Can a Quality Full Range Speaker be the Limiting Component in a system?

Can a quality full range speaker be the limiting component in a system?

Can it be surpassed by the quality / performance of the upstream chain? Therefore, becoming the bottleneck for overall system performance?

No? Why?

Yes? How so?

Examples for both scenarios, if you have them.

For the sake of argument, assume that the speaker's performance has been fully optimized. In other words, the room, cabling, isolation, setup/positioning etc are not factors. In other words, assume it's the best it can be.

Thank You!

Note: this is not about any specific speaker I own or have demo'd/heard. 
@david_ten > Can it be surpassed by the quality / performance of the upstream chain? Therefore, becoming the bottleneck for overall system performance?
In other words, assume it's the best it can be.

Blindjim > great question. Albeit, this is a perception issue predominately. Proving it would be no simple matter.

Can a speaker be the system bottleneck?

Short answer is yes. Eventually. It could too, be seen as a very pretty bottleneck as preffs and budgets go..

How would you ever really know when it actually is the ‘sole’ limiting factor? This is of course unless and until you brought in higher performing speakers which would match synergistically as well with the current room and electronics. If they did not match up as well, the rig would have to be altered and any attempt to even subjectively appraise them at that point would vanish.

Furthermore, if nothing else were altered and the synergy remained in tact, then by what margin would the then ‘percieved’ improvements amount to? Include the point of diminishing returns, and another valid argument emerges.

Speakers and rooms, have their own needs, often irrespective of the electronics required to easily hand the speakers what they desire, and what we want to hear from them.

I feel it would be difficult though not out of the question, to simply run out, find far far, more pricey speakers and drop them into the existing rig and expect the new units to nail our jaws to the floor.

As is. No other associated changes accomplished.

On varying scales and quite by accident, I’ve found early on capable speakers will continue to improve their performance as the upstream system escalates. Finding out where the performance slows and ultimately comes to a halt is something I did not consume myself with. It was an incidental desire following many significant upstream upgrades, it became obvious the speakers needed to be upgraded.

That revelation arose as the result of biases, philosophical attachments, and budget. I could not justify doubling or more the investments I had in cabling. Doubling or more the investments I had in source, and power. Likewise, power cords. I could however justify spending more on speakers as they were easily the least expensive item then, barring a wire or two, in the rig.

Briefly, no other changes were needed for these new speakers to sound great. Later, however, they became the test bed for further experimentations with lower power and different power topologies, namely tubes.

It would not have been absolutely a prerequisite to swap out the power amps. Immediately. Maturing preffs led the way towards buying more expensive power amps once the new speakers were run in.

To this day I hold fast to the notion excellent electronics make very good speakers sound outstanding. Holding that the room itself is neutral or addressed appropriately.

The primary obstacle when it comes to speakers is cost. Then its Electronic matching. Size and esthetics. Lastly speaker tech. it does keep moving forward.

Replacing speakers with much better ones, in my experience has meant nearly every time other upstream changes would be necessary. Additionally, room issues arise which were not previously known or as prominent. Then too, the new speakers abilities may open new doors begging for different upstream devices.

Just my EXP.

Do you mean in terms of resolution or other performance aspects ?
In terms of resolution they might almost always be the weakest link, there is probably quite a signal loss when it is converted. The better the source and electronics the better speakers will sound even if they relatively become more and more of the weakest link.
So, generally speaking, I would reserve the term "weakest link" for everything but the speakers. Speakers are very much acoustic instruments and should be treated differently.
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@jond   Of Course! : )

@blindjim   It's the 'proving' it part that is difficult for me. When does one know? How does one know? 

Thank you for your thoughts and how you yourself have progressed through speaker and system changes. Very helpful.

@inna   Good points. Can you expand on your thinking regarding these points? Thanks.

@james_w514  Let's assume that one has the 'right' associated gear. What then? Thanks.
There are a few slippery, impossible to absolutely define, phrases or assumptions in your inquiry, such as;
"... quality full range speaker"
"... limiting component" 
"... bottleneck" 
"... speaker's performance has been fully optimized" 

Now, if you get those parameters sorted out you can answer your question.  :) 

@douglas_schroeder   Doug, appreciate your post. Points well taken. 

How would you re-state the question or problem?
My only experience with a "full range" single driver speaker was the Hornshoppe Horns. Within it's operating range it was really nice. 
Sometimes wonderful.
That's the problem. 

