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Sound Advice: What does ‘frequency response’ mean?

By Don Lindich, McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

Q. It seems that advertising the frequency response of audio equipment is no longer done. I would really prefer to have the report of an objective measurement before me to start with and then evaluate the speakers on other subjective factors. So, what about frequency response? Why is it no longer advertised?

—M.B., Redwood City, Calif.

A. I do not mention frequency response in my column and prefer to stick to subjective impressions, understanding that most readers assume I have done my homework on a product before I review and recommend it. Though I typically do not mention it, most manufacturers do provide frequency response specifications. The only company I know that makes it a point not to provide frequency response is Bose. I saw a test years ago of one of Bose’s speaker systems and it had about the worst tested specifications I had ever seen, so that could be why they do not publicize the frequency response. You can read more about this at “Bose: Better Profits through Marketing” at

I realize “frequency response” is technical gibberish to a lot of readers, so now that I have addressed your immediate question I will discuss frequency response and what it means to anyone buying audio gear.

Frequency response is the range of audio frequencies an audio component can reproduce. Humans can hear between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, with 20 Hz as the lowest bass and 20,000 Hz as the highest treble. You can feel frequencies below 20 Hz, but not hear them. Women tend to hear high frequencies better than men, and men tend to hear low frequencies better than women.

In addition to the frequency response specification a +/ – number is often given. A pair of speakers with a frequency response of 50-20,000 Hz +/ – 3 dB means that the speakers can reproduce the audible range between 50 Hz and 20,000 Hz with a variation of no more than 3 dB away from perfectly even response throughout the entire range. Speakers will usually have a +/ – 3 dB or +/ – 4 dB rating. Electronics such as high quality amplifiers have much tighter specifications, often reproducing signals outside the audio range, for example 10-100,000 Hz +/ – .1 dB. The thought behind such designs is that if an amplifier can handle extremes beyond the audible range then it will hand the audible range very easily, the same way a car that can go 150 mph feels very relaxed and in control when going 60 mph on the interstate.

Pay most attention to frequency response when evaluating speakers and anything with an amplifier, like an audio-video receiver. Looking at the lower end of a speaker’s frequency response will give you an idea of how well it produces bass. Most bookshelf speakers are in the 50-60 Hz range and tower speakers under 40 Hz. If a speaker has a bottom end of 80 Hz you will probably need a subwoofer to make the system sound full-range.

Many inexpensive receivers give their power rating at a single frequency, such as “100 watts at 1,000 Hz at 1 percent distortion” which tells you the real-world power between 20-20,000 Hz is likely to be significantly less. Try and find receivers with power rated between 20-20,000 Hz and below .1 percent distortion.

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