Unless you’re a musician or audio professional, you likely didn’t purchase an amplifier the last time you picked up a new pair of earbuds or TV speakers.
Those looking for a higher quality sound system or greater control over their audio may want to consider looking into purchasing an amplifier.
However, amplifiers are only necessary for specific situations.
When purchasing a new set of speakers with an amplifier, split your budget about evenly between the two. Alternatively, you can make it a 75/25 split with more money going towards the speakers. If your budget is limited, spend most of it on the speakers. Still, a great amplifier will provide high-quality sound and more control over it.
This article will cover the difference between speakers and amplifiers, why your budget should be split evenly between them, and some things to keep in mind when shopping for them, such as audio signal levels, impedance, power rating, and sensitivity.
Why You Should Split Your Budget Evenly
Most audio professionals and enthusiasts agree that ultimately, speakers and amplifiers rank about equally in terms of importance.
For those with a flexible budget, you can split it 50/50: typically, the cost of a high-quality amplifier should match what you pay for the speakers.
However, if you have a limited budget, it might not be cost-effective to do this. Instead, focus your budget on the speakers.
High-quality speakers paired with a lower-quality amplifier will produce better sound than lower-quality speakers paired with a similarly mediocre amplifier.
There’s a bit more to it than price, however.
To pick an effective amplifier and speaker combination, you should understand the relationship and differences between the two pieces of equipment and how they complement each other.
Speakers vs. Amplifiers
When people think of amplifiers, the first thing that pops into their head is likely a combination guitar amplifier: the kind that looks like a big, black box.
This is only one type of amplifier: as the name implies, it combines an amp with a speaker in a convenient package.
However, speakers and amplifiers come in all shapes and sizes that vary depending on their specific use.
Before purchasing an amplifier, it’s essential to understand the difference between an amp and a speaker so you can determine whether you’ll ever need to buy an amplifier.
Amplifiers themselves don’t produce audio signals or sound waves.
When a signal is sent to an output device, whether it’s a guitar string to a speaker or an MP3 file to your headphones, it begins as an electrical current.
It’s the speaker’s job to convert that electrical current into mechanical sound waves that can be produced for us to hear.
However, this electrical current is typically very weak.
An amplifier’s job, then—as the name implies—is to boost (or amplify) this electrical signal to a level that powers the speaker and produces audible sound.
Amplifiers are often built into consumer-level audio equipment to reduce costs and make it easier to use (see below).
However, they are also sold separately as an amp head that can be plugged into a passive speaker.
Speakers are transducers: they convert the electrical energy from a source (such as an instrument or MP3 file) into mechanical energy that can be output by the speaker’s internal equipment.
There are three types of speakers: passive, active, and powered—however, only one of them requires the use of a separate amplifier.
Active speakers require some sort of external power source such as batteries or a wall outlet in order to be used. This is because they include a built-in amplifier.
Most commonly-used consumer audio output devices are active: earbuds, headphones, soundbars, and some PC and TV speakers as well.
Powered speakers come in sets and contain one active speaker alongside several passive speakers. Typically, the active speaker is a subwoofer.
The passive speakers are run through the active speaker, which provides them with power and amplification.
A good example of a powered speaker system would be surround sound set-ups commonly found in home theaters.
While passive speakers don’t need to be plugged into a power source such as a wall outlet to be used, they will require the use of an amplifier.
Passive speakers are little more than furniture items without an amplifier.
An amp provides both the power necessary to operate and the actual audio data that will be carried through and out of the speakers.
Pairing Amplifiers and Speakers
Unfortunately, purchasing a set of speakers and a separate amplifier isn’t as easy as picking the best two and plugging them into each other.
It’s essential to make sure that the amplifier’s specifications match those required by the speaker itself.
To better understand how to do this, we’ll need to define audio signal levels.
Audio Signal Levels
Speakers require a high level of power to operate, more than can be provided by the minuscule amount supplied by the current of an audio signal.
This is why amplifiers are necessary for passive speakers to work.
However, different amplifiers are rated for different power levels, as are passive speakers. An amplifier might not provide the level of power needed to drive a speaker.
When pairing an amplifier with a speaker, three critical factors to keep in mind are impedance, power rating, and sensitivity.
Impedance, in the context of amps and speakers, is the ability of the device to limit the flow of electrical current.
When a speaker and amplifier’s impedance ratings match, the amplifier can successfully provide as much power as possible through the speaker, resulting in high-quality sound.
Mismatched impedance values can lead to issues, some severe.
The amp will overheat if the amplifier provides more power than the speaker can take based on its impedance rating.
If the speaker requires more power than the amplifier can provide, this will result in weak, inaccurate sound output from the speakers.
Impedance is measured in Ohms.
While impedance is a complex subject that can be difficult to understand, most manufacturers will indicate the impedance ratings of their speakers and amplifiers on the box, making comparing and matching products easy.
Impedance and power ratings go hand-in-hand. Power ratings determine how much continuous and maximum power speakers can handle without blowing out.
Similarly to impedance, it’s important to make sure that your amplifier’s power output does not exceed the maximum power rating.
A speaker’s maximum power rating is about double that of the average value.
For instance, if a speaker can take an average of 150 continuous watts, it can handle peaks of up to 300 watts.
You want to make sure the amplifier doesn’t supply any more than 300 watts of power at a time.
A speaker’s sensitivity measures the efficiency and accuracy that it produces mechanical sound waves from electronic signals.
It is used to determine the maximum volume your speakers can reach depending on the power provided.
As such, it is directly affected by the power of your amplifier. Speaker sensitivity is measured in decibels.
A speaker’s sensitivity is unrelated to the quality of the sound; it simply determines the speaker’s volume.
As such, this is the least important aspect to worry about.
However, if you need the speaker for a specific location, this can be used to determine how loud the speaker will be in the given environment.
The louder the environment, the higher the speaker’s sensitivity should be.
In a quieter or more casual environment, you can save money by purchasing a speaker with a lower sensitivity.
In conclusion, buying an amplifier and speaker is a bit more complex than one might think.
Consumers and entry-level audiophiles might opt for an active or powered speaker set up to reduce the complexity of choosing the correct hardware.
If you find yourself in the market for an amplifier, there is a simple rule of thumb to consider the price: spend about as much money on your speakers as your amplifier.