Your Questions: Why Do Rubbish-Looking Speakers Sometimes Sound So Good?

You just know that this Jamaican soundsystem rocked, don't you?

You just know that this Jamaican soundsystem rocked, don't you?

Reader DJ Malarky writes: "I was having a conversation with a couple of DJs regarding sound systems. We were at a mobile DJ jam night with several DJs mixing sets. Well I thought the best DJ was the one with what I thought was the best-sounding system, but not the best-looking: older, carpet-covered speakers and I couldn't tell the brand or model.

"I wasn't sure of his amps or processors, I just loved the clean, crisp sound with wonderful low end to complement his blend style of mixing wich was awesome as well. All of the other DJs had very nice looking LED facades with extremely clean speaker systems. I did see JBL and Mackie with one B-52 Matrix sound system but they just didn't seem to sound as nice. Now if you were doing, say, a wedding set, what would be better? The better sounding but not so neat system or the very neat but not that great sounding system? How important is the look quality vs. the sound quality?"

Digital DJ Tips says:

Great question, and it raises a number of important points.

  • It's not what you've got, it's how you use it - If the winning DJ was using great sounding music, well mastered/pressed, played through decent gear, with a well set-up PA, and he respected his levels, and was watchful of his EQing, and had a sense of how his PA sounds when you're out on the floor, he is likely to have sounded better than unskilled DJs using any equipment, however pricey
  • Speakers need to be cared for - Any PA system, whoever makes it, needs regular servicing. Cones need checking and cleaning at the very minimum. Without proper maintenance, any PA will end up sounding bad. The winning DJ may well have been keeping his basic-looking PA in tip-top condition
  • DIY speakers are still quite common - In the UK (for instance), dub/reggae sound systems run by Caribbean immigrants started the whole amplified dance thing many years before house, and sound system collectives almost invariably built their own custom cabinets and systems. Building speakers was very common back then and still happens today. It's what's inside that counts! You can rest assured that someone who takes the time to build their own PA understands all the above and while it may look home-made, it will sound anything but.

Let me give you an example: I DJ in bars and clubs. No need for a PA. But every now and then, I play parties in houses (like someone's living room). A couple of years ago, I saw a PA system in the paper, second-hand (but unused), for pennies. I bought it so I have something to take to parties with me. It's pretty basic, and looks it. But if you don't drive it, you put the speakers in good positions, and you balance the EQs sympathetically, it's far better better than blowing someone's home speakers up! Because I understand its limitations and work within them, it does me fine for the one or two house parties a year I DJ at. In fact, it sounds great!

So regarding your question: I think sound always trumps looks. Obviously both is ideal, but people will forget almost instantly what a DJ's gear looks like once they start dancing - but their ears will still be ringing in the morning if you blast them with harsh sound all night.

What's your experience with PA systems and those that sound the best? Have you build your own speakers? Have you heard great systems made to sound awful? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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  1. Some folks foolishly buy name brand without testing the product first. Least they could do is read the reviews on the internet. I'll be honest, I sometimes use second-hand house speakers. Yet, I tested them before I bought them.

  2. I agree. The "rubbish" generally is only a shell.

    You could take 25 year old speakers with wear and tear on them, replace the horns and woofers, and they are almost as good as new.

  3. DJ Kool Kamau says:

    I'm an old school DJ who has been mixing on-and-off for 25 years, but I'm also an audiophile and my guess is you enjoyed his beat-matching set because he was using vintage equipment. I used to own a used stereo business. To me, older audio equipment sounds better. That's why silver faced '70s era audio equipment is in high demand and fetching big dollars on EBAY. In the mid 1980s most of the better known audio manufactuers (Pioneer, Sony, JVC, Marantz, Sherwood, Techniques, Optimus, Scott, Phillips) began producing smaller units that sounded loud, but lost the soul their bulkeir older models had. Electronics companies followed the blueprint left by the American auto industry and began giving consumers sleeker inferior take it or leave it products that were less expensive to mass produce (Do you remember how crappy cars were during the '80s). You can take a 20 or 35 watt receiver from the mid '70s and compare it to 100 watt modern surround unit and be blown away by the difference. Those units were powerful and brought all the backing percusion, horns and vocals to the front. People like myself who love audio equipment would buy magazines and gadgets like equalizers, reverbs, delays and super tweeters to get that desired optimum sound. We would brag about high-end stereos the way people talk about their luxury cars. Today, there is very little difference between what is being offered by most electronic manufacturers and several of the brands I listed above have been acquired by garbage electronic companies and they exist only in name. They offer a cold sounding product that is dynamic, but the most pleasant sounding music travels omni-directional and is warm to the ear. If you're wise, you'll start scouting the thrift stores or craigslist for vintage components for your personal listening systems. And if you think that listening to your finished mixes on that plastic boombox your parents got you for your 13th bithday means you're keeping it real, you're a loser! Step your game up. If you got skillz, you know that you're wasting your time mixing on a crap system, so why play your art works back on a kid's toy. Listen and enjoy.

  4. djcl.ear says:

    I suspect, you noticed the -very obvious- difference between a bi or tri amplified system and common single powered speakers.

    It's not only the usual greater total power that usually results from adding several dedicated amps (each amplifying specific sound frequencies). Nor the way that thus each amp is allowed to breathe... It is the fact that once the MUSIC is amplified, it goes d-i-r-e-c-t-l-y into the drivers.
    Unlike what happens with a normal single powered full range speaker, where a single high-voltage amplified signal, travels into the speaker cabinets where it NEEDs to pass several coils and capacitors/resistors (passive Xover) to divide the freqs in order for the different freqs to finally go to the tweters, mid & bass drivers, and this hot process greatly clouds and distort the music.

