What Does Audio Grade Mean & How Do Regular Components Differ?
If you’ve ever been in the market looking for quality speakers, you might have noticed that sellers would often talk about the quality of components used to manufacture their products. The components they are talking about would often be marketed as audio-grade components.
“Audio Grade” is a marketing term to denote a class of speaker components engineered solely for audio purposes. Great! However, this also means you’ll have to pay significantly more than your run-of-the-mill speakers.
So this begs the question, how do audio grade components compare to regular speaker components? Are they better? And is audio-grade hardware worth the money?
What Does Audio Grade Mean?
Manufacturers often use “Audio Grade” to describe passive speaker components such as capacitors, inductors, resistors, and wiring. However, Speaker drivers aren’t necessarily included since all speaker drivers are already purpose-made for audio applications.
Capacitors, inductors, resistors, and wirings are passive components as they require no extra power to work. The reason manufacturers like to give them a special label is because these components are known as general-purpose items used in all kinds of electronics. Having a special label makes it easier to differentiate higher quality offerings from speaker manufacturers.
What Makes Audio Grade Components Expensive?
What Makes a Capacitor Audio Grade?
Capacitors are electronic components that block DC signal (like the signal from a battery) and pass AC signal (such as audio). Inside a capacitor is a rolled-up dielectric material sandwiched by two conductors films. The dielectric material between the conductors stops DC signals from passing through. However, since the audio signal constantly moves up and down, the signal can penetrate through the dielectric material, which allows the wave signal to pass.
With this characteristic, a capacitor will have increased resistance to low-frequency signals like bass because its waveform is almost as flat as DC. With this idea, you make a low-pass filter with a capacitor to separate the bass from the treble.
The best audio capacitor would be a capacitor that can reproduce frequencies as close as the original sound waves that a speaker is trying to produce. However, having a capacitor that can reproduce a wave with 100% accuracy is unlikely. This is due to two things: ESR (Equivalent Series Resistance) and dielectric absorption.
All capacitors have an ESR and some dielectric absorption. ESR makes it harder for a capacitor to accept 100% of the fed frequencies. In contrast, a capacitor’s dielectric absorption creates what is known as the “memory effect,” which is basically the capacitor not wanting to discharge all the energy it took while charging.
Audio grade capacitors, then, are manufactured to have low resistance on high frequencies and discharge all of their stored energy whenever needed.
What Makes an Inductor Audio Grade?
An inductor is a coil of wire used to store energy by creating an electromagnetic field. When current passes through a wire, it creates a weak magnetic field. If you coil a wire and allow current to pass through, the weak magnetic fields will merge, subsequently making a strong enough electromagnetic field to store energy.
In contrast, if a capacitor blocks low-frequency signals, an inductor blocks high-frequency signals—perfect for sub-woofers.
Three big factors affect the quality of sound an inductor produces. The first one would be an eddy current. Eddy currents are formed inside the core of an inductor which dissipates the stored energy in the component. This makes the audio waves it is trying to relay less accurate when compared to the original.
The second factor would be hysteresis loss. Hysteresis losses are the energy that dissipates when the magnetized molecules pass through the iron core and create resistance.
Finally, the materials used in manufacturing an inductor also dictate its conductivity. For example, using recycled copper instead of newly milled conductor materials adds another layer of resistance, which again lowers the accuracy of the sounds being produced by the inductor.
An audio-grade inductor would often be an air-core inductor built from the purest copper or silver materials available. An air-core inductor will significantly reduce eddy currents and hysteresis loss since there is no iron core inside the inductor. Since its materials are made from quality copper, there will be little resistance for current passing through the inductor, making audio accurate more accurate to the sound it is trying to produce.
What Makes a Resistor Audio Grade?
A resistor is made by winding resistive materials on a non-conductive core. They are used to reduce the amount of current that flows through a circuit. Resistors are also used to increase or decrease total speaker impedance load depending on the configuration.
One of the resistor’s biggest uses is a baffle step correction circuit. This ensures that low, mid, and high frequencies are as close to each other in terms of their projection or overall loudness.
Speaker builders often use audio-grade non-inductive resistors. The standard resistors used in electronics usually have some small amounts of inductance. Remember, a resistor is also a roll of wire, just like an inductor. The only difference is that the wires are made of resistive materials, and the core is non-conducting.
An audio-grade non-inductive resistor is also wire-wound. However, before the winding process, the wires were first folded in half then wounded into two parallel coils. With this configuration, the two coils of resistive materials cancel each other out.
Is It Worth Buying Audio Grade Components?
Audio grade components do indeed make your speaker sound great and accurate. Therefore, anyone willing to spend the extra cash to achieve higher fidelity sound should be looking for those “audio grade” labels. However, you have to understand that there is a bell curve for all of this. There is a sweet spot, and there is a point where the little performance boost you get is no longer worth the money you’ll need to spend.
If you are an audiophile, a speaker builder, or an artist in need of studio-grade speakers, audio-grade components are definitely worth the money. But, if you simply need a speaker that’s good enough for daily media consumption, then a speaker from a reputable brand is really all you need.
Bang & Olufsen produce high-end and costly speakers. We debate whether the brand can justify the price.
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