When talking about HiFi (not pro audio or PA), speaker sensitivity has primarily been driven by the progression of amplifier technology and performance, not the other way around.
Very high-efficiency speakers were an unusual thing of the past when large amounts of clean power were much less available.
It’s not inherently bad or good, just like how people indulge in sports cars, turntables, ice baths, etc. Whether a given high-efficiency speaker is better or worse than a lower-efficiency speaker is entirely conditional on the execution of the design.
In this article I’ll go over everything you need to know regarding speaker sensitivity, I’ll list the highest-sensitivity speakers on the market and review some of the high-efficiency speakers that are actually affordable to an average person.
The Difference Between Low and High-Sensitivity Speakers
- Low-sensitivity speakers will need more power (watts) from the amp to drive the speakers, and higher-sensitivity speakers need less.
- High-sensitivity speakers are loud at lower power. For example, a speaker with a lower sensitivity of (88db) will require twice as much power to play as loud as a higher sensitivity speaker of (91db) at the same distance.
- High-sensitivity speakers are also large with large cabinets. Low sensitivity usually fits in more places, like a desk.
Both have pros and cons; you need to match your speakers and amplifier to what functions best together, AKA’ System synergy’.
Example: If you have a 400-watt amp and need speakers, you won’t need the high sensitivity.
If you have a flea-powered amplifier, like a 5-watt tube amp, you will need speakers with high SPLs.
As a rule of thumb, I fancy more sensitivity. So you get more headroom and less power loss and are still excellent at low volumes.
Higher efficiency speakers have no edge sonically. Their main benefit is that they are easier to drive, so they can be used with a broader range of amps. The less efficient a speaker is, the more careful you must mate an amp for the best sound. This graph illustrates this point perfectly:
In general, there are excellent and bad-sounding speakers that have high and low efficiencies. So the sensitivity rating has little to do with sound quality and more with amplifier choice.
[An analogy for beginners] Look at the speaker sensitivity rating like the MPG rating in a motor vehicle. A car with a miles-per-gallon rating of 29 is not necessarily better than one with a rating of 21. It may not go further, depending on the size of the gas tank (amplifier). A higher MPG rating (efficiency) and a big gas tank (amp) will take you farther (max SPL) but may or may not be more comfortable (sound quality).
Efficient (high-sensitivity) speakers make cheap amps sound good
Generally speaking, inefficient (low-sensitivity) speakers matched with high-powered (yet still low distortion) amp sound better than high-sensitivity speakers with proportionately lower-powered amplifiers. This is because it’s easier and less costly to develop a low-distortion amp with less power than to make a high-powered amp with a low total harmonic distortion and noise.
Therefore, some cheaper high-sensitivity speakers sound so good to so many people because most use inexpensive, relatively low-powered receivers or integrated amps.
Those amps nevertheless have enough power to control the power-hungry bass frequencies tightly but also tighten up the mids, resolving more detail if the DAC is decent, which enhances soundstage and imaging.
My friend drives his Klipsch RP-600M with the low-powered Reisong A10 tube amp, which sounds highly musical, taking the edge off the treble a bit for satisfying fatigue-free listening.
My High Sensitivity Setup for Music and Home Theater
JTR 210RT speakers, 101db 1w/1m sensitivity, capable of 130db of output, flat to 30hz and just down 3db at 20hz in my 14,000 cubic feet space with a 110db listening position testing tone!
Source components are Samsung TV 4K, and PlayStation 5, feeding into a PS Audio DirectStream Jr. DAC where I do plain Tidal streaming, which delivers to the PS Audio M700 (700w/ch) monoblock amps.
This setup delivers lifelike realism for stereo listening, endless headroom, and nil bass compression at any volume. After some mid-level essential listening, I can queue up a movie for reference-level HT sound and shake the house’s walls. I spent over a year researching and setting together this system, and I’m shocked at its range and abilities every day.
The 4 Best Affordable High-Sensitivity Speakers
1. JBL Professional JRX225 3-way Loudspeaker System (100 dB @ 1w/1m)
JBL promotes these as “entry-Level” professional speakers, which can be confusing for some. Entry-level means typically the bottom of the barrel, even if they’re professional speakers.
If that’s true, then they’re the best entry-level monitors I have ever heard of. The range of sounds from these speakers is outstanding.
These are passive speakers, which means you’ll need a quality amplifier and something to drive that amp. You can utilize a quality preamp, equalizer, crossovers, mixers, etc. Whatever you pick, once you get it tuned and dialed in the right, the sound these monitors produce will blow your mind.
