Speaker selection and amplifier power ratings
Too often we receive speakers for warranty repair in which the woofer voice
coils are frozen and charred. The
voice coil that drives the cone has overheated and burnt. (Sometimes the speaker
cone even catches fire!) Often these are brought to us in the belief that the
repair will be covered by warranty. Unfortunately, in practically all of these cases,
the failure is due to excessive power applied to the speaker, which is
specifically excluded from coverage by manufacturer warranties. (Please
note: this article is written from the perspective of a live musical performance
sound system. Other applications such as studio monitoring, home theaters,
etc, may have additional considerations, although the principles here are still
We have identified two primary causes for speaker failure:
1 - Continuous power output from the amplifier is greater than the speaker is
designed to handle. This usually burns up the voice coil in the woofers.
2 - Excessive distortion caused by trying to get more volume (power) from the
amplifier than it is capable of delivering. (Underpowered system.) This
causes the amplifier to go into clipping, which produces excessive high
frequency energy and burns up the tweeters or horns.
The following article describes the reasons for these issues and will hopefully
enable you to properly match the ratings of the speakers and the amplifier in
your next system and avoid such catastrophes.
Cause #1: Excessive power to speakers. Usually, the reason for these occurrences is because the amplifier power rating
was much greater than the speaker was designed to handle. We see this
situation frequently in speakers used in DJ applications, where the program
material contains continuous heavy bass signals. Even worse, often the
amplifiers are overdriven into clipping due to the desire for even more bass.
amplifier ratings and speaker power ratings as described by the respective
manufacturers are not directly related to each other, and the consumer often
chooses a speaker with a rating that appears to match the amplifier, when in
fact the speaker is severely underrated. That is, an amplifier rated at 100
watts does not necessarily match a speaker rated at "100 watts".
In order to properly understand the rules for speaker selection, a certain
amount of technical background is necessary. Stay with me....
First, a definition: POWER is the rate at which energy is converted from
one form to another. The basic international unit of energy is called a JOULE
and is defined as the amount of work energy performed by applying a certain
amount of force (called a NEWTON) through a distance of one meter. The number of
Joules of energy converted each second defines the amount of Power in WATTS. 1
Watt = 1 Joule/second; 5 watts = 5 Joules/second, etc. For instance, if
your exercycle had a generator connected to a lamp, the brightness of the lamp
would depend on how hard and fast you pedaled. The faster and harder you
pedal, the more power you generate and the brighter will be the lamp.
The purpose of an amplifier and speaker system is to convert the raw electrical
energy from the AC power line into acoustic (sound) energy that you can hear.
During this process, energy is converted from matter (such as coal or gas) into
heat, then mechanical energy, then (possibly through magnetic energy) into
electricity. From your AC power outlet the electrical energy is controlled by
the amplifier in order to build a weak electrical signal into a strong signal,
which is fed to the speaker to create magnetic energy, which pushes the speaker
cone back and forth (mechanical energy), which moves air molecules in order to
convert some of that mechanical energy into sound energy. The more energy
(per second) is converted into sound, the louder the sound will be. So volume depends on the
amount of electrical POWER used to create the sound by the speaker.
There are a number of methods used to describe the power of an electrical
signal. These methods are given names such as "instantaneous power", "average
power", "RMS Power", "peak power", "Music power", "Program Power" and others.
In order to move the speaker cone in the complex manner required to accurately
reproduce sounds, the power must be continually and rapidly varying. The power
being used at any instant during the process is called "instantaneous power".
However, since that is always changing, it is not useful for describing the
capability of an amplifier or speaker.
"Peak power" is the maximum amount of instantaneous power present at the
highest level during the signal. In a speaker, the peak power would occur at
instant the cone reaches its most forward (or rearward) extended position. In an
amplifier, the maximum peak power output to a speaker is limited by the
amplifier power supply. If the level controls are increased beyond the point
where the amplifier reaches the limits of the power supply, a severe form of
distortion known as "clipping" occurs. As an analogy, think of tying a weight to
a string and whirling it up and down in a circle in the room. If the string is
short, the circle is small. This is like an amplifier delivering a low volume
tone to a speaker. If you lengthen the string, the circle gets bigger. An
amplifier would be delivering more power to the speaker, and the sound would be
louder. If you lengthen the string too much, the weight will hit the ceiling
and/or the floor, and the weight no longer moves in a circle. The size of the
circle (and the amount of sound) is limited by the ceiling and the floor (the
power supply in the amplifier). In an amplifier, the peak power rating is useful
for describing the maximum instantaneous limit of its capability for pulse
sounds such as drumbeats and bass notes.
