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The last stop in the signal chain before your audio hits the ear, loudspeakers are a crucial part of most sound systems. Even a minor issue with a single speaker can derail your audio, making it paramount for speakers to stay at peak functionality. Fortunately, many common problems that arise with speakers can be simple to diagnose and resolve—it just takes a bit of troubleshooting know-how to get started.
How long a loudspeaker lasts and how well it reproduces audio is partly determined by a specific model’s quality of design and the materials that were used in its construction. That said, another major factor in whether a speaker continues to perform well is reliant on whether it’s properly set up and maintained. Speaker damage diminishes the quality of your audio and can pose a potential safety hazard, as some damage can risk electrical shorts that can lead to fire and other dangers.
No matter how carefully you set up and maintain your speakers, it’s likely that you will still encounter issues—if only because speaker quality can degrade as the components age. Some issues have simple fixes; that’s where troubleshooting can help. Knowing what to look for—and how to address these issues—can enable you to avoid having to throw away your speakers and shell out for new gear.
Loudspeakers are electronic devices designed to broadcast sound waves. Speakers are comprised of three general components:
- The cabinet is the exterior “shell” of the speaker that stores the other components and protects them from dust, temperature fluctuations, and other environmental elements.
- The driver is a type of motor that pushes a cone back and forth to replicate sound waves. Many speakers have more than one driver to accommodate a wider spectrum of sound.
- The crossover network conveys frequencies to the appropriate speaker cone.
Speakers are connected to another electronic source, which sends a signal that is programmed to replicate specific sound waves. Based on this signal, the driver pushes the cone back and forth, which causes the air molecules in front of the cone to bump into each other and eventually domino through space. When the molecules eventually reach your ear, they vibrate against your eardrum and send a signal to your brain that is interpreted as sound.
All loudspeakers require some sort of power source (or amplifier) to send power to the driver. Amps are built into powered loudspeakers so they can be directly connected to a sound source. Passive loudspeakers require an external gear to power them. For more information on these two basic types, check out our article on Powered vs. Passive Speakers.
Built to handle extremely low-pitched audio, subwoofers are speakers that are built to handle extremely low-pitched audio frequencies, delivering more accurate stereo imaging, enhanced dynamics, and immersive sound. Subs come in powered and passive versions as well, so always connect a powered speaker to a powered subwoofer or a passive speaker to a passive subwoofer, without combining types.
WHAT CAUSES SPEAKER DAMAGE?
- Incorrect power levels. Each loudspeaker model is designed to handle a certain amount of power. Too much power can push your speaker beyond its capabilities. Not enough power will cause your speaker to struggle to function properly, as well as tempt you to turn up the signal beyond the speaker’s capacity. Both can distort your sound or damage the speaker.
- Overextending volume. Habitually pushing your speaker’s volume beyond what it can handle will distort your sound and can damage the voice coil over time. The louder the sound that’s pumped through a speaker, the faster and farther the drivers extend as they vibrate. This increased movement generates heat, which can fry your speaker’s interior components.
- Tampering with the sound source. Particularly if you’re using a digital sound source (such as a downloaded track on a laptop), you might be tempted to increase the sound source’s gain to enhance the sound. While this might sound great at the moment, it can overheat and blow out your speakers, so it’s generally best to leave your sound source at its default settings.
- Exposure to the elements. Unless a speaker is specifically built to handle extreme temperatures, moisture, or outdoor use, exposure to any of these harsh conditions can damage the exterior and interior components of a speaker.
- Poor wiring. This encompasses the internal wiring of the speaker cabinet, any cables that connect the speaker to a power source or sound source, the wiring of power amplifiers in a passive speaker setup, and so on. Even the electrical of the building where you’re setting up the speakers can have an impact on speaker performance. Any malfunction along this signal chain can damage one or more of the components involved.
8 COMMON LOUDSPEAKER ISSUES – AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM
Tracing a problem to its source usually involves the process of elimination. Just like the IT cliché of “Have you tried turning it off and then on again?” a lot of these suggestions may seem too easy—but it’s best to start with the obvious before investigating more complicated possibilities.
These fundamental steps should be considered for nearly all of the specific problems we discuss later:
- Turn the volume down. Set the volume to a moderate level on your speaker, as well as other components of your sound system that have volume controls. This lets you get an accurate read on whether your audio is fixed or not—without suddenly blasting when you fix the problem. Additionally, some issues are caused by setting the volume higher than the speaker can handle, and this may resolve the problem.
- Ensure your speaker is properly connected. If your sound system is connected via one or more cables, check to make sure these are plugged in properly.
- Check your cables. Audio signals are only as good as the components that transmit them. You can test whether the cables themselves are kaput by using a cable tester, or simply by connecting a cable to a speaker that you know is functional.
- Test the sound source. This will help you rule out other issues in case the speaker isn’t the problem. Test the device you’re using as a sound source. For instance, if you’re trying to send audio from a microphone to a speaker, confirm that the mic is working properly by connecting it to a different speaker. If you’re using a passive speaker, test the power amplifier you’re using with a working speaker to make sure it’s not malfunctioning.
