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Why Do Speakers Distort At High Volume? Here’s The Truth

Whether you’re blasting summer vibes in your Volkswagen bus on your way to the beach with your friends, or screaming along to “All by Myself” by Celine Dion in your room after a break-up, you may have noticed that your speaker gets a bit wonky once it hits high volumes.

This tinny sound isn’t great to listen to, and there are a few factors behind why this happens. Once you understand the underlying causes, you can take precautions to save your speaker from damage.  

Speakers distort at high volumes when they aren’t receiving enough power from the amplifier to be able to produce such loud sounds. Distortion can cause damage, so if warped sounds or crackles start to come from the sound system, try readjusting any connecting wires or lowering the volume.  

The process of sound waves producing the music you hear through your speaker system is an extremely complicated one.

Many factors affect the way sound is produced. We talked to a college physics professor to help you understand what’s happening to your speaker.

The Science Behind Speaker Distortion

  • Professor Ryan Nielson teaches principles of Light and Sound through the physics department at BYU-Idaho.

He helps students of all learning levels understand sound waves in a way they can grasp. According to Professor Neilson:

“When you pluck a guitar string, it wiggles in a wave pattern. Sometimes it is a half-wave pattern, other times it is a triple wave pattern. When you are playing a guitar, these harmonies all come together to produce one sound. The wave patterns and shapes of a speaker are more complicated.”

Due to the complexities of speakers and producing sound, to produce sound at higher volumes, an amplifier is needed.

An amplifier is a vital part of any sound system that boosts quiet audio signals through special cones and mechanisms in a speaker to make them much louder.

Basically, it does exactly what the name says it will do; it amplifies! This is important for understanding the distortions in a speaker because the amplifier is what is causing the distortion.

When you have a cheaper quality speaker, the amplifier will be weaker. This means it’s unable to hold strong through larger sound waves.

Professor Nielson explains,

“If the sound waves are overwhelming, they shake the amplifier too hard. If the amplifier cannot move evenly on both sides to create a consistent wave shape, it creates an abrupt shape which introduces other wave forms. As a result there are extra harmonics which weren’t originally present in the sound. Now there’s more frequencies mixing with the sound you are trying to produce from the speaker and you get that distortion.”

Amplifier Power

Having a strong amplifier makes a huge difference in the quality of sound you can produce. A powerful amplifier means a powerful speaker. A powerful speaker means a powerful sound.

  • You can tell if you are getting a high-quality speaker by its amplifier sensitivity.

All speakers come with sensitivity ratings that refer to the sound a speaker can produce. Generally, a speaker will have a sensitivity rating of between 87dB and 88dB. A sensitivity rating of over 90dB is an excellent speaker.

Decibels are measurements that refer to the length of time you can listen to the volume without sustaining damage to your ears.

You can listen to 88dB for up to four hours without damaging your hearing.

120dB is incredibly loud and will damage your ears after only 8 seconds. When looking for a new speaker, you are going to want the best quality you can get, but that doesn’t always have to mean you need it to be the loudest speaker out there!

In fact, keeping the volume at a reasonable level will keep your speaker (no matter the quality) in better shape for longer.

If you have ever wondered if your amplifier can be too powerful for your speakers be sure to take a look at this article.

As discussed above, pushing your speaker to its limits causes the amplifier to shake and produce sounds that were not originally part of what you are trying to play.

It can be tempting to put your speaker system on full blast, no matter how unpleasant it sounds, just because it’s fun to push the limits and blast the bass. This, however, can cause real damage to your speaker.

Right when you notice the speaker starts to develop symptoms of damage, you should lower the volume or readjust the wires that are attached to your speaker. These symptoms can be things like:

  • Buzzing sounds
  • Scratching noises
  • Sound being off pitch
  • Mild distortion
  • Heavy vibration of your floors or vehicle
  • The sound is painful to your ears

Keep your speaker safe from harm by being a responsible caretaker.

Watch for these signs that you are pushing the boundaries and when you start to hear distortion, pull back. This will keep you and your speaker happy and healthy for longer.

As a general rule, never let small children play with or touch the soft mesh or rubber of a speaker system.

Pushing their fingers inside may seem like a fun activity, but it can cause serious damage to your expensive technology and interfere with the sounds that it produces. The same goes for pets.

If your system is on the ground or anywhere that’s accessible to dogs and cats, particles of dust and pet hair can get caught in the mesh and cause problems down the line for you.

How to Tell if Your Speaker is Already Damaged

What if your sound system has already been experiencing these problems or isn’t even producing noise at all?

You may have blown your speaker. A blown speaker won’t always be completely silent. Sometimes it could appear to just be a damaged speaker.

To check if your speaker has been blown, listen for sounds like rattling, heavy scratching, crackling, heavy distortions, or shaking.

There are also some ways to visually tell if your speaker is blown.

One method is to take the speaker apart and inspect the amplifier or speaker cones for holes or tears. These are common tell-tale signs that you need a new speaker.

There are ways to fix a speaker yourself.

This YouTube video below can help a DIY master get started on learning to fix a blown car speaker with some simple supplies and some super glue!

For those that may not be as confident in their DIY skills or feel anxious about breaking their expensive sound systems, it is highly recommended that you do not attempt this by yourself.

The technology behind speaker systems is incredibly delicate, and you would be a lot better off taking it to a repair store and having a professional take care of it for you.

When your speaker starts to distort the sound, now you’ll know why! Enjoy your powerful speakers, whether they are at full blast or have to be turned down to minimize distortion.

Take a look at my article on setting your speakers to the perfect level. You can read it here.