All the best,
In my experience the answer is "unlikely". Assuming the speaker is not fatally flawed in some way my experience is that upgrading the source makes the speaker sound better. I currently have a mid six figures system in which the speaker is less than 10% of the system cost yet every time I upgrade a piece of the system the speaker sounds better. No doubt a more expensive speaker could sound better but it would need re-optimizing the entire system around it. System synergy is the key and I would suspect that unless and until the room changes (bigger for example) a well matched speaker still has a lot more to give
My experience is the same. Unless there is a big room change or you want a very different sound or start listening to the kind of music that your speakers are not up to, orchestra music as an example, good speakers don’t need to be replaced.
Yes, a full range speaker, even if matched to the room and amp, can become the bottleneck, but it usually isn't.

I have been building speakers for 30 years and am a former industry member, so...

Most competently made speakers of a given size are going to work as they were intended, and the botteneck will occur elsewhere. Except in the following case:

The speaker has limited dynamic range for the kind of music and SPL you like.   Many speakers which sound fine on jazz and rock at medium levels, fail to reproduce full range orchestral music, which can have almost 30 dB peaks.

Orchestral peaks sound hard or distorted, or the woofer does not reproduce the bass tones and pitch correctly (one note bass).

Even on jazz and rock, the increased dynamic capability increases the emotional content, imo.

This is why I stick to large, sealed box woofers (10 inches or more) and multiple midranges if needed.

david_ten, there is no way to assess components of a different genre in consideration of their absolute value to each other. All such comparisons are relative. You simply have to assess the performance of a component in a system. 

What is it you are trying to discover? There is no absolute correlation between the performance of a speaker to another, nor to components. It is a complicated network and to date we cannot isolate the interactions. 

folkfreak, politely I disagree with your assessment. Your system and experience could be elevated tremendously with different speakers, or ones up the line. This is no dismissal of your fine transducers, but merely pointing out that there are always many, many rungs on the performance ladder to climb if so desired, and upgrading speakers can in a moment, even when dropped into a current rig, scale many of those rungs. Personally, if I had the means I would not opt for a lesser speaker, as too much in terms of performance/experience is left on the table. All speakers can be improved with components and cables, but you are still bound by the hard limits of the speaker's performance. The odds are very good that with a speaker upgrade even if the system is not optimized for the new speakers the sound would be perceived as dramatically/holistically superior.  

Your methodology is not wrong, unless you have the means, yet are opting for a "budget" solution when it comes to speakers. And yes, I'm aware you have Magico speakers.  Imo, regardless of the system budget, 10% into transducers is severely restricting performance. Note that I am discussing this relative to your situation, not relative to the average audiophile's system/sound.   :) 
Well, $50k speakers in half a million dollar system is not something that I would do unless there are no other speakers that I would like more. Bought new, I mean. When buying used all the proportions may go to hell, you could get $300k speakers for $50k.
I find that most 'full range' speakers aren't. If you really want the bass right, you'll need a sub, if you really want extension in the highs, a tweeter.

Most full range units don't make it much below 50-60 Hz. That's a bit of a bottleneck.

Because they have low frequencies on the cone that they can't reproduce, they can have higher distortion as well. A lot depends on the source material- with the right stuff they can be wonderful.
I am having trouble not reducing this down to a very simple question:

"Are quality loudspeakers ever non-linear"

to which the answer is of course yes. But if you want some simple terms, how about dynamic compression? That is, +3dB input results in less than 3dB increase in output. Very common situation which many speakers suffer from.


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If the question is referring to full range speakers meaning full range single driver speakers, some of the higher end Lowther drivers claim a 20Hz-20KHz frequency response. So I suppose they technically exist. Same for full range speaker "systems". So the question then becomes a measurement issue as whether or not every component in the audio chain can deliver the entire frequency range. If so, then theoretically there's no bottleneck.
The problem is if we mix the notion of the sound quality with measurements, then the discussion becomes completely subjective and there's no single answer to the original question. 
@inna I’m actually referring to prices as new and yes they are $50k speakers in a $500k+ system. Magico Q3s actually. My point is that decent speakers at this price level are capable of really great performance if matched well, and I’d rather invest in better sources to get more information for the speaker to work with (call me Linn school) .

In addition larger speakers would overpower my room, I could go to M3s for example (and probably at some stage will) but anything bigger would cause me so many problems

So back to the OPs question if your speaker is showing you the impact of changes elsewhere in the system, and if you can work within the frequency limitations of the speaker (for example mine may not have everything in the bottom octave but the acoustic design of the room helps here) then don’t go chasing a speaker change which will likely throw the rest of the system out of kilter
Speakers overpowering the room is an excellent reason not to have them, agreed.
I am a Studer school too, folkfreak, but probably not as much as you are. $50k speakers in $500k system - no, but $5k speakers in $50k system - no way. $50k still buy a lot of a speaker.
I would do bigger, even much bigger speakers in your room. You have the potential, if you wish, to put a rig together that would humble the current one, but it would have to be with greater transducers. Could be done easily with the means and desire. I would have a 6' speaker in there and it would sound glorious.  Everyone has differing priorities; I'm just saying that if I owned that room I sure wouldn't stop at a smallish speaker.  Imo, too much handed away, regardless of the pedigree of components.  :)

I think there is some confusion here, I assume David meant a full range "speaker" meaning a loudspeaker with presumably multiple drivers. It seems that some are assuming he meant a single full range driver. David can you clarify what you meant because those are two very different discussions. Thanks!