In the month that I have possessed these speakers (I borrowed two), I’ve DJ’d an outdoor party for 300+ and indoors twice. These speakers produce neat, clear tops because I have dedicated subs for my outdoor event. When inside, however, I didn’t need my bass boxes because all I needed was a little 64 & 79 on my EQ, and these bad boys delivered booming bass for five straight hours and played top end perfectly.
If you want to be heard, get two. One is fine, but a pair will look better for an even display. If you’re a performer, the look of these speakers will persuade any client that they can trust you.
Also… you’ll not be able to carry these alone. So get another pair of hands to get them in and out of your car.
All in all, highly recommended for larger venues!
2. Klipsch RP-8000F Floorstanding Speaker (98 dB @ 1w/1m)
As a Klipsch fan, almost five years ago, my brother bought his first Klipsch, the RF82 first series. Later, he took the RF7 MKII, and now he wanted to freshen up his system.
When he purchased these RP-8000F, part of Klipsch’s Reference Premiere series, I noticed the following from the first listening:
- Klipsch’s typical dynamics – scary, intense bass worthy of a subwoofer
- The roll-off didn’t seem so aggressive
- Mids were better than some 3-way speakers with a dedicated mid-woofer
- This is a speaker that is not shy at all at high volumes
The bass delivered by dual 8-inch spun-copper woofers sounds brutal and pure. The mids and highs are crystal clear. You hear the sounds you didn’t even perceive earlier, whether it’s movies or music.
The treble is always high, never shallow, hissing, or irritating.
If you put the speakers so you can’t see the inner side walls from the listening area, then the sound snaps into place, namely three-dimensional. The space is striking, as the 90 x 90-degree Tractrix horn really provides a wider sweet spot.
The box design is also impressive, and somehow everything feels extremely valuable.
With a sensitivity of 98 dB and a frequency response range of 32 Hz – 25 kHz, I can really recommend the speakers to anyone who doesn’t necessarily want to spend several thousand dollars on some high-end brand.
3. QSC K12.2 Active 12″ Loudspeaker (97 dB @ 1w/1m)
I got two of these for an outdoor party series I’m running this spring. I was anxious for the first one last weekend if they’d be loud enough and still sound clear. Well, I was more than happy with them.
I could do the show without subwoofers and still have abundance enough low end at a substantial volume, and the people I was working for were pleased with the sound.
QSC K12.2’s powerful 2000-watt Class-D amplifier provides plenty of headroom. The built-in DSP processing also helps to optimize the sound for different environments, which makes it effortless to dial in a good sound when working/playing in various types of rooms.
The sound modes have different selections that can be used when using as monitors and mains. I run the Sennheiser 935s microphones through these with very little processing, and they sound amazing.
These QSCs are great industry-standard speakers. These work great in a corporate setting as well as a club environment.
The speaker is also relatively lightweight, which makes it convenient on the road and easy to set up. The handles are placed in the proper spots to make them comfortable to carry.
Whether you’re a musician, DJ, or event organizer, this speaker is worth considering.
4. Klipsch RP-600M Bookshelf Speakers (96 dB @ 1w/1m)
These are the speakers I have permanently. Klipsch bookshelf sounds bright and has good bass for the basement and bedroom I have them seated in.
I listen on low volume with a REL T/5x subwoofer (Amazon link) I’ve had for years, but the subwoofer isn’t strictly required – there’s a 6.5-inch spun-copper Cerametallic woofer. I just always roll with a subwoofer for those moments I want to hear those lower frequencies.
Subtle details jump out at you, mainly when mixed across the sound stage. It doesn’t take much power to drive these speakers as they are high efficiency, so you can get away with a mini amp like Fosi BT20 (that I have).
If you want impressive sound quality at a fair value, these will more than suffice.
With its MDF cabinet with brushed polymer veneer finish, these would be deemed excellent entry-level audiophile speakers, in my opinion. The imaging is great, but the sound stage is a bit lacking as far as depth, although I fixed that with my outboard DAC. Not ideal, but for the money – wow!
The Highest Sensitivity Speakers on the Market
- Danley S.L. Jericho J3– 116 dB @ 1w/1m
- Danley S.L. Jericho J6– 114 dB @ 1w/1m
Manufactured by Danley Sound Labs, a US-based company specializing in visionary loudspeaker technology, the Jericho J3 and J6 are high-performance loudspeaker systems designed for pro audio applications such as concerts, festivals, and other large-scale events.
These two speakers feature a structure of high-frequency and mid-frequency drivers and multiple woofers that provide a superior low-frequency response.
