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Magical Mystery Spec: Why Is Distortion Overlooked In Loudspeakers?

The sooner we understand distortion, the sooner improvements in performance can be made

By Michael MacDonald March 31, 2016

Almost everybody in the pro audio business is a specification or “spec” junkie. From folks on the recording side to the sound reinforcement practitioners, we all want every detail of the technical performance of every piece of equipment in a system.

Specs seem extremely important, particularly those that represent a numerical improvement from past products, which are heralded as an advantage. 

But man cannot live by specs alone. Quite often, those who turn to specifications to answer questions should instead be using their ears for the answer. You see, specs are all too often taken at face value, whether they’re actually relevant or not.

Manufacturers sometimes take advantage of this propensity to over-emphasize specs (and who can really blame them?) but sometimes it comes at the expense of real performance and value. Why is this phenomenon so prevalent in our industry?

The most straightforward answer is that it’s a by-product of a craft that has a highly subjective final product. It would be nice if we could judge the performance of the work via strictly objective measurement. But it’s not that easy. Therefore, the next best thing for sound professionals to do is point at the specs of as a validation of choices, system designs and configurations, and mixes.

No audio equipment spec is more revered than distortion. (O.K., a bit dramatic, but work with me.) Distortion is measured to two and sometimes three decimal points on almost every piece of equipment in the signal chain. From the input of the console to the output of the amplifier, every fraction of a percent of distortion is stressed.

Sure, this makes some sense from the standpoint that the sum of distortion throughout a signal chain can add up to something that could be easily heard and perhaps detrimental to audio quality.

But here’s the key question: What audio products do we rarely see distortion specs for? Transducers! Yes, somehow microphones and loudspeakers slip right under the distortion radar.

In many cases, I suspect that those who design and produce these products never even measure distortion. Leading to our next question: why? My best guess is that distortion measurements are omitted because they would be shockingly “substandard,” to put it kindly.

Mics are the first “acquisition point” for what is fed to a sound system. These electromechanical devices convert acoustic energy into electrical energy. We’re starting to see some digital mic concepts emerge, and some of these offer designs with the potential to lower distortion and therefore improve accuracy.

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About Michael

Michael MacDonald
Michael MacDonald

President. ATK Audiotek
Michael is the president of leading production company ATK Audiotek in Valencia, CA, and has been involved in the professional audio industry for more than 35 years. Beginning as a freelance mixer/engineer in the 1970s, he transitioned to working for manufacturers and has been employed by, developed products for, and consulted with major companies such as Yamaha and JBL Professional.


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