How Sound Systems Work Part 1

We love our music, and chances are we want it to sound as great as possible. But great music requires a great sound system. But how exactly does it work? And why do some sound better then the others.

Any sound system (beyond, say, just a couple of computer speakers, has two basic parts. The subwoofer, and the satellite speakers. Each server their purpose. Although this blog is geared particularly towards music, it can be easily applied to home theater systems as well. Please note, I am not offering buying suggestions on anything. However I will give you a few companies that have good systems for you to look at.

The Subwoofer

We believe you hear music in the highs, but feel it in the lows.
Kevin Lee CEO of SOL Repulic

The Subwoofer is the heart of any sound system. It is what sets apart the boys from the men. Its what shakes the house and makes you feel the music in every pore of your body. It hits those low notes that only the largest of speakers can hit.

Subwoofers come in many different shapes and sizes. Some, like mine, come in box shapes with a large speaker on the bottom to drive sound into the surface of whatever it is sitting on.. Others (particularly for home theaters) are more compact and come in strips that can easily hide under or behind something.

Some of the notes that these subwoofers manage to create are lower then the human ear is capable of hearing. However we dont have to hear it, we feel it. It is a whole other dynamic of the track that we never knew existed before we heard it on the subwoofer. However the subwoofer has other uses. One of its biggest ones is augment the bass capabilities of the smaller, satellite speakers. Satellite speaker do have some natural bass capability, but not much. With subwoofer, they dont really even have to worry about it too much. This allows them to be smaller and more out of the way.

The best part of a subwoofer is that it doesnt really matter where in an enclosed room it is placed (in a non-enclosed area, this is another matter). The brain has trouble locating sounds of very low frequencies in closed spaces, so you can fit it wherever there is room, and no one will know the difference. Even better, because of the low frequencies, you dont even really have to worry about things getting in its way, the sound just punches right through.

The Satellite Speakers

Music is a safe kind of high.
Jimmi Hendrix

OK, so maybe I faked this quote a little bit, but I couldnt find a good one pertaining to highs notes of music without reusing the previous one.

Although music does not require a subwoofer to be interesting, it does require something that can create the higher notes (the majority of the music) or there would be nothing to hear.

Satellite speakers typically are small. Unlike the subwoofer, they need to be out in the open to transmit sound effectively. However, the subwoofers allow these speakers to be small, allowing them to be put in corners. Frequently you will see them in high corners. Some houses even have them built into the roof. Satellite speakers, unlike subwoofers must be distributed relatively evenly amongst a room to get the feeling of being surrounded by the music. But dont forget that much music is recorded in stereo, that you should keep all the left speakers to one side, and all the right speakers to the other.

How Its All Controlled

For the most part, the sound system is connected to a central controller. This can be almost anything that has a stereo headphone jack. Many people connect their system to the computer and play it through iTunes or some other program. In my house, we have an Apple Airport Express that we can plug our speakers into and stream music to. This is just one solution, but there are plenty of others.

In theory, you could even plug a CD player into it, but for the most part this doesnt happen any more.

One thing I like to do is use the Remote app on my iPod touch to control the music. It connects to my iTunes library and controls playback. The music streams to the Airport Express and through that into the speakers. All controlled from my iPod.

In the next post, I look how live music systems work, and a little bit about how speakers work as well.

If you are looking for a good pair of speakers, there are a few good companies that have options ranging from less expensive starter kits to top of the line fully-fledged music systems

  • Bose