Occasionally, a question that comes into the customer communications department to Bang & Olufsen from a dealer or a customer eventually finds its way into my inbox.
This week, the question was about nomenclature. Why is it that, on some loudspeakers, for example, we say there is a tweeter, mid-range, and woofer, whereas on other loudspeakers we say that we’re using a “full range” driver instead? What’s the difference? (Folded into the same question was another about amplifier power, but I’ll take that one in another posting.)
So, what IS the difference? There are three different ways to answer this question.
Answer #1: It’s how you use it.
My Honda Civic, the motorcycle that passed me on the highway this morning, and an F1 car all have a gear in the gearbox that’s labelled “3”. However, the gear ratio of those three examples of “third gear” are all different. In other words, if you showed a mechanic the gear ratio of one of those gearbox settings without knowing anything else, they wouldn’t be able to tell you “ah! that’s third gear…”
So, in this example, “third gear” is called “third” only because it’s the one between “second” and “fourth”. There is nothing physical about it that makes it “third”. If that were the case then my car wouldn’t have a first gear, because some farm tractor out there in the world would have a gear with a lower ratio – and an F1 car would start at gear 100 or so… And that wouldn’t make sense.
Similarly, we use the words “tweeter”, “midrange”, “woofer”, “subwoofer”, and “full range” to indicate the frequency range that that particular driver is looking after in this particular device. My laptop has a 1″ “woofer” – which only means that it’s the driver that’s taking care of the low frequencies that come out of my laptop.
So, using this explanation, the Beolab 90 webpage says that it has midranges and tweeters and no “full range” drivers because the midrange drivers look after the midrange frequencies, and the tweeters look after the high frequencies. However, the Beolab 28’s webpage says that it has a tweeter and full range drivers, but no midranges. This is because the drivers that play the midrange frequencies in the Beolab 28 also play some of the high-frequency content as part of the Beam Width control. Since they’re doing “double duty”, they get a different name.
Answer #2: Excruciating minutiae
The description I gave above isn’t really an adequate answer. For example, I said that my laptop has a 1″ “woofer”. Beolab 90 has a 1″ “tweeter” – but these two drivers are not designed the same way. Beolab 90’s tweeter is specifically designed to be used to produce high frequencies. One consequence of this is that the total mass of the moving parts (the diaphragm and voice coil, amongst other things) is as low as possible, so that it’s easy to move. This means that it can produce high frequency signals without having to use a lot of electrical power to push it back and forth.
However, the 1″ “woofer” in my laptop is designed differently. It probably has a much higher total mass for the moving parts. This means that its resonant frequency (the frequency that it would “ring” at if you hit it like a drum head) is much lower. Therefore it “wants” to move easily at a lower frequency than a tweeter would.
For example, if you put a child on a swing and you give them a push, they’ll swing back and forth at some frequency. If the child wanted to swing SLOWER (at a lower frequency), you could
- move to a swing with longer ropes so this happens naturally, or
- you can hold on to the ropes and use your muscles to control the rate of swinging instead.
The smarter thing to do is the first choice, that way you can keep sipping your coffee instead of getting a workout.
So, a 1″ woofer and a 1″ tweeter are not really the same thing.
Answer #3: Compromise
We live in a world that has been convinced by advertisers that “compromise” is a bad thing – but it’s not. Someone who does never accepts to compromise is destined to live a very lonely life. When designing a loudspeaker, one of the things to consider is what, exactly, each component will be asked to do, and choose the appropriate components accordingly.
If we’re going to be really pedantic – there’s really no such thing as a tweeter, woofer, or anything else with those kinds of names. Any loudspeaker driver can produce sound at any frequency. The only difference between them is the relative ease with which the driver plays a signal at a given frequency. You can get 20 Hz to come out of a “tweeter” – it will just be naturally a LOT quieter than the signals at around 5 kHz. Similarly, a woofer can play signals at 20 kHz, but it will be a lot quieter and/or take a lot more power than signals at 50 Hz.
What this means is that, when you make an active loudspeaker, the response (the relative levels of signals at different frequencies) is really a result of the filters in the digital signal processing and the control from the amplifier (ignoring the realities of heat and time…). If we want more or less level at 2 kHz from a loudspeaker driver, we “just” change the filter in the signal processing and use the amplifier to do the work (the same as the example above where you were using your muscle power to control the frequency of the child on the swing).
However, there are examples where we know that a driver will be primarily used for one frequency band, but actually be extending into another. The side-facing drivers on Beolab 28 are a good example of this. They’re primarily being used to control the beam width in the midrange, but they’re also helping to control the beam width in the high frequencies. Since, they’re doing double-duty in two frequency ranges, they can’t really be called “midranges” or “tweeters” – they’d be more accurately called “midranges that also play as quiet tweeters”. (They don’t have to play high frequencies loudly, since this is “only” to control the beam width of the front tweeter.) However, “midranges that also play as quiet tweeters” is just too much information for a simple datasheet – so “full range” will do as a compromise.
I’ve got some extra things to add here…
Firstly, it has become common over the past couple of years to call “woofers” “subwoofers” instead. I don’t know why this happened – but I suspect that it’s merely the result of people who write advertising copy using a word they’ve heard before without really knowing what it means. Personally, I think that it’s funny to see a laptop specified to have a “1” subwoofer”. Maybe we should make the word “subtweeter” popular instead.
Secondly, personally, I believe that a “subwoofer” is a thing that looks after the frequency range below a “woofer”. I remember a conversation I had at an AES convention once (I think it was with Günther Theile and Tomlinson Holman) where we all agreed that a “subwoofer” should look after the frequency range up to 40 Hz, which is where a decent woofer should take over.
Lastly, if you find an audio magazine from the 1970s, you’ll see that a three-way loudspeaker had a “tweeter”, “squawker”, and “woofer”. Sometime between then and now, “squawker” was replaced with “midrange” – but I wonder why the other two didn’t change to “highrange” and “lowrange” (although neither of these would be correct, since all three drivers in a three-way system have limited frequency ranges).