Is It Time to Replace Your Loudspeakers? What to Keep in Mind When Considering an Audio Upgrade

by | Audio, Audio Connections, CFX Community, Production

Sponsored by Renkus-Heinz

Intelligible speech and clear music reproduction have a significant impact on the congregation’s experience in a house of worship. If the sermon is hard to understand or the music is garbled, worship attendees have a hard time connecting with the service. Good or bad, loudspeakers play an important role in affecting a worship experience and, therefore, are an important investment for houses of worship to consider.

Several manufacturers are making some really great-sounding products nowadays, but it’s important to consider not only the performance but also the cost of ownership over the system’s lifespan. That said, it’s often a race to the bottom on price point for loudspeakers, which can quickly turn into a “you get what you pay for” scenario. Since loudspeakers are a crucial investment for any house of worship, it’s helpful to keep some guiding principles in mind when it comes to evaluating sound systems for a possible audio upgrade. 

Cost of Ownership

Many people are driven by price when it comes to AV installations but don’t have the experience to understand what the fully burdened cost of the system may be. Often, but not always, a lower-priced loudspeaker equates to lower quality, versatility and performance, which leads to more calls to technical support, more onsite troubleshooting, and more frequent replacement. So while some systems may seem less expensive up front, the cost of ownership over the system’s life can quickly add up – and an unideal system may also need to be replaced sooner rather than later. 

Performance

The sanctuaries in many houses of worship are designed to impart a sense of awe, with high ceilings, large windows and areas dedicated to choirs or other musical accompaniment. The downside to those architectural features is that they often create a highly reverberant or “echo-ey” space with very low speech intelligibility. If worshippers are finding it hard to hear or understand the sermon, or if there are seats in the sanctuary that don’t receive good audio coverage, it may be time to consider a sound system upgrade.

Improving speech intelligibility is not just about turning up the volume — far from it. Louder is often better, but when considering speech intelligibility, there is an optimal range of SPL that will produce the best STI (speech intelligibility index), and turning up the volume can reduce effective speech intelligibility. For instance, many point-source loudspeakers can sound great out of the box but typically have wider dispersion patterns than beam-steered arrays, meaning that more sound will bounce off walls, floors and ceilings, often resulting in increased reverberation. Turning up the volume in that case would only compound issues with speech intelligibility, especially in spaces with complex acoustics like many houses of worship. 

To truly evaluate a potential system’s performance, it’s important to look deeper at a multitude of factors like directivity, frequency response and flexibility as well as how the system will adapt to your unique environment. A modern rock-and-roll church will have higher output requirements than a traditional chapel, for instance, and a long, narrow sanctuary will need more vertical coverage than other spaces might. Every space is unique, so it’s important to invest in a sound system that suits the congregation’s particular needs. 

Beam-steering arrays, for example, are exceptionally well-suited for highly reverberant spaces, providing a level of flexibility that conventional loudspeakers simply can’t match. One of the greatest benefits of beam-steered arrays is the ability to steer sound much like the beam of a flashlight — putting it directly on the congregation. That unique ability minimizes many of the acoustic challenges created by unique and unforgiving architectural features. 

Quality

Quality speaks directly to the cost of ownership. If the loudspeakers are well built, they’ll last longer, which drives down the amortization or depreciation. In other words, a $200 loudspeaker you have to replace every two years is not more cost-effective in the long run than a $500 loudspeaker that lasts six years or more, which doesn’t even take into consideration the labor involved in replacing the cheaper loudspeaker.

Many lower-cost loudspeakers aren’t serviceable, either. If a problem occurs, those loudspeakers must be replaced instead of repaired. In contrast, higher-end loudspeakers like beam-steered arrays are very serviceable, and some fixes can even be applied in the field. Additionally, many higher-end models are built in-house in the US, where manufacturers have more granular control over production quality and, therefore, lower defect rates.

Efficiency

Another key factor to consider that may not be as obvious up front is electrical and thermal efficiency. Inexpensive, self-powered speakers are often rather inefficient electrically as they’re based around lower impedance loads, so they pull more current from the wall and generate more heat. Not only does this increase energy usage in and of itself but the space may also require more ventilation and air conditioning to compensate. These compounding energy demands can quickly add up in terms of electrical bills, especially over the life of the system.

In contrast, beam-steered loudspeakers are often based around higher impedance loads with greater voltage swing – in other words, they pull less current from the wall for the same power output. Because of this greater electrical efficiency, they often generate significantly less heat. Both of those factors will go a long way towards reducing electrical and HVAC demands, which adds up to large savings over time. Add in the fact that a beam-steered sound system requires significantly fewer loudspeakers, and the energy reduction – and thus the benefit – is even greater. 

Versatility

Sanctuaries come in all shapes and sizes, and many building designs do not put acoustics high on the list of requirements. Audience seating is often close to the walls, high ceilings are common and hard surfaces abound. Additionally, many church communities grow and change over time as rooms are repurposed, reconfigured or remodeled. Given these challenges, a flexible sound system that can adapt to the room acoustics both now and in the future is a great investment.

Digital arrays can be perfectly tailored to the environment with software-based adjustments, and coverage can be adjusted on the fly without the need for physical modifications if, for instance, the room layout changes. So while steerable loudspeakers can have a higher up-front cost, they often provide not only better performance but also greater value over the life of the system.

Final Thoughts

High-quality audio is essential to create a truly immersive worship experience for any congregation. When parishioners struggle to understand the sermon, it reduces their understanding of the message and increases their audio fatigue, creating a less-than-optimal worship environment. Houses of worship need to treat loudspeaker purchases as a long-term investment in their facility and their future. And as with any investment, it’s important to keep in mind the holistic value over time rather than just the upfront cost. With a high-quality, flexible sound system tailored to your space’s unique needs, the next time you replace your loudspeakers can hopefully be the last time you replace your loudspeakers for many years to come. 

Author Bio: Brandon Heinz is the Product Manager for Renkus-Heinz, a leading loudspeaker manufacturer. During his 12-year tenure, he has overseen the launch of many new product series that have grown the company’s market presence and reinvigorated Renkus-Heinz’s legacy as a leader and innovator in the pro audio industry.

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