is worth trying them as
all descriptions of sound are subjective and even the slightest change
elsewhere in a circuit can yield immaculate overall tone.
Most commonly, speaker cones (for guitar
speakers) are made from paper pulp.
There are other materials out on the market but that is another article
for another time. For now let’s talk
about a couple major factors in speaker cone construction: cone thickness and
ribbing. Just because a cone is made out
of paper doesn’t mean they are all exactly the same. The thickness of the paper can have a large
influence over the rigidity of the cone and its inherent responsiveness. A thinner cone will often be more touch
sensitive, bright, and quicker to break up, where a thicker cone will break up less
quickly and exhibit a little less high end.
When amps began to get louder and more
powerful, driving speakers harder and harder, manufacturers started stiffening
their cones so they would be more tolerant.
This included adding ribs to their cones which tend to decrease the rate
at which a speaker will break up and/or warp, and add rigidity without jacking
up the overall weight of the cone. Early
guitar speakers, and reproductions thereof, had smoother cones which would
break up fairly easily and were also less detailed than their ribbed
counterparts. Certain materials used on
the surround of the speaker, such as cloth, would also cause more high end
dampening and color the overall sound of the speaker.
There are quite obviously a ton of factors
that feed into why a certain speaker sound the way it does. As with just about anything in the tone
world, it’s never as simple as it seems.
That being said, it is worth getting to know as many speakers as you
possibly can, and this includes getting to know them in conjunction with
different amps and guitars. Every little
tweak can change your sound and a speaker is probably the fastest and
potentially least expensive way to completely overhaul your sound. So be daring, and be curious.