Jericho speaker systems have distinctive horn designs, allowing precise control over the directionality of the sound. This helps minimize unwanted reflections and guarantees that the sound is delivered precisely where needed without causing excessive noise pollution.
- Klipsch KPT-Jubilee 535 – 108 dB @ 1w/1m
- Klipsch KPT-Jubilee – 108 dB @ 1w/1m
The KPT-Jubilee is based on the design of Klipsch’s iconic Klipschorn loudspeaker, which was introduced in 1946 and is still in production today. It features a horn-loaded design that delivers premium clarity and dynamic range, allowing it to reproduce movie soundtracks with outstanding accuracy.
The KPT-Jubilee systems have three main components: the K-402 horn, the K-69A midrange compression driver, and the K-691 15-inch woofer.
One of the critical features of the KPT-Jubilee is its modular design, which allows it to be configured in various ways to suit different room sizes and acoustic environments.
It can be used as a standalone loudspeaker system or combined with other Klipsch products, such as subwoofers and surround speakers, to create a complete cinema audio system.
- Meyer Sound Acheron 80 – 107 dB @ 1w/1m
The Meyer Sound Acheron is a line of professional cinema loudspeakers developed for use in movie theaters and other large-scale audio applications.
Acheron 80, with its advanced horn technology, allows it to deliver high-definition sound over a wide listening area, making it ideal for large movie theaters and venues where consistent sound quality is paramount.
The Acheron line also features Meyer Sound’s proprietary Truextent® Beryllium compression driver technology, which provides remarkable high-frequency response and decreases distortion.
- JBL Pro 5732 – 106 dB @ 1w/1m
The 5732 is a three-way loudspeaker system with a 15-inch Differential Drive® woofer, a 10-inch PolyPlas® midrange driver, and a 2432H high-frequency compression driver mounted on a Progressive Transition waveguide.
The 5732 also featured a rugged enclosure made from multi-ply hardwood and overlaid in a long-lasting, weather-resistant finish. As a result, it is perfect for use in outdoor events or environments where the loudspeaker may be exposed to the elements.
Like most of these high-quality systems, it can be used as a standalone loudspeaker system or combined with subwoofers and surround speakers.
- JTR Noesis 212HT-lp– 104 dB @ 1w/1m
The 212HT-lp is a two-way loudspeaker system with dual 12-inch woofers, and a 1.4-inch compression driver mounted on a large-format horn.
The 212HT-lp features a rugged enclosure made from multi-ply birch plywood and coated in a durable, scratch-resistant finish.
One of the main features is its low-profile design, which allows it to be installed in tight spaces without compromising performance. It is also created to be compatible with a range of digital cinema processors and other audio equipment.
The list is missing Danley’s Jericho J4, rated 115 dB @ 1w/1 m, though that’s not a full-range speaker since it has 64 compression drivers and only goes down to 600 Hz, and J4 has to be coupled to some other speaker for midrange.
Sensitivity Isn’t the Deciding Factor in Sound Quality
Speaker sensitivity and audio quality are not fully correlated.
Speaker sensitivity is the capacity of a speaker to convert watts to decibels. A higher-sensitivity speaker bears less wattage to create a particular decibel level than a lower-efficiency speaker. As a result, the wattage changes, but the audio quality doesn’t.
The only effect this has is that low-efficiency speakers demand more power and, therefore, can require external amplification beyond an AVR or small power source.
For example, a Martin Logan 15A needs nearly 300 watts to play at 105dB without EQ or calibration. A much more efficient speaker like my JTR 210RT would demand far less and could, to someone that doesn’t know, thus be defined to be better due to it sounding better if both 15A and my JTR operated on a small amp.
Give both a big amplifier, and they will both sound outstanding. But, again, low sensitivity implies means less sensitivity to power.
This does not mean one sounds worse than the other or that one is able to play specific “dynamics” more than the other. On the contrary, as long as the amplifier has enough power available, both speakers should be capable of playing all the same dynamics and vibrancy as the other, but one will just use less power.
Why you must be careful when looking at sensitivity rating
I’m a fan of sensitive speakers, but you must be careful because the rating is not averaged over the entire frequency response.
It’s usually at 1000 Hz. So a speaker that is very peaky in the midrange will have a high sensitivity and sound loud but not very good.
Think of a PA speaker designed only for maximum volume in an ample outdoor space. The most extreme example is a hand-held bullhorn. The sensitivity must be through the roof to broadcast your voice to hundreds or thousands of people with a few little batteries and a tiny amplifier. But you wouldn’t want to listen to Bach through a megaphone.