Problem #1: No Sound Is Coming From My Speakers
- Make sure your system isn’t muted. This includes the speaker itself but also may include a receiver or the audio source itself if they have muting capability. All sections of your signal chain need to be unmuted for your speaker to produce sound.
- Adjust the volume. Once you’re certain nothing is muted, check the volume setting. If your speaker’s volume is just a notch above “Mute” it may not be loud enough for you to hear—even if the speaker is working perfectly fine. Additionally, some sound system components come with safety presets that prevent them from producing sound if the volume is set too high; these prevent speakers from blasting too loudly.
- Check your channel and audio source settings. Some speakers have multiple channels, and if the rest of your sound system isn’t synced to the same channel, you won’t get any audio. Likewise, some audio systems that have multiple inputs such as 3.5mm audio, optical audio, RCA, or Bluetooth; make sure you have the correct Source selected. If the channel you’re using isn’t working, sometimes the issue can be easily resolved by switching both your speaker and the sound source to a different channel.
Problem #2: My Speaker’s Audio Doesn’t Sound Good
Optimizing your speaker’s sound can be just as challenging as determining if something is malfunctioning. Often this issue is related to a lack of treble or bass, which covers the high and low tones of a speaker’s audio range.
- Make sure you’re not playing your speaker at too high a volume. As a rule, the louder the volume, the more likely your speaker will distort the sound.
- Check your sound source’s settings. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a setting adjustment on whatever device you’re using to feed audio into the speaker.
- Check your equalizer’s settings. This may need to be adjusted not only for the speaker but for the other components. Start by setting all components’ EQ to the middle, then make smaller adjustments to fine-tune your sound.
- Check your physical setup. Lower-quality speakers simply will not reflect sound as well, especially at higher volumes. Another thing to check is whether you’re incorporating the wrong components into your setup: for example, if a subwoofer is too big, it may not pair well with your other loudspeakers, which may cause malfunctions.
- Check your speaker placement. Speaker placement plays a huge role in the overall sound of your audio—speakers should have plenty of room on all sides, as bass in particular can be muted or altered if a speaker is positioned against a wall that impedes sound waves.
Problem #3: My Audio Is Distorted
- Replace the voice coil. If the basic troubleshooting steps do not help you track down the issue, the speaker’s voice coil or cone may have been damaged. Some coil issues—generally for larger and higher-end speaker models—may be easy to repair, but smaller voice coils are not usually repairable. Sometimes the interior cone has simply shifted off-center, which can be remedied by gently reshaping the cone or adjusting the position of the magnet beneath it. Sometimes a voice coil has become detached from the cone; in these cases, it may be possible to apply a silicone-based glue or sealant to reattach it; the silicone base is important to allow the component to move and flex. When repairing an existing voice coil isn’t possible, it’s best to contact the speaker manufacturer to order a replacement. (Whenever you’re repairing a speaker or one of its components, make sure the speaker is completely disconnected from any power or electrical source.)
- Clear a signal path. If you’re using a Bluetooth device as your sound source, dense objects between the device and your speaker (such as walls, doors, or furniture) may cause fuzziness or distortion. If this is the case, moving your speaker and/or Bluetooth device so there’s a clear signal path should do the trick. In addition, most Bluetooth audio systems have a specific distance requirement; check your Bluetooth device’s documentation to ensure the speaker is well within this range.
- Is the distortion a symptom of something worse? Distortion is often the first sign of other issues such as electrical problems, or that the speaker is verging on a blowout. If you’ve exhausted the more obvious possibilities, research the speaker’s specifications or have the interior wiring checked by a professional before the problem worsens.
A Note about Bluetooth Speakers
Bluetooth devices offer a variety of connection options; for a device to work with a Bluetooth speaker, they must both be on the same connection version. Along the same lines, make sure to disconnect your Bluetooth device from other systems—it’s easy for these devices to automatically pair with multiple systems, but this will impede the quality of your speaker performance. Another way to ensure the best connectivity is to regularly check for software updates to minimize potential issues.
Problem #4: My Audio Is Echoing
Echoes often occur when sound waves bounce off hard surfaces.
- Treat your space. Excessive reverberation can be due to poor acoustic design of your space. For environments that have a lot of flat, hard surfaces, incorporating acoustic treatment should help minimize echoes for a more natural sound.
- Check your speaker placement. Another cause of reverberation is the placement of your speakers. For some spaces, it may be simplest to place all the speakers at the front of the room. In situations where this isn’t a viable option, take note of what type of coverage each speaker offers, and experiment with positioning accordingly until you get an even sound throughout the space. (Note: This solution is also applicable for problems with “hot spots” where there is too much sound, and “dead spots” where there is little to no sound coverage.)
- Sync your signals. When dealing with multiple speakers, some reverb could stem from timing variations where speaker signals aren’t perfectly in sync. These usually occur in larger spaces where signals may be delayed as they are transmitted. In this case, you may need to utilize a digital mixer so the speakers put out the same sound at the same time.