You are absolutely correct. I meant a full range ’speaker’ any design / approach (NOT ’full range’ driver).
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Can a quality full range speaker be the limiting component in a system?
Hi David,

It seems to me that a "yes" answer to your question must follow from the fact that different "quality full range speakers," regardless of how those terms are defined, will almost invariably sound different. And so from a subjective standpoint, at least, there will inevitably be some and probably many "quality full range speakers" that will be less appealing to a given listener than what he or she presently has, and others that will be more appealing than what he or she presently has, with the rest of the system kept the same.
When does one know? How does one know?
One thing that can often be particularly helpful in identifying a weak link, IMO/IME, in addition to the obvious approaches of listening to as broad a range of equipment as possible and researching what others report, is to have a good pair of headphones in the system. Obviously the sonic presentations of headphones and speakers are inherently different in some ways, but nevertheless I have found that comparing results between the two can often be helpful in determining the cause of a perceived issue or shortcoming. Or in providing confidence that a possible issue is actually the fault of the recording, and not the system.

Best regards,
-- Al

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Well, certainly, if the speakers match the room poorly. (I am assuming, for purposes of your question that the “quality speakers” are not dynamically limited, are capable of undistorted low bass to 30 Hz and have a treble response to 20 kHz.) Every residential room has room gain in the Bass between 40 and 50 Hz. The trick is to have the room gain complement the speaker’s anechoic bass roll-off the achieve flat response in the room. To some extent, these problems can be ameliorated by placement (in or any from corners), and of course there’s always active equalization. There is no one universal solution that the speaker builder can design for, because rooms are different. Likewise, at the top end, a flat treble power response will sound unbelievably bright in all but the most heavily damped rooms (heavy drapes, thick carpets, lots of upholstered furniture). Again, because rooms vary in reflectivity, there’s no single perfect solution that the speaker designer can employ that will work everywhere.As with bass, there are possible adjustments to the room that can make the speaker “fit,” but that begs the question as to which is subordinate, the room as its decorated, or the speaker. If we listened to stero outside in an anechoic environment, then this would be simple. However, since we listen to speakers in rooms of varying characteristics (not just size and shape), a quality speaker in the wrong room can be a limiting factor in system performance.
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You have received some very thoughtful answers through which I have learned some things here.   In my experience, outside of differences in speaker quality, amp/speaker compatibility issues, and sonic preferences of the listener, the bass response is the most difficult to get exactly right and (for a given speaker) is the parameter most influenced by the room.  Therefore, depending on the speaker and the room, I can envision conditions where a quality full-range speaker could indeed limit performance of a system.
I recently improved the sound of my system by switching from near full-range speakers to large stand-mounted speakers (two 9-inch woofers in each sealed box) along with two high-quality powered subwoofers.  This set-up provides a more consistent bass roll-off above 40 Hz (due to the sealed box), better overall integration of bass in the room (due to the superior control of the dual powered subs), improved bass definition, and overall lower frequency extension to below 20 Hz.  The ancillary benefit is slightly better clarity through the midrange.
One last point.

For some perception is reality.

An obvious after the fact result occurred following some of my previous steps up the audio finesse ladder as more costly items arrived replacing former old friends.

The overall sound quality. The sonic presentations. All seemed to remain the same tenor. Resolution gains were made. Better imaging developed. Bass was more robust and defined.

However, the voice of the outfit seemed to remain pegged pretty much at one point along the accuracy to euphony line a dot or two on its warmer side.

None of my latter audio arrangements sat squarely on neutrality. The previous earlier versions were busting down the doors of uber analytical and detailed, ushering a migration towards or away from crtical incisiveness.

What I’m saying is I feel a person’s listening preffs, genres notwithstanding, stay put once they’re matured or achieved.

You like your steak a certain way. Your coffee just so. Clothes and shoes need a certain fit in form and fashion. Music you are paying for to hear repeatedly in your home appears no different. Speakers need a certain aire about them esthetically and sonically to be there in the first place.

It follows then, if a major speaker upgrade is perceived and transpires how is the significance of the exchange then quantified?

Consequently, there’s a real good argument for ‘we’, or ‘us’ being the true bottleneck.

Well, that and money. Maybe a wife’s acceptance factor too.