"RMS power" is practically the same as "Average power".
Since an audio signal is constantly changing, mathematical methods were
developed to accurately compare the voltage and current in an audio signal or AC
power source to an equivalent DC level such as that produced by a battery. The
method of comparison was based on the amount of heat each form of power would
produce in a heating element such as a lamp bulb. So the values of voltage and
current producing 10 watts of AC electricity would have the same average power
as a battery supplying a steady 10 watts to a lamp, and would light it to
exactly the same brightness. The Average Power (often called "RMS" power) is the
most consistent method of comparing power levels between two devices. Most audio
power amplifiers are rated for their Maximum Continuous Average ("RMS") power output capability of an
essentially undistorted signal to a specified load (speaker) impedance. Under
certain conditions, a relationship exists between the peak power and the "RMS"
power rating of an amplifier. (The term "RMS" stands for "Root-Mean-Square" and
describes the mathematical steps required to calculate the effective values of
voltage or current which determine the average power of an
AC sine wave, which is the graph of instantaneous signal in a pure tone.
Strictly speaking, "RMS" applies only to voltage and current, not
power. "RMS power" is technically meaningless, but has become commonly
used to refer to Average Power
because it is usually calculated using the RMS values of voltage and current,
and also to distinguish it from other "types" of power.***)
"Music power" and "Program power" are rather nebulous terms that are often used
in speaker ratings. They are explained by the manufacturers by saying that
speakers are almost never used to produce pure tones (where average power is
most easily measured) and that the power distribution in most music is erratic
and of many frequencies. A closely related industry standard method of
rating speakers is called the IEC power rating. The description usually given is that a complex
waveform is used to evaluate the power capacity of the speaker. No exact formula
or other mathematical relationship appears to be available, but from our
research it appears that these ratings are approximately twice the equivalent
average power. A detailed, rather technical explanation is given by Jon M. Risch
of Peavey Electronics in
Herein lies the problem. How can you match a speaker system to an amplifier when
the amplifier is rated in "RMS" watts (average power) and the speaker is rated in
Music Power or Program Power (which is definitely NOT average power)? Ultimately
there must be some method of comparing apples to apples when it comes to the
Remember that average power was defined in terms of the "heating effect"
produced by the AC power source. When audio power is applied to a speaker, much
of the energy is converted to magnetism and then to sound. However, a
significant portion of it gets converted to heat in the wire of the voice coil.
When too much power is applied, the heat damages the insulation of the wires.
They come loose and start to rub inside the speaker, or the insulation starts to
burn. This causes a buzz or rattle from the speaker. If the wire gets even
hotter, it fails like a burnt-out lamp bulb filament and the speaker quits
entirely. Since it is heat that causes the speaker failure, you can see that it
is the average power that is important in determining the failure limits of the
Now let's consider the amplifier power rating. If you examine a specification
sheet of an amplifier, you will see that they are usually rated in Average ("RMS")
power for an UNDISTORTED output. This is like swinging your weighted string so
it almost touches the ceiling and the floor. But keep in mind that you can
overdrive the amplifier into clipping. When this happens the power amplifier can
produce up to TWICE AS MUCH power to the speakers as it is rated for. (Long
technical explanation required - take my word for it.) So an amplifier rated at
100 watts clean can actually put out as much as 200 watts when heavily
overdriven into severe distortion.
One other note about amplifier power ratings: The output power per channel
usually depends on the IMPEDANCE of the speaker(s). For example, an amplifier
might be rated at 100 watts per channel to an 8 ohm load and 190 watts to a 4
ohm load. Be sure you are comparing amp and speaker ratings for the same
impedance value. We will assume you are only using one speaker per channel in
Now, if you want to keep from smoking your speakers, you should consider the
relationships between the speaker ratings and the maximum capability of the
amplifier. The first thing to do is find out what form the speaker power rating
is. If the speaker rating is clearly stated in RMS WATTS or AVERAGE POWER, you
can compare it directly to the amplifier rating. If you are buying an amplifier
rated at 100 watts/channel, a speaker rated at 100 watts RMS is usually adequate.