Problem #5: My Speakers Are Squealing
If your speaker is emitting a squealing, howling sound, it may be picking up feedback from another electronic source. Feedback happens when an amplified sound is picked up and further amplified by another piece of gear. A common example of this is when using a microphone too close to a speaker.
- Add distance between your electronics. The obvious solution is to reduce the proximity between the two amplified sound sources.
- Employ a feedback controller. This piece of gear constantly shifts the audio frequency.
Problem #6: My Speaker Is Making Popping Sounds
This occurs when random pops occur throughout your audio.
- Reduce interference. Turn off any unnecessary electrical devices or place them away from the sound system. This includes moving any neighboring cables away from the speaker’s cables and wiring.
- Examine the wiring for wear. Exposed or stripped wires inside your speaker can cause intermittent signal disconnections. This may start as popping but may worsen into a constant hum and ultimately result in no sound at all.
- Check the receiver. While not the most common cause of popping, the receiver—not the speaker—may be to blame for this audio hiccup. Consult the manufacturer’s documentation for instructions on how to properly reset your sound system’s receiver to its factory settings. If this doesn’t work, replacing the receiver altogether should resolve the issue.
Problem #7: My Speaker is Humming or Buzzing
Constant humming or buzzing from a speaker is often caused by low-frequency electrical interference that is usually produced by a woofer that is on but not receiving an audio signal. Most of the solutions for popping apply to this issue, but there are a few things you can try:
- Properly ground your equipment. Using a three-prong plug to connect your subwoofer could cause a constant humming noise. Switching to an AC ground adapter should limit buzzing and humming. Check the grounding wires to the speaker’s amplifier to ensure these are properly connected.
- Use the right cables. Older cables or cables that aren’t the correct type can cause humming. Refer to your speaker’s manufacturer specifications to confirm which cables are best to use.
- Use an audio isolation transformer. This component balances signals and adjusts AC voltage, reducing or eliminating these noises.
- Listen to your wall outlets. Humming or buzzing could indicate it’s overloaded. If the noise is coming from the outlet and not the speaker, immediately unplug your system to avoid the risk of electrical arcing or fire.
- Don’t overload your speaker’s electrical capacity. If a circuit in the speaker is overheated, this can cause a buzzing sound—as well as pose a safety issue. This can be avoided by ensuring that you aren’t plugging too many electrical sources into a wall outlet or a single power strip Employing a surge protector will help manage electrical currents. Power strips and surge protectors should come with a maximum load capacity that you can use for reference.
- Check the amplifier. If you’re using a passive speaker with an external amplifier, swap in a functional amp to see if that resolves the issue. If your speaker is powered, the amp is built into the speaker itself and may require professional repair.
Problem #8: I Think My Speakers Are Blown
A blown speaker happens when the interior cone of a speaker is punctured or ripped from operating at excessive levels of volume or power. If a blown speaker produces sound at all, it’s usually a fuzzy, crunchy, static sound that is especially evident at loud volumes. To test whether your speaker is blown:
- Reduce the volume. Often speakers are blown by pushing them at volumes that are higher than they can handle. Even if you think you need to “hear better” to gauge the extent of the problem, you’ll probably only worsen the damage. Instead, adjust the volume as low as you can go while still hearing it before doing anything else. This will help reduce the strain on the cone.
- Adjust the Bass and Treble. This can worsen the vibrations and exacerbate the problem. Lower the bass and treble settings on your speaker and any connected sound sources.
- Inspect the speaker construction. As discussed earlier, if a cone or voice coil is damaged, it’s possible to either repair or replace them.
WHEN TO CONTACT A PROFESSIONAL
While there are quite a few steps you can take on your own to resolve issues with your loudspeakers, there may come a point when you need to contact an expert. This is particularly true for anything regarding the interior wiring and circuitry of the speaker. A speaker repair expert may also be a good choice for properly repairing or replacing other components, such as blown voice coils, drivers, built-in amplifiers, and so on.
If you’ve eliminated the other possibilities, the problem may lie in disconnected, deteriorated, or dirty wiring. To check the wiring, unplug the speaker from any other power or electrical source and inspect the interior for loose connections or damaged components. This will help confirm whether the problem is more technical, at which time you should call in a pro.
Electrical issues are not only delicate and complex—they can be hazardous. A licensed electrician or speaker repair professional can check, repair, and replace the wiring. They may also be consulted for issues such as overheating, buzzing, humming, or blown speakers.
TROUBLESHOOTING LOUDSPEAKERS OPTIMIZES YOUR SOUND
Depending on specific model design and construction, a loudspeaker can last for years or even decades. However, getting the most out of your speakers requires proper care, safe operation, and an understanding of how speakers work and the common problems they encounter. By understanding how to troubleshoot these common problems, you can increase your speaker’s longevity and optimize its performance quality so you can achieve the best possible sound.
If you need more specific troubleshooting advice—or if you are looking to upgrade your speaker system to future-proof against these pitfalls—e-mail SoundPro at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800.203.5611. Our expert Account Managers will be happy to help!
Laura has been on the Sound Productions team since 2021. Her passion for the written word extends to reading, writing, and reading about writing.