    In the multiamped systems the freq separation is done in cold, before the signal gets amplified at the so-called active Xovers. This alone provides much better resolution and sound quality and this is what you might have heard.

  5. old speakers always sound the best

  6. Smoothbro57 says:

    The best sound technology is between your ears.

    On advice from our mentor, My first band (acoustic guitars, vocal harmony, 1968) used the best AKG mics we could afford through what must have been a 5-10 watt amp built into a record player cabinet and a pair of 4 x 10 columns. We kept using that PA when we got a drummer and bass player, and backing vocalists. Our vocals were always clear and that's been a priority.

    My epiphany came hearing an American band touring with one Voice of the Theatre bin and a DIY bass reflex on the other side with JBL driver, driven with a 25 watt valve amp - bass, and guitars miked up and clear, powerful sound filling a town hall.

    I realised that good quality, high efficiency speakers counted far more than badges - although a quick credit to the EV systems that never failed to give a good sound, maybe it took someone with good ears to buck the trend.

    Always operating on a shoestring through the 70s, 80s, and to this day, I've always had compliments for my sound, one from a chart topping artist singing to tracks and keyboard through a very basic Boss 8 channel mixer-amp that must have been putting about 30 watts tops through some high efficiency Electrovoice 15s and 16 ohm, 60 watt Fane Crescendo 10s with tweeters (I still use those mid/tops today and am about to re-house them) simple hi pass caps for crossovers, and the front mix run through a slave through monitors.

    My buddy and I always listened to vocals first, and between us ran back and forth to hear the sound across the hall. Vocals always came first rather than the drum-first approach most rock engineers seemed to use. When on my own, I always set up overall tonal balance using Ladysmith Black Mambazo. If their harmonies could be distinguished, everything else seemed to fall into place.

    Balancing for tone and music rather than volume, listening to everything you use and not using anything you don't need rather than every bit of gear 'they' say you 'must' have. Always the best way.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. I always encourage DJs to walk around every corner of their venues before, and several times during their sets, and to have the balls to make the changes (speaker positioning if possible, definitely volume and EQ) that they feel are needed - and then going back to see if those changes have improved things. I think it's a big part of DJing (as we are, basically, messengers for the music - and it's part of our job to ensure we delivier our message in as good condition as possible!)

  7. I just think that digital hasen't caught up to that analog sound back in the day we'll need higher sample rates and bit depth.

  8. I have changed controllers and mixers multiple times in my 20+ years of DJing. After working for JBL for 5 years, i learned 1 thing Sound quality trumps everything! I now run an event planning and dj company with about 20 DJs. All my DJS want their system to sound like mine. They buy all the newest name brand speakers and / or amps and wonder why it doesn't sound as good as my 10 yr old Cerwin Vega's and 1000 pound Crown amp. When you learn what really creates sound, you start shopping for gear completely differently. Just remember, don't just go and buy your gear online just because of a few good reviews on amazon or zzsounds.go to a local guitar center and listen to gear and listen to the salesperson. Yes they work commision, yes they are more expensive and yes they might be biased. But they live and breathe this stuff every day and they are as passionate about gear as you are about djing. And don't be a douche and ask them to help you for you an hour and then go buy it online . It's like asking a dj for their playlist and using an ipod for a party. Knowledgeable audio salespeople are a dying breed and we will poorer for it when they are all gone. But that's a whole other article.

  9. It is very gratifying to see the understanding of and appreciation for the high-efficiency loudspeaker designs of the 1950’s -1980’s that is in evidence here. Like DJ Kool Kamau, I am primarily an audiophile whose interest is in the absolute quality of the sound. Toward that end, almost nothing can beat the old school designs from Altec Lansing, JBL, and a few others. Indeed, you will find these systems roundly praised in the recently published “Illustrated History Of High-End Audio”. The people behind these companies were audiophiles first and genius audio engineers second. And they couldn’t solve all their problems by just throwing more kilowatts at them. That is why their classic designs were physically large – to take advantage of the low resonant frequencies only achievable in big enclosures. The advantages are low cone excursion, low distortion, and the rich, warm sound that became known as “The West Coast Sound”.

    Smoothbro57 says that hearing an Altec-Lansing Voice Of The Theater system was an epiphany for him and, being a long-time lover of these systems I can well appreciate that. The best speakers I have are hot-rodded A7-500 Voice Of The Theater systems, with JBL subwoofers built into what was the port. These systems are tri-amped and compare favorably to ultra-audiophile systems costing $250,000 per pair (yes, such systems exist!) But my systems look like absolute trash because they were designed never to be seen. They are flat, gray boxes with rubs and paint sprays on them, and huge black metal horns perched on top. They may look like the devil, but they sound like the voices of angels and I’ve put them up against the best and walked away with my head held high.

    Last October, I was asked to put together a sound system for an outdoor charity walk. I used two smaller Voice of the Theater systems and a mere 250 watts of amp. The sound was clear, loud, and beautiful and it filled several acres of parking lot. People were dancing spontaneously (although this was no dance), and I took that as a testament to the compelling sound that comes from these old systems.

    Alas, Altec Lansing was put out of business in 1998 and the name sold to a low-tier company previously called Sparkomatic. However, original Altec Lansing equipment can be had on eBay and can be remanufactured by Great Plains Audio in Oklahoma, USA. If you want speakers that will be an epiphany for you, too, this is the way to go. Just don’t expect them to be easy to lug around to your gigs!

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