However, if there is a possibility that it might be overdriven, (such as with
lots of bass or heavy metal) you might want to buy a speaker rated at up to twice the power
output rating of the amplifier to allow for the distorted output power.
(Distortion of bass notes is not as obvious as higher frequencies, and it's easy
for enthusiastic DJs to overdrive the system without realizing it.)
If the speakers are rated in Program power or Music power, or if it is not
clearly stated, you should also consider the additional rule of thumb that their
average power rating is probably about half of the Program power rating. If you
are buying an amp rated at 100 watts clean (200 watts maximum), your speakers
should have an RMS Average Power rating of 100 to 200 watts, so the Program
power rating should be 200 to 400 watts each.
In practice, for an application where the program material contains high average
power levels, (especially lots of bass) the speaker Program Power rating should be MORE than two times
the amplifier RMS power rating. For maximum protection, select speakers with
Program Power ratings of four times the amplifier power rating. Keep in mind
that these rules are based on approximations and some assumptions, so no guarantee can be made that you still won't
blow the speakers, but using these rules will greatly lessen the risk.
The speaker in the photo above was rated at 240 watts IEC for a duration of 8
hours, or 200 watts IEC for a duration of 100 hours. This appears to
translate to approximately 100-120 watts RMS. (The manufacturer doesn't give an
RMS rating for this speaker.) The user was driving it with an amplifier
rated at 500 Watts RMS per channel (with both channels driven). This amp
is capable of producing over 1000 watts per channel when heavily distorted.
The system was being used in a DJ application. More than likely the DJ was
cranking it as loud as he could..... (Click on the picture for a close-up view.)
Case #2: Excessive distortion. As mentioned previously,
excessive distortion burns up tweeters. This happens when the amplifier
does not have enough power to produce the desired volume and the user has set
the volume controls too high. The amplifier goes into clipping (described above),
the sound becomes harsh and distorted, and produces lots of high-frequency
harmonic energy. Also as described above, the amplifier can actually put
out up to twice as much distorted power as it can clean power. A lot of
this extra distortion power is contained in those high-frequency harmonics,
which are directed to the horns or tweeters in the speaker. The result is a
burnt tweeter voice coil.
Distortion can also be produced in devices feeding the amplifier, with the
same result. A mixer channel that is being overdriven, or an overdrive
signal from a guitar amp can produce a distorted signal that can burn out
tweeters even though the power amp is not operating near its full power rating.
(That's why most guitar amplifiers don't have tweeters!)
There is much conflicting information available on the web and from supposed
'experts' that is based on the idea that distortion must be avoided at all costs. Some even go so far
as to say the amplifier power rating should be two times the
speaker's IEC power rating(*1). The rationale is that speakers can
normally handle brief pulses well in excess of their average power rating.
While this is true, such applications are typically found in home theater and
studio monitoring, where the average power level of the program
material is normally well below the speaker rating. It is NOT a
safe practice for systems where high continuous average volume is required, such
as dance clubs, arenas, theaters and outdoor venues. If you go back and examine
the ratings for the burnt speaker and the amp that was being used, you will see
that the user thought he was following the (erroneous) recommendations.
To avoid damage due to excessive distortion, be sure your system's amplifier
power rating is great enough for the application to ensure that you have enough
volume without overdriving it into distortion. Select your speaker power
ratings to match the amplifier using the guidelines above, adjusting for the
type of program material. If you are amplifying speech, speaker Program Power rating =
amplifier RMS power is probably adequate. For recorded music or live
acoustic-style performances, speaker Program Power rating = 2x amplifier RMS power would
be appropriate. For live rock or ethnic music, or heavy-bass DJ
situations, you may wish to increase the safety margin beyond this. (*2)
A properly designed amplifier/speaker system for sound reinforcement will
have enough amplifier power that clipping distortion of the amplifier will never
occur at any desired volume level, AND speakers that can handle continuous power
near the rated output of the amplifier. Using an amplifier with twice the power
rating of the speaker (or more) is inviting a trip to the repair shop.
More information about speakers and impedance can be found here.
(I disagree with this recommendation.)
(*2) JBL has an article on
Speaker Power Requirements which includes three different descriptions of
program content and their recommendations.
(*3) A full explanation of power is well beyond the scope of this article,
and would only serve to confuse the reader. Plenty of information is
available in textbooks and on the web. If you are really interested, be prepared
to learn about resistance, capacitance, inductance, trigonometry, vectors, and
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