June 10, 2019 by Coleman Thedinger
It’s time to talk about SQ vs. SPL, a topic that can be somewhat controversial in the industry at times, for several reasons. First things first, let’s establish that listeners have different priorities when it comes to the sound profile that hits their ears and sounds the best to them. When discussing SQ vs. SPL, it’s more just to compare the differences between these two goals that people chase after with their subwoofers and their overall audio systems, not to say that one is necessarily better or more valid of a pursuit than the other.
Sound Pressure Level (SPL):
This is a measurement of the sound pressure in the cabin in decibels. It’s an objective measurement, a sound system’s SPL reading won’t change based on who is holding the SPL meter to measure it. It’s not based on anyone’s opinion, it’s something that you can measure. SPL is all about getting your subwoofers to play as loud as possible, moving around as much air as you can. Something that happens when volume is your top priority is that some of the other important details start to fall by the wayside, details like sound quality.
The louder you get, the harder and more expensive it becomes to continue to accurately reproduce those lower bass notes. Aiming for peak SPL will rattle your bones, but it won’t really be a listenable experience if you want to enjoy the subtleties of your favorite songs.
Sound Quality (SQ):
Sound Quality is a more subjective measurement. People like different sound profiles, they look for different things in what they’d consider a great sound system, and not everybody hears the same thing when they’re listening to a song. Of course, there are plenty of cases when you can objectively say that some sound is higher quality than others, for example, a high-end car stereo is going to sound better than listening to music through a touch tone telephone. There’s a certain point where some systems sound better no matter who is rating them, but there’s also a lot of room for personal opinion and nuance.
SQ is a matter of hearing the notes reproduced accurately, being able to distinguish the high, middle, and lower frequencies and really feeling like you’re inside of the music.
Of course, it’s possible to have an audio system that pumps out SPL and delivers satisfying SQ. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but at times it can feel like a see-saw where you’re gaining ground on one side but starting to lose it on the other side. If you really want to make volume your top priority, the sound quality suffers. If sound quality is your top priority, it won’t be able to get as loud.
Which Should You Aim For?
It really comes down to what your goals are with your audio system, your budget, and what you plan to use it for.
If you’re looking to compete with others for the bragging rights of pumping out the craziest decibels, then it’s an SPL build all the way.
If you’re keener on listening to, and enjoying, your favorite songs and impressing people with music that sounds incredible rather than making their hair move, then you’re on track to make SQ your focus.