BTW… on the WAF aside, just include the cost of some very nice jewelry in your proposed speaker upgrade and your choices for speakers will increase dramatically. Or should.

Predominately though, its us or the lack of $$$ which limits a system in at least one or two very under appreciated contexts.

Butperhaps that’s just me.

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I'm not sure where to begin...there are so many terrific responses and I'm learning with each one.

So rather than respond specifically, let me thank all that have posted. 

I wish I could have provided a more concrete situation and phrased the question better...perhaps that will come in time as I digest what you have already shared and reflect and process the points all of you have made.

Thank you.
Al, the problem with assessment of speakers by headphones is that there exists as much variance of performance between headphones as speakers. You would need a set of several headphones to peg the performance of the headphones if they were to be used as a measure of the speaker performance!  :)

The physics of the speaker preclude 'accurate' reproduction over a bandwidth that relates to the range of human hearing.  Now, by 'accurate', I'm referring to a 'ruler flat' line that would appear on a piece of test equipment.  These devices Do Not Exist.  If they did, we likely couldn't afford them, nor would we 'like' what they sounded like...IMHO....

We're so used to the 'coloration' of the various drivers available, and that of the equipment and hardware that we employ with them, that 'accurate' exists in the mind and ear of the beholder...IMHO.

Note that I haven't mentioned the space in which an audition would occur.  That's an entire issue unto itself....

All of this reminds me of the 'ideal pulsating sphere' as a reproducer....which leads to a plasma 'driver'....which is only practical if you don't mind not breathing or fouling the atmosphere on a regular basis...

To be fair, I like the concept of the full-range single driver.  But, most of what I've seen and heard is still short of the goal due to simple mechanical and acoustic 'fail'.

You 'can't get There from Here.'  You might get 'closer'...but No. 


"We're so used to the 'coloration' of the various drivers available, and that of the equipment and hardware that we employ with them, that 'accurate' exists in the mind and ear of the beholder...IMHO."

Jerry, fully agreed. So, I say find what mix of components that make sound you like and enjoy the music.
I haven't found my speakers to be the bottleneck. Been running Lowthers (with a sub) for a long time & still hear a difference (improvement or not) when replacing electronics, wires, feet, etc. I have these so zeroed in now (which took a lot of time) that I have little desire to start over with different speakers. Just my experience... 
I think speakers are usually the limiting factor. I think there are over 500 speaker manufactures, at least. You job is to find the gem amongst them. Do be swayed by the BS, plenty of that to go around. 

soundsreal, and y'all....instead of thinking that speakers are a limiting factor (unless they Are utter dreck...*L*), I like to approach them as having different 'voicing', much like us....  Anyone can, say, read Shakespeare out loud.  But the numbers diminish as expression, timing, and nuance get expected at the presentation

With that in mind, it begins to make sense, the inexpensive speaker that outperforms pricer ones....the 'sonic surprises' that extend into the 'driving equipment, for sure, but speakers make their 'differences' known sooner, being so 'elemental'....
>>>> Can a quality full range speaker be the limiting component in a system? <<<<

In your system it can.  In another system it might not. Too many variables to be able to give a yes, or no, answer. 
A better question would be can anything but the speakers be the limiting component in a system made up of quality components.  I've been refraining from commenting on this thread because I have a hard time believing it's a sincere question.  Why would the component that is the least linear by far not be capable of being the limiting component?
I will say that most box speakers for me are a failure because of cabinet sound coloration and because in the mid to lower bass you can hear non linearity in the excursion of the driver. But these are price point cost driven limitations that can be overcome in more costly models. The other factor is crossover and driver placement affect on time coherence. If these aren't right, your electronics won't ever be heard at their best. Cost doesn't help you here, designer solution is what counts.
My speakers sounded fine with a push-pull 65 watts per side tube amp, and in anticipation of obtaining a lower powered single ended tube amp I switched to a pair of well regarded higher efficiency speakers. I bought the amp (Dennis Had Fire Bottle…12 watts or something per side), was using the new speakers and thought…hmmm…not quite the high frequency extension I need, just tonally ho hum, and I really wanted them to I put the as yet unsold previous speakers back in with no expectations and wow…they sound astonishing. 2 lessons: Don’t buy any speakers you haven’t heard in person, and the second lesson I forget. The original speakers in this tale are Silverline Preludes, with 3.75" D'Appolito arrayed aluminum/magnesium woofers surrounding tweeters of the same metals. My theory about the Preludes is the narrow baffle images better, and the cabinet is very stiff since it's skinny (and thick)…2 REL subs cover the bass. 

I thought you were my friend but friends don't let friend listen to aluminum/magnesium drivers, especially in the d'appolito configuration.