In the world of sound there’s an old adage that states, “Your system is only as good as the weakest component in the signal chain.”
This is especially true of a system’s loudspeakers. They are the last link in the chain and are directly responsible for communicating everything that’s been done to the signal along the way.
Going beyond simply delivering sound into a room, they actually become a living physical element, dynamically interacting with their surroundings. In other words, what you’re usually hearing from a loudspeaker is more than its output, you’re also hearing what’s happening to that output as it travels through the space.
Selecting the “right” loudspeakers for a given system and room is no simple matter, and there can be more than one “right” answer. The type of programming featured in worship services is one issue; the acoustical nature of the space is another. Budgetary issues are almost always an important factor influencing loudspeaker selection. Aesthetics are yet another concern.
The only certainty is that every single situation is different and needs to be treated as such. That’s why there’s a constantly growing selection of loudspeaker types and deployments available for church applications, including:
Point Source. A single loudspeaker system of two- or three-way design. These provide very good coherence compared to multi-box systems (assuming the single box is well-designed), and present a huge variety of configurations, performance levels and price-points.
Column. A loudspeaker system typically consisting of identical smaller drivers arranged vertically in a single enclosure. These can work well with speech, and are small and visually unobtrusive. Some models have advanced digital signal processing that allow their output to be “steered” or more precisely focused on the coverage area.
Distributed. Multiple (usually smaller format) loudspeakers spread about the coverage area. These are usually used in conjunction with a main system to provide supplemental coverage to areas that are hard to reach otherwise. They may be a winning solution for acoustically difficult or irregularly shaped spaces, but can add complexity, requiring a good deal of digital signal processing and deft tuning.
Cluster. Groups of point source loudspeakers, perhaps including individual horns or low-frequency boxes. This is a very flexible option in achieving the desired coverage, and can provide high-acoustic output. However, they often require a skilled system design to work well, and sometimes are not very visually appealing. As a result, it may be preferred to place behind a scrim, which adds complexity and cost.
Line Array. Multi-way loudspeaker systems that are specifically designed to be deployed in vertical arrays. Over the past 20 years or so, line arrays have become very popular for church sound applications. They offer good flexibility in achieving the desired coverage, very high acoustic output, and good coherence when properly deployed. The downside is that the arrays can be quite large and may not blend well with décor, and because many loudspeakers are required, cost can add up pretty quickly.
In addition, the number of loudspeakers equipped with their own power and processing (commonly called self-powered) has dramatically expanded. They can deliver extremely good performance because all of the elements can be optimized to work well together, and because they’re “closed systems,” there’s less chance of unauthorized adjustments being made that will degrade system performance.
Self-powered loudspeakers can also reduce or eliminate the need for amplifier rack rooms and long, expensive cable runs. The trade-off (there’s always a trade-off in audio) is that AC power must be brought to the loudspeaker location(s). With proper planning this is easily done for new construction, but it may be a bigger undertaking for retrofits.